Whenever a regular season comes to an end, there’s often more than a handful of players who not only exceed expectations but elevate their stature in the league as one of the game’s stars. Some you can sort of see coming, but more often than not there are those who completely burst onto the scene out of left field. In the AFC in 2020, you could point to Bills quarterback Josh Allen leaping to superstar/MVP-caliber status last year as an example. To a lesser degree, even Jaguars undrafted rookie James Robinson came out of nowhere to become one of the better running backs in the league in 2020.
Those are two solid examples to highlight how these breakouts can come from anyone and anywhere across the NFL, so you’ll have to keep your head on a swivel to identify them. Who is on deck for a similar leap in 2021? That’s what we’ll try to be predict here. Below, we’ll roll through each team in the AFC and select one under-the-radar player that may be poised for a big breakout campaign next season.
If you’re looking for a breakout player on Baltimore’s roster, the most common name you’ll hear will probably be second-year running back J.K. Dobbins, especially after the release of Mark Ingram this offseason and his strong rookie campaign. While Dobbins certainly appears poised for a stellar second season in the league, Marquise Brown may be getting slept on a bit. The Ravens receiver had a very strong end to his 2020 season, averaging over four catches for 56 yards and a touchdown in his final six regular-season contests. In the playoffs, Brown also seemed to take another leap in his development, catching 11 of his 16 targets over two contests for 196 yards. Over that eight-game run to finish his season, Lamar Jackson looked Brown’s way more than seven times per-game, which is particularly noteworthy.
If that continues, Brown could be on the verge of a career year as he enters his third-season in the NFL. It also doesn’t hurt that the Ravens added Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman to the receiver unit to take some coverage off Brown.
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A.J. Epenesa was arguably a first-round talent coming out of Iowa in 2020, but Buffalo was able to scoop him up in the second round. He appeared in 14 contests for the Bills during his rookie season, but played sparingly (27% of the defensive snaps). When given more of an opportunity in the later part of the season, however, Epenesa didn’t disappoint. His lone start of the season came in Week 17, when he totaled a season-high three tackles for a loss along with a quarterback hit. The rookie also was a noticeable presence during the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs. As he heads into his second season, coach Sean McDermott will likely give Epenesa even more opportunity to grow within this defense. As Buffalo looks to contend in the AFC in 2021, Epenesa could prove to be a key piece along that unit to compliment Josh Allen on the other side of the ball.
A lot of times, a breakout largely is set up thanks to an opening on the depth chart creating an avenue for the player to ascend through. With linebacker Josh Bynes no longer on the Bengals roster, that does open the door for linebacker Logan Wilson to take a larger role within the defense. The 2020 third-round pick appeared in 12 games for Cincinnati last season and was productive, totaling 33 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defended, a sack, and two quarterback hits. He was starting to find a groove towards the end of last season, but an injury in Week 14 sidelined him for the rest of the year. So long as he stays healthy, there’s a lot to like about the Wilson heading into 2021, where he could develop into an every down linebacker.
Cleveland has come up aces throughout this offseason and brought in a number of quality players that make them a sneaky Super Bowl candidate heading into 2021. As it relates to someone who could help elevate the offense for Baker Mayfield, let’s look at tight end Harrison Bryant, who is set to enter his second season in the league. Yes, this is a rather crowded position group with Austin Hooper and David Njoku also on the roster, but that didn’t seem to stop Bryant from making an instant impact over his rookie campaign. He started nine games in the regular season and was in the starting lineup for one of Cleveland’s two playoff matchups last year. While the statistical numbers may not pop off the page, there were times where Bryant didn’t look like a rookie and had some solid chemistry with Mayfield. Typically, tight ends take a bit longer to really break out in the passing game, but Bryant has already shown a strong knack for Kevin Stefanski’s offense. With a year of knowledge under his belt, Bryant could be in for a solid sophomore season.
We only got a glimpse of Okwuegbunam during his rookie season, but what we saw was impressive in the passing game. The 2020 fourth-round pick made his NFL debut in Week 6 and proved to be a reliable receiving weapon catching 73.3% of his targets. The 23-year-old’s season was cut short after just four games due to a torn ACL in Week 8. As long as he can return to full strength, he does add an interesting layer to Denver’s offense. The Broncos could deploy more 12-personnel as they pair Okwuegbunam alongside Noah Fant.
The Houston quarterback situation is still in a state of uncertainty with Deshaun Watson’s off-the-field issues unresolved, but even if Watson is not with the Texans in 2021, Tyrod Taylor is still someone who can deliver the football. One pass-catcher who could grow to be a favorite target for whoever is under center in Houston is rookie Nico Collins. The receiver was taken in the third round of the 2021 draft out of Michigan and is a big-bodied target, standing at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. Brandin Cooks is still considered to be the No. 1 receiver in this offense, but Collins eventually jumping up to the No. 2 option isn’t that tall of a task, needing to beat out targets like Randall Cobb, Andre Roberts, and Keke Coutee.
Parris Campbell was a popular breakout candidate heading into last season but the former second-round pick suffered a knee injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the rest of the season. What we did see from him in the Week 1 opener (a career-high 71 yards receiving) does leave some hope, however, that he can pick up where he left off heading into 2021. While talent is oozing out of the slot receiver, the biggest thing for Campbell is remaining healthy. If he can stay on the field, he should claim that starting slot receiver position as T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman Jr. man the outside receiver spots.
The Jaguars currently have little to no depth at the tight end position, which opens the door for rookie Luke Farrell to take on a big role right out of the gate. The Ohio State product has good size for the position, standing 6-foot-6, 251 pounds and has displayed solid athleticism running a 4.82 40-yard dash at his pro day. He was largely a blocker during his collegiate days with the Buckeyes, but given that rookie quarterbacks tend to lean on tight ends in the early goings of their careers, Farrell could see some pass-catching opportunities early in his career. Is he going to leap into the elite tight end realm right out of the shoot? It’s unlikely. Still, the rookie could put together a respectable first season that sets him up for even more success down the line.
Sneed proved to be quite the find for Kansas City, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2020 draft. He found an opportunity to play early in the 2020 season after Bashaud Breeland was serving his suspension and played well. Once Breeland returned, Sneed then moved to nickel corner and continued to play at a high level. In his nine games played (six starts), Sneed tallied three interceptions and allowed just a 59.6 completion percentage when targeted. When including playoffs, he allowed just a 66.6 passer rating when targeted. With his role expected to expand in 2021, Snead could become one of the latest superstars to burst out of the Chiefs organization.
Edwards’ rookie season had a dent put into it due to injuries, but the 2020 third-round pick struggled to impress even when he was able to get on the field last year. That said, he did initially earn the starting spot over Nelson Agholor to begin the year, but ultimately couldn’t claw back into that starting rotation after suffering injuries. Heading into 2021, however, Edwards is looking to get back on track and appears to be well-conditioned as he rolls into his sophomore season. With a year of learning Jon Gruden’s playbook under his belt, he could be a different type of receiver than what the Raiders currently have on the roster. His frame translates well to him being an X-receiver who can go up and win 50-50 balls, possibly opening the door for increased red-zone targets.
With former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley coming in as the Chargers new head coach, naturally, we’ll be looking at that side of the ball for any breakout candidates. That brings us to safety Nasir Adderley, who’ll be entering his third season in the NFL in 2021. His rookie season was hampered by injuries and then struggled in 2020 under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. As he moves into Year 3, however, there is hope that he can turn things around with Staley leading the way. The head coach has already talked about possibly using Adderley’s athletic ability and versatility to the club’s advantage by possibly moving him down in the box or potentially being used as a moneybacker at times. If Staley can push the right buttons, it could unlock a dangerous defensive weapon in Adderley.
Gaskin proved to be the Dolphins’ most dynamic running back in 2020 and now has an opportunity to solidify himself as a week-to-week starter in the NFL this season. Miami did add Malcolm Brown in free agency this offseason, but Gaskin should still be looked at as the Week 1 starter with this backfield as it’s currently constructed. In just 10 games played during his sophomore season in 2020, Gaskin totaled 972 yards from scrimmage and averaged 5.1 yards per touch. With the Dolphins adding more weapons in the passing game and Tua Tagovailoa expected to take a leap in his second season in the league, more running lanes should open up for Gaskin, adding even more hype to what could be a career season for the former seventh-rounder.
New England’s running back room is pretty crowded, but I expect second-year running back J.J. Taylor to carve out a more substantial role for himself in this backfield. When given the opportunity last season, Taylor was at times the most electrifying back on the Patriots roster, which was reminiscent of what Dion Lewis used to give to this unit. He won’t rival Damien Harris or James White for starting reps, but can he adopt some of the 92 touches left by Rex Burkhead? If so, he could be another solid layer to the Patriots’ running back room.
Mims had a delayed start to his pro career after a hamstring injury had him on injured reserve until late October and forced his NFL debut out to Week 7. Upon arrival, however, he did flash his second-round potential, averaging 15.5 yards per reception over his nine games played in 2020. As New York moves into a new era in 2021 with quarterback Zach Wilson at the helm, Mims could be in for quite the leap. He’ll likely claim one of the starting spots within the wide receiver unit and the presence of Jamison Crowder along with offseason additions Corey Davis and Keelan Cole should open things up for the second-year pass-catcher to put up some solid numbers. Of course, this possible breakout is also predicated on Wilson starting his NFL career out strong as well.
Bud Dupree is now a Titan and it looks like it will be Alex Highsmith who gets the luxury of starting opposite of T.J. Watt along Pittsburgh’s front seven. Naturally, opposing offenses will be making it a priority to stop Watt, which then opens the door for Highsmith — or anyone opposite him — to see single coverage and possibly open avenues at the quarterback. The 2020 third-round pick did play well throughout his rookie season as well, totaling 12 pressure, two sacks and six hurries. When you combine that talent with this situation, Highsmith could be looked at as Pittsburgh’s latest promising young pass rusher.
While a ton of attention is rightfully being paid to Tennessee acquiring Julio Jones, the Titans technically had two holes to fill. Not only did the club need to replace Corey Davis at receiver but they also lost tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency as well. Those two created a 157 target hole in the Tennessee offense and all of that won’t go Jones’ way. Specifically at tight end, it could be Anthony Firkser who sees a larger uptick in targets even after a 2020 season where he was fourth on the club in that regard with 53 passes thrown his way. If he moves into the starting spot now that Smith is in New England, Firkser will have plenty of openings to produce particularly in the red zone with opposing defenses worrying about Jones, A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry.