Breakdowns

Using Analytics to Predict 14 Breakout Players for 2021

Every year we see players coming out of the woodwork to play huge roles for their teams. Dolphins linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel only played in six games as a rookie in 2019 due to injury but managed 4 TFLs and 4 QB hits with a sack. With full health in 2020, he started 11 games and played in all 16, breaking out with 5.5 sacks, 10 QB hits and a 78-yard fumble recovery in the Week 8 upset over the Rams. Which players with limited snaps in 2020 have shown the production to possibly break out in 2021?

Note: QB and the Offensive Line are skipped due to a lack of low-snap players who can make an impact and a lack of statistics, respectively.

Running Backs

A.J. Dillon in Green Bay was among the best tackle-breakers in the league in 2021 despite having only 46 carries. Per PFF, he was third among all backs with a missed tackle forced on 0.38 of carries, third among runners with 15 combined carries. With Jamaal Williams moving on, there are 119 carries up for grabs in the backfield that Dillon is primed to capitalize on.

Trayveon Williams of the Bengals was a sixth-round pick and didn’t register a carry as a rookie in 2019, but he was third in the NFL in 2020 with 6.0 yards per carry on his 26 rushing attempts. Although he’s still low on the depth chart, lead back Joe Mixon is coming off of an injury and Giovani Bernard moved to Tampa Bay, leaving Williams to compete with Samaje Perine and Chris Evans behind a revamped offensive line that added three draft picks. With QB Joe Burrow also coming off an injury, Williams could be a hidden weapon in the backfield. He has contributed an astounding 80% of his yards after contact.

 

Wide Receivers

Washington WR Cam Sims went undrafted in 2018 and was on the team’s practice squad at the beginning of 2020 but recorded at least one reception in 10 of the last 11 games, including 8.7 yards after the catch per reception over the second half of the season (13th in the NFL). Although the team made a QB change and brought in a pair of wide receivers in the offseason, Sims is 6-5 and new QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has notably favored taller WRs over the past five years. Since 2016, his most targeted receivers are DeVante Parker (6-3), Mike Gesicki (6-6), Brandon Marshall (6-5), Mike Evans (6-5) and Quincy Enunwa (6-2). Sims is the tallest WR on the Washington roster and joins Antonio Gandy-Golden as the only WRs above 6-2.

Tyron Johnson, WR for the Chargers isn’t a familiar name to most after the former UDFA bounced around practice squads in 2019 but developed a rapport with Justin Herbert that started turning into consistent production by the end of the 2020 season, catching all but 6 of his 26 targets by year’s end. The deep-ball threat put up an incredible 2.34 yards per route run (per PFF), good for 10th in the NFL and right after A.J. Brown, Julio Jones and Stefon Diggs. He’ll look to get closer to that kind of company over a full season.

 

Interior Defensive Line

Steelers DT Henry Mondeaux is another former UDFA who has bounced around practice squads but put up 7 pressures (per PFF) in only 47 pass-rushing snaps in 2020, good for the eighth-best rate in the NFL and only slightly behind Aaron Donald. Bud Dupree signed with Tennessee in free agency, which should give Mondeaux an opportunity to play more than 100 defensive snaps for the first time. With the strong defensive coaching staff in Pittsburgh, Mondeaux is in the perfect spot to develop and become the next defensive stud in Steeltown.

For a player who was originally signed by the Seahawks in 2015, T.Y. McGill has flown hugely under the radar since with stints on eight different teams despite never playing 300-plus defensive snaps before returning for a second stint with Philadelphia in 2020. However, he stepped up this year to lead the league with minus-1.5 average depth of tackle, a run defense statistic from PFF that tracks the average spot that the player made a tackle against the run. McGill was one of only six IDLs in the league to average a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, tying for the second-most tackles among that group with none missed. For an Eagles team looking to turn over their roster, it could be worthwhile to see if McGill can keep up his efficiency in extended snaps.

 

Edge Defenders

Frankie Luvu is moving to Carolina after three seasons with the Jets. The LB picked up a few starts down the stretch in 2020 and put up an impressive minus-3.20 average depth of tackle (per PFF), second in the NFL among edge defenders and only behind Buffalo’s Darryl Johnson, who had only one tackle against the run. Luvu is only 236 pounds, but his production versus the run could give him a leg up on the many ends in Carolina.

With seven sacks in 2020, Arizona’s Dennis Gardeck may make many lists like these, especially considering the fact that he had never played an NFL defensive snap prior to last season. He ranked second of all edges for pressure rate with pressure generated on 22.8% of snaps (per PFF). Similar to many of the other players on this list, Gardeck has an opportunity opening up on the depth chart with Haason Reddick going to Carolina and will push Markus Golden for playing time.

 

Interior Linebackers

Under new head coach Urban Meyer, the Jaguars have been aggressive in turning over the bottom half of their roster, but they may want to take another look at Quincy Williams. The 2019 third-rounder was injured for the majority of 2020, but put up fantastic rate statistics in both pass coverage and run defense. Williams ranked seventh among all LBs with a forced incompletion on 16.7% of his targets, then fourth with a minus-1.00 average depth of tackle (per PFF). He profiles as a WLB due to his size, and as such is behind Myles Jack on the team’s depth chart but could surprise with his productivity if he gets an opportunity.

Tae Davis is one of the many new members of the Houston Texans but could stand out in a crowded LB room if his 2020 season is anything to go by. Although he played only 25 defensive snaps last season, he excelled in coverage by allowing no first downs and only a 56.3 passer rating, tied for second among LBs who were targeted at least once (per PFF). It’ll be a tall order to fight his way onto the field, but Davis could gain snaps as the season progresses.

 

Cornerbacks

New England’s Joejuan Williams hasn’t been a primary option in his first two seasons in one of the league’s most effective secondaries, but the departure of Jason McCourty could spell more time for the corner with 2020’s third-best forced incompletion rate, deflecting 25% of his 12 targets against while also allowing only a 58.3% completion rate (per PFF). Although he’s primarily been a matchup for big WRs and TEs in coverage, Williams could take a step up this year and see more opportunity on the field.

Tony Brown has only completed one season with the Bengals, but he re-signed with the team this offseason and allowed only 41.7% completion rate in 2020, third among all CBs who were targeted at least once (per PFF). Brown seems unlikely to compete for a starting role in 2021 due to the signings of Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton even after William Jackson III signed with Washington, but has shown the productivity in short bursts to take on a larger role this year.

 

Safeties

There’s a new Farley in the Titans’ secondary (first-round pick Caleb), but it’s actually Matthias Farley who could make waves this year. He’s been in the NFL since 2016, even starting 15 games in 2017 for the Colts, but was hurt in 2018 and has spent the past two years as a core special teamer for the Jets with minimal defensive involvement. However, that defensive involvement actually ranked third among all safeties targeted at least once with his 25.0% completion rate that included only 22 yards allowed. It will be interesting to see which Farley hits the field first in Tennessee.

The final entry on this list, Cardinals DB Deionte Thompson, will almost certainly remain lower on the depth chart than starter Budda Baker but actually ranked 17th among safeties with a forced incompletion on 23.5% of targets and 11th with only 47.1% completion rate allowed (per PFF). These are both outstanding numbers that rank ahead of Baker. Thompson will need to prove his ability with every snap to earn more time either in relief of or next to Baker. Regardless, his production certainly hints at potential if he gets more snaps this year.

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