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Biggest Breakout Stars of the 2021 NFL Season

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With the 2021 NFL season coming to a close, it is time to take a look at which players burst onto the scene throughout the year. A breakout player is someone who vastly improves from the previous season to become a star. This list generally highlights more underrated players who have taken giant leaps. Great players expectedly making even more improvements are less represented due to the unsurprising nature of their improvement. Rookies don’t qualify, and the majority are generally in their second or third seasons. There have been a ton of surprising breakouts this season, so let’s dive right in.

1. AJ Terrell, CB, Falcons 

AJ Terrell’s 2021 season has been the textbook definition of breaking out. Terrell was the first-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2020 and had an average rookie campaign. Everything has clicked for him in 2021 however and he has made the leap to a superstar. Terrell has the perfect blend of size, speed, and technique you want from the corner position. He is 6’1, with blazing 4.42 speed in the 40-yard dash. That is what made him a first-round pick and made him become one of the five best cornerbacks in the NFL this season.

Terrell’s numbers have improved dramatically, posting 2 interceptions and 14 pass deflections in 2021. He has allowed just a 66.4 passer rating when targeted, 50% completion percentage, and just 4.9 yards per target. Those numbers have improvised dramatically from 2020 when he allowed a 109.6 passer rating, 67% completion percentage, and 8.8 yards per target. Terrell’s CBCG+ (a statistic to grade cornerbacks that I developed, read more about it here) is 40.4, one of the best in football. Terrell has quickly developed into an elite defensive back in his second season. 

2. Trevon Diggs, CB, Cowboys 

Trevon Diggs was a second-round draft pick in 2020 who struggled as a rookie. Diggs has always been a risk-taker at cornerback. He loves to jump routes and will give up position for a chance to make a play on the ball. In 2020, he got burned a lot as he got used to playing the hardest position in the National Football League. He used his volatility from his rookie season in 2020 and turned it into his best attribute in 2021. He still has made some coverage mistakes in 2021, but his success rate has gone significantly up. Diggs has become the best ballhawk in football, snatching 11 interceptions in 15 games so far this season. Diggs has always had immense athletic talent and just started playing corner in college at Alabama.

He has finally put it all together for Dallas this season, becoming one of the premier defensive backs in the league. Not only does Diggs lead the NFL in interceptions, but his peripheral stats are also outstanding as well. Diggs has only allowed a 55.6 passer rating when targeted and a 53% completion percentage in coverage. Those are both up tremendously from 85.8 and 56%, respectively in 2020. His 11 interceptions and 21 pass deflections both lead the NFL and are up from 3 picks and 14 pass breakups from his rookie season. Diggs’ CBCG+ in 2021 is an elite 38.9. Diggs has become a game-wrecker for the Dallas defense this season. 

3. Cordarelle Patterson, WR/RB, Falcons 

Cordarelle Patterson has long been the most electric kick returner in the NFL. He has been a difference-maker on special teams for various teams since entering the league in 2013. He is a 4x Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro as a kick returner. Patterson was never really used much on offense until this season. Arthur Smith, the rookie head coach for the Falcons, unlocked all of Patterson’s previous unused ability. Patterson has become a dynamic weapon for the Atlanta offense, used as both a running back and wide receiver. Patterson has a whopping 1102 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns. He has been split equally as running back and wide receiver, while being extremely effective in both roles. The electric hybrid playmaker has been one of the most exciting players to watch as he has taken a huge leap this season. 

4. Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – DECEMBER 26: Los Angeles Rams Wide Receiver Cooper Kupp (10) catches a pass during a game between the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams on December 26, 2021, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN.(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cooper Kupp has been a very good player since entering the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 2017. Kupp had four solid years in the league, surpassing 1000 yards receiving just once. The player he has become in 2021 came totally out of left field. Kupp has had one of the greatest seasons by a receiver of all time in his fifth season. Kupp is on track to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record through 15 games. The record of 1964 was set in 2012. Kupp has 1734 yards receiving as of now. He is also on pace to achieve the receiving triple crown for the first time since Steve Smith Sr. did it in 2005. That is, leading the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Kupp currently leads the pack in all three categories, posting 132 receptions, 1734 yards, and 14 touchdowns so far. Despite being a strong player for years, Kupp has broken out to have a legendary season in 2021. 

5. De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Packers 

De’Vondre Campbell was drafted by the Falcons as a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The veteran linebacker has been underrated for years but was always an average starting-caliber player, never an elite one. Campbell has finally broken out into one of the very best linebackers in football in 2021. Campbell has become a versatile machine for the Green Bay defense, who does a little bit of everything. He does it all at a high level; stopping the run, rushing the passer, playing in coverage, and forcing turnovers. Campbell has 138 total tackles this season and 95 solo tackles, which leads the NFL.

Campbell also has 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 pass deflections, and 2 forced fumbles. He makes an impact in so many different ways. Campbell is also having a career year coverage-wise. Campbell has allowed just a 75.0 passer rating when targeted and 5.0 yards per target. These are both among the best in the NFL. His 47 run stops are a career-best as well. Campbell has proven to be a huge upgrade over former Packers middle linebacker Blake Martinez, most prominently in terms of second-level run defense. Campbell has been the catalyst of Green Bay’s improbable and revitalized elite defense. De’Vondre Campbell has broken out into an invaluable versatile defender for the Packers this season. 

6. Jeffery Simmons, DT, Titans 

I have long been a proponent of Jeffery Simmons (as shown in my July 2020 article here), and in his third year, he has become a star. The first-round draft pick of Tennessee in 2019 was solid in his first two seasons. He was recovering from a brutal injury from college at first, which definitely hurt his performance. In 2021, Simmons has established himself as one of the elite defensive tackles in the NFL. Simmons has 7.5 sacks this season, to go along with 51 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6 pass deflections. He also has 21 pressures, 42 hurries, and 41 run stops. All those numbers are elite for a defensive tackle, nearly in the Aaron Donald stratosphere. They are also all career-highs by vast margins. Simmons has anchored the Tennessee defense in 2021 and taken a big step forward in his development. 

7. Deebo Samuel, WR/RB, 49ers 

Deebo Samuel had a strong rookie season in 2019. He struggled with injuries and did not produce much in 2020. In 2021, he has become a different player. Samuel has become the most dynamic playmaker in the entire National Football League. Similar to Cordarelle Patterson, Samuel has been used as both a wide receiver and running back this season. Samuel has put up even more production, putting up 1548 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns. He has over 1000 yards as a receiver alone and leads the league in yards per reception at 17.8. Samuel’s 7 rushing touchdowns are also unheard of for a natural wide receiver. The somewhat expected nature of his breakout keeps him lower on this list, but Samuel has had a tremendous season and provided immeasurable value to the San Francisco offense. 

8. Amani Oruwariye, CB, Lions 

Amani Oruwariye slid in the 2019 NFL Draft and wound up a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions. The fall was underserved considering Oruwariye’s immense talent. Oruwariye is 6’2, 205 pounds, and runs a 4.47 40-yard dash. A lab-developed cornerback would look something like Oruwariye. The Penn State product was an average player in his first two seasons, posting a combined 3 interceptions and 10 pass deflections across the 2019-20 campaigns. Oruwariye improved tremendously in 2021. His season is now overdue to a broken thumb. During his 14 games player, Oruwariye grabbed 6 interceptions, good for third-best in the entire NFL. The premier ballhawk also had 11 pass deflections on the season. His 57 tackles were a career-best. Oruwariye’s passer rating allowed in coverage was also the best of his young career at 74.1. He has steadily improved from 107.0 to 99.2 to 74.1 throughout his career. Oruwariye had a breakout season for the Detroit defense as he was among the league leaders in interceptions. 

9. Jonathan Greenard, EDGE, Texans 

Jonathan Greenard is a name that most football fans are probably unfamiliar with. Greenard does play for the Houston Texans, who are in the bottom cellar of the NFL right now. Regardless, Greenard has put together an extremely good 2021 season in Houston. The second-year player out of Florida was a great run stopper during his rookie campaign and displayed flashes of greatness. In 2021, he has been extremely consistent and burst onto the scene as a pass rusher. The third-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft has 8 sacks this season, to go along with 12 QB hits, 20 pressures, and 12 hurries. He has 19 run stops as well. Greenard has been limited to just 10 games, but he has made a huge impact in each of them and showed that he is a dangerous edge rusher in 2021. 

10. Xavier McKinney, S, Giants 

Xavier McKinney was a second-round draft pick of the New York Giants in the 2020 NFL Draft. He is one of many of his counterparts as second-year defenders on this list. McKinney has become a very good free safety in 2021. After an injury-plagued rookie season, McKinney has proven to be an interception specialist in 2021. He has racked up 5 to this point, while also being a strong tackler and displaying down-to-down coverage consistency at safety. McKinney has 9 pass deflections and 79 tackles, in addition to being fourth in the NFL in interceptions. McKinney is developing into an elite defensive back this year for the Giants. 

Honorable Mentions 

HM. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts 

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – DECEMBER 25: Running back Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts runs during the first half of the game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 25, 2021, in Glendale, Arizona. The Colts beat the Cardinals 22-16. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Jonathan Taylor would obviously be at the top of this list if it was a basic player rankings list. Taylor has had a monster campaign for Indianapolis this season. He has 1626 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in 15 games. Both of those numbers pace the NFL. He was very good last season, which makes his breakout less surprising and leaves him off this list. Taylor posted 1169 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020 as a rookie, proving he was elite from the get-go. Taylor deserves to be recognized for the season he’s having, despite his breakout being unsurprising. 

HM. Foyesade Oluokon, LB, Falcons 

Foyesade Oluokon is one of the most underrated players in football. The Yale product was drafted by the Falcons as a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The athletic specimen linebacker broke out in 2020, positing absurd numbers. He was a force in every aspect, with 117 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 4 pass deflections, and 2 interceptions. Somehow, nobody talks about him. Oluokon is criminally underrated and deserves so much more recognition. Oluokon has continued to improve in 2021 and is one of the best playmaking defenders in the league. He has 166 tackles in 2021, a career-best and second-most in the entire NFL. He also has a whopping 43 run stops. Oluokon is left off the list due to more so breaking out in 2020, but he deserves to be an honorable mention for his continued improvement and complete lack of recognition among football fans. 

HM. Logan Wilson, LB, Bengals 

Logan Wilson is another 2020 NFL Draft pick who has made huge strides this season. The second-year linebacker has anchored the stout Cincinnati defense all season. Wilson has racked up the interceptions this season with 4, which is challenging to do from the middle linebacker position. Wilson has been a playmaking defender who is also strong in coverage and a superb run defender. The Wyoming product has 92 tackles and 4 pass deflections this season. He also has 26 run stops. All these totals are career highs as the impressive Wilson has taken huge strides in his second season. 

HM. Harold Landry, EDGE, Titans 

Harold Landry has been a productive edge rusher since entering the NFL in 2018. He has become a bona fide star in 2021 however, with a career-high 11 sacks and 21 QB hits. Landry’s 41 pressures and 38 run stops are also the best of his career and among the best in the league. Harold Landry has become an elite pass rusher for the Titans defense in 2021 and he has been one of the very best in football. 

HM. Ezra Cleveland, OG, Vikings 

It’s time to give the offensive line some recognition. Ezra Cleveland was taken by the Vikings in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Cleveland is an athletic left guard who started 9 games in 2020 and all 15 so far in 2021. His improvement from year one to year two has been significant. Cleveland allowed 5 sacks last season, compared to just 1 this season in many more snaps. Cleveland has also been much better as a run blocker this season. Ezra Cleveland has played every single snap of every single game this season for the Minnesota Vikings, developing into a key cog along their offensive line after improving greatly in 2021. 

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 12: A.J. Terrell #24 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after an interception in the second quarter of the game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 12, 2021, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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