The first day of training camp is invariably a bit of a letdown. Only two teams, the Steelers and Cowboys, reported in full Wednesday, and all we really get to see are a few press scrums and candid shots of players walking through the parking lot. A shot of a "lean, mean Ben Roethlisberger" clutching an iPad was Adam Schefter's big takeaway from Steelers camp. Such were the meager joys.
But, it is a legitimately exciting day for football fans, because it marks the official end of the boring part of the offseason. In the coming days, we'll be getting reports about how Roethlisberger looks in Matt Canada's new-look offense and highlights of CeeDee Lamb torching whichever poor Cowboys defender happens to be matched up against him in one-on-ones. We'll start to learn about what the Steelers have in store for Najee Harris and we'll get to see Dak Prescott in action for the first time since his injury last season.
And, by next Tuesday, every team will have reported. We'll be up to our eyeballs in quotes about players being in the best shape of their life and beat writer musings on which Broncos QB looks the best. There will be a lot of noise, and my job is to separate the noise from what really matters.
In Tuesday's edition of the Fantasy Football Today Newsletter, we broke down what Cam Akers' injury means for the Rams, and you saw where Darrell Henderson ended up being drafted in our 12-team PPR mock draft. Plus, I offered up 10 of my favorite sleepers from around the league heading into the 2021 season.
Today, I've got my top breakout candidates, plus a preview of what to look for from the Steelers and Cowboys in camp. I've broken my breakouts up into two groups: "True breakouts" -- who I expect to do something they've never done before -- and "re-breakouts" -- you can call these bounceback candidates if you want. The point is to identify players with superstar potential who might be worth reaching on in your drafts. I also wrote about 10 players I really, really wish I could call breakout candidates, but who I don't quite trust yet. You can find that on CBSSports.com/Fantasy.
Tomorrow, I'll bring you some of my bust candidates along with answers to some of your best questions, so hit me up at Chris.Towers@CBSInteractive.com or FantasyFootball@CBSi.com to get your questions answered. And now, here are my breakout picks.
- Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington -- Gibson is one of the more popular breakout candidates out there, and it's not hard to see why. He was impressive as a rookie, ranking second in the NFL in broken tackles per rush attempt while dominating in the short-yardage game, and now he's playing in an offense that should provide even more opportunities. The biggest question is whether he can emerge as a bigger force in the receiving game after earning just 44 targets as a rookie. If he can get into the 70-80 target range, Gibson is going to put himself into top-12 contention.
- Diontae Johnson, WR, Steelers -- It's starting to sound like the Steelers really do intend to throw the bell less in 2021, which makes it increasingly difficult to see how they support three top-30 WRs. But I'm less concerned about that mattering for Johnson, who consistently earned the most targets on the team in 2020. And that was true both early in the season -- 23 targets in his first two games before missing most of the next three with injuries -- and late -- 47 in his final four, including the playoffs. Johnson will need to be more efficient (6.1 yards per attempt) to have a true breakout, but I know Ben Roethlisberger loves looking his way, and I have faith that 2021 will be better for Johnson.
- Jerry Jeudy, WR, Broncos -- No, I don't care about drops. Why do you ask? Jeudy dropped 10 passes as a rookie, including six in one particularly ugly performance in Week 16, but I think the more relevant thing to take away from his rookie season is that he earned a strong target share despite seeing a bunch of downfield targets. His low catch rate was related to his drops to an extent, but he also had the lowest rate of catchable targets in the league -- a result of his downfield usage as well as Drew Lock's erratic play. Jeudy was able to get open constantly, and he's going to benefit from improved QB play in Denver -- either because Lock takes a much-needed step forward or because Teddy Bridgewater provides a steadier hand on the wheel. And he's going to emerge as the lead option in an offense on the rise. I can't shake the feeling that Jeudy is going to be a top-12 Fantasy WR this time next year.
- Darrell Henderson, RB, Rams -- Henderson obviously figures to see a larger role in the wake of Cam Akers' injury, and I think he's going to acquit himself well. On a per-carry and per-target basis, Henderson was pretty solid last season, and actually wasn't much worse than Akers. In fact, if you look at stats like broken tackle rate and yards after contact, Henderson wasn't worse than Akers at all. There will be some who are skeptical about him because of the fact that he lost the job to Akers last season -- and has always struggled with injuries over his two NFL seasons -- but he has late-round picks and undrafted free agents to compete with for playing time, which means if he's good enough, he probably won't have much real competition for playing time. This could be a very, very good offense for a running back, and I think Henderson is going to be good enough to make the most of it.
- Raheem Mostert, RB, 49ers -- When the only argument against a player is health-related, you should probably buy that player. I'm not saying Mostert is guaranteed to stay healthy in 2021, far from it. But, there isn't really much question as to who will be the 49ers lead back, and there's absolutely no question about whether Mostert will be good when he's on the field. He won't get the touches many other backs do, but he's going to be one of the most efficient backs in the NFL. Mostert has played more than 40% of the snaps in 16 games in his career, including the playoffs, and he's put up 1,201 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 218 carries with 28 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns on 36 targets in those games. If Mostert manages to play most of the season, he's going to be a must-start running back. I'd rather bet on that than hope that Melvin Gordon or James Conner can carve out a big role all season or bet on either of the Tampa Bay running backs. Mostert is one of the best running back values in drafts right now.
- Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys -- I'm not interested in "best shape of my life" type comments, so don't think this is influenced by that at all. It's all about a belief that Elliott's struggles after the first month or so of the 2020 were almost entirely about the context he suddenly found himself in, with a backup QB and an offensive line missing as many as four starters at a time. The Cowboys don't have much margin for error with how they are built, and it's entirely possible things go south again, but Elliott was in the conversation for the top RB spots before Prescott's injury, and I'm very confident in a big bounceback campaign.
- Miles Sanders, RB, Eagles -- A lot will come down to Sanders' performance in the passing game. He dropped 13.5% of his targets, including six in the first six games, and that clearly cost him as Carson Wentz and the coaching staff seemed to lose faith in his ability to make plays down the field. Sanders was still very effective in the running game, but if he's going to get back into the RB1 discussion like we thought he would be after his rookie year, he'll have to do it with a valuable role in the passing game. If he's lining out wide and earning targets down the field like he was at times as a rookie, Sanders could start to look like a top-five RB pretty quickly, given how efficient he has proven to be as a runner -- and Jalen Hurts' skills in the read-option game will only help open running lanes for him. We've seen the upside from Sanders before.
- Michael Thomas, WR, Saints -- This is one of the ones I'm most confident in. I'd be even more confident if I knew Jameis Winston was going to be his starting quarterback. Thomas' disappointing 2020 comes with at least one big caveat -- he just wasn't healthy. He left Week 1 with a high-ankle sprain, missed five games, came back for six, before ultimately being placed on IR as the injury resurfaced. He still managed a 1,000-yard pace, including a 120-catch, 1,400-yard pace in the four games Taysom Hill started. His upside is even higher than that if Winston plays because we should see an increase in passing volume for the Saints, along with what I bet would be more downfield targets for Thomas. He's a year removed from being the consensus No. 1 WR, and he's one of the best values in the game right now.
- Julio Jones, WR, Titans -- Jones has never been cheaper than he is right now, as he's WR17 in NFC ADP. Given how much he struggled with hamstring injuries, the fact that he's changing teams, and the fact that he's 32, it makes sense that his price would be lower. However, it's worth noting that Jones was as good as ever in 2020 when he was on the field, posting a career-high 11.3 yards per attempt while averaging 100 yards per game in his seven healthy contests. Changing teams can often be a challenge for wide receivers, and Jones is no longer the unquestioned No. 1 on his own team now that he's sharing the field with A.J. Brown. However, the Titans should funnel most of their targets to one of the two, and the presence of Brown could mean even less defensive attention on Jones, especially in the red zone. Derrick Henry will help in that regard, as well. A career-high in touchdowns is not out of the question at all. ,
- T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts -- The last time we saw Hilton play with a strong-armed, athletic quarterback, he put up 76 catches, 1270 yards, and six touchdowns in 14 games in 2018. Okay, Wentz is no prime Andrew Luck, and a 32-year-old Hilton shouldn't be expected to do the same things a 29-year-old did. But, he proved there was something in the tank down the stretch of 2020, catching 27 passes for 435 yards and five touchdowns in his final six games, and he did that with Philip Rivers, one of the most conservative passes in the league at QB. While Rivers ranked 22nd among QBs with at least 300 passes with a 7.2 yard average intended air yards, Carson Wentz was third at 8.8 yards despite playing with a worse receiving corps and offensive line. If Wentz can bounce back -- a fairly big if, to be fair -- Hilton could be in line for one more big year on a one-year contract.
Cowboys Training Camp preview
Expectations are always high in Cowboys camp, and they should be. If everything goes right, this should be one of the best offenses in the league, and they've thrown a lot of resources at the defense. It's July, so everyone is healthy, and when everyone is healthy, this squad looks formidable. For more on the Cowboys, check out my preview for the 2021 season here.
Two biggest questions
How does Dak Prescott look?
Before we start wondering about whether CeeDee Lamb might be ready to pass Amari Cooper in the pecking order or whether Elliott can have his bounceback season, we'll need to see Prescott out there, looking like himself. All signs point to Prescott being fully recovered from the ankle injury that ended his season, and if that's the case … well, you know how high the ceiling is.
Can everyone get through camp healthy?
When you've got a star-studded roster with high salaries, you're going to have to sacrifice somewhere, and for the Cowboys, it's in the depth. Few teams could thrive after losing their starting quarterback and most of the offensive line, but that line is also starting to get up there in age, so injuries could become more and more a part of life. If they can get out of camp mostly healthy, it would go a long way to helping the Cowboys live up to the loftiest expectations around them.
Player to watch: Blake Jarwin -- Jarwin entered last season as the Cowboys starting tight end, but suffered a torn ACL in the first game and never got his chance. Dalton Schultz filled in admirably and gave us a sense of what kind of role a healthy Jarwin could have, as he had 89 targets and four touchdowns. Don't forget about Jarwin when looking for late-round TE, especially if he is healthy and draws praise in camp.
Steelers Training Camp preview
The Steelers are stuck in an uncomfortable place, with Roethlisberger sure looking like he was pretty close to washed up in 2020. They opted to bring him back for this season, and there's a lot to like about this offense around him. That should make his life easier. The question is, can he take advantage of it? For more on the Steelers, check out my preview for the 2021 season here.
Two biggest questions
How does Roethlisberger look?
This is actually a hard question to get a real answer for. For one thing, Roethlisberger looking spry and firing deep balls in August after a full offseason of rest is a lot different than him doing it in November and December with a pass rush in his face. Still, Roethlisberger is learning a new offense with a new offensive line, and it'll be worth watching, especially in the preseason to see whether he's still trying to get the ball out as quickly as possible, or if he's willing to sit back and let plays develop. That could be the key to everything for the Steelers' offense.
How does the offensive line look?
If you go back to the 2019 offseason, the Steelers have lost six different starting offensive linemen, and the only holdover from last year's team on the line is Chuks Okorafor, who started 15 games at right tackle and is now moving over to left tackle. Cohesion is especially important along the offensive line, so the best we can hope for here is that the Steelers settle on a starting five quickly and can avoid injuries. Any sign that they're rotating guys in will be cause for concern because they'll need all the reps they can get.
Player to watch: Najee Harris -- I mean, after Roethlisberger, obviously. And all five offensive linemen. But if this offense is going to be able to successfully transition to more of a run-heavy approach, Harris will have to prove up to the task. I'm betting he will, so I'll be mostly looking to see what folks at camp are saying about his usage in the passing game. If we see him splitting out wide and garnering some of the downfield looks Le'Veon Bell used to earn, his stock could keep rising.