During every NFL season, there tends to be a couple of breakout performers that people weren’t expecting to succeed. Last season, we saw players such as Josh Allen, Justin Jefferson, D.K. Metcalf, and Trey Hendrickson, just to name a few, break out of their shells and become household names. By paying close attention to the recent NFL minicamp performances, free agent impacts, and other notes that could determine a players’ increase in playing time, I have compiled a list of potential breakout performers for every team in the league (this set of teams being the NFC).
All stats and important information regarding players’ statistics were found using Pro Football Reference and Sports Info Solutions Data Hub (for advanced statistics). So without further ado, here are my predictions for every AFC team’s breakout performer in 2021, with a little synopsis of my selections directly below.
Arizona Cardinals – Chase Edmonds, RB
The 2018 4th-round selection backed up Kenyan Drake and was proficient as a pass-catcher, where he recorded 402 yards on 53 receptions (ranked third-most on team) and 4 receiving touchdowns despite only seeing the field on 46% of all offensive snaps. In early March, head coach Kliff Kingsbury expressed his confidence in Edmonds’ ability to be Arizona’s lead back, which could have contributed to Kenyan Drake’s departure in favor of Las Vegas.
In a pass-heavy, new-school air-raid offense led by Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray, it’s expected that Edmonds’ role will be expanded in the passing attack, and that offseason-signee James Conner will simply be available to wear down the box and participate in short-yardage situations. Nevertheless, Edmonds has a huge opportunity to breakout and solidify himself as one of the better receiving backs in the league during the 2021 season.
Atlanta Falcons – Marlon Davidson, DT
The second-year defensive tackle missed a significant part of his rookie season due to his battle with a lingering knee injury and landing on the COVID-19/Reserve list. Despite his rough start as a rookie, his progression has caught the eye of his new head coach Arthur Smith during OTA’s.
Davidson, an Auburn alumni, played a slew of positions and rotated everywhere on the defensive line during his stay as a Tiger, which might benefit him in Dean Pees’ defensive scheme where he could be utilized more as a dynamic chess piece. With this being said, Davidson also has had the luxury of learning from one of the better defensive linemen in the league; Grady Jarrett, and with Jarrett being a formidable pass-rushing threat, Davidson could definitely learn a few tricks from him.
Carolina Panthers – Sam Darnold, QB
Most people see Darnold as another one of New York’s failed quarterback projects, but it doesn’t mean that another team shouldn’t have a shot at finding what’s left of his potential. Unfortunately, Darnold fell victim to a poorly-ran offensive scheme that lacked at every position group, most notably the offensive line, during his stint in New York.
The former USC star has his best chance at resurrection in Carolina, where a young team with a promising future awaits him. A young and upcoming offensive line will have to keep Darnold clean, and skill players such as Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson will be the best group he’s ever had as a starting quarterback. He has his best chance to succeed and breakout as a part of the Carolina Panthers this next season.
Chicago Bears – David Montgomery, RB
The third-year back broke out towards the end of 2020 after a rough start to his sophomore season. Almost 56% of his 2020 rushing yards came in the final 6 games of the year. In that 6 game stretch, he had 598 yards rushing (99.6 yards per game), 226 receiving yards (37.6 yards per game), 5.16 yards per carry, and 10 total touchdowns.
Taking into consideration that the Chicago Bears might be a run-heavy team with Andy Dalton at quarterback in 2021, carrying the momentum that Montgomery finished off with should be a priority for Matt Nagy’s offense. Montgomery could be the next breakout back in the NFL next season if he can capitalize on his late-season success and carry it over.
Dallas Cowboys – Randy Gregory, Edge
A laundry list of suspensions dating all the way back to 2015 has restricted Gregory from ever reaching his full form as a pass rusher. Coming into the 2021 season, Gregory says that he’s put his past behind him and that “his best years are to come.” Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn recently stated how impressed he’s been with Gregory throughout OTA’s and workouts, and that he “sees all the traits” in the edge rusher that’s necessary to be successful at the position.
Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme does feature the extensive utilization of its edge rushers, as Quinn plans to use his scheme to get DeMarcus Lawrence back to his elite form that hasn’t been seen since his pro-bowl season in 2018 and use Gregory on the opposite side.
Detroit Lions – T.J. Hockenson, TE
You may have to take a second glance at Detroit’s depth chart when I reveal to you that Hockenson is currently the best receiver on the team. In an offseason that has seemingly dried up any remaining hope for Lions fans, Hockenson might be one of two bright spots offensively in 2021 (the other being 2nd year RB D’Andre Swift). The former Iowa Hawkeye played great in 2020, where he ranked top 5 in most statistical categories among tight ends.
His new quarterback, Jared Goff, has built a connection with him quickly, as he appeared to be Goff’s favorite target all throughout OTA’s. Hockenson came out of college being pretty well balanced across the board. He possesses great receiving skills and will most definitely contribute to the run game in 2021 as a blocking tight end. Nevertheless, being the best receiver on the team and being a solid blocking tight end should contribute greatly to Hockenson’s profile. Don’t be surprised if he reaches new heights in 2021.
Green Bay Packers – Rashan Gary, Edge
Gary was thrown into the rotation more consistently during his second year as a Packer, and this next season might solidify him as a future starter on the edge. The third-year man out of Michigan University enjoyed a 5 sack season in 2020, and reporters have stated that Rashan was “the best player on the field” all throughout the Packers’ minicamp.
Head coach Matt LaFleur stated earlier in the offseason that he believes Gary will be a “big-time player.” He finished off 2020 with a solid amount of momentum that’ll surely transition into 2021. Green Bay might have a pretty significant pass-rushing tandem come next season with Za’Darius Smith, Gary, and Preston Smith.
Los Angeles Rams – Van Jefferson, WR
Most people forget that Jefferson was a second-round selection in 2020 by the Rams, and while he’ll probably be the second-best receiver named Jefferson in that loaded 2020 class, he’ll likely have a breakout year come 2021 after totaling just 19 catches previously.
With starting wideout Josh Reynolds departing for free agency, that should open the door for Jefferson to see an expansive role in an offense that should be more pass-balanced with Matthew Stafford now leading the charge. Many people stated that Jefferson had a “disappointing” rookie season, but forget that Sean McVay purposely holds rookies back. This is evident in why Cam Akers (who was one of the top rookie running backs last season) didn’t make any sort of substantial impact until later in the season. With this being said, Jefferson should for sure have a much more effective impact in his second year.
Minnesota Vikings – Irv Smith Jr., TE
With Kyle Rudolph no longer with the Vikings, the opportunity for Smith’s breakout campaign begins. Despite Mike Zimmer stating that Smith won’t have a bigger role in Minnesota’s offense in 2021, Zimmer can’t exactly control how his players play when they are on the field. We can assume that the loss of Rudolph and the addition of Tyler Conklin means that splitting snaps is the likely result, but it doesn’t lessen the impact Smith has during those snaps.
The third-year tight end out of Alabama has been progressing very rather steadily during his young career, and I don’t expect him to stop. Smith is extremely versatile in the passing game and should compliment Adam Theilen and Justin Jefferson quite nicely and give Kirk Cousins another reliable target.
New Orleans Saints – Jameis Winston, QB
After a terrible season with the Buccaneers where Winston threw 30 interceptions, Famous Jameis signed with the New Orleans Saints. A year of mentoring and learning from the Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees soon ensued, and Winston will likely get his chance to shine this season after the retirement of Brees.
If there was one thing Brees knew how to do extremely well, it was limiting turnovers, and one could assume that learning from Brees for a season could’ve affected Winston’s mindset on how to limit himself in key situations. Apart from that, it seems that the former first-overall draft selection got everything sorted out medically (eyes included), so if there was a season that could make or break him, it’d be this one.
New York Giants – John Ross III, WR
Sometimes switching environments could help players revive what’s been crushed of their careers. Ross was once promising before being plagued with numerous injuries, and he hasn’t ever played a full season in his 4-year career. Coming into New York, he’s currently atop the depth chart at the slot receiver position but is facing replacement by rookie Kadarius Toney if he can’t provide what the Giants are looking for.
The speedster definitely has shown flashes – as he surpassed 100 yards receiving in his first two games of the 2019 season (before going down with an injury that put him out for 12 games). He can definitely be a gamechanger in the slot and certainly stretch the field for New York – which is something they’ve lacked in their receiving core all throughout Daniel Jones’ tenure as their starter. Ross can bring another dimension only if (a big if) he can stay healthy.
Philadelphia Eagles – Jordan Mailata, Tackle
Mailata is another player that has been dominating minicamp and is currently in a battle with Andre Dillard over the starting spot at left tackle. Mailata is a monster, measuring in at 6’8”, 350 lbs, and possessing incredible physicality in his game. It’s definitely going to be a long battle to decide who will protect Jalen Hurts’ blind side.
Dillard played four games in 2020 before going down with an injury, and the Australian beast took over and impressed during his time as a starter. He made strides from being a 7th round draft selection, but as of right now, he and Dillard are on equal levels. Physically, however, Mailata can definitely be something very special for Philadelphia.
Seattle Seahawks – Poona Ford, DT
Ford is extremely underappreciated, and several indicators point to his possible emergence in 2021. The loss of Jarran Reed to free agency certainly gives Ford more opportunity to shine with more reps, and Ford had an excellent closing campaign in 2020, where he racked up 12 pressures in the final 6 games of the season, mostly when he got to see the field at a more consistent rate.
PFF ranked Poona Ford the 19th best defensive tackle in the league, where Jarran Reed doesn’t even make the list. Ford is underrated, and can most definitely cover the loss of Reed and breakout for Seattle in 2021 under the right circumstances.
San Francisco 49ers – Daniel Brunskill, Guard
The former AAF offensive lineman received considerable attention in 2020 to start at right guard but ended up moving all around the offensive line due to several injuries to key players. Going back to the position he’s comfortable with should play out well for Brunskill, as he gave up a number of blown blocks and sacks while rotating just about everywhere along the offensive line.
San Francisco has a number of young, talented offensive lineman that could replace Brunskill at any moment, but it seems that their trust in the 28-year old is high, and this must mean he’s performing rather well in camp.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ronald Jones II, RB
In a crowded Tampa Bay backfield that got even bigger during the offseason, Jones is fighting Leonard Fournette for touches and is currently seen as a co-starter alongside the former LSU star. Jones is known for being an explosive threat when he carries the football and has the potential to be the Bucs premiere 3-down back if he puts it all together with what remains of the offseason.
Jones is entering his contract year, so that should put a little more fire under his tail if he wants to get paid. Despite that, Jones is easily one of the most explosive runners in the league, and he can definitely become a game-changer for what already is a stacked Tampa Bay offense.
Washington Football Team – Kamren Curl, S
Curl had a criminally underrated rookie season in 2020, where he played 73% of Washington’s defensive snaps and had a formidable role on their special teams’ units. Curl allowed a QBR of 60.42 when targeted and allowed only 1 touchdown compared to his 3 interceptions.
The 7th round steal can be utilized anywhere on the football field and will be an integral piece for what could be the best defense in the league. He has the skillset and the ability to play wherever Ron Rivera wants him to play, and he could see a bigger role as a chess piece defensively come his second season in the pros.