Skip to main content

15 Early Breakout Candidates (Fantasy Football)

Mar 3, 2021

With free agency soon beginning, fantasy football enthusiasts have already shifted their focus to the 2021 offseason. Even though things will change drastically over the next couple months, it’s not only fun to find the next big breakout, but it’s also especially useful for dynasty leaguers who want to gamble and acquire a potential future stud long before their leaguemates catch on. As such, our featured analysts have come together to share their favorite breakout players for the upcoming season!

Complete early mock drafts using our free draft simulator >>

Q1. What RB has the best shot of having a breakout year in 2021 and why?

Cam Akers (LAR) 
“I feel like this may be a cop-out answer, but Akers has to be the choice here. Towards the end of last season, we began to see Sean McVay’s vision for him, which included 20-30 opportunities per game and an average snap count of 67%. With Malcolm Brown hitting free agency, Akers should continue to see around 70-75% snaps while also benefitting from increased quality of quarterback play with the acquisition of Matthew Stafford. He is a low-end RB1/high-end RB2 in redraft and should be taken within the first 10 RBs in a dynasty startup draft.”
– Justin Dodds (SleeperWire)

D’Andre Swift (DET) 
“Swift didn’t live up to expectations in his rookie year, but that was due to circumstances largely out of his control. Swift was out of action due to a concussion for three weeks and when he was on the field, he only averaged 8.8 rush attempts per game. The Lions under Matt Patricia ranked 21st or lower in rushing offense all three years he was in charge. A subpar defense and gunslinging tendencies of Matthew Stafford also made it hard to establish a run game. All that will change in 2021 (we’ll see about the defense) and new coach Dan Campbell has already stated that Swift will be used much more as a receiver. His usage will shoot through the roof and we know he has the talent to succeed.”
– Pierre Camus (RotoBaller)

A.J. Dillon (GB) 
“Dillon only played 11 games during his rookie season, missing Weeks 9-14 after being placed on the COVID-list, but he certainly lived up to the second-round draft capital when he did get opportunities. Dillon averaged 5.2 yards per attempt (sixth), 3.4 yards after contact per attempt (seventh), and ranked No. 1 in the NFL in missed tackles forced per attempt (31%). With Aaron Jones almost certainly gone from Green Bay, Dillion looks locked-and-loaded to lead the Packers’ backfield and enjoy a breakout year.”
– Andrew Erickson (Pro Football Focus)

Alex Collins (SEA) 
“This might seem a bit of a longshot, but that’s the point of this exercise, right? I’m going to say that Collins has a chance of truly breaking out with Pete Carroll’s desire to run the ball despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He is a tackle-breaking machine, which is what Carroll has loved about Marshawn Lynch and Chris Carson. With Carson slated to leave in free agency and the coaching staff showing no love to Rashaad Penny, we could see Collins earn the featured back role.”
– Mike Tagliere (FantasyPros)

J.K. Dobbins (BAL) 
“We saw Dobbins put up some solid fantasy performances towards the end of last season, but with Mark Ingram officially out of the picture for 2021, Dobbins could be in line for a massive breakout. Gus Edwards should be back with the team next season, which most likely means that this will still be a timeshare backfield. However, with how much Baltimore runs the ball, plus Dobbins’ talent, a top-five fantasy finish is not out of the realm of possibilities.”
– Kyle Yates (FantasyPros)

Rashaad Penny (SEA) 
“With Chris Carson set to hit free agency, Penny is finally set up to take over the Seattle backfield. In 2019, Penny started to take over in Weeks 12 and 13 and showed the potential he had as a former first-round pick. Now back from his injury and with a path to volume, he has a great shot at a breakout season.”
– Dylan Licciardo (Overtime Heroics)

Q2. What WR has the best shot of having a breakout year in 2021 and why?

Laviska Shenault (JAC) 
“Shenault had a decent, but uninspiring rookie season, catching 58 passes for 600 yards while scoring five times. He didn’t do a whole lot for fantasy teams, failing to reach even 90 yards in any game and scoring two of those touchdowns in a meaningless Week 17 game. Taken into context, it was fairly good considering he played for a one-win team that used three different starting quarterbacks. With a new coaching staff and future franchise QB Trevor Lawrence on board, this entire offense will be revitalized and Shenault could reach his true potential.”
– Pierre Camus (RotoBaller)

“We saw flashes of what Laviska Shenault could do last year and he finished on a high note snagging 11 balls for 116 yards and three touchdowns over the final two games of the year. While injuries hampered what could’ve been a bigger season, he did show potential while playing with Gardner Minshew and Jake Luton under center. Now you give him the best quarterback prospect in a decade on a team that has a rebuilding defense? There’s top-24 upside for him in 2021.”
– Mike Tagliere (FantasyPros)

Chase Claypool (PIT) 
JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers through free agency seems like a foregone conclusion and that only means good things for the other Steelers wideouts, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Both could be defined as winners with Smith-Schuster’s 21% target share up for grabs, but I’ll give the slight edge to Claypool. Johnson’s 139 targets during the regular season already ranked fifth in the league, so it’s tough to imagine that growing much higher next season. Claypool, on the other hand, saw just north of 100 targets and ranked outside the top-50 wide receivers in total routes run.”
– Andrew Erickson (Pro Football Focus)

Quintez Cephus (DET) 
“When looking for breakout candidates at receiver, you want to find a player who should see a major increase in targets. That player is Quintez Cephus. He, as of right now, is one of two receivers on the Lions and has the size and skills to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Many people will not be excited about Cephus because of Jared Goff throwing him the ball. However, Goff has supported solid fantasy receivers for years with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. With the volume Cephus should see this year, he is primed for a breakout season.”
– Dylan Licciardo (Overtime Heroics)

Tee Higgins (CIN) 
“Higgins is the first name that comes to mind when thinking of players with WR1 potential. In fact, he already had a few WR1 performances before the injury to Joe Burrow. A.J. Green is unlikely to return to Cincinnati for the 2021 season, which should open up a few targets for Higgins to produce with. The Bengals’ offense as a whole will also benefit tremendously from the return of Burrow and the heavily expected draft selection of Penei Sewell with their fifth overall pick. Given all these factors, Higgins could very easily end up as an every-week WR1 in 2021.”
– Justin Dodds (SleeperWire)

Michael Pittman Jr. (IND) 
“With T.Y. Hilton reportedly leaving in free agency and Parris Campbell’s inability to stay healthy, Pittman Jr. could absolutely shatter expectations in 2021. While Indy should be expected to bring in another body at the WR position, he’s going to be the de facto WR1 on this roster. With Carson Wentz potentially getting back to playing at an MVP level under Frank Reich again, Pittman could see his fantasy output skyrocket.”
– Kyle Yates (FantasyPros)

Q3. What TE has the best shot of having a breakout year in 2021 and why?

Irv Smith Jr. (MIN) 
“With the news of Kyle Rudolph’s release from the Vikings, Irv Smith Jr. will finally get his chance to shine as the primary receiving tight end in Minnesota. During Rudolph’s four-game absence from Weeks 14-17, Smith foreshadowed what a season as the primary receiving TE could look like as he gathered 15 receptions on 20 targets for 183 yards and three touchdowns. If we use that pace to project a 16-game season, we would end up with a stat line of 60 receptions on 80 targets for 732 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even if we reduce his scores to just eight, he would total 181.2 PPR fantasy points. That total would’ve finished as the TE3 in 2021 behind just Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. Smith Jr. should definitely be in TE1 consideration for 2021 and is a strong asset in dynasty.”
– Justin Dodds (SleeperWire)

“With the news coming out today that Kyle Rudolph is being released by the Vikings, that sets up Irv Smith Jr. for a breakout season. I was already a fan of him before this news; his athleticism and ball skills were enough to make him a breakout candidate. Near the end of last season, Smith showed his potential and was seeing targets from Kirk Cousins. As the TE1 for the Vikings, he should see his role grow, giving him the best shot at a breakout season.”
– Dylan Licciardo (Overtime Heroics)

Cole Kmet (CHI) 
“It’s all about opportunity at the tight end position, which is why you want to find a tight end who’s on a team with tons of targets available. The Bears may not retain Allen Robinson, which would free up around 150 targets. It’s also a foregone conclusion that the Bears will release Jimmy Graham, which frees up another 76 targets, and we already saw Kmet taking some of those away later in the season. Over the last 10 years, there have been 143 tight ends who’ve seen more than 80 targets. Just 20 of them finished outside the top-15 tight ends. Kmet should be a value in drafts and a true breakout candidate.”
– Mike Tagliere (FantasyPros)

“The Bears have a giant question mark at QB right now, but whoever is going to be throwing the ball next season is going to need quality receiving options. Cole Kmet emerged as a solid receiving option for this team over the back half of 2020 and he figures to be a key part of this offense moving forward. The quality of the QB that the Bears bring in is certainly going to have an effect on his potential, but he figures to see plenty of work in 2021. At the TE position, that’s all you need to work your way into the top-10 conversation.”
– Kyle Yates (FantasyPros)

Adam Trautman (NO) 
“The Saints selected Trautman in the third round of the 2020 draft to find a long-term replacement for Jared Cook. Given the team’s salary cap situation, there’s virtually no chance Cook returns next year so the starting TE job will be Trautman’s. Although Drew Brees may also not be around, the Saints will look to Taysom Hill who proved to be a capable passer in his four starts at quarterback, completing 72% of his passes. Trautman will be part of a dynamic offense that finds ways to put points on the board. It’s unlikely the team has enough money to add any receivers through free agency and Emmanuel Sanders is likely gone too, so the path to targets will be there.”
– Pierre Camus (RotoBaller)

Dallas Goedert (PHI) 
“Maybe the masses are still waiting for a Zach Ertz trade to become official because Goedert is way too cheap. He’s currently being drafted as the TE7 (88 overall), but he has so much upside once Ertz is out of the picture. With Ertz out from Weeks 8-12, Goedert finished as fantasy’s No. 2 tight end (12.3 fantasy points per game) behind only Travis Kelce. He averaged nearly 38 routes run per game. Drafting Goedert in the eighth or ninth round of best ball drafts gives you a player with top-three upside at the position without the cost associated.”
– Andrew Erickson (Pro Football Focus)

Thank you to the experts for giving us their breakout candidates. Be sure to give them a follow on Twitter and subscribe to our podcast below for advice all year round.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | SoundCloud | iHeartRadio

Breakouts, Featured, Featured Link, Featured Pros, NFL