2021's REAL breakout players
Which players are primed to hit the big time this year? And who's not going to get there despite the hype?
Minicamps have wrapped up, and every year around this time, we hear the same thing: [insert name of player] looks better than ever! Watch out, other teams, because he’s primed to have a huge season!
Even if offseason hype often fails to live up to expectations on the field, you have to admire the optimism. And, on occasion, it does accurately predict a player’s breakout season. Just a year ago, Josh Allen was talking about how he had worked on his mechanics; months later, he’d post career highs (by a lot!) in completion percentage, yards per throw, and passer rating. In just one year, Allen made the jump from exciting but erratic quarterback to an MVP candidate.
He wasn’t the only one, either. Fred Warner was a bright spot for the 49ers in his All-Pro 2020 season. The same could be said for Jessie Bates III with the Bengals — he emerged as one of the best safeties in the league (and the highest-graded one, per PFF) last season.
Who’s set to follow their lead from minicamp standouts to NFL stars? That’s what we’re speculating about in this week’s conversation.
Because this is the NFL, we’re going to start with the quarterback position. Which young passer do you think is ready to take that next step?
Sarah Hardy: You might think I’m cheating by saying Baker Mayfield — he had a pretty good year in 2020 — but I’d argue that we don’t quite know what kind of quarterback he is yet. He followed a promising rookie season with a sophomore slump, and then struggled with consistency last season until he finished on a strong note when the Browns were trying to secure a playoff bid. That last part is why I have high hopes for him in 2021.
If your memory needs a little refreshing, let’s take a quick look at his stats from the 2020 regular season.
Mayfield, in the first 10 games: 60.1 completion %, 185 yards/game, 15 TDs, 7 INT, 89.7 passer rating, 6.98 yards/attempt
Mayfield, in the last six games: 65.2 completion %, 285.5 yards/game, 11 TDs, 1 INT, 103.4 passer rating, 7.75 yards/attempt
Around midseason, Mayfield hit his stride in Kevin Stefanski’s offense, and he saved his best game for the playoffs when he dropped three touchdowns and a 115.2 passer rating in an upset win over the Steelers. Now that the Browns are on the rise and Mayfield finally has a stable coaching situation for the first time, I think he’ll carry that momentum into the new season, and, like fellow 2018 draftee Josh Allen, take his game to the next level.
Christian D’Andrea: Ugh. You’re gonna make me say Sam Darnold, aren’t you.
FINE. Sam Darnold.
The former Jet was never given a full cupboard in New York. His top wideout was Jamison Crowder — the same guy the team convinced to take a pay cut this offseason. His tight end rotation was a bunch of zombie extras from The Walking Dead. His running back rotation topped out with post-crisis Le’Veon Bell.
As a result, Darnold arguably got worse every year he played in north Jersey. His passing depth dropped, and while that led to fewer turnovers it also made him a boring quarterback stuck throwing to nobodies and getting sacked roughly every 12th pass attempt (his 8.8 percent sack rate in 2020 was third-worst among starting quarterbacks).
Now he moves to Carolina, where he’ll get a dynamite wideout duo in D.J. Moore and old friend Robby Anderson. That pair combined for nearly 2,300 receiving yards between them last fall despite catching passes from the risk-averse Teddy Bridgewater. While Anderson and Darnold weren’t exactly a dynamic duo in New York — Anderson’s numbers and efficiency dipped when the team made the switch from Josh McCown to the then-rookie — Anderson’s diversifying route tree under Matt Rhule makes him a very different target than the guy he’d been as a Jet.
Darnold will also go from playing behind an offensive line that ranked fourth-worst in the NFL in pressure rate allowed to one that ranked 10th. That group will also be clearing a path for one of the best two-way running backs in the nation in Christian McCaffrey. That’ll create options downfield for the aforementioned stellar 1-2 punch at receiver (plus whatever second-round pick Terrace Marshall can bring to the table).
Plus, he gets to play for vaunted offensive-minded head coach who *isn’t* Adam Gase, which alone should be worth a 10-point jump in passer rating. If Darnold can just be average in 2021 he could have three different 1,000-yard receivers and the Panthers could look like geniuses for freeing him from whichever level of hell in which the Jets organization exists.
Ryan Van Bibber: I have two WTF picks here, Jalen Hurts and Drew Lock, but I’m only going to focus on Lock. (Hurts has a whole four starts under his belt, so it’s just too soon.) So far, what we’ve seen from Lock reminds me of Jameis Winston; he’s either making a big play or turning the ball over. As exciting as that is, it’s not exactly a recipe for long-term success. But the deck really was stacked against him last year. Denver had Ja'Wuan James for all of three games since bringing him over from Miami in 2019. Garett Bolles is a good left tackle, and they’ve added talent to the interior line. The picture got worse with the skill players. Cortland Sutton didn’t even make it to 50 snaps last year. Tight end Noah Fant played all season with injuries. Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler looked pretty good as rookies last year.
If the majority of these players can stay healthy, Lock will have the makings of an elite offense around him. He’s either going to breakout or bust. The latter is probably the most likely outcome, but with just 18 games in two seasons, it’s too soon to give up on him completely.
A quarterback can’t do it alone. Which skill player will be “most improved” this season?
SH: I’ll stick with the AFC North and go with Tee Higgins. Despite a strong rookie campaign, Higgins flew under the radar last season — probably because he plays for the Bengals and once Joe Burrow got hurt, he was forced to catch passes from Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley. Still, Higgins managed to lead the team with 908 receiving yards and six TD catches. If Burrow had played all 16 games, then Higgins was, as Christian pointed out earlier this week, on pace for 1,118 receiving yards.
With a healthy Burrow and speedy first-rounder Ja'Marr Chase to play alongside of, Higgins — who reportedly turned heads during minicamp — should, like his offensive coordinator put it, “be a problem” for whoever has to line up against him.
CD: I still don’t trust him near the goal line, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire will have a tremendous opportunity to prove he was worth a first-round pick in 2020. The former LSU star was inconsistent as a rookie, fighting off injury and trading 100-yard performances with ones where he couldn’t breach 40 yards on the ground.
Some of those struggles can be chalked up to the offensive line that became a fatal flaw in Super Bowl 55. That unit’s been mightily reformed, with run-game road paver Joe Thuney arriving in free agency and space-clearer Orlando Brown Jr. coming via trade. Veteran Pro Bowler Kyle Long also joined the club to chase a Super Bowl ring after sitting out last season.
These improvements won’t make a difference unless Edwards-Helaire stays healthy and levels up. Kansas City actually rated out as above average when it came to clearing space for its ballcarriers last season, but Edwards-Helaire’s yards after contact number ranked just 25th among 51 qualified runners last fall. He’s capable of doing more in a pass-first offense loaded with playmakers, as proven by his 1,400-yard, 16-touchdown season in LSU’s national championship season. 2021 could be the year he shows it.
RVB: I want to say Diontae Johnson, but the Steelers’ decision to hang onto an expired Ben Roethlisberger is going to make it tough for the receivers to put up “breakout” numbers. Instead, I’ll go with Lions second-year running back D’Andre Swift. He didn’t see a ton of action as a rookie, playing in just 13 games. But he carried the ball 114 times for 521 yards and eight touchdowns, an impressive 4.6 yards per carry. He’ll be on the field a lot because he’s also an asset in the passing game, catching 46 balls for 357 yards and a pair of scores.
Now that the Lions are starting Jared Goff, it bodes well for Swift to catch a ton of checkdowns. And let’s be honest, it’s not like the Lions have much else to their offense besides Swift.
Let’s move on to the other side of the ball. Which defensive player is poised to make the leap?
SH: Calling anyone the “best player on the field” during minicamp seems like a recipe for disappointment in the regular season, but I think Rashan Gary could be the exception. Like Mayfield, Gary went on a tear to the end the 2020 season. He accumulated around half of his season total in sacks, tackles, TFL, and QB hits in just his last five games (while also adding 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits against the Rams in the postseason).
Dating back at least to when he was a five-star prospect, Gary has long possessed the physical skills to dominate on the field, but those gifts were largely wasted at Michigan (not that I’m complaining there) and have only flashed from time to time in the NFL. Yet the way he ended last season for the Packers, and how he’s looked so far this offseason, suggest that his potential is finally turning into production. If so, godspeed to the quarterbacks he’ll be hunting down each Sunday.
CD: Hell, let’s stick with the Michigan men. Josh Uche didn’t bring much to the table for the Patriots last season. He played just 18 percent of the team’s defensive snaps due, in part, to injury and made just nine tackles.
That redshirt year gave him time to learn the Pats’ complex defense, and now he looks primed for a second-year leap. He’s already the fastest edge rusher on the roster, and that speed will be an asset when it comes to chasing down running backs. The returns of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy will provide the foundation that allows him to build on the pass rushing instincts he honed as a Wolverine (14.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss his final two seasons). He made waves at New England’s first minicamp, “roasting” the team’s typically solid tackles on the edge.
But Uche could be overshadowed by a fellow 2020 second-rounder in Foxborough. Kyle Dugger had to make the jump from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne to the Patriot secondary last fall and established himself as a viable NFL starter in year one. Another year of familiarity with NFL passing offenses should only unlock the potential Bill Belichick saw in him last spring. Dugger’s late season breakout pegs him as a player who could jump to Pro Bowl status in 2021. He and Uche could be the next standard bearers for another dominant Belichick defense.
RVB: Vita Vea is never going to be a household name among interior defensive linemen like, say, Aaron Donald, but I think he’s going to be a big part of a Buccaneers team that’s already a favorite to repeat their Championship this season. Stephen White’s writeup of Vea ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft — my last season as a paid member of the NFL media! — still stands out to me. Vea is hella good, but his career so far has been more about injuries. He played a total of five games last year. But if he’s healthy for a full season in 2021, I feel like he’s going to crush a lot of pockets.
It’s kind of hard to consider rookies as breakout candidates when they haven’t even played an NFL game yet, so we’ll go a slightly different route here. Which under-the-radar first-year player has the best chance of making an immediate impact?
SH: Michael Carter, the Jets’ fourth-round pick from UNC and not their fifth-round pick from Duke, is probably already atop the running back depth chart.
Granted, he doesn’t exactly have the toughest competition, but don’t be surprised if Carter is starting in Week 1. Although he lacks size at 5’8, he runs strong and has good vision (he averaged 7.98 yards per carry as a senior). He also has the kind of pass-catching ability that’ll make him a favorite weapon of Zach Wilson right away.
CD: Dyami Brown slid all the way to the third round thanks to 2021’s completely stacked group of wideout talent. He would have been wasted on the Alex Smith checkdown offense of 2020, but he’ll have a chance to contribute immediately thanks to the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Brown is an intermediate/deep ball savant who had 106 catches for 2,133 yards in his final two seasons at North Carolina (a sterling 20.1 yard per catch average).
Brown now gets to play with the guy who went to Tampa and made DeSean Jackson a viable deep threat again (Jackson, who averaged 18.9 yards per catch in 2018, was so happy about this he briefly turned Fitzpatrick into Conor McGregor).
Fitz’s average target depth declined in each of the last two seasons, but that was with a Dolphins team that lacked viable long range targets behind DeVante Parker (who isn’t particularly reliable in that sense anyway). Now he gets a legit college burner in Brown to pair with Terry McLaurin, whose reliability over the middle should free up big gains for the rookie along the sideline.
RVB: Terrance Marshall was criminally underrated in this year’s draft, and I’m still kind of shocked he fell into the second round. He’s going to start right away as Carolina’s third receiver, and while Christian McCaffrey is going to eat up the majority of targets in that offense, I think Marshall’s going to get more looks as the season goes on. He’s so explosive, and he can play in the slot. His ability to win contested catches should mean wins in the red zone too as well as an increasing level of trust from his QB. Speaking of, that QB is Sam Darnold, so I hope Christian is right.
Switching gears, which potential breakout candidate are you not sold on?
SH: As much fun as it is to blame all of the Jets’ recent woes on Adam Gase, he’s not entirely at fault for Sam Darnold’s lack of development. And I’m not sure a change of scenery and a non-idiot coach will flip the switch and allow Darnold to live up to his first-round pedigree. Is that all it takes to fix the injury issues and unsteady play that plagued Darnold during his time with the Jets? Probably not.
So no matter what cliched minicamp compliments Robby Anderson and Christian McCaffrey throw Darnold’s way, I can’t bring myself to buy in on the guy who finished last season at the very bottom of the league in passer rating — especially after his word salad answers about why he’s not vaccinated.
The guy who caught mono as an adult and was subsequently diagnosed with an enlarged spleen and who has never played a full 16-game season refusing to get the vaccine? Yeah, I’m not trusting anything about this dude. Well, scratch that. I fully trust that he’ll find his way on the Reserve/Covid-19 list at some point this upcoming season.
CD: Ah shit, can I change my pick for breakout quarterback? I forgot Darnold possesses all the logical capacity of a late-stage Nicolas Cage movie.
ANYWAY, I’m not sold on Damien Harris as a fantasy star simply because he’s a Patriot running back and no matter how good he is he’s at risk of losing carries to Brandon Bolden or some undrafted free agent any given week. I’m also not super high on Irv Smith despite Kyle Rudolph’s departure from Minnesota, which might just be a sign of Mike Zimmer testing my gullibility:
And I don’t think Najee Harris is going to be the savior the Steelers hope he’ll be, for reasons outlined here but magnified by the team’s recent release of perennial Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro.
RVB: I’ve seen some buzz for James Conner recapturing his old form reunited with his former running backs coach in Arizona. I’m not buying it. Conner looked broken down last year, plodding his way through. Right now, it looks like he’ll be limited to work in short yardage or goal-line situations, getting some additional work playing out the clock if the Cardinals can actually get a lead to sit on. All that’s going to do is take the ball out of Chase Edmonds’ hands, which maybe isn’t a bad thing considering he too looks best in a part-time role. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the Cardinals’ running game outside of Kyler Murray.