2021 Fantasy Football rankings: Top 10 breakout players to draft

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2021 Fantasy Football rankings: Top 10 breakout players originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The 2021 fantasy football season is not too far away, and now is a great time to start preparing for your league's draft.

One of the most important tasks for every fantasy owner entering a new season is identifying breakout players.

Candidates for breakouts typically include players who, in the prior season, battled injury, showed signs of promise late in the year, should receive an increased workload, will have better players around them, etc.

Here's our ranking of the top 10 breakout candidates for the 2021 fantasy football season.

10) Damien Harris, RB, New England Patriots (Week: 14)

Harris had a strong sophomore season for the Patriots, averaging 5.0 yards per rush, which was the seventh-most of any running back. He only played in 10 games, though. If healthy for a full season, Harris likely will be a valuable starting running back in most fantasy leagues. Even if his yards per carry declines a bit, a 17-game workload would put Harris over 1,000 yards and his touchdown total will increase if Cam Newton is not the starting quarterback. Harris' size and strength make him an excellent goal-line option. However, Newton received 15 of the Patriots' 22 goal-line carries in the 10 games that Harris played in 2020. If Mac Jones is the starter, Harris should get more of those valuable touches in the red zone.

Belichick has some positive feedback on Damien Harris after minicamp

A larger workload and running behind what should be a top 10 offensive line (or better) will give Harris ample opportunity to take the next step in his development this coming season.

9) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (Week: 12)

Edwards-Helaire was a very popular pick in last year's fantasy drafts after winning a national title with Joe Burrow at LSU and then going into an elite Chiefs offense. The 2020 first-round pick didn't total amazing stats, but he did average 4.4 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per reception. He should be more involved in the offense this season as a dual-threat running back who can be on the field in any situation.

8) Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (Week: 7)

Shenault tallied 58 receptions for 600 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie despite some abysmal quarterback play from the Jaguars. That should change in a major way in 2021 with No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence giving the Jaguars a top-tier QB talent for the first time in franchise history. Shenault will be Lawrence's No. 1 option in a Jaguars passing game that likely will be much-improved across the board.

7) Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants (Week: 10)

Daniel Jones failed to make much of a leap in his sophomore season with the Giants. A bounce-back could very well be in the cards in 2021, though. The Giants are going to surround him with a lot more talent this season, starting with the return of elite running back Saquon Barkley, who missed almost the entire 2020 campaign with a torn ACL. The Giants also signed one of the top free agent wide receivers in Kenny Golladay, and they used their 2021 first-round draft pick to select Florida wideout Kadarius Toney. All the pieces are in place for Jones to have a much-improved Year 3.

6) Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams (Week: 11)

After a good rookie season, Akers enters 2021 as the No. 1 running back in a Rams offense that should be much more balanced after L.A. upgraded at quarterback by replacing Jared Goff with Matthew Stafford via trade. Akers averaged 4.3 yards per carry last year and showed impressive speed in the open field. One way for Akers to really improve his fantasy value is to become a better pass-catching running back. He tallied just 11 receptions in 13 games as a rookie. He's capable of doing more in this role, so it will be interesting to see if Rams head coach Sean McVay gives him more looks in Stafford's passing offense.

5) CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys (Week: 7)

Lamb will be a popular pick in fantasy drafts after a strong rookie season and the return of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who missed the last 11 games of the year due to injury. Lamb posted 74 receptions on 111 targets for 935 yards and five touchdowns. With a healthy Prescott in the mix, Lamb could easily hit 90-plus receptions and well over 1,000 receiving yards. It wasn't a coincidence that Lamb's only 100-yard games in 2020 came when Prescott was in the lineup. 

4) Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers (Week: 6)

Aiyuk was a 2020 first-round pick of the 49ers and tallied 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. After a rough first half of the season, the Arizona State product had a strong finish to his rookie season. From Week 7 through Week 15, Aiyuk played six games, and in that span he averaged 7.5 receptions and 95 yards per matchup, with a total of four receiving touchdowns.

He has excellent speed that makes him a deep threat with big-play potential on every play. If Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy -- a huge if, we know -- or No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance plays and exceeds, Aiyuk could approach 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and seven or eight touchdowns in Year 2.

3) Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos (Week: 11)

Jeudy had 113 targets last season, which was the second-most by any rookie wide receiver. He hauled in 52 receptions for 856 yards and three touchdowns despite inconsistent quarterback play from the Broncos. With Drew Lock healthy and free agent Teddy Bridgewater giving the Broncos even more depth and talent at the QB position, Jeudy could have a fantastic sophomore campaign as Denver's No. 1 option in the passing attack. His excellent speed and route running create a lot of problems for opposing defensive backs.

2) Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts (Week: 14)

Pittman has the talent, speed and size (6-foot-4 and 223 pounds) to become the Colts' No. 1 target in their new passing attack led by quarterback Carson Wentz, who Indy acquired from the Eagles via trade earlier in the offseason. Pittman tallied 40 receptions for 503 yards and one touchdown as a rookie in 2020, and those numbers should see a massive jump this fall. The former USC wideout also led all wide receivers in YAC+.

Pittman's best game came in the AFC Wild Card playoff matchup versus the Buffalo Bills, when he tallied five receptions for 90 yards. It was a preview of what's to come in 2021. It wouldn't be surprising if Pittman tallied somewhere close to 75 receptions for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in Year 2.

1) J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Week: 8)

The Ravens are the NFL's premier rushing team. They finished No. 1 in rushing attempts, total yards and yards per carry in 2020. They also ranked No. 3 in rushing touchdowns with 24. Dobbins benefitted from this situation as a rookie, tallying 805 yards and nine touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry. A larger workload that could include over 200 rushing attempts, which would help Dobbins eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. He's also likely to hit double-digit total touchdowns again, especially if the Ravens tap into his pass-catching ability more than they did in 2020. Dobbins has low-end RB1 potential and will be a late first- round, early second-round pick in most fantasy drafts.