Way-Too-Early 2021 Fantasy Football Breakout Candidates

Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) celebrates after catching a 10-yard touchdown pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

The NFL season has officially been over for a week. How are you guys doing? Hanging in there? Well, at least we have basketball, unless you’re a Timberwolves fan. Anyway, now that the season is over and everyone is bored, it’s time for the annual “way-too-early” guides to start popping up for next season. Here are my picks for players to break out for your fantasy teams in 2021. 


Jonathan Taylor


The Wisconsin alum had a very strong rookie season, especially down the stretch. He ended up with over 1100 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs. Of course, there is the caveat that Indy could re-sign Marlon Mack. He would be very cheap coming off his Achilles tear, and if he could eventually come back to 80-90% of his 2019 greatness, he definitely warrants a good amount of touches. That said, I wouldn’t expect Indy to bring him back.


Taylor got the eighth-most carries in the 2020 season, but I would expect that to reach top-five in 2021. He was a workhorse throughout his collegiate career with the Badgers, and with Philip Rivers retirement and no imminent news of a replacement, this looks like Taylor’s offense. The offensive line comes back intact next season as well, which was a top-three group in the league last season. Finally, Taylor has the capacity to be used in the receiving game much more than he was last year. He only received five or more targets twice in 2020. 


Irv Smith Jr.

Outside of Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle (when healthy), there are very few dynamic tight ends in the league. The Vikings tight end room was extremely crowded last season with Irv Smith, Kyle Rudolph, and Tyler Conklin all getting significant time. It seems imminent that Rudolph will be cut or traded this offseason, so that opens up 574 snaps to be filled. Smith looks to receive the majority of that time.


Smith’s redzone presence down the stretch of the 2020 season gives me high hopes for 2021. In the final four games of the season without Rudolph, Smith stepped up and caught 15 passes for 183 yards and 3 TDs. If that production gets stretched out to a full season, it’s 60 catches, 732 yards, and 12 TDs. That yardage number would have ranked third among TEs in 2020, and the touchdowns would have led all TEs. Smith being among the position’s top fantasy scorers seems very promising even with the other weapons on Minnesota’s roster.


Tee Higgins

The Bengals brought in Joe Burrow with the number one pick in 2020, and they immediately got him a weapon to throw to later in the first round by picking Tee Higgins. At times in 2020, Higgins got lost in the depth chart last year behind both A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. The situation became even more unfortunate for Higgins when Burrow tore his ACL in week 11. 


Burrow should be good to go in 2021 even if he has to miss the first few weeks. I would also expect Cincy to let Green walk in free agency after another lackluster year. That opens up the lead receiving core to be Higgins and Boyd next year. They could possibly draft someone like Jaylen Waddle to fit into the slot as well, or they could learn a lesson from 2020 and pick a lineman to protect Burrow.

Either way, it should result in better results for the offense in 2021, and Higgins will be a key part of that, probably taking the WR1 spot. In games he started alongside Burrow, Higgins received eight or more targets in six of the eight games.