NFL News & Analysis

Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and more second-year breakout players

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a pass against the Cleveland Browns in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

While there are frequent conversations surrounding the players who are projected to break out in Year 2, not enough ink is spilled on the players who are actually breaking out during their second season, which is exactly what I'm here to do today.

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So without further ado, here are the NFL's second-year breakout players. 

Note: Players who already balled out as rookies — such as Justin Herbert, Justin Jefferson, Chase Young, etc. — weren’t included because it’s difficult to consider them “breakouts.”

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QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

There’s no doubt that Burrow was already impressive by rookie standards last season, but now, he’s been impressive by franchise quarterback standards. The former No. 1 overall pick's yards per attempt has jumped two full yards from 6.7 last year to 8.7 this year. His PFF passing grade has made a similar leap from 74.3 last year to 85.0 this year. Burrow’s game-to-game consistency has been tremendous. The Bengals' future is in good hands.

QB Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

It hasn’t always translated to the win column, but Hurts has been playing some drastically different football this season. His accuracy has improved from a 65.1 adjusted completion percentage as a rookie to a 73.6 mark this season. While he’s still been limited in that regard, the Eagles offense can get by because of his dynamic running ability. His 847 rushing yards are second-most among quarterbacks in the league, and his five rushing scores are tied for the most. 

WR Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

The Colts needed a No. 1 target to go with Carson Wentz, and Pittman has been that guy. He’s already bested all of his rookie totals with 55 catches, 729 yards and five scores in 10 games. The former second-rounder only has one drop all season as well. It’s no fluke either, as Pittman has one of the highest charted win rates against man coverage of any receiver in the league.

OT Andrew Thomas, New York Giants

Thomas took as much heat as any first-rounder last year after the fourth overall pick was outperformed by the three tackles drafted after him — Jedrick Wills Jr., Mekhi Becton and Tristan Wirfs —  in 2020. Through five games this season before a foot injury, he was a completely different player. After allowing 10 sacks and 57 total pressures as a rookie, Thomas hasn’t given up a sack this season and has only yielded seven total pressures. 

EDGE Jonathan Greenard, Houston Texans

One of the lone bright spots on the Texans this season, Greenard has earned an 84.5 overall grade in seven games while recording seven sacks and 18 total pressures. That represents a massive leap over his 51.9 overall grade as a rookie, as he was a complete non-factor on 265 snaps.

Related content for you: 2021 NFL MVP: Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott leaps into first place via Timo Riske

CB A.J. Terrell, Atlanta Falcons

Forget second-year corners, there hasn’t been a stingier cornerback in the entire NFL this season than Terrell. Now eight games into 2020, Terrell has still yet to allow 100 total receiving yards in coverage. His 93 yards allowed is, by far, the lowest of any corner in the league, and he hasn’t yielded more than 30 yards in any single game. While Atlanta has changed to a Cover-2-heavy defense, Terrell has still been outstanding in man coverage. On 96 such snaps, he’s allowed only three completions on 10 targets for 33 yards with three pass breakups.

CB Kristian Fulton, Tennessee Titans

Fulton was a PFF favorite coming out and checked in at 12th on PFF’s final draft board despite falling to the back-end of the second round. After a shaky rookie season, Fulton has looked closer to the 12th overall player in his draft class in 2021. He’s already notched six pass breakups in six games. On 29 targets, Fulton has only allowed 11 catches for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns while recording an interception. Those are lights-out numbers for a defense that was in desperate need of corner help this season.

S Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots

Dugger’s unique physical profile was tailor-made to play a versatile role in Bill Belichick’s defense. So far through 10 games, Dugger has played 271 snaps in the box, 48 snaps on the line of scrimmage, 51 snaps as a deep safety, 131 from the slot and 34 out wide. And he’s been terrific everywhere, as he's already accumulated three interceptions and 21 stops this season.

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