NFL News & Analysis

Biggest NFL breakout candidates at every position based on 2021 NFL preseason performance

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) attempts a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL preseason is often referred to as overreaction season — and for good reason.

Reliable projections simply can't be made from the 50 or so plays we traditionally see from starters over three preseason games. Sometimes, though, guys look different. Whether it’s a new role, physical growth or a young player finally gaining confidence, some potential breakout seasons are easy to spot based on the limited snaps we see in preseason.

Here are the players at every position who best fit that bill.

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Quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

The Tua who played in the preseason was far closer to the Tua we saw at Alabama than the guy who took the field a year ago in Miami. Cool, calm, collected and confident, the Dolphins quarterback went 24-of-34 for 282 yards and a touchdown in two preseason contests.

Maybe most impressively, the former Alabama star went 6-for-8 for 54 yards and a score on 10 pressured dropbacks, taking only one sack. His 66.1 passing grade under pressure was vastly improved from the 39.5 passing grade he earned across 95 pressured dropbacks last year. With new weapons galore on the outside, the second-year passer should take a comprehensive step forward this season. 

Receiver: Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots

There’s a confluence of factors that make me believe in Meyers ability to produce for the Patriots this year. He benefits from having the perfect blend of scheme, role and supporting cast to see a massive target share

The first factor is that the Patriots' offense has prioritized targeting the slot for two decades. Meyers took the majority of his snaps from inside this preseason.

The second is that Meyers now gets a quarterback in Mac Jones whose calling card is being able to work the middle of the field. In all, 292 of Jones’ 389 passing yards came between the numbers this preseason.

Finally, Meyers himself is a tremendous route-runner at the underneath and intermediate levels of the field. The third-year pass-catcher clocked just a 4.63-second 40-yard dash coming out of N.C. State, so he was never going to be a genuine deep threat. However, he doesn’t have to be. With 73 yards on only 25 routes this preseason, Meyers looks poised to produce in his role within New England's offense.

Running Back: J.J. Taylor, New England Patriots

Picking breakout backs from the preseason is difficult because starters rarely play. Still, there were a few guys on this list who still don’t necessarily have a clear path to the field, and Taylor is one of them.

The 5-foot-6, 185-pound back isn’t going to be a bell cow anytime soon and will obviously be limited by his size. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he looked like a problem all preseason and did all he could to finagle his way into playing time. Taylor caught all 10 of his targets for 62 yards. He added 179 yards on only 23 carries at an average of 7.9 yards per attempt. He is a jitterbug who is near impossible to pin down in space —  just ask Michael Jacquet.

While he is obviously behind Damien Harris and James White for touches, don’t be surprised if Taylor still sees time.

Tackle: Jordan Mailata, Philadelphia Eagles

A former rugby player in Australia, Mailata only started playing football shortly before being drafted by the Eagles in 2018. Since then, he’s improved by leaps and bounds every single year. Forced into a starting role last year, he earned an admirable 70.3 overall grade on 733 snaps. And this preseason, he took another massive leap.

Former first-rounder Andre Dillard was finally healthy and playing some good football in his own right, but it still wasn’t close enough to unseat Mailata. 

While he only played 16 snaps, Mailata moved and manhandled defenders the way elite NFL left tackles do. The 6-foot-8, 346-pound tackle is in store for a big year.

Interior Offensive Lineman: Kevin Dotson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Dotson’s preseason tape looked nothing short of pro-bowl caliber. The combination of balance and power he plays with is not something you usually see from a fourth-rounder. He finished with a 91.1 overall grade on 120 snaps and allowed only one pressure on 67 pass-blocking snaps.

While the rest of the Steelers' offensive line has its question marks, Dotson will not be one of them.

Defensive Tackle: Malik McDowell, Cleveland Browns

Don’t be ashamed if you don't recognize the name — McDowell has never played a snap in the NFL.

He was the 35th overall pick by the Seahawks back in 2017, but he never made their active roster after an ATV accident threatened to end his career. Four years later, McDowell is back on a roster and showing the promise that landed him at No. 21 on the PFF draft board coming out of Michigan State.

He’s been bullying everyone he goes up against and finished with an 89.6 overall grade on 44 snaps this preseason. In only two games, the former Spartan finished with four pressures, including two sacks and four run stops. Don’t be surprised to see McDowell in a starting role at some point this season.

Edge: Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints

Of all the potential breakout players on this list, Davenport is the one I’d feel most confident about. And that’s because he dominated from his first preseason snap to his last.

His 93.6 overall grade on 49 snaps across two preseason contests was the highest of any edge to play at least 35 snaps. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, Davenport has completely leaned into the “bully ball” he’s capable of playing. His bull-rush technique is to the point where tackles with weak anchors are in serious trouble snap after snap. Just watch him against Walker Little at left tackle here.

After middling pass-rush grades of 73.3 and 73.6 the past two seasons, I’d expect somewhere in the midtohigh 80s this season.

Linebacker: Jordyn Brooks, Seattle Seahawks

With K.J. Wright gone, Brooks will be in line for a full-time role for the Seahawks this season. We saw the second-year linebacker playing much faster in his 65 snaps this preseason. It resulted in an 81.7 overall grade with four stops and a pass breakup across two games.

Brooks has got the explosiveness and range for a 245-pounder that means he shouldn’t have to come off the field on passing downs. If the preseason is any indication, the Seahawks' linebacking corps won’t miss a beat.

Cornerback: Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals

A breakout year from Murphy seems like a necessity at this point, given the way the Cardinals' cornerback group is trending. After playing almost solely in the slot last year, Murphy will be a full-time starter in 2021, lining up outside base then kicking to the slot in sub-packages.

Doing just that against the Chiefs and Cowboys this preseason, he allowed only two catches from four targets for 12 yards with a pick and a pass breakup.

Even though he’s heading into Year 3, Murphy is still only 23 years old. After a grade jump from 48.3 overall as a rookie to 64.7 in Year 2, another bump looks to be in the cards for 2021.

Safety: Amani Hooker, Tennessee Titans

This is one part draft evaluation (he was 44th overall on the 2019 PFF draft board), one part preseason performance (he earned an 81.7 overall grade on 39 snaps) and two parts the fact that he earned a 70.8 coverage grade on 470 snaps last year.

Now slated to be the full-time starter next to Kevin Byard, the 23-year-old is poised to be the playmaker in the box to complement Byard’s deep safety prowess.

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