It is late spring in the NFL, when hope springs eternal. The league is being taken over by players ready to take the leap into stardom. Happens every year.
Watch the Zoom interviews being conducted by coaches around the league and marvel at all of the previous draft busts – or healthy scratches – that are now opening eyes in glorified walk-throughs. Oh, there are far too many stars of the seven-on-seven, shells and shorts crowd to even count. It’s that time of year when suspects suddenly turn to prospects … only for many of them to resort to form once real football activities resume.
It’s a time of mind-numbing dichotomies – at the same time these practices and babysitting OTA sessions are of significant importance and attendance is monitored closely; while voluntary, they are wink-wink mandatory and coaches will tell you the inherit value in each day on the back fields … And then these same coaches, invariably, will cancel a handful of OTAs and maybe even a day of minicamp, somewhat arbitrarily. They’ll opt to take the kids bowling or to the movies or on some team-bonding field trips rather than hit the gridiron.
So, which is it?
Anywho, with minicamps winding down it got me to thinking about potential breakout candidates from each division. Now, to be clear, these are not the “suspects to prospects” you will read glowing accounts of on Twitter because they caught a few balls or made a few throws against air. Some have been hyped more than others, and some have achieved more than others, but I was looking for a player in each division who I feel very strongly about being ready to ascend to new heights in his career, and who could be a potentially significant difference-maker within that division and how it all plays out in the standings.
Specifically, I was looking for players on teams that I expect to at least contend for a wild-card spot or division title, and not totally obvious guys and not kids just selected in the top 10 (Trevor Lawrence, duh!). If you are a regular reader of this space, a few of these will not surprise you, as I have opined on them in the past.
Craving even more NFL coverage focusing on previews, recaps, news and analysis? Listen below and follow the Pick Six podcast for a daily dose of everything you need to follow pro football.
He has everything you could possibly covet in the modern linebacker, and is putting it all together. Totally at ease in this defense, entering his fourth season having just turned 23, his time is now. He will go from good to great this season. Has the power and speed to dominate in the run or pass game, and a much better core around him now than in his rookie season. Elite wingspan and balance. The sack totals and interception totals will soar this season on a team that will garner a lot of national attention as a true Super Bowl contender.
NFC East – Logan Thomas, TE, Washington
Began his breakthrough last season (and we told you back then we kinda thought he would emerge), but in an offense that was all over the place. Erratic and fluctuating quarterback play, and a lack of other secondary receiving options held him back some. Ryan Fitzpatrick will make sure he still gets fed even with Curtis Samuel in the mix now and with Antonio Gibson a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. He has been getting a lot of positive chatter this spring, but it is backed up by what he did in real games a year ago. I do believe he can be unlocked as more of a downfield target, and Norv Turner/Scott Turner offenses have been very kind to a number of tight ends over the years. With one full season at tight end behind him, I expect to see his TD totals and red zone presence grow.
AFC North – Alex Highsmith, LB, Pittsburgh
Is he going to completely replace Bud Dupree from a production standpoint? Maybe not. Dupree blossomed into an elite pass rusher the past two season. But with the star power on this defense and with T.J. Watt on the other side, and with this staff and franchise that seems to always cultivate impact linebackers – and with a full and normal offseason and preseason – can he take major leaps forward? I wouldn’t bet against it. With guys like Robert Spillane and Devin Bush having to come back from serious injuries and Vince Williams cut and then re-signed on the cheap, the stage is set for Highsmith to make waves this summer and make plays this season. I believe he can be the next real impact edge rusher in Pittsburgh, continuing the team’s distinguished lineage.
NFC North – Irv Smith, TE, Minnesota
Kirk Cousins is going to be feeling a little heat after the Vikings entered the QB market in the draft. And he loves his tight ends (going back to Jordan Reed). Kyle Rudolph is finally gone and this could be/should be a “get paid” season for Smith. So much talent and athleticism and while his development hasn’t been a linear as some would like, he really started to find his game a year ago. The Kubiak offense, which this group seemingly became more comfortable in last year, can favor tight ends as well, especially when the QB isn’t super mobile. Smith grabbed three TDs on 20 targets over final four games last year, with Rudolph on the shelf, and I believe he can pick up where he left off.
AFC South – Michael Pittman, WR, Indianapolis
He was held back some by the scope of this offense with Philip Rivers at the helm and also had to deal with what can be a tricky learning curve for a rookie receiver. Made major strides as the season went on. I suspect, with Carson Wentz able to move the spot and create more havoc in the horizontal passing game, that Pittman becomes a force in the screen game, gets YAC, and also gets more downfield work. I expect him to double his reception totals (40 a year ago). He topped 100 scrimmage yards a few times down the stretch and I got the sense the Colts staff was figuring out new ways to unlock him along the way, given the limitations of last year’s offseason and preseason. I love his hands and ability and size (6-4) and the physical mentality he brings to his craft.
NFC South – Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans
In his second year with Sean Payton, and with a great cast around him, Winston can do big things with the Saints. Better protection than he had in Tampa, a less high-risk scheme, and a better running attack will provide more balance and more guard rails for the interception-prone passer. Having Taysom Hill as a change of pace will also help Winston and keep him in situations that play most to his strengths. After spending most of 2020 on the bench learning from Payton and Drew Brees, I expect him to have a fairly prolific 2021 season and help keep the Saints viable in the NFC South, while the Falcons and Panthers sputter with their rebuilds.
AFC West – Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City
You can’t teach speed, but you can work on your hands and consistency. And I am betting that the 2019 second-round pick is ready to seize the opportunity provided by the exodus of Sammy Watkins. Can be become the Robin to Tyreek Hill’s Batman? He came into the league raw, but Year Three can be when many a WR takes a turn for the better and starts to figure out what it takes to succeed in the NFL. It’s a great staff and the best quarterback on the planet and a master play-caller, which all work with him. I suspect it brings out more of Hardman than we have seen before the find his way into a greater timeshare of the snaps and targets in this voluminous offense. He can take a step up from one-trick-pony “speed guy” to a more reliable receiver.
NFC West – Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco
Kyle Shanahan knows his receivers and he took this kid as high as he did for a reason. With a little better health and luck than a year ago, we could be looking at a burgeoning superstar. There is no reason not to envision him as true No. 1 wideout. Shanahan will use motions and creativity and bunch formations to get him isolated and out in space in various quadrants of the field, and there is major home run potential for him in this offense, particularly if George Kittle and Deebo Samuel can stay healthy to create even more mismatches underneath and downfield. We should see plenty of YAC and plenty of deep balls for Aiyuk. Getting Trey Lance into the mix could help further create opportunities for Aiyuk to shine off of bootlegs and RPOs.