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In the NFL, today’s unknown can become tomorrow’s superstar. The league has proved this time and time again as role players blossom into franchise cornerstones.
Four years ago, Derrick Henry was a good, if underutilized, power back for the Tennessee Titans. He had 744 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 2017 before breaking out the following season. He topped 1,000 yards in 2018 and had 12 touchdowns, and he’s been the league’s rushing champion in each of the past two seasons.
Not every breakout leads to that sort of dominance, but young players become Sunday staples quickly in the NFL. As aging players begin to fade, someone is there to take their place.
Here, you’ll find a look at one player from each team who has the talent, supporting cast and/or opportunity to break out in 2021.
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With Kenyan Drake’s departure in free agency, Chase Edmonds should have the opportunity to shine for the Arizona Cardinals. The Fordham product was fantastic in a rotational role last season, rushing for 448 yards, a touchdown and 4.6 yards per carry while adding 402 yards and four touchdowns receiving.
The Cardinals signed James Conner in the offseason, but the incumbent Edmonds should become the lead back. Conner averaged 4.3 yards per carry and had 215 receiving yards in 2020. Expect Edmonds to lead what remains a two-back attack.
He should step into the role Drake occupied last year. Drake had 1,092 yards from scrimmage and 10 rushing touchdowns. While similar numbers won’t place Edmonds in the Pro Bowl, they should put the fourth-year back in the national spotlight.
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Atlanta Falcons wideout Russell Gage saw a bit of a breakout last season while filling in for an injured Julio Jones. Gage made eight of his 12 career starts in 2020 and finished with 786 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
With Jones traded to the Tennessee Titans, Gage should step into a starting role opposite Calvin Ridley on a more permanent basis. He played 68 percent of the offensive snaps last season, and that number should jump.
Ridley will be the Falcons’ No. 1 receiver, while Hayden Hurst and fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts will command defensive attention from the tight end spot. This should leave Gage with frequent one-on-one coverage and a chance to cement himself as a long-term piece of Atlanta’s passing puzzle.
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Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins was impressive as a rookie last season, rushing for 805 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 120 receiving yards. However, he has room to see an expanded role after he played 45 percent of the offensive snaps.
While Dobbins will still likely split time with Gus Edwards, he should see a bigger role. The Ravens waived Mark Ingram II (16 percent of the snaps last season) in January, leaving a solid chunk of carries.
Dobbins may not be a workhorse back given Baltimore’s committee approach and its reliance on quarterback Lamar Jackson as a runner. However, increased opportunities and his maturation as a professional could help him break into the Pro Bowl conversation.
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Last year, the Buffalo Bills used a second-round pick on Iowa pass-rusher A.J. Epenesa. While Epenesa wasn’t effective as a rookie—one sack and seven quarterback pressures—a steep learning curve may have been responsible.
“When I was at Iowa, we played a completely different kind of defense than we do here with the Bills,” Epenesa said, per Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News. “… I would be basically almost in a head-up alignment against a 320-pound offensive lineman, whereas compared to now I’m working the edges and I’m working speed rushes and things like that.”
As Epenesa becomes more comfortable with the Buffalo system—a normal offseason should help—he should become more effective off the edge. The Bills bolstered their pass rush by drafting Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, but Epenesa should still be poised for a second-year breakout.
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Defensive tackle Derrick Brown flew under the radar as a rookie in 2020, largely because the 5-11 Carolina Panthers weren’t relevant. Still, the first-round pick out of Auburn had a solid debut campaign.
Brown finished with 34 tackles, two sacks and 19 quarterback pressures while playing 70 percent of the defensive snaps. He should remain a regular contributor along the defensive front and could see a big jump statistically.
A full offseason will help Brown better prepare for his second season, while the addition of edge defender Haason Reddick should give him more one-on-one blocking situations.
The Panthers are also expected to have a healthy Christian McCaffrey at running back, and they may see improved quarterback play with the addition of Sam Darnold. A better offense and a better overall team should raise Carolina’s profile, which will push Brown into the spotlight.
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The Chicago Bears used a 2020 second-round pick on Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson. While he wasn’t perfect as a rookie—he allowed an opposing passer rating of 107.5—he had his bright moments.
Johnson finished the campaign with 44 tackles and an impressive 15 passes defended.
He should take over as Chicago’s No. 1 cornerback. The team released standout Kyle Fuller in a cap-saving move, which leaves Johnson and veteran Desmond Trufant as the likely starters on the perimeter. Trufant has the edge in experience but has also been limited by injuries to 15 games over the past two seasons.
Johnson should be tested more by opposing No. 1 receivers in 2021. While this could lead to early struggles, it will also provide more opportunities for him to shine.
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Given the circumstances, the Cincinnati Bengals couldn’t have hoped for much more out of rookie wideout Tee Higgins last season. The 33rd overall pick out of Clemson finished with 908 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also provided a quarterback rating of 103.5 when targeted.
It’s worth noting Higgins wasn’t targeted in Week 1, didn’t have a catch in Week 16 and played six of his 16 games without starting quarterback Joe Burrow.
Higgins could have been a 1,000-yard receiver as a rookie, and he should be one in year two.
While the Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase fifth overall, they also parted with A.J. Green, who was targeted 104 times last season. The Bengals should also have a healthy Burrow under center after losing him to a knee injury 10 games into 2020.
Chase will get plenty of attention, and Tyler Boyd remains a big piece of the passing attack. However, Higgins has Pro Bowl potential entering his sophomore campaign.
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Cleveland Browns wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones probably won’t be a Pro Bowler in 2021 because of the numbers game. The Browns also have Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins at receiver and only so many passes to go around.
Still, the second-year man out of Michigan could be in store for a jump in production. Peoples-Jones was arguably Cleveland’s only deep threat after Beckham was lost to a torn ACL, and he finished with 304 yards and two touchdowns on 14 receptions. While the return of Beckham could limit Peoples-Jones’ ceiling, the Browns should still look for ways to get him the ball.
“His role in 2021 is up in the air with a stacked group at wide receiver, but they don’t have the combination of Peoples-Jones’ size and athletic ability. At 6’2″, 212 pounds, he adds a little versatility,” Dan Labbe of Cleveland.com wrote.
Beckham and Landry should remain Cleveland’s top two receivers in 2021. However, Peoples-Jones may be the future on the perimeter, and fans should expect to see more frequent glimpses of that future this season.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
After topping 300 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons, Dallas Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin missed the majority of the 2020 campaign after tearing his ACL in Week 1. In his absence, Dalton Schultz (615 receiving yards, four touchdowns) established himself as a reliable starting option.
While Jarwin will be back in the rotation this year, Schultz should be poised to take another step toward tight end stardom. His emergence in 2020 largely came with Andy Dalton at quarterback as starter Dak Prescott was lost five games into the regular season.
Prescott, who led the NFL with 1,856 passing yards when he was injured, is expected to be at 100 percent by Week 1. With the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback under center, Schultz should be even more productive than he was a year ago.
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Inconsistency has been the biggest issue for Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant. While he finished the 2020 season with 673 yards and three touchdowns, he also had five games with fewer than 40 yards.
To be fair, Fant suffered from inconsistent and often poor quarterback play. Drew Lock (15 interceptions, 75.4 passer rating) was arguably the worst starter in the league last season. While Lock is back for 2021, he’ll face competition from trade acquisition Teddy Bridgewater.
Ideally, that competition will yield a more stable quarterback situation—either by Bridgewater taking the job or by Lock’s improvement. If the Broncos can get better play from under center, Fant could emerge as the Pro Bowl talent Denver hoped it was getting with the 20th pick in the 2019 draft.
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As a rookie, Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift didn’t start until Week 9—an opportunity that former teammate Adrian Peterson believed was long overdue.
“I was like, you guys should have did this two or three weeks ago,” Peterson told reporters at the time.
Swift finished his rookie season with 878 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns despite playing 38 percent of the offensive snaps. While the Lions did sign Jamaal Williams and draft Jermar Jefferson, Swift should be in line for an increased role. The departures of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Kenny Golladay could also lead to more focus on the ground game.
Expect Swift to be RB1 from day one this season and to be one of the centerpieces of Detroit’s new-look offense.
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Should Aaron Rodgers continue to stay away from the Green Bay Packers, their 2021 breakout star might be second-year quarterback Jordan Love. Regardless of who is under center, though, second-year back AJ Dillon should be in store for some time in the spotlight.
Green Bay brought back starter Aaron Jones on a four-year, $48 million deal. However, it also lost No. 2 back Jamaal Williams to the rival Lions in free agency.
Dillon, a 2020 second-round pick, saw sporadic opportunities as a rookie. He was behind both Jones and Williams on the depth chart and missed time on the reserve/COVID-19 list. In his lone game with double-digit carries, however, Dillon was terrific. In Week 16 against the Tennessee Titans, he racked up 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns while adding one catch for five yards.
With Williams out, Dillon should take off in the No. 2 role.
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With Deshaun Watson unlikely to play for the Houston Texans in 2021—he is facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct and has requested a trade—the offense may have to run through the ground game. While running backs David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram II will headline the rushing attack, the blocking of guard Max Scharping shouldn’t be overlooked.
Scharping, a 2019 second-round pick, started 14 games as a rookie. However, he only played 46 percent of the offensive snaps last season. While Scharping wasn’t dominant as a run-blocker, he was responsible for only two penalties and one sack, according to Pro Football Focus. His main competition at left guard, Justin McCray, allowed three sacks in 156 snaps last season, per PFF.
Seasoned offensive line coach James Campen is entering the equation, so Scharping could return to being the reliable starter he was as a rookie and potentially better. There will be an adjustment period, but he has the mental makeup to succeed.
“Max Scharping is as bright as they get here with his knowledge in the offense,” center Justin Britt said last month, per Deepi Sidhu of the team’s official website.
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Though he was overshadowed by other rookie receivers like Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk, Indianapolis Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. had a promising inaugural campaign.
The second-round pick out of USC finished 2020 with 503 receiving yards and a touchdown despite missing three games following leg surgery. He was productive over the second half of the season with 368 yards and a touchdown in the final eight games.
Much will depend on the play of new quarterback Carson Wentz, but Pittman could surge in year two.
“I’m particularly interested to see how Wentz works with Michael Pittman Jr.,” NFL Media’s Gil Brandt wrote. “The 2020 second-round pick didn’t exactly pop as a rookie, dealing with a leg injury that required surgery … but I think he’s got the potential to double [his] numbers in 2021.”
While T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal return after being Indy’s top two receivers in 2020, Pittman could emerge as Wentz’s favorite perimeter target.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars used the 20th pick in last year’s draft on LSU pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. Like the Jaguars in general, Chaisson was underwhelming in 2020, finishing with one sack and 12 quarterback pressures.
This year, though, Jacksonville should field a more competitive team. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick, will add potency to the offense, which should put more pressure on opponents to pass. This should lead to more opportunities for Chaisson, who will rush from the strong-side linebacker position in the Jaguars’ new, aggressive defense.
“We’re going to blitz, and we’re going to blitz a lot of different people,” defensive coordinator Joe Cullen said, per the team’s website. “We’re going to rush with four. To me, you’re going to see a fast, physical and attacking defense.”
In 2021, expect Chaisson to more closely resemble the dominant edge defender who Jacksonville hoped for when it selected him.
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Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed might have broken out as a rookie had he been on the field more. The fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech missed seven games with a broken collarbone but still impressed.
Sneed finished the regular season with 41 tackles, two sacks, seven passes defended and three interceptions. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 54.2 and added nine tackles and two sacks in the postseason.
This year, Sneed should remain the starter on the outside opposite Charvarius Ward. If he can remain healthy for the entirety of the 17-game regular season, he has a good shot at a Pro Bowl campaign.
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Despite being one of the highlights of Las Vegas Raiders training camp last year, wideout Bryan Edwards had an underwhelming rookie campaign. The third-round pick out of South Carolina suffered an ankle injury in Week 3, missed four games and did not return to the starting lineup after his recovery.
Edwards finished with just 193 yards and a touchdown.
“It definitely was a process, and it obviously was frustrating,” Edwards said of his rookie year, per Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Still, Edwards did show promise before the injury, catching five passes for 99 yards in his three starts. With his replacement, Nelson Agholor, departing in free agency, Edwards should be poised to pick up where he left off pre-injury.
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2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley appeared in only four games as a rookie before he landed on injured reserve with a hamstring setback. He emerged as a starter in 2020, however, and finished with 69 tackles, three passes defended and an interception.
The Chargers believe Adderley will be even better in his third year.
“The great thing about it is he’s healthy,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said, per Fernando Ramirez of Charger Report. “He’s moving around. He asks great questions in the meeting. He’s able to take the meeting to the field. You see a leadership role from him.”
With Derwin James set to return from last year’s meniscus tear, Los Angeles could have one of the NFL’s best young safety tandems.
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Despite making just five starts as a rookie, running back Cam Akers emerged as a key cog in the Los Angeles Rams offense last season. The second-round pick out of Florida State finished with 625 rushing yards, 123 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Akers led the Rams in carries with 145, though he split time fairly evenly with Darrell Henderson Jr. (138 carries) and Malcolm Brown (101). With Brown gone via free agency, both Akers and Henderson should see increased workloads. While both players could become breakout stars in 2021, the Rams sound particularly high on Akers.
“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,” head coach Sean McVay said, per Kevin Modesti of the Los Angeles Daily News.
Expect Akers to be a staple in both the running and passing games this year.
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After a significant hip injury during his final season in college, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left plenty to be desired as a rookie last year. He averaged just 6.3 yards per pass attempt and was twice pulled in favor of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.
However, Tagovailoa did go 6-3 as a starter and should be poised for a statistical jump in 2021, as the Dolphins put a lot of resources into ensuring he can succeed. They signed receiver Will Fuller V, drafted former Alabama wideout and Tagovailoa teammate Jaylen Waddle in the first round and signed running back Malcolm Brown to help improve the ground game.
With Fitzpatrick gone, this is Tagovailoa’s team, and he has the weapons needed to be a solid starter in his second campaign. Having a normal offseason and a preseason should also help, and fans should expect significant improvement from the largely unproven signal-caller.
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2019 second-round pick Irv Smith Jr. has been a role player in the Minnesota Vikings’ passing attack through two seasons, having put up 676 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
However, the departure of longtime starter Kyle Rudolph should lead to a bigger role for the former Alabama standout. Rudolph, a two-time Pro Bowler, posted 701 yards and seven touchdowns while splitting time with Smith over the past two years. Tight end Tyler Conklin remains, though he has just 32 receptions in three seasons.
In 2019 and 2020, Smith played 60 and 50 percent of Minnesota’s offensive snaps, respectively. With Rudolph gone, Smith should see the bulk of the receiving work at tight end. He could surpass his two-year receiving total this season alone.
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While the New England Patriots had 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel on the roster, it was 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris who emerged as the team’s leading rusher (691 yards) last year. After appearing in just two games as a rookie, Harris started 10 in 2020, and he appears poised to again lead the backfield in 2021.
“He’s a hard-working kid that just tries to do whatever he can to help the team and he’s got a lot of skill and can contribute in a variety of ways and he’s looking to improve and upgrade where he is in every area,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Harris, per Nick Goss of NBC Sports Boston.
With Michel, James White, Brandon Bolden and rookie fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson among the other backs in tow, New England will almost surely take a committee approach in 2021. However, Harris has the skill set and the confidence of the coaching staff and looks ready to be the backfield’s star.
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Butch Dill/Associated Press
While fourth-year New Orleans Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith hasn’t emerged as a star, that could change in 2021. A 2018 third-round pick out of Central Florida, Smith has shown flashes.
Last season, for example, he caught 34 passes for 448 yards and four touchdowns while playing behind Michael Thomas (thought the star only played seven games) and Emmanuel Sanders. Smith helped forge a passer rating of 122.7 when targeted in 2020 and has helped garner a passer rating above 120.0 in all three of his seasons.
With Sanders departing for Buffalo in free agency, Smith should be the clear No. 2 option behind Thomas on the perimeter. Given his dependability as a pass-catcher, Smith could quickly become a favorite target of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill—who will, in some combination, step in for retired superstar Drew Brees at quarterback.
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A first-round pick out of Clemson two years ago, New York Giants defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence began to fulfill his potential last season. He finished his second campaign with 53 tackles, four sacks and 16 quarterback pressures.
Lawrence’s physical attributes have not been lost on his teammates.
“We call him the ‘Juggernaut.’ As in the Marvel Comics character,” linebacker Blake Martinez said, per Steve Serby of the New York Post. “He pretty much runs through anything, and nothing can stop that dude.”
With Lawrence continuing to develop and the Giants entering their second year with Patrick Graham at the helm of the defense—a unit that ranked ninth in points allowed last season—a breakout could be coming for the 23-year-old.
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2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims failed to make a major impact for the New York Jets last season. However, the Baylor product got no favors from an underachieving coaching staff and some underwhelming quarterback play.
In all, Mims caught 23 passes for 357 yards, which aren’t the sort of numbers expected from a high second-rounder. However, he did flash big-play ability, with five of his receptions going for at least 25 yards. This could make him a standout complementary piece even with new receivers like Corey Davis and rookie second-round pick Elijah Moore entering the equation.
Mims is likely to benefit from better coaching and better quarterback play this season, as the Jets brought in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and used the No. 2 pick on BYU’s Zach Wilson. With a better situation and a year of experience, Mims could explode as New York’s biggest deep threat in 2021.
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With Carson Wentz in Indianapolis, the Philadelphia Eagles should be Jalen Hurts’ team in 2021—though Joe Flacco and Nick Mullens are also on the roster. Assuming Hurts does win the starting job, he could break out.
He already flashed promise in limited action as a rookie last year. In his three full contests, he passed for 847 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 238 yards and a score. Prorated over a 17-game season, that would put him on pace for roughly 4,800 passing yards, 23 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions, 1,349 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
The Eagles also added rookie first-round receiver DeVonta Smith and should have a healthy Lane Johnson at right tackle—meaning Hurts will have a better supporting cast. Don’t be surprised if the 2020 second-round pick puts his name in the Pro Bowl conversation this season.
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2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith showed flashes for the Pittsburgh Steelers late in his rookie season—specifically after pass-rusher Bud Dupree was lost to a torn ACL in Week 12. Highsmith started the final five games of the regular season and finished with 48 tackles, two sacks and 12 quarterback pressures.
With Dupree leaving in free agency, Highsmith should permanently step into a significant role opposite standout edge-rusher T.J. Watt, who believes Highsmith will thrive in that role.
“If guys want to slide my way and everything, he’s going to have one-on-ones to the back side,” Watt said, per Nick Farabaugh of Steelers Now. “I‘m very confident he’s going to win the majority of those battles too.”
If Highsmith picks up where he left off at the end of last season, he could have a Pro Bowl campaign.
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San Francisco 49ers wideout Brandon Aiyuk was impressive as a rookie last season. The first-round pick out of Arizona State finished with 748 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 12 games.
Having fellow wideout Deebo Samuel, who missed nine games in 2020, in the lineup all season could cut into Aiyuk’s workload some. However, the 49ers should also see a consistent presence at quarterback.
Starting signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo missed 10 games with an ankle injury last year but should be healthy to start the campaign. San Francisco also used the No. 3 pick on North Dakota State product Trey Lance. Between Lance and Garoppolo, Aiyuk should have better quarterback play.
With a more potent passing attack and some natural progression, he could go from promising rookie to Pro Bowler in 2021.
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Scott Eklund/Associated Press
Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Poona Ford has seen a progressively increased role over the past three seasons. The undrafted free agent out of Texas played 23 percent of his team’s defensive snaps as a rookie, 47 percent in 2019 and 58 percent last season.
Ford has also been progressively more productive, notching 21, 32 and 40 tackles in his three campaigns, respectively. Last season, he also had two sacks and 14 quarterback pressures.
This year, the 25-year-old could see his workload increase yet again, specifically as an interior pass-rusher. Longtime standout Jarran Reed departed for the Chiefs in free agency, leaving a void in the defensive front. Reed logged 6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback pressures last season.
With him gone, expect Ford to become the new centerpiece of Seattle’s defensive line.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are loaded at wide receiver with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and rookie Jaelon Darden in tow. However, third-year wideout Scott Miller could still be in line for a breakout season.
Miller was a tremendous complementary piece in 2020, producing 501 yards and three touchdowns in 16 appearances (five starts). While he’ll likely begin the season behind Evans, Godwin and Brown, Miller could still see an increase in production, as head coach Bruce Arians believes quarterback Tom Brady will be better at finding complementary targets like Miller.
“It‘s that second, third, fourth read, where the guys are going to be, [knowing where to throw],” Arians said, per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire. “All that verbiage isn’t new now, so [Brady] can spit it out, he knows what it means, he knows where they’re going to be.”
As Miller continues to develop as a pro and the Buccaneers offense continues to gain cohesion, he could be poised to explode.
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Brett Carlsen/Associated Press
Anthony Firkser was a fine pass-catching tight end for the Tennessee Titans in 2020, albeit in a complementary role. While he only played 32 percent of the offensive snaps, Firkser finished with 387 receiving yards and a touchdown.
His workload should see a significant boost in 2021, as former starter Jonnu Smith signed a massive four-year, $50 million deal with the Patriots in free agency.
Smith racked up 448 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last season while playing 69 percent of the offensive snaps—which will largely go to Firkser in 2021. While the Titans also have Geoff Swaim and Jared Pinkney, expect Firkser to be Ryan Tannehill’s new go-to target at the position.
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With Washington Football Team edge-rusher Chase Young winning 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year, it was easy to overlook just how dominant fellow sack artist Montez Sweat was.
The 2019 first-round pick out of Mississippi State logged nine sacks and 31 quarterback pressures in 2020. This came after he produced seven sacks and 27 pressures as a rookie. It’s not unreasonable to think Sweat will reach double-digit sacks, especially with Ryan Kerrigan (5.5 sacks last season) out of the pass-rushing rotation and in Philadelphia.
Young was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and became the face of Washington’s pass rush. However, Sweat will be impossible to overlook if he continues progressing. Don’t be shocked if he gets his first Pro Bowl nod in 2021.
Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.