As unpredictable as the NFL can be sometimes, fantasy football is perhaps even more unpredictable.
It’s amazing how players are rarely at the top of fantasy draft boards for more than one or two years in a row. At the same time, players we never expected — or perhaps never even heard of before — end up being difference-makers.
Needless to say, a huge part of fantasy football is guessing the breakout players who will be available late in drafts but automatic starters a month into the season.
While we admit that finding those hidden gems can be more of an art than a science, here are 10 players we think will be breakout fantasy football stars in 2021.
Joe Burrow, Bengals
In some ways, Joe Burrow had a breakout season as a rookie, averaging close to 270 passing yards per game. But since he had his rookie campaign cut short by an injury, he’ll have a true breakout season in 2021, assuming he’s able to play 16 games.
A.J. Green may have left Cincinnati, but Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are still a strong receiver tandem. Burrow should also benefit from the Bengals upgrading their offensive line this season.
He showed last season that he can play in the NFL with two games of 300-plus passing yards. Look for Burrow to be more consistent in his sophomore campaign and have even more fantasy upside than he did in 2020.
Jalen Hurts, Eagles
With Carson Wentz being traded, there’s no doubt that Hurts will be the starter in Philadelphia this year.
Obviously, there are a few lingering questions about his long-term viability, but Hurts surely has enough upside to be a breakout candidate. We know that he’s a threat to do damage with his legs, which is something that tends to separate elite fantasy quarterbacks from the middle of the pack.
If healthy, the Philadelphia offensive line should provide a little more support than the Eagles gave to Wentz or Hurts last season. That should make Hurts a lot more comfortable in the pocket, making it a little easier for him to make the leap.
J.K. Dobbins, Ravens
Mark Ingram is officially out of the picture in Baltimore, which is one less running back who can take carries away from J.K. Dobbins.
While Gus Edwards will get some touches, Dobbins will have every opportunity to be the feature back in the Baltimore offense. With his explosiveness and the constant threat created by Lamar Jackson’s legs, Dobbins is bound to bust out a few long runs that rack up the fantasy points in a hurry.
In PPR leagues, he averaged more than 16 fantasy points in his last five games of the 2020 season. That trend is a safe bet to continue in 2021, which could make Dobbins one of the most valuable fantasy running backs when all is said and done.
D’Andre Swift, Lions
Most expected more out of D'Andre Swift as a rookie, but we can give him a pass since he played on a truly terrible team.
There should be no doubt that he’ll start the season at the top of the depth chart with Jamaal Williams being signed as a backup and Kerryon Johnson an afterthought. In the 13 games he played as a rookie, Swift gained 4.6 yards per carry, so all he needs is more consistent touches and perhaps a better offensive line.
There will also be more opportunities for Swift to catch passes with Jared Goff more likely to check it down to him than Matthew Stafford. But more than anything, Swift has the talent to be a top 10-15 running back in the NFL, which means he should be a prominent fantasy figure in 2021.
Tee Higgins, Bengals
If Tee Higgins spends a full season without A.J. Green in the picture and with Joe Burrow being healthy, he could have a monster season.
Between Weeks 3 and Week 10 last year, Higgins averaged over 16 points per game in PPR leagues. Clearly, there’s good chemistry between him and Burrow. The Bengals also have Tyler Boyd, who will get plenty of targets but also draw attention away from Higgins.
In fact, Boyd and Higgins could end up getting almost the same amount of targets, causing the latter’s fantasy value to skyrocket in his second pro season.
Laviska Shenault, Jaguars
As a rookie, we saw a little bit of what made Laviska Shenault a versatile and special talent in college.
Despite the Jags being an absolute disaster in 2020, he was able to rack up 600 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He’s also someone who will be used as a runner and can be positioned all over the field.
Of course, the biggest things that make Shenault a breakout candidate are Urban Meyer being Jacksonville’s new coach and Trevor Lawrence presumably being the starting quarterback. He’ll have a creative offensive coach who will find ways to use him and a quarterback who can get him the ball, which means his fantasy upside is high heading into his sophomore season.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Washington
At the moment, Ryan Fitzpatrick is projected to be Washington’s starting quarterback. That’s good news for the team’s receivers, who will have an experienced quarterback running the show and perhaps more consistency at that position.
Granted, Gandy-Golden isn’t going to be the No. 1 target in Washington with Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel in the picture. But the 6-foot-4 wide receiver will be a great red-zone target and could take a big step forward in his second pro season, especially if offseason and training camp activities start to return to normal after the pandemic.
Gandy-Golden has a low-ceiling but high upside from a fantasy perspective, making him a sleeper you can grab late in drafts who has breakout potential.
Tyler Johnson, Buccaneers
Even with all of the amazing skill players on the Buccaneers' roster last season, Tom Brady took a liking to Tyler Johnson, a rookie from Minnesota who was twice a First-Team All-Big Ten selection.
Obviously, touches could be at a premium with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans still a big part of what the Bucs plan to do offensively. But if Brady trusts Johnson, the legendary quarterback will be looking in his direction more often than you might think.
With Antonio Brown no longer in the picture, Johnson should see an uptick in his snaps. Brown had 483 receiving yards in half a season last year, so if Johnson can step into those shoes, he has enough fantasy upside to be a worthwhile selection in the second half of drafts.
Irv Smith, Vikings
With Kyle Rudolph gone, Irv Smith will be Minnesota’s starting tight end and the biggest breakout star to watch at that position.
Keep in mind that Smith was a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2019, so there’s no reason to doubt his talent and upside. Even while sharing the field with Rudolph in 2020, Smith was third on the team in receiving with 365 yards and caught five touchdowns. As the undisputed No. 1 tight end for the Vikings, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Smith come close to doubling those numbers in 2021.
Even if he’s not projected as a top-five (or 10) tight end, he’ll offer a ton of value in the second half of fantasy drafts.
Kyle Pitts, Rookie
While we still don’t know where Pitts will land or who his quarterback will be, we know that he’s ready to produce in the NFL.
Pitts is more or less a tall wide receiver who lines up as a tight end. In fairness, he’s capable of lining up all over the field and will be both a red-zone target and a deep-ball option.
Typically, fantasy players are wise to be hesitant with rookie tight ends, but you can throw that caution to the wind with Pitts. Of course, the team that drafts him and his quarterback will play a role in determining his value as a rookie.
But if he lands in a good situation, Pitts could immediately become one of the best fantasy tight ends in the NFL.
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