2021 NFL season: 10 breakout Year-2 players on offense

·11-min read

The 2020 NFL season arguably was the toughest for a rookie class in recent league history — and arguably ever.

No in-person offseason. A reduced training camp. Zero preseason. Daily COVID-19 protocols.

While giving proper credit to the slew of impressive 2020 rookies such as Justin Herbert, Tristan Wirfs, Justin Jefferson, Jeremy Chinn and others, we should not take anything away from the first-year players who didn't reach their peaks in 2020.

There were several players who got chances but were held back for multiple reasons, including some high draft picks. Some of them will still provide big benefits, of course.

With that in mind, here are some of the second-year offensive players (the defense side of the ball will follow Friday) whose breakouts — while delayed — could be just around the corner.

QB Jalen Hurts

Philadelphia Eagles

Hurts gets the nod at this position over Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and others because he showed some intriguing potential last season while also providing a lot of correctable tape. All while he entered an awkward situation with Carson Wentz, without the benefit of a typical offseason.

Take the Arizona game in Week 15. Hurts had some rough spots, fumbling three times, taking three sacks (one for a safety) and completing only 53.9% of his passes. But he also gashed the Cardinals with his legs and hit on seven passes of 23 yards or longer.

Who knows how Nick Sirianni fares in his first season as head coach? But assuming the Eagles receive better health and that DeVonta Smith offers Hurts some immediate help, he should be ready to make a notable jump in Year 2.

Eagles QB Jalen Hurts has a chance to make big strides in Year 2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Eagles QB Jalen Hurts has a chance to make big strides in Year 2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Kansas City Chiefs

It was fashionable to bag on CEH last season, but we won’t have anything to do with that silly slander. Edwards-Helaire didn’t build on a big opening game as well as we hoped, but there’s plenty to appreciate from his rookie season — and even more to be excited about in Year 2.

His rookie numbers were quite comparable to what Christian McCaffrey did his first season. There was similar ambivalence over McCaffrey’s rookie production at the time, too. That went away with his sterling second season.

Edwards-Helaire could see a similar jump. It's unclear why he wasn’t used more as a receiver. That element of his game is what made CEH, to use Joe Burrow’s words, LSU’s MVP in the Tigers' national championship season of 2019.

Expect the receiving bump to happen. Edwards-Helaire received just shy of seven targets a game over his final seven games in college (not counting the Oklahoma game in which the injured CEH played only a few snaps as a decoy). That number last season, including the two playoff games, was below four targets per game.

Edwards-Helaire also figures to benefit from a vastly improved offensive line, a unit that was in shambles by the end of last season.

RB Cam Akers

Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay could have handled Akers better last season. It was frustrating and downright confusing at times why Akers didn’t see more volume until later into the season.

Part of McVay’s waffling between Akers, Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown was forced by injury — no real fault there. But the coach’s “hot hand” approach to the backfield appeared to stunt Akers’ growth and keep the Rams’ best all-around back off the field too often – especially in the pass game. In Akers’ first nine contests, as he was in and out of the lineup, he caught all three of his targets for 27 yards. For the final six games (including two in the playoffs) Akers totaled 11 catches for 147 yards on 14 targets. He’s a natural catching the ball and should be allowed to do so more often.

McVay appears to have realized his mistake last season.

“Well, I think the more you can have the ball in Cam Akers’ hands, we’re in a good position,” McVay said after the Rams' road playoff loss to the Packers. “This guy’s going to be a big-time player. He got more and more confidence as the season went. I have tremendous confidence in him ...

"I think this guy has an unbelievably bright future.”

Over those final six games, Akers notched 152 touches for 792 yards and three TDs. Keeping up that rate for a full season is a bit pie in the sky. But Matthew Stafford should benefit greatly from Akers having a more diverse role, as Stafford typically made good use of his receiving backs in Detroit (Theo Riddick, Reggie Bush, D’Andre Swift, even Joique Bell).

Jerry Jeudy knows he needs to work on his hands to be better in 2021. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Jerry Jeudy knows he needs to work on his hands to be better in 2021. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

WR Jerry Jeudy

Denver Broncos

Jeudy’s rookie season was at times trying. Drops and fumbles were the biggest bugaboos, although Denver’s unseemly quarterback situation certainly didn’t help.

Weeks 16 and 17 provided us some worry — and some hope — for Jeudy in Year 2.

In Week 16, he suffered a five-drop game in a 19-16 loss at the Chargers, catching six passes for 61 yards on 15 targets. In the season finale, he torched the Raiders for five catches (on seven targets) for 140 yards, a two-point conversion and the go-ahead TD before Vegas pulled it out late.

Part of Jeudy’s problems seemed to be concentration. Too often, he was trying to run after the catch … before he secured the catch. The good news is that he seems to recognize that and reportedly has had a very nice summer.

The QB situation remains underwhelming. However, even when you factor in Jeudy’s 10 drops with his 52-catch, 856-yard, three TD rookie season, it’s easy to realize how good he was outside of those drops — and how much better he should be this season, especially with Courtland Sutton back healthy and a slew of other young playmakers.

WR Michael Pittman Jr.

Indianapolis Colts

T.Y. Hilton might nominally be the Colts’ WR1, but it wouldn't be shocking if Pittman stole that mantle this season.

Of course, there are worries. This is a run-heavy offense. Carson Wentz arrives as a restoration project. And the Colts don’t seem to take a heavily tiered approach to their receivers as it feels more like a big committee where there might be three or four pass catchers capable of being a No. 1 on any given day.

That said, it’s hard not to be excited about Pittman’s potential growth.

He scored only once as a rookie but was held back significantly early on last season after the scary compartment leg syndrome he suffered in his calf early in Week 3. That pretty much wiped Pittman out for a month — and it’s surprising it wasn’t longer.

From Week 8 on, through the playoff loss to Buffalo, Pittman caught on. If all he does in Year 2 is keep up that pace as he did in those 10 games, Pittman would project to have an 875-yard season in 2021.

His ceiling is higher, and at the very least we’d expect more usage in the red zone this year. Pittman’s smooth-gliding style, terrific length and high-point ability could make him one of Wentz’s favorites. By my count, 70 of Wentz’s 113 TD passes in Philadelphia went to pass catchers who stood 6-foot-3 or taller.

WR Laviska Shenault

Jacksonville Jaguars

Stuck in a station-to-station offense that ranked near the bottom in explosive pass plays, Shenault did all he could as a rookie. Despite missing most of three games with a hamstring injury, he caught 58 passes for 600 yards and five scores, also running 18 times for 91 yards.

What impressed most about Shenault as a rookie was his consistency. Outside of the game against Houston where he suffered the injury, Shenault caught three or more passes in every week he played and finished.

The durability concerns likely remain until it’s proven he can stay healthy for an entire year. But if he can stay on the field, Shenault looks like a weapon who can thrive in this offense. 

Urban Meyer has always found ways to use multi-tool, multi-position threats such as him, and Shenault should see a major boost in QB play, too, going from the Three Blind Mice (Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton) to Trevor Lawrence.

Throws to Shenault last year resulted in a cumulative QB rating of 119. With a better offense around him, he can be even more productive as an NFL sophomore.

TE Adam Trautman

New Orleans Saints

For a Division III player, Trautman's adjustment to the NFL — even at a slower-developing position such as tight end — was impressive in Year 1. His receiving production (15 catches, 171 yards, TD) was modest. He did that on 16 targets and figures to earn a far bigger share (60-80 targets?) in Year 2 with Jared Cook gone.

Of course, so is Drew Brees. But the quiet part out loud is that Brees’ arm was shot by the end of last season. Jameis Winston has the arm, but does he have the consistency? That's one big concern, naturally. No one truly knows.

Winston always found his tight ends with regularity in Tampa Bay, even with such a gifted receiving group with the Bucs. In New Orleans, it’s basically Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Tre’Quan Smith and Trautman who could be doing the heavy lifting.

Trautman’s playing time steadily increased as a rookie, and he didn’t look out of place as a receiver or blocker. He should really surprise people this season with how well he plays, even with the question marks around him.

OL Robert Hunt

Miami Dolphins

As a rookie, Hunt started 11 games at right guard. There was some good and some bad.

Throughout the pre-draft process in 2020, almost every scout we asked about Hunt thought he’d make a better option inside. It appears that will be happening this season in Miami.

Although the team has not yet stated its plans for Hunt, all signs point to him moving to left guard. He last played there as a sophomore in college but has the build and athleticism that are ideal for the position.

Robert Hunt, left, could be a breakout player for the Miami Dolphins in 2021. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Robert Hunt, left, could be a breakout player for the Miami Dolphins in 2021. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The entire offensive operation could be better in Miami. There are more playmakers aboard. Tagovailoa is another year removed from hip surgery. The offensive line around Hunt should be better, too.

Hunt also has experience blocking for a left-handed quarterback, blocking for Louisiana’s Levi Lewis in college, and Hunt did so as a left tackle in the 2018 season before moving to the right side.

His nastiness is his best trait. Despite Hunt not routinely facing top competition in college, the NFL game didn’t look too fast or big for him. Now moving inside could really unlock his peak potential.

C Matt Hennessy

Atlanta Falcons

With Alex Mack moving on, Hennessy is the favorite to be the Falcons’ starting center. There could be competition from 2021 fourth-rounder Drew Dalman (a favorite of ours last draft cycle), but Hennessy has the edge.

The Falcons’ coaches have talked up his communication skills and preparedness this offseason. Hennessy reportedly was timid and quiet as a rookie, but another year of prep should serve the former Temple standout well.

He also seemed to struggle with the speed of interior rushers as a rookie in limited duty, starting two games and playing 225 snaps. Hennessy will need to clean up his penalties (four, including three holds) and master Arthur Smith’s new scheme.

Hennessy was regarded as one of the smartest, toughest centers in the 2020 draft class and should be ready for the challenge.

OL Ezra Cleveland

Minnesota Vikings

Another player switching spots appears to be Cleveland, who was thrown into the mix last season at right guard — a spot he wasn’t very familiar with. The results were uneven, although Cleveland appeared to improve and be trending upward by season’s end.

Once he settles in at left guard, his expected position this season, Cleveland could be ready to make a big jump. We’re talking about a player who athletically speaking fits the profile of a first-round talent. If he can clean up some little things in his game, including his pad level and hand placement, Cleveland should help lead this young offensive line.

He’s a highly athletic blocker, and yet his biggest issues seemed to be with his pass-blocking technique last season. The unfamiliar spot (after playing left tackle three years at Boise State) was the biggest reason.

Moving back to the left side could help unlock a lot of his movement skill in the pass game, and Cleveland already opened some eyes as a rookie with his better-than-expected run blocking.

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