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Predicting the Breakout Stars for the NFL Playoffs

The NFL playoffs are where the stars shine, but which players will surprise us by breaking out when it matters most?

A trip to the Super Bowl doesn’t always happen because of a team’s biggest star. Sometimes it’s the players we least expect.

You know, the players with the smallest contracts and limited playtime. The ones who step into a starting role due to injuries or new schemes, and get a shot at making an impact.

These are the players with the most to prove and they make for great stories when the stars align.

So, with only eight teams remaining in the playoffs, let’s have a look at which players could be poised for a big breakout performance in the postseason.

WR Scotty Miller
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

He showed flashes of potential last season β€” 33 receptions, 501 receiving yards, and three touchdowns, not to mention a big TD in the NFC Championship game. But Scotty Miller’s 2021 campaign has been tempered (five receptions and 38 receiving yards) mostly due to a loaded lineup of wideouts ahead of him.

But that was then and this is now, and the 5’9 wideout will get his chance to shine thanks to a depleted Bucs roster that’s missing Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. And even though he’s listed as a pass-catcher, Miller puts in time on special teams, too, so don’t be surprised if he makes an impact play other than on the offense.

Age: 24
Current Contract: Four years, $2.6 million
Breakout Potential:
In the Division Wild Card matchup, Miller forced a fumble on the Eagles’ punt return in the third quarter and the Bucs then converted the turnover into a touchdown.

RB Cam Akers
Los Angeles Rams

Five-and-a-half months removed from tearing his Achilles, Cam Akers is back carrying the rock, helping the Rams make a run. It’s a small miracle he’s running again, much less making cuts and evading tackles. It’s the ultimate comeback story and it could get even better.

The 5’10 running back, who ran for 625 yards as a rookie in 2020 and totaled 2,875 rushing yards in three seasons at FSU, put together an impressive performance in the Division Wild Card matchup against the Cardinals, amassing 95 all-purpose yards in his first playoff appearance. If Akers can bust through a stout Bucs defense this weekend, he’ll surely be someone to watch in the NFC Championship game.

Age: 22
Current Contract: Four years, $6.2 million
Breakout Potential:
Akers executed the perfect trick play in the third quarter against the Cardinals after taking a pass from Odell Beckham Jr. for 40 yards and setting the Rams up for a touchdown.

TE Dawson Knox
Buffalo Bills

A top-tier tight end, Dawson Knox has put together his best season yet, totaling 49 receptions and 587 receiving yards. He also set a team single-season touchdown reception record for a tight end with nine, making him arguably one of the most productive tight ends in football this season.

A two-touchdown performance against the Patriots in the AFC Wild Card game may already qualify as his breakout performance, but it’s fair to assume Knox is not quite done yet this postseason. His big day against the Pats also earned him a spot in the record books, becoming the first tight end in NFL history with two touchdown catches in the first quarter of a playoff game.

Age: 25
Current Contract: Four years, $3.5 million
Breakout Potential:
Knox’s first touchdown against the Pats was an almost impossible catch in the corner of the end zone following a broken play.

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WR Ja’Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals

He’s been virtually unstoppable all season long, and with his first taste of playoff football now behind him, we may be in for even more from Ja’Marr Chase. The standout rookie logged 81 receptions for 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns this season, making him one of the most dangerous wideouts in the game.

The 6-foot receiver, who was the fifth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, put together a solid playoff debut against the Las Vegas Raiders, dialing up the opposing defense for nine receptions and 116 receiving yards. Chase is easily the top target for QB Joe Burrow, so don’t be surprised if he pulls in even more touchdowns in the week(s) to come.

Age: 21
Current Contract: Four years, $31 million
Breakout Potential:
On one of the Bengals’ final drives, Chase pulled in a pass for 19 yards, earning him the franchise record for the most receiving yards by a rookie in a playoff game.

WR Brandon Aiyuk
San Francisco 49ers

While some would say he’s gone through a bit of a sophomore slump in his second regular season in the NFL, Brandon Aiyuk is well-positioned to prove the pundits wrong. While it hasn’t been easy being opposite fellow WR Deebo Samuel, Aiyuk has put together a decent resume despite a noticeable drop in targets, accounting for 56 receptions, 826 receiving yards, and five touchdowns.

His lack of consistency has been noticeable, but Aiyuk is almost always good for a handful of receptions and 50 yards per game. Despite failing to reach the end zone in the Division Wild Card game against the Cowboys, Aiyuk hauled in the five receptions for 66 yards, helping the Niners move on in the playoffs.

Age: 23
Current Contract: Four years, $12.5 million
Breakout Potential: Aiyuk scored the winning touchdown reception in overtime to help the Niners beat the Bengals 26-23 in a Week 14 matchup that proved to be one of the most thrilling games of the season.

RB AJ Dillon
Green Bay Packers

Dillon suited up for every game this season, helping the Packers keep their run game alive both before and after Aaron Jones went down with a knee injury in Week 10. The dual-threat running back amassed 1,116 all-purpose yards β€” 803 receiving and 313 receiving with seven total touchdowns.

In only his sophomore season, Dillon has yet to solidify himself as a major force, despite plenty of hard yardage and a pair of two-touchdown games this season. While he has yet to eclipse 100 yards rushing this season, Dillon may get the chance with Jones still reeling and will certainly see targets with Aaron Rodgers using him out of the backfield.

Age: 23
Current Contract: Four years, $5.3 million
Breakout Potential:
Against the Rams in Week 12, Dillon carried 20 times for 69 yards β€” 61 of which came after contact β€” proving he is indeed the bruiser in Green Bay’s backfield.

OT Orlando Brown Jr.
Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ blindside blocker will be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, especially if he can keep Patrick Mahomes unscathed through the playoffs.

Brown, who earned his third Pro Bowl berth in four years, has redefined what it means to play the offensive line position of a left tackle after playing mostly on the right side when he was with the Ravens.

Age: 25
Current Contract: Four years, $3.5 million
Breakout Potential: Brown is a big part of why the Chiefs ended up with the fourth-fewest sacks allowed (28) in the NFL.

DE Jeffery Simmons
Tennessee Titans

As the anchor of the Titans’ defensive line, Simmons has easily been one of the most disruptive defensive players in the NFL this season.  Having played in every game this season β€” totaling 46 total tackles, 34 solo tackles, and 8.5 sacks, he’s a big reason why the Titans ended up ranked No. 2 in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 84.6 yards per game.

While he was named Second-Team All-Pro, his opponents this postseason should take note. Simmons may have a chip on his shoulder after he was snubbed from a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Age: 24
Current Contract: Four years, $12.6 million
Breakout Potential: Simmons put together a three-sack performance in Titan’s Week 9 win over the Rams.

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