Who Does the NFL Predict Will Be 2021’s Top Breakout Stars?

Justin Jefferson is second on the NFLPA's annual Rising Stars list. Who's first?

Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings
Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings attempts to catch a pass.
Hannah Foslien/Getty

Had Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson been named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year after catching 88 balls for a franchise-best 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns last season, no one outside of Los Angeles would have argued if he had won the award over Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.

Jefferson, who was taken in the first round with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, is a legitimate star — who might shine even brighter in 2021, per the NFLPA.

The 21-year-old comes in second on the NFLPA’s annual Rising Stars list, a spot that was occupied last year by Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones, who had an exceptional 2020 season.

Divided into Veterans and Rookies, the list identifies 20 players that the NFLPA predicts will “have breakout seasons, gain fan support and ultimately rank among the top-sellers of all officially licensed player merchandise.”

No. 1 on this year’s list ahead of Jefferson in the Veterans category? Second-year Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. Though he did hit some bumps in the road after taking over as the starting QB in Philly, Hurts played well enough for the Eagles down the stretch that the organization felt comfortable dealing one-time franchise quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. To give Hurts some help in his second season, the Eagles also selected Heisman-winning WR Devonta Smith out of Alabama (who appears on the Rookies list).

“Social media engagement, fantasy football status, early product demand, on-field performance, new faces in key markets are among factors in building the 2021 list of Rookies and Veterans to watch,” per the NFLPA.

No surprise, topping the 2021 list in the Rookies category is No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, who will be under center for the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1 (potentially throwing to newly converted tight end Tim Tebow).

Coming off a stellar college career at Clemson that included an undefeated freshman season that ended with a win in the 2019 National Championship Game, Lawrence is viewed as a can’t-miss quarterback prospect by most NFL talent evaluators and could quickly become one of the faces of the league if he is able to live up to the hype.

“Since the first list in 2015, 56 players have climbed from Rising Stars to spots on the NFLPA Top 50 Player Sales List, including eight this past year,” per the NFLPA. “Among them were Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow, who finished No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, at the year-end. Others included Chase Young, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Herbert, Nick Chubb and DK Metcalf.”

The complete lists for both categories in 2021 are below.


  1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
  2. Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
  3. Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets
  4. Trey Lance, QB San Francisco 49ers
  5. Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Facons
  6. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
  7. Devonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
  8. Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
  9. Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
  10. Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots


  1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
  2. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
  3. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
  4. Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team
  5. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
  6. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
  7. Hunter Henry, TE, New England Patriots
  8. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
  9. Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
  10. Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

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