Every season there are just a small number of rookies who are actually NFL-ready and can burst onto the scene immediately. Justin Jefferson and Chase Young led the way for the 2020 class as PFF’s highest-graded rookies. But the reality is, most players don’t fully transition into the league until Year 2 or 3. So, who will be the second-year breakout players in 2021?
QB Joe Burrow & WR Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals
This duo could’ve easily enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, but Joe Burrow's season-ending knee injury in Week 11 against Washington derailed those plans.
Before he went down, Burrow showed flashes of strong quarterback play. He led the NFL in 300-yard passing games (five) through Week 8, but an injury-riddled offensive line led to some inconsistency from the former No. 1 pick. He was pressured 146 times in Weeks 1-11 — fifth-most — and recorded a 44.9 PFF grade under pressure compared to an 86.7 mark from a clean pocket. A healthy offensive line and a few offensive additions should set up Burrow for a Year 2 breakout.
There are few receivers getting as much breakout buzz as Tee Higgins. Bengals teammates and coaches have raved about his improvement this offseason, and following the departure of former star wideout A.J. Green, he is primed to explode in 2021. PFF’s projections forecast Higgins to rack up more receiving yards (1,172) than Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Allen Robinson II in 2021.
Tee Higgins in 2020 (among rookie WRs):
????75.9 PFF Grade (3rd)
????12 contested catches (T-2nd)
????52 first down catches (2nd) pic.twitter.com/KQokUi9W6l
— PFF (@PFF) March 22, 2021
CeeDee Lamb's rookie campaign was also derailed by a quarterback injury. During the weeks when Dak Prescott was healthy, Lamb recorded the sixth-most receiving yards (433) and led the NFL with 395 yards from the slot. The Oklahoma product saw his production plummet after Prescott’s injury, going from 86.6 to 45.6 yards per game during the final 11 contests of the season.
Lamb lined up in the slot on 93.2% of his receiving snaps in 2020 and cemented himself as one of the league’s best slot receivers as a rookie. In fact, he put up the best rookie performance from the slot PFF has ever seen. His 69 catches and 877 yards both rank first since PFF started tracking data in 2006. With Prescott back at the helm, expect Lamb to ball out in 2021.
Jerry Jeudy’s 2020 season can be defined in two words: missed opportunities. The former Biletnikoff Award winner, given to the best receiver in college football, led the NFL with 26 incomplete targets that were deemed the quarterback’s fault while also recording the second-most drops (12) of any player last season.
Fortunately for Jeudy, drops are a bit unstable from year to year and he has never had a problem getting open thanks to his elite route-running ability. If quarterback Drew Lock or newly acquired Teddy Bridgewater can accurately and consistently feed Jeudy the football, the sky's the limit for the future star receiver.
The NFL finally caught a glimpse of what a healthy Cam Akers is capable of with the RB1 workload in the Rams' offense. Akers battled injuries and was also buried in a running back committee during the first half of the 2020 season. But once healthy and given the opportunity, he took off.
Cam Akers 2020 Splits
|Weeks 1-11||Weeks 12-Divisional Round|
|53 Touches||152 Touches|
|208 Total Yards||792 Total Yards|
|4 Explosive Runs (10+ yards)||12 Explosive Runs (10+ yards)|
PFF’s Ian Hartitz recently wrote about Akers’ chances to get a Todd Gurley-sized workload in the Rams' offense next season. In that article, there was an interesting nugget from head coach Sean McVay about his plans for Akers in Year 2:
“He’s obviously a great runner, but he’s got ability as a pass-catcher coming from the backfield, and we can displace him and put him in the slot or the outside receiver location.”
If this is the case, Akers may see north of 65%-70% of the Rams' snaps next season, putting him in prime position to continue his 2020 hot streak.
Antonio Gibson might’ve come into the NFL last season with more career college receptions (44) than rushing attempts (33), but that did not stop him from becoming Washington’s RB1 and eclipsing 1,000 total yards in 2020. Despite the lack of experience toting the football, Gibson was one of the more efficient runners in the league last year. As a rookie, he recorded the highest rate of runs that gained positive yardage in a season since 2012 (96.2%).
|PFF Rushing Grade||83.4||1st|
|Missed Tackles Forced||37||2nd|
|Rush TDs of 10+ Yards||4||1st|
If Antonio Gibson gets a full workload — and not fewer carries than players like Frank Gore — then expect him to emerge as a top-10 running back in the NFL next season.
Derrick Brown put together a sneakily impressive rookie resume, grading out as the second-best rookie pass rusher (72.5) — behind only Chase Young. Brown actually led all rookies in total pressures (34) through 15 games before Young passed him in Week 17. The biggest problem for him was an inability to turn those pressures into sacks, which he also struggled with in college. He brought down the quarterback only twice last season. Brown needs to convert on even just a few of those pressures in 2021 to become a leading force on a young and hungry Carolina defense.
There were always going to be growing pains when it came to Isaiah Simmons’ transition to the NFL, and that was apparent in 2020. He was labeled a Swiss Army knife coming out of college after playing over 100 snaps on the defensive line, in the box and as a defensive back. That transition to the NFL was tough for Simmons, though, as is evident in his lackluster 59.9 PFF grade.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury touched on Simmons’ learning curve from Year 1 and how he expects him to up his game in his sophomore season.
“[Isaiah Simmons] was a unique circumstance last year, there’s no doubt. Of all the players drafted in that area, to come in and start at a new position that you’ve never really played and not have an offseason at all, no preseason games — that’s a lot to throw at a guy.
To have it slowed down in the offseason, that type of pace of teaching and learning I think has been huge for him. We expect him to make huge strides.”
Dantzler’s NFL career got off to a rocky start. The Mississippi State product failed to record a PFF grade above 60.2 in his first five starts, allowed a touchdown in four straight games and surrendered a 74% completion percentage in coverage.
He managed to turn things around after returning from injury in the second half of the season, though. After Week 9, he was the second-highest-graded cornerback (84.7) and allowed the lowest passer rating when targeted (41.7) in the NFL.
Rookie CB games w/ a coverage grade 90+:
???? Cameron Dantzler: 2
???? Rest of the NFL: 2 pic.twitter.com/Q57RlqOv0j
— PFF (@PFF) December 23, 2020
The Vikings' secondary was young and raw last season, but look for an improved unit led by Dantzler and veteran Patrick Peterson in 2021.