Rising NFL Stars to Keep an Eye On in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2021

Rising NFL Stars to Keep an Eye On in 2021

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The next wave of superstars is about to take the NFL by storm. 

    Last year, young players such as Josh Allen, Calvin Ridley and Jaire Alexander cemented themselves as standouts at their respective positions.

    In 2021, a handful of players heading into their second or third seasons could follow in their footsteps.

    By capitalizing on development, improved surroundings, an uptick in playing time or some combination of all three, these rising stars could be headed for massive breakouts.

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    When Washington selected Terry McLaurin in the third round of the 2019 draft, it was clear the coaching staff thought he was a No. 1 wideout right away, per Grant Paulsen of The Athletic:

    "[Head coach Jay] Gruden was so confident in McLaurin's ability that after McLaurin suffered a tailbone injury in the first preseason game, he didn't play him again until the regular season. Gruden and his staff had already seen enough from their new prospect. They didn't want the rest of the league to find out about McLaurin before he was catching long passes in games that mattered."

    And that staff was right. 

    McLaurin has put up 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns over two seasons, breaching the 1,000-yard mark for the first time last year. That production is especially noteworthy considering the dire state of the roster around him over those two seasons, including the miserable quarterback carousel. 

    The addition of fellow wideout Curtis Samuel to an offense steered by a steady veteran in Ryan Fitzpatrick should give McLaurin more space to work this season.

    The breakout that makes McLaurin a household name should be just around the corner. 

Jeffery Simmons, DL, Tennessee Titans

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans selected Jeffery Simmons with the 19th overall pick in the 2019 draft, but he missed the first six games of his rookie season as he worked his way back from a torn ACL. He wound up appearing in nine games as a rookie playing only 28 percent of the defensive snaps.

    Fully healthy as a sophomore, Simmons did anything but slump. His played 75 percent of the Titans' defensive snaps over 15 games, and he put up 32 solo tackles and three sacks, earning a superb 83.9 Pro Football Focus grade. 

    Simmons is just getting his feet under him as a defensive force whom opposing offenses dread to see. The Titans also added Bud Dupree to their already strong front seven in free agency, which should help draw attention away from Simmons.

    While he isn't a household name just yet, it seems like only a matter of time for Simmons after he shook off early injury question marks and lived up to expectations in his first healthy season.

Montez Sweat, Edge, Washington Football Team

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Montez Sweat will never get as much attention as his teammate, 2019 No. 2 overall pick Chase Young. 

    But he's sure to benefit from his presence.

    After Washington traded back into the first round to get Sweat in 2019, he quietly tallied seven sacks over 16 games. He played 64 percent of Washington's defensive snaps as a rookie and tallied 27 pressures and 14 hurries, both of which ranked second on the team behind Matt Ioannidis. 

    As a sophomore, Sweat racked up nine sacks, 31 pressures with 11 hurries while playing 66 percent of the defensive snaps. He also finished with a strong 79.7 PFF grade. 

    After dealing with a coaching staff change and shifting of responsibilities, Sweat's arrow is shooting straight up. He'll keep feasting as defenses worry about Young and the rest of Washington's talented front seven, making him a low-key name to know before his inevitable breakout. 

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be under a major microscope in 2021. 

    The Dolphins took him with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft even though he was coming off a major hip injury. He eventually replaced veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but head coach Brian Flores gave him a quick hook a few times.

    Tagovailoa completed 64.1 percent of his 290 attempts as a rookie, finishing with 1,814 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and two 300-yard performances. He had a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, too, and he got sacked only 20 times.

    Tagovailoa is now poised to take a major leap as a sophomore. He'll have the benefit of a full offseason program, will enter the 2021 season as the Dolphins' unquestioned starter and has two new space-creating wideouts in William Fuller V (free agency) and Jaylen Waddle (No. 6 overall pick). Even the offensive line, which stumbled into a steal with Liam Eichenberg in the second round, should be improved. 

    Add it all up, and Tagovailoa could join Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow as breakout quarterback stars from the 2020 draft. 

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals and head coach Kliff Kingsbury are just scratching the surface with Kyler Murray. 

    As a sophomore last year, Murray completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,791 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also led three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives. 

    The fact that Murray had to pull off those heroics just to help Arizona cobble together an 8-8 record speaks volumes.

    The Cardinals front office responded this offseason, adding defensive end J.J. Watt and adding wide receiver A.J. Green in free agency. They also snagged speedy wideout Rondale Moore in the second round, which gives Murray two new pass-catching options alongside No. 1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

    Arizona beefed up Murray's protection, too, by acquiring elite center Rodney Hudson in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders. Those improved surroundings set up the third-year signal-caller for a major breakout, particularly now that Kingsbury has more NFL experience as well.

DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf made headlines last week for taking his world-class athleticism to the USA Track and Field Golden Games and Distance Open, placing ninth in his 100-meter dash heat. 

    Metcalf also put those skills to use during his second NFL season last year. He finished with 1,303 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 15.7 yards per catch.

    Metcalf bumped his catch percentage from 58.0 as a rookie to 64.3 last season, and his drop percentage dipped from 7.0 to 6.2. He also went from playing 84 percent of the Seahawks' offensive snaps as a rookie to 92 percent last year.

    With Russell Wilson still in the fold under center, Metcalf appears poised to regularly challenge for the league lead in receiving yards. He's one of the most physically dominant receivers in the NFL, which forces defenses to scramble to find any way to cover him.