Fantasy: Breakout candidates to target in 2021 (Updated)

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With the NFL season quickly approaching, it's time to identify this season's fantasy breakout candidates.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Eagles

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Over the last couple of years, the fantasy community has really improved its ability to identify the next breakout quarterback. After watching passers like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson turn in superstar sophomore seasons as late-round fantasy picks, managers sharpened their focus and correctly nailed Kyler Murray as the next in line in 2020 - moving his ADP out of that value range.

We may see the same thing happen with Hurts, who took over as the Eagles' starting signal-caller down the stretch and delivered an impressive finish to his rookie campaign. Hurts averaged the eighth most fantasy points per game (21.99) from Week 13 to Week 16, helping many bring home fantasy titles in the process.

The 22-year-old's journey was somewhat reminiscent of Jackson's debut season, in which he relied heavily on his legs to keep the offense moving. Hurts racked up 238 rushing yards in his three starts - a predictable outcome given his college success as a dual-threat QB.

However, his back-to-back performances of over 300 passing yards were surprising. Even if we underrated his arm as a prospect, Philly's pass-catching corps really lacked star power in 2020. With veterans Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery fading, Hurts was forced to rely on tight end Dallas Goedert, running back Miles Sanders, and inconsistent first-year wideout Jalen Reagor through the air.

To put the two 300-yard outings in context, that's a feat Jackson has still only accomplished once in his three seasons as a pro.

Whether Hurts can turn that small sample size into top-10 stats over the long term remains to been seen, but his production during the final month is exactly what you want to see from an ascending fantasy quarterback. Hurts will also have the benefit of a healthier offensive line and a deeper receiving corps that includes first-rounder DeVonta Smith and preseason standout Quez Watkins.

Hurts' rushing numbers provide a high floor as well as a potentially difference-making ceiling for anyone willing to roll the dice on him in the middle rounds. Let's just hope the Eagles don't swing a trade for Deshaun Watson.

Other Breakout QB Candidates:

  • Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins - Miami is all in on its young passer after upgrading his receiving corps with players who complement his skill set.
  • Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars - This year's top pick joins a Jaguars offense that has three strong receivers, and he also offers added value with his legs.
  • Sam Darnold, Panthers - A fresh start in Carolina with better coaching and the best supporting cast he's ever had is exactly what the former first-rounder needs.

Darrell Henderson, RB, Rams

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In the first iteration of this article, Henderson's teammate Cam Akers occupied this spot. Unfortunately, the Rams' budding star back suffered a torn Achilles in offseason training - an injury that not only sidelines him for this season but puts his career in jeopardy.

It's not impossible for a running back to overcome an Achilles tear, but there aren't many examples of players returning to their previous form. As Akers embarks on what will be a tough recovery, fantasy managers must now shift their focus to the next man up in Sean McVay's backfield.

It wasn't long ago that Henderson was the hot fantasy name and Todd Gurley's potential heir apparent as L.A.'s lead back.

But the 2019 third-round pick struggled to gain playing time as a rookie behind Gurley and then-teammate Malcolm Brown.

The situation changed last year when Henderson earned hot-hand status early in the season, delivering at least 90 yards from scrimmage in three of the Rams' first six outings. He also added four touchdowns during that span.

Drafting Henderson is more than just taking a running back - it's a bet on Los Angeles' entire offense now that Matthew Stafford is at the helm. Such a drastic upgrade at quarterback could vault this unit into the NFL's upper echelon, leading to even more scoring opportunities.

This potential breakout is far from guarantee though. A preseason thumb injury caused fears about Henderson's durability to resurface and led to the Rams trade for veteran Sony Michel. If the former Patriot can acclimate quickly with his new club, he'll have a chance to turn this backfield into a committee and even potentially steal this job if Henderson can't stay healthy.

However, assuming Henderson is ready to go for Week 1, the Rams will give him an opportunity to make good on their original investment and emerge as the lead back the team once envisioned.

Even with Michel in the fold, we're still ranking Henderson as a low-end RB2, who could be a strong weekly starter if he can keep the majority of the touches across what we project to be the fifth-easiest schedule for fantasy backs.

Other Breakout RB Candidates:

  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs - If Andy Reid unleashes CEH with a bigger workload behind an improved offensive line, a top-five fantasy finish isn't out of the question.
  • D'Andre Swift, Lions - The 22-year-old's talent is undeniable, but a groin injury has his Week 1 status in doubt. It's also safe to wonder whether Jared Goff and the rest of Detroit's uninspiring offense will hold him back.
  • Chase Edmonds, Cardinals - Edmonds has shown he can be a lead back in small doses, and now all that stands in his way is James Conner, whose durability is always in doubt.

Jerry Jeudy, WR, Broncos

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With Courtland Sutton sidelined for most of 2020, some people were disappointed Jeudy didn't make a bigger impact as a rookie. While 52 receptions, 856 yards, and three touchdowns represent a successful start to an NFL career, there was opportunity for a lot more given his 113 targets on the year.

That 46% catch rate puts him 200th among receivers, and his 14 drops were tied for second worst in the league.

So, why are we touting Jeudy as a breakout?

Well, a big part of his struggles were due to Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien, and Kendall Hinton's subpar quarterback play. During the fantasy season (Week 1 to Week 16), Jeudy ranked near the bottom of the league in percentage of accurate passes (38%) thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus.

Teddy Bridgewater - a reliable veteran passer who helped three Panthers wideouts finish inside the top-25 fantasy receivers last season - has been named the Week 1 starter over Lock.

Meanwhile, Sutton's return isn't as worrisome as it may seem - Tim Patrick did a decent job of replicating Sutton's production (79 targets), and the franchise just released DaeSean Hamilton (44 targets).

It's also worth noting that Jeudy ranked sixth in the often predictive air yards category behind only Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs, DK Metcalf, Tyreek Hill, and D.J. Moore. With first-round draft capital propelling him forward, the Broncos are hoping the Alabama product will develop into the same star-caliber player as the names above him on that list.

A slight improvement to Jeudy's catch rate alone could be enough to bump him into the fantasy WR2 conversation as a sophomore.

Other Breakout WR Candidates:

  • Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers - From Week 3 on, Aiyuk was the WR14 in fantasy points per game (16.4) as a rookie.
  • Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals - Normally, we don't include rookies in the breakout list, but Chase is an exception who will be an immediate contributor in the NFL. Concerns about his preseason drops were wildly overblown.
  • Darnell Mooney, Bears - After Mooney overachieved as a fifth-round pick last year, Justin Fields' downfield accuracy could fully unlock his game.

Irv Smith Jr., TE, Vikings

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(Update: Smith underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and is likely out for the season.)

Ever since he was drafted in the second round (50th overall) in 2019, fantasy managers have been waiting for Smith to secure the starting job in Minnesota's tight end room.

Late last season, we got a glimpse of what the future might look like when Kyle Rudolph remained sidelined for the final four weeks - leaving Smith and Tyler Conklin to handle tight end duties.

During that short stretch, Smith averaged the eighth-most fantasy points (12.8) per game among tight ends while hauling in 15 balls for 183 yards and three scores.

The 22-year-old is an explosive receiving threat from the tight end position and will benefit from the defensive attention that has to be paid to receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.

With Rudolph now out of the picture, Smith is set for a career year in a Vikings offense that saw an uptick in passing attempts from 466 in 2019 to 516 in 2020. He's also a dangerous threat around the end zone, evidenced by his five touchdown grabs on just 30 total catches last campaign.

Smith will never see enough volume to have the upside of an elite fantasy tight end, but he has an excellent shot at returning mid-range TE1 value as a late-round option.

Other Breakout TE Candidates:

  • Kyle Pitts, Falcons - Pitts is a rare prospect who's talented enough to buck the rookie tight end trend. He could immediately produce high-end numbers for an Atlanta offense that needs playmakers following the Julio Jones trade.
  • Noah Fant, Broncos - While target competition could be a problem entering his third season, we've yet to see Fant reach his apex.
  • Tyler Higbee, Rams - With Gerald Everett leaving in free agency, Higbee could take his game to the next level catching passes from Stafford.

More in this series

Fantasy: Breakout candidates to target in 2021 (Updated)
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