Fantasy Football Breakouts 2021
Every season, there are a number of players who breakthrough in a major way and help fantasy managers win championships. Last season, James Robinson, Justin Jefferson, DK Metcalf, and Stefon Diggs had breakout years and were a major part of many championship teams. Who will be the players who fit this billing this season? Below are some of the names I’ll be keeping an eye on.
*Projections, rankings, and ADP for Half-PPR scoring, ADP sourced from Fantasy Football Calculator
ADP: Round 14, Pick 3 (#183, QB23)
2021 Projections: 4,140.2 passing yards, 22 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 604.2 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, QB11
You could put Jameis Winston here as I think either Saints‘ quarterback can return value on their current ADP, depending on who is named the starter. However, I’m sticking with Taysom Hill as he was the starter when Drew Brees missed time last season. Hill completed 72.7% of his passes last year, albeit on small sample size, and led the Saints to a 3-1 record as the starter. He ran for 52.5 yards per game in all four games and 4 touchdowns over that 4-game span. That rushing production led Hill to 21.1 fantasy points per game over his four starts and would have made Hill a top-twelve per-game fantasy quarterback last season. I’m banking on Sean Payton to end up going with Hill when it’s all said and done, and as long as he’s starting, he’s a low-end QB1 who you can draft with your last pick in redraft leagues. That’s a recipe for success.
ADP: Round 10, Pick 5 (#118, QB14)
2021 Projections: 4,504.3 passing yards, 26 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 284.2 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, QB16
I didn’t want to include any rookies in this article because I don’t see rookies as really fitting the spirit of the breakout definition. Still, the quarterback position doesn’t have a ton of great options for this category. Trevor Lawrence is acclaimed as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and I don’t buy the nonsense coming out of Jaguars camp that Gardner Minshew, as much as I love him, would start ahead of Lawrence. The Jaguars have put together an inspiring group of skill-position talent for Lawrence to work with, including collegiate teammate Travis Etienne, Marvin Jones, D.J. Chark, James Robinson, and fellow breakout candidate Laviska Shenault. Lawrence will be playing on a team with a porous defense that forced the team into the 7th-most passing attempts in the league last year. That’s a recipe for success when combined with Lawrence’s talent in both passing and rushing, as well as the talent surrounding him. Urban Meyer will provide for a smooth transition to the NFL, and Lawrence will provide for a borderline top-12 option at quarterback in a breakout rookie season.
ADP: Round 1, Pick 11 (#11, RB9)
2021 Projections: 196 carries for 960.4 yards and 5 touchdowns, 93.1 catches for 725.9 yards and 4 touchdowns, RB9
Austin Ekeler is already being drafted as a locked-and-loaded first-round pick in fantasy football, but consider this a vote of confidence that he could finish as a top-five running back. The Chargers revamped their offensive line this year by adding All-Pro center Corey Linsley, veteran Matt Feiler, and rookie first-round pick Rashawn Slater. Bryan Bulaga should bounce back from an injury-plagued 2020 season, as well. Ekeler missed a solid chunk of time last season, but he scored 14+ half-PPR points in six of his ten games last season. With Justin Herbert a fast-ascending young quarterback, Ekeler will be heavily featured in a high-powered offense. He should also benefit from new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi who has helped Alvin Kamara break out as one of the best running backs in football. My favorite part of Ekeler in drafts is the upside. 5 touchdowns is a low number – if he becomes the goalline back, he could reach double-digits. He could also see significantly more than the 196 carries I have him projected for. Ekeler is one of my favorite early-round selections this season.
ADP: Round 3, Pick 7 (#32, RB19)
2021 Projections: 171 carries for 803.7 yards and 6 touchdowns, 76.9 catches for 608.2 yards and 3 touchdowns, RB15
All offseason, D’Andre Swift has swung up and down my rankings, on a pendulum as I’ve debated where to rank him. He only had 114 carries last season, and he finished as the RB18 in half-PPR scoring. The Lions said goodbye to both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones this offseason, leaving their wide receiver corps quite barren, and Swift is going to pick up a ton of work in the passing game. He caught 46 passes in 13 games last year, and I’m expecting him to work much more through the air this season as a check-down option for Jared Goff. Swift ran for 8 touchdowns on just 114 carries, and that rate is likely unsustainable. However, perhaps he’s just so elite of talent that he can manage those elite efficiency numbers – those types of players exist. However, then there are the downsides. We’re looking at a Lions’ offense that will be one of the worst in the NFL, limiting Swift’s upside. Detroit also brought in Jamaal Williams, a solid veteran player who is better than Swift in pass protection and will see a decent amount of work. All that leads to a wide range of outcomes for Swift, but if you feel like taking a swing on the elite upside in the third round, Swift could have a massive breakout in 2021.
ADP: Round 4, Pick 11 (#47, RB25)
2021 Projections: 213 carries for 979.8 yards and 9 touchdowns, 39.8 catches for 445.9 yards and 2 touchdowns, RB19
Now that Cam Akers is out for the season, Darrell Henderson is set to be the every-down back for Los Angeles. There’s no denying that the team didn’t want him to be a 300-carry guy – that’s why they spent a second-round pick on Akers. However, the rest of the running back depth chart is unproven between Xavier Jones, Raymond Calais, and Jake Funk. The Rams are going to be a pass-heavy team with Matthew Stafford carrying the offense through the air, but Henderson is going to be a per-touch monster. Early last season, Henderson had 18+ half-PPR fantasy points in three of his first five games before Akers emerged. He wasn’t very involved in Week 1, but from Week 2 to Week 7, he averaged 15.5 touches per game. Henderson will be very consistent if he gets that level of involvement again this season, which is possible with Akers out. The Rams’ offense looks like it will be one of the best in the NFL, and if everything breaks right for Henderson, he can finish inside the top ten in fantasy.
ADP: Round 6, Pick 2 (#64, RB30)
2021 Projections: 219 carries for 1,116.9 yards and 8 touchdowns, 8.3 catches for 84.7 yards and 0 touchdowns, RB29
Last season was quite impressive for Damien Harris, the now third-year running back out of Alabama, as he ran the ball 137 times for 691 yards and 2 touchdowns in 10 games. That put him on a 17-game pace of 1,174.7 rushing yards but only 3.5 touchdowns. Patriots quarterback Cam Newton ran for 12 touchdowns last season and vultured many of the opportunities Harris would have seen to score. Newton is pretty washed as a passer as he only threw for 2,657 yards and 8 touchdowns to 10 interceptions last year, but if there’s one area he can be a thorn in the side of the defense it’s rushing in the red zone. Harris also only had 5 catches in 10 games last year as Newton seemed not to want to throw the ball to the running back position. So why the optimism of a potential Harris breakout? I don’t have him running for a whopping number of touchdowns, just a slight uptick on his per-game rate from last year, and I have him down for the same role in the passing game as last year. If the Patriots change their system around Newton or Mac Jones takes over as the starter, the talented Harris has clear top-15 upside at the running back position, and you can draft him in the sixth round.
ADP: Round 6, Pick 6 (#68, WR25)
2021 Projections: 76.6 catches for 1,011.6 yards and 6 touchdowns, 12 carries for 124.8 yards and 1 touchdown, WR21
In his rookie season for the 49ers, Brandon Aiyuk was not set up for success. Injuries limited him to 12 games, COVID-19 kept him from getting any offseason or preseason time heading into his first NFL year, and his starting quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo only played 6 games. Aiyuk put together an impressive season as he finished as the WR33 in half-PPR scoring overall (in 12 games) and the WR17 in per-game scoring. In the final seven games of his rookie year, Aiyuk averaged 6.5 catches for 83.3 yards; that would be good for 110.5 catches for 1,416.1 yards over a 17-game slate. I’m certainly not projecting those numbers with Deebo Samuel and George Kittle returning to health, but it shows that the second-year receiver has that type of upside. We don’t know how much of Jimmy G or Trey Lance we will see in San Francisco this year, but it doesn’t totally matter as Aiyuk is a YAC monster who routinely makes game-breaking plays behind the line scrimmage. Turn on the tape, and you see real talent. He’s due for a monstrous 2021.
Laviska Shenault Jr.
ADP: Round 9, Pick 7 (#107, WR40)
2021 Projections: 66.6 catches for 753.1 yards and 6 touchdowns, 30 carries for 156.0 yards and 1 touchdown, WR42
Despite a tumultuous quarterback situation in Jacksonville that featured Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, and Jake Luton, Laviska Shenault came through with a very impressive rookie year as he caught 58 balls for 600 yards and 5 touchdowns. I was a big fan of Shenault in the draft as I firmly believe he would have been a first-round pick if not for some iffy medicals. Shenault is physically powerful at 6’1″, 227 lbs and will fill a versatile role for Jacksonville this season. His ability to contribute in the screen game and as a runner will benefit Trevor Lawrence as a rookie quarterback, and he’s arguably the best red-zone weapon on this team. Shenault is being drafted in the 40s at the wide receiver position, and while I have him finishing around that range, he has the upside for much more this season. Scoop him up as a player. You can feel ok starting most weeks with the potential to be a league-winning late-round asset.
Michael Pittman Jr.
ADP: Round 9, Pick 9 (#109, WR41)
2021 Projections: 68.9 catches for 881.4 yards and 5 touchdowns, WR45
My feelings about Michael Pittman Jr. have constantly fluctuated this offseason, particularly with the recent news of Carson Wentz’s iffy medical status. It’s not like Wentz is a world-beater at quarterback – in fact, he was pretty terrible last year – but it will be difficult for Pittman to break out with the alternative unproven Colts quarterback options in Sam Ehlinger and Jacob Eason. However, Pittman is going to fill the X-receiver role in the offense with T.Y. Hilton on the decline and Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal better-suited for roles where they work closer to the line of scrimmage. Pittman is among the bigger receivers in the NFL at 6’4″, 223 lbs, and in addition to being a contested-catch wizard, he has a fast-developing route tree. While the Colts will spread the ball around, there isn’t a target hog on this team who will keep Pittman from leading the squad in catches. However, the external issues of Wentz’s injuries and Frank Reich’s tendencies to be inconsistent with game-planning leave me a bit wary on guaranteeing the breakout this season.
ADP: Round 11, Pick 8 (#134, WR50)
2021 Projections: 73.6 catches for 912.2 yards and 4 touchdowns, WR46
All four of my breakout wide receiver candidates are second-year players as the third-year breakout has become the second-year breakout at the position. Last year, Darnell Mooney’s stats weren’t spectacular, but he averaged 3.2 yards of separation on his routes per Next-Gen Stats, which was the same mark as Davante Adams. Mooney’s route-running has reportedly taken a massive step forward in camp this offseason, and the hype train is in danger of exploding off the tracks with how glowingly Bears beat reporters talk about the second-year receiver. Mooney will also benefit from improved quarterback play this year, regardless of whether it comes from veteran Andy Dalton or rookie Justin Fields. Mooney is one of my favorite late-round potential breakout candidates at any position.
ADP: Round 13, Pick 6 (#161, TE16)
2021 Projections: 54.8 catches for 723.7 yards and 5 touchdowns, TE11
It’s been a war of attrition for New Orleans this offseason as they’ve already lost Michael Thomas until potentially November and now Tre’Quan Smith is dealing with an apparent leg injury. The receiving corps was already shallow after Thomas, but now Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris will need to improve their respective games quickly. The Saints’ quarterback could look to Adam Trautman for extra work in the passing game, and the second-year tight end is poised for a breakout after the free agency departure of Jared Cook. Trautman ranked second in his draft class at the tight end regarding SPARQ score, ranking in the adjusted 73rd percentile. He finished his collegiate career at Dayton with 171 catches for 2,295 yards and 31 touchdowns. You’re looking at a tight end necessary for the offense and are also quite talented, which is a winning recipe for success.
Irv Smith Jr.
ADP: Round 12, Pick 9 (#150, TE15)
2021 Projections: 51.1 catches for 617.3 yards and 5 touchdowns, TE15
Tight end is a challenging position for young players to break out at, and there seems to be some Irv Smith Jr. fatigue following an underwhelming 2020 season. However, the Alabama product is still every bit the high-upside athletic specimen he was drafted to be, and this could be the year he finally starts to put it together. The Vikings are likely to have a lower passing volume overall as the defense should be improved and allow for more of a run-heavy approach. However, Kyle Rudolph’s departure to the Giants leaves Smith with a potentially huge snap share, particularly as the Vikings use more 2-tight end sets. Smith is a field-stretcher in the slot and has every opportunity to be the clear-cut third receiver on this team after Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Smith will also get many favorable one-on-one matchups with those two elite receivers and the defensive attention paid to Dalvin Cook. All of this lends credence to a high-upside tight end currently being drafted well into the double-digit rounds.