Predicting NFL's Biggest 2020 Breakouts

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2020

Predicting NFL's Biggest 2020 Breakouts

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    NFL players don't just stumble into a breakout year. To perform at optimal levels, they need a strong supporting cast, a system that accentuates their strengths and the opportunity to play in a suitable role.

    Some players take a massive leap between Years 1 and 2—others see a significant spike in production after a move via free agency or a trade. For even the most talented around the league, circumstances can hinder or heighten potential. 

    In 2019, Miami Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker played up to his first-round draft pedigree, recording 72 receptions for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns under a new coaching staff. Edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett played for the Denver Broncos in a reserve role through five terms and captured the sack title (19.5) as a full-time starter in Tampa Bay.

    Who's next to transition from a non-household name to a rising playmaker this season?

    Let's take a look at players who don't have a standout campaign with Pro Bowl, All-Pro, Offensive or Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. We'll focus on those with modest career production to uncover the biggest potential breakouts primed to earn notable accolades in 2020.

Drew Lock, QB, Denver Broncos

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    General manager John Elway has set up Drew Lock for success. Going into his second season, he'll have new offensive weapons and a stronger offensive line.

    The Broncos selected Jerry Jeudy with the No. 15 overall pick and KJ Hamler at No. 46. Both wide receivers bring speed to the offense, though the latter is also a shrewd route-runner who can cut on a dime and shake defensive backs off his trail before he even touches the ball. 

    As a starter in the final five contests of 2019, Lock threw for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He has a rapport with wideout Courtland Sutton and tight end Noah Fant, who ranked first and second on the team, respectively, in receiving yards. Now, with Jeudy and Hamler, this aerial attack can put defenders on their heels. 

    Lock can target pass-catching running backs Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon III in the short passing game. The latter has 224 career receptions for 1,873 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

    Defenders may crowd the box to stop Gordon and Lindsay. As a result, Lock could have open passing lanes on early downs. The 23-year-old signal-caller doesn't have to force throws with a viable rushing offense and a complementary defense that ranked top-10 in scoring last year. He can play within himself and take timely shots to Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler and Fant. 

    Lock has the keys to an offense that's loaded with talent. He possesses the arm strength to burn defenses deep and the touch to complete short passes in the flat.

    Stat Projection: 3,935 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    If you play fantasy football, move Kenyan Drake up your running back draft board. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury made good use of the four-year veteran through eight games last season.

    The Miami Dolphins traded Drake to the Cardinals before the 2019 deadline. In Arizona, he logged 123 carries for 643 yards and eight touchdowns, which included three 100-yard performances.

    The Cardinals traded David Johnson to the Houston Texans. That transaction clears Drake's pathway toward a featured role and more touches. Chase Edmonds and rookie seventh-rounder Eno Benjamin are the projected backups.

    At the end of 2019, Drake showed bell-cow running back qualities, averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry on 22-plus rushing attempts in back-to-back contests. If he can stay healthy, the 26-year-old should be able to handle 15 to 20 carries per contest.

    With three-time All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins drawing attention on the perimeter, quarterback Kyler Murray can attack the linebackers in the short passing game. Drake has 144 catches, 1,107 receiving yards and six touchdowns for his career. He's a dual-threat playmaker capable of racking up 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in 2020. 

    Stat Projection: 222 carries, 1,095 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns; 43 receptions, 412 yards, four touchdowns

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

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    Deebo Samuel didn't hit his stride until midway through the 2019 campaign. In Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks, he caught eight passes for 112 yards and then racked up 134 yards the following week.

    Even though the San Francisco 49ers acquired 10-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders before last year's trade deadline, Samuel led the team's wideouts in receptions (42) and receiving yards (634) from Week 8 through the end of the season.

    As the year progressed, the 49ers coaching staff expanded Samuel's workload. Head coach Kyle Shanahan found creative ways to use him as a ball-carrier, and he scored a rushing touchdown in Weeks 16 and 17. 

    San Francisco didn't re-sign Sanders, who inked a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints. General manager John Lynch selected wideout Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of the draft, but Samuel's rapport with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo should put him over 1,100 receiving yards in 2020. 

    Samuel will likely open the year in a starting role as the 49ers' No. 1 wideout. With his additional touches on the ground, he's a versatile rising star in the league.

    Stat Projection: 84 receptions, 1,179 yards and eight touchdowns; 210 rushing yards, three touchdowns

Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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    Over the last two seasons, tight end Mark Andrews became quarterback Lamar Jackson's top pass-catcher. As the No. 2 tight end on the Baltimore Ravens depth chart, Hayden Hurst saw limited targets within the aerial attack.

    Hurst had a relatively quiet second year in Baltimore, registering 30 receptions for 349 yards and two touchdowns. He lined up for 41 percent of the offensive snaps. The South Carolina product made the most of his opportunities with a 76.9 percent catch rate

    The Ravens traded Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons, who allowed Austin Hooper to walk during free agency. Now, the former has a chance to once again establish himself in a lead role.

    In Atlanta, wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley could open up the field for Hurst. Hooper flourished as the Falcons' top tight end, improving his receiving numbers every year.

    Before Atlanta selected Hooper in the third round of the 2016 draft, Jacob Tamme had a solid age-30 season with the Falcons, registering 59 catches for 657 yards and a score in 2015.

    Since 2011, the Falcons have fielded a top-10 aerial attack every season. The Ravens ranked 22nd and 27th in passing for the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, respectively. As a starter, Hurst could put together a strong showing as a key component of a more productive aerial attack. 

    Stat Projection: 55 receptions, 730 yards, seven touchdowns

Jeffery Simmons, DL, Tennessee Titans

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    In February of 2019, Jeffery Simmons tore his ACL. Yet the Tennessee Titans selected him with the 19th overall pick two months later. Despite the injury, the 22-year-old returned to action in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

    Simmons started seven of the last nine games of his rookie term, finishing with 18 tackles, four for loss, two sacks and a pass breakup. He played sparingly during the playoffs, logging fewer than 47 percent of the defensive snaps in each contest.

    The Titans expressed confidence in Simmons with their actions: The front office traded defensive lineman Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos. The five-time Pro Bowler provided a consistent push up front, registering 51 sacks through nine seasons with the club. 

    According to ESPN's Turron Davenport, Simmons is slated for an increased role following Casey's departure. The 6'4", 301-pound lineman logged four solo tackles, two for loss and a sack in his NFL debut. With an offseason to prepare while healthy, he could become a solid interior pass-rusher and a huge obstacle for opposing ground attacks. 

    Typically, players need a year to feel like themselves after an ACL tear. Simmons' 18 solo tackles fresh off a significant knee injury show he's tough to block on the inside. At full strength, the Mississippi State product seems primed to wreak havoc on offensive lines.

    Stat Projection: 58 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, nine sacks, four forced fumbles

Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo Bills

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    As a rookie, Ed Oliver opened the season with the starting lineup, though he didn't make a significant impact until later in the year as a reserve. The Houston product played 54 percent of the defensive snaps across all 16 games.

    In Week 7, Oliver recorded his first sack against the Miami Dolphins and finished with five total for the year. 

    Although sacks jump off the screen, Oliver made his presence felt beyond the box score, per The Athletic's Joe Buscaglia.

    "Even though he didn't start the second half of the season, Oliver was one of the Bills' best defenders over the final two months," Buscaglia wrote. "Oliver excelled at holding the point of attack against the run and taking an explosive first step to defeat the offensive lineman."  

    The Bills didn't re-sign Jordan Phillips, who led the team in sacks (9.5) last season. In his absence, Oliver will likely soak up more snaps as the 3-technique defensive tackle responsible for shooting interior gaps to provide pocket pressure. 

    Furthermore, offensive coordinators may want to think twice about double-teaming Oliver with Mario Addison coming off the edge.

    Addison has at least nine sacks in each of the last four years with the Carolina Panthers. He'll likely garner most of the attention from offensive linemen, which will allow Oliver to exploit one-on-one matchups. With his quickness off the line of scrimmage, the 22-year-old should win plenty of battles on passing downs in 2020.

    Stat Projection: 60 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, four forced fumbles

Marcus Davenport, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

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    During the 2018 draft, the New Orleans Saints moved up 13 spots from No. 27 to 14 for edge-rusher Marcus Davenport. As a pro, he's battled thumb, toe and foot injuries but only missed six contests.

    Davenport flashes in short bursts. He's recorded 53 tackles, 11 for loss and 10.5 sacks over his first two seasons. Still, the Texas-San Antonio product hasn't quite measured up to his first-round draft pedigree, especially as a trade-up target. 

    Nevertheless, Davenport looked impressive before he suffered a foot injury that ended his second term. Assuming the 23-year-old makes a full recovery, he should play more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps, which was his mark in 2019. 

    The Saints have to take the training wheels off of Davenport and unleash him in a bigger role. That would enable him to show his full potential with more consistency. He's not going to face competition from a high-priced veteran or a premium draft pick, so the 6'6", 265-pound edge-rusher has a chance to put together a standout season. 

    Davenport's gradual progress will lead to a major payoff for the Saints in 2020. 

    Stat Projection: 52 tackles, 11 sacks, nine tackles for loss, five forced fumbles

Karl Joseph, S, Cleveland Browns

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    Karl Joseph had some bright spots but struggled with injuries during his time with the Las Vegas Raiders. He played fewer than 58 percent of defensive snaps in three out of four campaigns.

    At 5'10", 200 pounds, Joseph can play both safety spots. He doesn't have the size to cover bigger tight ends but reads the quarterback's eyes to make plays in coverage. The West Virginia product tackles with force as a box defender. When going downhill, he moves like a heatseeking missile against the run.

    The Cleveland Browns selected safety Grant Delpit in the second round of April's draft. As the rookie finds his way at the pro level, Joseph can shore up the secondary, using his quickness to help out cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams over the top. 

    On a one-year deal, Joseph is one of the most underrated free-agent signings. With a bigger workload, he can fully display his coverage skills and ability to diagnose plays from the back end of the defense. Lastly, the 26-year-old is an effective safety blitzer who can shoot through gaps for a sack or force an errant throw.

    Stat Projection: 95 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, nine pass breakups, three interceptions