On the rise: 10 NFL players primed for breakout season in 2021

Jaylon Thompson
USA TODAY Sports Plus

The 2021 NFL season is right around the corner. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrote the final chapter in their storybook campaign with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55, other teams were preparing for another shot at championship glory.

There is a different feel regarding the upcoming season. Multiple NFL stars changed teams to shift the dynamic of the league. New rookies arrived to provide a jolt to rebuilding franchises, and former athletes returned for one last ride.

As a result, the stage is set for a highly anticipated training-camp period. The multi-week practices are the proving ground for stars to emerge and establish momentum.

How will Joe Burrow bounce back from his torn ACL injury? Which rookie quarterback will make a significant impact? Will Aaron Rodgers even show up to Green Bay Packers’ camp?

These are questions that are sure to drive the narrative in late July. However, there is another storyline to watch as well.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) runs from Green Bay Packers linebacker Rashan Gary, left, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis.

In recent years, several breakout stars have emerged on the field. Players like Josh Allen, Trey Hendrickson and J.C. Jackson all turned in career campaigns in 2020. Each built momentum in training camp that carried into the season.

Who will follow in their footsteps? USA TODAY Sports+ compiled a list of potential breakout stars for the 2021 season. Here are 10 players that have an opportunity to turn in a special year for their respective teams.

10. Kyle Pitts (Atlanta Falcons)

It is a little unusual to list a rookie tight end as a potential breakout star. However, Pitts is not your average tight end. There was a reason Pitts became the top non-quarterback selected in April's NFL draft. Pitts steps into a No. 2 receiving role with the Atlanta Falcons, and the team expects to shift him across the offensive formation and get him in favorable matchups. Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka holds the rookie tight end record with 1,076 receiving yards. There is a chance Pitts could threaten the long-standing mark with a strong 2021 campaign.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) catches a pass during mandatory minicamp on June 9.

9. Rashan Gary (Green Bay Packers)

Gary enters his third NFL season with immense potential. Gary recorded 19 solo tackles, five sacks and 11 quarterback hits in the 2020 season. He also made timely plays to help the Packers secure another NFC North division crown. The talented defensive end had four sacks down the stretch. In the NFL playoffs, he played at least 60% of the defensive snaps and recorded 1.5 sacks against the Los Angeles Rams. The Packers expect to utilize Gary alongside standouts Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith this season. So far, early reports are that Gary has fit in well during minicamp.

8. Jeff Okudah (Detroit Lions)

Okudah is due for a bounce-back campaign after struggling as a rookie last season. The talented cornerback did not live up to expectations after being the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Multiple factors played into his inconsistent production. Okudah dealt with a groin strain that placed him on injured reserve down the stretch. The Lions hope Okudah can put together a better sophomore effort. He will be counted on to lead a secondary that was revamped this offseason.

7. Devin Bush Jr. (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Bush was set to embark on his breakout season in 2020. He was coming off a stellar rookie season in 2019 where he recorded 72 solo tackles, a sack, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions. The talented linebacker was already approaching Pro Bowl-caliber status. But after five 2020 games, Bush suffered a torn ACL that ended his season. The injury was a crushing blow to the Steelers defense. Now, Bush looks to return to his role as the Steelers top coverage linebacker and make an impact on the field.

6. Noah Fant (Denver Broncos)

One of the NFL’s more underrated standouts, Fant has a chance to become a household name this season. The tight end enters with a key role in the Denver Broncos offense after recording 62 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns last season. The Broncos expect him to be the clear-cut top tight end this season. Heading into his third year, Fant could eclipse 1,000 receiving yards. He already has the potential milestone in his sights.

5. Chase Edmonds (Arizona Cardinals)

Edmonds is set to handle a major role heading into his fourth NFL season. After Kenyan Drake departed in free agency, Edmonds is the new star of the Cardinals backfield. Last season, Edmonds rushed for 448 rushing yards and scored five total touchdowns (one rushing, four receiving). He also added 402 receiving yards in limited work. Expect Edmonds to play across the offensive formation. He has three-down potential and this is his time to shine.

4. Michael Pittman Jr. (Indianapolis Colts)

Pittman turned in terrific rookie campaign with 40 catches, 503 yards and a touchdown. The wide receiver reeled in 65.6% of his receptions and emerged as a top option against the Buffalo Bills. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, Pittman could see a major increase in his numbers this season as he ascends towards NFL stardom.

3. Daniel Jones (New York Giants)

Jones is facing a true make-or-break campaign and must prove himself to the Giants’ organization and its fanbase.  The quarterback struggled last season with just 280 completions for 2,943 yards, a 62.5% completion rate, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 14 starts. He also owns an 8-18 record in his career with the team. If the Giants want to compete for an NFL playoff spot, Jones needs to lead the way. As a result, he is in a prime position to turn in a career year.

2. Irv Smith Jr. (Minnesota Vikings) 

Irv Smith Jr. has a good chance to be one of the top breakout players this season. Smith Jr. will step into a starting role with Kyle Rudolph departing in free agency. The third-year standout had 30 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. There are expectations that he can ascend up the NFL tight end rankings with a strong campaign this season. 

1. Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals)

Burrow has the best chance to become a breakout star this season. The quarterback was on his way to Rookie of the Year honors before suffering a torn ACL in November. The first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft completed 65.3% of his passes for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns. He tossed just five interceptions and recorded five games with at least 300 or more passing yards. His best performance was 406 passing yards against the Cleveland Browns. Expect Burrow to improve those numbers in his second NFL season and lead a resurgent Bengals roster.