One of the most fun parts about any NFL season is watching new stars establish themselves. Occasionally, players come completely out of nowhere – think Kurt Warner in 1999 – but more often, the emerging superstars are guys who were showing signs of greatness the previous season, then put it all together the following year. Let’s take a look at some players who might make the jump to superstardom in 2021.
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The 52nd pick in the 2020 draft, Akers had a slow start to his pro career, carrying the ball just 50 times for 201 yards in the Rams’ first eight games, two of which saw him not even touch the ball. Things changed down the stretch, as he ran for 424 yards in Los Angeles’ final five regular-season games, then exploded for 131 rushing yards, and 176 overall in a playoff win over Seattle. Akers acquitted himself well in the Rams’ divisional-round loss to Green Bay, and his skill as an occasional pass-catching threat should be more on display now that Matthew Stafford is around.
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Alexander, the 18th pick in the 2018 draft, finally came into his own in his third season after making steady improvement in 2019. He was rarely targeted, seeing only 80 passes thrown his way all year, and it’s understandable why opposing quarterbacks avoided him; they had just a 67.4 passer rating when targeting him. Alexander made his first Pro Bowl this year, and while he doesn’t have the name recognition of Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard, or other elite cornerbacks, it is clear that he absolutely belongs in their class; next year, it’s a good bet that his play will force everyone to take notice.
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Playing in Cincinnati is tough because, well, it’s the Bengals. The franchise’s status as a near-annual laughingstock – even when their record is good – means that some of the league’s better players go relatively unnoticed and underappreciated. Bates is one of those players, as he was Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded safety this season, yet still doesn’t have so much as a single Pro Bowl nod after three years in the league. Bates allowed a passer rating against of just 70.7 this season and has been a consistent ball hawk since entering the league, posting three interceptions in each season. Crazy as it sounds, his best chance to be recognized as a star next year might actually rest with Joe Burrow. If the Bengals are good, Bates’ excellence will be recognized.
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After a promising rookie campaign in 2019, Burns’ numbers went up across the board in 2020, as he racked up nine sacks, 21 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, and eight tackles for loss for the Panthers’ defense. Burns’ Pro Football Focus grade jumped from 63.7 in 2019 to 76.8 in 2020, despite switching from outside linebacker to defensive end. Whatever your preferred nomenclature for his position – the catch-all “edge rusher” is now the trendiest way to put it – Burns’ first two seasons suggest he has a good chance to be one of the league’s premier sack artists for years to come.
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Claypool came on like gangbusters in his fourth professional game, as the second-rounder from Notre Dame had four touchdowns (three receiving, one rushing) in the Steelers’ 38-29 win over the Eagles. He finished the season with nine touchdown catches, most among rookie pass-catchers, and his 14.1 yards per reception were third among rookies with at least 50 receptions. Assuming Pittsburgh actually takes more shots down the field next season, he should emerge as one of the NFL’s premier deep threats, and possibly one of its best overall receivers.
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With Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams both free agents, Dillon will likely get most of the touches for the Packers in 2021. He didn’t have many opportunities to prove himself with Green Bay, only getting more than five carries one time in his rookie season. That said, he made the most of his chance, rumbling for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries in a 40-14 romp over the Titans. Per Pro Football Reference, Dillon broke a tackle once every 7.7 attempts, despite having just 46 carries, and also averaged 3.1 yards after contact, which would have been one of the best marks in the NFL had he qualified.
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Heading into his fourth season, Gesicki has quietly climbed the ranks to become one of the league’s most dynamic receiving threats at tight end. In 2020, the Penn State product averaged 13.3 yards per reception, a jump of two yards from his second season, and caught six touchdowns, despite Miami featuring an often-conservative offense with Tua Tagovailoa under center. Gesicki will never be mistaken for much of a blocker, but that won’t matter, so long as he continues to use his six-foot-six frame to his advantage, and cause mismatches regardless of how teams try to defend him.
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Herbert won’t exactly sneak up on anyone in 2021, as he won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2020, but as good as he was right from the jump, his follow-up should be even better. Herbert had seven games with a passer rating over 100, and he did all of this despite facing pressure on 239 of his 653 dropbacks, the second-highest mark in the league. Herbert thrived in those situations, as his 99.4 passer rating when pressured was tops among full-time starters in the NFL last season. If the Chargers are able to bolster their offensive line and keep Herbert clean, they might have a future MVP on their hands.
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Higgins put up very solid numbers as a rookie for Cincinnati, finishing the year with 67 receptions, 908 yards, and six touchdowns, which placed him third among rookie receivers in the first two categories, and fourth in the other. What was most impressive about Higgins’ season was that he didn’t fall off precipitously after Joe Burrow was lost for the season. In six games started by a quarterback other than Burrow, Higgins had 24 catches for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Hardly great numbers, to be sure, but considering how hamstrung Cincy’s offense was, still impressive. As long as Burrow is back healthy, Higgins should make a major leap in 2021.
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New England’s defense struggled mightily this year, at least by their lofty standards, and despite certain statistics looking impressive, they weren’t all that good against the pass. That was no fault of Jackson’s, though. He was dominant, intercepting nine passes, good for second in the NFL to Xavien Howard, who had 10 for Miami. Jackson had a streak of five games with a pick, and allowed just a 66.5 passer rating when targeted, despite giving up five touchdowns, the first ones allowed in his three-year career. He will be a full-time starter moving forward, and it certainly looks like New England has found its next great defensive back.
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How good was Jefferson as a rookie? Consider this: He was targeted just six times in the season’s first two weeks, coming away with five catches for 70 yards. In the final 14 games of the year, Jefferson averaged six catches and 95 yards per game. That number would have been good for third in the NFL for the duration of the year, trailing only Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs. As it was, Jefferson’s 87.5 yards per game was sixth in the NFL, and his 15.9 yards per reception was tops among receivers with at least 70 catches. Even with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback, Jefferson’s ceiling is “best receiver in the NFL.”
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Jeudy certainly has some things to work on as he readies himself for his second season. For one, his 10 drops were the second-most by any wide receiver, trailing only Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson. Another would be his catch percentage, which at 46 percent was third-worst in the NFL among qualifying pass-catchers. That said, those are fixable issues, and there’s a reason he was targeted 113 times despite all the drops; Jeudy is an elite route-runner and can get separation against any corner in the NFL. Assuming he fixes the drops and Denver finds a quarterback, he’ll be a star.
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Wide receiver is the trendiest position in the NFL, and with so many good ones coming into the league every year, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Despite an up-and-down rookie campaign in Dallas, it’s obvious that Lamb has the potential for greatness. His 935 yards were 25th in the NFL, despite having to share targets with both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Lamb has elite run-after-catch skills, and if he can fix his issues with drops – he had eight, tied for third-most in the league among wide receivers, everything about his game suggests that he will be one of the best in the league for years to come.
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Maye spent most of his first four seasons playing in the shadow of Jamal Adams, but when the hard-hitting safety was dealt to Seattle before the 2020 season, Maye stepped to the fore and delivered his best season yet. Maye excelled in coverage and is a solid run-stopper when he approaches the line of scrimmage. Perhaps the truest measure of his anonymity to this point, however, is the fact that he hasn’t made a single Pro Bowl despite being one of the league’s better safeties for three years running. That honor is very much a popularity contest, but assuming New York keeps him around, and it seems that they will, all it will take is a better season by the team for Maye to get the recognition he deserves.
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Mayfield’s third season finally provided Browns fans with real, tangible hope. He thrived in Kevin Stefanski’s run-heavy, play-action-oriented system, tossing 26 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and posting a passer rating over 100 eight times. Perhaps more importantly, he (and the Browns) finally bloodied big brother’s nose, racing out to a 28-0 lead in their wild-card round showdown with the Steelers at Heinz Field, and ultimately winning 48-37. Assuming Mayfield can make things work with a returning Odell Beckham Jr., there are plenty of reasons to believe that he can become one of the best passers in the league.
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Montgomery followed up a solid rookie season by topping 1,000 yards on the ground for the Bears last year and upping his yards per carry by over half a yard in the process. The fact that he put up those numbers, and was a capable receiving threat is a testament to his abilities, considering what a mess the Bears were and are at quarterback. If Chicago is able to find anything resembling consistency under center, Montgomery’s production and recognition should rise considerably. Montgomery had 1,508 yards from scrimmage in 2020; if the situation around him improves, he could be downright scary for opposing defenses.
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Of all the players on this list, Queen might be the most questionable inclusion. He graded out miserably at Pro Football Focus in his rookie season, posting a 29.7 overall grade. How bad is that? Well, it was the lowest grade of any defensive player with at least 500 snaps. Queen struggled in every area, and though he was around the ball often, he didn’t instantly upgrade Baltimore’s defense. Call this one a leap of faith, based on Baltimore’s ability to get the most out of their players, and their typically savvy drafting. The physical talent is there for Queen, and if he can slow the game down, he could make a massive leap forward in year two.
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Shenault managed to put up 600 receiving yards and five touchdowns for Jacksonville as a rookie, and impressively, had the highest catch percentage (73.4) of any rookie with at least 500 yards receiving. His numbers should only go up with Trevor Lawrence ticketed for the Jaguars. Shenault is a physical target with great run-after-catch potential, and with a more talented passer under center, he should take off in his second season, particularly with DJ Chark around to attract plenty of attention in his own right.
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In his second year out of Mississippi State, Sweat made a name for himself when he tortured Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in a 23-17 Washington win that ended Pittsburgh’s run at a perfect season. He batted down three passes in that game, and six for the season, and added nine sacks as well. Washington has invested heavily in its defensive line, which means that Sweat will continue to see favorable matchups opposite Chase Young. His height, athletic ability, and expertise at timing his leaps perfectly makes him the perfect weapon to stop modern passing offenses in a variety of ways. If Sweat continues to refine his game, he should emerge as one of the league’s premier defensive players.
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Pop quiz: From Weeks 11-17, which running back had the most yards in the NFL? Okay, it’s sort of a trick question, because the answer is Derrick Henry. Second on that list, however, was Taylor, who racked up 741 on just 119 carries. His 6.2 yards per carry was the best mark among ball carriers with at least 100 attempts during that same span. Taylor has an impressive offensive line to run behind, and if the Colts can find a capable quarterback, he’ll likely be on his way to an even bigger season in 2021.
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Vea only played five games for the Buccaneers during the regular season, and it looked like his season would be over after a gruesome broken ankle suffered in early October against Chicago. However, he managed to come back in time for the NFC Championship Game and was a major part of Tampa Bay’s game-wrecking defensive effort in the Super Bowl. Per Pro Football Focus, Vea generated 20 hurries on just 189 pass-rush snaps, and with a full offseason to get healthy, he should emerge as an even more explosive, dominant force in the middle of one of the NFL’s scariest defenses.
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There is a compelling case to be made that White was the actual MVP of Super Bowl LV, but unfortunately for him, the Tom Brady narrative won out. White played every defensive snap for Tampa Bay this season and finished with an impressive nine sacks despite playing off the ball. His quickness and ability to cover the entire field were fully on display against Kansas City, and his attitude and nonstop motor make him both the heart and soul of Tampa’s defense, as well as possibly the best inside linebacker in the NFL. White didn’t even make the Pro Bowl this year, but he’ll challenge for Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.
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Williams took a big step forward in his second season, more than doubling his rookie year sack total, and totaling 23 hurries, 10 more than he had in 2019. The Jets were, of course, a complete mess in 2020, so it was easy to overlook solid individual performances, but Williams’ work was a major bright spot, and if he makes another similar leap from year two to year three, he’ll have turned himself into one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and will be a foundational piece of a Jets defense that struggled last season, but has some promising pieces.
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Stud offensive tackles are still at a premium in the NFL, and Wirfs, the 13th pick in the 2020 draft, already looks like a star for the Buccaneers. He allowed just one sack all season, took only four penalties, and kept Tom Brady clean almost without exception. Brady has already made it clear that he’s coming back in 2021 – why wouldn’t he – but with an elite athlete like Wirfs bookending one side of his offensive line, he might find himself wanting to play even longer. By the end of next year, Wirfs might end up on an All-Pro team.
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As with the Case of his Rookie of the Year counterpart, Los Angeles’ Justin Herbert, Young is already a star. The 2021 season should be his launching pad into truly rarefied air among defensive players. He is already the leader of a very good Football Team defense, having put up 7.5 sacks for the season, despite regularly facing the bulk of the opposition’s blocking attention. Young had four passes defended, four forced fumbles, and even recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in a win over the 49ers. Washington’s defensive line has incredible draft pedigree, and if that’s any sort of accurate measuring stick, Young should be the best of the bunch.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.