Patience may have never been more of a virtue in the NFL than during a 2020 season when young players were tossed into the deep-end amid a global pandemic that decimated offseasons, sent film sessions virtual and ultimately kept team-mates apart until the latest possible date.
For many, an undisrupted spring and summer window during which to prepare and be in daily contact with coaches could be the stepping stone towards a breakout season.
We take a look at 10 players well-positioned to make a jump in 2021…
AJ Dillon – RB – Green Bay Packers
An expanded role awaits AJ Dillon in year two with the Packers as he prepares to step up alongside Aaron Jones following the departure of Jamaal Williams in free agency. The second-round pick posted 242 yards on the ground for two touchdowns from 46 carries in his rookie year having arrived out of Boston College with all-time school records in rushing yards (4,382), career rushing touchdowns (38), total touchdowns (40) and all-purpose yards (4,618).
Having mustered 115 yards from 24 touches through the opening nine games, he delivered a preview of what to expect moving forward in Week 10 when he recorded 124 rushing yards for two scores off 21 carries to out-performer rushing champion Derrick Henry in a 40-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Though his reputation coming out of college primarily centered around his qualities as a power back, the Packers also have faith in his potential as the kind of pass-catching threat that had seen Jones and Williams become integral components to Matt LaFleur’s offense.
He could also face competition from seventh-round rookie Kylin Hill, who was drafted out of Mississippi State where he fumbled the ball just once from 519 touches in four seasons.
Darnell Mooney – WR – Chicago Bears
Bears fans have been persistent in reminding of Darnell Mooney’s exquisite double move on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey during his rookie year, and understandably so, the fifth-round receiver showcasing an expert head-fake and lightning footwork to leave the four-time Pro Bowler in his wake.
It was a mere flash of what Mooney may offer Chicago in seasons to come as he looks to assert himself as a worthy No. 2 to Allen Robinson. The Tulane product may not have posted huge numbers in 2020, but did set a new franchise record for most catches from a rookie as he finished the season with 61 receptions for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
He looms as a welcome deep-threat with home-run speed and high-IQ route-running for rookie quarterback Justin Fields to make use of. The Bears found themselves a gem.
Isaiah Simmons – LB – Arizona Cardinals
Scouts, analysts, team personnel and fans alike were enamoured by the multi-faceted skillset of Isaiah Simmons as he emerged out of college flaunting a modern-day linebacker/safety hybrid package, with the Arizona Cardinals snapping him up eighth overall out of Clemson.
For one reason or another it never quite took off for him in 2020 as he started just seven games, eventually picking up his production down the stretch to finish with 54 tackles, one interception, four tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two sacks, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That was after playing 33.9 per cent of defensive snaps and over 50 per cent on just three occasions.
He will be accompanied by a new partner in Zaven Collins, the Cardinals’ 16th overall pick out of Tulsa, with head coach Kliff Kingsbury recently suggesting the pair would “win the prettiest linebacker duo award when they line up side-by-side”.
“Those are two big, long, athletic cats,” he added.
K’Lavon Chaisson – EDGE – Jacksonville Jaguars
It was a similar case to Simmons when it came to K’Lavon Chaisson, who labelled himself the ‘most valuable player’ in the 2020 Draft class on the basis of his versatility off the edge.
“When you hire somebody, do you want to hire someone who speaks one language? Or do you want to hire somebody that speaks three languages? I speak three languages,” he said, referring to his ability to rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage.
Chaisson finished his National Championship-winning 2019 season at LSU with 64 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two pass defenses and one forced fumble, but endured a tough conversion to defensive end in a 4-3 defense upon his arrival in the NFL. He closed out the year with just 19 tackles, one sack, nine quarterback hits and one pass defense.
The appointment of new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen will likely see the Jaguars play more 3-4, meaning Chaisson being deployed more regularly as the stand-up edge-rusher he was used as by LSU. There’s a reason Jacksonville took him at 20th overall; the hope is he shows why this coming season.
Grant Delpit – S – Cleveland Browns
So much has been said about the Browns’ outstanding work at the 2021 Draft that you could be forgiven for forgetting 2020 second-round safety Grant Delpit is yet to see the field in Cleveland. His rookie year was over before it ever really began when he required surgery on an Achilles tendon tear suffered in training camp, ruling him out of the entire season.
Between Delpit, fellow safeties John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison and cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Troy Hill, Greedy Williams and Greg Newsome, the Browns could boast one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL.
Xavier McKinney – S – New York Giants
Without wanting to sound too cliche, there will be a rookie feel to Xavier McKinney heading into his sophomore year with the Giants after spending the first 10 games of 2020 on injured reserve due to a foot fracture. His first start did not arrive until Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals, after which his snap count continued to rise until he played 89 per cent while making eight tackles and an interception against the Cowboys in Week 17.
The second-round pick offers the versatility to spread his time between the slot, deep coverage and in the box ideally suited to Patrick Graham’s moving parts defense, and is benefited by the veteran experience of Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan in assisting him as he continues his adjustment to the NFL.
It is also worth remembering McKinney was deemed as a first-round prospect by many before sliding to 36th overall.
Noah Igbinoghene – CB – Miami Dolphins
It might have meanwhile slipped the mind of some that Noah Igbinoghene was a first-round pick for the Dolphins in 2020, going at 30th overall after Miami had taken quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at No. 6 and left tackle Austin Jackson at No. 18.
The cornerback played just 287 defensive snaps (28 per cent) during his rookie year, although that was arguably also a reflection on the talent ahead of him in the NFL’s interceptions leader Xavien Howard and marquee free agency signing Byron Jones. An internship role behind two top-tier players in his position will have done him no harm.
His production in year two may not jump off the sheet, but you would expect his role to expand if all goes to plan in training camp. It should be reminded he began his career at Auburn as a wide receiver before shifting to cornerback heading into the 2018 season, so it remains a case of not only studying NFL offenses but also continuing to learn the position. He makes for an intriguing long-term project.
Marlon Davidson – DT – Atlanta Falcons
Davidson has the potential to be a wrecking ball at the line of scrimmage, and the Falcons will be counting on their 2020 second-round pick to play an active role in inspiring improvement from Atlanta’s 29th-ranked defense.
The defensive end is perhaps one of the less talked about candidates primed to make his presence felt come September having been limited to just three games as a rookie due to injury and a spell on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
In 2019 he led Auburn with 7.5 sacks alongside now-Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who was selected at seventh overall. Davidson offers raw ferocity with powerful and violent hands and takes pride in visible pride in bulldozing offensive lineman. He could prove a tone-setter.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire – RB – Detroit Lions
Former LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was very much the first-round luxury pick of the 2020 Draft as the Chiefs sought to bolster the offense that had just led them to a first Super Bowl crown in 50 years. The dual-threat made an immediate impression with 138 yards rushing for a touchdown from 25 carries in the opening day victory over the Houston Texans, before it fell a little quiet.
He would record no more than 64 yards on the ground in each of the next four games, before flashing his talent again with 161 yards rushing from a season-high 26 carries in the Week Six win over the Buffalo Bills. A combined 298 yards rushing over the final seven games amounted to 803 for four touchdowns on the year, which had entailed niggling injuries, the arrival of Le’Veon Bell and of course the Andy Reid primarily running his offense through the Chiefs’ aerial potency.
With a year of experience working with offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy behind him and now a refurbished offensive line in place, he looks well set to become a prominent feature in both the run and pass game.
Irv Smith Jr. – TE – Minnesota Vikings
It’s been a quiet introduction to the NFL for tight end Irv Smith Jr. since being selected in the second round of the 2019 Draft.
The Alabama product made 36 catches from 47 targets for 311 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie campaign, before recording just 30 receptions from 43 targets for 365 yards and five scores in 2020, his snap count notably dropping from 59 per cent to 50 per cent from year one to two.
But with the departure of veteran Kyle Rudolph, who signed with the Giants in free agency after 10 seasons in Minnesota, his role and production is in line to increase.
While this offense will likely continue to operate through Dalvin Cook, the added attention Justin Jefferson will demand after his phenomenal rookie campaign will no doubt open opportunities for Smith Jr. to make an impact.
The Dolphins have breakout contenders in their numbers, be it second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, left tackle Austin Jackson or gadget threat Lynn Bowden Jr. In New England the Patriots will be hoping the return of veteran opt outs and new defensive acquisitions can spark an ascent from second-round linebacker Josh Uche, while highly-scrutinised linebacker Jordyn Brooks is still faced with the job of justifying the Seattle Seahawks’ decision to select him 27th overall in 2020.
Dallas Cowboys third-round defensive end Neville Gallimore was one of few bright spots to the team’s atrocious defense in 2020, safety Julian Blackmon is projected to assert himself as a leader on the Indianapolis Colts defense and you would feel San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has everything around him to become a star under Kyle Shanahan after glimpses of brilliance in his rookie year.
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