AFC breakout players in 2021
By: Martin Williams
With each of the 32 organizations looking ahead to the 2021/22 season and how they can improve on the rosters they already have, they will also be looking within at players currently signed.
Here we take an early look at some of the AFC’s potential breakthrough players for the new season, whether that’s someone that opted out or a gun player that showed promise when given the chance in 2020.
Buffalo Bills – Zach Moss (RB)
In his rookie season, Moss played second fiddle to lead back Devin Singleterry but showed signs that he’s an exciting prospect. Drafted in the third round, like Singleterry was the year before, he ran for 481 yards in the regular season, getting to the end zone four times, including twice in their divisional match against the New England Patriots in week eight.
With Josh Allen under center, the Bills are a pass-first team but expect Moss to get more snaps and play more of a role as a pass-catcher next year.
Miami Dolphins – Tua Tagovailoa (QB)
The fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, Tagovailoa came in to the league with a big reputation having excelled at college, but failed to produce the sort of performances that many hoped. Tua threw for 1,814 yards across 10 appearances, but more importantly failed to gain the trust of the head coach in the snaps that he took.
There’s already rumours of Miami trading away the Alabama graduate, but if he stays, he’ll be one to keep an eye on. If they can add more weapons on offence, I’m expecting him to live up to his college reputation.
New England Patriots – Josh Uche (LB)
Linebacker Uche impressed in his rookie season for the Patriots having been drafted in the second round. Despite missing games through injury, in the nine outings he made, he was disruptive with one sack and multiple QB pressures.
He could well be the starting outside linebacker next season, but can move across the line, and at 22 years old, he’ll continue to improve.
New York Jets – Denzel Mims (WR)
Mims went with the 59th pick in the draft, but due to injury didn’t play a snap until week seven. Despite not getting in to the end zone, it’s hard to judge too much based solely on how poor the Jets were on offense throughout the season.
Although not the most skilled of route runners, Mims has good hands, and in what will be a new-look offense under recently appointed head coach Robert Saleh, he will be hoping for a breakout year.
Denver Broncos – KJ Hamler (WR)
Having found a stud in Jerry Jeudy in the first round of last years draft, the Broncos drafted back-to-back wide receivers when they selected Hamler in the second round.
He’s nowhere near as polished as Jeudy, but Hamler offers breakneck speed and showed glimpses of being the perfect backup. He finished with 381 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season, two of which came against the Panthers in their week 14 win.
Kansas City Chiefs – Lucas Niang (OT)
Niang opted out of the 2020/21 season having been drafted in the third round by the Chiefs. Some predicted that the offensive tackle would go in the first round but injury in his final year at college played a part in him dropping.
In 28 games across three years at Texas Christian University, he didn’t allow a single sack. After the injuries that hit the Chiefs offensive line in the post-season, they’ll be glad for his return.
Las Vegas Raiders – Henry Ruggs (WR)
Ruggs has lightning speed, evidenced in his 40 yard combine time of 4.27 seconds. That, coupled with an impressive college resume, saw him selected with the 12th overall pick in the draft, and he was the first wide receiver off the board.
His 452 receiving yards and two touchdowns felt underwhelming after all the hype, but in an offense that was hit and miss throughout, if they can find some consistency in the passing game, Ruggs will play a part.
Los Angeles Chargers – Kenneth Murray Jr (LB)
It’s a push to say that Murray Jr will be a breakthrough player next year due to how impressive he was in his rookie season. A late first round pick, he topped the number of tackles for the Chargers, racking up 107 per ESPN records, alongside one sack and four tackles for loss.
Expect Murray Jr to continue to be disruptive on that side of the ball, which will hopefully help the team improve on this season’s 7-9 record.
Baltimore Ravens – Justin Madubuike (DT)
The 71st overall pick in last years draft, defensive tackle, Madubuike was involved a lot down the stretch for the Ravens. Despite missing games at the start of the season, he appeared in eight wins from the 10 games he was involved, and was part of a largely solid defensive unit.
Madubuike skipped his senior year at college, opting to go straight in to the draft after impressing in his junior year. Expect to see improvements as he becomes a regular starter.
Cincinnati Bengals – Logan Wilson (LB)
There’s no easy way to say it, but the Bengals were one of the worst defenses in football this season. Wilson was drafted in the third round, and showed encouraging signs throughout his rookie year, without setting the world alight.
He’s got good athleticism and is competent against both the run and the pass.
Cleveland Browns – Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR)
As far as late round picks go, People-Jones was a great find from the Browns. Despite having questionable hands at times, he had more reps than expected having gone in the 6th round, with 304 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
The Browns have depth at running back, and Peoples-Jones added additional depth in their wide receiver corps. Moving in to next season, he could receive a lot more targets.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Kevin Dotson (G)
Drafted last year in the fourth round, despite being expected to go higher, Dotson made a good start to his rookie deal in Pittsburgh and will likely be an integral part of the roster for the 2021/22 season.
With the cap limit an issue this off-season there’s likely to be a lot of change for the Steelers, but you can bank on Dotson, who is massive in stature, to be a regular starter.
Houston Texans – Ross Blacklock (DT)
It was a difficult year for the Texans, and the way the off-season is shaping up, things aren’t going to get easier any time soon. Having traded away their first round pick, they selected Blacklock in the second, but it was an underwhelming opening season. He had to wait until week 17 for his first start.
In the snaps he did play though, he was used right across the defensive line, showing his adaptability. A bright prospect coming out of college, he will likely get more starts next season.
Indianapolis Colts – Michael Pitmann Jr (WR)
At 6 foot 4, the second round draft pick from USC was a regular target for Colts QB Philip Rivers throughout the season, and he’ll expect more targets in 2021/22.
He reached 503 receiving yards during the regular season, including his sole 100 yard game in week 10 against the Titans, before registering 90 yards against the Bills in the Wildcard Round.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence (QB)
Now, you’ll notice that the pick here doesn’t actually play for the Jags yet, but it’s one of the most sure-fire things in football. Lawrence will go to Jacksonville with the first pick in the 2021 draft, and there’s every reason why fans in Florida should be excited.
One of the best college prospects in recent years, the QB threw for over 3,000 yards at a completion percentage above 65% in each of his three seasons at Clemson.
Tennessee Titans – Kristian Fulton (CB)
Fulton’s rookie season was hampered by a knee injury that kept him out through November and December, before he returned for their final regular season game. In his six starts he showed promise, registering one sack and one interception.
Tennessee gave up a lot of yardage last season and they’ll be relying on the likes of Fulton to step up, to match the quality they have on offense.