Every season, there are multiple players that make the leap from anywhere between obscurity and promise to full-blow star status thanks to what is usually a collision of talent and opportunity. The 2021 season will, for the first time, offer players a 17-game platform through which to hone their craft. The Game Day is here to offer a look at the 2021 NFL Breakout Players: 10 names set for a big season and who could be talked about in a much brighter light in 2022.
Catch more of our 2021 NFL predictions and tips for more coverage of these 2021 NFL breakout players.
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2021 NFL Breakout Players: 10 Names Set For Big Season
1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson will have no shortage of attention heaped on them as they begin their NFL careers in 2021, but Hurts is hardly yesterday’s news. In fact, the Eagles’ second-year signal-caller could be primed to steal plenty of spotlight in 2021, with the four starts the Oklahoma product logged at the tail end of his rookie 2020 campaign giving him a running start on the quartet of talented rookies.
Hurts also will go into battle well-armed this season, considering the Eagles nabbed Heisman winner DeVonta Smith to join the similarly speedy Jalen Reagor in a revamped top end of the receiving corps. For the moment, Zach Ertz also remains on the roster alongside the emerging Dallas Goedert at tight end, while the backfield features four backs that can catch in Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson and rookie Kenneth Gainwell.
Hurts also brings his own elite running skills to the table and will have had the entire offseason, training camp and preseason to prepare as a starter, which should leave him poised to take a major leap forward in his second season.
2. Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Aiyuk already showed plenty during a 12-game rookie season in which he produced a 60-748-5 line that he complemented with six rushes for 77 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. However, that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg for the 2020 first-round pick, who should be in the 75-to-80-catch and 1,200-plus yards range if he can play all 17 games this coming season.
Aiyuk has the benefit of an outstanding and similarly multi-talented positional running mate in Deebo Samuel across from him, which, when combined with the downfield prowess of tight end George Kittle should help Aiyuk find himself in plenty of winnable one-on-one matchups. The ASU product also played just two years of college ball, so he’s still actually developing as a player and should see the experience he garnered last season pay major dividends whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or impressive rookie Trey Lance under center for the Niners.
3. Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Hardman has already offered several glimpses of his top-end, explosive speed over his first two seasons while posting a combined 67-1,098-10 line and a punt return TD in his first 32 NFL games while working a complementary role. Opportunity knocks in 2021, however, as Sammy Watkins is now in Buffalo and Hardman projects to enter training camp as the No. 2 receiver.
One of the biggest factors Hardman has going in his favor is naturally the source of his targets, with Patrick Mahomes arguably just entering his prime despite already having produced multiple jaw-dropping seasons. Then, defenses are still naturally consumed with tracking both Tyreek Hill and All-pro tight end Travis Kelce on every play, which should afford Hardman an avalanche of one-on-one opportunities as the season unfolds. A thin receiver group below him in the depth chart certainly doesn’t hurt his job security, either.
4. Anthony Firkser, TE, Tennessee Titans
Ryan Tannehill certainly knows how to make good use of the tight end position, and Jonnu Smith is now in New England after logging 110 targets across 31 games over the last two seasons. Smith would have gotten even more attention had it not been for Firkser, who posted a 39-387-1 line on 53 looks last season while playing in all 16 games.
The Harvard product could be ready to blossom, considering Corey Davis and Adam Humphries also departed Tennessee this offseason and Firkser is a turn-key replacement for Smith with similar ability to get downfield and well-established rapport with Tannehilll. Firkser also has the bonus of having only a journeyman in Geoff Swaim behind him on the depth chart and Tennessee relying on offseason acquisition Josh Reynolds to handle No. 2 receiver duties full-time for the first time in his career, two factors that bolster the chances of the fourth-year tight end often being the subject of his quarterback’s attention when the ball isn’t in Derrick Henry’s capable hands.
5. D’Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
Swift was arguably underused by former head coach Matt Patricia before interim coach Darrell Bevell afforded him double-digit carries in each of the last three games of the season. Over 111 snaps during that time, Swift turned 37 carries into 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns while also bringing in 11 of 13 targets for 56 yards.
The Georgia product did lose a significant roadblock to playing time in Adrian Peterson this offseason, as the future Hall of Famer wasn’t re-signed; however, Jamaal Williams was brought aboard in free agency and is expected to get his share of carries, but with Kerryon Johnson also off the roster, Swift’s skill set, which includes elite receiving capability, should command him the top workload in the backfield.
The fact former running back and ground-game aficionado Anthony Lynn is now Detroit’s offensive coordinator is the proverbial icing on the cake.
6. Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
There’s an argument to be made Akers’ breakout already got a jump start during the Rams’ postseason run, when he posted a combined 46-221-2 line on the ground against the Seahawks and Packers in the wild-card and divisional rounds.
However, with Malcolm Brown now in Miami, Akers has a much clearer path to a true lead-back workload right from the beginning of his second season, and the presence of Matthew Stafford and his big arm at quarterback should loosen up defenses further.
Akers was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at Florida State and enjoyed increasing opportunities in the Seminoles’ passing game with each successive season, topping out with a 30-225-4 line as a junior in 2019. He saw just 14 targets in 13 games during his rookie season, but given his expanded role this year and his proven hands out of the backfield, look for that dimension of his game to take off as well.
7. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Dobbins is in a somewhat similar position to Akers in that a veteran obstacle, in Dobbins’ case, Mark Ingram, was removed from his path this offseason. The second-year back was already frequently rendering his former veteran teammate obsolete in the latter stages of the season, and he rattled off an eight-game touchdown streak that extended through the wild-card round during which he also rushed for 538 yards at a clip of 6.3 yards per carry.
Dobbins was positively prolific as a runner at Ohio State with a 2,000-yard season as a junior and 4,459 rushing yards and 38 rushing scores overall during his three seasons as a Buckeye. He also demonstrated more receiving ability in college (71 career receptions, five receiving TDs) than he had a chance to during his rookie campaign (18-120 on 24 targets), but that should also change in 2021 as Dobbins likely enjoys a 70/30 or 65/35 split with Gus Edwards (still, don’t sleep on him, either) on most weeks during the coming season.
8. Tre’Quan Smith, WR, New Orleans Saints
Exactly who’ll be under center when the season begins for the Saints – and whether that player will remain there the entirety of the campaign – is up in the air as of late May, but Smith should have ample opportunities for career-best numbers in any scenario. After cycling through Emmanuel Sanders a year ago and Ted Ginn Jr. the season prior in terms of No. 2 receiver, Smith now gets his shot to line up opposite Michael Thomas.
Granted, Smith has been here before, albeit for only seven games as a raw rookie in 2018. He didn’t exactly acquit himself too badly then, but he should be exponentially more prepared for the job now that he’s a much more seasoned fourth-year pro who’s coming off having put up career highs in receptions (34) and receiving yardage (448 yards).
Smith brings a tantalizing size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed (4.4 40-yard dash), has little proven options below him on the depth chart, and could especially thrive if the gun-slinging Jameis Winston wins the top job under center over Taysom Hill.
9. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals
Simmons arrived in the NFL with a well-earned reputation of elite athleticism that allowed him to excel at both safety and linebacker. At 6-foot-4 and just a tick under 240 pounds, the Clemson product also boasted an absurd 4.39 40 time at the Combine, raising expectations significantly right from the start of his NFL career.
Simmons didn’t exactly disappoint considering he spent the first half of the campaign as a rotational piece, and he finished 2020 with 54 tackles, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble across 16 games. However, he played just 33.9 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, but he now projects to open 2021 as a starter at the right inside linebacker spot.
Given the glimpse he already offered in a role that only put him on the field a third of the time as a rookie, Simmons’ abundance of natural talent should allow him to thrive as a second-year player.
10. Antoine Winfield, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winfield already enjoyed a fine rookie campaign in the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl-winning 2020 season, but it’s likely he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. After all, the Minnesota product earned his starting role without the benefit of on-field OTAs, a normal training camp and any sort of preseason, yet still came away with 94 tackles, three sacks, one interception, a pair of forced fumbles and one fumble recovery while playing all 16 games.
Given that a player’s biggest improvement often comes between their first and second seasons and Winfield is enjoying a normal offseason while already having 20 games’ worth of experience under his belt, his numbers could shoot up across the board in an aggressive Todd Bowles scheme he likely knows like the back of his hand.
For more 2021 NFL analysis and tips, listen to the Take The Points podcast with Adam Kramer and Marcus Mosher: