Every year, fans and teams look for the next big thing in the NFL.
And every year, a player rises to the top to announce their status as a household name.
Some are post-hype sleepers that have yet to realize their potential.
Others are buried on the depth chart, just waiting for the opportunity to shine as a starter.
THE CAM AKERS TAKEOVER STARTS NOWpic.twitter.com/iusbuk2xi8
— PFF (@PFF) December 11, 2020
Here are three players who are ready to make the leap into the limelight in 2021.
1. Cam Akers
Cam Akers struggled to emerge from a committee with the Los Angeles Rams early on.
He dealt with injuries and played sporadically through his first eight games, failing to earn the coaching staff’s trust.
Starting from Week 12, though, he flashed the supreme talent that made him a second-round pick.
Akers dominated snaps and touches to end the season, running away with the workhorse role.
His jump in touches did coincide with a season-ending week 16 Darrell Henderson, but it was clear the rookie was the preferred option even before then.
He racked up 645 rushing yards on 4.57 yards per carry in his last seven games, including the playoffs.
Most rushing yards after contact in playoffs
💥 Cam Akers – 154
💥 Alvin Kamara – 122
💥 Nick Chubb – 112 pic.twitter.com/Qa1dKOfj7y
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 19, 2021
Akers also managed to post these impressive numbers despite facing eight or more defenders in the box 37.9% of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the league.
Therefore, the inclusion of Matthew Stafford should only expedite Akers’ imminent breakout.
Stafford should improve the efficiency of the offense, giving Akers plenty of chances to take advantage.
Plus, the Rams and Malcolm Brown are likely to part ways this offseason, freeing up 134 combined rushing attempts and targets.
All signs point to a banner year for the Florida State product.
2. Laviska Shenault Jr.
Laviska Shenault Jr. is a sneaky candidate to emerge as a premier weapon for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While he is not the focal point of the offense, he is a talented player in his own right.
He recorded 600 yards on 58 receptions and 79 targets in his debut season, scoring five touchdowns.
Shenault also displayed his versatility by rushing 18 times for 91 yards.
The addition of Urban Meyer should further the development of the second-year receiver.
Meyer, long touted as an offensive genius, would be wise to feature him in the gameplan.
Get hype for the Laviska Shenault Jr. breakout
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 31, 2021
Shenault’s projection for next season, though, falls on the next quarterback for Jacksonville.
Barring a trade, the Jaguars should draft Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
While he may struggle acclimating to the big leagues, he will still be an upgrade over the carousel of quarterbacks the Jags started this past year.
That bodes well for the whole offense, Shenault included.
But regardless of who is under center next season, Shenault is primed to vault into the spotlight.
3. Irv Smith Jr.
Breakout candidates at tight end are difficult to predict.
They take a while to properly develop, and very few emerge as viable receiving weapons.
With that said, Irv Smith Jr. for the Minnesota Vikings is a player to monitor for a breakout year.
I can already tell you I’m going to be all over Irv Smith Jr. as the breakout tight end next year
— Michael F. Florio (@MichaelFFlorio) December 20, 2020
This prediction comes with a caveat, as long-time Viking Kyle Rudolph is still under contract for the next three years.
However, with Minnesota struggling with their cap situation, they might move on from the 10-year veteran.
Should that occur, Smith would benefit immensely.
He already displayed what he could do as a starter when Rudolph missed the final four games of the season to injury.
Smith amassed 183 yards and three touchdowns in this span, showcasing his receiving skills and penchant for the endzone.
But with so many other weapons, he could find himself as the perfect security blanket for Kirk Cousins.
Smith has the size and speed to thrive, and Minnesota’s offense is good enough to provide plenty of scoring opportunities.
He may not post a 1,000-yard season, but do not be surprised if the third-year tight end scores double-digit touchdowns.NEXT: 3 Offseason Moves The 49ers Should Make In 2021