NFL Youngsters Who Could Still Blossom into Stars in 2021
Time is the most critical component to maturation. Only through experience—good or bad—can an individual grow. NFL players develop at differing rates.
Some take the league by storm. For example, no one expected Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to shatter the rookie passing touchdowns record. But he did.
Others require an adjustment period. Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry didn't even break through with a 1,000-yard campaign until his third season. He's now led the league in rushing each of the last two seasons.
Situations differ. They can improve or worsen each offseason as teams jockey to improve their respective rosters. Coaching staffs can change as well, which has a dramatic effect on some individuals. Certain players just need time before the light bulb sparks.
Seven talents present the potential to reach stardom this fall.
In this particular case, those highlighted as possible breakout stars are all former first-round picks who underwhelmed to varying degrees, at least according to public perception.
QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants
All eyes are on New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones after a disappointing sophomore season.
Jones' passing yardage, passing touchdowns and quarterback rating all decreased from his rookie campaign. Plus, the turnovers kept on coming. In two seasons, the 24-year-old signal-caller mustered 51 total turnovers.
The 2019 sixth overall pick had the deck stacked against him from the onset because many viewed the selection as an egregious draft reach. However, a few mitigating factors didn't help Jones' cause during last season's downturn.
A hamstring injury didn't allow Jones to play much down the stretch.
"What I would say about the injury last year is it was much more serious than maybe people thought on the outside. I would say probably 90 percent of players in the league who would have had that injury, including quarterbacks, would have been on IR for the remainder of the year," head coach Joe Judge said on ESPN 98.7FM NY radio (h/t New York Post's Paul Schwartz). "That's just the reality of it."
In Week 2, running back Saquon Barkley, who serves as the offensive focal point, suffered a torn ACL. The offensive line was a disaster and counted among the league's worst. The Giants lacked weapons at wide receiver, too. Darius Slayton led the Giants last season with 751 receiving yards.
To rectify the situation, the Giants signed Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million free-agent contract. The team doubled down at wide receiver by adding Kadarius Toney in this year's first round. Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, speedy target John Ross III and backup running back Devontae Booker are now in the mix as well.
As long as New York's front five naturally improves in Year 2 of Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart and Shane Lemieux, Jones doesn't have any excuses for not significantly improving this fall.
QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns fans will tell you that quarterback Baker Mayfield is already a star. After all, he helped lead the Browns to their first playoff appearance in 18 years and first postseason victory since 1994.
Nationally, the sentiment isn't shared.
Mayfield is generally viewed as the fifth-best quarterback in the AFC behind the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen, Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson and the Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill. Former NFL general manager Mike Tannenbaum went as far as calling Mayfield "a replaceable part" on ESPN's Get Up.
But a closer look at last year's performance shows Mayfield is ready to explode into elite status under Kevin Stefanski's supervision.
Mayfield is already a top-10 quarterback based on overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus. To take that a step further, the site graded him as one of the very best over the second half of the 2020 campaign.
"He was the second-highest-graded quarterback in the league [behind the league MVP, Aaron Rodgers] from Week 7 through the playoffs," former NFL QB and current PFF analyst Bruce Gradkowski wrote. "He also ranked in the top five from a clean pocket, on standard dropbacks and on early downs for the entire season."
The 2018 No. 1 overall pick finished first with a 55.8 completion percentage on deep passes, per QB Data Mine. No quarterback managed more average scramble yardage per dropback, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Mayfield finished as only one of three quarterbacks last season, alongside Mahomes and Rodgers, with eight or more games of 80-plus QBR, via ESPN Stats & Info. He graded as a top-four quarterback in crunch time, ie the fourth quarter, as well.
The Browns quarterback's talent is obvious. It will finally be acknowledged with yet another strong campaign.
WR Corey Davis, New York Jets
Timing can also be a crucial component of an individual's maturation as a performer. Not everyone is in the right place at the right time.
The Tennessee Titans drafted wide receiver Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Davis never quite reached the level his draft status indicated. He never surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in his first four seasons, thus the Titans didn't pick up his fifth-year rookie option.
Although, Davis looked more and more like the Titans expected in his fourth season. He posted a career-high 984 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions for entering free agency.
The New York Jets quickly pounced to sign the 26-year-old target. He agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million free-agent deal, which immediately slotted him as the team's X-receiver.
"Obviously Corey Davis brings his size to the receiving corps," offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur told reporters. "What's cool about Davis is he has the quickness to get off the line of scrimmage. He’s got the radius, the size, and the strength to just outmuscle guys for the football. Davis doesn’t get brought down easily. He’s a 6-foot-3, 215-pound man and I think we’re getting him right in his prime."
Historically, the Shanahan-influenced scheme creates a significant target share for its top receiver. The Jets have multiple intriguing options with Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims and rookie Elijah Moore in the mix. At the same time, the organization signed Davis to a significant deal. More often than not, Davis should serve as the primary read in Zach Wilson's route tree.
As such, the increased opportunities and growth seen over the past year will elevate Davis into true WR1 status.
"Corey can be successful anywhere," LaFleur added. "He's made up of all the right stuff, but I do think this system fits him really well."
TE Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant sits just on the edge of elite status, though he clearly can be better.
Last season, the 23-year-old uber-athlete finished sixth among his position group with 673 receiving yards. However, a significant difference exists between him and the top tier.
The Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce and Las Vegas Raiders' Darren Waller both eclipsed 1,100 receiving yards last season and ranked top 10 overall.
"I have the highest expectations for myself," Fant told Aric DiLalla of the Broncos' official site. "I don't want to just be an average tight end. I want to be one of the greatest to do it."
With the standard set, Fant has a ways to go. But he's more than capable of becoming one of the league's best based on a growing comfort level in Pat Shurmur's system and a better surrounding cast.
The absorption of a new system doesn't automatically happen. It takes time.
"Just being in that second year, you are a lot more comfortable in our offense," Fant said. "Just knowing where you're supposed to be, knowing where you're going. All these different things that give you just a better [comfort level] and let you relax a little bit more on the field."
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton will be back from a torn ACL. Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler should be better in their second seasons. Plus, more consistency should come from veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgwater or Drew Lock in his third campaign.
"We found things we thought he needed to work on, and he even came with things to me that he wanted to work on with me," Lock told reporters. "So there’s been a lot of work that me and him have been able to put in this offseason."
Edge Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints had big plans for Marcus Davenport when the team traded up in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft and selected the defensive end.
"There is always a premium on that position, and on pressure players—corners, left tackles, those are positions that are hard to find when the season ends in free agency," head coach Sean Payton said at the time, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. "It's not impossible, but it's hard, and we felt like he was a pressure player and we felt like we had a good vision for him and we felt it was a need."
The Saints allowed a need to dictate two draft classes since Davenport's acquisition included trading away a a '19 first-round pick, and they're still waiting on him to become the consistent disruptive edge presence the team initially projected.
A breakthrough seemed to occur this offseason with Davenport taking a different approach to his preparation.
"He's sort of taken this approach where he's asking a lot more questions than normal, for Marcus," teammate Cameron Jordan told reporters. "It's more directed toward how is he going to better himself in terms of how I react to a certain play vs. how he’ll react to a certain play. And it seems like he’s more locked in this early into the season."
A healthy Davenport has the size (6'6", 265 pounds), length and agility to become an excellent bookend to Jordan with the natural ability to register a 10-plus-sack season. A different mental approach to the game should go a long way to realizing his full potential.
Edge Rashan Gary, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers invested a first-round pick in Rashan Gary two years ago knowing full well he wasn't a finished product.
At the time, the edge-defender presented more athletic potential than production. Granted, Gary still managed 22.5 career sacks with the Michigan Wolverines. But he never truly dominated.
"Five-star defensive end prospect coming into Michigan who leaves with those same five-star traits and loads of potential but a lack of development in key areas," NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote prior to the 2019 NFL draft.
Fortunately, the Packers could lean on Za'Darious and Preston Smith as their edge rushers while Gary honed his craft and worked as part of the rotation.
The 23-year-old defender now appears ready for a featured role ready to explode.
"He learns quick, and whatever he learns in the meeting room he takes to the field," Za'Darius Smith told reporters. "He's progressing every year, and he's doing to be dominant for us this year, man, and I can't wait."
To better understand how gifted Gary really is, the defensive end posted one of the highest relative athletic scores ever for his position, per Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte. A late season-surge shows how effective he can be, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Gary was the league's highest-graded edge from Week 16 through the postseason.
Everything is coming together nicely for the third-year pass-rusher and expectations are sky high this fall.
"You talk about a guy that puts everything into whatever it is he's doing … and you see it paying off for him," head coach Matt LaFleur said. "He's going to be a big-time player for us, and I think he's going to be a big-time player in this league for a really long time."
CB Jeffery Okudah, Detroit Lions
Typically, top-three draft picks aren't viewed as reclamation projects in need of a breakthrough only one season later. Detroit Lions cornerback Jeffrey Okudah sorta is, which indicates how poorly his rookie campaign went.
According to Pro Football Focus, Okudah allowed a completion 76 percent of the time when targeted and allowed a 112 passer rating. Yikes.
A coaching staff overhaul could very well resuscitate a promising prospect's career.
First, last year's third overall pick had to get healthy since he dealt with a nagging groin injury throughout the 2020 campaign.
"It just feels like I have a different level that I wasn't able to kind of tap into last year," Okudah told reporters. "But I feel like this year just kind of moving around now and not having that pain in my groin anymore, it just feels like a different level so I'm excited to ... get with (secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant), craft it up and see what it turns out to be."
The secondary will be of particular interest to new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who played 15 seasons as an NFL cornerback. Glenn wants Okudah to forget about his draft status and just do his job. Furthermore, the experience the coordinator and his staff bring to the secondary room should have a significant impact on the team's young defensive backs.
"Just sitting down with them, within the first couple meetings I was picking up so much things that I thought to myself, like, it would have just been nice to have these tools in my toolbox going into my rookie year," Okudah said.
Clearly, the Lions invested in Okudah for a reason. The cornerback's talent didn't disappear. Now, he's fully healthy and mentally prepared to take on the responsibilities of a top cover man.