The ascent to stardom for an NFL player is not always a straight line. Some are thrust into the limelight immediately, but others must patiently wait for their opportunity to make a mark. However it is achieved, new stars are born in the NFL every year with each one hungry and determined to make their fans and critics alike remember their name.
Moreover, every team has at least one candidate, in my eyes, veritable of making that leap. Here is that candidate for the 16 teams that make up the AFC.
New England Patriots: Chase Winovich, Defensive End
Following the well-known departure of one former Michigan Wolverine (Tom Brady) in the locker room, it seems fitting that another may have found an opportunity to shine following a promising rookie campaign in Foxborough. Winovich had a modest 5.5 sacks in his rookie year, but that number does not well-exemplify his profound impact on the defense both last season and going forward.
Obvious hair comparisons aside, he is reminiscent of a young Clay Matthews. Both are renowned for their relentless motor and prolific ability to speed-rush even if the end result is not a sack, as well as a tireless work ethic in the pursuit of improvement.
With a larger role likely in store for him next year due to the exodus of much of New England’s front 7, the best appears to be on the horizon for Winovich.
Honorable Mentions: WR Jakobi Meyers, CB J.C. Jackson
Buffalo Bills: Dawson Knox, Tight End
It may seem like a strange selection for a team that has a potential franchise quarterback in Josh Allen as well as a running back in Devin Singletary that earned the praise of Adrian Peterson following a game last year against the Redskins, but there is veritable reason to believe that the second year TE from Ole Miss has the potential to take the NFL by storm.
Year one was a bit rocky for Knox, as he was thrust into the starting TE role unexpectedly following an injury to the incumbent starter in Tyler Kroft. However, in flashes, he showed off his almost freakish speed, cat-like agility, and impressive power after the catch, which are all attributes similar to former Pro Bowl TE Jeremy Shockey.
With the newly acquired Stefon Diggs and now-established John Brown each flanking him to the outside, Knox should have some appealing one-on-one match-ups with safeties or linebackers in which he can prove to be too fast or too strong every week.
Honorable Mentions: RB Zack Moss, LB Vo’sean Joseph
Miami Dolphins: Preston Williams, Wide Receiver
In the midst of a hardship-filled rebuilding year, the former UDFA from Colorado State did what he could to earn his keep on a Miami Dolphins team whose parts were largely in flux during the 2019-20 season. Prior to an unfortunate ACL tear that ended his season after 8 games, Williams was on target for an impressive 900 yard season.
His 6’3” frame gives him a massive catch radius with spectacularly smooth hands to match. Not to mention, his footwork throughout his routes, top to bottom, is crisp and purposeful allowing him to separate both underneath and over the top on a consistent basis. He looks to secure his place this season among the contenders of the “best value” title from the 2019 rookie class.
Honorable Mentions: DT Christian Wilkins, TE Mike Gesicki
New York Jets: Mekhi Becton, Offensive Tackle
Determining the value of an OT in his ability to “break out” is a difficult exercise in abstraction. However it is accomplished, no team in football could use a linchpin in the trenches quite as badly as the New York Jets, as the future of their franchise in Sam Darnold quite literally depends on its ability to protect his blindside.
At 6’7”, 364 pounds, Becton is the type of enforcer that can keep Darnold’s pocket clean if he has to drop back from under center, or even buy time for routes to develop out of the shotgun.
His blocks can be described as devastating because of the power he delivers them with, but they are paired up with quick feet that can effectively reach. He seems to be the type of project that will pay dividends soon.
Honorable Mentions: WR Denzel Mims, CB Pierre Desir
Pittsburgh Steelers: Diontae Johnson, Wide Receiver
As a third-round selection from Akron that was seen as a “gadget player”, Johnson quickly changed his evaluators minds by leading all rookie receivers in receptions last year, which is something he did while being hampered by a groin injury he sustained in Week 2 against Seattle. He was even second-team All-Pro as a punt returner too.
Johnson is elusive and can become the type of player that a defensive coordinator needs to keep his eye on at all times to make sure he does not get a mismatch on somebody that is too slow for his quick release and overwhelming acceleration. With full health and a much more competent situation under center, optimism is at an all-time high for Johnson to recreate his successful first year and then some.
The only issue standing in his way is the Steelers positional prioritization in this year’s draft to spend an even earlier selection than Johnson on Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool, who should definitely assume his fair share of targets. However, if Johnson carries his weight on the offense, his production could still stand to improve.
Honorable Mentions: OT Zach Banner, LB Devin Bush
Cleveland Browns: Sione Takitaki, Linebacker
Takitaki’s opportunity to break out is perhaps one created by sudden vacancy, but it should not stand to diminish his intrinsic talent. The BYU product showed up on his college film as a sure tackler with a nose for shedding blocks and jumping gaps to stop the ball at any cost.
He was perhaps the quintessential John Dorsey pick, as a player much too gifted to be a day two pick, but too volatile off the field to be a sure thing. His total of 16 tackles during his rookie campaign does not paint the picture of an illustrious start, but the departures of Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey afford him an opportunity to make his mark.
Honorable Mentions: CB Greedy Williams, WR KhaDarel Hodge
Cincinnati Bengals: Darius Phillips, Cornerback
As a 5’10” corner who was a fifth-round selection two years ago, it is completely justified to state that expectations for Phillips were modest at best. However, his sophomore campaign was an unexpected bright spot for an incredibly bleak Bengals season. In only 109 snaps, Phillips picked off 4 passes, which is tied for the most by a Bengals player in a single season since Leon Hall back in 2010.
He defended 7 passes as well, which was good enough for third on the team although he only played for half the season due to a knee injury. When he did play, he was smooth and collected in coverage with emerging ball skills that manifested in his numbers.
He figures to be a secondary corner alongside the criminally underrated William Jackson III. Both of them, along with safety Jessie Bates III, should prove to be a formidable secondary that can play a crucial role in righting the ship in Cincinnati.
Honorable Mentions: DE Sam Hubbard, WR Tee Higgins
Baltimore Ravens: Miles Boykin, Wide Receiver
With no veteran wide receivers added through this off-season’s free agent crop to the mix for Baltimore, it stands to reason that the front office brass is confident in the group they have right now with Boykin being no exception. The more obvious pick at the position to blossom would typically be the lightning-quick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, with a nickname that perfectly encapsulates the type of electrifying ability he has that will always keep fans on the edge of their seat.
However, Boykin, with a vacant Z-receiver role in Greg Roman’s offense, is almost guaranteed to get the first crack. With already sturdy hands, quicker footwork, and improved route running, an off-season of work should do the former Notre Dame product well. Furthermore, his apparent ability to block in the run game should earn him snaps in an offense heavily reliant on blocking outside of the o-line.
Honorable Mentions: LB Patrick Queen, DE Jaylon Ferguson
Tennessee Titans: Jeffrey Simmons, Defensive Tackle
The decision by Titans GM Jon Robinson to part with long-time D-line stalwart Jurrell Casey for a meager seventh-round pick from Denver seems baffling at best. Following another Pro Bowl season, Casey recently recalled being “thrown away like a piece of trash” in the seemingly-lopsided deal on Devin and Jason McCourty’s Double Coverage podcast. Why was such a headstrong move made?
Well, it speaks volumes of the potential of his successor, former Mississippi State phenom Jeffrey Simmons. For an interior defensive lineman, he is exceptionally disruptive against both the run and the pass, and likely would have been a top five pick in his class if not for an ACL injury that disrupted his final collegiate season.
He is an outstanding physical and athletic specimen in the mold of Ndamukong Suh, and his personal X-factor will come with improving his football acumen enough to develop better instincts. Robinson wants him to command coach Mike Vrabel’s front 4 in the long run.
Honorable Mentions: TE Jonnu Smith, LB Harold Landry
Jacksonville Jaguars: Gardner Minshew III, Quarterback
Are the jorts and mustache both spectacular? Oh, no question they are. However, these lovable features distort the truly promising quarterback that it is fair to say Minshew could absolutely be. In a year, let alone an entire career, where Minshew was not expected to start, the broken collarbone of Nick Foles tossed him into the fire right away in Week 1, and he looked calm and composed against the title winning Kansas City Chiefs in what would prove to be a closer loss than many anticipated.
As a whole, the national media may be unfair in their assessment of Minshew’s prospects, especially after a year in which he was the best-rated rookie QB in the league, as well as the 2nd rated scrambler, 3rd rater deep passer, and 4th rated red zone QB in the league statistically.
The perception is because the Jaguars are seemingly headed towards the top pick in the 2021 Draft, Minshew WILL somehow be the problem, which is by no means a justified conclusion. He may not be an athletic specimen, but he has the discipline and play recognition to last a long time in this league. He is somebody who can firmly silence his detractors with another solid campaign against the odds.
Honorable Mentions: OT Jawaan Taylor, DE Josh Allen
Houston Texans: Justin Reid, Safety
Attempting to pick a “breakout” candidate on the Houston Texans seems futile in great part due to the front-office maneuvering of one Head Coach/GM (Huge Red Flag Alert!) Bill O’Brien. However, Reid is not necessarily a bad candidate. The third-year safety has become a little less green to the league year by year.
Last season, he finished with only 5 missed tackles on 83 attempts, as well as having the 10th most combined pass breakups and interceptions among qualified safeties (8). He has strong instincts and fantastic coverage skills that allow him to be a regular contributor, as well as becoming a well-respected leader within the locker room after being voted as the recipient of the 2019 Ed Block Courage Award by his teammates.
Reid’s combination of tangibles and intangibles are creating the perfect storm for him to make his name amongst the NFL’s elite.
Honorable Mentions: OG Max Scharping, WR Keke Coutee
Indianapolis Colts: Michael Pittman Jr., Wide Receiver
Even in the deepest rookie wide receiver in years, Pittman Jr. stands out as the prospect to perhaps be most enthused about. His massive frame allows him to win jump balls consistently as well as being a dominant run blocker, and he is as strong with contact during the catch as he is after the catch.
Not to mention, the Colts are arguably the best fit for him in the league, as he is juxtaposed perfectly to the compact and reliable T.Y. Hilton. With a new QB used to volume passing in Philip Rivers, his new tall target should gain plenty of attention such as the likes of Vincent Jackson and Keenan Allen.
Pittman Jr. already projects to be the starting “X” receiver in Frank Reich’s offense, and should receive every opportunity he needs to make an impact.
Honorable Mentions: WR Parris Campbell, OT Braden Smith
Kansas City Chiefs: Willie Gay Jr., Linebacker
Even in a year when the Kansas City Chiefs reached the apex of football success, one couldn’t help but notice their defense was occasionally lethargic and hemorrhaged yards against inferior units. Thus, the selection of Gay in the second round is meant to at least begin to incite change in that regard.
As a prospect with outstanding range, blitzing, and dropback potential, he’s likely to be an outstanding spark for DC Steve Spagnuolo’s capable, but inconsistent unit. His speed is incredible for his position, as he ran his 40 yard dash at the combine in 4.46 seconds, which was second among all linebackers at the event.
The caveat lies in his character, as he was forced to serve an 8 game suspension for academic reasons in 2019 and supposedly broke the orbital bone in a teammate’s face in a fight during practice last year. However, if Andy Reid can keep his temperament in check, he could prove to be a crucial cog for a burgeoning dynasty.
Honorable Mentions: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, SS Juan Thornhill
Las Vegas Raiders: Bryan Edwards, Wide Receiver
With Derek Carr entering the most critical season in his career yet, the Raiders have taken the initiative to add a couple more weapons on offense including elite downfield speed in Henry Ruggs and swiss-army knife versatility in Lynn Bowden Jr. Although he was not their first wide receiver taken in this class, Edwards has a chance to make the biggest impact of them all, as his game is well-tailored to Carr’s repertoire.
Edwards, whose durable 6’3” frame and advanced understanding of route leverage allows him to find open space almost effortlessly in short to intermediate situations, can suddenly become Carr’s favorite target on the slants and other underneath routes that he has a preference to throw. He’s equally as potent deeper down the field, as he has a massive catch radius and sneaky vertical speed for his overwhelming size.
He also has the production in college to boot, as he leaves South Carolina as the most prolific wideout to ever wear the black and garnet with the most receiving yards in the school’s history among names such as Alshon Jeffery, Sterling Sharpe, and Sidney Rice. If not for his foot injury during the pre-draft process in an already deep receiving class, he would have been selected much earlier.
Honorable Mentions: S Johnathan Abram, CB Trayvon Mullen
Los Angeles Chargers: Austin Ekeler, Runningback
It seems a bit strange to put a player who has already earned a long-term extension on a list of breakout candidates, but it is truly fair to assume that this is nowhere near the apex for the once undrafted free agent. With Melvin Gordon departing for Denver, Ekeler is suddenly the priority for Anthony Lynn out of the backfield, as evidenced by the Chargers financial commitment to keeping him in Southern California.
His backups are Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley, who are two backs that may challenge for complementary touches, but will not create a situation similar to last year in which the Chargers offense simply had too many mouths to feed.
Especially in a season in which transition will be a massive theme under center, whether it may be represented by the veteran game manager in Tyrod Taylor or the future of the franchise in Justin Herbert, both will find relief in being able to check down to a running back as dynamic and reliable as Ekeler.
His physical, no-nonsense, north to south running style on handoffs pairs usefully with his technically-sound route running and naturally strong post-catch instincts to create a football player whose lack of flair is made up for in a dearth of utility that the Chargers will continue to find ways to maximize as their franchise moves into an unfamiliar era.
Honorable Mentions: S Nasir Adderley, LB Kenneth Murray
Denver Broncos: Noah Fant, Tight End
Drew Lock’s infectious confidence, rocket arm, and winning ways for a team that seemed hopeless near the end of last season seem to have captured many football fans’ and writers’ hearts into believing that he is destined to be the Broncos’ breakout candidate of 2020. However, one of his biggest benefactors in Fant undoubtedly has a case too.
Fant, who projected as a “matchup nightmare” out of Iowa did not disappoint on that description, as he bounced off tackles effortlessly and outran nearly everybody at times after the catch during his rookie season. In addition to having pre-existing chemistry with Lock unlike other rookie targets in Denver, the 2020 season ushers in the presence of Pat Shurmur as an offensive coordinator, the same man who oversaw serious usage projection spikes in tight ends such as Kyle Rudolph and Evan Engram.
Even if receivers like Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton absorb some of Lock’s targets, Fant still stands to be both a safety valve for Lock as well as a big play just waiting to happen.
Honorable Mentions: LB Bradley Chubb, WR KJ Hamler
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