As we start to enter the dog days of the 2021 NFL off-season, it’s time to start looking ahead at what to expect this upcoming season. This article is going to take a look at a number of players that I think are in great situations to make an impact going into 2021. Not included in here are obvious guys like Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Justin Herbert, and Justin Jefferson, as those guys are already showing themselves to be studs based on their performances last season. The players listed below are in order of where they were drafted, not how likely I think they are to breakout, so don’t come at my neck because your team’s guy is lower on the list, it really doesn’t mean anything here, so let’s jump in!
Jeff Okudah: CB, Detroit Lions, 1st Round 3rd Overall
I liked Jeff Okudah a lot coming out of Ohio State. A long, athletic corner coming off of his best season production-wise at OSU in 2019, Okudah didn’t live up to the hype he had coming in. Limited by a groin injury that ended up needing surgery, Okudah appeared in 9 games, starting 6, racking up 47 tackles, 1 interception, and two pass deflections. For such a limited sample size, those stats are pretty solid. Factor in the trainwreck of a program former HC Matt Patricia was running in Detriot and Okudah was fine in games he played in, all things considered. New HC Dan Campbell seems to be running a tighter ship, and Okudah is still immensely talented. Those two factors should help Okudah get headed back in the right direction.
Derrick Brown: DT, Carolina Panthers, 1st Round 7th Overall
Derrick Brown was a MONSTER at Auburn in 2019 winning the 2019 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. While not the same dominant force he was in the SEC, Brown was no slouch in his rookie season, starting in 15 of the 16 games he played in, accounting for 34 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and 12 more QB hits. The 12 QB hits is the number that really stands out to me. That is a solid number for any interior defensive lineman, let alone a rookie. Brown is in one of the best positions out of any second-year player, with HC Matt Rhule continuing to build the team and add pieces to the defense such as wildly underrated DT DaQuan Jones via free agency. I’ll be surprised if Brown doesn’t continue his ascension within the ranks of good DTs in the NFL.
CJ Henderson: CB, Jacksonville Jaguars, 1st Round 9th Overall
CJ Henderson was a bit of a late riser in last season’s NFL Draft cycle, but that rise wasn’t without merit. Henderson was a damn good player at the University of Florida. His rookie season had its up’s and down’s: starting in all 8 games he appeared in, accruing 36 tackles, 1 INT, and 6 pass deflections. His season was derailed in a similar way that Jeff Okudah’s was, a groin injury, accompanied by a team that was just dismal. Insert Urban Meyer as the new head man in Jacksonville, Shaquill Griffin across the field from him manning the other CB spot, and new DC Joe Cullen bringing that aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, and I think you have the makings for a very solid second season for CJ Henderson. A guy with his athleticism and natural ball skills doesn’t usually have a problem in the NFL, and I think it’s more likely than not that Henderson makes a solid jump this upcoming season.
Jerry Jeudy; WR Denver Broncos, 1st Round, 15th Overall
Jerry Jeudy was my WR1A coming out of the 2020 class. His blend of size, speed, and YAC ability is top tier, and he is the best route runner to come out in the draft since Stefon Diggs. His ability to create separation organically in his routes is special. His numbers in 2020 were very solid, starting 14 of 16 games played, bringing in 52 catches for 856 yards and 3 touchdowns. The thing that makes me think that he is a near-lock to make a jump in year two is based on the number of targets he had last season. Jeudy had 113 targets, with him only hauling in 52 of those, which puts his catch rate coming in at 46%, which is low. I personally blame a good portion of that on Drew Lock, who I think will be replaced by Teddy Bridgewater earlier in the year. While Teddy isn’t spectacular, he’s a solid QB who knows where to put the ball for the most part. If Jeudy gets that catch rate up near 60%, which I fully expect him to, we’re talking about a significant jump for him this season.
CeeDee Lamb; WR Dallas Cowboys, 1st Round, 17th Overall
I said above that Jeudy was my WR1A last season, Lamb was WR1B. He was so good at Oklahoma for so long, accounting for 32 TD’s over 3 seasons, the fact that he was available for Dallas at 17th is still astounding to me. Lamb’s 2020 was very good, catching 74 passes for 935 yards and 5 TDs. I think those numbers are going to balloon further this season for one reason alone; the return of Dak Prescott. Dak instantly takes that offense into the upper tier of offenses, and Lamb is no doubt going to be the beneficiary of that. Lamb is similar to Jeudy, in that he has such a rare blend of size, speed, strength, and YAC ability that his ceiling is nearly endless. I think Lamb is a borderline lock to be in the top 10 WR conversation next offseason, and top 5 wouldn’t be a surprise to me.
Laviska Shenault; WR Jacksonville Jaguars, 2nd Round, 42nd Overall
Jeudy and Lamb were my top WR’s in the 2020 class, but boy do I love me some Laviska. He was a jack of all trades at Colorado, primarily playing as a WR, but splitting time at RB and some wild cat QB as well, in a pinch. He is a true gadget player that succeeded as a WR. As a Titans fan, I was DEVASTATED to see him go to Duval, and his rookie campaign was solid for a second-round pick: 58 catches for 600 yards and 5 TDs while tacking on an additional 18 rushing attempts for 91 yards. The reason for his potential breakout being listed over some others is simple; Urban Meyer loves him some gadget players, and ‘Viska is an elite one. If Laviska stays healthy, which has been his biggest issue dating back to his days at Colorado, he very well could have a gargantuan year for the Jags.
Jalen Hurts; QB Philadelphia Eagles, 2nd Round, 53rd Overall
At the time of the selection, hurts to Philly was an odd one. The team had just invested a long-term deal in Carson Wentz, and the roster had a plethora of holes elsewhere. Fast forward to now, Wentz is in Indy, and it is Hurts show, win or lose. Scouts were all over the place with Hurts, and after 4 starts last season, folks still don’t know what to make of Hurts. He threw for 6 TD’s and ran for another 3, but only completed 52% of his passes, threw 4 picks, and fumbled another 9 times. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s complicated. But I know one thing, Hurts won at Alabama, Hurts won at Oklahoma, and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if he wins in Philly, and I’m almost expecting him to. I’m just not confident enough on it to bet on it right now.
Jump in the comments and let me know who YOU think should have made the list! Tweet at me @j_noah53 and let me know how wrong you think my opinions on these guys are!
Stats from pro-football-reference.com