Everybody seems to have different definitions of what a breakout player is. It makes sense that we differ so much on the topic because there is no set standard for what a player breakout is. It can be a backup becoming a starter, a starter becoming a star, a star becoming a superstar, or really anywhere else in between. For me, a breakout player is someone that drastically improves their production from the previous year or couple of years. That can be due to a few reasons. The most obvious one is from an increase in playing time. When the established starter at a position gets traded or retires or leaves in free agency, it is obvious that the backup will then step up and fill in the role, sometimes with great success. But breakouts happen for other reasons too. Sometimes all a player needed was a change of scenery. Sometimes it’s a new coach. It can even happen to a player in the same place with the same coach but just happens to figure everything out and have a career year. I will take into account all of those types of breakouts in my 2021 All-Breakout team (P.S. I will not include any breakouts that started last year, so sorry to all the players that turned it on for the second half last year and continued it into this season such as Jonathan Taylor)
QB: Jalen Hurts, PHI
Quarterback can be a tough position to find a breakout player in because most of the teams have established players at the position. Do you give a breakout award to Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, who was the number one overall pick last year? Do you give it to Baltimore’s Tyler Huntley, who only played in a handful of games? I am splitting the difference here and going with Hurts. He performed admirably for the Eagles all season, leading them to the playoffs via a wild card berth. He threw for 3,144 yards and 16 touchdowns but he really did his damage with his legs. His 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns are both the best among quarterbacks this season. He helped Philadelphia transform into one of the best rushing teams in the league and the fact that Hurts was also solid with his arm makes for a pretty good season.
RB: Cordarrelle Patterson, ATL
The type of season that Patterson had in 2021 is the epitome of a breakout season. In his ninth season and his fifth team, the former receiver played running back and had 618 yards and six rushing touchdowns. He also set a career-high in receiving yards and receptions despite mainly playing running back. He got over 27 percent of his career yards from scrimmage this season along with 11 of his 29 career non-special teams touchdowns. Patterson not only finished 26th in the NFL in scrimmage yards, but he also became a legitimate fantasy football superstar in his first full season playing running back. Seeing a veteran player have a career year at a new position is what breakout seasons are all about.
RB: Damien Harris, NE
Harris, a third-round pick in 2019, found himself behind players such as Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead during his previous two years in New England. With Michel and Burkhead gone and White going down with an injury early in the year, Harris finally got his opportunity to shine, and he did exactly that. He ran for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns in 15 games. He was the most consistent and effective player on that offense all year and gave rookie quarterback Mac Jones a reliable running game. He established himself as one of the best red zone and goal-line backs in the league; his 15 touchdowns were the sixth-most of any player, behind just Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler, James Conner, Joe Mixon, and Cooper Kupp.
WR: Cooper Kupp, LAR
I won’t go into too much detail here because I already wrote a ton about Kupp in my 2021 NFL awards article. He was already viewed as a very solid receiver but 2021 was the year Kupp vaulted into superstardom. He bested his previous career-high in receiving yards by 786 and touchdowns by six and doing so without running mate Robert Woods for half the season.
WR: Deebo Samuel, SF
In 22 games before this season, Samuel had 1,193 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns. This year Samuel had a career year to the tune of 1,405 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns. He also had the best rushing season for a wide receiver ever, scoring eight of those 14 touchdowns came on the ground along with 365 rushing yards. The narrative surrounding Samuel before this season was that he was a very talented young player that had trouble staying healthy and on the field. The Niners drafted wide receiver Brandon Ayiuk in the first-round last season and it seemed like he was going to be the go-to receiver. Now, Samuel just racked up the third-most scrimmage yards in the whole league and has been one of the biggest reasons why San Francisco made it to the playoffs.
WR: Hunter Renfrow, LV
While Renfrow didn’t make the jump to superstar like the other two receivers on this list, he did have a truly remarkable breakout season. In his two previous seasons, Renfrow had career-highs of 56 receptions, 656 yards, and four touchdowns. Renfrow’s 2021 stat line is 103 receptions (tied for ninth in the league) for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns. He has emerged as one of the absolute best route runners in the league and is able to consistently get open despite standing at just 5-10. With all the turmoil that surround the Raiders this season, Renfrow was a stable option for Derek Carr who he could always rely on to get open and catch the ball (only two drops this season).
TE: Dawson Knox, BUF
Knox’s breakout season might not look as impressive next to some of the other players on this list (*cough cough* Cooper Kupp *cough cough*) but he had one of the best seasons of any tight end this year. He tied with Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, and Hunter Henry to lead all tight ends with nine touchdowns. All three of those players are among the most well-known (and highest-paid) at the position in the league. Knox isn’t making over $12 million a year like those guys because he is in just his third year after being drafted in the third round, but he is well on his way. The most valuable part of Knox’s season was that he provided Josh Allen with a secondary target behind Stefon Diggs when all the other receivers had their ups and downs.
OL: Jordan Mailata, PHI
The Eagles have plenty of established veterans on the offensive line such as Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce, but Mailata was a huge (pun intended, he is 6-8 and 365 pounds) reason for their success upfront. Despite starting games last year, 2021 was his first season as a full-time starter and he proved he was up for the task. He finished with a PFF grade of 86.9, making him the third-highest graded offensive tackle of the season. The mauling left tackle is certainly known for his run blocking but he allowed just three sacks this year, proving he is a capable pass blocker as well.
OL: Andrew Thomas, NYG
Thomas’s 2020 season left him as a borderline bust just one season after being drafted fourth overall. He allowed a league-high 10 sacks and earned a 62.4 grade from PFF. This season was a different story for the second-year tackle. Although the Giants had a lackluster year overall, and especially on offense, Thomas was one of the few bright spots. He upped his PFF grade to 78.4, largely because he allowed just two sacks. There haven’t been a lot of things that have gone right for the Giants over the past couple of years but it is looking like their selection of Thomas might be one of the few things that doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.
OL: Brian O’Neill, MIN
O’Neill has started all but four games he has been active for in his four-year career, so being consistently available has never been his problem. He is the most experienced lineman on a very young line and has been a stabilizing force on a surprisingly effective unit. He started all 17 games and only allowed one sack. The Minnesota line overall allowed the fifth-fewest sacks this season with 30 and O’Neill was a huge part of that. He clearly made an impact around the league because he was one of the three right tackles to earn All-Pro votes, getting three votes and finishing behind Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs and Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson.
OL: Chris Lindstrom, ATL
This was Lindstrom’s second year as a full-time starter and he took a huge step forward this season. He did not allow a single sack in 2021 after giving up four in 2020. He also upped his PFF grade from 77.1 to 84.1, truly cementing this as his breakout year. Atlanta didn’t have an overly impressive offensive line outside of Lindstrom, but they did hold up well enough to allow Patterson to have a career year.
OL: Wyatt Teller, CLE
Some people might object to Teller’s spot on this list pointing to last season as his true breakout year. While he did play great last year, he didn’t do it for a full 17-game season, playing in just 11 games. He also had to play without his starting tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin for four and 10 games, respectively. The Browns were also without running backs Kareem Hunt for half the season and Nick Chubb for a handful of games and still managed to have the fourth-most rushing yards. Another reason Teller’s 2021 season functions as his true breakout season is because he earned his first Pro-Bowl berth, meaning fans have also realized his true potential.
DE: Maxx Crosby, LV
Although he didn’t have his best season in terms of sacks, this was undoubtedly his best of his three seasons in the league. His eight sacks were less than the 10 he recorded his rookie year but he was much more effective at getting to the passer in 2021. His 42 pressures were tied for ninth in the league, while he also registered the tenth-best pass rush win rate according to ESPN analytics and the third-best run stop rate. Crosby also earned a spot in the Pro-Bowl, beating out other big-time pass rushers which proves that his raw ability has improved.
DE: Jonathan Greenard, HOU
I don’t blame you for questioning who Greenard is. He played for a Houston team that was not relevant except for in the race for the number one overall draft pick. But Greenard was one of the few bright spots for a struggling Texans team. He improved his sack production by 800 percent from his rookie season, going from one sack in 2020 to eight sacks in 2021. He also increased his other stats such as tackles (19 to 33) and tackles for loss (two to nine).
DT: Jeffery Simmons, TEN
Simmons was viewed as an incredibly talented player heading into the 2019 draft before an injury caused him to slide down draft boards a bit. He finally played up to his potential this year, recording 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. His sack total was fifth among defensive tackles, finishing behind four Pro-Bowl players. He was a huge reason the Titans allowed the sixth-fewest points despite missing a myriad of players over the course of the season. Simmons ended up getting the same amount of All-Pro votes as Chris Jones, who is widely regarded as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game. Clearly, Simmons has entered that conversation and has lived up to his pre-injury draft stock.
DT: Greg Gaines, LAR
Gaines played more than double the number of snaps this season than he did the previous two seasons combined. He took full advantage of his increased role, putting up career-highs in nearly every category. His 4.5 sacks ranked fourth on a very talented Los Angeles Rams’ defense and his 21 pressures ranked third. His stout play against the run is where he makes his biggest impact though. He finished sixth in ESPN’s run stop rate for a defensive tackle. Gaines is a perfect example of a talented player that just needed an increase in playing time to prove their value.
OLB: Rashan Gary, GB
Once one of the best high school players in the nation, Gary has started to demonstrate that talent at the professional level. He stepped up big time for a Packers defense that was missing key pieces during the season. His 9.5 sacks led the team, even though players such as Preston Smith and Kenny Clark also played 16 games. He was by far the best pass rusher on the team, racking up 47 pressures while the next highest Packer had just 28. Gary also was one of the 18 qualified players that did not register a missed tackle, showing he is more than just a pass rusher. Even though this breakout season also coincided with an increase in playing time, this seemed like more than just more snaps. Gary seems to have finally figured it out at the next level, showing why he was a five-star recruit and the 12th pick in the draft.
OLB: Charles Harris, DET
Harris was also a first-round pick but his career has played out much differently than expected. He never latched on with the Dolphins for three years after they drafted him and spent another unsuccessful season in Atlanta before something finally clicked this year with the Lions. In his previous four seasons, Harris had 6.5 sacks, 27 pressures, 79 tackles, and 13 tackles for loss. In 2021 alone Harris recorded 7.5 sacks, 34 pressures, 65 tackles, and 10 tackles for loss. While this is another case of a former first-round pick finally playing like it, Harris’s case is more unusual mainly because he is already on his third team. It is always good to see such talented players finally get their due on the field.
ILB: Jordyn Brooks, SEA
I feel a little bit of personal pride with this selection because Brooks was one of my preseason breakout picks. But even I didn’t expect Brooks’s breakout season to result in him leading the league in solo tackles. Brooks took an absolutely massive second-year leap for the Seahawks as he filled in for the departed K.J. Wright. Brooks’s athleticism makes him a perfect fit next to Bobby Wagner on the Seattle defense and also makes him one of the best tacklers in the NFL. Brooks didn’t just achieve those numbers by playing more snaps either. He actually lowered his missed tackle rate from 5 percent in 2020 to 4.7 percent in 2021, despite playing 740 more snaps. Seattle had a very unfortunate year in a lot of ways but Brooks’s emergence is one of the good things to come from the year.
ILB: De’Vondre Campbell, GB
Campbell is another veteran player that put together a career year on a new team. Before joining Green Bay he had some good seasons in Atlanta but nothing worthy of an All-Pro nod like he did this year. His 146 combined tackles were the seventh-most in the league, and he did so with a missed tackle rate of just 2.7 percent. You have to go all the way down to the 70th most tackles before you find a player that missed tackles at a lower rate. Campbell combined his elite tackling with superb play against the pass as well. He allowed a 74.9 passer rating, the best mark of any of the top 20 tacklers in the league. Campbell was even able to pick off two passes, tying his career-high set in 2019.
CB: Trevon Diggs, DAL
Diggs was one of the inspirations for this list and it is obvious why. The former wide receiver demonstrated his elite ball skills by leading the league with 11 interceptions. A better second season might have been expected from the talented second-rounder but becoming one of the best ballhawks in the NFL was a pleasant surprise. The All-Pro returned two of his 11 picks for touchdowns, tying him for the most in the league. Diggs operated as a little bit of a boom-or-bust corner, allowing the most passing yards in the league, but he still allowed just a 55.8 passer rating. Diggs’s play comes with some inherent risk but when you take the ball away better than anyone else in the game, it is worth it.
CB: AJ Terrell, ATL
When the Falcons took Terrell with the 16th pick in the 2020 draft, a lot of people were confused because it seemed like there were still better players, including other corners, on the board. Well, two years later and Terrell is making those people look a little stupid. Terrell has developed into a do-it-all corner in his second season, one of the best at defending the pass as well as making tackles. His 61 passer rating allowed was ninth-best in the league while his 82 tackles were fourth among cornerbacks. Atlanta didn’t have a particularly great defense but none of that was Terrell’s fault. He established himself as one of the young pillars for the Falcons to build around going forward.
CB: Amani Oruwariye, DET
Maybe you are surprised that there are two Detroit players on this list given how bad its season went but these two players certainly deserve it. Oruwariye was a pretty good player in college, but he slipped to the fifth round in the 2019 draft. Detroit hoped they would get a productive player with that selection but they probably weren’t expecting the year he had this season. His six interceptions were the third-most in the NFL and he also defended 11 passes, good for 25th in the league. He also helped out in other areas of the defense, finishing sixth on the Lions in tackles despite playing in just 14 games.
S: Jordan Poyer, BUF
Poyer was probably the most established player on this list before the 2021 season but that does not disqualify him from having a breakout season, it just has to be extra impressive. Poyer did exactly that, earning his first All-Pro selection on the strength of his play this year. He has long benefitted from playing next to Micah Hyde but this might be the first season where he actually surpassed him. He tied with Hyde for the team lead in interceptions with five, while also being the team’s second-leading tackler and recording the sixth-most sacks. Poyer’s all-around play has been a huge strength for a Buffalo team that has Super Bowl aspirations.
S: Jalen Thompson, ARI
Thompson recorded inconsistent playing time over his first two seasons but settled into the starting lineup nicely in 2021. He increased his previous career-high in snaps played from 60 in 2019 to 987 this year. Thompson showed that he earned that playing time by recording a team-best 121 total tackles. That number is the second-best among all safeties and 20th-most among all defenders. He also showed drastic improvement in pass coverage, grabbing three picks after recording just one in his first two seasons. There were plenty of reasons that the Cardinals surprised everyone this year and Thompson and the improved defense was certainly a huge part of that.