We’ve talked so much about the roster building process, with a bevy of big-time trades, an interesting free agency period and maybe the deepest draft we have ever seen, thanks to the effects of the COVID-shorted 2020 college football season. Two weeks we started shifting our focus ahead to this fall, with my ranking of the teams most likely to go from worst to first inside each division, before I did a longer video on the most intriguing training camp battles, that I’ll have my eyes on. Now it’s time to analyze specific players, who I believe will reach new heights this year.
As has become an annual tradition, this list is focused on players about to enter their second or third season. They must have at least played to some degree in the NFL and not made the list last year already. Players don’t qualify for a breakout, if they’ve once reached 1000 rushing or receiving yards, were selected to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, as well as just being considered one of the best players at their respective position already.
For the purpose of this being original content, there won’t be any repeat candidates from my list last year, which included J.K. Dobbins, Irv Smith Jr. and Mekhi Becton among others, who all missed basically the entire season (Becton was the only one to at least play one game).
Somehow, I ended up with seven players on either side of the ball, which may be an odd number, but that’s what I came up with when deciding to dive deeper into the tape and statistics of these players. So here’s my list on offense:
Quarterback – Zach Wilson
When Trevor Lawrence put 44 points on Nick Saban’s Alabama defense in the National Championship as a true freshman three years ago, pretty much everybody watching that game knew he’d be the first overall pick when he’d eventually enter the draft. Zach Wilson certainly took a different path, as he wasn’t even looked at as a guy to come out as a junior in 2021, before his breakout season with BYU. I would say the hype got so large that he shot up all the way to the number two pick, but really I valued him as QB2 in that draft myself. Looking at the stat line Wilson put up in his rookie season, he certainly didn’t have the greatest debut campaign – 55.6% completion percentage, 2334 yards, nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions (13 games). Among quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts, he finished 32nd or 33rd in passer rating, QBR, net yards per attempt, DVOA and EPA – that one by a wide margin actually. And the numbers certainly aren’t flat-out lying, but we have to give some context to them, looking at injuries around the young signal-caller and the tape he put out there. Plus, then I’ll explain why I believe he’s in position to take a huge step forward in year two.
To start on a very serious note (unfortunately) – Wilson’ quarterback coach Greg Knapp was struck by a car and dies just days before 2021 training camp started. For a 21-year old to go from the middle of Utah to go to the bright lights of New York and lose the guy working to him the closest every single day, just on a personal level, that’s something I don’t think should be underestimated. During the actual season, the Jets were second by a significant margin (with only the Ravens ahead of them) in adjusted games lost (158.5) according to Football Outsiders, which estimates the impact of injuries on teams in a more integrated capacity – including the rookie QB himself. After missing four games in the middle of the season with a PCL sprain and taking one more game to get back into the groove, Wilson over the final six weeks scored eight touchdowns compared to only turning the ball over twice. That’s despite his top two receivers in Corey Davis and Elijah Moore not even finishing the first of those contests from that stretch and facing three of the top five scoring defenses, along with the Dolphins, who were as hot on that side of the ball at that point as any unit in the league.
Wilson had one truly horrific performance in his second game as a pro, when he tossed four interceptions and no touchdowns against the Patriots. However, as you look through his INT reel, the majority of those came on tipped passes by an underneath defender or his own receivers. And some of that was about somewhat pre-determining where he wanted to go before the snap or blindly transitioning to his second target, while the defenses may have dropped a defender into that area post-snap, but I’d say some bad luck was part of it as well. Wilson was comfortably dead-last in EPA versus man-coverage and took seven more sacks than anybody else in the league (25), despite facing the 18th-most man-coverage snaps (16.8 percent sack rate versus man). However, I would argue that was largely about the lack of receiving talent in New York, where you actively saw the quarterback have to pull down the ball, his feet getting antsy and him being forced to create secondary plays. Wilson was a lot better versus more static zone looks and even finding quick solutions against coverage rotations, which we should see more so as teams have to respect the run on early downs and they have weapons to win one-on-one more consistently, along with how much NFL teams transition to two-high safety shells philosophically. Nobody in the league had fewer than the Jets’ 380 rushing attempts, with Michael Carter Jr. as the only reliable player in the backfield, who had a strong stretch in the middle of the season, but then got banged up and was only used sporadically over the last month. Now they add an early second-round pick in Breece Hall from Iowa State, which should give them a much more potent backfield under Mike LaFleur, having brought along the Shanahan-style offensive scheme.
When he knows where to go before the snap, can just set his feet and fire the ball, Wilson is typically right on the money. I thought he showed impressive anticipatory skills versus zone coverage, hitting wideouts on deep curls/comebacks against off corners perfectly out of their breaks or drilling the ball into windows between second and third level, with a bunch of dagger and double-dig concepts. He loves to work from those reduced splits or stacks and finding leverage advantages, making those quick reads on underneath defenders, while already protecting his receivers from big hits pretty darn well with ball-placement. His passer rating in the red-zone of 105.4 passer rating (fourth-highest among all quarterbacks) illustrates that confidence to attack tight windows. Wilson has that Aaron Rodgers-esque flick of the wrist and can sort of side-arm throws, which makes him one of the best screen throwers already, with how deceptive he is at backing up and flipping it with his eyes getting to the target at the last second. Coming from a play-action heavy BYU offense, he’s not afraid of hanging deep with those longer-developing concept off those hard play-fakes, but I saw him get much better at finding his checkdowns, knowing where that target would be and rapidly flipping it out there, to bail out the offense late into reps. While the difference in amount of clean pockets from playing behind one of college’s top offensive lines was drastic for the young signal-caller, I’ve always thought that he has an innate feel for rush angles and how to extend plays, where he can really reduce that shoulder and navigate around pressure-points with those quick feet inside the pocket. Plus, when he does decide to tuck the ball and get upfield, he’s pretty elusive. His Pro Football Focus rushing grade of 86.8 speaks to that underrated athleticism.
I think the biggest areas of improvement for Wilson are largely based on adjusting to what he WILL have around him compared to his first season. His feet get happy on too many occasions when that first read versus man-coverage wasn’t there and he simply has to show more of a plan versus the blitz, which in his second year in the system, can he be better with having that solution ready instead of just coming up with one on the fly. I would certainly say that he lacks some maturity late into plays and that he needs to understand when to throw the ball away as the rush is closing in or not getting a little lazy with his mechanics, as he just flips it out there, which you also see with such naturally gifted throwers like Rodgers as well. However, with tenth overall pick Garrett Wilson from Ohio State as one of the most wicked one-on-one route-runners you see coming out of college, along with their top two WRs from last year back, maybe Denzel Mims finally becomes a thing after we hear him get praised for how he practices constantly, and a completely rehauled tight-end room, the aerial weaponry is on a completely different level now. And if Mekhi Becton is healthy, with how good Alijah Vera-Tucker looked like at left guard as a rookie and Pro Bowler Laken Tomlinson to slide into that opposite guard spot, having assembled this group of ass-kickers in the run game, Gang Green all of a sudden has the protection needed to confidently access those depths of their play-book. Wilson himself has been described as “beefy” by his head coach Robert Saleh, after adding 13 pounds of “healthy weight“ (now at 221) and he now has a full year to mentally comprehend a wordy, rather complicated playbook. The Jets face a brutal opening stretch to their season, but if they can come out of their bye week with a positive record, I could see them at least be in the hunt for a playoff spot and Wilson may account for 25+ touchdowns.
Quarterback – Trey Lance
Even after Zach Wilson had emerged as front-runner for the second overall pick in the 2021 draft, there was a lot of mystery about who the 49ers were targeting next, after trading a couple of first- and third-round picks in order to move up from there from nine spots. They ultimately went with Trey Lance, who wowed scouts at North Dakota State with his wild talent, combining for 42 touchdown and no interceptions as a true sophomore. Looking at the Bison system, in terms of moving the pocket in the bootleg game, reading out those longer-developing concepts and delivering big throws down the field, he had shown that he can make big-time throws in that environment, along with what he could add as an 1100-yard rusher. Still, with just under 200 career pass attempts in college, it was clear that veteran Jimmy Garoppolo would start the season for them and would have to do something to lose the job – which I’d say he left that window open early on. After throwing a touchdown on his first NFL pass week one against the Lions, when inserted in the red-zone, Lance ended up starting two-and-a-half games for San Francisco and carried the ball seven times additionally as a package-player. Overall, he completed 41 of 71 passes for 603 yards and five touchdowns versus two interceptions, along with 38 carries for 168 yards and another score. Even coming off an NFC title game appearance, it seemed liked the Niners were ready to move on from Jimmy G and trade talks were heating up in March, but once Garoppolo underwent shoulder surgery – sort of on his own timeline – those rumors started to disappear. Still, with the resources invested in Lance and some of the signs he flashed, I not only expected him to start, but also bring an element to the offense that they haven’t had.
Having re-watched the two-and-a-half games Lance started in year one, when he surprisingly filled in for Jimmy G in the second half of week four’s matchup with the Seahawks, the rookie produced nine first downs and two touchdowns on 25 combined pass and rush attempts, despite being thrown into the fire, after Garoppolo put up eight first downs and one TD on 23 pass attempts, with one of those ending in a brutal interception that set up their opponents in field goal range already. In his first official start the following week at then-undefeated Arizona, Lance saw three of his passes dropped despite being right on the money, yet if the Niners defense had been able to stop the Cardinals with just over four minutes left, they would have had a chance to put together a touchdown drive and send the game to overtime. The most promising signs however came in another fill-in spot in the penultimate game against Houston, when the offense produced 416 yards and they won by 16 points. Lance himself had a positive EPA of 0.172 EPA that day, which averaged over the course of the season would have ranked behind only MVP Aaron Rodgers (0.175). Diving even deeper into the numbers – When kept clean without pressure, Lance had the NFL’s highest yards per attempt, the second-highest average depth of target and the 11th-best quarterback rating (all better than Jimmy G), but when under pressure, his yards per attempt took a nose-dive to 45th overall (4.8 yards) and a QB rating in that same range. Yet, while he didn’t throw the ball enough to qualify for pro-football-reference.com ‘s metrics, if you included him with that group, his 7.7 air yards and 7.0 yards after the catch per completion respectively would have been 0.3 and 0.5 yards more than any other passer. The big difference in decision-making and how they want to attack between the two Niner QBs are the average 1.8 intended air yards more per attempt (9.3) for the then-rookie.
You can look at this being a feast-or-famine track record – and I’d agree that Lance’s game was fairly inconsistent, but in today’s NFL you need guys who can create explosive plays. This guy has no fear at all of hanging in the pocket to make those big throws down the field, unlike his predecessor, who would often just flip his hips and push the ball out there (only Jalen Hurts held onto the ball longer than Lance’s 2.6 seconds). And analyzing the two interceptions the rookie threw – both come off heavy play-action, once overthrowing Travis Benjamin on a 20-yard stop route (versus Arizona) whilst running up into the pocket, and then missing the hang defender on what he was probably told to blindly throw with George Kittle on a drag-and-up route off that deep post and crosser combination as a change-up to one of their staples (against Houston). He should have probably had another one on a post route later in that Texans game, but even that one, where he released the ball flat-footed and got hit in the face, he still managed to put it 50 yards downfield from his launch point. San Francisco clearly wanted to attack deeper down the field with their play-action game off option run action, where they would often motion Kyle Juszczyk across and had him secure one edge, off which they ran Shanahan classics , such as the double swirl concept. He can absolutely drill throws between the second and third level, creating velocity without having to strain a whole lot, and doesn’t shy away from fitting balls towards one shoulder of his receivers, even if there’s a defender all over the other one. They also have a quarterback now when they send somebody down the deep post and a crosser underneath that to attack single-high coverages, who’s actually willing to let it fly if defenses don’t respect the deep threat, instead of always blindly trusting that the crosser will be open.
And even when it’s not there at all, he can move around and allow guys to adjust their angles or turn those into secondary routes. Lance is twitchy with his movement inside the pocket, with one of the most slippery dips of his throwing shoulder to avoid pressure off the right edge and packing a nice spin move to get out the backdoor with pressure off the blindside. He runs up to the line of scrimmage with his eyes up to still fire the ball down the field, but can also make one quick move and beat linebackers towards the sideline as he darts through. The dimension Lance presents as a runner adds a new element to an already dominant rushing attack, and we saw Shanahan adapt more of the college-y play-designs. Not only did they run more RPOs, but they also called up some PROs, where the QB would decide based on how defenses reacted, if he gets the ball to one of his skill-players in motion or use the positive box counts to take a lane himself, with only one man on the second level. Particularly against Houston, they ran a lot of empty and if not for the right side of their O-lne getting killed all day – who should be backups this year – I would have really like what I saw. They also ran something similar to the counter-bash concept the Ravens love to call with Lamar Jackson, where they used kind of blocking scheme, which looks like a GT power for the quarterback, but they actually read the end-man on the backside and Lance hands the ball to the back working out wide, which Elijah Mitchell has the burst to get around the corner. Additionally, they ran it out of split backfield with Deebo Samuel and “Juice” to either side of Trey.
Looking at their zone versus man splits, Lance actually had similar issues versus man-/match-coverage, with a passer rating of just 69.1, while it sky-rocketed to 139.3 against zone principles. When he was able to just wait out concepts and then could fire the ball into open windows, he was really impressive, but anticipating pressure pre-snap still needs improvement and he didn’t seem particularly comfortable sitting inside the pocket, too often running himself into trouble. Something he’ll have to work on with his QB coach is eliminating some of that unnecessary movement, which led to general accuracy and some wobbly passes, instead of setting up YAC opportunities, for an offense that heavily relies on it. Too often he would throw it behind one of his guys on slip routes of bootlegs and even put WR screens a little target, while heavily relying on power throws and putting too much force on that front-foot. And throwing on the run, he would regularly release the ball with his feet crossed. However, I would argue those issues are much easier correctable and the positives he brings to the table, far outweigh that. Lance went from a one-year starter in the FCS and to now probably the most creative offensive play-caller in the NFL. Obviously, Kyle Shanahan has done a great job to maximize what his quarterbacks can do, but looking at the guys who have had success under him, all of those were veterans, who had time to engrain themselves into the system. So having to learn such an expansive and word-heavy offense must have been a challenge. That’s not even taking into account how he could transform this already tremendous rushing attack and change the math, with the plus one he presents in terms of box counts, what it allows Shanahan to do in terms of being even more creative and just how that threat of him affects what defenses the Niners will be facing. They will have a tough time surpassing a final four appearance, but I’d expect this offense to be a lot more exciting to watch.
Running back – Javonte Williams
When the Broncos traded up five spots at the top of the second round (to 35 overall), in order to select this North Carolina running back, despite having Melvin Gordon in his second season of a two-year, 16-million dollar contract, a lot of people were surprised. Yet, once the rookie hit the field and flashed his talents, almost everybody was calling for him to take over lead duties for this team. Williams and Gordon actually carried the ball exactly 203 times, with the veteran gaining 15 more than Williams’ 903 yards and doubling his four touchdowns. However, the rookie ended up catching all 15 of his additional targets for over 100 yards more (316) and he gained seven more total first downs (64) for the whole year. Denver did bring back Gordon on a one-year, 2.5-million dollar deal, but looking at what the young phenom was able to do when given more opportunities, he figures to be in line for a more extensive workload.
Once more, comparing Williams and Gordon to each other, their 2.2 yards before and 2.3 yards after contact were flipped respectively, which speaks to the fact that the second-year man could still become more efficient with subtle movement in tight spaces to set up run plays for himself. His ability to make more dramatic plants, point the toe to bounce out wide and kind of dip and weave as he operated around penetration is already impressive, but coming from a North Carolina offense that primarily run inside/outside zone and basic GT power, he’s still working on maximizing his run lanes from a conceptual perspective and pacing his approach, unless it’s about pressing and hitting hard cutbacks. If it’s just about getting one defender leaning the wrong way behind a block, he can already do that at a pretty high level. With that being said, those numbers are also indicative of what he can create individually, particularly with his ability to string moves together, his unreal contact-balance and leg-drive to just bounce off or plow through defenders. In his debut campaign, Williams forced 63 missed tackles on 203 rushing attempts (according to Pro Football Focus), which was just two short of the league’s leader in that category in Jonathan Taylor, who carried the ball 129(!) additional times, and 14 other players did take more handoffs altogether. In fact, the rookie’s MTKL rate of 31 percent was the highest mark since Marshawn Lynch in 2014. I don’t believe he quite has the burst to consistently threaten defenses around the edge, illustrated by the fact his worst EPA per attempt came on outside zone last season (-0.67), but he packs a wicked straight-arm to push off pursuit defenders and he has the power to pull through swinging arms, if the front is caved in, which at that point no corner in the league will want to tackle this guy.
Going through this past season, the usage of Denver’s running backs in the pass game was actually rather surprising, considering the aforementioned extra receiving production Williams had over his veteran running mate in the backfield. A huge part of why the rookie was so involved on later downs was due to the fact the Broncos trusted him in protection. At 5’10”, 220 pounds, Williams is very solidly built and packs a good punch to take the steam off blitzing linebackers or push overzealous free rushers past the arc. There’s some room to perfect his aiming points, consistently taking the right step-up angles and working inside-out, but for such a young back, he’s already pretty damn good and saw that action over an established pass-protector in Gordon. More tangible is the receiving production Williams was able to amass in year one, as he hauled in 43 of 53 targets for 7.3 yards per, despite catching the ball 0.6 yards behind(!) the line of scrimmage on average. There were lots of check-releases, if his man didn’t blitz and swing routes, along with a few option routes, where he showed some burst coming out of those 90-degree breaks, and delayed screen passes. He may not be proven working downfield in that regard, but he really presents himself as an attractive target, has plucky hands even when the ball’s not right on the numbers (just three drops) and once the catch is secured, he becomes a tough tackle in space. Even if twisted off balance, can spin out of it and at least propel himself forward. Peaking back at the 2020 season, when Chris Carson and Russell Wilson were both fully healthy in Seattle, Seahawks running backs were targeted a total of 98 times. That’s the year we saw them open up the passing offense most and while Russ may not be overly comfortable trying to fit balls into tight windows over the middle – particularly later into the play-clock – his backs do benefit from the touchdown-to-checkdown he brings to the table, particularly when presenting themselves as options after clearing the line of scrimmage off play-action. And while I wouldn’t expect this offense to look like the one new head coach Nathaniel Hackett was part of in Green Bay the last three years, the fact that their top two backs averaged 104.3 targets over that stretch is obviously another positive sign.
With the trade for a true franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson, paired with new head coach Nathaniel Hackett orchestrating an offense built around his strengths, Williams should face a lot more favorable looks to run against. Unlike Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock, Russ can take advantage of all the receiving weapons at his disposal, forcing defenses to keep two safeties high so he can’t just work those one-on-one alerts with Courtland Sutton on the backside and having to bracket guys like Jerry Jeudy in the slot, who’ll take on the role of Tyler Lockett, where he and his new QB adjust the break-point of the route off play-action based on the leverage of deep coverage defenders. Looking at Seattle’s offensive numbers over the last decade, outside of the first two years without Marshawn Lynch (2016 and ’17), when the Hawks were desperately looking for a solution in the backfield and Wilson actually led them in rushing over that stretch, as the only one to crack 500 yards in a season, the team has averaged between 4.3 and 5.3 yards per rush every year. And looking at the total numbers through those four years Russ had with Marshawn compared to the past four, the team actually averaged 0.06 yards more per carry (4.79) over the latter portion of it and they had five players with at 400 yards on the ground over that stretch, when the offense was more built around “letting Russ cook”, even if the coaching regime still opted for inefficient early-down run calls. The Broncos did include a former first-round pick in tight-end Noah Fant in the trade for Russell Wilson, but they still have Albert Okwuegbunam and drafted UCLA’s Greg Dulcich in the second round of the draft. Those guys may not be real pluses in terms of in-line blockers, but they are serious threats down the seams, which will force defenses to sub in an extra safety instead of a linebacker largely.
So whether it’s what Williams put on display individually, how he repaid his coaching staff when they started trusting him more, even with Melvin Gordon back, the limited financial resources now allocated to him and how Russ Wilson could transform the offense, presenting light boxes and lots of room to run on checkdowns, as they stretch the defense vertically, I’m very excited to see how he can increase his production in year two. In his one actual start last season at Kansas City, Williams was cut loose, touching the ball 29 times for 178 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. And he was able to produce at that kind of level, despite not cracking 60 percent of offensive snaps in any other contest. Yet, with how reliable he was on passing downs already, the fact he fumbled just once per 123 touches, that he got better once he was able to build some momentum and only just turned 22 in late April, I’m expecting a big season from him. I believe around 1800 scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns are not off the table at all.
Wide receiver – Gabriel Davis
After we’ve talked about a couple of highly-regarded draft prospects at quarterback going number two and three overall, along with an early second-round running back, I want to now shift the focus to the 128th overall pick in the fourth round of 2020 NFL Draft. Gabriel Davis saw an impressive ascent throughout his time at UCF, where his receptions, yards, per-catch average and touchdown significantly rose all three years, before coming out as a junior (72 catches for 1241 yards and 12 touchdowns that year). While he did produce right away as a rookie, I think the public is finally catching onto him now. Somewhat surprising to me as well, Davis’ snap percentage actually decreased quite significantly from his rookie to his second season (73 to 51%), which was largely based on the addition of veteran Emmanuel Sanders and missing one game. However, over the final six contests he was available for (including their two playoff games), he logged 83% or more all but once (when they blew out the Patriots by 30 points in the Wildcard Round). And just looking at the regular season numbers, despite 226 fewer offensive snaps compared to 2020, Davis produced basically the exact same stat line (62 targets, 35 catches for 599 yards and seven touchdowns vs. 63-35-549-6), while 46 of his targets came over the final eight contests. Of course his big breakout moment came in that incredible Divisional Round back-and-forth with the Chiefs, when he hauled in eight of ten targets for 201 yards and four(!) TDs. Other than that, he reached 48 or more yards just twice on the year. In year three, that may just be his baseline on a weekly basis.
Unlike Stefon Diggs, who is a very dynamic route-runner and has been a highly productive number one receiver for Josh Allen, as he’s entered the superstar quarterback club, Davis is a guy who stands out physically above the rest in Buffalo. At 6‘2“, 210 pounds, Davis’ ability to win as a big-bodied vertical threat is what made him an intriguing mid-round draft prospect. And as you look at the numbers through two years, that’s pretty much what he has been as a pro. Even with his average depth of target decreasing from 15.2 as a rookie to 13.3 in year two, he still eighth league-wide in that category. Last season, he hauled in nine of 17 red-zone targets and ranked tenth in contested catch (success) rate at 58.3%. Davis has dropped eight of 78 catchable targets, but he’s also converted an absurd rate of his receptions into first downs, with 27 and 29 respectively on 35 catches each. So I’d say he’s made most of his opportunities in game situations, but by all reports, he’s put in a lot of great work behind the scenes, which is why we’ve seen that growth as an all-around receiver. His quarterback backed that up following their Divisional Round loss to Kansas City, when he said “(Davis) didn’t complain, he didn’t pout, he didn’t give up. He just put his head down and worked his (butt) off.”
As successful as Davis has been as a vertical target, there’s more nuance to his game than the broadcast view may reveal all the time. Heading into year three, I think he’s significantly improved his footwork to create an angle for himself down the sideline, hitting some excellent diamond-releases, plus then he has the strength to straighten his route back up and work through contact, as corners try to erase that space towards the white paint. He understands how to change up his releases based on the leverage of press-defenders and when he’s just responsible to run them off on pick-plays and play-action crossers underneath him. Then off that, he can really sell the take-off, make corners flip their hips and then stop his momentum exceptionally well for such a big guy, to create separation on curl routes and others. Davis is really good at pushing up to safeties and presenting an attractive target on deep digs, where he runs through the grab without having to slow down, yet he can also snatch high passes out of the air with those large mitts. His strength is apparent when defenders get too far onto their toes trailing him and he shoves them off to the ground frequently, but then he also shows finesse in his awareness for and ability to work the sideline on the scramble drill. As he showed on that one-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, catching a skinny post route off heavy play-action – once he gets rolling, he can run by the corner and safety if the latter stays flat-footed. That play really changed around the momentum in that contest, as the Chiefs had just gone up by more than a touchdown for the first time on the day. Plus, he can gear down momentarily and hit a trigger step to get defenders to freeze, which he displayed on a wicked stutter post for the final Bills TD that day.
At this point I feel the need to also talk about Davis as a blocker. I loved what former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll with him as a big slot, where he frequently took smaller DBs for a ride and got ball-carriers. He did so on several occasions in the Saints game. They legitimately have lined him up at the tip of tight bunch sets and pin D-end or linebackers inside. Overall, Davis is just a valuable asset near the point of attack in the run game, motioning him up to the tight-end or just controlling nickels and safeties, along with shielding guys on the back-side with his big frame. And because of what he can bring in that regard, it makes him even more dangerous off play-action, when he does push down the field, while defenders have their eyes in the backfied. With Ken Dorsey being elevated to OC, I’d expect to see #13 inside on more than just a quarter of his snaps, looking at the recent trend of power slots. Even if the combination of veteran Jamison Crowder and fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir from Boise State, who I called a major steal in the draft, largely replaces Cole Beasley’s role at a 19.3% target share, Emmanuel Sanders’ 5.1 targets per game are up for grabs, to add to Davis’ average at just below four. I personally believe Davis will see a more extensive job and be asked to run a more diverse route tree in 2022.
Now, there’s a little too much wasted movement and arm-pumping going on at times off the line, trying to break underneath DBs shaded inside and he actually does too good a job of getting the initial release when he has to ultimately break against the leverage of his man at times, allowing that guy to re-enter the picture. Because he’s more of a glider, you don’t want him to run a ton of intricate routes, where he has to start and stop multiple times, but he can do more than we’ve seen so far. You want Davis working on that vertical plane as outside receiver, where he’s already a problem on post routes, as he adjusts his initial stem based on split and rest of the concept, but then if he can’t beat safeties with his speed, he can still come down with those jump-balls over them. As he and Josh Allen continue to hone in that connection, with more first-team reps, a higher frequency back-shoulder balls should be on the menu, if teams decide to bracket Diggs and leave one of those corners one-on-one at the sideline. Along with that, I want to see them expand on Davis’ deployment in condensed sets, to make use of his blocking abilities and then work deep crossers, post and corner routes off play-action. While the spotlight may be more so on the young wideout, the addition of Georgia running back James Cook in the second round of the draft, opponents will have to respect the home-run threat he is fundamentally and how him being able to legitimately split out wide spreads the field even more. With the improvements I’ve seen from him basically every year since he started his college career, Davis could be a highly productive receiver for a team that threw the ball more than all but three others. I would not be shocked if he was flirting with the 1000-yard mark, as a second guy on that offense.
Wide receiver – Rashod Bateman
This was my WR4 in the 2021 draft and was selected as the fifth one off the board at 27th overall. Based on his 2019 season at the University of Minnesota, he would have probably gone even higher, when now-Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson was more so the jump ball guy and big-bodied possession receiver, while Bateman delivered more big plays, converting his 60 receptions into just over 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns. The following year he initially opted out due to COVID concerns, but ultimately did come in 20 pounds heavier (210) than previously and didn’t seem to have the same juice. He ended up going back to the 190-range, but teams were a little concerned about his explosiveness to consistently separate at the next level. The preparation for his rookie season did not go as expected, as he suffered a groin injury, that ended up needing surgery and costing him all of August and September. He did officially play in 12 games, but clearly was working his way back early on, after missing the first five weeks, and didn’t log more than 70 percent of offensive snaps until the final four, when he averaged 86%. Altogether, he hauled in 46 of 68 targets for 515 yards, but only one touchdown. Now hopefully with an offseason at full health, I think he’s primed for a breakout sophomore campaign.
Even with the knowledge about Bateman’s lack of opportunities, he was an affect pass-catcher for a Baltimore offense, which was scored 112.5 points less than what they had averaged the previous two seasons, with Lamar being a full-time starter, while at 8-9 they finished with their first losing record since 2015 as a team. On 46 total receptions, the rookie wideout picked up 29 first downs and he dropped only two catchable passes. That’s despite an underwhelming average depth of target of 8.8 yards for the season, which is nearly five yards(!) less than his average in college. And considering he was just 68th in the NFL in total routes run – which once again he was trying to work his way into the offense, which was led by two different QBs – Bateman still managed to wind up 46th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), which takes into account the value provided by a player and looks at how many yards they generated over a replacement-level guy. That number may not blow anybody away, but given the context of his usage, finishing of names like Diontae Johnson, D.J. Moore, and now-former Raven Marquise Brown is a positive sign. Almost purely lining up as an outside receiver early on, as he was being incorporated into the offense, I thought he did show that he can be moved all over the formation and be featured in a significant fashion down the stretch.
Watching Bateman execute a fairly basic route tree, what stood out to me was how he’d consistently sell vertically and forced his man to flip and run, allowing him to get open all the time when snapping off hitches and curls. He can vary his footwork off the line, particularly implementing split releases to give himself a two-way go, and keep defenders off balance when he’ll stick his foot in the ground to make his break. Plus, he’s already very good at incorporating different speeds to his routes and attacking the blind-spots of defenders. When his man was slightly shaded towards the direction he wanted to release, you saw Bateman jump in- or outside initially and then get around the defender, to create an angle for himself. Especially when allowed to operated out of the slot, I thought Bateman already showcased plus awareness for open space versus zone and drifting towards it or choosing areas to sit down into. I love the way he pushes towards safeties from inside alignments and how he puts them on islands, just like he did at Minnesota, before breaking inside deep on dig and post routes. Number 12 chooses his break angles and even slightly adjusts them, to not allow DBs to undercut his routes usually, while being elusive with not getting hung up with zone defenders and making those subtle adjustments on the fly. Bateman addresses the football consistently well, using the triangle-technique with extended arms and shows the strong hands to hold onto it through hits. He made several nice grabs on passes below his waist on quick in-breakers or shallow crossers, whilst approaching traffic, yet he also has the ball-tracking and body-positioning to haul in 50-50 and underthrown balls down the field, staying focused with the ball arriving over one shoulder. That’s how he finished fifth among all NFL receivers in contested catch rate according to PlayerProfiler (63.6%). Bateman seems to have eyes in the back of his head, to work around defenders after securing catches on routes back towards the quarterback, with quick upfield turns. In the run game, he does well to give a little move off the line and then actually driving his man backwards, particularly from reduced splits, but he also breaks down in space well and doesn’t allow his man to just run by him.
Looking at the difference in circumstances coming into year two, there should be a lot more opportunities based on the rest of the receiver room and the confidence the organization has shown to build the passing attack much more around him, along with just being able to work with his quarterback. When the Arizona Cardinals called during the first round of the NFL draft and offered the 23rd overall pick for Baltimore’s most productive wide receiver Marquise Brown (coming off his first 1000-yard season), they jumped on that opportunity, before having to discuss a contract extension. The departures of him and Sammy Watkins leave behind 31.9% of the WR target share from last year’s team. And despite making eleven selections in the draft, none of those were used on that position (not saying that I agree with that strategy), while adding two of my top-six available tight-ends. You combine that with Ravens going from two straight years of just 44% passing on offense to 56.4% last season, which certainly was part in due to losing their top three running backs before the season even kicked off, but also despite not having Lamar Jackson for the final five weeks. I’m sure Bateman was able to create some chemistry with Tyler Huntley, but getting a full offseason to work with Lamar, who until first missing time had an underrated passing season, and hopefully having a full 17 games with him, should be big for him. Last season he only got to work with his QB1 in those first five contests after the receiver came off IR and was still working his way back from the groin injury. Their backfield looking a lot more dynamic in 2022 could certainly mean a re-focusing on the rushing attack, but that should also force defenses to deploy additional resources in the box and create one-on-ones for their receivers fundamentally. In terms of how defenses have to prepare through the week leading up to their games, they have to spend a lot of time on learning rules to defend a complex Greg Roman rushing offense instead of being able to focus on an pretty elementary passing attack. And finally, they were league-average in the percentage of play-action passes on early downs, after being number one the previous two seasons, as they make it very difficult for opponents with how they layer the play-action game with the ground game.
If I had to point out where Bateman is somewhat limited, I’d say he can’t quite stack corners and detach from them on go routes. His longest catch of the season 36 yards was one of few times, where he actually got a step on his man down the sideline. The Ravens don’t have Hollywood Brown or anybody with that kind of skill-set as a vertical threat on that offense anymore, to create space. So that’s the one concern I really have with this guy coming into year two, where he’s expected to be the clear number one (wide) receiver. Still, there are several factors that have me believing in a breakout campaign. Projecting how Bateman’s role and usage may change in his second season, I would expect him to nearly double the amount of targets of any other WR, while Mark Andrews remains a featured weapon at tight-end. Unlike in 2021, when he 81.7% of his routes were run from the outside, the coaching staff will be looking to move him around the formation, to make him the primary read in the pattern. Whether that’s putting him on the backside of RPOs on a glance route, attack the middle of the field as they isolate him with safeties in the slot or also featuring him more vertically now that Hollywood is in Arizona, particularly off the play-action game. Bateman was already was a first down mover and should remain that, but more opportunities to create big plays should be in line for him. One other factor why I like what he can bring to his aerial attack, based on Lamar’s ability to get outside the pocket and creating secondary plays – despite being such a young player, Bateman rapidly realizes when his route is dead based on timing and executing take-off assignments, working back down the ladder or just finding space along the sideline for his QB to put the ball into a safe place.
Tight-end – Cole Kmet
In one of the weaker classes in terms of top-end talent, Kmet was the first tight-end off the board in the 2020 draft at 43rd overall. I personally had him just behind former Dayton standout and now-Saints TE Adam Trautman, who I put on this list a year ago and still like, if he doesn’t have to fight some nicks and bruises with more consistent quarterback play this season. Yet, at this point it seems obvious that Kmet has the clearer path to being involved as a receiver considering how things are set up in Chicago. While I wasn’t blown away with anybody specific that he showed on tape, I thought his physical style of play was apparent throughout his evaluation, whether it was as a route-runner, ball-carrier or blocker at Notre Dame. I don’t think people realize that Kmet more than doubled his receiving totals from his first to second season, going from hauling in 28 of 43 targets for 243 yards and two touchdowns to catching 60 of 93 targets for 612 yards, but weirdly no TDs, as his snap percentage shot up from 56 to 83%. Other than the one touchdown this veteran was able to score, those per-game numbers were actually better than Allen Robinson, who played in 12 contests. While this is asking for another significant uptick in production, I think Kmet is slated to become an even more integral piece to the Bears offense.
The one head-scratching number for Kmet last season were his zero touchdowns. Considering the fact Chicago finished the year 27th in total points scored and 16 touchdowns came through the air (29th), that mark becomes less noteworthy. Still, three other tight-ends on that team alone were able to reach the end-zone at least once, with Jimmy Graham coming in just one TD short of the team-lead at four (set by Darnell Mooney). Kmet did see 12 targets in the red-zone (and hauled in half of those), but on the ones that actually were aimed at the end-zone, the play-design of Matt Nagy and Bill Lazor particularly in that area of the field was pretty questionable, ending in floaters towards the back-line regularly. And with Graham’s contract not extended, his eight more red-zone targets will be are up for the taking. So positive regression in this category is to be expected. Chicago actually used two other tight-ends in Graham and Jesse James for about 23.5% each, while Kmet was typically the guy working deeper down the field in the pass game on seams/benders, over and corner routes, showing that willingness to attack intermediate level. He had a 94.8 receiving grade on medium depth targets (10-19 yards downfield), which perfectly plays to one of Field’s passing strengths (78.1 medium passing depth grade). And looking at Kmet’s drop percentage of 7.4% of catchable targets so far in his career, that mark is in line or better than most of the big-name guys at the position.
In the pass game, Kmet showcases good burst off the line, he’s a pretty fluid mover and has the flexibility to move all across the formation. I really like his route pacing and ability to set up his breaks in general, where you saw him at times work out of the slot and beat inside-shaded linebackers or safeties cleanly on slant routes. He does a nice job of evading hook or hash defenders and slowing down in that soft spot up to the safety on vertical routes or breaking off deeper curls. We saw the Bears line him up as the de facto X-receiver in a reduced split of three-by-one sets, where he showed good awareness for working that space between the corner and safety against two-high shells and actually beat perimeter cover-guys pretty effectively inside and out, creating advantages for himself with the way he stemmed his routes. So Kmet has shown the ability to create separation in a multitiude of ways, plus when you put the ball in his hands, he’s a non-nonsense type of player, who’ll get upfield instantly and gain yards through contact. He’s not the type of guy who’ll make defenders flat-out miss or fully break tackles (only four on 60 catches last season) a whole lot, but he does spin and pull himself forward pretty consistently. Including Allen Robinson, five of the top-eight leaders in targets for Chicago in 2021 are no longer on the team, which frees up 185 combined targets between those. The only player the Bears certainly want to involve in the offense based on capital invested is third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. from Tennessee, who was a YAC and return specialist, rather than a refined route-runner. Looking at the veteran additions they’ve made, Byron Pringle is the “big” name here, who they brought in on a one-year, four-million dollar contract. The four other signees in Tajae Sharpe, David Moore, Dante Pettis and Equanimeous St. Brown are all there for almost exactly a million bucks each this year and aren’t currently considered long-term pieces to this attack.
We don’t know exactly what the scheme of new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy will look like, but expecting him to take elements of Green Bay’s plan of attack, we did see their tight-end Robert Tonyan nearly crack 600 yards and 11 touchdowns two years ago, in a very beneficial role, that allowed him to catch the ball with space to run. He can slip through traffic as he’s assigned with Over routes or sneak underneath the formation on bootlegs. The Bears former coaching staff trusted him in one-on-one pass-protection against true edge rushers, where he displayed nice lateral movement and an understanding of the pocket depth. Plus, they used him on chips off the line, at times in split backfield sets, where he then becomes a viable threat leaking out and adjusting to those check-downs tremendously well when slightly off target. Evaluating what Kmet was asked to do in college, he was already familiar with a pretty diverse set of blocking duties as part of Notre Dame’s rushing attack. He can really widen the C-gap by attacking the near pec of edge defenders and driving his feet through contact at the point of attack working in line, but he’ll also gladly do the dirty work of trapping D-tackles or cutting backside ends down low on split zone concepts. In Nagy’s mixture between 12 personnel packages and spread formations, he’s been a major plus in the quick screen game, with his ability to snatch up DBs in space and provide his teammates with room to operate. There’s just an understanding angles and timing of blocking schemes at an advanced macro level, where often times you see him just managing to put his body in the way of guys on the backside on seal-offs. The same is true when working on combos with the tackle on lead/power plays, when to peel off and cutting off the angle for the linebacker behind it. The Bears should only expand on that under Getsy, while we already saw them use him offset, to be able to move him across pre-snap and change up the look a little bit.
If there’s one area that Kmet certainly needs to improve upon, it’s his ability to shield passes with his frame at arrival and finish plays, as the catch point is disrupted. He saw too many balls jarred loose when addressing the football in tight areas, not actually extending or “properly” body-catching, but rather using kind of an underhand technique. Stick and hook routes especially should have been a lot more prosperous. And overall, I’d say he could attack the ball more in the air, which he flashes when he needs to, but not consistently enough. While he does well to turn his head as he enters voided areas, he has to understand better when they’ve been surpassed and he needs to get into a secondary route or sit down beforehand, as he and his second-year quarterback continue to work on their chemistry. Looking at Fields’ passing splits in the intermediate area, the fact he was just 0.1 intended air years behind Russell Wilson for the lead-league and about 30 percent of his throws off play-action going at least 28 yards through the air (nobody else even cracked 20%), you know he will utilize this big-bodied weapon vertically. However, with their new OC coming over from Green Bay and the lack of weaponry at wide receiver, I’d expect the play-calling being intended to take pressure off the young signal-caller, by presenting easy dump-offs to his tight-ends off the boot game, slipping him into the flats and peeling off, as they fake jet sweeps to Mooney or Jones Jr. And certainly, more beneficial red-zone targets shoulder be underway for Kmet, which is where he may add six to eight touchdowns, plus another 200 yards.
Offensive tackle – Penei Sewell
Finally for this offensive portion of the breakout players, I want to shift my focus to the offensive line. Lions general manager Brad Holmes and the rest of that draft room understood how lucky they got for Oregon’s Penei Sewell to “fall” to them with the seventh overall pick (which was significant to me, since he was my number two overall prospect), as we saw him give head coach Dan Campbell an enthusiastic hug and slap on the tables around him once they got off the phone with their new standout on the O-line. As a true sophomore, who only just turned 19 years old, Sewell received the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in all of college football, before deciding to opt out of the COVID-marked 2020 season. With a late arrival to OTAs, after already missing rookie minicamps, due to ultimately getting infected with the virus anyway, he had missed nearly one-and-a-half years of football altogether. Yet, he ended up starting every single game other than the season-finale against Green Bay and he missed just four offensive snaps up to that point, splitting his starts evenly between left and then right tackle. Based on any metrics you look at, he had a highly successful debut campaign in the NFL, but a fellow rookie in Rashawn Slater outclassed him with an All-Pro nod. Since Sewell is the highest-graded OT prospect I’ve personally evaluated in the last ten years (which my process and scouting abilities have certainly improved drastically), I expect him to be even better and perennially compete for those high-level accolades.
Looking at the box score for offensive linemen, if you will, Sewell was responsible for five sacks, 35 total pressures and six holding penalties (two declined and one offset). He was also called five times for false starts, which might have had something to do with their coaches asking guys up front being asked to fire off the ball, indicated by fellow tackle Taylor Decker and tight-end T.J. Hockenson were flagged four times themselves, despite playing seven and four games fewer respectively. That may be something Detroit wants to fix in terms of their snap cadence, but probably also an individual adjustment that needs to be made. Regardless, looking at how Pro Football Focus regard Sewell, he receiving an overall grade of 82.4 and posted the best run blocking mark of any rookie offensive tackle in the past 12 years at 85.1. In their ranking of the Top 101 Players from 2021, he came in as the 66th-best player in the entire league (12th among OTs). That’s quite significant, considering the period of time he didn’t play any football and the fact he was asked to play on both sides of the line, with shortened preparation time. So it’s only logical that he’s at least set up for an even better performance in year, with the natural talent he brings to the table.
This guy is a rare breed of athlete, just looking at what his body looks like at 6’5”, 330 pounds. His overall movement skills are elite. Evaluating his tape at Oregon, the way he was able to reach-block wide-nine techniques and de-cleat cornerbacks in the screen game was mind-blowing. And we saw those skills translate to the pro level already, when looking at his run-blocking process. Sewell presents excellent agility to scoop-block B-gap defenders on the backside of zone run plays or seal guys away from the action in general. He brings the power to allow ball-carriers to press the frontside on off-tackle runs, as well as drive three-techniques into the lap of the linebacker on combo-blocks with his guard(s). At the same time, he’s aware enough to approach wide alignments with patient steps and is smooth with peeling off to the second level. Sewell provides the force to open up big lanes for guys to wrap around as he caves in defenders inside of him, as well as the athleticism to lead up the hole himself on GT power concepts. And he’s such an easy mover in space, when you look at him taking out safeties and even corners in the screen game. His kick-slide is almost effortless and rarely allows defenders to gain an angle attacking the edges of his frame. You see him really snatch up defenders and completely shut down their rush when he hands those hands inside their chest, while having the core strength to easily swallow bull-rush attempts and deny guys trying to crash through the inside shoulder. You also see that when guys slide over his way late or they bang into him trying to set up twists.
There was a lot of variance for Detroit’s offense during the 2021 season, implementing a new system, making a mid-season change at coordinator from Anthony Lynn to Ben Johnson and their head coach himself being heavily involved and several injuries forcing them to shuffle around guys. However, the one switch they made which actually ending up helping them was moving Sewell from left to right tackle, once Taylor Decker came back from injury. Only one of the five sacks allowed by Sewell came over the latter eight games he started on the right side, while the Lions rushing yards per game increased from 93.1 to 130.1. That’s despite their top two running backs each missing a good four games during and their starting quarterback Jared Goff also not being available for three contests, who doesn’t provide much as a threat pulling the ball or forcing defenses to back up with deep bombs anyway. The most impressive performance for Sewell actually probably came in his first contest at right tackle against the Steelers, when he faced reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt on the majority of snaps until that guy got banged up, yet he didn’t surrender a single QB pressure all game long. That coincidentally was also the first week the Lions didn’t lose, as that contest ended in a tie, before they’d go on to win three of their final eight games, reaching 29 points or more on four different occasions, after they hadn’t cracked since trying to put together a furious comeback in the season-opener against San Francisco.
In terms of areas Sewell still needs to get better at, I’d say overall his weight distribution and hand-usage in the passing game are teaching points, to maximize his sturdy base, by baiting the hands of edge rushers and forcing them to work through his center. A couple of times I saw him turn his shoulders a little too much against guys that really worked that speed to the outside, when he could have stayed square longer and then flipped to ride them past the quarterback. With that being said, his fundamentals actually looked better by quite a bit than what I last saw from him at Oregon, and he’s always been an ass-kicker in the run game, where his athletic ability provides his play-callers schematic versatility, whether you put him at the point of attack or on the backside. As Sewell continues to hone in his craft, with a full offseason and all 17 games at the right tackle spot, I think he could easily enter that All-Pro conversation. While the Lions aren’t slated for any primetime games currently, there should be more attention on Detroit, with their projected win total up from 4.5 to 6.5 this upcoming season. With two legitimate vertical weapons on the perimeter in veteran D.J. Chark and first-round pick Jameson Williams from Alabama slated to return mid-season from a torn ACL, they should now force defenses to stay in more two-high shells and give a fully healthy backfield positive box looks to run against, with D’Andre Swift being a prime candidate to live up to my nomination of him as a breakout candidate in 2021.
Other names I considered:
QB Trevor Lawrence
RB Cam Akers
RB Eno Benjamin
WR Jerry Jeudy
WR Rondale Moore
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
TE Brevin Jordan
TE Tommy Tremble
OT Christian Darrisaw
IOL Lloyd Cushenberry III