During every NFL season, there tend to be a couple of breakout performers that people weren’t expecting to succeed. Last season, we saw players such as Josh Allen, Justin Jefferson, D.K. Metcalf, and Trey Hendrickson, just to name a few, break out of their shells and become household names. By paying close attention to the recent NFL minicamp performances, free agent impacts, and other notes that could determine a players’ increase in playing time, I have compiled a list of potential breakout performers for every team in the league (with the first set of teams being the AFC).
All stats, numbers, and important information regarding players’ statistics were found using Pro Football Reference and Sports Info Solutions Data Hub (for advanced statistics). So without further ado, here are my predictions for every AFC team’s breakout performer in 2021, with a little synopsis of my selections directly below.
Baltimore Ravens – Jaylon Ferguson, Edge
Baltimore lost pass rusher Matt Judon to free agency, opening up more opportunity for Ferguson to make an impact, but also covered the loss of Judon by selecting pass rusher Odafe Oweh early in the draft and Daelin Hayes later on. So far, reviews on Ferguson’s progression have been positive during OTA’s, as outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins expressed how “good of shape” Ferguson is currently in, and how he has a much better grasp of the playbook than he did in his first two seasons.
Don “Wink” Martindale, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, has stated that he is very confident that Ferguson will be much more productive this next season. All of this is contributing to the case of Ferguson having a breakout year in 2021.
Buffalo Bills – A.J. Epenesa, Edge
After playing just 27% of the Bills’ defensive snaps during his rookie season, the former second-round selection is in for a bigger role in the Bills’ pass-rushing rotation. Buffalo has aging veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison atop the rotation and the depth chart, but with additions such as rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, they could see less time and Epenesa could see a lot more as a result.
The Iowa product didn’t see much of a training camp in 2020 due to COVID-19, so he was pretty much thrown into the fire. With a year of experience under his belt, Epenesa will most definitely be seeing the field more consistently in his sophomore season, which should open up more opportunities for him to be impactful on the field.
Cincinnati Bengals – Tee Higgins, WR
Tee Higgins ended his rookie season with 908 yards receiving (ranked third among rookie wideouts), and 6 receiving touchdowns (also ranked third among rookie wideouts). He did this all while missing Joe Burrow during a significant part of the season.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told reporters that Higgins “looked more explosive” during offseason workouts. Higgins has gotten bigger as well, reaching 220 lbs and feeling “much faster” than last season. Cincinnati did draft Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth selection in the NFL Draft, but it doesn’t lessen the impact Higgins will have on their offense come next season.
Cleveland Browns – Denzel Ward, CB
Denzel Ward played his best season in 2020 and looks to take his game to the next level. The Ohio State product knows how to make plays on the football very well, as he ended last year ranking second in the league in pass deflections (16) and allowing less than 50% of passes thrown his way to be completed. He also allowed a measly 5.9 yards per target in 2020, which is less than Xavien Howard, James Bradberry, Tre’Davious White, and Stephon Gilmore, just to name a few.
Being a part of an up-and-coming Browns team that could very well contend for a title in 2021, Ward is expected to step up and lead the charge defensively alongside star edge rusher Myles Garrett.
Denver Broncos – Noah Fant, TE
Noah Fant quietly had a superb sophomore season for the Broncos in 2020, where he ranked sixth among all tight ends in receiving yards (673), sixth in targets (93), and seventh in receptions (62). Fant has been known for creating mismatches in coverage and challenging defenders with his rare combination of strength and speed and will continue to develop as a threat.
With a roster filled to the brim with young, talented skill players, most believe that Fant will have to fight for touches with the likes of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler. While Denver does have a lot of talent offensively, Fant has been getting a lot stronger and looks to make a huge jump in year 3, and many of his teammates, including Von Miller, see that as being very realistic.
Houston Texans – Charles Omenihu, DT
Charles Omenihu sat behind J.J. Watt for the majority of his young career. With Watt now gone, the third-year defensive lineman out of Texas should be receiving a lot more attention and more opportunity to make an impact defensively. Omenihu has racked up seven career sacks in his two years in the league, all while never playing more than 50% of Houston’s defensive snaps.
Romeo Crennel, Houston’s former defensive coordinator, has been impressed by his progression throughout his first two seasons. The third-year jump from Omenihu should be expected now with a starting role on Houston’s defensive line.
Indianapolis Colts – E.J. Speed, LB
Speed is one of many players that has impressed during OTA’s and minicamp. He has been a career backup for the Colts after being drafted out of Tarleton State in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. After Anthony Walker tested free agency during the offseason, the third linebacker spot seems to be up for grabs, and it seems as if Speed is putting up a fight to take it from presumed starter Zaire Franklin. Speed is a much bigger linebacker, measuring at 6’4”, 230 lbs, and is much more athletically gifted than Franklin is.
Unfortunately, Speed has only seen a total of 34 defensive snaps in a total of 27 regular-season games. Regardless of his lack of experience in the pros, his physical attributes and abilities cannot be ignored, and he should make a much bigger impact for Indianapolis come his third season in the league if he gets the chance.
Jacksonville Jaguars – K’Lavon Chaisson, Edge
Chaisson is entering his second season in the league after an underwhelming rookie season where he was wasn’t utilized at efficiently as he was at LSU. The former Tiger played just over 50% of Jacksonville’s defensive snaps where he was a rotational linebacker and rarely saw time rushing the passer. He totaled only one sack on the year and 19 combined tackles.
Chaisson didn’t attend Jaguars’ minicamp but did attend Von Miller’s edge-rushing summit over the offseason, where hopefully he can pick up some new tricks and use them to his advantage. With Chaisson’s abilities more realized over the course of the offseason, he’ll be more of a wildcard defensively, where people can start seeing some of the same skill sets that they saw from him during his days in Louisiana.
Kansas City Chiefs – Byron Pringle, WR
After being the most targeted receiver at the minicamp (over the likes of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill), Byron Pringle is fighting for the WR2 spot to oppose Hill in the Chiefs offense. Eric Bienemy expects Pringle to break out and step up this season, and so far he’s been rather impressive.
Kansas City has been looking for a WR2 after Sammy Watkins chose to sign with the Ravens after several seasons of injuries that limited his impact as a part of the Chiefs offense. Demarcus Robinson has been stuck in the middle of the pack for quite some time, and could never seem to break out despite many opportunities, and Mecole Hardman proved in 2020 that he wasn’t quite ready for an expanded role. Pringle may be the WR2 Kansas City starts come Week 1, and could provide much-needed value on the field.
Los Angeles Chargers – Austin Ekeler, RB
Some might argue that Ekeler has already enjoyed a breakout performance as a Charger, but I believe that his impact could change significantly due to the changes in coaching staff and his development as a runner. Ekeler has quietly been a top 3 receiving back in the league over the past two seasons. In 2019, he was seven yards short of having a 1,000-yard receiving season, and despite only playing ten games in 2020 due to injuries, he still eclipsed 400 yards receiving, while having an expanded role in the rushing attack, where he totaled 530 yards rushing and 4.6 yards per carry.
Due to the emergence of now-second year quarterback Justin Herbert, a heavy passing attack will likely be utilized more effectively in L.A. With that being said, Ekeler should definitely return to his prime receiving form, and might even be more effective running the football in Los Angeles’ spread-style offense.
Las Vegas Raiders – Clelin Ferrell, Edge
Clelin Ferrell has had nothing but forgettable moments during his first two seasons in the league. The former fourth overall draft selection has totaled a minuscule 6.5 sacks while playing between 40%-60% of Las Vegas’ defensive snaps. The Raiders struggled with pass rush since drafting Ferrell, and signed edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue in the offseason, and drafted Malcolm Koonce to hopefully see better results.
In the case of Ferrell, it sometimes takes edge rushers time to become accustomed to finding success. Cameron Jordan, Leonard Williams, and Arik Armstead are all prime examples of edge rushers that don’t pan out immediately but eventually do break out. With added pressure from replacement in his third season, we could see Ferrell break out and show signs of improvement.
Miami Dolphins – Christian Wilkins, DT
Stats don’t define how valuable Wilkins has been to the Dolphins’ defense during his first two seasons. Miami’s new defensive line coach Austin Clark recently stated, however, that Wilkins “can definitely do a lot more,” and despite the crowded status of Miami’s interior talent, the former Clemson Tiger is drawing more attention and can pull away from the pack easily.
Wilkins is extremely versatile and can play several positions along the defensive line, similar to what he did in college. He has worked on generating pressure during the offseason, which was something he’s struggled with during the course of his young career. He’s definitely a player to watch and could be a potential breakout player for a young and limitless Miami Dolphins squad.
New England Patriots – Josh Uche, LB
Josh Uche was another player that attended Von Miller’s pass-rushing summit during the offseason, and many surfaced reports have stated that Uche kept up quite steadily with Patriot veterans during minicamp, and people were quite impressed to see his development from year one to year two thus far.
Despite New England spending a ton of money on their defense in free agency, especially on front-seven personnel such as Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, and Kyle Van Noy, it shouldn’t lessen the impact Uche has on defense. The second-year linebacker/edge rusher hybrid only saw 17% of the team’s snaps during his rookie year and should be a viable rotational figure in and out for New England in 2021.
New York Jets – Quinnen Williams, DT
Williams was silently playing like a top-10 interior defensive lineman in 2020, as he racked up 7 sacks and had a pressure percentage of 10.3%, all while playing in only 13 games and only 52% of New York’s snaps. Heading into his third year, Williams is most likely going to unhinge under the management of defensive mastermind Robert Saleh. If he was playing like a top ten D-Lineman on a horrible 2020 Jets squad, imagine what he can do with Saleh mentoring him.
I can see the former third-overall draft selection surpassing double-digit sacks and making a case for being a top interior defensive talent in the league.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Alex Highsmith, Edge
After Bud Dupree signed with Tennessee, second-year edge rusher Alex Highsmith should be enjoying a much more involved season. Highsmith broke out as a senior at Charlotte, recording 15 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss, and was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft as a result.
As of right now, Highsmith is a full-time starter at the position, and with T.J. Watt on the opposite side, Highsmith shouldn’t have too hard of a time adjusting and making an impact, especially with Watt likely seeing more attention as a threat to sack the quarterback. Bud Dupree took a while to blossom into a formidable force as a pass rusher, and Highsmith could start taking steps to fulfill a similar role.
Tennessee Titans – Nate Davis, Guard
Davis, a former 2019 third-round draft selection, is another player who is receiving a ton of hype out of minicamp. Titans’ offensive line coach Keith Carter stated that Davis has “taken really big strides,” especially in the offseason. Davis showed flashes with Tennessee while in the trenches during the 2020 campaign, and Titans’ coaches realize that the next step for Davis to flourish even further is to tighten down on his consistency.
PFF already rated Davis as the 31st best guard in the league, while teammate and mentor Rodger Saffold was ranked at 10th. Davis is currently Tennessee’s starting right guard and if he stays consistent in his third season, could be their breakout performer.