NFL Predictions: Which second-year players will shine in 2021?

Although rookies receive nearly all the attention leading up to the season, many will not make an impact until further into their NFL careers. Players in Year 2 often demonstrate vast improvement as they build on their frames and acclimate to the speed of the NFL. As such, what are our predictions as to which second-year players may enjoy a breakout campaign in the 2021 NFL season?

NFL Predictions: Top second-year breakout candidates | 1-5

Justin Herbert, Justin Jefferson, and Chase Young headline the few rookies who dominated as soon as they stepped on the field. While they are part of a rare club, some of these second-year athletes might prove to be even better in 2021.

1) Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Had Joe Burrow not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11 against Washington last year, he likely would not be on this list. Yet, that is exactly what happened, effectively robbing us of the 2020 No. 1 overall pick’s final six games.

Even before his injury, Burrow struggled in an area that many draft pundits thought he would excel at in Year 1. According to SIS DataHub, Burrow completed just 9 of his 45 throws that went 20+ yards downfield.

The former LSU quarterback should rebound, especially since Cincinnati used the fifth overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft to nab his favorite college weapon  — Ja’Marr Chase. Sure, the Bengals’ offensive line isn’t the safest for a QB on one leg, but an upgrade there is not as valuable as an upgrade on the boundary. Expect Burrow and Chase to regain their rhythm alongside Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon.

2) Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins signed Will Fuller, drafted Jaylen Waddle and Hunter Long, and already have DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki. There is no shortage of receiving talent waiting to be uncorked.

Yet, can Tua Tagovailoa get the most out of them? I believe so. People forget Tua was a top-five pick and would have likely gone higher were it not for a scary hip injury.

Now, a year removed from the injury, our NFL predictions include the idea that Tua is primed for a second-year breakout season.

He finished his college career with a 69.3% completion rate, 7,442 yards, 87 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He was throwing to first-rounders in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, and Waddle — insert mind-blown emoji — but he was facing elite defensive talent in the SEC and the College Football Playoffs.

Not only does Tua possesses above-average athletic traits, but he has stellar pocket presence and touch throwing the football. With an entire offseason under his belt, what can hold him back? Glad you asked.

The Dolphins are trotting out a co-offensive coordinator unit of Eric Studesville and George Godsey. They will presumably deploy a more college-blended scheme as head coach Brian Flores has expressed an interest in utilizing RPOs and motions more often. However, it is a situation that must be monitored. If the two butt heads and are not given clear and concise roles from Flores, it could cause trouble for the young QB.

3) Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Fantasy football players, this one is for you. Cam Akers flashed when given opportunities as a rookie, but that was the issue — opportunities. For whatever reason, head coach Sean McVay limited the talented running back in favor of using a committee approach. Malcolm Brown (101), Darrell Henderson (138), and Akers (145) all received 100+ carries despite Akers demonstrating superior talent.

Brown has since signed with the Dolphins, and although Henderson is still on the roster, McVay stated Akers is an “every down back.” Take that with a grain of salt, as McVay is known for saying one thing and doing another.

Still, Akers flourished in the second half of last season after receiving just 26 carries in the first seven outings. In his final six games, including two postseason contests, Akers carried the rock 132 times for 527 yards and 3 scores.

Oh, and he is changing his jersey number from 23 to 3, which he has donned since he began playing the sport. I think it is safe to say that alone indicates a second-year breakout is on the horizon.

4) Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

Having Henry Ruggs here is a bit high, especially when considering the team he is on. Don’t get me wrong; I am a Derek Carr believer. But I am not a believer in the team utilizing Ruggs to the best of his ability.

Nonetheless, you can anticipate at the very least some development from Ruggs next year. Nelson Agholor and Tyrell Williams are out, and even though Las Vegas brought in John Brown and Willie Snead, Ruggs should be the primary beneficiary. After all, Darren Waller can’t receive all the targets.

Ruggs is not the deep option everyone makes him out to be. Yes, he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash, but he is more of a well-rounded player than a vertical threat. He can excel at that role, but the Raiders need to tap into his short-area quickness and route running. If they do, Ruggs can produce to the level other receivers have in recent drafts.

5) Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions

Jeff Okudah rounds out our top five NFL predictions of second-year breakout players.

The Lions were a dumpster fire in 2020, and it will seemingly only get worse before it gets better. Regardless, Okudah can bounce back from a rough debut season. He snatched an interception and forced a couple of pass deflections, but the Ohio State alum conceded too many receptions and dealt with injuries.

New defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was previously the Saints’ defensive backs coach since 2016. Assuming Glenn deploys a scheme similar to New Orleans, Okudah should fit right in. Okudah was the No. 3 overall selection in 2020 for a reason, and he will look to prove why in 2021.

NFL Predictions: Top second-year breakout candidates | 6-10

Which second-year breakout candidates round out the top 10 of our NFL predictions?

6) Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

Carson Wentz loves big-bodied receivers. Since Wentz joined the Eagles in 2016, the team’s leading receiver has been 6-foot-2 or over and 215+ pounds.

By year, Philadelphia’s No. 1 wideout in terms of yardage was Jordan Matthews in 2016 (804), Alshon Jeffery from 2017-2019 (789, 843, and 490), and Travis Fulgham in 2020 (539). Who is the biggest receiver currently on the Colts? You guessed it, Michael Pittman, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds.

Outside of T.Y. Hilton, who turns 32 during the season, Indianapolis is bereft of a reliable pass catcher. As a rookie, Pittman caught 40 passes for 503 yards and 1 touchdown. If Wentz returns to his usual form, Pittman can easily double his numbers — even septuple his touchdowns.

7) Grant Delpit, S, Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns, on paper, are absolutely loaded heading into the 2021 season. I mean, seriously, it is like a Madden franchise team with salary cap turned off. I am not claiming they will finish the season undefeated, but they should be fun to watch on Sundays. One player they are glad to have back is 2020 second-rounder Grant Delpit.

Delpit sat on the sideline last season after tearing his Achilles the first week of training camp. The 2019 Jim Thorpe winner is now healthy and ready to terrorize opposing offenses this year. The Browns signed Rams standout John Johnson in the offseason, but Delpit should start opposite him, creating one of the league’s deadliest safety duos.

8) Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals

Isaiah Simmons served as a safety/linebacker hybrid at Clemson, even lining up in the slot at times. Arizona decided to stick him at linebacker and hoped he would pan out. Through no fault of his own, the NFL ate him up as a rookie. Nevertheless, Simmons has the opportunity to break out as a second-year player in 2021, and therefore, he makes it in our top 10 of NFL predictions to do exactly that.

Simmons can play strictly linebacker — though that is a waste of his skill set, in my opinion — but it is not a position he played a ton of in the college ranks. With a season’s worth of experience behind him, Simmons should settle into his role and make offenses pay for testing him in 2021.

9) Andrew Thomas, OT, New York Giants

It was a toss-up between two Giants for the second-to-last spot of second-year players who could breakout in 2021. While safety Xavier McKinney may enjoy a breakout of his own after his rookie season was marred with injuries, Andrew Thomas is the one I expect to have a trajectory-setting year.

Despite being the fourth overall pick, Thomas struggled mightily in Year 1. Coming out of Georgia, many ranked him as one of if not the best tackle in the class. Unfortunately, his main concern as a prospect reared its ugly head.

The Bulldogs utilized angle sets and tight formations, rarely asking their offensive tackles to drop back vertically. That is exactly what hurt Thomas most as a rookie. He has the power, size, and athleticism, but his technique needed work, especially when given space between him and the defender.

Space and speed killed Thomas, but with a full offseason to rewatch his tape and hone his craft, there is no doubt he will improve and live up to his first-round billing.

10) Marlon Davidson, DL, Falcons

Due to a combination of injuries, COVID-19, and a lack of trust from the prior regime, Marlon Davidson played in just eight games and 132 snaps in 2020. The former Auburn edge rusher turned defensive tackle will have to battle for a role on the defense. Still, he should receive a fair shot from an entirely new coaching staff this year.

Davidson flashed immense talent during his time with the Tigers. If he can remain healthy and crack the rotation, there is no doubt he will prove worthy of his second-round selection.

Top second-year breakout candidates | Honorable Mention

Not every second-year player can crack the top 10, so who is on the outside looking in?

Jordan Love, QB, Packers

The Packers traded up in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Jordan Love at pick 26. Yet, he was not even the second-string QB last season. That title belonged to Tim Boyle.

If (and this is a big if) Aaron Rodgers is traded away, then it will be Love at the helm. However, on May 24, PFN Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline heard the Packers want to keep Rodgers, and a trade for Julio Jones may be in play.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation is why Love didn’t crack the list. Even if he did start in 2021, I would not anticipate him thriving out the gate.

Saints second-year players

New Orleans held just four picks last season, and their first three will need to produce in 2021. First-round selection Cesar Ruiz was bullied along the offensive line as a rookie. The former Michigan lineman entered the season at just 20 years old and will improve as his career continues. Linebacker Zack Baun only played around 100 snaps last year, but he will hear his number called much more often in 2021 due to the loss of Alex Anzalone.

Lastly, tight end Adam Trautman demonstrated exceptional blocking prowess in his first year and made the most of his 16 targets. He reeled in 15 catches for 171 yards and 1 touchdown. Like the rest of the draft class, Trautman should receive an increase in usage in Year 2.

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James Fragoza is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter @JamesFragoza.

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