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Identifying six Patriots breakout candidates for the 2021 season

Related: Josh Uche named Patriots’ breakout candidate for 2021

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

With the disappointing 2020 season firmly in the rear-view mirror and the pre-draft process in full swing down at the Senior Bowl, the New England Patriots are full-steam ahead towards the 2021 season. This means that now is the perfect time to take a look at the better things that might be lying ahead for the team this year, such as potential candidates for the illustrious title of “Breakout Player of the Year.”

The idea itself comes after a story over at Bleacher Report recently crowned its candidates for each of the teams. The Patriots’ is wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, with reasoning behind his selection explained as follows:

New England Patriots wideout Jakobi Meyers took a big step forward in his second pro season this year. The undrafted rookie out of NC State led the Patriots with 729 receiving yards, 59 receptions and 81 targets. He emerged as one of Cam Newton’s favorites targets and should remain a favorite of whomever is behind center in 2021.

Presumably, it won’t be Newton, and that should be a positive for Meyers’ continued development. Newton wasn’t exactly a prolific passer this season, throwing for just 2,657 yards and eight touchdowns. Not coincidentally, Meyers did not record a scoring reception.

If the Patriots upgrade at quarterback, it should lead to more production for Meyers. He’s already outshined 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry in Josh McDaniels’ offense, and he could be a star with a better signal-caller.

Meyers certainly is a worthy candidate for consideration, but he already broke out in 2020 despite the Patriots’ passing offense as a whole struggling throughout the year. The second-year man went from little-used depth player early in the season to New England’s number one wide receiver in terms of targets (81), receptions (59) and yards (729).

While it remains to be seen what the future holds, and he still has some room for improvement, one could make the argument that Meyers is already past the “breakout candidate” stadium at this point in his career. Let’s therefore focus on other players who might be on their way to a similar jump.

The methodology used to identify those breakout candidates differs from Bleacher Report’s though. Whereas BR’s Kristopher Knox was exclusively listing players who have not earned a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nomination so far in their careers and could ascend to that level next season, we are looking specifically at little used role or backup players who could become major pieces for the Patriots at their respective positions in 2021.

With that said, let’s take a look at six candidates (plus some honorable mentions) who could fit that definition.

RB J.J. Taylor

2020 season: 5.0% offensive snaps; 23 carries, 110 rushing yards; 1 catch, 4 receiving yards

Why he could break out: Even though J.J. Taylor appeared in just six games as an undrafted rookie in 2020, he is a prime candidate for an increased role behind early-down backs Damien Harris and Sony Michel. Both James White and Rex Burkhead — the latter coming off a torn ACL — are entering free agency in March and there is a chance they move on. If even one of them leaves the club, Taylor could be given a massively increased role in 2021 as the Patriots’ change-of-pace or receiving back of choice.

WR N’Keal Harry

2020 season: 57.8% offensive snaps; 33 catches, 309 yards, 2 touchdowns

Why he could break out: Two years into his pro career, N’Keal Harry has not yet lived up to his status as a former first-round draft pick. Why would 2021 be any different, especially considering the uncertainty at quarterback? Because the Patriots might not just see improved play from other developing skill position players already on the roster — see: tight end position — but also because they are in the market for some major free agency upgrades given their available salary cap space. If New England improves its receiving arsenal, Harry could benefit as a potential second option at the wide receiver position.

TE Devin Asiasi

2020 season: 21.1% offensive snaps; 2 catches, 39 yards, 1 touchdown

Why he could break out: Coming off a challenging rookie season that happened right in the middle of a pandemic and also saw him miss time on injured reserve, Devin Asiasi has only one way to go in Year Two: up. Seeing him carve out a more prominent role in 2021 would not be a surprise, though. He showed some flashes as an in-line blocker last season and also has the athletic skillset to help out in the passing game. Given the current state of New England’s tight end position he appears to be the prime candidate to take over as TE1 this coming season.

DT Byron Cowart

2020 season: 41.4% defensive snaps; 27 tackles; 1 sack, 7 total QB pressures

Why he could break out: The most established player on this list, Byron Cowart finished his second season in the league as the Patriots’ number four interior defensive lineman in terms of playing time — only Deatrich Wise Jr, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler played more snaps. With all three of them headed towards the open market, however, Cowart might be in for a more prominent role in 2021. Even if some of them are brought back, thoguh, he could benefit from New England adding more talent up front to help shore up the middle of the defense and help Cowart play his more natural position as a 3-technique rather than a nose.

LB Josh Uche

2020 season: 17.6% defensive snaps; 9 tackles; 1 sack, 17 total QB pressures

Why he could break out: Injuries limited Josh Uche to only nine games as a rookie, but the second-round draft pick still showed his impressive athleticism and upside in his limited opportunities. Uche finished tied for fifth on the team in quarterback disruptions, and with John Simon headed for the open market should be in line to take over the starting outside linebacker position opposite Chase Winovich. Given his versatility, he could also be groomed into a move role like the one played by Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in the past.

LB Anfernee Jennings

2020 season: 28.9% defensive snaps; 20 tackles; 4 total QB pressures

Why he could break out: Anfernee Jennings saw more action than Josh Uche in 2020, but was also a lot more inconsistent as he transitioned from the college to the pro level. Still, the 23-year-old appears to be a realistic candidate for a bigger role next season: with the Patriots’ off-the-ball linebacker position a major question mark — the only established starting-caliber option, Dont’a Hightower, is a candidate for retirement — the youngster might receive more responsibilities and playing time. Whether he is up for it remains to be seen, but New England will likely give him every chance to prove himself.

With those six out of the way, let’s also take a look at some honorable mentions.

Defensive back Myles Bryant comes to mind after having seen increased playing time down the stretch during his 2020 rookie season as both a cornerback and safety. Outside linebacker Rashod Berry, meanwhile, spent most of his own rookie campaign on the practice squad but showed some flashes as a sub pass rusher when elevated to the game-day team. Finally, tight end Dalton Keene who had his fair share of issues in 2020 but has an intriguing skillset.

So, who would be your choice? Let us know below!

Poll

Who will be the Patriots’ 2021 breakout player?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    RB J.J. Taylor
    (145 votes)
  • 7%
    WR N’Keal Harry
    (93 votes)
  • 15%
    TE Devin Asiasi
    (185 votes)
  • 2%
    DT Byron Cowart
    (31 votes)
  • 56%
    LB Josh Uche
    (670 votes)
  • 2%
    LB Anfernee Jennings
    (32 votes)
  • 2%
    Other (please name in comments)
    (26 votes)
1182 votes total Vote Now