From coaching and personnel changes to health and physical improvements, there are many reasons an NFL player can improve from one season to the next. With the new season set to kickoff on Thursday, here is a look at five players poised to have breakout campaigns in 2021.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
When the Miami Dolphins made Tua Tagovailoa the fifth pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, a lot was expected of the Alabama quarterback.
Despite a rookie season where he finished with a 6-3 record as a starter and threw 11 touchdowns with five interceptions, inconsistency caused him to be benched twice for veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. He sat down in a Week 11 loss to the Denver Broncos and in a Week 16 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, where the 38-year-old vet came off the bench to lead Miami to a 26-25 victory.
Then the rumours began. Were the Dolphins going to use the third overall pick they held thanks to a trade with the Houston Texans on a QB? Would they swing another deal with the Texans to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Throughout the entire process, GM Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores maintained that Tagovailoa was their guy and they backed those words up at the most recent NFL Draft.
The Dolphins traded out of the No. 3 position and added Tagovailoa’s Alabama teammate WR Jaylen Waddle with their first selection. They also picked offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg in the second round and tight end Hunter Long in the third round.
Miami also added WR Will Fuller V to the fold this season. The 27-year-old scored eight touchdowns with 879 receiving yards last season with the Texans.
The Dolphins made another off season change that should benefit their second-year QB as they parted ways with offensive co-ordinator Chan Gailey and will instead go with two men in that position, Eric Studesville and George Godsey.
All of these moves have been made to bolster Tagovailoa, who posted decent numbers in his rookie season and is poised to have an even bigger year in 2021.
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos
When you combine a season-long case of the drops with below average quarterback play, you have the perfect storm for an underwhelming season. You also have a lot of room for improvement and that should be the case for Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.
Jeudy made 52 receptions for 856 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season in Denver, but was targeted 113 times and credited with 10 drops.
The 22-year-old acknowledged the area of his game that needs to improve.
"For me, I feel like the drops took away from a lot of my opportunities,” Jeudy told The Athletic. “If I had never had 10 or 11 drops, I probably would have had the season I was looking forward to having. Basically, having those drops took away from the season I wanted it to be.”
Last season, Drew Lock started 13 games for the Broncos and finished the season with 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien also started at the position for the Broncos, who were also forced to play one game without a full-time QB due to COVID-19 regulations.
Teddy Bridgewater steps into the starting position for the Broncos in 2021 and should stabilize the team under centre and give Jeudy a better chance to put his elite route running on display.
Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals
After splitting time in the Arizona Cardinals backfield with David Johnson and Kenyan Drake over the first three seasons of his career, 2021 is poised to be the season that Chase Edmonds finally takes over the No. 1 spot at running back for the Arizona Cardinals.
Edmonds’ versatility out of the backfield is what will make him valuable both to head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray.
Last season, the 25-year-old produced 448 yards on 97 rushes and 402 yards on 53 receptions as a dual threat at the running back position.
Four of his five touchdowns were through the air and he almost converted as many first downs on passes (21) as he did on handoffs (22).
The arrival of running back James Conner from the Pittsburgh Steelers could once again cut into his workload, but all signs point to the fact that Cardinals are ready to rely on the fourth-year back out of Fordham.
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
What a rookie season it was for Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow, right up until an ACL and MCL tear brought it to an abrupt end.
The 24-year-old threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games, before he was carted off the field after taking a hit in a November game against Washington Football Team.
Now the first overall pick in the 2020 Draft is back and fully healthy, with an even better Bengals team around him for his sophomore year.
Cincinnati used the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft on Burrow’s LSU teammate WR Ja'Marr Chase and much like with Tagovailoa and Waddle in Miami, the former college teammates are expected to do big things together at the pro level.
Along with an improved offensive line, Burrow will also have weapons like Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins in the passing game and Joe Mixon in the backfield to help power the offence.
Burrow was on pace to shatter a host of rookie records last season before the injury. He looks poised to continue his upward trajectory in 2021.
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Another player who should benefit from improved quarterback play in 2021 is San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
Last season, the 23-year-old caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns, while also running the ball six times for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
With starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only playing six times for the 49ers last season, Aiyuk spent the majority of the season in an offence run by either Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard.
Both backups have since moved on and a once again healthy Garoppolo has been joined by third overall pick Trey Lance.
Make no mistake, Kyle Shanahan’s offence is going to be run first. That will not only open up Aiyuk to take advantage in the passing game, he also features in some of the ground attack.
The Arizona State product will have to compete with both George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for touches, but his speed and versatility should make him a go-to guy all season for the 49ers.