Every NFL Team's Biggest Potential Breakout Player for 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2021

Every NFL Team's Biggest Potential Breakout Player for 2021

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    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has led his team to back-to-back Super Bowls. Before that, he was named league MVP and helped Kansas City to the AFC title game—in his first year as a starter.

    The year before that, though, it was unknown how Mahomes would perform. Few then knew the first-round backup to Alex Smith was a breakout star in the making.

    While not every NFL player can ascend as rapidly as Mahomes has, most of the league's stars have experienced a breakout campaign as Mahomes did in 2018. Lamar Jackson and Shaquil Barrett did it in 2019, while Josh Allen and Devin White broke out this season.

    Who will be the league's biggest breakout stars in 2021? That's what we're here to examine. We'll look at one player from each team whose potential, development and projected opportunities could help them to break out next season.

    We'll specifically examine players who have yet to earn Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades but who could rise to that level. While it'd be unfair to say any of these players are the next Mahomes, each of them has the potential to leap into the spotlight.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: Isaiah Simmons

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    The Arizona Cardinals used the eighth pick in the 2020 draft on former Clemson linebacker-safety Isaiah Simmons, hoping to make him a centerpiece. Simmons, however, was unable to work his way into a prominent role, playing just 34 percent of snaps.

    Simmons did show flashes of promise, though, finishing with 54 tackles, two passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble. Simmons also surrendered just 142 yards in pass coverage despite being targeted 25 times.

    With a year of experience under his belt, Simmons should have an opportunity for more playing time and to fully blossom into the star the Cardinals thought he could be.

Atlanta Falcons: Hayden Hurst

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    Tight end Hayden Hurst had a strong inaugural campaign with the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. He appeared in all16 games and finished with 56 receptions, 571 yards and six touchdowns while more closely resembling a first-round talent than he ever did with the Baltimore Ravens.

    Another year with the Falcons should provide Hurst an opportunity to further develop into the player he was expected to be on draft day. The Ravens picked Hurst with the 25th selection in 2018, but the South Carolina product largely played behind 2019 Pro Bowler Mark Andrews.

    Finally out of Andrews' shadow, Hurst proved he can be a starting-caliber tight end. Don't be surprised if he takes another step next season and becomes a Pro Bowl player in his own right.

Baltimore Ravens: J.K. Dobbins

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    To be fair, Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins had a fine rookie campaign in 2020. He rushed for 805 yards, and nine touchdowns on a whopping six yards per carry. However, Dobbins also split time with veterans Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards.

    Dobbins logged just 134 carries. There's a good chance his touches will jump significantly next season.

    Baltimore has already released Ingram, which should clear the way for Dobbins to be the team's leading ball-carrier. While he'll likely still split time with Edwards—who will be a restricted free agent this offseason—Dobbins should be much closer to a workhorse back than he was in Year 1. If he can continue averaging anything close to six yards per carry, he should provide Pro Bowl-level production.

Buffalo Bills: Gabriel Davis

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    Though he was overshadowed by other first-year receivers, including Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool, Buffalo Bills rookie wideout Gabriel Davis still had an impressive 2020 campaign.

    Selected in the fourth round out of Central Florida, Davis emerged as a significant piece of Buffalo's passing puzzle. He appeared in all 16 games with 11 starts and finished with 35 catches, 599 yards and seven touchdowns—becoming one of Josh Allen's best breakaway targets.

    Davis also starred in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, catching four balls for 85 yards against the Indianapolis Colts. He suffered an ankle injury the next week against the Ravens and did not catch a pass on four targets. He was targeted three times but came up empty in the AFC title game.

    While Davis isn't going to replace Stefon Diggs as Allen's top receiver, he has the potential to become a star in Year 2.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Chinn

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    Though Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn didn't earn Pro Bowl accolades as a rookie in 2020, the second-round pick out of Southern Illinois is well on his way to stardom.

    "In most years—or at least in years without a guy like [Chase] Young doing top-shelf things in the pass rush—Chinn would be getting tons of love as the potential Defensive Rookie of the Year," ESPN's Jeff Legwold wrote.

    Chinn sure did it all, finishing with 117 tackles, five passes defended, one sack, two forced fumbles, one interception and two defensive touchdowns.

    He should emerge as the face of the defense and one of the NFL's brightest young stars.

Chicago Bears: Darnell Mooney

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    As is the case with Gabriel Davis, many fans may view Darnell Mooney as another solid rookie in an impressive receiver class. The Chicago Bears wideout, however, showed plenty of signs that he can be special.

    The fifth-round pick out of Tulane finished second on the team to star Allen Robinson II in receptions with 61 and receiving yards with 631 while adding four touchdowns. He should further develop into a star next season—especially if Robinson departs in free agency.

    What was impressive about Mooney's rookie campaign was that he shined despite shaky play by quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. If the Bears upgrade the position in the offseason, Mooney could be poised for a huge year.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow

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    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was impressive as a rookie in 2020, though a couple of factors prevented him from becoming a breakout star—and from outshining fellow first-year quarterback Justin Herbert.

    For one, Burrow played behind an awful offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 32 times in just 10 games. Secondly, Burrow suffered a torn ACL. But he should be back and close to 100 percent by next season.

    "We've had good reports. I see no reason why he won't do well," Bengals head trainer Paul Sparling said, per Geoff Hobson of the team's official website.

    Burrow passed for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 142 yards and three more scores. With a full season's worth of games in Year 2, his statistical totals should skyrocket—especially if Cincinnati improves its maligned offensive line.

Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield

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    While Joe Burrow will only be entering Year 2, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield will be entering Year 4. This could be when he finally breaks out as a superstar. The former Oklahoma standout showed signs as a rookie before regressing in 2019 and struggling early in 2020.

    Mayfield, however, was phenomenal down the stretch as he grew comfortable in Kevin Stefanski's offense. He threw 16 touchdown passes and just two interceptions over the final 10 games of the regular season and then showed his fearlessness in the postseason.

    In two playoff games, Mayfield passed for 467 yards with four touchdowns and one pick.

    With a year under his belt—and perhaps a usual offseason this summer—Mayfield could arrive as a Pro Bowler.

Dallas Cowboys: CeeDee Lamb

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    While Justin Jefferson was busy lighting it up for the Minnesota Vikings, fellow rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb quietly had a tremendous campaign for the Dallas Cowboys. Despite playing alongside talented wideouts Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper, Lamb racked up 935 yards and five touchdowns on 74 receptions.

    Lamb also played the majority of the season without starting quarterback Dak Prescott, who landed on injured reserve with a broken ankle after Week 5.

    If Prescott is back—which will require a recovery and a resolution to his pending free-agent status—Lamb could blossom into a Pro Bowl talent and Dallas' new No. 1 receiver.

    With all due respect to Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert, Lamb was a different playmaker with Prescott behind center—433 of his yards and two of his scores came in the first five weeks.

Denver Broncos: Jerry Jeudy

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    Denver Broncos wideout Jerry Jeudy didn't have as prolific a rookie campaign as CeeDee Lamb did, but he still showed plenty of promise. His route-running skills were on full display, as was his breakaway ability—Jeudy caught a 92-yard touchdown reception in Week 17.

    Jeudy, however, was hampered by inconsistency at quarterback and by drops. He caught just 46 percent of the balls thrown his way and was tagged with 10 drops.

    If Denver can get better play out of quarterback Drew Lock and Jeudy can produce a better catch rate, he could flourish. The 15th pick in the draft was targeted 113 times, so if more of those targets become receptions, Jeudy may become one of the most productive second-year receivers.

Detroit Lions: D'Andre Swift

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    Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift finished his rookie campaign with a solid 521 rushing yards, 357 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He appeared in only 13 games, however, and carried the ball just 114 times. He didn't earn a start until Week 10.

    "When I was told, I was like, 'You guys should have did this two, three weeks ago,'" fellow Lions back Adrian Peterson said of Swift's first start, per ESPN's Michael Rothstein.

    Swift is likely to get many more opportunities. For one, Peterson—who played on a one-year deal—will probably be out of the picture. Secondly, Detroit very well may transition to more of a run-based offense.

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Lions are looking to trade quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Green Bay Packers: Allen Lazard

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    The Green Bay Packers may have finally found their No. 2 receiver. Despite appearing in just 10 regular-season games, undrafted Iowa State product Allen Lazard finished third among Packers wideouts with 451 receiving yards to go with three touchdowns. He also proved to be a force in the postseason, catching seven passes for 158 yards and a touchdown in two games.

    If Lazard can establish himself as Green Bay's No. 2 target behind Davante Adams, he can flourish.

    Of course, Lazard's breakout potential is dependent on Aaron Rodgers' return. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Rodgers wants a new contract, and Green Bay did draft his successor in Jordan Love in 2020.

    If Rodgers does return, though, watch for Lazard to become a star.

Houston Texans: Zach Cunningham

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    Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham has been on the rise for the past couple of seasons, but he was special in 2020. While he produced triple-digit tackles in 2018 and 2019, he led the league in tackles (164) and solo stops (106) this year.

    Cunningham also tied a career-high with seven tackles for loss and added two passes defended, one forced fumble and a career-best three sacks.

    While the Texans defense ranked 30th overall and 27th in points allowed, Cunningham was a bright spot. He could be even more impactful if Houston puts better talent around him, but Cunningham's gaudy statistics alone will make it difficult to keep him out of the spotlight.

Indianapolis Colts: Julian Blackmon

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    This was a tough choice, as both rookie running back Jonathan Taylor and rookie safety Julian Blackmon were spectacular for the Indianapolis Colts in 2020. We picked Blackmon, however, as Taylor may still be part of a committee in 2021.

    Blackmon is set to emerge as the face of the defense. The third-round pick out of Utah finished with 42 tackles, six passes defended, two interceptions and one forced fumble.

    "To be able to find the ball the way he does and make big hits and everything like that, he's a special player," Colts middle linebacker Anthony Walker said, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star.

    With a year of experience, Blackmon should be an even better player next season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Laviska Shenault Jr.

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    Rookie running back James Robinson had a great campaign for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020. We went with rookie receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. as Jacksonville's breakout player for 2021, however.

    The reason? Shenault and the rest of the offense should benefit from a better quarterback than the combination of Gardner Minshew II, Jake Luton and Mike Glennon.

    Armed with the first pick in the draft, Jacksonville is expected to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

    If Lawrence is anything close to the generational talent he appears to be, Shenault should take a massive step forward. The second-round pick out of Colorado caught 58 passes for 600 yards and five touchdowns this season.

Kansas City Chiefs: L'Jarius Sneed

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    The Kansas City Chiefs appear to have gotten a steal in fourth-round rookie corner L'Jarius Sneed. The former Louisiana Tech standout was special, finishing with 41 tackles, two sacks, seven passes defended and three interceptions.

    Sneed also allowed a ridiculously low opposing quarterback rating of 54.2.

    Sneed suffered a broken collarbone in Week 3 and was limited to just nine games. That hurt his numbers and may have kept him out of the Pro Bowl conversation.

    But Sneed should play a full season in 2021, and if he keeps up his high level of play, he will be a star.

Las Vegas Raiders: Maxx Crobsy

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    Anyone who has watched the Las Vegas Raiders closely over the past two years knows they have a budding star on their hands in edge-defender Maxx Crosby. The Eastern Michigan product produced 10 sacks as a rookie and seven more in 2020 while appearing in all 32 games.

    While Crosby's sack total dripped this season, he generated more quarterback pressures (32) than he did last year (31).

    Crosby has become a dominant pass-rusher despite getting little aid from his surrounding talent—no other Raiders defender had more than three sacks in 2020. If Las Vegas can find a strong complementary pass-rusher or improve its secondary—which ranked 26th in passing yards allowed—Crosby should continue to improve.

    The 2019 fourth-round pick has yet to earn a Pro Bowl nod. Expect that to change in 2021.

Los Angeles Chargers: Jerry Tillery

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    We could have gone with Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. As a front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year and with the rookie passing touchdown record on his resume, however, one could say Herbert has already reached stardom.

    Instead, we'll focus on defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who made major strides in his second season. The 2019 first-round pick out of Notre Dame logged a mere 17 tackles and two sacks with three quarterback pressures as a rookie. This season, he registered 30 tackles, three sacks and an impressive 20 pressures while starting 11 of his 16 games.

    If Tillery can take a similar step forward in Year 3, he should become a dominant force. The addition of defensive head coach Brandon Staley should aid his development too. Staley spent last season as the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator, working with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Los Angeles Rams: Jordan Fuller

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    Aaron Donald is just one member of a star-laden Los Angeles Rams defense that also includes Jalen Ramsey, Michael Brockers and Leonard Floyd. Because of those stars, rookie safety Jordan Fuller was overshadowed in 2020.

    Make no mistake, though, Fuller is a rising star himself. The sixth-round pick out of Ohio State started all 12 games in which he appeared and provided plenty of playmaking punch to the secondary.

    Fuller finished with 60 tackles, five passes defended and three interceptions. He logged another 12 tackles in two playoff games.

    With a season of experience under his belt, Fuller could join Donald and Ramsey as a Pro Bowler in 2021.

Miami Dolphins: Raekwon Davis

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    Miami Dolphins rookie defensive tackle Raekwon Davis played fewer than 50 percent of snaps over the first six games of the season. But after fellow defensive tackle Davon Godchaux suffered a season-ending biceps injury, Davis got an opportunity to start.

    Davis became an impact run-stuffer and arguably the team's most productive first-year player. He finished with 40 tackles and helped the Dolphins field the league's sixth-ranked scoring defense.

    "I'd say he's one of Miami's top 10 talents on the roster, and I can't say that about anyone else in his rookie class," Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote.

    With Godchaux slated to hit free agency this offseason, Davis could land a full-time starting opportunity in 2021 and a chance to establish himself as one of the Dolphins' top defenders.

Minnesota Vikings: Cameron Dantzler

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    Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson made the Pro Bowl as a rookie this season, so he's off the list of potential breakout stars. Fellow rookie and cornerback Cameron Dantzler falls firmly into this category.

    Though he played just 11 games and made 10 starts, Dantzler shined. He logged four passes defended, two interceptions, 46 tackles and one forced fumble and allowed an opposing passer rating of just 92.8—despite being targeted 71 times in coverage. For comparison's sake, consider that Pro Bowl corner Marshon Lattimore allowed an opposing passer rating of 94.5 on 85 targets this season.

    Could Dantzler emerge as a Pro Bowler himself in 2021? It's possible, especially if he plays 16 games.

New England Patriots: Jakobi Meyers

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    New England Patriots wideout Jakobi Meyers took a big step forward in his second pro season this year. The undrafted rookie out of NC State led the Patriots with 729 receiving yards, 59 receptions and 81 targets. He emerged as one of Cam Newton's favorites targets and should remain a favorite of whomever is behind center in 2021.

    Presumably, it won't be Newton, and that should be a positive for Meyers' continued development. Newton wasn't exactly a prolific passer this season, throwing for just 2,657 yards and eight touchdowns. Not coincidentally, Meyers did not record a scoring reception.

    If the Patriots upgrade at quarterback, it should lead to more production for Meyers. He's already outshined 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry in Josh McDaniels' offense, and he could be a star with a better signal-caller.

New Orleans Saints: Adam Trautman

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    New Orleans Saints rookie tight end Adam Trautman didn't have eye-popping numbers this season. He did finish second at the position with 15 catches, 171 yards and one touchdown, but Trautman made an impact as a blocker.

    "His 86.9 run-blocking grade on the season led all qualifying tight ends, regardless of experience in the league," Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus wrote.

    "That kind of blocking on the edge alongside tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead gives the Saints an advantage when attacking teams with runs outside the tackles."

    While Trautman's contributions as a blocker should continue in 2021, he should also get more opportunities as a pass-catcher. He played 50 percent or more of snaps only four times but should play more if Jared Cook departs in free agency. Blocking tight end Josh Hill should be in the mix too, though he had just eight reception for 46 yards and a touchdown this season and doesn't possess the receiving upside of Trautman.

    The Saints don't know who their quarterback will be in 2021, but they should have a good idea about their next starting tight end. In Sean Payton's offense, Trautman can be a star.

New York Giants: Darius Slayton

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    Wideout Darius Slayton didn't make the second-year jump in 2020 for which the New York Giants might have hoped. Despite appearing in two more games than he did as a rookie, he produced just two more receptions and 11 more receiving yards. He scored three touchdowns to the eight he logged in 2019.

    Slayton could, however, be poised for a leap in Year 3. For one, it will be his second year in Jason Garrett's offense as well as quarterback Daniel Jones'. Secondly, star running back Saquon Barkley will return from a torn ACL, which should help loosen up coverages in the secondary.

    Lastly, Sterling Shepard could play a bigger role in the passing game. Fellow wideout Golden Tate is under contract through 2022, but the Giants could save more than $6 million by releasing him this offseason. Since Tate produced only 388 yards and two touchdowns in 2020, that may not be a tough decision.

    If Tate is gone, Slayton should get more opportunities—and he may finally emerge as a No. 1 receiver.

New York Jets: Mekhi Becton

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    Rookie offensive tackle Mekhi Becton played 14 games but just 70 percent of snaps this season. The first-round pick out of Louisville was one of the few standouts for the New York Jets, however.

    Becton allowed seven sacks and was whistled for seven penalties, according to Pro Football Focus, but he was a mauler in the running game. If he can improve in pass protection, he will emerge as a Pro Bowler sooner than later.

    A coaching change may help Becton's development. Former head coach Adam Gase never seemed capable of fielding a cohesive offense during his time with New York. With Robert Saleh taking over and Mike LaFleur becoming the offensive coordinator, several players could be poised for improvement next season.

    Becton, in particular, has the goods to be a star.

Philadelphia Eagles: Dallas Goedert

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    This season, Dallas Goedert overtook Zach Ertz as the Philadelphia Eagles' primary pass-catching tight end. Despite playing just 11 games, he finished second on the team with 524 receiving yards. There's a chance Goedert will be the only pass-catching tight end on the roster next year, as the Eagles could save nearly $5 million in cap space by parting with Ertz.

    Even if Ertz remains, Goedert should improve his numbers if he plays a full season. And it wouldn't hurt if Philadelphia got consistent quarterback play out of Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts.

    Goedert is on the rise, and his fourth season will mark his time to shine.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Alex Highsmith

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    Wideout Chase Claypool was certainly a candidate, but the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie has already scored 11 touchdowns and could be dependent on whether Ben Roethlisberger returns in 2021.

    Instead, we focused on rookie pass-rusher Alex Highsmith, who stepped in to a starting role when Bud Dupree suffered a torn ACL. The third-round pick out of Charlotte amassed two sacks, 48 tackles and 12 quarterback pressures in limited action (43 percent of snaps). He could be simply scratching the surface too.

    "He's going to be better or get better the more and more he plays," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, per Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via the Clearfield Progress).

    With Dupree set to become a free agent, Highsmith should have every opportunity to build upon his promising rookie campaign.

San Francisco 49ers: Javon Kinlaw

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    San Francisco 49ers rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw showed flashes of promise in Year 1 but never came close to replacing DeForest Buckner's production. Kinlaw finished with just 33 tackles and 1.5 sacks, though he did add 10 quarterback pressures.

    Of course, Kinlaw never really enjoyed the benefit of playing alongside star pass-rusher Nick Bosa, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2. And since Solomon Thomas also suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2, opposing offensive lines didn't have to block both edges much.

    That should change in 2021. Kinlaw will get more one-on-one opportunities, and with a year of experience, he can play closer to the level expected of a No. 14 pick.

Seattle Seahawks: Jordyn Brooks

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    The Seattle Seahawks have not gotten major contributions from their recent first-round picks—neither Rashaad Penny nor L.J. Collier have stood out—though that changed in 2020 with linebacker Jordyn Brooks.

    The Texas Tech product racked up 57 tackles, two tackles for loss and two passes defended in 14 games and six starts. Brooks played 50 percent or more of snaps in only four outings. Still, his continued progress helped the Seahawks defense improve.

    "I think Jamal Adams has gotten a lot of credit, the trade to bring Carlos Dunlap, he's been outstanding," NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah said after Week 16, per Logan Reardon of the team's official website. "But a guy I've really seen trend up is their first-round pick, Jordyn Brooks."

    As Brooks enters Year 2, he should get more opportunities. Don't be surprised if he approaches triple-digit tackles in 2021 and emerges as one of the faces of the defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tristan Wirfs

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs is a star in the making. The first-round pick out of Iowa played every offensive snap in the regular season and has been a big piece of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl puzzle.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Wirfs was responsible for just one sack and three penalties.

    While his performance suggests he has already arrived, he was snubbed from the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Expect that to change in 2021 and for Wirfs to earn consideration as the best right tackle in football.

Tennessee Titans: Jeffery Simmons

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    The Tennessee Titans defense was a liability in 2020, finishing 28th overall and 24th in points allowed. Second-year defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was a one-man highlight reel, however, recording three sacks, 49 tackles, five passes defended, 14 quarterback hits and 21 quarterback pressures.

    In just 24 games, Simmons has amassed 81 tackles, five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Making his production all the more impressive is the fact that he hasn't been aided by a fearsome pass rush.

    The Titans logged just 19 sacks in 2020.

    Continued growth should help Simmons ascend into the spotlight, but if the Titans can add a consistent edge-rusher to the equation, he could become a game-wrecker in the mold of Grady Jarrett.

Washington Football Team: Antonio Gibson

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    The Washington Football Team used a third-round pick on former Memphis running back in April. While Gibson didn't produce Pro Bowl-caliber numbers—he finished with 795 rushing yards and 247 receiving yards—he did score 11 touchdowns in just 14 games and 10 starts.

    Gibson also rushed for an impressive 4.7 yards per carry—remarkable given the fact that Washington's 25th-ranked passing attack did little to move defenders out of the box.

    A full season should help Gibson improve his raw numbers, but he'll make a jump into the spotlight if Washington finds a consistent quarterback—be it Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke or someone else—and adds more weapons in the passing game.

    If Washington does upgrade its offense, Gibson should enter the Pro Bowl conversation.

       

    Salary-cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.