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5 NFL breakout candidates for 2021 season

Matt Johnson

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Excitement is building for the 2021 season with practices underway and NFL breakout candidates beginning to emerge this summer. Seeing young players go from unheralded to contributors into impact starters is one of the best things about the NFL and just another thing we’re looking forward to this fall.

There are always a handful of NFL breakout candidates who deliver upon expectations. Justin Herbert, Fred Warner, Brian Burns, Justin Jefferson and James Robinson are just a few of the players who became household names this past season.

While rookies are always a popular pick, we’ll save that for another future outlook on the upcoming season and focus on those who already have NFL experience.

Let’s take a look at five NFL breakout candidates for the upcoming season.

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J.K. Dobbins, running back, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens want everyone to know they will be deploying a running back committee this fall. While that’s more accurate for this team than others, don’t expect an even timeshare. Baltimore spent a top-60 pick on Dobbins in the 2020 NFL Draft and it knows this is a special talent and there’s a reason he is one of the most popular NFL breakout candidates.

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Dobbins didn’t receive double-digit carries in a game until Week 7. In his final nine games, the former Ohio State star racked up 651 rushing yards, seven touchdowns and averaged an astonishing 5.97 yards per carry. He’s going to have a much bigger role in 2021. John Harbaugh has praised the 22-year-old’s improvements as a pass-catcher and that bodes well for his volume this season. Dobbins could eclipse 1,500 scrimmage yards this season.

L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs

NFL breakout candidates
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L’Jarius Need converted to cornerback at Louisiana Tech and showed flashes of NFL talent. He caught a few eyes playing in Conference USA, but inconsistency at the lower level pushed him down draft boards. Kansas City thought they recognized a draft gem and selected him with the 138th pick. It’s a decision this franchise won’t forget.

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As a rookie, the 6-foot-1 corner was sensational for Kansas City. He made a strong impression and kept earning more snaps, eventually becoming a starter. By the time the 2020 season wrapped up, it became evident how good Sneed can be. Opposing quarterback had just a 53.4 passer rating throwing in his direction (PFF) and he snagged three interceptions. After earning All-Rookie Team honors in 2020, don’t count out a Pro Bowl nod this season.

Adam Trautman, tight end, New Orleans Saints

NFL breakout candidates
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New Orleans is going to need more offensive weapons this season with Drew Brees enjoying retirement. The Saints loved Jared Cook, but couldn’t afford to bring him back. Of course, having Adam Trautman in their back pocket made the decision even easier.

Trautman, a 2020 third-round pick, showed bursts of playmaking ability in his rookie season. He turned 16 targets into 15 receptions for 171 yards, an impressive 93.7% catch rate and 11.4 yards per reception. While those numbers won’t be replicated with a higher volume of targets, those additional opportunities are fantastic news for a 6-foot-5 tight end who ran a 4.8 40-yard dash. He should be No.3. target for Jameis Winston this season.

Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers

NFL breakout candidates
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There were legitimate concerns about how Brandon Aiyuk’s skills would fit in the NFL, with a majority of evaluators believing he needed to be in the right situation. Kyle Shanahan delivered, taking Samuel with the No. 25 pick. When Deebo Samuel and George Kittle went down with injuries, the rookie stepped up.

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Shanahan moved Aiyuk around, with 21% of his snaps coming from the slot. If you want to know how confident this regime is in this player, just remember they didn’t really make a strong run at a Julio Jones trade. Shanahan is going to find countless ways to get Aiyuk the football in space and it could result in a 1,000-yard season.

Jordan Love, quarterback, Green Bay Packers

NFL breakout candidates
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The Green Bay Packers don’t want Jordan Love starting in 2021, but this avoidable outcome is becoming increasingly likely. With Aaron Rodgers seemingly determined to never take another snap for this team again, the Packers’ offense will be turned over to Love.

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There are going to be a lot of mistakes, he was inconsistent at Utah State. But the circumstances in Green Bay are ideal. Green Bay’s rushing duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon should be extremely productive, especially behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Davante Adams remains an All-Pro talent and Amari Rodgers is a rookie flying under the radar.

This isn’t to say the Packers are a playoff team with Love as the starter, that only happens if the NFC North becomes the NFC East. But Matt LaFleur runs a great offensive scheme, one that will find ways to get the most out of Love’s skills. If Rodgers returns, we’ll just have to save this pick for next year’s NFL breakout candidates list.