7 Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2020

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2020

7 Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2020

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The wide-sweeping optimism for NFL teams before the season starts extends to players too.

    Breakout candidates share similar traits with teams: They've shown signs of promise, the on-paper outlook is good because of upgrades and continued development suggests a big breakout could happen.

    Interestingly, there are many candidates outside of the usual suspects. Under-the-radar breakouts don't include high-profile quarterbacks and may even be overshadowed by teammates.

    The following names are some of the lesser-known breakout candidates to watch for in 2020.

James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Most onlookers agree the Pittsburgh Steelers offense should have a massive rebound in 2020 with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back under center.

    2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson seems like a popular breakout candidate as both a quality prospect and the versatile guy who'll step into the role left vacant by Antonio Brown.

    But don't sleep on James Washington.

    The second-round pick in 2018 caught just 16 balls as a rookie and only managed 44 catches on 80 targets with 735 yards and three scores as a sophomore.

    Still, the arrow continues to point up. Washington had a notable average of 16.7 yards per catch and picked up 31 first downs on those 44 catches. Better quarterback play compared to last year, a continued upward trend and an offense that may better use Washington's abilities could help him leap into star status.

Marcus Davenport, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    How many have thrown up the white flag on expecting a breakout for New Orleans Saints edge defender Marcus Davenport?

    Doing so might be quite premature.

    Two years removed from Davenport's draft, the breakout spotlight might shine elsewhere. He's failed to match expectations after the Saints sacrificed a future first-round pick to move up and get him at No. 14 in 2018.

    Davenport has all of 10.5 sacks over two seasons, and both featured three missed games. Still, it's important to look behind the front-facing numbers. His snap percentage jumped from 40 to 50 in 2019, and other key stats also increased, including sacks (4.5 to 6.0), hurries (3 to 12) and pressures (17 to 26). His Pro Football Focus grade took a leap too, going from 71.8 to 84.1.

    An uptick in play as he continues to develop could help Davenport match, if not exceed, original expectations. It'd come a little later than expected, but the hints are there.

Brian Burns, EDGE, Carolina Panthers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Brian Burns' rookie campaign might've been a preview of what's to come.

    Burns, the No. 16 pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2019, quietly had a stellar debut campaign for a team that fell out of the national spotlight while winning just five games.

    Burns appeared in all 16 contests, drumming up 7.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, seven knockdowns and 23 pressures. He did all this while only playing 43 percent of his defense's snaps.

    All signs point up from here. Besides his own development, an improved offense led by coach Matt Rhule and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater should mean a higher snap count for Burns as he gets after opposing quarterbacks. He should also see improvement on his own unit thanks to the arrival of 2020 seventh overall pick Derrick Brown up front.

    Carolina might not command a ton of attention again during what could be a transitional year, but Burns' breakout could be a big part of helping the team's arrow point up.

Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It is easy to overlook tight end Noah Fant given the hype around the Denver Broncos' drafting of receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, not to mention adding Melvin Gordon III to the backfield in free agency.

    All in the name of helping quarterback Drew Lock, of course. But Fant, the No. 20 pick in 2019, could end up being a bigger help than most while benefitting from the new arrivals around him.

    As a rookie, Fant only tallied 562 yards and three scores on 14.1 yards per catch, securing 40 of his 66 targets. But more than half of his catches (23) went for first downs, and he dropped just five targets while getting in on 69 percent of his offense's snaps.

    Fant is working on his route tree and will be playing in an improved offense, so his usage and numbers should balloon. There's a chance he outright leads the Broncos in receiving.

Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Parris Campbell didn't have an immediate impact after joining the Indianapolis Colts in the 2019 draft's second round.

    It was a little shocking considering he put up 1,000-plus yards and 12 scores during his final collegiate season at Ohio State before blazing a 4.31-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

    Instead of making an instant impact, Campbell registered just three starts in seven total appearances, totaling 127 yards and a score on 18 catches.

    While it's a small sample size, he did register a 75 percent catch rate with more than 18 yards per catch with six first downs. If he's healthy, Campbell should see improved quarterback play too thanks to the arrival of Philip Rivers. The tandem of T.Y. Hilton and rookie Michael Pittman Jr. could command attention, leading to plenty of looks for the sophomore as Rivers gets adjusted.

    A full 16 games, smart usage and better play under center could help Campbell become a household name given his talent and production to date in brief playing time.

Andy Isabella, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Business is about to pick up for Arizona Cardinals wideout Andy Isabella as defenses focus on Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins.

    Isabella had a muted rookie season last year after arriving as a second-rounder. He received just 13 targets over a paltry 15 percent of his offense's snaps.

    Now it's time for the all-important but: Isabella averaged 21 yards per catch, turning nine grabs into 189 yards and a score. Between receptions and rushes, he averaged better than 15 yards per touch.

    The arrow points up for the 5'9" speedster of a weapon. An offensive-minded coach like Kliff Kingsbury will figure out the right way to maximize Isabella's talents while defenses fixate on Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and even Kenyan Drake out of the backfield.

    Isabella won't lead the Cardinals in receiving by a long shot, but one of the NFL's most improved offenses will have plenty of big-play touches for a weapon of his caliber.

Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Has the world given up on Derrius Guice?

    Guice doesn't seem to fit into the same box as other notable running back underperformers like Rashaad Penny. The Washington Redskins' second-round pick in 2018 just hasn't been able to stay healthy, missing all of his rookie year and only suiting up for five games as a sophomore.

    When Guice has made it onto the field, he's flashed elite workhorse potential. After strong play in the preseason last year, he piled up 245 yards and two scores on just 42 carries, good for a 5.8 per-carry average. He also caught seven of his nine targets for 79 yards and a score.

    Not only did this production mirror Guice's brief preseason domination, but it's also worth noting his line permitted him just 1.2 yards before contact. He slammed through to the tune of 4.6 yards after contact.

    It's easy to presume Washington's backfield belongs to Adrian Peterson. But if Guice is healthy, he's a three-down workhorse back primed for a stuffed stat sheet.