September 16, 2020

10 NFL Breakout Candidates in 2020

The beginning of the NFL campaign is optimism season. 

The glass is either half-full or half-empty for the following pack of players, who have the ingredients of potentially making the leap into pivotal playmakers during the 2020 NFL season.

Drew Lock, Denver Broncos

Lock took the reins under center in Denver during his rookie season and filled in admirably in place of Joe Flacco, finishing the season with a 4-1 record, seven TD passes and just three interceptions.

The second-round selection from Missouri is in line to be the franchise quarterback in the Mile High City, a billing that former top Broncos picks in Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Tim Tebow have missed in recent years. 

The 23-year-old has all of the playmakers on offense via Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay and K.J. Hamler to reach his potential.

A devastatingly down year could force Lock to the sidelines, where he surely wouldn’t be so giddy going viral lip-syncing and spitting rhymes. 

Daniel Jones, New York Giants

With Eli Manning retired, it’s officially the Danny Dimes era. 

Jones was forced into the starting lineup last season for the Giants in place of the future Hall of Fame quarterback only to turn in a paltry 3-9 record. Jones proved to have a penchant for the endzone, throwing for 24 TDs. But he also couldn’t seem to avoid defenses, as unfurled 12 INTs and coughed up 18 fumbles.

The 2019 No. 6 selection from Duke will have to improve on his inconsistent play during his sophomore season or else he and star running back Saquon Barkley will consistently be met with eight-man boxes. 

The onus will also fall on Jones to further along his young receiving corps in Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and Evan Engram. 

Playing in the pressure cooker environment that is New York certainly will not be easy, and Jones will be dissected with a microscope, but he should stick around for the changing of the guard for the Giants barring an unforeseen regression. 

N'Keal Harry, New England Patriots

The Patriots drafted Harry with the final pick of the first round last year as they looked to give Tom Brady another top target to throw to, but the Arizona State wide receiver didn’t materialize in his rookie season in Foxboro.

The 22-year-old's development will now squarely rest on the surgically-repaired shoulders of free-agent acquisition Cam Newton and the team’s reinvented offense.

Bill Belichick does not have much room for error to remain competitive in a post-Brady era, and New England will need Harry to develop in Year Two. The Arizona State product will have to perform better than the 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns that he turned in during an injury-shortened season. 

Look for Harry to receive a lion’s share of targets and develop further alongside veteran pass catcher Julian Edelman. Harry will have every opportunity to make an immediate impact. The Patriots can no longer afford for top picks to fizzle, and Harry should prove that they made the right choice in taking him in the first round.

Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina Panthers

Bridgewater has been one of the league’s feel-good stories in recent years. The former first-round pick suffered a gruesome knee injury in 2016 during Vikings practice, a serious setback that nearly cost him his leg. 

In Bridgewater's last season as a full-time starter in 2015, the 2014 NFL Rookie of the Year compiled a record of 11-5 on 14 TD passes and nine INTs.

The 27-year-old resurrected his career in New Orleans as a backup to Drew Brees. After Brees suffered a thumb injury last year, Bridgewater filled in beautifully, going 5-0 as a starter, and finishing the season with 9 scoring tosses and a pair of INTs.

The game tape was enough for the Carolina Panthers to sign the former Louisville star to a three-year, $63 million deal this offseason with $30 million guaranteed. Bridgewater has a chance to be a Pro Bowl-level signal-caller if he can shake off the mantra of being a game manager. 

Christian McCaffrey will certainly help Bridgewater reassert himself into the league’s QB picture, but Teddy B’s work will be cut out for him because he does not have a top-20 wide receiver to throw to... unless D.J. Moore develops into a go-to pass catcher. 

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Johnson will have Ben Roethlisberger back in the fold in the Steel City, just in time for the second-year wideout to further develop as the No. 2 target in Pittsburgh.

The 2019 third-round pick turned in a rookie campaign of 680 yards on 59 catches and five TDs with absolutely terrible quarterback play. That production should improve drastically with the Hall of Fame quarterback looking for him down the sidelines. A healthy JuJu Smith-Schuster should allow for Johnson to roam around more freely and improve on his efficiency, helping Pittsburgh carve a path back into the playoffs. 

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions

Other than a stellar Week 1 performance last year, Hockenson’s play didn't pop off the screen during his rookie season to warrant his status as the eight-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. 

The Iowa pass-catcher played just 12 games and accumulated 32 receptions for 367 yards and two TD catches. Most of Hockenson’s output for the season came during his first career game to the tune of 6 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. 

With the return of Matthew Stafford, who was also sidelined for half of the season last year, Hockensen should bounce in his sophomore season if his nagging ankle injury is finally 100%. 

Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers

Alexander was taken in the first round of the 2018 draft, and although he’s been a starter during his first two seasons, he’s in line for a breakout year and to evolve into a shutdown corner in Green Bay.

The Louisville product was the second-highest-graded cornerback over the first four games of 2019, per PFF, showing glimpses of greatness. The 23-year-old blazed out of the gates in Week 1 against the archrival Vikings last week, stuffing the stat sheet with an interception and a sack for a safety. 

With that kind of game-changing play, Alexander, who regularly covers the opposition’s top wideout, can soon enter the conversation with the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Tre'Davious White and Jalen Ramsey as one of the league’s premier lockdown corners. 

Scott Miller, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The only thing Tom Brady possibly loves more than Gisele Bundchen and his family is undersized white wide receivers full of grit. Brady has stamped his Hall of Fame credentials connecting with pass catchers like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan throughout the years. 

As he begins his final act in Florida, Brady has been given a bevy of offensive weapons. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette are household names, but down the depth chart is the diminutive Scotty Miller.

In the season-opening loss versus the Saints, Miller tallied five receptions for 73 yards, with one rush for six yards for good measure. His six targets were tied for second-most on the day. 

If Brady has any more juice left in his right arm, expect Miller to get as much love as Evans and Godwin in a breakout year. 

John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals

It’s boom-or-bust time for the blazing former top-ten pick. The Washington Huskie speedster’s fleet feet have not translated over to the NFL since being drafted ninth overall in 2017 after running the 40-yard dash in record time at 4.22 seconds during the NFL Combine.

Ross has played just 24 games in three seasons. His rookie season was a wash, but his second and third years in the league offered a glimpse of his game-changing playmaking skills. 

In 2018, he scored seven TDs despite totaling just 21 catches and 210 yards. With franchise cornerstone A.J. Green sidelined last season, Ross played eight games and amassed a respectable 506 yards and three TDs.

The production, however, was not enough for the Bengals to guarantee him another year, as Cincinnati declined his fifth-year option.

Ross will line up next to a healthy Green and Tyler Boyd this year, with the most prolific quarterback in college football history in Joe Burrow eyeing them. 

The formula for Ross should translate for him to play a formidable third fiddle and make a case to return to Ohio next season. 

Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has a penchant for drafting and developing cornerbacks, and his next project is the 30th overall pick in 2018.

Former first-rounders Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, as well as 2016 second-rounder Mackensie Alexander, have all departed Minnesota, and the exodus of Vikings cornerbacks means Hughes is finally ready for his close-up. 

Hughes’ rookie season was cut short due to an ACL injury, while last year he mostly played behind the aforementioned trio of corners. The UCF defensive back has tallied an interception in each of his first two seasons. Now inserted into the starting lineup, Hughes should receive a heavy workload. 

The elevated snap count should determine whether he is long for Minnesota, as the franchise will have to make a decision whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option during the offseason. 

Sunday was not a great start for Hughes and the secondary, who allowed Aaron Rodgers to torch them for four passing touchdowns and 364 passing yards.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration