Which 2nd-Year NFL Players Are Poised for Breakout Seasons in 2020?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 25, 2020

Which 2nd-Year NFL Players Are Poised for Breakout Seasons in 2020?

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    The NFL draft produces early bloomers, late bloomers, never bloomers and these guys. 

    These are guys who shone but didn't explode as rookies, yet they are ready to leap as sophomores. 

    There can be subjectivity to the term "breakout," but in this case, we're excluding those who won Rookie of the Year awards (Kyler Murray and Nick Bosa) and those who hit 1,000 yards on the ground or in the air (Josh Jacobs and A.J. Brown). 

    We're also ruling out those who compiled over 150 fantasy points (Gardner Minshew II, Daniel Jones and Miles Sanders), those who had double-digit sacks (Josh Allen and Maxx Crosby) and those who compiled 100-plus tackles (Devin Bush, Taylor Rapp and Cole Holcomb).

    Those who received Pro Football Reference approximate-value grades above eight (Kaleb McGary and Deebo Samuel) and Pro Bowlers aren't in consideration either. 

    Everyone else is fair game. Let's get into it. 


Carolina Panthers EDGE Brian Burns

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    While playing part-time as a 21-year-old in 2019, Carolina Panthers edge defender Brian Burns put together an auspicious rookie campaign. But after a strong start, the No. 16 overall pick underwent wrist surgery in October and was less of a factor the rest of the way. 

    Still, he managed 7.5 sacks. And when he looked fully recovered late in the year, he recorded two sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss on 55 snaps in the final two weeks of the regular season. 

    Burns should benefit from his first full offseason, especially now that he's healthy. And he won't be playing catch-up because everybody will be learning new defensive coordinator Phil Snow's scheme together. 

    But the key to a potential breakout is more playing time. Veterans Bruce Irvin and Mario Addison took priority over the Florida State product on the edge, but both are slated to become free agents when the new league year begins March 18. And the Panthers might decide against re-signing a pair of players on the wrong side of 30. 

    That could pave the way for a monster sophomore year from Burns. 

Denver Broncos TE Noah Fant

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    Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant caught just 78 passes in three years at Iowa and was 21 years old for the majority of his rookie season. He entered the league relatively raw, so it would be unfair to hold a shaky start against him. 

    The No. 20 overall pick dropped several passes early in the season and was held to fewer than 40 receiving yards in each of his first eight games. But the week that injured veteran quarterback Joe Flacco was replaced, Fant exploded with three catches, 115 yards and a touchdown in a victory over the Cleveland Browns. 

    He racked up 377 receiving yards in the second half of the 2019 campaign, and his ridiculous 18.9 yards-per-reception average during that span ranked sixth among qualified players.

    He's a playmaker, and it appears he's established some chemistry with new Broncos starter Drew Lock. New Denver offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is already gushing. 

    "I haven't seen him in person," Shurmur said recently, according to Chad Jensen of the Mile High Huddle. "I remember him from the draft process. He was another player that we had a really, really high opinion of. I'm looking forward to working with him."

Las Vegas Raiders EDGE Clelin Ferrell

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    The then-Oakland Raiders shocked the football world when they used the No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell last April, and the Clemson product didn't exactly vindicate his new team in 2019. 

    He had just 4.5 sacks in 15 starts as a rookie, but don't be surprised if he breaks out as a sophomore. The 22-year-old flashed with 2.5 sacks in a November victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, and three of his eight quarterback hits came in the final four weeks of the regular season. Half of his eight tackles for loss came in the last three weeks. 

    You know Raiders decision-makers Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock will do everything in their power to make the Ferrell pick work, which means he should get plenty of opportunities throughout his age-23 season. And it should help that Las Vegas added renowned defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to the staff earlier this month. 

    Plus, Ferrell can grow alongside fellow 2019 draft pick Maxx Crosby, who broke out already with a surprise campaign in which he recorded 10 sacks. A full offseason in an exciting new environment should help both pass-rushers flourish.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

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    Extrapolate Diontae Johnson's numbers from the final quarter of the 2019 season for a full campaign, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver would have over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. And that's without the touchdown he scored on a punt return. 

    Johnson admittedly had more opportunities because JuJu Smith-Schuster was injured for part of that stretch, but he caught 12 of the 16 passes thrown his way for 135 yards and a touchdown in the final two weeks with Smith-Schuster. 

    And that happened despite the fact that the third-round pick was catching passes from the horrible Devlin Hodges, who had a sub-60 percent completion rate, two touchdown throws to six interceptions and a comical 55.7 passer rating across those four games. 

    Give Johnson a full offseason and add Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, and watch for fireworks in 2020. 

Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock

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    Quarterback wins shouldn't be a statistic, but it's not a bad sign that after the Broncos went 3-8 without Drew Lock, they went 4-1 with the 2019 second-round pick under center in December. 

    Lock led two game-winning drives and threw seven touchdowns to three interceptions during that stretch. He was the league's fourth-highest-rated qualified third-down passer in December. 

    It was a promising run considering that the Missouri product spent the majority of the regular season on injured reserve with a thumb injury. It might have also been a sign that general manager John Elway has finally found a franchise quarterback to lead the Broncos into the 2020s. 

    It could take some time for the 23-year-old to adjust to yet another new playbook, but watch for him to eventually excel under Shurmur's tutelage alongside Fant, Courtland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay and a talented offensive line.    

New York Giants S Julian Love

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    Yeah, maybe you didn't watch much Notre Dame football between 2016-18, and nobody could fault you for tuning out the New York Giants last December. Under those circumstances, you might still be unfamiliar with emerging safety Julian Love, who hardly saw the field in the first 11 weeks but then impressed down the stretch. 

    The 2019 fourth-round pick had 34 tackles (five for a loss) while excelling inside and outside of the box as well as in coverage in the final five weeks of the regular season. He's a polished former cornerback with strong tackling skills and the ability to hold it down in the slot, and he's yet to turn 22. 

    If you check out tape on Love from late in season, it's easy to get excited about his potential. His instincts and versatility indicate that Giants general manager Dave Gettleman might have gotten this middle-round pick right.  

Seattle Seahawks WR DK Metcalf

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    You could argue that DK Metcalf has already broken out, but none of our disqualifying criteria applied to him after he was held to fewer than 60 yards seven times as a rookie wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks. 

    He stood out frequently but inconsistently. But based on the way he finished, Metcalf is in line to become a superstar in 2020. 

    Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 12, Seattle played three critical games—one for the NFC West crown and two in the playoffs. And during that stretch, the second-round pick out of Mississippi caught 17 of the 26 passes thrown his way for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 

    Quarterback Russell Wilson seemed to look for Metcalf in key moments, which is even more encouraging. The wideout scored a critical two-point conversion against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in November, and he made a clutch third-down catch in overtime of that game. His awesome 36-yard grab sealed a playoff win in January, and roughly 40 percent of his regular-season receptions occurred in the fourth quarter or overtime.

    The 22-year-old is on track to put together a Pro Bowl-caliber 2020 campaign.

Chicago Bears RB David Montgomery

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    By no means was David Montgomery a ghost in 2019—he rushed for 889 yards and scored seven total touchdowns in the Chicago Bears backfield—but only six qualified backs had lower yards-per-attempt averages than the third-round pick out of Iowa State. 

    However, Montgomery averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry in the final five weeks of the regular season, which is a sign the 22-year-old finally became acclimated to the NFL game. 

    Another promising sign? Only a handful of running backs broke more tackles than Montgomery, who lacks the home run speed to consistently pull away after contact but should become more of a volume rusher after head coach Matt Nagy spends an offseason creating more opportunities for one of his best offensive weapons. 

    Plus, you have to think Nagy will look to add more Montgomery receiving plays. Dude has tremendous skills in the passing game but was underutilized in that realm as a rookie. 

    It's hard to imagine a player with Montgomery's talent won't explode, especially if he's better supported by an offense that was a mess and fourth-worst overall in 2019. 

Houston Texans G Max Scharping

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    Max Scharping was an offensive tackle at North Illinois in the Mid-American Conference, and he played right guard for the Houston Texans in the preseason. Then, suddenly, injuries forced him to step in at left guard during the first month of his NFL career. 

    The second-round pick didn't miss a snap for the remainder of the 2019 season. 

    Scharping still has some development to do and needs to become more consistent, but he was rarely a deer in the headlights despite those circumstances. His pass protection was generally superb, and he went from mild liability to asset down the stretch. 

    "I think he's definitely one of those guys that's a five-tool player," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said late in the year, per Avery Duncan of Texans Wire. "I think he can play center—I think guard is his best spot—but I think in a pinch he can play tackle for us, and he can play center. He trains at center in pre-practice, and we used him at a lot of different places in training camp."

    It's also a good sign that the versatile 23-year-old performed well in Houston's two playoff games. He's ready to take off, regardless of where the Texans put him. 

Tennessee Titans DT Jeffery Simmons

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    Eight months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons had four tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit on just 20 snaps in his NFL debut. Two weeks later, he already had the top pass-rushing grade among qualified interior defensive linemen at Pro Football Focus

    If a guy is good enough to be picked in the top 20 despite having a torn ACL, imagine how much better the two-time first-team All-SEC Mississippi State product could be with his first pro offseason under his belt. 

    Simmons still might not be an every-down player with DaQuan Jones and Jurrell Casey on the roster, but he should benefit from a run-focused, low-pressure role while learning from those veterans.

    Eventually, the 22-year-old's talent will force the Titans to make room for him to dominate on a play-by-play basis.