Updated: Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, at 7:25 p.m. EDT
Several of these players could cross over into the realm of being fantasy football sleepers. For the most part, each name has somewhat established himself as an up-and-coming fantasy football commodity. They’re now on the verge of going big.
Note: All ADP figures are courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com and use PPR scoring, unless noted otherwise. The figures are based on drafts from Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
2021 fantasy football breakout candidates
WR Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Prized No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence should be in a great position to succeed out of the gates, and the Jaguars have surrounded him with weapons. One such asset is the versatility of a second-year talent in Shenault. He can line up all over the field and is dangerous in traffic. He will see ample single coverage with DJ Chark Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr. keeping defenders occupied. Chark is quickly becoming no stranger to the injury bug after missing four games with different ailments and already nursed a surgically repaired broken finger this summer. Shenault’s skills in space lend to creative play calls and easy pitches from his rookie quarterback.
The offensive line is respectable, and the backfield is among the most promising in the game. Jacksonville’s defense, on the other hand, is problematic and shall provide fantasy owners a voluminous passing offense by force of circumstance.
If all of those aspects aren’t alluring enough, Shenault offers the occasional bonus play as a rusher. Also, the loss of RB Travis Etienne suggests Shenault could see more short-area receiving work. The Colorado star closed out 2020 with his three best efforts over the final five contests, displaying an increased understanding of the game and setting the tone for more gains in Year 2.
QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
“ACL, schmACL” … the injury just isn’t that daunting of a recovery for a quarterback, especially a young one who wasn’t overly mobile to begin with. Sure, Burrow can move around and escape when needed, but we’re not talking about Michael Vick here. A torn MCL is even less concerning. Don’t take my word for it … Burrow has been on the field throwing as early as May. That wouldn’t have happened if the medical team was in the slightest bit concerned over his recovery.
The Bengals — in theory — upgraded the offensive line with the addition of right tackle Riley Reiff and expected developmental gains from former first-rounder Jonah Williams at left tackle. Venerated LSU Tigers receiver Ja’Marr Chase was a top-five pick and is reunited with Burrow, creating one of the most dynamic top-three receiver corps in the game. Provided Joe Mixon can return to full strength after an injury-marred season of his own, the backfield should be no worse than competent.
Burrow was well ahead of the rookie learning curve in his first pro season, and a monster leap in production is right at his fingertips, especially if his team’s defense continues to struggle. And he’s going at a bargain price, too.
WR Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers
The NFL is a “produce now” entity for young players, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see several second-year names on this list. Mostly gone are the days of receivers practically requiring three or four years to break out. While it is easy to see how the Niners’ quarterback situation may turn off gamers, poor QB play has still resulted in strong showings from wideouts many times. For now, the presumption should be that Jimmy Garoppolo starts as long as he is healthy. While that’s a crapshoot based on his history, the front office is perfectly content with No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance learning for a year before getting his shot as long as Garoppolo is dealing. Even if we see Lance as the starter this season, he was the third selection for a reason, acquitting himself nicely in the preseason, and he’ll need to throw the ball to compete in today’s NFL.
There are other mouths to feed, including George Kittle at tight end and Deebo Samuel as a fellow receiver with the chops to succeed, but Aiyuk’s versatility is worth noting. The 2020 first-rounder was explosive in his limited rushing attempts, averaging 12.8 yards and finding the end zone twice. He snagged 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns from a hodgepodge of mostly ineffective quarterbacks.
Don’t expect a significant jump in targets (96) or receptions from last year if Kittle and Samuel stay healthy. It won’t matter, given Aiyuk’s vertical skills that were far from being on full display in 2020. He should increase his yards-per-reception average and has a legit shot at threatening double-digit aerial scores via mismatches and play-calling creativity near the end zone.
RB Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
Do you really trust James Conner? He is behind Edmonds in terms of knowing the offensive system after the latter has spent two years picking up its nuances. Conner has struggled with injuries in his career and underwent offseason surgery to repair an off-field injury compared to turf toe. Toe injuries can be tricky to overcome.
The third year for Edmonds saw a dramatic spike in his role as a receiver (53 catches on 67 targets) after combining for 32 grabs in his first 29 games. Is A.J. Green the answer? How about Christian Kirk’s inconsistent play, or Rondale Moore making a dent as a rookie? In many ways, Edmonds is the safest Arizona target not named DeAndre Hopkins.
Although the backfield also gets a huge boost with center Rodney Hudson’s acquisition, there’s a reasonable concern Edmonds will lose meaningful work around the stripe. But should Conner fail to produce or get hurt yet again, this backfield has no one of consequence to threaten Edmonds for the starting workload.
RB D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
9/2 update: While Swift has returned to do individual work after suffering a groin strain, he isn’t quite ready conditioning-wise. He could be eased back in during the first few games but remains a strong candidate to shine. Expect him to be somewhere around questionable or doubtful for Week 1, but all hope of a breakthrough is not lost, and he now comes at a much cheaper price.
A finish of running back No. 18 in PPR scoring last year suggests he may have already broken out in the eyes of some folks, but there is so much more potential growth to be had from Swift in 2021. He played only 13 games last year as a rookie in an unconventional offseason. Sharing carries with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson resulted in only 114 attempts as he was being slowly brought along by the former coaching staff after early-season mixed play.
Swift will benefit from new head coach Dan Campbell’s commitment to pounding the rock and also the aligned philosophy from incoming offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. The former Los Angeles Chargers head coach has a history of throwing extensively to his backs, and this team will need the former Georgia star to step up his game after the upheaval at wide receiver in the offseason.
Jared Goff replaces Matthew Stafford, which is an obvious step backward at the quarterback position. It will cut both ways, in terms of defensive scrutiny paid to the backfield, but Swift is in line to see something close to 80 targets this year. RB Jamaal Williams comes over from Green Bay and will share touches with the dual-threat back, which helps keep the explosive Swift healthy and efficient. Toss in the upgraded offensive line as a major factor, and Detroit could present a vibrant fantasy offering from its blossoming young talent.
WR Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
There was obvious trepidation based on the summer-long undefined quarterback situation, which has settled on Teddy Bridgewater as the starter. In 2020, the second-year receiver gained valuable experience last year with a team-high 113 targets and has a fine opportunity ahead. He should be granted the benefit of the doubt after numerous dropped passes, and Jeudy has a strong chance to excel. Last year, in Carolina, Bridgewater made weekly starters out of both D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson.
Jeudy’s natural route-running skills should allow him to benefit from the methodical ways of Bridgewater, especially if WR Courtland Sutton (knee) is able to draw double coverage with regularity. Jeudy (6th-round ADP) has low-end WR2 potential written all over him.
WR Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
Largely unheralded and overshadowed by Stefon Diggs’ monster 2020 season, Davis scored seven times as a rookie deep threat. The Bills parted ways with WR John Brown in the offseason (52 targets in nine games), and Cole Beasley’s offseason has been … let’s just say rocky. Will he be distracted? On the roster in a few months? Does he stay healthy? While he and Davis play basically opposite roles, no Beasley would open serious targets. Buffalo doesn’t have much in the way of a true third-down back, nor does the offense have a tight end who will steal a ton of looks each week. Davis has a real chance to be the No. 2 target behind Diggs, and if something happens to the former Viking injury-wise, no one on the roster but Davis more closely resembles a WR1. He has more breakout potential and isn’t necessarily a lock, but there is plenty to like for a 13th-round target.