2021 NFL breakout candidates
TJ Hockenson, TE, Lions
The tight end position can be a bit tricky for players during their first three years or so, but you usually figure out what you have during year three. After battling injuries as a rookie, the light seemed to come on for Hockenson last season. Now entering year three with a decimated receiving corps, Hockenson is poised for a big year and may join the upper echelon of NFL tight ends. Hockenson figures to be the Lions' top receiving threat with plenty of targets coming his way. He's off to a terrific start with eight catches for 97 yards and a touchdown against San Francisco.
Jordan Fuller, S, Rams
Fuller may be off some fans' radars because he was a late-round pick and still very young. Yet, he has already claimed a starting job on one of the NFL's premier defenses and even been named a captain by his teammates. He has good range and instincts and could become a star.
Willie Gay, LB, Chiefs
Gay is currently on injured reserve after suffering an injury during a preseason game. Luckily for him, the injured reserve rules have been altered this season, and he can return as soon as Week 4. He has yet to make his regular-season NFL debut, but he was a gifted college player and highly touted pro prospect. He's a sure tackler with speed and athleticism who should anchor the middle of the Kansas City defense for years to come.
AJ Dillon, RB, Packers
Aaron Jones is the number one back for Green Bay, but the Packers tend to give plenty of opportunities to their backups throughout the season. While none of them put up the numbers Jones does, there were games last season where backup Jamaal Williams played a substantial role in the offense, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield. While Dillon is a different type of back and built more for power running, he showed flashes in limited playing time last season and will see an increased role now that Wiliams is in Detroit.
Elijah Mitchell, RB, 49ers
The undrafted rookie free agent ran for over 100 yards in his debut. Granted, it was against a bad Lions defense, but it is worth noting that--out of all the running backs on the roster-- San Francisco turned to Mitchell as soon as Raheem Mostert was injured. Mostert has been ruled out for the season, so Mitchell may very well become the starting running back in San Francisco. If that happens, he'll have a great opportunity to show he belongs.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Eagles
Much is expected of Smith in his rookie season, especially given the lack of depth the Eagles have at receiver. The Heisman Trophy winner enters the league as the team's No. 1 receiver and is one of the fastest players in the league. Philly will undoubtedly make use of his abilities in Nick Sirianni's offense.
Gabriel Davis, WR, Bills
Davis really started coming on late in his rookie season and was a key part of the Bills offense as a complementary receiver in the playoffs. He finished his rookie campaign with over 500 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 35 catches and scored again on Sunday against the vaunted Steelers defense.
Michael Pittman, WR, Colts
At 6'4" 223 lbs with the speed and ball skills he has, Pittman should eventually become a No.1 receiver. He was drafted in the second round in 2020 to help take some pressure off of T.Y. Hilton. He was relatively quiet as a rookie with just one touchdown, but he did catch 40 balls and eclipse 500 receiving yards. It was an ok start, but Indy is hoping for more from him in 2021.
Myles Gaskin, RB, Dolphins
The third-year running back had over 900 total yards from scrimmage in 2020 and takes over the starting job in Miami. He's a bit of a smaller back but runs well enough between the tackles and is a tremendous weapon in the passing game. I think he's being slept on and will have a really good 2021.
Josh Uche, LB, Patriots
Uche is a rare linebacker who excels both in coverage and rushing the passer. His skillset perfectly fits that of a New England outside linebacker. He only played in nine games as a rookie. but had a promising offseason. He has already matched his sack total from last season and is poised to take on a bigger role.
Bryan Edwards, WR, Raiders
If you watched the Monday night game, you saw Edwards show up late in the game and make plays to help his team get a win, but he's definitely an unfamiliar name to most casual fans. He was a third-round pick in 2020 after an underrated college career at South Carolina. While Henry Ruggs gets more publicity from that draft class, Edwards may be the more complete player. Last season, Edwards only had 11 catches, 193 receiving yards, and one touchdown but opened this season with a career game, which may bring high expectations for him the rest of the season.
Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Steelers
Highsmith is a former walk-on from the University of Charlotte. He was known as a pass-rusher in college, and, while that part of his game hasn't quite shown up yet at the pro level, he certainly looked like he belonged in the lineup during his rookie season. Once the pass-rushing comes along, the Steelers may have another star to help terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
Byron Murphy, CB, Cardinals
Murphy was a projected first-round prospect in 2019 and fell to the Cardinals in the second round due to concerns about his size and physicality. Regardless, he was clearly a playmaker in college and may become a ballhawk in the NFL. He is a little smaller at 5'11" but has been able to hold his own. Many corners breakout in year three, and Murphy's Week 1 performance against Tennessee showed he may be next.
Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears
The second year from Tulane surprised many in 2020 with 61 catches, over 600 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. He quickly became a good No.2 to Allen Robinson and a legitimate threat in the slot. On an offense that doesn't have many weapons, Mooney should have another good season and could develop into a household name.
Drew Sample, TE, Bengals
The 25-year-old had an outstanding 2020 season after barely playing as a rookie in 2019. He has displayed tremendous growth in his career, and, as the starting tight end for Cincinnati this year, he should be leaned on even more as a complementary player.
Trevon Diggs, CB, Cowboys
The Dallas defense struggled mightily in 2020, but Diggs had a very good rookie season. He amassed 57 tackles with three interceptions and was credited with 14 passes defended. He's an important player as Dan Quinn tries to fix this defense going forward and has a bright future.
Lorenzo Carter, EDGE, Giants
Carter is entering his fourth year and has quickly become a crucial member of the Giants' defense. After a great start to his career in his first two seasons, he missed most of the 2020 season. He seems to be picking up right where he left off (pre-injury), which is a great sign for New York.
Troy Dye, LB, Vikings
Dye was one of my favorite players to watch in college as one of the best linebackers in the country at Oregon. He's not the biggest player in terms of weight, but he can fit well in the coverage linebacker role. He's extremely athletic and has a quick twitch style of play. I'm not sure how much opportunity he'll get this year, but he'll make the most of the opportunities that come.
Nasir Adderley, DB, Chargers
You could conceivably argue that Adderley technically broke out last year with 67 tackles, an interception, and three passes defended. For some players, that's a good season. In LA, I think they'd take that but expect more out of Adderley. Nevertheless, he's off to a pretty good start in his development and will be known by many soon.