1 Player on Each NFL Team Who Could Break Out Before the 2020 Season Ends

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2020

1 Player on Each NFL Team Who Could Break Out Before the 2020 Season Ends

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The second half of the 2020 NFL season is prime breakout territory for players.

    Breakouts happen every year for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's because of injuries on the roster. Other times it is an uptick in playing time courtesy of the coaching staff. And often, younger players, if not rookies, see it all come together, translating to an uptick in production.

    Leaguewide breakouts could be especially pronounced in 2020 after the lack of a preseason and the usual rookie and free-agent onboarding process.

    Let's take a look at one player from each team who could earn national attention over the second half of the season as some of these factors work in concert with the player's upside, with one notable veteran exception in Tampa Bay.

Arizona Cardinals: LB Isaiah Simmons

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The early signs weren't encouraging for eighth overall pick Isaiah Simmons.

    The Arizona Cardinals linebacker didn't see much playing time over his first handful of pro games. That was a cause for concern given his similarities to Haason Reddick, the No. 13 pick by Arizona in the 2017 draft who has earned the bust label.

    But in Week 9 against the Miami Dolphins, Simmons got in on 53 percent of his defense's snaps, his first time above 30 percent all season.

    Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was straightforward about the situation, according to Mike Jurecki of the team's official website: "After the bye, he came back a different guy. He's definitely more comfortable. He's more confident in what he's doing. He wants more playing time."

    Given Simmons' talent and the need the Cardinals have, Simmons could shed the Reddick reputation in a hurry down the stretch.

Atlanta Falcons: OL Chris Lindstrom

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Chris Lindstrom of the Atlanta Falcons is on the rise, and where he stops is hard to say.

    Lindstrom, the 14th overall pick in the 2019 draft, only got in five games as a rookie after breaking his foot in his debut. But he's back with a vengeance as a sophomore and has played every snap of his team's first nine games.

    Over the first half of his second year, Lindstrom has easily surpassed his rookie grade at Pro Football Focus. It's a small bright spot for a team that already fired its head coach and could be en route to a big rebuild.

    If nothing else, Lindstrom is the lone budding centerpiece on the offensive line, something he'll really start to signal over the season's second half now that he's established some momentum. Given his draft status, he's got the upside of a top-10 guard leaguewide and that's starting to emerge. 

Baltimore Ravens: RB J.K. Dobbins

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The J.K. Dobbins breakout seems inevitable for the Baltimore Ravens.

    Dobbins, a second-round pick by the Ravens this year, has rushed for 310 yards and two scores on a 5.4 per-carry averag. He has also caught 15 of 20 targets in the passing game.

    An expanded role makes sense as defenses constrict and figure out what the Lamar Jackson-led attack wants to do. Starter Mark Ingram II hasn't been bad rushing the ball, but he has missed two games and has just seven targets through the air. (Gus Edwards isn't much better in this regard with eight targets.)

    Dobbins is a more unpredictable player to throw in the backfield, plus he is far outpacing the per-carry averages of his backfield mates. He's in a prime position to be one of the annual second-half running back breakouts.

Buffalo Bills: RB Zack Moss

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Joining Dobbins in the running back breakout list is Zack Moss of the Buffalo Bills.

    Moss fell to the third round this year but always had the feel of a guy who could quickly take over the backfield in Buffalo, especially since 2019 third-round pick Devin Singletary fumbled four times last season and is struggling as a runner this year.

    Through seven games, Moss has had no such issues while scoring three times on 59 carries, plus catching nine of his 12 targets, including one for a score.

    Singletary topped out at 151 carries last year and is at 99 this season, so Moss is bound to get more of a workhorse look when the weather turns cold and he can punish defenses. Talent and opportunity should have him as a staple of every breakout list.

Carolina Panthers: DL Derrick Brown

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers turned some heads in the 2020 draft by taking Auburn's Derrick Brown seventh overall.

    He's steadily making a name for himself, recording six tackles for loss in 10 starts. After Week 9, he sat behind only Washington's Chase Young in rookie quarterback pressures.

    Impressive, considering Brown played more than 58 percent of his defense's snaps just twice over his first five games and still hasn't played north of 80 percent.

    But it's becoming apparent Carolina can't deny Brown the field given his every-down production. Considering the Panthers are just 3-7, it makes sense Brown would get even more run than usual down the stretch, leading to booming production.

Chicago Bears: TE Cole Kmet

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    It always felt like the Chicago Bears would take it slow with second-round rookie Cole Kmet.

    The Notre Dame product has made more of an impact as a blocker in the running game than as a weapon through the air, scoring just once.

    But the wear and tear of a season, plus Kmet's natural development upswing, figures to get him on the field more. Veteran Jimmy Graham has nagging injury issues at 33 years old, and Kmet has started to take some of his route share in the offense.

    That's why Kmet didn't score his first pro touchdown until Week 6 and didn't crack 40 percent of his offense's snaps in a game until Week 8. Now that he's getting more looks, Bears coach Matt Nagy is going to have a hard time ignoring a 6'6" weapon who can help out Nick Foles.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tee Higgins

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    When the Cincinnati Bengals made Tee Higgins the first pick of the second round in this year's draft, it seemed the team was thinking about life after A.J. Green.

    Higgins is thinking about the now.

    After playing just 22 percent of the offense's snaps in his debut, Higgins' participation has dipped below 60 percent just once. He's caught 40 passes for 603 yards and four touchowns. He's been instrumental in helping No. 1 pick Joe Burrow develop a deep-passing game with 15.1 yards per catch.

    He only figures to get more impressive as the offense moves away from the franchise-tagged Green. Higgins has a superb connection with his fellow rookie Burrow and has made nine receptions of 20-plus yards. It's just a matter of time before he commands national attention.

Cleveland Browns: TE Harrison Bryant

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Elsewhere in Ohio, the old could shift to the new in a hurry.

    Tight end is the spotlight for the Cleveland Browns, where rookie fourth-rounder Harrison Bryant scored two touchdowns in a Week 7 win over Cincinnati.

    Bryant has seen 30 or more snaps in the majority of his games despite sitting on a depth chart that boasts Austin Hooper and David Njoku. His consistency has secured usage even when Hooper has been healthy enough to play.

    Cleveland might elect to see more of this considering Njoku has been the subject of trade speculation and asked to be dealt before the Nov. 3 deadline, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Clevleand.com. Considering Bryant has the second-most touchdowns on the team despite just 15 catches, the upside for a breakout is there.

Dallas Cowboys: TE Dalton Schultz

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It's hard to grab a promising breakout candidate for the Dallas Cowboys given the dire state of the injured roster and the fact that the expected subject (CeeDee Lamb) has already broken out.

    But tight end Dalton Schultz has an interesting case.

    A 2018 fourth-round pick, Schultz benefited from the high-volume direction of the offense under Dak Prescott with two touchdowns after never scoring over the prior two seasons. His snap percentages have leaped into the 90s too.

    Those trends figure to continue as the Cowboys enter evaluation mode. Injuries and his performance have earned him playing time, and he's a safe target for backup quarterbacks, which will help him show off what he can do.

Denver Broncos: WR KJ Hamler

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    Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

    Denver Broncos second-round rookie KJ Hamler appeared to have his breakout in Week 9 when he caught six of 10 targets for 75 yards and took a rushing opportunity for 15 yards.

    That said, Hamler's Broncos were on the wrong end of a 34-27 shootout with the Atlanta Falcons, forcing them to throw the ball 48 times. He finished second behind Jerry Jeudy's 14 targets, but the quantity was likely an anomaly.

    Still, the Penn State product has shown over seven games of up-and-down usage that he can be an asset in the offense, averaging 11.4 yards per catch.

    Hamler is likely to be the next Broncos wideout to break out after Jeudy and Tim Patrick, especially as the under-.500 team gets pieces of the future more playing time.

Detroit Lions: RB D'Andre Swift

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    At some point, the Detroit Lions will get serious about focusing on the future.

    That will mean a bigger look for D'Andre Swift, the team's second-round pick this year and an obvious preseason breakout candidate. The Matthew Stafford-led offense always seemed to be missing a star player at running back.

    Swift has looked good, yet he's lost a ton of snaps to 35-year-old Adrian Peterson. He has just 70 carries to Peterson's 97, yet he's turned them into 331 yards and four touchdowns on a 4.7 average, along with 31 catches.

    In his first eight games, Swift received north of 50 percent of the snaps just once. If that changes, he'll find himself among the league leaders in second-half production outright.

Green Bay Packers: WR Allen Lazard

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Allen Lazard looked like the next big thing for the Green Bay Packers.

    Over the first three games of the season, Lazard went on a tear, catching 13 of his 17 targets from Aaron Rodgers for 254 yards and two scores, averaging a gaudy 19.5 yards per reception.

    But Lazard suffered a core injury and has missed every game since, and there was speculation the Packers might address the wideout position at the trade deadline.

    That didn't come to pass, and Lazard might be a big reason why. He hit career highs last year with 477 yards and three scores, but it was clear year three was to be his big breakout. If he gets back healthy, that's still on the table, especially since his quarterback is playing at an MVP level.

Houston Texans: DL Ross Blacklock

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It's showcase time for a Houston Texans team well out of the playoff race and that has already fired its head coach.

    Defensive lineman Ross Blacklock is one of the names with the best chance of making the most of the opportunity. The second-round rookie out of TCU entered the league as a possible disruptor from the interior, and he's started to show flashes the coaches like.

    According to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said of Blacklock: "He continues to develop. You see him gain more confidence every game. Had a nice tackle, put some pressure on the quarterback. He's starting to gain confidence. Like Jon Greenard, he makes some mistakes you have to live through."

    Blacklock has seen 30 percent or more of the snaps in each game since Week 6, so even an uptick in situational usage that puts his skill set to smart use should equate to a big showing as he heads for his sophomore season.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Marcus Johnson

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr. seemed like the hot breakout candidate in an offense led by new arrival Philip Rivers.

    Few saw Marcus Johnson, an undrafted free agent in 2016, coming to steal the title.

    Yet current pacing suggests that is how things will play out over the season's second half. Both Pittman and Johnson have appeared in six games, and the latter has put up more yardage and is the team leader in yards per catch at 18.5.

    Johnson hasn't put up the gaudiest numbers in an offense that loops in plenty of work for running backs and tight ends through the air. But if he can stay healthy, he's tracking like a consistent potential deep threat for Rivers as the Colts make a playoff push.

Jacksonville Jaguars: CB CJ Henderson

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars haven't shied away from throwing first-rounder CJ Henderson on the field and letting him learn on the fly.

    Henderson played in 90-plus percent of the snaps five times through seven games, earning a 56.5 PFF grade. That included three touchdowns permitted on a 64.4 completion percentage, but so it goes for a rookie thrown into the role of No. 1 corner on a bad team.

    Defensive coordinator Todd Wash would concur, telling reporters: "I think he's getting better, I think Tim [Walton] is doing a really nice job each week getting those guys prepared to play. And he's only going to get better as he keeps growing within game time."

    Considering Henderson didn't get the benefit of a preseason and he's in a tougher spot than most first-rounders, some early struggles were expected. But it feels like his adaptation and talent will see him turn the corner soon enough.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB Rashad Fenton

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Rashad Fenton was quietly a bright spot for the Kansas City Chiefs last year.

    Most Day 3 defensive backs don't have a good time out of the gates at the pro level, but Fenton—a sixth-round pick—put up a 74.1 PFF grade on limited snaps.

    This year, Fenton has played more than 56 percent of the snaps in just three games yet is once again cruising with a 71.9 PFF grade.

    When it comes to a team as good as the Chiefs, there isn't a ton of wiggle room for breakouts to emerge, and the expected guys (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) already have. Fenton is one player who appears to remain consistent no matter the workload, so if he gets more chances, he could be the rare under-the-radar breakout for a Super Bowl favorite.

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Bryan Edwards

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Henry Ruggs III, not Bryan Edwards, was projected as the biggest breakout at wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders this season.

    Ruggs, after all, was the 12th pick this year, while Edwards was merely a third-rounder. But in seven games, the first-round speedster has caught just 13 passes and seemed like an odd fit in the Derek-Carr led offense.

    Edwards has played in only five games because of injury, but he's caught six of seven targets for 115 yards, hinting at reliability for Carr on the boundary if he receives notable playing time.

    Given Las Vegas' presence in the playoff race, especially after upsetting Kansas City on the road in Week 5, the Raiders coaching staff might feature Edwards heavily once he's 100 percent again. Early signs indicate he'll shoot up a stat sheet that features tight end Darren Waller as the team's leading receiver.

Los Angeles Chargers: DB Michael Davis

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers turned some heads this offseason when they put a second-round tender on defensive back Michael Davis.

    An undrafted free agent in 2017, Davis played a reserve role behind bigger names with the Chargers over three seasons before earning the designation. This year, he's been tasked with a bigger workload and has allowed only 34 completions on 51 targets, registering a 67.2 grade at PFF—up from 58.3 the year prior.

    It's clear Davis is on the upswing, and the Chargers' being comfortable with trading Desmond King only reinforces the idea. He should keep producing well while also earning more national attention.

Los Angeles Rams: CB Darious Williams

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Darious Williams turned some heads near the end of 2019 by receiving some notable playing time for the Los Angeles Rams and picking off two passes.

    The undrafted player in 2018 has already doubled that interception total this year.

    It doesn't seem like Williams was a flash in the pan last season. He has only allowed a 54.8 completion percentage and has earned an 81.9 PFF grade this season.

    Williams is one of many undrafted players with a potential breakout second half coming, especially as he gets more comfortable in an expanded role.

Miami Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    It speaks to the confidence the Miami Dolphins coaching staff has in rookie Tua Tagovailoa that they put him in control over a veteran amid a potential playoff push.

    Miami gave Tagovailoa, this year's fifth overall pick, the starting gig in Week 8. He responded with a humble 93 passing yards and a score before escalating that to 248 yards and two touchdowns the week after.

    Tagovailoa is going to learn on the fly for the rest of the season, but the high-percentage looks the offense draws up for him and his versatile skill set should equate to booming numbers.

    Tagovailoa may not match the hype of fellow first-rounders Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert right now, but the early hints suggest he could be in that conversation by season's end.

Minnesota Vikings: TE Irv Smith Jr.

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings' 3-5 record in a tough NFC North means a bigger breakout chance for someone like tight end Irv Smith Jr.

    As a rookie last year, Smith caught 36 passes for 311 yards and two scores. He's already matched that touchdown total this year.

    Even better, Smith is seeing a little more work than veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. Before he missed Week 10 with an injury, the second-round product had received more targets in the passing game.

    Smith has now averaged better than 19 yards per catch over 49 career grabs, and his snap percentage has climbed to 79 percent in two of his last three games, hinting at a massive second half.

New England Patriots: WR N'Keal Harry

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    N'Keal Harry has popped up on breakout lists in the past, but things might set up nicely for him to close the 2020 season.

    That is, provided the 2019 first-round pick can get on the field and stay there for the Cam Newton-led New England Patriots.

    Harry suffered an injury in Week 7 that skewed his numbers and was still dealing with a concussion leading into Week 10. Even so, he was third on the team in targets with 32 and is one of just three Patriots with a receiving touchdown.

    Julian Edelman is sidelined, and the low-volume passing attack may be finding its rhythm, creating an opportunity for Harry to fulfill some of those first-round expectations.

New Orleans Saints: LB Zack Baun

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    To say the New Orleans Saints are bringing along Zack Baun slowly is an understatement.

    To be fair, a Lombardi Trophy-hunting team in win-now mode isn't going to offer a ton of breakout candidates because there isn't much room for younger guys to break into the lineup.

    But Baun, a third-round pick this year, has been a mainstay on special teams for the Saints and has plenty of upside as a pass-rusher. In Weeks 5 and 7, he saw 12 and 13 defensive snaps, respectively, suggesting the staff might ease him in so he's ready for a late-season push.

    If Baun gets an uptick in time as a 24-sack defense looks for fresh legs and wrinkles opposing offenses haven't seen on film, he could be a surprise breakout.

New York Giants: DL Dexter Lawrence

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    New York Giants first-round pick Dexter Lawrence has nearly matched or exceeded all of his key numbers from the year prior.

    He has tallied three sacks (2.5 the year prior) with eight pressures (15) and 33 total tackles (38). That's a notable improvement, while his snap percentage has ranged from 47 percent to 74 percent.

    It's clear Lawrence is on an upswing, which a 78.2 PFF grade affirms. If he keeps seeing a bigger chunk of playing time for a Giants team that is rebuilding and thinking about draft picks, that should pair nicely with his developmental rise to put an exclamation point on his season.

New York Jets: WR Denzel Mims

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    It's risky to lean into a New York Jets offensive weapon as a potential breakout given the struggles in the Big Apple, but Denzel Mims is just that exciting.

    The second-rounder didn't get into a game until Week 7 but caught four of seven targets for 42 yards. He matched or exceeded that yardage total in each of his next two starts.

    In his debut, Mims tied for the team lead in targets and led the Jets in receiving yardage on a day where Sam Darnold threw for just 120 yards with two interceptions.

    It's clear Mims' upside is showing up on the field and will drag the struggling offense around him to greater production.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Jalen Reagor

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    It always felt like a matter of time with Philadelphia Eagles wideout Jalen Reagor.

    Reagor got hurt early in the season, but his one catch in his pro debut in Week 1 went for 55 yards. Upon returning in Week 8 before a bye, one of his three catches went for a touchdown.

    Reagor hasn't put up massive numbers, and the Eagles' offensive performance with Carson Wentz under center and with injuries all over the place hasn't been encouraging.

    But one of the most talented wideouts in this year's draft has flashed multiple times and should only get better as his rapport with Wentz grows—something an Eagles team scrapping in a bad NFC East should love to hear.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Robert Spillane

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Robert Spillane is hardly a household name even in the Pittsburgh area, but he might be by the time the season ends.

    In the wake of the Steelers' losing Devin Bush for the season to injury, the undrafted Spillane has seen his playing time jump to 75 percent or more in each game since Week 7.

    The result? In coverage, less than 50 percent of his targets have been completions. He has missed on less than 10 percent of his tackles.

    Call it the embodiment of the next-man-up philosophy. Spillane seems on pace to have a strong audition with plenty of snaps to prove himself.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Deebo Samuel

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have been taking it slow with second-year wideout Deebo Samuel. He has appeared in just four games because of a hamstring injury and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

    After the 49ers made him a second-round pick a year ago, Samuel averaged 14.1 yards per catch en route to 802 yards and three scores. He's had quiet production this year, catching 16 of 22 targets for 185 yards and a touchdown.

    But the sizable chunk of work is there for Samuel when he gets back healthy. He played 80-plus percent of the snaps in two of his four games, and the team's leading receiver, tight end George Kittle, is out indefinitely, so there's an opening for a talented wideout to play the No. 1 role.

Seattle Seahawks: TE Will Dissly

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks were bound to bring Will Dissly along in a slow manner after his season-ending Achilles injury last year.

    Now a third-year pro, Dissly has taken a backseat to 35-year-old Greg Olsen at tight end, but that doesn't figure to remain true much longer. The veteran has mustered just 204 yards and a score.

    Dissly is a big-play target who had a strong rapport with Russell Wilson over the last two seasons, totaling six receiving touchdowns. If he's healthy the rest of the way, Seattle could use him more to take some of the burden off the wideout tandem of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Antonio Brown

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It seems 2020 had one last fitting football surprise.

    In Antonio Brown's first game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a Week 9 loss to New Orleans, he played 78 percent of the snaps, catching three of five targets for 31 yards.

    Brown's talent and upside don't need much explanation. Tampa Bay's offense has been an odd situation all year, as Mike Evans hardly leads the team in receiving and names like Scotty Miller sit ahead of Rob Gronkowski at times.

    As Tom Brady and Brown build their connection, one of the biggest "what if?" wrinkles of the 2020 playoff race should only become more potent on the field.

Tennessee Titans: DL Jeffery Simmons

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Jeffery Simmons arrow keeps pointing in the right direction.

    Simmons returned from a torn ACL in the predraft process last year to play in nine games for the Tennessee Titans. In his sophomore campaign, he has already surpassed his pressure totals from the year prior (11 compared to five) in eight games.

    Given an expanded role, hee has slammed home an 87.7 PFF grade, once again looking strong against the run and steadily improving as a pressure creator.

    Now that he's fully healthy, Simmons should live up to his top-10 draft projection before falling to 19th after suffering the injury, so the best may be yet to come.

Washington Football Team: WR Steven Sims Jr.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Washington's hunt to find Terry McLaurin an adequate running mate continues.

    Steven Sims Jr. is an interesting breakout option in this regard, as much as a wideout can break out with the tandem of Kyle Allen and Alex Smith under center for a rebuilder.

    The sophomore caught four scores in limited usage in 2019 and had 50-plus yards in his first two outings this season before suffering an injury. He hasn't posted wow-worthy stats in two games since returning, but the quarterback play is important context.

    Sims should be able to develop critical chemistry with his quarterbacks as a reliable option out of the slot, opening the door for some strong showings as the season winds down.