We’re at the stage of the preseason when fantasy owners are looking at cheat sheets and attempting to formulate a plan for upcoming drafts. While it’s important to hit on early picks, managers rarely stray far from the consensus. It’s fantasy football sleepers who are often the difference between winning championships and not. But who are the fantasy football breakouts in the AFC and NFC who will make you look like a genius?
Fantasy football breakouts to watch for in 2021
After years of Tom Brady and little else, the AFC has been reinvented in recent seasons. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the Kansas City Chiefs are at the forefront, but fantasy football talent is all over the conference. Josh Allen was one of the big AFC breakouts of 2020, as the Buffalo Bills’ offense took the league by storm, but who is ready to step up this season?
Is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft ready to break out in his second season? Will a 2019 undrafted free agent outshine his team’s free-agent acquisitions?
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow found himself in a tough situation in 2020. After being drafted first overall, he realized exactly why the Cincinnati Bengals were picking so high. With no offensive line, a poor defense, and an inconsistent running game, the Bengals needed a lot of work. Burrow was one of the few sources of optimism on the team but suffered a torn ACL and MCL on a hit that will have looked all-too-familiar for fans.
Burrow looks to have recovered well and is in a good situation for fantasy. The Bengals used the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Ja’Marr Chase, who helped Burrow set records en route to a Heisman Trophy at LSU.
Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd make up one of the most promising WR groups in the NFL. The offensive line is still a concern, which isn’t ideal when the team shares a division with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens.
The lack of running game and defensive struggles should mean that the Bengals are a pass-heavy offense again. If Burrow can stay healthy and average over 40 attempts a game, as he did in 2020, then he’ll be a fantasy QB1. Volume can be more useful than efficiency, and Burrow should rack up statistics.
Jakobi Meyers, WR, New England Patriots
Jakobi Meyers signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent following the 2019 NFL Draft and joined a team with high expectations. If there’s one team that doesn’t mind giving unheralded receivers a chance, it’s the Patriots.
The Patriots invested heavily in pass catchers during the offseason. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were brought in as field-stretching tight ends, while Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne give the team more options at wide receiver.
Despite spending in free agency, Meyers could still be the WR you want to roster. He had a solid 2020 campaign, recording 59 receptions on 81 targets for 729 yards. Disappointingly, he was unable to find the end zone and still hasn’t scored a touchdown in the NFL, but the Patriots only passed for 12 scores all season.
It’s unclear whether the Patriots will give Cam Newton another chance or whether rookie Mac Jones will be named the starter. Meyers has built on a strong 2020 with an impressive preseason, though, and is set to be one of the fantasy football breakouts of 2021.
The NFC might have the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it feels like a conference in transition. Drew Brees’ retirement has caused uncertainty for one of the most consistent fantasy offenses, and question marks surround multiple playoff teams. Unpredictability can lead to great things in fantasy football, and there are a handful of NFC breakouts ready to become household names.
Marquez Callaway, WR, New Orleans Saints
Marquez Callaway didn’t have a bad rookie season, but there was little to suggest that he would be one of the fantasy breakouts of 2021. Fate looks as if it’s conspiring in his favor, however.
Michael Thomas, who has dominated targets when healthy, is set for an extended spell on the sideline after ankle surgery. Alvin Kamara led the New Orleans Saints in targets last season in Thomas’ absence and could again, but there will be plenty of opportunities for other receivers.
Emmanuel Sanders caught 61 of his 82 targets for 726 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in 2020. Jared Cook had 37 receptions on 60 targets for 504 yards and 7 touchdowns. Neither player is on the team any longer.
That opens the door for Callaway, who has been the hot wide receiver this preseason, regardless of whether Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is throwing the ball. He’s a huge sleeper late in drafts and will dramatically outplay his draft capital, solidifying himself as a viable fantasy option each week.
Darrell Henderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams
The Sony Michel trade may have put the brakes on some of the Darrell Henderson hype. Nevertheless, Henderson is still primed to be one of the big fantasy football breakouts. Henderson built on a quiet rookie season with 783 scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns in 2020.
Michel’s arrival signals that the team may opt for more of a committee than fantasy managers would like. Still, Sean McVay has put together efficient running games in the past. Matthew Stafford should improve the Rams’ offense, and that will lead to valuable opportunities for Henderson.
There’s still a chance that Cam Akers retakes the starting job in 2022, but it’s Henderson’s to lose for now. He’ll be the lead back, and if he performs, they’ll continue to ride the hot hand.
2021 fantasy football rookie breakouts
At least one of the top-five quarterbacks taken in the 2021 NFL Draft is bound to break out. Which one(s) will it be?
Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and the 2021 QB class
It’s been a long time since there was this level of excitement for a group of rookie quarterbacks, but it looks as if the hype is justified. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones should all become starters at some point this season. Furthermore, they could all impact fantasy football immediately.
It’s a brave fantasy manager who puts their eggs in the basket of a rookie QB. Impressive performances don’t always lead to fantasy stats, and making decisions without data can backfire. Nevertheless, there’s something different with the 2021 class. Leaving your 2021 fantasy football draft with one of these players could be a huge victory.
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