Football is back! With training camps underway for all 32 teams, we take a look at who some of 2021’s breakout players could be.
32 Under The Radar Players Who Could Surprise
Every year, players come from relative anonymity and surge into bigger roles, becoming fan favorites and even stars. Training camp is often the first inkling of when that next step is being taken, so with camp commencing for the entire league, we go team by team to give you some names to watch.
49ers: DE Samson Ebukam
With the Dee Ford signing a bust, San Francisco dipped into the free agency market to target Ebukam, who should slot into the 49ers’ designated pass rusher role. Ebukam has the size and speed to fit the role, as evidenced by his Mockdraftable spider chart, but he’s got more than just a speed rush, as he plays with surprising power for his size.
Ebukam’s career-high in sacks is just 4.5 but there’s reason to think on a defensive line filled with threats like San Francisco’s and under the tutelage of respected DL coach Kris Kocurek he could blossom in 2021.
Bears: OLB Trevis Gipson
Chicago is really high on Gipson as evidenced by their willingness to give up a future fourth-round pick for the right to draft him in the fifth round last year. Gipson’s got good size, length and tools that have the Bears high on him as a developmental prospect.
Looking forward to watching Trevis Gipson step into a bigger role for the #Bears in 2021.
He was only active for 7 games as a rookie, yet he tallied 3 QB hits. Chicago gave up a future fourth-round pick for him for a reason; he’s got athletic upside off the edge. pic.twitter.com/EyrdsutNCJ
— Jacob Infante (@jacobinfante24) May 22, 2021
He played just 71 snaps last year as the Bears took it slow with the rookie in the pandemic-altered offseason, recording three quarterback hits in limited action. But the Bears have a major need for pass-rushing threats to take the pressure off of Khalil Mack and will give Gipson every opportunity to take the leap.
Bengals: G Michael Jordan
There was a terrific piece in the Athletic about how Jordan is looking to rebound from being the guy who allowed the sack that ended Joe Burrow’s rookie season. Right now, that one play just about defines Jordan’s career in Cincinnati so far. But as the piece details, Jordan has legitimately put in the work to completely reshape his body, dropping 30 pounds and adding back 20 pounds of muscle.
Now every player will tell you they’re entering training camp this year in the best shape of their life. The NFL is hyper-competitive and even notoriously hard workers find there’s another level to get to. When it comes to Jordan, though, the specific details might be a reason to be optimistic there’s more substance than fluff to the talk of a breakout season.
Bills: OL Ryan Bates
Bates has rare five-tool ability on the offensive line to play anywhere from left tackle to center, which is valuable versatility and should lock him up a roster spot. Buffalo’s starting lineup is pretty locked in but should injury strike, Bates has shown enough promise in his roughly 150 career snaps to potentially earn a greater opportunity.
Broncos: DL Dre’Mont Jones
The former third-round pick arguably broke out last season with 6.5 sacks and a PFF rating that put him in the top 20 percent at his position. Still, it’s the edge-rushing group that gets most of the attention in Denver while the defensive line is viewed as a potential weakness. If Jones takes another step, that perception will change.
Dre'Mont Jones's quickness and athleticism that made many of us fans pre-draft has begun to translate. Feels like a prime Y3 breakout player.
Disrupted this play right from the get-go and the quick pressure forces Bridgewater away from TE Ian Thomas coming open further downfield pic.twitter.com/9DEkDkgAbC
— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) July 19, 2021
Browns: LB Jacob Phillips
The Browns made a number of offseason additions to improve a defense that was a clear weak point for them in 2020, but part of their plan also involves relying on development from past investments. That’s the bucket Phillips falls in as a rangy, modern-style linebacker who flashed speed and playmaking ability in limited action as a rookie.
— Jeff-LJ-Lloyd (@Jeff_LJ_Lloyd) May 19, 2021
If he can stay healthy and build on those flashes, Phillips has the potential to be a key piece of an ascendant Browns team.
Buccaneers: RB Giovani Bernard
What’s a veteran entering his ninth year doing on a list of potential breakouts? If you watched a lot of the Bucs last year, you probably picked up on the fact they had no passing down back. Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and LeSean McCoy all took turns at being varying levels of bad at catching the ball.
Enter Bernard, who over the years with the Bengals has established himself as a very good receiving back. He might not have much more of a rushing role than he’s had in the past but he instantly should become one of Brady’s favorite targets and is in line to become his Tampa Bay version of James White.
Cardinals: OLB Dennis Gardeck
Gardeck just completed one hell of an outlier season for the Cardinals in 2020. Primarily a special teamer, Gardeck saw just eight percent of the snaps on defense. He made the most of those snaps though with seven sacks — and he didn’t just fall into them either.
One of the most unlikely stories from 2020 was the play of Cardinals OLB Dennis Gardeck (@DGardeck)
The former Sioux Falls UDFA posted 7 sacks despite playing only 8 percent of snaps
Per @BrandonThornNFL, Gardeck tied for No. 6 in the NFL with 6 High Quality sacks
— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) June 3, 2021
Unfortunately for Gardeck, he tore his ACL in Week 15 and the expectation is that he opens the year on the PUP list, which would keep him out a minimum of six games. If he can make a full recovery, though, it would be huge for Arizona if he picked up where he left off.
Chargers: WR Tyron Johnson
The path hasn’t been straight for Johnson, as he bounced from LSU to Oklahoma State in college and on a few different teams in the NFL before settling with the Chargers. The former undrafted free agent finally seems to be finding a role, though. He only had 20 catches in 2020 but with nearly 20 yards per catch and just 26 targets, he was ridiculously efficient as a deep-ball specialist paired with Justin Herbert.
Chiefs: CB L’Jarius Sneed
The key for the Chiefs to fielding a strong team around Patrick Mahomes now that he’s on his big contract is going to be drafting well. If they keep hitting on guys like Sneed in the fourth round, they’ll be in good shape.
Sneed was a revelation as a rookie, pulling in three interceptions and knocking away seven passes in just nine games. Opposing quarterbacks had just a 66.6 passer rating against him, which is a sure sign they should stay away in the future. Sneed played safety in college and both outside and nickel as a rookie, making him a valuable piece in the Chiefs secondary for hopefully many years.
Colts: DE Kemoko Turay
Turay appeared to be on the verge of breaking out two seasons ago when he had 14 quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, hurries, per PFF) in just four games. A gnarly ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the year, though, and his recovery wasn’t smooth. He didn’t see the field until Week 11 last year and it was clear he wasn’t all the way back.
With another year between him and the injury, though, there’s still some optimism Turay can make good on the impressive athletic talent that made him a second-round pick. The Colts let Justin Houston go this offseason, so there’s room for another pass rusher to step up.
#Colts DE: Kemoko Turay started to look like his old self in week 17 last season.
With only 23% of the snaps, he still got 1 sack, and 3 QB pressures.
Here he is chipped into the LT, and still get's pressure to force an early throw & incompletion. pic.twitter.com/NR9X0l1mKf
— Lawrence Owen (@Colts_Law) June 1, 2021
Cowboys: CB Nahshon Wright
In an earlier edition of NFLTR Review right after the draft when I was assigning grades, I dinged the Cowboys for spending a third on Wright as questionable value, as he was far under the radar in most media mocks and big boards. That might have been premature, even as draft grades go.
Wright is a toolsy corner with a lot of length, and he’s been showing out during minicamp and the early going of training camp. He’s still working primarily with the second team but there’s an opening in Dallas for another starting corner across from Trevon Diggs. If Wright keeps this up, there’s no reason he can’t seize that job.
Dolphins: OLB Andrew Van Ginkel
When the Dolphins surprisingly cut Kyle Van Noy just one year after he was their top free-agent signing, one of the reasons was to clear a path to get Van Ginkel on the field more. The former fifth-rounder out of Wisconsin was a long-haired terror for Miami in 2019, notching 5.5 sacks as a part-time rusher. He also forced three fumbles, recovered one for a touchdown, blocked a punt, knocked down four passes and had seven tackles for loss. With a bigger role coming in 2021, Van Ginkel is one to watch to stuff the stat sheet even more.
Eagles: S K’Von Wallace
If Travis Fulgham can rediscover his mojo, he’s another player to keep an eye on. But Wallace was the popular sleeper pick as a contributor heading into training camp last year after he was a gritty and wily contributor on a loaded Clemson defense. He was still a rookie, though, and the pandemic-altered offseason proved to be too big a challenge for him to make that kind of impact right away.
Entering 2021, there’s still a wide-open opportunity in the Eagles’ secondary at safety. Wallace might be the best-positioned to take advantage of that if he can make a second-year leap.
Falcons: WR Olamide Zaccheaus
With Julio Jones in Tennessee, there’s a void at wide receiver in Atlanta. Calvin Ridley is obviously the No. 1 and Russell Gage was productive working from the slot. But Zaccheaus is a name to remember.
— NFL (@NFL) November 8, 2020
The totals over his first two seasons aren’t gaudy but Zaccheaus has produced when his number has been called. His first NFL reception was a 93-yard touchdown in 2019. It’s still not clear what the Falcons offense is going to look like under HC Arthur Smith but if they remain pass-heavy, either to feature Matt Ryan or because the defense falters again, there’s room for multiple receivers to thrive, including Zaccheaus.
Giants: C Nick Gates
Gates has been a tremendous find for a Giants team that has struggled to fix its offensive line. For the most part, Gates hasn’t been part of the problem. Coveted by the Giants for his versatility, Gates found a home at center in 2020 and progressed throughout the course of the season. Long-term the Giants hope LT Andrew Thomas takes a step forward and becomes their best offensive lineman, but that title right now belongs to Gates and he’s not done developing either.
New Jaguars DC Joe Cullen comes to Jacksonville from Baltimore and looks like he’ll be installing a similar scheme to what the Ravens run. Cullen might have his version of Calais Campbell in Robertson-Harris, another uber-long and disruptive defensive lineman.
Robertson-Harris secured the bag this offseason after four years of flashing as a member of the Bears’ defensive line rotation. He signed a three-year, $24 million deal and now will be looking to put up big numbers to go with that big contract. With more eyes on Jacksonville this coming season, Robertson-Harris has a chance to shine.
Roy Robertson-Harris welcome to Jacksonville 💪
6-foot-5, 292lbs a fridge with wheels pic.twitter.com/4YY9dzUafp
— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) March 15, 2021
Jets HC Robert Saleh was all about the defensive line while he was in San Francisco. His Cover 3-based scheme doesn’t work without a disruptive defensive line, which is partially why the 49ers used their first-round pick on a defensive lineman three out of the four years he was there.
Saleh has carried that same emphasis to New York, but the cupboard wasn’t bare for him. Former first-round DT Quinnen Williams is a trendy breakout player but keep an eye on Franklin-Myers as well. New York stole the former fourth-round pick off waivers from the Rams and he was one of the few bright spots in 2020. In 353 pass rush snaps, Franklin-Myers had 51 total disruptions, good for a pass rush productivity and win percentage that were both top-five among interior defenders, per PFF.
While he had just three sacks, he had 38 hurries. Converting even a fraction of those into sacks would make for a huge 2021 season for Franklin-Myers.
Lions: WR Quintez Cephus
When you stack Cephus against the other members of Detroit’s remade receiving corps, he doesn’t have the same trump cards or pedigree the others have. Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman are size/speed specimens with established production. Amon-Ra St. Brown is the shiny new rookie who’s expected to fill the slot role, and new QB Jared Goff has a reputation for loving throwing to the slot.
But don’t discount Cephus from carving out a steady role in this group. He has good, not great size, and he’s not particularly fast. He’s tough as nails, though, blocks his behind off and competes like a fiend for the ball when it’s in the air. He has all the makings of a clutch No. 2 possession-style receiver.
Packers: S Darnell Savage
It’s hard to call a former first-round pick underrated but in comparison to the potential Savage has, he’s not getting near enough attention. Green Bay has primarily played Savage at safety with some work in the slot but he’s a candidate to man the “Star” position in DC Joe Barry’s version of the Rams defense he’s bringing over — the same position Jalen Ramsey plays.
With his blinding speed, playmaking instincts and physicality, Savage could become a real difference-maker for the Packers in 2021. He has to sharpen his reads and take another step toward being a consistent player, but at just 23, that’s a fair expectation.
If you don't love watching Darnell Savage play, you're doing it wrong 🤷♂️ pic.twitter.com/Gb6ZoAzc99
— Eli Berkovits (@BookOfEli_NFL) March 31, 2021
Panthers: TE Dan Arnold
Panthers OC Joe Brady talked earlier this offseason about how critical the tight end position is to his vision on offense. If that’s the case, Brady essentially worked with one arm tied behind his back last year as Carolina got little to nothing from their tight ends on a weekly basis.
Enter Arnold. Built a little like a beanpole at 6-6 and just 220 pounds, Arnold signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Panthers in free agency. Carolina’s red zone woes were well-documented and Arnold should figure prominently in addressing that this season. It’s entirely possible he leads the team in receiving touchdowns.
Patriots: WR Gunner Olszewski
New England has a pretty clear type at wide receiver, from Wes Welker to Danny Amendola to Julian Edelman. Olszewski fits that same mold, and the former undrafted free agent has clawed his way all the way up from Bemidji State University in Minnesota to an All-Pro berth as a returner last year.
That should secure his spot on the roster in 2021, though there are never any guarantees with the Patriots. From there, Olszewski can continue to refine his work as a receiver, and he doesn’t face a particularly daunting depth chart to climb in New England.
Raiders: C Andre James
The Raiders were so confident in James that they traded away veteran Rodney Hudson and gave James a three-year, $12.4 million extension this offseason. Is that just the Raiders being brash? Perhaps, but they didn’t have to give him the extension, which shows they think there’s a good chance he’s up to the task of replacing Hudson, arguably the best center in football.
Rams: RB Xavier Jones
Had it not been for an injury to Cam Akers, Jones probably would have continued to be relatively anonymous as the Rams’ third-string back. Now he’s second on the depth chart and just an injury away from being the lead back for what’s supposed to be one of the NFL’s top offenses.
Now the Rams still could sign someone. But they’ve talked up Jones every chance they’ve had to Jourdan Rodrigue, the beat reporter for the Athletic. The current options in free agency are less than inspiring — and Jones might actually be kind of good.
Spent the day watching RBs w/o combine invitation. Best of the bunch? SMU RB Xavier Jones.
5’11 208 (no pro day)
Excellent vision, balance and toughness. Lacks elite top speed. Reliable in pass game. pic.twitter.com/V69oCANqun
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) April 13, 2020
Ravens: DT Justin Madubuike
All three of the Ravens’ current starters on the defensive line — Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Brandon Williams — are past the age of 30. Madubuike didn’t play a ton as a rookie but he showed the potential to be a key part of Baltimore’s future.
Ravens rookie DT Justin Madubuike teleporting through a double team pic.twitter.com/byKcKJqoPY
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 11, 2021
He was PFF’s top-graded rookie defensive tackle and has a great chance to have a bigger role this year.
Saints: DE Carl Granderson
The Saints are hoping former first-round DE Marcus Davenport puts it together in 2021 and also spent a first-round pick on DE Payton Turner in an effort to bolster the pass rush across from Cameron Jordan. But don’t discount Granderson, who had five sacks in 2020, from taking a leap and becoming that second viable edge rusher for New Orleans.
Steelers: DB Antoine Brooks
It hasn’t gotten as much attention as the situation on the offensive line but the Steelers are also experiencing a fair amount of turnover in the secondary, including a new No. 2 corner and nickel. Brooks, a college safety and sixth-round pick in 2020, is getting the first crack at the nickel job and is one of the players Steelers GM Kevin Colbert referred to when he said, “I wouldn’t say we lack depth, I think we lack proven abilities.”
Seahawks: CB D.J. Reed
Seattle is known for prioritizing big and long corners but Reed played so well for them in 2020 that the Seahawks are going to give the 5-9, 188-pound veteran a shot on the outside. Reed has battled some injuries in his career but he’s a competitive sucker. He allowed just a 76.2 passer rating in coverage last year, with two interceptions to just one touchdown given up.
Texans: LB Kamu Grugier-Hill
It’ll be interesting to see how much of a traditional Tampa 2 Texans DC Lovie Smith runs, or if his time in the college game has influenced him to be more modern. Regardless, Grugier-Hill’s speed is a nice trump card that could help set him apart in a crowded Texans linebacking corps.
Health has been the main obstacle holding Grugier-Hill back, as he looked like an ascending player a couple of seasons ago. Houston isn’t going to be good in 2021, probably on either side of the ball, but Grugier-Hill could still become a bright spot and land a contract with a better team in 2022.
Titans: DT Teair Tart
While his rookie year statline is nothing to write home about — five tackles, one TFL, one PD, five disruptions per PFF — the deck was stacked against undrafted rookies in 2020. Tart got better as the season went along and he more than held his own in a matchup against Colts G Quenton Nelson.
A sampling of Teair Tart's day on Sunday… pic.twitter.com/FDtgqgdcOP
— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) December 1, 2020
Titans HC Mike Vrabel named Tart as one of the players who’s impressed the most with their work this offseason. He has to translate it to training camp and the regular season but Tennessee might have found a gem with Tart.
Vikings: TE Tyler Conklin
When the Vikings cut TE Kyle Rudolph this offseason, the general assumption was that cleared the way for Irv Smith to become the full-time starter. Not so fast, though. Vikings HC Mike Zimmer has consistently said they envision a major role for Conklin. He should see the field regularly and perhaps even slot into Rudolph’s role as the “Y” tight end, which would set him up for a breakout season.
Washington: LB Cole Holcomb
Ron Rivera knows how to get the best out of his linebackers, and he has a great skill set to work with in Holcomb. A concussion sidetracked things for him last year but he has the speed, strength and hard-nosed mindset to be an impact player. Rivera’s defenses in Carolina were at their best when he had rangy backers like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis who could chew up space. With Holcomb and first-round LB Jamin Davis, Rivera might have a version of that duo.
This Week In Football
- Green Bay was the center of the football universe this past week and boy has it been a whirlwind. To quickly recap the last seven days since this column ran:
- Vegas pulled all its Packers bets in rumored fear of QB Aaron Rodgers‘ retirement
- Green Bay and WR Davante Adams broke off extension talks
- Their best defensive player, OLB Za’Darius Smith, was rumored to be discontented with his contract too
- Shortly after a shareholders meeting Monday, news broke that Rodgers has told people he plans to play, and that the two sides were discussing a reworked contract that includes concessions
- Among the concessions, amazingly, is an agreement to trade for Texans WR Randall Cobb to reunite him with Rodgers
- Adams says he’s now open to signing but it still won’t be cheap
- Rodgers gives a press conference where he lays all of his issues on the line in a moment of legendary candor. Packers GM Brian Gutekunst goes next the following day and has some interesting responses.
- Green Bay officially wraps up the trade for Cobb and the new deal for Rodgers, which voids the 2023 season on his deal and tweaks language to let him keep his signing bonus
- There are of course plenty more details to dig into on our website, this is just the broad overview. So what does all of this mean? For starters, Rodgers is locked in and Green Bay should be contenders this year as a result. As for the future? It’s a little more uncertain. Rodgers has a mechanism in his contract to circumvent the franchise tag and become a free agent after 2022 if he wants, so the Packers have to trade him next offseason if they don’t want to watch him potentially walk for nothing. The ball is firmly in Gutekunst and CEO Mark Murphy‘s court, now. Either make amends with Rodgers and get him back on board, or prepare for a Rodgers-less future. For all the drama of the past months, it really still could go either way. The two sides could reconcile and Rodgers could sign a new extension with significant guaranteed money. Or this last season could be Green Bay’s Last Dance with Rodgers and perhaps others making one final run.
- Looking elsewhere around the league, there’s one thing that’s critical to understand about players like Texans QB Deshaun Watson and Dolphins CB Xavien Howard reporting to training camp even amidst standing trade requests. The new CBA, agreed to last offseason right before the pandemic struck the country, included a provision that any holdouts would be fined a mandatory $50,000 per day, and these fines could not be forgiven by the team later as a sign of goodwill. This effectively nukes holdouts as an option for players to try to exercise leverage on teams. The coming months and seasons will tell us a lot about how players navigate this new landscape.
- In Watson’s case, which also includes important context that he’s facing 22 accusations of sexual misconduct, he’s reported to camp despite vowing not to play for the team. The team has already moved on, signing and drafting other quarterbacks, and they’re making it clear they’re willing to trade Watson while keeping him on the scout team. Is another team willing to trade for Watson while his legal situation remains unresolved? It’s hard to fathom.
- Shortly after reporting, Howard made public what’s been clear behind the scenes, formally requesting a trade if the Dolphins do not address his contract. A key tidbit that Howard says in his request is that he and his agent didn’t approach the team about a new deal entirely, but simply adding better guarantees and advancing salary from future years. It’s something the Patriots have done with Stephon Gilmore and frankly it seems like a no-brainer for Miami to keep Howard happy and on board in a year where the team expects to take the next step to contending status. We’ll see if common sense wins out. If not, plenty of teams would love to add Howard.
- Howard isn’t the only prominent defensive player unhappy with their contract, as Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones requested a trade earlier this offseason. However, the temperature in that situation seems much lower. Jones held out of minicamp but reported to training camp. He was a prolific sack artist before missing most of last season and the addition of DL J.J. Watt should only help this season. With a typical year, Jones should be set up for a massive payday next offseason.
- It seems like Saints WR Michael Thomas is having a hard time getting out of his own way of late. A serious ankle injury in Week 1 last year wasn’t his fault and he deserves credit for trying to play through it. But a practice fight with a teammate leading to a suspension was a self-inflicted wound, and now it seems that Thomas put off surgery on his ankle this offseason, which will now keep him out for possibly half the season. It’s inexplicable, and just one of several signs that this could be a tough year for the Saints.
- Extension season continued, headlined by a massive four-year, $72 million deal given to DT Jonathan Allen by Washington. That $18 million a year average slots him just inside the top five at the position. Washington wasn’t done, giving TE Logan Thomas three years and $24 million after his breakout 2020 season. Both are good deals to lock up key contributors that should age well, barring injury.
- Finally, the Bengals signed DE Sam Hubbard to a pretty solid deal all things considered at four years and $40 million. He took a big step back last year from a production standpoint, dropping to two sacks after 8.5 in 2019, but $10 million a year for a solid pass rusher who’s still young enough to grow falls on the team-friendly side of things.
- Slowly but surely, the remaining veteran free agents are finding homes for the 2021 season. The Cowboys landed S Malik Hooker after a long courtship and he’ll compete for a job at safety. Health will be a key factor but Hooker has the elite range to really thrive in DC Dan Quinn’s scheme. The Eagles filled a gaping void at No. 2 corner with Steven Nelson, who should provide a steady presence. And the Saints added slot corner Brian Poole, who’s been one of PFF’s top-graded nickel backs the past couple of seasons. It doesn’t help New Orleans with their void at No. 2 outside corner but it’s hard to go wrong adding talented players to the secondary and figuring it out later.