2021 NFL Breakout Players: AFC Edition

As we begin to ramp up to the 2021 NFL and college football season, we’re taking a look at breakout player predictions for every team. We start with the AFC, where everyone is gunning for Patrick Mahomes II and the Kansas City Chiefs. Could one of these breakout players put their team one step closer to the top?

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AFC East

Buffalo Bills—LB Tremaine Edmunds

A first-rounder in the 2018 NFL draft, Tremaine Edmunds has been a good NFL player but he’s yet to break out. That’ll change in 2021 as the now 23 year old is ready to take on a much larger role in the middle of the Bills’ defense. At just 19 years old on draft day in 2018, Edmunds was the second youngest player ever drafted. It’s easy to reason that his body needed time to mature and acclimate to the NFL. We believe he’s ready to breakout in a huge way.

Miami Dolphins—QB Tua Tagovailoa

The struggles of Tua Tagovailoa last year were never put into the proper context. Let’s do that now. A rookie quarterback coming off a devastating hip injury is drafted No. 5 overall amidst a pandemic that will eliminate most preseason work for NFL players. Thrust into the starting lineup midway through the season, Tua was still recovering from the hip injury and still learning the offense. With a full offseason of work under his belt and an improved supporting cast, Tua is primed for a big 2021.

New England Patriots—S Kyle Dugger

The New England Patriots’ defense is loaded with veterans and savvy defenders, but it’s second-year safety Kyle Dugger who looks poised to breakout. With 61 tackles in his debut season, Dugger showed the toughness and athleticism that made him a second-round pick. But now, with more time to learn and acclimate, we believe he’ll break out. Dugger has the tools to be one of the most dominant young secondary defenders in the NFL.

New York Jets—DL Quinnen Williams

The flashes have been there for former No. 2 overall pick Quinnen Williams, but with new head coach Robert Saleh scheming up ways for him to get into opposing backfields the 2021 season will be Q’s year. His seven sacks in 2020 are just a start to what looks like it will be a brilliant career. And with Carl Lawson now taking attention away from him, Williams is set up for success.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens—RB JK Dobbins

Mark Ingram is gone, opening the door for second-year running back J.K. Dobbins to become the primary ball carrier in Baltimore. Yes, Gus Edwards will still get his share of touches, but Dobbins showed in flashes last year he’s ready to be the man. And with a reloaded offensive line and improved pass-catching weapons keeping defenses honest, the offense should get back to being a punishing power run attack.

Cincinnati Bengals—QB Joe Burrow

An injury shortened season left many wondering if Joe Burrow would live up to the hype as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft, but in 2021 he’ll remind folks why he was so highly regarded coming out of LSU. With a surgically repaired knee, a new left tackle and a reunion with former teammate Ja’Marr Chase; Burrow is in perfect shape to show off the touch accuracy and arm strength that made him one of the best college quarterbacks ever.

Cleveland Browns—S Ronnie Harrison

The Cleveland Browns brought in John Johnson III as a big-time free agent pickup, but they’ll still rely on a three safety look and the hybrid ability of Ronnie Harrison playing both deep and in the box. Harrison was one of my top safety prospects when he was selected by Jacksonville coming out of Alabama, and we saw last year that a change of scenery was bringing out that playmaking style he showed in Tuscaloosa.

Pittsburgh Steelers—RT Zach Banner

The Steelers have high hopes for Zach Banner, as evidenced by the moves made (and not made) along the offensive line this past off-season. Back healthy after missing the 2020 season with a knee injury, Banner factors heavily into the team’s plan upfront. He’ll be asked to take on a huge role at right tackle, and while his tape to date can’t be used as evidence of his future success, the trust of the front office and coaching staff has us buying on Banner’s potential.

AFC South

Houston Texans—DL Charles Omenihu

J.J. Watt is gone and the Houston Texans’ defensive line will no doubt miss him, but waiting in the wings to take his place is promising third-year defender Charles Omenihu. An athletic, long five-technique defender, Omenihu has shown flashes of really good play. With more reps and a full-time role in 2021, look for him to be a breakout defensive lineman.

Indianapolis Colts—RB Jonathan Taylor

Taylor quietly rushed for 1,100 yards last year and heads into the 2021 season with a chance to emerge as one of the league’s best running backs. A full season of carries will help—even if the return of Marlon Mack means less overall yards. Taylor, who was a highly productive runner in college, looks to have all the tools to be a breakout candidate and push Mack into a true support role.

Jacksonville Jaguars—EDGE Josh Allen

The “other” Josh Allen had a brilliant rookie campaign in 2019 posting 10.5 sacks, but saw his 2020 sophomore season marred by injuries that limited his production and play time. Now back healthy and in a scheme that’ll let him wreck offenses from outside the tackle, look for Allen to return with a double-digit sack season.

Tennessee Titans—TE Anthony Firkser

Gone is Jonnu Smith and his production from the tight end position, but the Titans are comfortable enough with Anthony Firkser that they didn’t make a priority move to replace Smith when he left in free agency. The time is now for the fourth-year tight end who had 39 catches last year to emerge as a big part of the Titans’ rejuvenated passing attack.

AFC West

Denver Broncos—LB Josey Jewell

You might think one of the many talented receivers on the Denver Broncos’ roster would be the selection for breakout player, but the lack of consistency at the quarterback position headed into the season makes it tough to pick an offensive player. Instead, look for linebacker Josey Jewell to step up and break out in the middle of the defense. Jewell can flourish in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme with a much better supporting cast around him given the return of a healthy Von Miller and what might be the NFL’s best all-around secondary behind him. 

Los Angeles Chargers—S Nasir Adderley

The key to being a breakout player for the LA Chargers might be simply staying healthy, as the defense especially has been hit hard by the injury bug. But in year two of his career, all eyes on are the savvy cover man Nasir Adderley to live up to his pre-draft hype. We believe he can emerge as a diverse coverage weapon in the mold of Tyrann Mathieu or Antoine Winfield, Jr. with his ability to play inside, outside or safety. The Chargers have to hope the return of Derwin James and emergence of Adderley will help them keep pace with all the talented receivers in the AFC West.

Las Vegas Raiders—CB Trayvon Mullen

Early round draft picks haven’t exactly been hits in Las Vegas, but cornerback Trayvon Mullen could be the exception after a strong follow up to his rookie year in 2020. Mullen has all the physical tools to excel, and with an improved pass-rush in front of him making the job a little easier, this could be his breakout season as the Raiders’ top cornerback.  

Kansas City Chiefs — LT Orlando Brown, Jr.

You might be thinking that Orlando Brown, Jr. has already broken out in the NFL—the Chiefs traded a first-round pick for him, after all. But in 2021 Brown will establish himself as one of the best left tackles in the NFL. We saw flashes of that in 2020 when Brown replaced the injured Ronnie Stanley and held his own as a blindside protector. With Brown’s talents, the Chiefs’ scheme and the pocket movement and patience of Patrick Mahomes II it won’t be a surprise to see Brown emerge as a top five NFL left tackle in 2021.