Analysis: 10 NFL players poised for breakout seasons in 2021

Mike Jones
USA TODAY

Another NFL season approaches, bringing with it great anticipation.

Every year, a collection of young players seemingly either burst onto the scene or make seismic leaps forward in their development, delivering on the potential teams saw in them.

Last year we saw the likes of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Washington Football Team wide receiver Terry McLaurin and others take their games to another level. This year, several more young players appear poised to do the same, building on promising displays of a year ago. 

Some aim to capitalize on improved health, while others should benefit from a year of experience or improved situations around them.

Here’s a look at 10 players who some talent evaluators and coaches around the NFL predict will have breakout campaigns in 2021.

Brandon Aiyuk leaps over Marcus Epps to score a touchdown in a 2020 game.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers

With veteran teammates ailing last year, the rookie stepped up, racking up 60 catches for 748 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for two more scores. Given his work ethic, the precision of his route-running and his versatility as both an underneath and downfield threat, Aiyuk should further ascend this year while helping the 49ers return to the ranks of NFC contenders. In talks with talent evaluators around the league, Aiyuk’s name kept popping up as one of the most promising young players to keep an eye on this season.

Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Taken in the second round last year to replace long-time workhorse Todd Gurley, Akers showed promise despite never quite feeling fully comfortable in Los Angeles’ offense while operating as part of a committee with Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown. But now with a season under his belt, and aided by what should be a more consistently potent passing attack thanks to Matthew Stafford's arrival, Akers could more than double last year’s output of 625 yards and two touchdowns on 145 rushing attempts. Akers seemingly offered a preview of things to come in Week 13 when he gained 171 yards on 29 carries in a win over New England.

Rashan Gary, OLB, Green Bay Packers

After playing only sparingly as a rookie, Gary worked his way into the rotation last season. In the final eight weeks of the season, he appeared to develop a better feel from the game while becoming a disruptive force. According to Pro Football Focus, no player in the league had a higher pressure rate (18.7%) from Weeks 10-17. Now, Gary aims to carry that over into this season and establish himself as one of the best young pass rushers in the league.

Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos

Despite lacking consistent quarterback play, Jeudy managed to record 52 catches for 856 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. Now with greater seasoning and the arrival of Teddy Bridgewater, who seems poised to beat out Drew Lock for Denver's starting job, he appears likely to capitalize with a 1,000-yard season.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) catches a 4-yard touchdown pass ahead of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Jeff Gladney, left, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Minneapolis.

CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys

As a rookie, Lamb impressed with 74 catches for 935 yards and five touchdowns despite Dak Prescott missing the last 11 games with injury. The 6-2, 198-pound receiver is said by teammates to appear stronger and more explosive. With Prescott back, look for the former Oklahoma star to provide an even greater impact while helping Dallas rebound from a 6-10 campaign.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

After a disappointing second season, Mayfield struggled out of the gate in 2020 while learning a new offense. However, down the stretch of the season, he developed greater consistency and learned how to minimize mistakes. He finished the year with 26 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions while helping Cleveland reach the postseason and earn the franchise's first playoff victory since the 1994 campaign. Now entering his second season working under coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield has continuity for the first time in his career, and some around the league predict he could make another significant leap forward while spurring these Browns to new heights.

MORE:In line for contract extension, Mayfield may benefit from patient approach

Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions

Hampered by a steep learning curve, injuries and questionable coaching, Okudah didn't live up to expectations as the third pick of the 2020 draft. However, brighter days appear ahead. He's healthy again and has a new defensive coordinator in Aaron Glenn, a former three-time Pro Bowl cornerback who thrived while coaching the New Orleans Saints’ secondary, and new defensive backs coach in Aubrey Pleasant, who had great success developing young cornerbacks with the Rams. 

Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

The 6-4, 223-pound Pittman put up pedestrian numbers as a rookie (40 catches, 503 yards and one touchdown). But two factors should position him for greater success in Year 2: A regular season and full offseason program under his belt, and the arrival of Carson Wentz, who has a stronger arm than the now-retired Philip Rivers. Wentz and Pittman have already spent time together, working to build a relationship on and off the field. 

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

The fifth pick of the 2020 draft showed flashes during his rookie season after unseating veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. But he also exhibited enough inconsistencies that coach Brian Flores repeatedly used Fitzpatrick as a closer in late-season games. But now Fitzpatrick has departed, and it’s Tua’s team. The Alabama product says he now has a greater understanding of the Dolphins' playbook than he did last season. He’s another year removed from the hip injury and surgery that ended his college career prematurely, and he will be working with an improved supporting cast. 

Vita Vea, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The 6-4, 347-pound Vea seemed poised for an impactful 2020 campaign, recording two sacks and 10 tackles (three for a loss) in the first five weeks of the season. But a fractured leg injured his year. Now healthy again, the fourth-year pro has a good chance to become a dominant force in the trenches for the defending Super Bowl champs.