While our flashy first-round picks in fantasy football draw the most attention on draft day, it is the players who you select before they break out who end up helping you win championships. Drafting a player before they jump onto the scene can be a massive boost for any team looking to win in 2021. Here are 9 of the top fantasy football breakouts for the 2021 season.
Top 9 fantasy football breakouts in 2021 | Quarterbacks
With less and less incentive to select a QB early, who is a breakout candidate for 2021 to target?
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
I feel as if we now are holding rookie quarterbacks to such a high expectation that they are immediately written off anytime they struggle. Believe it or not, not every QB is Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert. They are the outliers.
From 2010 to the 2020 NFL Draft class, there had been 34 quarterbacks selected inside the first round of their respective years. Of those QBs, only five went on to have a top-12 rookie season. Only 15 even recorded a top-24 season. Even QBs drafted as the No. 1 overall pick have finished their rookie campaigns as QB16 on average.
This is why I do not understand why people have so casually written off Jalen Hurts. Did he struggle at times with accuracy? Yes. But he was also playing behind the same Eagles’ offensive line that started 11 different combinations in 11 weeks and allowed Carson Wentz to be sacked 50 times.
Hurts completed 54.9% of his passes for 847 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his three starts. Additionally, he carried the ball 39 times for 238 yards and another score. He was the first quarterback since 1950 to throw for over 800 yards and rush for over 200 yards in his first three starts. During this time, he was the QB3 in 4-point scoring (25.9 ppg). If we include his partial games in Week 13 and Week 17, he still ends up as the QB9.
In fantasy, rushing quarterbacks are essential to success, and Hurts could very well be one of the best. Since 2018, 22 of the top 36 QBs rushed for over 200 yards, with 17 of the top 24 in the last two years hitting this mark.
Hurts is currently going as the QB16 (115.3 ADP), and I fully believe the combination of a legitimate offseason and his rushing upside gives him top-six upside. He is my top QB breakout of the 2021 season for fantasy football.
Top 9 fantasy football breakouts in 2021 | Running backs
Which running backs are poised for breakout fantasy football performances in 2021?
Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
It was a frustrating season for Cam Akers in 2020. It was not due to how he played but as a part of a timeshare with Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown. Week 13 was the first time Akers played in over 33% of the offensive snaps. But once he was given the reigns, he exploded.
Akers took control of the Rams’ backfield starting in Week 13. Over the final five weeks (four games), Akers rushed 86 times for 340 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 8 passes on 11 targets for 96 yards. He was the RB23 (13.9 PPR) over this stretch, and the only “knock” against him was the lack of touchdowns. It is also why his 0.57 fantasy points per opportunity came in as low as it did.
If you include his two playoff games, Akers averaged 24.3 opportunities per game (0.67 pts/opp) after becoming the lead back.
While we can’t ignore Henderson completely, it’s hard to overlook a talented RB who will see 18 or more opportunities per game in a Sean McVay offense that Matthew Stafford now leads. Furthermore, Brown is now out of the equation as he joined Miami in the offseason.
Everything about Akers points to a 2021 breakout campaign and one that should result in an RB1 finish in fantasy football.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
From Weeks 1 through 6, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was an excellent RB1 fantasy running back. He was the RB11 (15.9 ppg) during this span, racking up 107 carries for 505 yards (4.7 avg) and 1 touchdown. He also added 21 receptions on 31 targets for 177 yards. His usage was through the roof as Edwards-Helaire averaged 17.8 rushing attempts and 5.2 targets per game.
However, from Week 7 on, the Chiefs back saw his touches and fantasy impact throttled after the signing of Le’Veon Bell. He was the RB37 to close the year while averaging 13.8 opportunities per game. Nevertheless, he was still efficient with his touches at 0.83 pts/opp.
Andy Reid knows how to implement NFL running backs in a way that is conducive to fantasy football. Over the last 20 years, the average fantasy finish of the lead RB on a Reid offense in PPR is RB10 in per-game scoring.
The Chiefs completely revamped their entire offensive line, plus RBs saw 18.2% of the targets last season (111). Edwards-Helaire has no other competition for touches in this offense. He will push for over 15 carries and 4 to 5 targets a game on the highest-scoring offense in football.
Edwards-Helaire is primed for a breakout RB1 fantasy season in 2021. Currently, he can be found floating around in the middle of the third round.
Top 9 fantasy football breakouts in 2021 | Wide receivers
Which WRs can you count on to outproduce their ADP?
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
CeeDee Lamb as a 2021 fantasy football breakout should come as no surprise. From Weeks 1 through 5, Lamb was the WR11 in fantasy averaging 17.1 ppg. He was sixth in yards (424), 10th in targets (40), 11th in receptions (29), and averaged 2.14 pts/target.
Then the wheels came off the Dallas offense when Dak Prescott suffered his season-ending ankle injury. From Week 6 on, Lamb was the WR35, averaging 12 ppg (-30%).
There were concerns last season the addition of Lamb would muddy the waters and take away from the other receivers’ opportunities. Yet, those thoughts were quickly deemed unfounded. The Cowboys were one of just two teams who had three receivers record over 100 targets each. That’s even with Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci under center.
When you factor in Prescott’s return along with Lamb’s innate body control and route running, there is every reason to believe Lamb can be the WR1 for the Cowboys and a top-10 receiver in fantasy. The best part is he is currently the WR29 (76.0 ADP).
Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears
Darnell Mooney is the real deal and one of my favorite breakout players for fantasy football in 2021. I still am not sure why people have not caught on to him yet.
He played on 73% of the offensive snaps in his rookie year and accumulated a respectable 631 yards and 4 touchdowns on 61 receptions (98 targets). If you watch his games, all you can think of is “what if?” Mooney was routinely open on explosive plays, and both Nick Foles and Mitch Trubisky could not deliver an accurate ball. Combined, they were 22 of 70 on deep attempts, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Of Mooney’s 98 targets, only 68 passes (69%) were deemed catchable. This means Mooney caught 89.7% of his catchable passes while maintaining an 11.4 aDOT.
It is a matter of when, not if, Justin Fields takes over at quarterback for the Bears in 2021. Dalton can be seen as a slight up-grade at QB or a lateral move until that point. Mooney is going in drafts as the WR63 (174.6 ADP) but has top-36 potential.
Laviska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense will look a lot different in 2021, which is a good thing. At the center of this change is playmaker and Swiss Army knife Laviska Shenault. Shenault caught 58 of 79 targets for 600 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie on 64% of the offensive snaps. Shenault also received 18 rushing attempts for 91 yards which helps to demonstrate his versatility.
While he ended the season as the WR46 in PPR (11.2), it’s worth taking a more granular look at his season. Shenault played in 14 games due to a hamstring injury and only played three snaps when the injury took place (Week 9). Of his 14 games, Shenault was a WR3 or better 43% of the time and saw 7 or more opportunities in nine games. Over the final four weeks, he played on 76% of the offensive snaps and generated 208 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Where Shenault shines is once the ball is in his hands. Despite his 6.2 aDOT, Shenault racked up 305 yards after the catch (5.3 per/rec).
Instead of a stagnant offense that was 27th in yards and 30th in points, Shenault now has Trevor Lawrence delivering the ball. The fantasy football breakout is coming for Shenault in 2021 as he will be the utility player in what should be a very entertaining offense under Urban Meyer.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
As much as I try not to rely on rookie players, the narrative and expectations have changed over the years. It’s no longer the second or third-year breakout. It’s now looking for Year 1 production.
Just in the last two seasons, we have seen eight rookies finish as top-36 receivers, including Justin Jefferson’s record-setting 1,400-yard, WR6 performance. The scary part is that Ja’Marr Chase might be better than them all.
Chase ended his LSU career with 24 games played, catching 107 passes for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns. And wouldn’t you know it, 84 receptions, 1,780 yards, and 20 of those touchdowns came from his college and now NFL QB Joe Burrow.
The Bengals are still a mess defensively, and the passing volume is impossible to ignore. I mean, Burrow was on pace for 776 attempts in 2020 for crying out loud. While I don’t expect that many, 650 is well within reason. Burrow proved he can sustain multiple fantasy-relevant receivers.
I’ve gone through my initial projections, and I have a hard time getting Chase under 130 targets and 1,150 yards, even with Tee Higgins seeing 20% of the targets.
Breakouts are different than fantasy sleepers. Breakouts are guys you know the name of who can take the next step in fantasy production. Chase is going in drafts as a WR2/3 but could end the season as a WR1. That’s a breakout fantasy football player.
Top 9 fantasy football sleepers in 2021 | Tight ends
In a position where talent can be hard to come by, which tight ends can break out and be valuable in fantasy football in 2021?
Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Opportunity breeds success. Irv Smith Jr. showed last season that he could be a phenomenal fantasy option when given the opportunity. Although he finished as a TE3, that is not indicative of his talent, as his breakout actually started in 2020.
If you glance at his stats, Smith was not overly impressive. He caught 30 of 43 targets for 335 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 ppg. However, he was buried behind Kyle Rudolph on the Vikings’ depth chart.
In the four games without Rudolph in the lineup, Smith averaged 12.83 ppg with a 16-game pace of 60 receptions on 80 targets for 732 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now, I don’t expect those touchdowns to carry over. But I can see Smith receiving between 5 to 6 targets a game.
We have to think about what it takes to “breakout” as a tight end. Over the past five seasons, the TE12 has averaged just 9.2 PPR points per game. That’s just 4 receptions and 50 yards. With TEs seeing 22% of the targets in 2020, Smith may be in line for a monster season as a 2021 fantasy football breakout candidate.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
I am fully aware of the risks of rookie tight ends in fantasy. Since 2010, only Rob Gronkowski and Evan Engram have finished as TE1s (top 12) as rookies. Still, Pitts is exceptional and is only a tight end by positional designation. When the NFL creates the unicorn position, Pitts will be the No. 1 in that ranking.
With Jones in the lineup, Pitts was looking at roughly 90 targets. Without him, we might be looking closer to the 115-120 range. For reference, only Travis Kelce and Darren Waller surpassed this total in 2020 (145 each).
He is now the No. 2 option in a Falcons’ passing attack that will be forced to throw the ball over 600 times again in 2021. Maybe I have been drinking the Kool-Aid a bit too much, but Pitts is my TE4 in projections. At this point, I don’t know if Pitts would be a fantasy football breakout in 2021 or just hitting expectations.
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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.