The 2020 NFL season didn’t go the way some players would have wanted, not to mention coaches, personnel people, fans and fantasy owners.
We come into any season with expectations for improvement, but sometimes it doesn’t shake out that way. That means that there’s always a good chance for a breakout season in the future.
So, let’s name one candidate for a breakout 2021 season for each NFL team.
There were few worse debuts than that of Isaiah Simmons, who was lit up in Week 1 by Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers to the point that he barely played for the next several weeks before getting worked back into the defense over the second half of the season.
Simmons was always likely to have a bumpy transition to the NFL, learning an entirely new position after plying his trade as a defensive back in college. Simmons ended the season with 376 defensive snaps and a mediocre 59.9 PFF grade, but he flashed playmaking ability and should have a much better season in 2021 after the learning experience of his rookie season.
It was a tough season for most rookie defenders, particularly so for defensive backs, but Terrell flashed some very solid play at times for the Falcons. The Clemson product certainly had some bad days, and his overall PFF grade of 60.8 for the season was merely an average mark, but he was a superstar compared to most other rookie corners. Terrell recorded one pick and seven pass breakups, and with 102 targets on the season, he has been extensively tested despite missing some time on the COVID list. Development isn’t always linear, but Terrell could take a significant jump in Year 2 given his relative success as a rookie.
The Ravens were one of the toughest teams in the league to identify a clear breakout candidate for, and so we look to a player who impressed on limited snaps. Third-round pick Justin Madubuike played 259 snaps in the regular season and had his best game against the league's best offensive line this year (Cleveland). Madubuike notched 10 total pressures and put enough quality on tape — including a 90.4 overall grade in Week 14 — to suggest he is deserving of a much bigger role in 2021.
There was a lot of hype surrounding Olver as a draft prospect, but the former No. 9 overall pick has been something of a disappointment in the NFL thus far. A player whose pass-rush production never matches the absurd athleticism he showed in college, he has been slow to develop that part of his game while at the same time struggling far more against the run than he did before turning pro.
Oliver earned a PFF run-defense grade of just 30.1 this season, but his pass-rush grade jumped more than 10 grading points and he set a new high for total pressures (36). If Oliver continues to develop as a pass-rushing force, 2021 could be a big season for a player whose athleticism remains off the charts.
It’s tough sledding at the cornerback position in today’s NFL — passing offenses have never been more efficient, and even good corners often struggle to contain receivers all game long.
Jackson has flashed plenty of ability since coming into the league as a second-round pick but this past season looked like a step in the right direction despite the uptick in passing production league-wide. Jackson allowed a passer rating of 78.5 when targeted, the lowest figure of his career, and he didn't give up a catch longer than 28 yards all season. If Jackson can take another small step forward in 2021, he could break out as a star performer at the position.
Whitehair already has an elite season under his belt at the NFL level (86.5 grade, 2016) but has since struggled to nail down consistent play between injuries and being moved between positions. He played both guard and center this past year, and there was a massive split in his performance level at those spots. Whitehair’s overall PFF grade was 60.4 at center, and his pass blocking grade was in the 20s. But when lined up at guard, his overall grade shot up to 84.7 and his pass-blocking grade was 72.2. Whitehair could have a pro-bowl caliber campaign if he starts all season at guard in 2021.
Sample played extensively in his second season, and you’d be stretching the truth to say there was much there to suggest he would dominate in Year 3. Still, he was solid as a blocker at the very least, which should at least continue to earn him playing time, and as a former second-round pick, there should be something there. His career is only 976 snaps old, and while you would like to see more than 400 yards from those snaps, he did break six tackles and generate more than five yards per reception after the catch in 2020.
OK, so clearly Odell Beckham Jr. broke out in NFL terms years ago — with one of the most dominant rookie seasons in league history, no less — but things have been ugly during his time with the Browns.
Cleveland’s offense has actually been significantly better without Beckham on the field than with him. While many consider the logical conclusion to that being for Beckham to get traded away, I’m instead going to say that a coach as good as Kevin Stefanski can figure out how to mesh one of the game’s most talented players with an offense that cooks on gas in his absence. Thus, 2021 will be a breakout season for Odell Beckham Jr. in a Cleveland Browns uniform.
Early in the season, it looked as though Diggs would have one of the worst rookie seasons we have ever seen, as he was being set on fire by opposing passing attacks. However, something changed after around six weeks of action, and Diggs didn’t earn a PFF coverage grade lower than 62.9 from then on. Overall, Diggs tallied 12 pass breakups as well as three interceptions, and he allowed a passer rating of 96.9. The Alabama product ended the year with an overall PFF grade of 62.7, a pretty solid number given how badly rookie defenders struggled in 2020.
If Diggs maintains the level he finished the season at, he will be a solid breakout player in 2021, but if he takes another step forward with a full offseason, he will really be cooking.
Jerry Jeudy was being let down by one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL for most of the season, but then on the few occasions that Drew Lock actually started finding him with the football, he let himself down with drops.
Jeudy ended up with 12 drops on the season for the second-worst drop rate among all wide receivers (18.8%). That’s concerning, but drops fluctuate (Amari Cooper once had 18 in a season), and Jeudy was getting open with sophisticated route running all year long. That’s the kind of thing that translates and should lead to a big season sooner rather than later, just as long as he finds a quarterback who can deliver the football.
With most of the Detroit receiver corps slated to hit free agency, there should be a big opening at the position for a player like Quintez Cephus to capitalize on. If Matthew Stafford remains a Lion, he will also have a solid quarterback to get him the ball. Cephus saw 32 targets as a rookie, catching 20 of them for 349 yards and two scores. He generated a passer rating of 120.4 and should find himself significantly higher on the depth chart this season than he was as a rookie. Cephus has an excellent opportunity to be a much bigger player for Detroit in Year 2.
The Packers have been patching things together at linebacker for much of the 2020 season, but one player who impressed on limited snaps was Kamal Martin. He played fewer than 200 snaps this year, but his best four performances were the ones he started, and he ended the season with a 70.8 PFF coverage grade in a campaign where linebackers were routinely abused against the pass.
Martin showed some skills that are not easy to find, and given Green Bay’s relative lack of strength at the position, he should be making a push for a much bigger role in 2021.
Houston’s roster is devoid of talent, so even finding a breakout candidate who has upside is not that easy. It was such a challenge, in fact, that the player I selected may not even be on the roster next season. Pharaoh Brown is slated to hit free agency, but it seems like it would be crazy for the team not to retain him given the flashes we saw in 2020. He played only 270 snaps but earned an 81.0 overall PFF grade and put together his best games when he was elevated to a starting role due to injury.
Against the Titans in Week 17, he caught all five targets thrown his way and carried Tennessee defenders for extra yardage. Over the season, he generated a 151.5 passer rating when targeted by Deshaun Watson.
Colts defensive back Marvell Tell III didn’t play in 2020, choosing to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. But that may have just postponed a breakout season for him. A former college safety, Tell converted to cornerback in the NFL and had a solid rookie campaign, albeit one where he saw just 254 snaps. He had five pass breakups from 34 targets and ended the season with a 67.6 overall PFF grade. Given his inexperience at the position and his physical gifts, an improvement was a pretty reasonable expectation. It still is in 2021.
You could certainly make the case that Laviska Shenault Jr. has already broken out, posting 600 receiving yards and five scores in his debut season. But with a couple of games missed due to injury, as well as some ugly quarterback play, it feels like we could be due for so much more in 2021. Shenault generated a 119.0 passer rating, the best among all rookies with at least 50 targets in 2020. If Trevor Lawrence becomes the Jaguars' top pick and hits the ground running in the NFL, Shenault could be in line for a monster Year 2.
Rookie cornerbacks were more or less toasted in 2020, but the highest-graded player of the group was Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed, who ended the regular season with a 73.9 overall PFF grade — one of only two rookies to top 70.0. Sneed allowed only a 53.4 passer rating when targeted, by far the best mark among rookies, and was the only first-year corner below 90.0. He was flagged just twice for penalties. Injuries were the only thing keeping him from having a far bigger season as a rookie, as he featured on only 410 defensive snaps in the regular season.
Somehow, despite Henry Ruggs III being drafted to add a deep threat to the Raiders' offense, Nelson Agholor was the wideout who stretched the field. Meanwhile, Ruggs struggled to find a niche within the system. Agholor is a free agent this offseason, and the Raiders won’t sit idle while a weapon like Ruggs goes as unused as he was in Year 1. Ruggs was targeted only 43 times, but he averaged 17.4 yards per catch and 5.7 yards after the catch. His speed clearly still plays at this level, at which point all he needs is the right looks to do real damage in 2021.
Almost as strange as Justin Herbert continuing to drop bombs in the face of the blitz or under pressure every week as a rookie was how many of them were landing in the hands of Tyron Johnson, an undrafted rookie from 2019 out of Oklahoma State. Johnson didn’t play in his first season but saw 265 snaps of action this year on which he caught 20 passes for 398 yards. Throwing the ball Johnson’s way yielded a 156.7 passer rating, just a hair shy of a perfect mark. He graded well in every facet of play, and he needs to see the field significantly more in 2021.
Aaron Donald is a one-man pass-rush upfront, but the Rams have been trying to find quality help alongside him for a while. Michael Brockers has been solid, but the team wouldn’t mind moving on if it found a cheaper alternative. Sebastian Joseph-Day has played a little under 500 snaps in each of the past two seasons, seeing his impact and overall PFF grade steadily improve over that time. He had 38 defensive stops and a 72.0 PFF run-defense grade in 2020, including the playoffs, and could be in line for a bigger role in 2021.
Miami’s offensive line in 2020 was probably worse than it looked given how well the unit was protected by scheme and the team's quarterbacks. But one young player who did impress was Robert Hunt at right tackle. Two of his first three starts were ugly, but after that, he was remarkably solid and had some genuinely accomplished games down the stretch.
Hunt allowed 23 total pressures as a rookie and had four games with a PFF run-blocking grade above 80.0 in the second half of the season. He may have to negotiate the potential arrival of Penei Sewell in the draft, but if Hunt enters 2021 as a starter again at right tackle, he could have a fine season.
Only two rookie cornerbacks ended the season with a PFF grade above 70.0, and Cameron Dantzler was one of them. Dantzler’s rookie year wasn’t without growing pains, but he had two single-game PFF coverage grades above 90.0 and two performances in which he allowed five or fewer receiving yards.
He was always a talented playmaker but slid in the draft due to concerns about his size and speed. Dantzler showed in Year 1 he can still cover at a high level, and with a jump in Year 2, he could have a huge season within a defense badly in need of a top cover guy in the secondary.
Josh Uche is an incredibly inexperienced player in terms of playing time at both the college and NFL levels, but on the snaps he does have under his belt, he has been consistently impressive. Uche played just 179 snaps in his rookie year in New England yet generated 14 total pressures on 99 pass rushes. He put together a 75.1 PFF pass-rushing grade, and the Patriots are not overburdened with elite pass rushers.
The opportunity should be there for Uche to have a much bigger role in 2021, and all the evidence we have from him at any level says he will make good of that opportunity and generate some real pressure on quarterbacks.
New Orleans may be headed into a period of salary cap hell once they have to face the consequences of loading up for another run with Drew Brees, and when that happens it may open the door to some fringe players to see a much bigger role. Trautman played 422 snaps as a third-round rookie in 2020 but only had the ball come his way 18 times. He caught 16 of those passes (88.9%) and generated a passer rating of 125.7, as well as blocking well. He is a classic example of a player whose limited role demands more playing time in the future given how well he has done thus far.
Xavier McKinney was a poor man’s Isaiah Simmons in the last NFL draft. While Simmons went in the top 10, McKinney slipped to the second round despite bringing much of the same versatility. He was then injured and missed much of his rookie season but finished with an overall PFF grade of 70.0 with his best two games in the final three weeks of play. McKinney didn’t get much of a chance to shine as a rookie, but Year 2 could show a player that deserved a lot more credit at draft time.
Another player whose rookie season was largely impacted by injury, Denzel Mims played just 439 snaps in 2020. His potential was further dampened by Sam Darnold and the lackluster Jets offense. Though the team likely missed out on Trevor Lawrence when they lost the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Mims will likely have a better quarterback situation in 2021 — or at a minimum an improved scheme in which to thrive. We saw glimpses of talent, and no receiver has dominated the week of Senior Bowl practice since PFF has been grading them like Mims did.
Jordan Mailata was something of a novelty or curiosity when the Eagles acquired him as a former rugby player with incredible physical gifts who had taken up football. He flashed ability in preseason and had to play extensively in 2020 due to injuries along the Eagles offensive line. While there have clearly been some growing pains, he has quietly done a pretty solid job for a guy who is still very much learning the game. Mailata allowed 32 total pressures but was a top-15 tackle by PFF grade from Week 11 onward, just behind Jets first-round rookie Mekhi Becton.
Alex Highsmith had to step into the starting role after Bud Dupree went down injured. With Dupree hitting free agency, Highsmith may well get the chance to stay there in 2021. Highsmith had 22 total pressures from 224 pass-rushing snaps and also had an outstanding and critically timed interception. It wasn’t all great from Highsmith, but you wouldn’t expect it to be for a third-round rookie out of Charlotte. That he was able to do as well as he did when called into action as a starter bodes well for his future prospects.
At first glance, Javon Kinlaw doesn’t look like a great candidate to break out based on the data from his rookie season. He ended with an overall PFF grade of just 54.1, had only two sacks and 19 total pressures and showed no dominant facet in terms of grading. But every game he played saw one or two plays where he flashed the ability he undoubtedly has. Playing at the NFL level is about performing consistently and not going missing in between, but showing special traits is still important when considering how a player will perform when he is more used to the speed and competition level of the NFL.
You could make the argument that Damien Lewis has already broken out, given that he was starting at right guard for Seattle all season. But his pass protection was suspect all year long, and that gives him room for a true breakout as a top-end player. Lewis ended the season with a PFF pass-blocking grade of 47.0, and he had four single-game grades below 40, with two more that flirted with that mark. He allowed 35 total pressures but did have good games against good opposition, so the capacity for a big jump in 2021 is there. His run blocking was excellent, and if he can raise his pass-blocking level, he could be a star.
If Vita Vea hadn’t been injured this season, he would undoubtedly already have broken out. Through the first five games of the season, Vea was playing at an All-Pro level for the Bucs, dominating as a pass rusher as well as maintaining his typical run-defense performance. Vea had 16 total pressures and a PFF pass-rushing grade of 90.3 at the time he was shut down for the season. If he comes back playing at that kind of level, he'll immediately be one of the best all-around defensive linemen in all of football in 2021.
Tennessee’s defense was a liability at times this season, and the loss of rookie Kristian Fulton likely contributed to that. Fulton was tailor-made for that defense but lasted just 209 snaps before being lost for the season. Most of what we saw wasn’t great before that point — he was beaten for a passer rating of 101.4 — but rookie corners were up against it this season with record-setting levels of passing throughout the league. Fulton’s skills and fit within the defense remain, so we should see what he can really do next season.
Let’s assume that the obvious candidates for Washington have all already broken out. Chase Young was excellent as a rookie, though he could certainly be even more outstanding in Year 2. Similarly, Antonio Gibson was excellent this season, and Logan Thomas played over 1,000 snaps on offense. Jeremy Reaves was a backup this season and may not even start in 2021, but his performance in place of the injured Deshazor Everett was extremely solid. He ended the season with an overall PFF grade of 84.1, second-best only to Young on defense, and snagged a key interception against the Eagles late in the year to help them make the playoffs.