Every year, there are players who break out the season before their draft. Whether their previous lack of production is due to someone ahead of them on the depth chart, injury, or simply not being ready to play, everything eventually falls into place. Even though it feels like these players come at random, I’m going to do my best to project the breakout candidates for the 2021 NFL Draft.
My process consisted of a few things. The first was high school rankings — were these players top recruits in high school? The second was situation — are they playing at a school known for developing NFL talent at their position? Finally, I looked at circumstance. Why were these players failing to produce before, and what changed for them to produce now? I found five players that fit the requirements in some form and created this list of three breakout candidates for the 2021 NFL Draft you should be watching.
3 breakout candidates for the 2021 NFL Draft
Justin Shorter, WR Florida
In 2018, many viewed WR Justin Shorter as the top receiver in his recruiting class, and one of the 15 best prospects in the country. He originally chose to stay close to home and committed to Penn State. With elite size and athletic ability, it seemed almost destined for Shorter to be one of college football’s top receivers. Unfortunately, Shorter’s time at Penn State was largely a disappointment, and who’s to blame is still up in the air. The school has struggled to maintain it’s receiver talent as former number one receiver Jawan Johnson transferred to Oregon, star receiver K.J. Hamler chose to forgo two years of eligibility and declared for the NFL Draft, and now Shorter has chosen to transfer, with his school of choice being Florida.
The Gators are have some major questions going into the season. This offseason, they’re losing four of their five leading wide receivers, either to graduation or the NFL Draft. There’s an opportunity for starting time and targets. Targets specifically are what Shorter lacked at Penn State. In his Nittany Lions career, Shorter only registered 15 total receptions. If granted immediate eligibility this year, I’d expect Shorter to, at minimum, triple that number at Florida. He possesses elite size at 6’4″, 235, and he’s an elite athlete for that size. The quarterback play at Penn State as been suspect for some time, and Shorter was the most recent receiver to suffer because of it.
I would view Shorter as the Gators’ top target, other than standout tight end Kyle Pitts. His athletic ability would be on display in Dan Mullen’s offensive scheme predicated on quick passes and allowing receivers to make plays in space. As long as Gators quarterback Kyle Trask can perform with some consistency, expect Shorter to burst onto the scene and become one of the top three breakout candidates for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Jeremy Ruckert, TE Ohio State
One of the most under-utilized players in the country, Jeremy Ruckert may finally be poised for a breakout. His decision to join Ohio State has had its highs, but for his personal development, it may have been a mistake. The Buckeyes have failed to implement Ruckert consistently in the game plan, something that is only possible due to the dominant talent the Buckeyes have had at receiver.
On 95% of teams in the nation, Ruckert would be one of the top offensive targets. In his first two years at OSU, Ruckert has consistently been option 4-6. His freshman year, he played behind current NFL players Terry McLaurin and Paris Campbell, while this season, he played behind future pros K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor. With all four names now headed to the NFL, Ruckert may finally be set for a breakout.
Wide receiver Chris Olave will likely be the Buckeyes’ top target, and rightfully so. However, with the loss of the aforementioned players, expect more targets to go Ruckert’s way. If Ruckert can put together a stat line of 45-550-10, he should be an early Day 2 selection at minimum. However, OSU has done a poor job featuring him in-game plans. I predict that we’ll know early on in the season if Ruckert will be featured more often. It’s entirely possible that Ruckert doesn’t see a bump in production, and he declares for the draft. From there, teams will have to determine how much his lack of production was because of the scheme, and how much he was holding himself back. Ruckert is an uber-talented player, and if Ohio State can recognize that, he could be the nation’s most productive tight end.
Zamir White, RB Georgia
Zamir “Zeus” White was at one point viewed as the top running back in the country. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury and missed his entire true freshman season. This year, he was able to see the field, but similar to seemingly every Georgia running back ever, his touches were limited due to the presence of a future NFL star. The Bulldogs starter for last season was D’Andre Swift. Swift is a lock to be a top-50 pick in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. In Swift’s freshman year, he sat behind two future NFL stars in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom sat behind Todd Gurley. White went through the cycle, and now he has the opportunity to be Georgia’s number one running back, and with that, a pathway to the NFL.
In limited snaps, White showed he can be an effective back. He has natural power and is a load to tackle. At 6’0″, 215, defenders bounce off of him with ease. Last season, he was able to gain over five yards per carry, and found the end zone three times on only 78 rushes. Georgia has proven to be the top team in the country when producing NFL quality running backs, and White should be next in line. In full-time starter work, expect White to have a season eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing, while also being a threat in the passing game.
Unfortunately, White is not without risk. He suffered an ACL injury late in high school, and again before his true-freshman season at Georgia. The most important thing for him to accomplish as a full-time starter is staying healthy for the entirety of the season. There will be a lot of uncertainty around Georgia’s offense this year, so expect Kirby Smart to rely heavily on White. White should be the least surprising breakout candidate in the 2021 NFL Draft.
There’s a ton of talent in the 2021 NFL Draft class, and these three breakout candidates aren’t well known yet, but they will be — especially with the seasons I think they could have.
Shorter: As I mentioned earlier, Shorter’s eligibility is still up in the air. However, he’s the most talented receiver on Florida’s roster, and if he is able to play this season, he should show it. I do have some reservations about the Florida quarterback position, but as long as a level of consistency can be had, it shouldn’t prevent Shorter from showing his talent. With a full season as a go-to target, Shorter could hover around 1,000 yards. However, I’d expect him to fall just below due to Florida’s commitment to the run game and the existence of star tight end Kyle Pitts, who will likely be the Gators’ top target.
Prediction: 45 catches, 950 yards, 8 touchdowns
Ruckert: Ruckert’s success hinges on OSU involving him in the game plan. He’s a difference-maker but needs to be recognized as one. If he can become the second or even third option on an explosive Ohio State team, he will be one of the most productive tight ends in the nation. Surpassing even 600 yards would be a major boost for him. However, I expect him to be a massive red zone threat regardless of his inclusion in the game plan.
Prediction: 40 catches, 550 yards, 10 touchdowns
White: As long as White can stay healthy, he should be the Bulldogs’ starting running back. His ability to absorb contact and continue moving forward is impressive, and he’s already shown a nose for the end zone. Expect a huge season from the former number one running back recruit.
Prediction: 180 carries, 1,050 yards, 12 touchdowns