For fantasy, betting, and DFS purposes, finding the next breakout offenses can be an easy way to get an advantage over the competition to start the year. Looking at offensive line quality, quarterback play, and skill position weaponry, we can get a good idea of which teams at least have the potential to be the home of the NFL's next elite offense. Here are the three best candidates for the 2021 NFL season.
The biggest downfall of the Bengals in Joe Burrow’s rookie season was his protection. More specifically, Burrow’s protection was weak and he crumbled when pressured. Pro Football Focus graded the Bengals as the 27th passing blocking unit. When pressured, Burrow took a sack on one in five dropbacks and completed just 37.3 percent of his passes. Quarterbacks can be successful despite struggling under pressure if they find ways to mitigate the pressure they take on but Burrow isn’t likely to be that kind of passer. He doesn’t have an especially quick release and Next Gen Stats recorded an average time to throw of 2.65 seconds for him. That was 15th among qualified passers. He’s not going to hold the ball forever and his release isn’t a fatal flaw but given the state of his offensive line, both of those aspects of his game needed to be perfect for him to thrive in his first NFL season. His mechanics and game speed will improve in the offseason and that will coincide with his line turning around. Health was a major problem for the Bengals bigs in 2020. Nine different players started at least one game at any offensive line position. Based on their PFF grade, talent wasn’t on their side either. Their 2019 first-round selection Jonah Williams has played 10 games in his first two seasons but has shown plenty of potential. Cincinnati is expected to target offensive line early and often in the draft so this unit could be in for a surprising turnaround with an influx of talent in the offseason. That will be the key to unlocking Burrow, who was lauded as one of the best quarterback prospects in recent memory after shattering records in his final season at LSU. If he goes from being stifled by his line to supported by it, expect this offense to reach lightspeed in the very near future. Tyler Boyd would be one beneficiary of this but, for fantasy purposes, it’s hard to not buy into the hype that will surely mount around Tee Higgins after his promising rookie season. While playing on an offense that trotted out Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley for six games, he topped 900 yards and scored six times. Boyd still has the potential to be a PPR monster if this offense gets humming.
San Francisco 49ers
Unlike the Bengals, quarterback could be a need for the 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo’s fate in San Francisco has yet to be determined but it’s possible that the team explores other options under center. If they manage to find an upgrade at quarterback, we could finally get to appreciate how talented the weapons in San Francisco are. While not a perfect proxy for talent, Deebo Samuel’s rushing production in his rookie campaign acts as a great reminder of how dynamic he was before struggling through injuries in his second NFL season. He ran for 159 yards, third-most for a first-year receiver since the merger. The two players ahead of him: Tyreek Hill and D.J. Moore. Brandon Aiyuk was no slouch either. Their second first-round of 2020 missed four games this year. His full-season pace would have seen him hit 1,100 yards from scrimmage. Although running backs may not get much credit for their team’s success, Raheem Mostert has the two fastest plays by a running back in the regular season since Next Gen Stats started tracking ball-carrier speed four years ago. Only Tyreek Hill has been able to surpass his top-end speed. Lastly, George Kittle is the only man on the planet with a chance of matching the talent and production of Travis Kelce. Not only did he hold the record for receiving yards by a tight end until this season but GMs and armchair scouts alike will regularly bring him up as an elite blocker. The San Francisco offense is loaded with upside even if Jimmy G starts next year. In the event that they get an elite passer under center alongside Kyle Shanahan’s offensive mind, this could be one of the best offenses of 2021.
A bet on Miami is simply a bet on Tua Tagovailoa looking more like the elite passer he was at Alabama than the timid and scattershot thrower he appeared to be in his first NFL season. As a reminder, Tagovailoa left Alabama as the NCAA’s all-time leader in career yards per attempt (10.9), adjusted yards per attempt (12.7), and passer efficiency rating (199.9). Mac Jones passed him in one of those three categories but the other two still stand. He was a top-five selection in the 2019 NFL Draft despite sustaining a dislocated hip that threatened to stunt the start of his NFL career. The signals on him before he took his first pro rep were incredibly positive. His rookie season may not have lived up to the hype but it wasn’t drastically worse than Burrow’s initial campaign either. He ranked within six qualified quarterbacks of Burrow in nearly every efficiency metric including yards per attempt and QBR. Just like we expect Burrow to take a leap forward, we have to expect Tagovailoa to at least take Donald Parham-length strides in 2021 (he’s 6’8”). Beyond that, the Dolphins are eighth in cap space as of now and have a treasure trove of draft picks. They have two first-round selections this year and two seconds. One of those first is Houston’s pick, the third selection of the draft. No team is in a better position than Miami to retool their offense this spring. If Tagovailoa is able to become everything he was billed to be entering the league, this offense will buck the narratives that surrounded them leaving the 2020 season.