Top Breakout Candidates: AFC East

Top Breakout Candidates: AFC East

Overview

First things first, this breakout candidates series will go through each division in the league, starting with the AFC East, and each piece will feature thoughts from the fanbases themselves. Be sure to check out each of these guys, this series would not be possible without them!

I want to explain my definition for these breakout candidates. I am not discussing great players who are on the brink of superstardom. Those guys have their own category and get tons of attention throughout the offseason.

The players that I am talking about are the ones that make a good team. The ones who could be going from being on the roster bubble to showing positive play all season long. Or perhaps the 2nd year kid who is outplaying his draft stock. There are more of those guys on each team than there will ever be superstars.

New England Patriots: Chase Winovich, DE

Last season, Winovich led the team in sacks with only 5.5. In fact, he only made nine starts and “didn’t really contribute or step up in his second year as most people hoped,” according to GilletteNation on Instagram.

Thus far in his young NFL career, he has yet to truly benefit from a capable edge rusher opposite of him. Sure New England gets creative with their LB blitz packages, but the best and most effective friend for a young edge rusher is another edge rusher.

Why Winovich Can Succeed

However, GilletteNation believes that Winovich’s lack of production last season is what makes him the perfect candidate to break out as he heads into his third season. His versatility is a large reason that this prediction could come to fruition.

“He’s had some playing time as a stand-up linebacker in a 4-3 and a 3-4. He can play on the outside in a three-point stance and a two-point stance. He can get after the quarterback,” GilletteNation detailed. “He’s one of those players who is a high energy, can play on special teams. [He’s] what you think of as the prototypical Patriot player. That’s what Chase Winovich is.” 

With the addition of Matthew Judon and the return of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season, Winovich is set to have the best surrounding core of his career. The Patriots are full of players who play their role to a tee. The defensive front is perhaps the best example of that.

Henry Anderson, Deatrich Wise, and Lawrence Guy are a few players that come to mind as guys who can fulfill certain roles in the Patriots defense. In fact, they succeeded as spot starters and role players even before their time in New England. However, Winovich seems to have an extra quality in him that makes me see a breakout coming.

What to Expect in 2021

With the way New England looks bound to bounce back in 2021, I believe Winovich could double his career sack total this season. A double-digit sack year could prove to be the pivotal reason that New England returns to the playoffs.

While agreeing on his potential, GilletteNation had another perspective on the impact we could see from Winovich this year.

“With the different personnel they can use him in, I want to say 60 to 70 tackles,” offered GilletteNation. “Again, his ceiling can definitely be 11-12 sacks, but I wouldn’t be upset with him getting 2 or 3 and opening someone else up to get 6 or 7 more sacks.” 

Regardless of his individual production, players like Winovich, and admittedly others on the Patriots DL as well, make any defense better. His ability to expand his role and continue to succeed at the little things will be the reason he has a career year.

“I don’t think he’s going to be the focal point of a defense, but he definitely has the ability to contribute at a high level,” GilletteNation added.

Who Else Could Breakout in 2021?

Winovich is certainly not the only Patriots player with the potential to burst onto the scene. GilletteNation also added Myles Bryant and Jakobi Meyers as players he believed could step up in 2021.

For Bryant, GilletteNation raved on his versatility, citing his usage at nearly every secondary position. He also drew a comparison to another former Patriots defensive back.

“He’s like a Malcolm Butler-like player, super gritty and gets up in your face.”

Meyers, on the other hand, could nearly call last season a breakout. However, GilletteNation believes that given a full season as a WR1, “he could be due for, it might be aggressive but like, 60 catches, 1,000 yards.” 

New York Jets: Jarrad Davis, ILB

Davis may be the boldest or just downright unusual candidate to be a breakout candidate this season. I’ll admit that point-blank. However, looking at that Jets roster, I just truly believe he could make the jump.

I believe that Jarrad Davis can be the player that the Lions drafted him to be in 2017. A former 1st round pick, Davis certainly has the tools to succeed in the NFL. Unfortunately, injuries and a lack of playing time recently have gotten in the way.

Why Davis Can Succeed

Davis has shown enough to be trusted in a starting role. With a lack of reliable second options in New York, I think he can easily get the nod. He’s had his difficulties, but I don’t think he has been utilized in the way he can be now. Not to mention, most Detroit fans would like to erase the entire Patricia era from their memory.

In Detroit, he was drafted to be their do-everything backer. Simply put, that is just not who Jarrad Davis is. He is a role player, and will probably only ever be a role player. The good news for Jets fans is that that is exactly what he can be in New York.

The Jets recently drafted two safety/linebacker hybrids in Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood. I guess that those two will have every opportunity to be the third-down coverage linebackers. Fortunately, that is exactly what Jarrad Davis struggles at the most. Getting him off the field in times he could be exposed in the passing game is key.

Jarrad Davis has added weight as well as gotten faster and could be the perfect option for New York to stuff the run on early downs. According to Jets Island on Instagram, “If Jarrad Davis plays well, the rest of the defense follows. I think a good linebacker core is a key to success. We saw that with David Harris and Calvin Pace 10 years ago when the Jets made their championship run.” 

What to Expect in 2021

Personally, I think Jarrad Davis can certainly outpace his best season to date. In 2018, he posted 100 tackles and 6 sacks. I think he can hit those numbers only playing 60 percent of downs this year.

Genuinely, I think he is the solid, role-player LB the Jets need to step up opposite of CJ Mosley. Jets Island noted that they have the defensive line, they have the safeties in Marcus Maye and whoever else they send out… but I think the linebackers and the cornerbacks are the really the troubling points in the Jets secondary.”

If Jarrad Davis is put into the right situation, I think he crosses a BIG question mark off of the Jets list on defense. After all, with a rookie quarterback, you want to have a strong defense to take the pressure off of him. This defense has the potential to be sneaky good this season.

“Defense wins championships still, even in this era. A good defense, anchored by two good linebackers, I think that would set the Jets up for success,” says Jets Island, with a nod towards the age-old adage.

Who Else Could Breakout in 2021?

Denzel Mims was the first player that came to mind as I prepped this piece. However, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered where he stood in a crowded Jets WR room.

“The problem with Denzel Mims, in this case, is that he’s a vertical receiver. And the LaFleur offense is completely horizontal: West Coast style, quick passes, spreading the field,” said Jets Island, agreeing with my uncertainty. “Mims is a deep threat and I’m not entirely sure that plays in.”

Another player on my shortlist was John Franklin-Myer. A successful role player for the Jets already, the only reason he did not make my list was that I didn’t see his role expanding.

However, Jets Island was confident in Franklin-Myer’s ability to helping the Jets have a top 10 defensive line.

Buffalo Bills: Gabriel Davis, WR

Gabriel Davis was a pleasant surprise for the Bills last season, coming into the league as a 4th round pick from UCF. Starting 11 games, Davis showed to be a reliable target for Josh Allen and was one of the reasons for Josh Allen’s breakout year.

The presence of Cole Beasley, who has had two of the best seasons of his career in Buffalo, might spur some away from Davis. Additionally, the Bills went out and grabbed study veteran Emmanuel Sanders. However, with both guys on the wrong side of the 30, Buffalo needs to let its young talent succeed.

Why Davis Can Succeed

Despite Cole Beasley commanding the slot, and Stefon Diggs solidifying himself as a top 5 WR, Davis was able to rack up almost 600 yards and 7 touchdowns… on only 35 catches!

He is a big play waiting to happen and always provides the spark Buffalo needs. When Davis plays, the offense is just simply better. In fact, Bills Alerts on Instagram believes that “Gabe Davis has a huge opportunity to break out and really solidify himself into that next position for the Buffalo Bills.”

If the offense only continues to improve after their incredible season in 2020, this team could get really dangerous. Having a WR like Stefon Diggs opposite of you only makes things easier though, and Bills Alerts thinks that it could be the key to Davis’ success.

According to Bills Alert, “Stefon Diggs coming in and really changing the way Buffalo viewed itself as an offense, given their history of lackluster wide receivers” is why the stage is set for Gabriel Davis.

What to Expect in 2021

If Davis can win that WR2 job in training camp, I truly believe he jumps onto the scene this year. Beasley is likely due to some regression. Sanders is on his fourth team in three years. It seems as though it may be Davis’ job to lose.

Bills Alerts believes that “if Gabe Davis can step up, this offense can go from just a top 5 offense… to a top, possible 2 or 3 offense.” An offense that can go toe to toe with the Chiefs can set the Bills up as the top threat in the AFC.

I do not think that it is unreasonable that the Bills are capable of having top 1,000 yard receivers. In fact, with the continual improvement of Josh Allen, it may be more likely than not. Unless there are just a barrage of play designs just for Emmanuel Sanders, Davis will produce.

In 2021, Gabriel Davis WILL have 60+ catches. He WILL have 1,000+ yards. And most importantly, he WILL be one of the reasons that the Bills are contending for a Super Bowl.

Who Else Could Break Out in 2021?

A roster as talented as the Bills has plenty of players ready to take the next step. I’ve spent a bunch of time talking about their offense, but Bills Alerts highlighted a few young defensive stars that could leap.

In a recent post, Bills Alerts selected Ed Oliver as one of the “deciding players” for the Bills this season. In fact, they believe that “Ed Oliver, this year, is really going to show why he was the ninth overall pick.”

Additionally, AJ Epenesa is another player that could step up to solidify the Bills’ pass rush. In the defensive backfield, Bills Alerts believed that Dane Jackson or Levi Wallace could be primed to step into a bigger role.

Regardless of which of these players really does take the reins, “one of these guys is going to step up and really take control of this defense,” according to Bills Alerts.

Miami Dolphins: Brandon Jones, S

Brandon Jones, a third-round pick last season, was a phenomenal addition to the Dolphins defense. Now, with Bobby McCain out of the picture, he can truly step up into a prominent role with the team.

One of the more versatile players on Miami’s roster, the Dolphins can truly get creative with Jones on the field. In fact, MiaDolphinsIG on Instagram included Jones as a player on his short-list of breakout candidates for the Dolphins.

Why Jones Can Succeed

As previously mentioned, the path for Jones to take control of a starting spot with Bobby McCain being released earlier this offseason. The only boundary that could stand in his way is the addition of 2021 2nd-round pick Jevon Holland.

However, these two safeties play almost entirely different roles on defense. “He [Jones] was primarily used last year in at middle linebacker, as the big tackler. He’s a really good tackler,” said MiaDolphinsIG.

While Jones plays in the box, Jevon Holland thrives in the center field role and can be a game-breaker in coverage. For that reason, I think the addition of Holland is one of the best things that could happen for Jones.

Jones will certainly start a lot of games for Miami this season, but in what position is the question. Truth be told, I think he could line up at every position outside of the interior defensive line. MiaDolphinsIG believes that the Dolphins will “be more versatile using him all over the defense.” 

What to Expect in 2021

As I’ve mentioned, Jones will play all over the field in 2021. That is why MiaDolphinsIG believes that Jones could rack up, “65-70 tackles, maybe a couple of sacks, 2.5 or three, and maybe one interception.” 

As that stat line shows, Jones will certainly impact the game in many ways. With Miami’s safety depth, Jones could be in line for significant snaps at a linebacker role, and I think there is a chance he is among the team’s tackle leaders.

MiaDolphinsIG agreed, saying, “It’s a possibility that Brandon Jones could be the leading tackler.” While Jerome Baker will most likely remain the tackle leader in Miami, I could see Jones challenging Eric Rowe for playing time, and therefore tackles.

My gut is telling me that Brandon Jones could be a 100+ tackle guy in 2021. Combine that with his versatility, and Jones could legitimately be a top-tier safety this season.

Who Else Could Break Out in 2021?

The man that everyone is hoping to take that step in Miami is 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa. With an upgraded supporting cast, that is certainly possible. However, with his underwhelming year last season and a big question mark on the offensive line, I was not ready to give him that honor yet.

However, it may be his backfield mate Myles Gaskin who’s primed to take a leap on this offense. MiaDolphinsIG believes his ability to impact both phases of offense will help. “Lots of screen passes, lots of dump-offs, he’s very versatile. I love the way he runs, he’s a very downhill runner… he finds a hole and runs through it.” He makes not break into my top 12 RBs, but he’s a close miss.

Additionally, another one of year’s first-round picks, Noah Igbinoghene, could be due for a bigger year. “It was big shoes to fill in at slot corner and that’s why we saw Nik Needham play a lot more than he did [in 2021],” said MiaDolphinsIG. “If we did let Xavien Howard go, he’d be the number two cornerback there with Byron Jones.”

Lastly, MiaDolphinsIG believes that Raekwon Davis could be a next-level player as well. “Raekwon Davis, our nose tackle, played fantastic for us in the run game last season and I wouldn’t be surprised if he steps his game up this year.” 

Nick Lawler

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