Now that we’re in this sort of dead part of the offseason, where all the main player acquisitions have been processed and all the moves have been analyzed, it was time for me to put on the tape of players from the 2019 and ’20 drafts and identify which of them are bound to break out this upcoming season.
Since that is a subjective definition, I set myself parameters of some statistical milestones and other factors that these players must not have reached yet. So you won’t find anybody who has already made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, quarterbacks are excluded if they have already thrown for 4000 yards or 25 touchdowns in a season and for running backs and receivers, they’re not allowed to have already cracked 1000 yards rushing or receiving respectively and/or double-digit touchdowns. And if somebody is just generally considered one of the top players at their position already, I didn’t mention them either. Plus, you won’t see guys on here that already my list a year ago.
A lot of these lists primarily include first-round picks and a couple of guys that already broke out, but people didn’t really know about before last season. You won’t see any running backs or wide receivers from 2019, because those guys have either broken out already or I had them on my list last year – D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery and others. As far as last year’s rookie class goes, Joe Burrow to me has already shown the ability to be a franchise quarterback, other than Henry Ruggs III and Jalen Reagor, all the other receivers that went in the first round last year were at least flirting with the 1000-yard mark, and two of the three offensive tackles drafted in the top 20, that actually played the majority of games as rookies, have established themselves as long-term starters in my opinion (Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs).
So while we start with a high draft pick from 2020, most of the guys on this list went quite a bit later.
Quarterback – Tua Tagovailoa
This was my number two quarterback in the 2020 draft, ahead of Justin Herbert. I – and many other people for that matter – learned another valuable lesson from that evaluation, which is not assuming a player can’t do something, just because their coaching staff doesn’t allow him to do so. At the same time my concerns about Tua have increased after seeing what Mac Jones did in that same offense this past season, and of course some of the things we saw from the former Alabama QB in the pros so far. I would say Tua had a very up-and-down season, and there are still things he has to prove to me, but a lot of people seem to have written him off completely and I want to buy some of his stock, while it’s at its lowest.
The main question mark remains that gruesome hip injury he suffered midway through his junior season in Tuscaloosa. He apparently is fully healed, but you can tell that it somewhat affected him as a rookie, in terms of being overly protective and just not fully trusting himself all the time, stepping into throws stuff like that, leading to some hesitancy in his game and conservative decision-making. This offseason we have also heard from the Dolphins QB himself that he didn’t know the full playbook, explaining some of the late-game swaps for Ryan Fitzpatrick, in relief duty so to speak. Taking both those things into account, I don’t want to overreact to what we’ve seen from him so far in the NFL and put some of those things into context.
That disappointing three-interception performance in a must-have week 17 game against the Bills left a bitter taste in a mouth about Tua’s rookie season, but he did get picked off in just two other games, compared to his ten touchdowns thrown. And even re-watching that aforementioned matchup, there were three drops that killed drives in the first half and then when the score was 28-13 mid-way through the third quarter, Devante Parker fell down on his route, which had the ball land right in the hands of Josh Norman for a pick-six. There were at least six(!) more passes that I would classify as drops from that point, negating some huge plays (looking at you, Isaiah Ford), and one ball was a little high, which unfortunately bounced into the hands of the safety behind it, before we got the one pick that truly was on him alone, as he didn’t recognize the second safety bailing out late and tried to lead his tight-end Mike Gesicki down the field, who had slowed down on a seam route to counter the cover-two.
My two favorite things about Tua as a prospect were his quick release and the mental capacity combined with the sudden movement to rapidly work through progressions. You rarely see him not being in a throw-ready position, as his upper and lower body work in sync and his eyes are up. The Dolphins used those skills in the quick and RPO game, where you can clearly see Tua’s understanding for spacing and leverage, as he consistently got the ball to his receivers on stick or hook routes with perfect timing, in combination with his drops. Along with that, you saw Miami move the pocket a lot, with play-action off zone and power runs. After all he does barely measure in at six feet and giving him that vision can be beneficial, especially combined with his ability to quickly flip it to somebody in the flats, change up that arm-angle a little bit, but also go behind that to somebody on a deeper crossing release and release the ball off the wrong foot.
Along with his skills to win with timing and accuracy, he does have better play-extension skills than he gets credit for. Tua has that quick-twitch movement inside the pocket, being able to reduce that left shoulder to elude edge rushers and/or roll towards the sideline. And what I love about him is that his eyes don’t come down on the rush, but at the same time he has a good feel for bodies around him and can quickly peak, without having to re-locate his targets too much. He doesn’t have the speed to really scare the defense as a runner, but he is certainly capable of taking advantage of opponents not accounting for him on zone-reads and when he takes off as a lane opens up in front of him, he has some shake to him, to make a guy miss in space, while understanding when to protect himself and slide. We saw that on several occasions in the Arizona game last year, when he seemed dead to rights, but somehow slipped through a crease.
Tua simply didn’t have the weapons that complement his skill-set necessarily last season. We did see him become more willing to throw the ball down the sideline for Devante Parker and Preston Williams, when he got them matched up one-on-one with the opposing team’s number two corner, where there was no safety over the top. And he will have to learn attacking those kinds of favorable matchups, but coming from Alabama’s wide-open offense, he was hesitant to release the ball when defenders were still in phase and he needed guys who could quickly separate, as well as make things happen after the catch, to give him more comfort at attacking the deeper levels of the field. With both Parker and Williams having less than a quarter of their yardage coming after the catch and Mike Gesicki with one career broken tackle over three seasons, that doesn’t really match. That’s why the Dolphins signed former Texans Will Fuller as a free agent and used their sixth overall pick in the draft to reunite him with Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle.
I’m very interested to see how exactly the offense of co-coordinators George Godsey & Eric Studesville will look like. Chain Gailey did some good things last season, adapting some creative play-designs, like Kansas City’s double-swing fake tight-end screen, but he did protect Tua a little too much even, with predetermined throws, like dumping the ball off to somebody on a flat route off a little run fake, no matter if a defender was waiting there. No doubt, Tua has to grow and become a more aggressive passers, which is why I liked hearing the reports about him throwing picks in practice, as he’s still learning what he can get away with in the pros. His arm strength is average at best I would say for NFL standards, but his mechanics are pretty much perfect and he is capable of getting the ball into some tight-windows, if he’s just willing to attempt them. You see drift too deep in the pocket at times and with a lack of knowledge about the playbook, you simply didn’t see Tua make a lot of pre-snap adjustments.
Running back – D’Andre Swift
Since I don’t want to just list the first players selected at their position and explain why they should break out this year, because you can basically just go back to my draft analysis of them to read that up, you won’t find any other player on this list that was my top-ranked prospect at his position. However, I had to talk about my RB1 in last year’s draft, because unlike a bunch of other guys from that draft, he’s not receiving any love. And I get it – it’s the Lions. But this kid special. LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the only back draft drafted ahead of Swift, with that final selection of the first round by the Chiefs, before this former Georgia standout. heard his name called three picks later
Swift certainly start his career off on the right foot, even though he did score a touchdown on one of his six touches in the season- didn’t opener against the Bears, as he dropped what should have been a game-winning touchdown at the very end on a corner route. And just like we saw with Kerryon Johnson as a rookie, who has unfortunately looked much less dynamic with all the injuries he has suffered, Matt Patricia’s coaching staff didn’t give the right guy the amount of touches he deserved, simply because he was in year one. Adrian Peterson led Detroit in carries in six of their first seven games and when Swift finally broke through – ready to be featured – he suffered a concussion and the consequences took him out of game action for three straight weeks. He still showed flashes when he came back, but being involved in some high-scoring affairs and an absolute annihilation by the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs didn’t allow Swift to really get the chances he should have garnered.
However, despite limited opportunities and being part of a team that won just five games, Swift found ways to be productive whenever he got the chance. He averaged 4.57 yards per rush and caught 46 of 57 targets, combining for ten touchdowns on 160 touches. With Adrian Peterson still being a free agent – who I don’t expect to be brought back – and Kerryon Johnson was waived earlier this offseason. The Lions did bring in former Packer Jamaal Williams, who should give them some lightning and thunder feel as a bigger body and offers them an elite pass-protector at the position, to go with bringing in seventh round rookie Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State) and UDFA Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas). Still, this is Swift’s show and while not having Matt Stafford at quarterback anymore will make the offense less capable overall, I see some reasons to get excited about the second-year back, outside of his obvious individual talents.
As a runner, Swift offers the versatility to execute basically any scheme you want to see, having the ability to quickly process information as he approaches the line of scrimmage, paired with the footwork to just fluidly incorporate it into his footwork. Swift has the burst to get to the edges of the defense, but he is also tremendous at hesitating behind blockers and letting them get into position, while having that slipperiness to squeeze through some tight creases. He also has outstanding hip mobility, to move one way and point the toe away from it for dramatic cuts, often times punishing poor backside contain. That and his body language allow him to dip one way and then get underneath a block, like getting defensive ends to commit to the outside to widen the B-gap. And then Swift is so elusive in the open field, with dead-legs and spin moves, to go with a crowd-stunning hurdle maneuver every once in a while, if a safety tries to dive at his legs. Plus, while he may not be a bruiser, he has pretty good contact balance and continues to drive his legs through tackling attempts.
What I loved so much about Swift at Georgia was how natural a receiver he was, whether it was making those subtle adjustments on underneath passes or tracking the ball down the field. He has an outstanding ability to sink his hips as a route-runner on angles and pivots, while feeling comfortable about extending for the ball at the end of his reach. During his rookie season, we saw him run a bunch of hook routes over the middle, which he can be dangerous on as well, if there’s space, but I’d like to see him catch the ball more in stride and get involved on the deeper level. He’s very elusive releasing for screen passes and then becomes a problem to get hands on with all that green grass in front of him. He did drop five passes in year one, but I’m not worried about his hands at all. As far as pass-protection goes, Swift is good at sliding in front of blitzers, but we did see him struggle to really slow down guys that had a runway and were trying to just run through his face, like Devin White did a couple of times in the Tampa Bay game of week 16 for example. Having Jamaal Williams there to take some of that punishment and keeping him fresh, should only be a plus.
My concerns for Swift in year two are based on this team likely playing from behind in the majority of games and the personnel that they have lost this offseason in terms of the pass game, as Stafford to Jared Goff presents a significant downgrade under center and without their two starting outside receivers from a year ago, defensive coordinators will feel comfortable leaving their corners in man-coverage against those Lions receivers, allowing them to bring that extra safety down on many occasions. However, they did select my number two overall draft prospect in Oregon’s Penei Sewell at right tackle and inside of himself they’ll start either Logan Stenberg or Halapoulivaati Vaitai, which are all known for their power in the run game. With Anthony Lynn taking over offensive coordinator duties, after he already called the shots for the number one rushing attack in Buffalo back in 2016, and their chance at being competitive relying on that O-line and the run game, Swift should get heavily featured. He doesn’t have elite speed or power, but he’s as complete a back as we have seen enter the league since Saquon Barkley. The two things he has to work on this season is run with some more variation in pace and not let his elbow get too far away from his body, which led to fumbles in two of the last three games of the season.
Running back – J.K. Dobbins
Since we just talked about my number one back in last year’s draft, let’s get to the guy I had second, but ended up being the fifth running back to hear his name called, at 55th overall. At Ohio State, Dobbins followed the footsteps of the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing yards as a rookie and became the highest-paid back in NFL history back in 2019. When he arrived in Columbus a year after Zeke left, he immediately broke the broke the Freshman rushing yardage record of the guy atop the list of all those great OSU backs and when he left as a junior a year ago, he set a new single-season record on top of it. Then when the Ravens made Dobbins a second-round pick, I thought he would take over this backfield sooner rather than later, for the league’s number one rushing offense – which he ultimately did pretty much to be fair – but it took a while for him to get the opportunities he deserved.
We never have all the information about players like Dobbins, who may not have been familiar enough with the playbook – which could have been a factor, considering he almost exclusively ran zone from shotgun alignment his last year at Ohio State – or whatever, but it was pretty clear whenever this guy did get the ball, that he was the most dynamic option out of that backfield. Ten-year veteran Mark Ingram dominated touches for this group early on, having the ball put in his hands about ten times in each of the first five weeks, even though he certainly looked like he had lost a step before getting banged up. From that point on, the Ravens made it a one-two punch with Dobbins and Gus Edwards, who actually received more carries until week ten against Tennessee, while Dobbins was sort of the third-down back early on. And those two really complement each other well, as the rookie showed the speed to threaten defenses to the edges, while the “Gus Bus” was more of the battering ram going straight downhill. However, the biggest runs outside of Lamar Jackson were provided by Dobbins and I thought he really broke out against Pittsburgh in their first meeting.
Looking at Dobbins’ skill-set as a runner, I did see some of it in college, but because the Ohio State rushing offense was so simplistic schematically, he didn’t always get a chance to show how smooth he is with adjusting stride length and speed on gap plays. He’s still great at building up momentum, sticking his foot in the ground with one decisive cut and slice through the defense, but in that Baltimore ground game, which tries to hammer the ball inside and tries to open up the edges for Lamar, when he decides to keep it, we were able to watch Dobbins shade to one side of a pulling guard and then go underneath or step on the pedal to beat that guy to sideline on numerous occasions. Or just facing his whole body pointed North as he approaches the hole and then adjust to stepping around a double-team, as he sees that backside linebacker overcommit. He’s also very impressive with his ability to twist those shoulders and reduce the surface area for tacklers to target.
At the same time, the Ravens did utilize his acceleration to get him outside as well, on toss plays, swing passes and also invert veer plays, which are a nice variation to those classic option runs and the counter bash offensive coordinator Greg Roman loves so much. Dobbins may not have top-tier breakaway speed, but it’s more than good enough to make him a threat to rip off 20-40 yarders on a consistent basis. And he packs plenty of power as he gets into the open, to go with the balance to get back onto his feet, when defenders trip him up or he starts to stumble. As a receiver, you see him make easy adjustments to balls thrown a little behind him and not lose speed. Something we saw a lot of last season from Baltimore were three-by-one sets, with Dobbins to the single-receiver side of the formation, but then motioning him across just before the snaps and him continuing out to the flats, putting the defense in conflict, especially in zone coverages with triangle rules on how to pass on routes, as the linebacker to that side will likely have to shoot down, and that opens up a pretty big window behind him, which is where Lamar wants to attack anyway. He did have four drops as a rookie, but I believe all of them came from letting the ball get into his body.
Dobbins has already become more patient with approaching the line of scrimmage and more effective with making subtle shifts to his running path. However, he does at times pre-determine cutbacks, where they may have some kind of counter play set up and the force defender decides to shoot inside, meaning the back could just keep going around the puller. On that first play of overtime in their regular season meeting with Tennessee, there was a play like that, where Dobbins might have gone the distance or at least been able to put them into field goal range instantly, had he bounced wide. Other than that, it’s mastering the little details of this offense, like improving the distance to the quarterback on speed option plays for example. With veteran Mark Ingram now having moved on to Houston and Greg Roman still there calling plays, I would expect Dobbins’ workload to increase. If you take out the first six weeks of the season, when he received just 25 total carries, and project those numbers over a full 16 games, Dobbins would have rushed for over 1150 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, despite sharing the load with Gus Edwards. With excellent fundamentals at keeping the ball high and tight at all times, to avoid fumbles (none in 2020) and his six yards per carry as a rookie, I expect even better numbers.
Wide receiver – Michael Pittman Jr.
One of my favorite WRs in the 2020 draft, where he seemingly got kind of lost, as the eight guy drafted, even though it was with the second pick of day two. At USC, you saw his numbers increase every single year and he left with 101 catches for 1275 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior, despite having a couple of other guys around him deserved of targets. In particular, I will never forget that Utah game, where he was going up against day two picks Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon among others and absolutely destroyed them, skying over those guys and running away from them. With his dad being a former nine-year NFL veteran, who averaged just over 1000 scrimmage yards per season as a running back and won a Super Bowl, this guy has it in his bloodlines and you can see it in the way he plays.
It took a while for the youngster to make a name for himself his rookie campaign, as he missed weeks four through six, due to having surgery on a compartment leg syndrome, and caught just ten passes for less than 100 yards through the first four games he actually played in. In kind of a swing game for the division at Tennessee, Pittman broke out, gaining 122 yards on nine opportunities, but he averaged just 2.7 catches for the rest of the regular season, before finally cracking the 100-yard mark again in their Wildcard loss at Buffalo. A lot of this had to do with re-emergence of T.Y. Hilton as Indy’s number one receiver, to go with Philip Rivers’ way of spreading the ball around. Hilton and the Colts’ second-leading player in that category Zach Pascal are both coming back, but both to me are number two’s, looking at a nine-year veteran who has looked banged up or just old for the better part of the last two years and a rather limited slot option.
So, I really believe the Colts are ready for a new WR1 and Pittman has the ability to fit that mold. In year one, he just cracked the 500-yard mark on 40 receptions (61 targets), but his role was very limited. Most of his production came on shallow crossers, as they tried to clear space underneath and let him go to work, which he routinely took advantage of. They also targeted him on slants or square-ins and put the ball in his hands on a few reverses. However, with Philip Rivers in year 17, we rarely saw the Colts throw the ball outside the numbers or really down the field, unless it was one of those high-arcing balls to Hilton on post routes. Their new guy under center has his own issues that he has to get over still, but arm strength isn’t one of them, and I believe Pittman will likely become his favorite target, as the receiving takes a step forward in year two.
What stood out to me whenever I put on the USC tape on Pittman was how natural he was playing the position. He was so well-versed in his release packages, with much more nimble thought than you would expect from a 6’4”, 223 pounds, was able to snap off routes really well by sitting in the chair and uses his frame even better to create throwing windows. You saw some of those things his first year as a pro, even though his route-tree was heavily limited. He ran so many shallow crossers, especially from reduced splits, which is why opponents put their corners shaded in inside press alignment, to make it tough for him to get into those routes, but he did an excellent job of just leaning in a little bit and flattening the angle, as well as creating that late separation with his hands, when defenders tried to kind of undercut him. Because the Colts tested outside corners so little down the sideline, especially with Pittman, his job of running slants or digs was made a lot tougher, but he showed the strength to throw those guys off balance and create that inside access for himself.
Philip Rivers was pretty inconsistent with expecting the rookie receiver to curl up or work towards space on his routes, which resulted in half of his four drops last season at least, from the tape I re-watched. His ball-tracking and catch technique are outstanding, and he displays strong hands in traffic and the ability to use his body as a shield, with a guy on his back. What surprised me even a little bit, who liked this guy a lot as a draft prospect, was the juice he had, not only to make corners lose phase on him as he crosses the field, but also after the catch. With a guy of his height, it comes off as more gliding speed I thought, but there was another gear when the ball touched his hands and he beat defenders to the sideline at a much higher rate than you’d expect. To go along with that, he is a big dude and becomes a load to bring down when he has momentum, punishing opponents waiting to just push him out of bounds on several occasions. Therefore 58.3 percent(!) of his receiving production came after the catch. And this guy is a great blocker, who can cover up corners, but also shoot inside on safeties or even get his hands on linebackers as the front-man of bunch sets and stuff like that.
Pittman will never feature the greatest change-of-direction and his chest presents a pretty large surface area for DBs to land their hands, which led to him having a little bit of an issue running routes towards the middle of the field against inside leverage early on, as he needs to learn threatening DBs to open up the wrong way or at least lean over enough, so he can gain that inside access. Yet, he did show improvements in that area already as a route, with surprisingly quick feet, and while Carson Wentz has work to do in terms of cleaning up his fundamentals and playing less hero-ball, I expect him to open up Pittman’s route-tree and give him chances to win down the field, where he excels at boxing out smaller defenders and high-pointing the ball. I can’t remember a single pass 20+ air yards down the field from this past season. Wentz didn’t always work great with Alshon Jeffery, but personal relationships might have been a bigger factor there and Pittman is a much more dynamic player at this point of his career. He was highly successful as a true X in college and I expect him to come closer to his senior numbers than what he did as a rookie at that spot, while Parris Campbell will be their professional shallow cross guy.
Wide receiver – Darnell Mooney
You may not find it here on this page, but rather you have to go to one of my social media channels (which I have linked in the top bar), to check out my annual All-Sleeper team in the NFL draft. Last year Mooney was one of the names that I had on there and I only didn’t have him even higher in my rankings, because I got to him so late in the process. There was a bit of a concern on my end because of his slender build at 5’10”, 176 pounds, but he was one of favorite watches, because of how easy he was able to create separation and how he could elude contact, which was my main point of why I didn’t bump him even further up my rankings. With 631 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 61 catches (93 targets), it’s not like his production blew me away or anything like that, but his dynamic skill-set translating so well to the pros and what I saw from him despite such a stagnant Bears offense, has me excited for year two.
Due to the loaded 2020 wide receiver class, guys like Mooney didn’t get talked about a whole lot, but he made a name for himself as a late fifth-round pick, when he put a slick double-move on Jalen Ramsey in week seven at L.A., which is the clip that has received plenty of hype this offseason. And you can look at that as sort of a microcosm of his rookie season, as he burnt the best corner in the game on a hitch-and-go and was open by like five yards, but Nick Foles faded away, a little too much than he actually needed to, and badly missed him. And while I’d obviously pick Ramsey to clearly win the battle, if they were matched up for 70 snaps – even though the rookie receiver would have had him beat again on a sweet goal-line slant in the fourth quarter – I believe Mooney put a lot of other impressive stuff on tape. He didn’t catch more than five passes until all the way in week 17 against the Packers, but his impact went beyond stats and I’d blame the lack of creativity from play-calling as well as the porous quarterback play for him not making a bigger difference on that stat sheet.
While I still believe Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor didn’t give their offensive personnel enough advantages through play-design and putting the defense into conflict, even they did realize the talent of their rookie receiver and tried to get him involved jet sweeps or motioning him across the formation and dumping the ball off to him in the flats. Mooney is dynamic with the ball in his hands, where he has the speed to just run away from the pursuit, but it’s his start-stop quickness that makes it really tough for defenders to bottle him up. Off that, he was used for deception, faking that sweeps and end-around, to bind defenders on the backside and not allow them flow with the play, or force guys to open up with him as he took off the sideline. He did after all gain 34 first downs on the 65 times he touched the ball, despite a lot of that coming behind or just in front of the line of scrimmage, but they did not allow him to nearly fulfill his potential and now need to take advantage of what he can do as a route-runner and with his vertical speed.
As soon as the ball is snapped, Mooney’s explosive ability is a problem to deal with, as he has that instant acceleration off the snap to put defenders on their heels. He is extremely sudden, to where he can stop on a dime on hitches and curls, but also bend off either foot on out routes without really having to slow down. Because Allen Robinson is so great off the line and presents a larger target to convert on third downs, he got a lot of those looks, and Anthony Miller is a specialist on short out or slant routes from the slot, but when he is given a cushion, Mooney becomes a tough cover in those situations as well, and he only dropped one pass as a rookie. His speed opened up the offense later in the year to some degree I thought, where he can draw safeties with his vertical prowess and you often time saw defenses try to bracket him. When left one-on-one on the perimeter, Mooney often with slow-play the release and then has the burst to gain a step on go routes. He can also roll through those deeper-developing breaks, where he can gain separation towards the post or have DBs at his mercy, when redirects towards the sideline. However, we saw so many underthrown deep passes, where the ball never got to him, because the ball went off the back of a defender or maybe the receiver actually drew a flag, because that guy chasing had to tackle him.
The lack of size is still a bit of an issue for Mooney, when being forced to work through contact, while also having to become more effective with getting into his routes, getting hung up at times with defenders, as he tries to get his opponents off balance and then get around them, rather than winning on a clean release to the right side. At his height, he won’t offer a ton in contested situations, but he didn’t give me major concerns about hauling in passes with a defenders slightly interfering with him, to go with some nice body-adjustments. Going back to his rookie tape, I was also impressed with his effort as a blocker, where he has the speed to get in front of DBs and is looking to actually engage with them, to give the ball-carrier space. As you can tell, I believe in the talent. However, an even bigger factor for my belief in Mooney’s breakout is based on who Chicago will have under center. Andy Dalton may in the bottom-third of starting QBs at this point of his career, but with the right weapons around him, we have seen him deliver down the field and be accurate on YAC opportunities. And even Justin Fields sees the field sooner rather than later, get ready for some bombs. The former Ohio State superstar was probably the most prolific deep ball thrower in college football these last two years and Mooney would see plenty of those come his way.
Tight-end – Irv Smith Jr.
If you’re involved in the fantasy football community, this is a name you’re very familiar with. Back in the 2019 draft, Smith was the guy who didn’t receive a lot of love, because of those two outstanding Iowa tight-ends in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant getting all the buzz and ultimately both going in the top 20 picks. His last season at Alabama, he was right in-between Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith in receiving production and impressed with his big-play ability. So, I personally had a very early second-round grade on him, as he ultimately went 50th overall. As a rookie, Smith already showed some signs, catching 36 passes for just over 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns, before last season he reached 365 yards and five TDs on five fewer grabs, leading to an average yards per reception of 12.2. Still, he has yet to really break out, and there used to be one major road block for him to do so.
Kyle Rudolph has been as solid a tight-end as we’ve had in the NFC for the last decade, in terms of his ability to contribute as an in-line blocker, being a dependable target over the middle of the field and producing in the red-zone. However, I never thought there was really anything special about him and to me he had become somewhat overrated. Seeing what Smith could do running down the seams and with the ball in his hands, I wanted to see him get more chances. Since the Vikings decided to cut Rudolph in early March and he has moved on to New York, the now third-year TE is ready to emerge in a starting role. In terms of the opportunities he’s gotten, Smith didn’t see more than five targets come his way in a game until week 16 of this past season, which resulted in six grabs for 53 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Rudolph was placed on IR from week 14 on and his younger replacement made the most of that chance to step in, as he caught 15 of his 20 targets for almost 200 yards, despite getting banged up in one of those contests. That’s probably why Minnesota felt comfortable about moving on from the veteran.
Going back to his rookie year, the Vikings moved Smith around a lot, splitting him out wide, putting him at H-back or even having him lined up next to quarterback. In his second season, he did still play detached from the line a lot, but more so as a big slot receiver. Smith may have run the 40 in the low 4.6’s at the combined when he came out, but he shows the acceleration off the snap to straight up blow by safety in press. You also see him stutter at the line and then explode to create separation on drag routes and stuff like that, where he can run away from his man. There’s only so many 240-pound guys, who will line up in the slot and beat a corner on a V-release slant. Smith does have good size to make it tough for defenders to reach around him and use subtle push-offs, but what makes him special is how natural he is as a route-runner. He has some deceptiveness to him, with not giving away breaks, he doesn’t lose much time on those square breaks, beating guys on the outside with those quick-ins, and he can legitimately run those whip and jerk routes. Something the Vikings like to do is have him sit down on hooks behind the Y running a seam or dig route for easy yardage.
Smith consistently catches ball with his finger-tips away from his body and what really impresses me is how quickly he turns himself into a runner. He instantly gets vertical once the ball touches his hands, especially on routes back to the quarterback or out to the flats, without any dancing around as he is bottled and the ability to have a defender quasi on his back, but defeat their pursuit as he turns upfield, plus you see him step out of a few tackles. That’s how he turned 22(!) of his 30 catches last season into first downs. The only two tight-ends with a slightly higher percentage were Travis Kelce and Dan Arnold. Minnesota used that strength of his, when lining up as a wing and then slipping into the flats off split zone fakes, while actually using the defense’s eyes against them later in the year, when they used that as sort of a dummy, while running toss the other way. And Kirk Cousins missed the second-year player a few times hot in the flats from what I saw on tape, or he made the wrong read on mesh concepts, where Smith would have ripped off big yardage.
As far as blocking goes, Smith simply isn’t your classic Y tight-end, who they want to put at the point of attack on inside run schemes a whole lot. He displays good effort in that regard, but he won’t widen the C-gap by driving a defensive end off the spot necessarily. What he did look pretty good at was from ace duo sets, with him off-line next to Rudolph, working up to a safety or even corner, when the two receivers were lined up on the opposite side, and keeping that contain defender from forcing the play further inside, giving Dalvin Cook room when he got out there on wide zone and toss plays. He also has the agility to reach edge defenders, when they try to get the ball to the perimeter his way and he is an excellent blocker in space from detached alignments, at times over ten yards downfield on safeties. So I don’t believe Smith will directly take over the role of Kyle Rudolph, because it wouldn’t take advantage of his biggest strengths. Tyler Conklin will probably be more of their traditional Y, to allow Smith to play detached and get free releases. However, I do see him take over a heavy part of that target share over the middle of the field and in the red-zone, meaning the total between the two of about 700 yards last season to me looks like a reasonable baseline, while having double-digit TD upside.
Tight-end – Adam Trautman
We’ve had relatively weak tight-end drafts these last two years I would say, with last year lacking anybody worthy of a first-round pick and after the once-in-a-generation type prospect of Florida’s Kyle Pitts this year, to go with what I thought was an underrated player in Pat Freiermuth from Penn State, the quality fell off dramatically. In that 2020 class, I had Adam Trautman atop my positional rankings. I was a little skeptical about somebody from Dayton potentially going early as well, but he blew me away during Senior Bowl week. However, he ended up being only the fifth one to be selected, with the second-to-last pick on day two. So after wanting to convince myself first before a made a statement on this young man, I was kind of shocked to see him drop this far. He may not have offered elite athletic tools or have the track record of dominant play against Power-Five competition, but you watched him absolutely tear apart the FCS competition and then actually step up against some of the best players in college football down in Mobile, and you wanted to really buy into him.
Rookie tight-ends rarely produce at a very high level – even though he aforementioned Pitts will probably rip that general statement apart this year. So even the two guys who led in receiving yards from last year’s class (Cole Kmet and Harrison Bryant) couldn’t quite reach the 250-yard mark. Trautman came in just behind them, as over 15 games, he caught as many passes for 171 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers obviously won’t get anybody excited, but he did so on just one more target than passes he actually hauled in, and averaged 11.4 yards per grab. A big reason for Trautman’s lack of production was the presence of 12th-year veteran Jared Cook, who accounted for just over 500 yards through the air, for a team that finished 25th in the league in pass attempts, playing without Drew Brees or a banged-up version for the majority of the season. However, Trautman’s role increased throughout the year and all but one of his games with the highest percentage of snaps came over the second half of the season, as he finished with just 73 total snaps less than Cook. Being able to take on more responsibilities, that don’t involve him as a pass-catcher himself, actually worked against him in terms of the chances he ultimately received.
The tape on Trautman as a receiver may be limited, but to go back and see the work he put in as a blocker was highly impressive for a rookie. Listed at 6’5”, 253 pounds, he obviously has the size to be an in-line asset, but I really liked how aggressive he was at Dayton in that capacity, rolling his hips through contact and taking some smaller defenders for a ride, if not land on top of them. While the level of physicality obviously reaches a different level in the NFL, you saw the rook display his power on numerous occasions. Whether it was putting safeties on skates, who were rotated down against heavier personnel, or catching linebackers on an angle, you consistently saw excellent leg-drive and ability to re-direct. It was really apparent when we saw him cave in defensive ends lining up in the C-gap and actually shove them over the center, at times combined with him climbing up to a linebacker and covering them up. Trautman is also great at sealing off backside pursuit defenders, often times ripping underneath their reach and walling them off, therefore forcing them to go through him.
Yet, even though the sample size is limited, I still remember what I saw from him in the pass game in the draft evaluation process. Dayton’s all-time leading receiver excelled at creating separation on underneath routes by leaning into defenders and slightly pushing off, but he also was involved down the field a whole lot, where he really plucks the ball out of the air, often times through contact. I went back and not only watched his 16 targets as a rookie, but also watched a couple of full games, to see what he did when the quarterback didn’t go his way. And he was open on a few occasions, where Brees checked it down rather than hitting him on a dig route in front of a post, but to be honest – he didn’t even get to run too man, at least with free releases, as he was used in pass-pro or slipped out late quite a bit. Of the 16 passes that did go his way, four of them were delayed screens, a few routes, where he curled back towards the QB and the two times he did have some room to run, came when he was pretty wide open on a shallow crosser and a post route. Still, he turned nine of those into first downs, with 117 of 171 yards coming after the catch, while the guys going his way had a passer rating of 132.0.
I don’t believe Trautman has that quick burst of someone like Irv Smith Jr., who I just talked about, and he’s not very creative after the catch, but he deserves to be more involved in the pass-game. That touchdown he had on a stick-nod against Tampa Bay was my favorite and he is highly capable of presenting himself as a target if they allow him to threaten more down the field. Now with Jared Cook moving on in free agency, the chances for Trautman should definitely increase and if his efficiency is even close with 50+ targets, he could finish near the top statistically among tight-ends, if you take the Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Darren Waller tier out of the equation. Quarterback play and who even starts under center is still up in the air, but for his flaws, Jameis Winston did throw for over 5000 yards his last season as a starter and his top two TEs combined for over 1100 of those. And even if they go with Taysom Hill, we did see the Saints have Trautman run those flat routes off RPOs and as a quick dump-off option in their RPO game, while not being scared to attack down the seams either. He had the highest grade for a rookie at his position according to Pro Football Focus and he hasn’t shown me anything to suggest that he isn’t still the best all-around tight-end from that 2019 class.
Offensive tackle – Mekhi Becton
The 2020 NFL tackle draft class might have been the best we’ve seen over the last decade, at least in terms of the big four. Andrew Thomas somewhat surprisingly was the first one selected (fourth overall) and struggled quite a bit at times, my OT1 Jedrick Wills Jr. went to Cleveland tenth overall and immediately helped boost the Browns O-line to being one of the top units in the league, and Tristan Wirfs was the final one of the group, as the Bucs traded up to pick 13 and got one of the premiere right tackles in all of football right off the bat. That leaves Becton, who was the third one drafted, at eleventh overall. However, you wouldn’t find too many people who didn’t believe that he had the highest ceiling of the bunch. This guy is just the massive human being at 6’7”, 365 pounds. He immediately jumped out when you watched Louisville, where he was just bigger than anybody out there. However, while his physical appearance and raw power were the things that drew the attention early on, Becton made a massive leap his junior season, where he turned himself into one of the players you least wanted to face, because you knew he could embarrass you whenever he got his hands on you.
The physical tools were highly intriguing to anybody who evaluated the former Cardinal, but his development was stunted by his college coaches having him switch sides based on the play called until 2019 and there were certainly still technical things he needed to clean up. Yet, as soon as he stepped onto an NFL field, he made a name for himself, despite playing for the worst team in the league, until winning two of their final three games. Nicknamed “The Big Ticket”, Becton immediately turned himself into a Jets fan favorite, because he was one of the few players, along with Quinnen Williams and a few other guys to a lesser degree, to consistently win his individual matchups. As a rookie, he played 70 percent of offensive snaps, but was banged up for a portion of those. I remember the Denver game in particular, which that alone should have gotten Adam Gase and his coaching staff fired, for risking the health of one of the young emerging stars on that team, which was a big topic for me at that pointed, as they seemed to put the importance of somehow squeezing out wins over doing what’s best for their players in the long run. Either way, Becton ended up holding opponents to four sacks and while he did commit five false start penalties, he wasn’t flagged for holding once.
What translated immediately – as expected for the most part – was Becton’s ability to move defenders against their will in the run game. You saw him seemingly put guys on roller blades time and time again as you go through games. When he’s on the front-side of zone run play, he can blow the B-gap wide open, to where that group of running backs in New York had a motorway in front of them, but outside of the Ty Johnson experience in a couple of games, those guys just didn’t have the explosiveness to convert them into big plays. When Becton has an angle on defenders, they just can’t hold their ground. So you saw guys try to stay straight up on him a lot of times, but Becton has the natural strength to push them out to the edge and then keep riding them towards the sideline anyway. For such a mountain of a man, number 77 has incredible agility to reach three-techniques on the backside, and when D-ends try to jump inside on him, he punishes them by pushing them out of the picture for massive cutback opportunities. When Becton got a chance for those running blocks in space, they become a sled-pushing exercise. And he is scary for the back-seven, when he gets out in front on crack toss plays or screen passes.
In the pass game, Becton features a seemingly unbreakable anchor and with his massive frame, combined with those 35 ½-inch arms, he is really tough to get around. When you watch edge rushers try to convert speed to power, the Jets’ left tackle often times completely swallows them up, and when he lands a solid punch or stab, he can just stun guys. Becton also has the lateral agility to take over B-gap rushers on T-E twists, but I have also seen him not be able to switch responsibilities with the guard anymore and still stick with the end on the inside loop enough, to allow the quarterback to step up, away from it. At times it also comes into play, when he has to comply to “biggest threat first” and switch to linebacker blitzing the inside gap, as his end drops out. As I’ve already mentioned, Becton is still far from perfect technically. There are times you see him take some false steps or have a rusher land that long-arm underneath his pads, but he has the balance to recover and get the job done regardless.
With that being said, Becton still has to do a better job of sustaining blocks, by fitting his hands and grabbing a little bit. You see him shove guys out of the way a lot of times, but they end up getting involved on the tackle anyway, as well as him extending his arms too much. As a pass-protector, he needs to become a little more patient, in particular with trying to land his hands, because he has that firm base to handle guys, who attack upfield and then try to shorten that path to the QB, especially against those wide-nine techniques. However, Becton already looked like a soon-to-be Pro Bowler despite those imperfections in terms of technical nuances. With an extra year of refining his footwork and hand-placement, to go with having someone show him tape on where he loses in the pass-game unnecessarily, I expect him to look even better. He is a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s wide zone-heavy offensive scheme and the Jets now added a couple of backs to make more of what he gives them. Having 5’8” rookie RB Michael Carter Jr. (from North Carolina) behind him will prove to be a challenge for defenders to even find that guy back there, before he bursts upfield. Especially now working in concert with 14th overall Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC at guard next to him, you’ll see some nice cutbacks behind their combo-blocks. So while he was already a standout rookie when healthy I thought, I expect him to go from an above-average starting tackle I would say, to top ten at his position.
RB Tony Pollard
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
WR Jaylen Guyton
WR Laviska Shenault
TE Noah Fant
OT Matt Peart
OG Chris Lindstrom
C Matt Hennessy