The 2021 NFL season was strong with standout rookie performers but others develop at their own pace. Some might have been held back by a lack of opportunity, coaching decisions or injuries. CBS Sports examines some of the potential breakout sophomore stars with the qualifier that each player was not present on the regular-season finale rookie rankings.
Before getting started, I have to discuss Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. He is one of the exclusions because he was a part of the final rankings but he has the potential to become a superstar this season. Lamb, my personal top receiver prospect a year ago, averaged 5.8 receptions for 86.6 yards per game prior to the Dak Prescott injury. Following the injury, he averaged just 4.1 receptions for 45.6 yards per game. If he had continued on a healthy pace with Prescott, he was projected for 1,386 yards. Vikings rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson finished the campaign with 1,400 yards by comparison, which not only shows Lamb's potential but also the significance of Jefferson's rookie season.
With a personal agenda scratched off my checklist, I can move on to the list:
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 49ers
Aiyuk or Steelers receiver Chase Claypool's inclusion on this list feels a bit like a cop-out considering the seasons they had a year ago. Claypool was left off because I included a few other Steelers and there is a reasonable case to be made that he already had his breakout season. With Aiyuk, there is a little more meat on the bone. The second-year receiver with Pterodactyl arms tallied 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns despite missing four games. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was scheming opportunities for Deebo Samuel and Aiyuk to get the ball in space. With another year together under their belts, I expect even more wrinkles to that San Francisco offense.
The hope is that the team returns to optimal health and remains there this season, which would theoretically lead to improved production for all involved. Aiyuk is viewed as a unanimous top 25 wide receiver by CBS Sports' panel of fantasy football experts.
Trevon Diggs, CB, Cowboys
Diggs struggled early last year but fans have to understand the situation. He was walking into a defensive room where no one was having success and, more specifically, he was the team's only hope on the outside. Cornerback is a position where success does not always happen instantaneously; just look at Jeff Okudah and Jaire Alexander for examples. There has been a lot of buzz around Okudah this offseason as well but it will be more difficult for him to find individual success on that team.
Since the 2020-2021 season concluded, Dallas brought in Dan Quinn to replace Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. They also named longtime Packers assistant Joe Whitt Jr. secondary coach/defensive passing game coordinator. Whitt is able to provide a wealth of experience. Combine the coaching shift with the return of a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch, plus an infusion of new talent such as Micah Parsons, and some of the responsibility is being spread around that starting unit rather than laid at the feet of Diggs, who recently admitted that the game has slowed down for him in Year 2. The Alabama product finished the season with three interceptions in his final five games.
Kevin Dotson, OG, Steelers
Dotson was really impressive in his role as the spot injury replacement last season to the point that he appeared in the weekly rookie power rankings on multiple occasions. However, he was always relegated to the bench when the starters returned from injury. Last year's entire Week 1 starting offensive line is gone for the Steelers so that naturally created an opportunity for Dotson to slide into a starting role. The Louisiana product was the source of some discussion on social media this week when Steelers beat writers quoted head coach Mike Tomlin as saying: "He has done nothing to earn first-team reps. What are we talking about? He's a second-year guy who hasn't worked." To which Dotson responded by saying that Tomlin literally meant that he has not been practicing because he is dealing with an injury.
If Dotson does not start for a team in desperate need of stability along the offensive line, then I would obviously feel much less confident in this addition. I am banking on Dotson being named a starter once he returns from injury and begins practicing.
Jordan Fuller, DB, Rams
The Rams secondary will look vastly different than it did a year ago under the direction of then defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. John Johnson III and Troy Hill signed with Cleveland leaving the future of the franchise's secondary in the capable hands of Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams and Fuller among others. New defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is entrusting the second-year player to wear the coveted green dot on his helmet signaling that he is in charge of communicating plays and responsibilities to his teammates on the field. The green dot has often been reserved for linebackers but more and more teams are recognizing the value in empowering one of the few players capable of watching an entire play unfold in front of them.
Fuller, a sixth-round pick out of Ohio State, was fifth on the team in total tackles last season.
Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Steelers
In some of these explanations, I am able to defend my scouting report of players as they enter the draft. Unfortunately, Highsmith is not one of those players. Pittsburgh took him earlier than expected and early returns suggest I was wrong (no surprise, I was also wrong about Claypool). Understandably, Highsmith was primarily a reserve last season playing behind Bud Dupree. His play in those spot chances might have been enough to convince the Steelers to watch Dupree exit in free agency.
Highsmith finished his rookie season with a reasonable two sacks but, in those moments, he was able to showcase speed around the edge and some moves to get off blocks. T.J. Watt will be the focal point of opposing game plans and that should take some of the pressure off of Highsmith's early development. There is a lot of work to be done but his play thus far suggests that he could help fans forget about Dupree this season.
Justin Madubuike, DL, Ravens
Madubuike had some moments of brilliance in college but consistency was part of the issue. He landed in the absolute best situation for him to learn how to compete and be a professional on a daily basis. Surrounded by an organization of continuity and structure, as well as veterans such as Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell, Madubuike is poised to break out this season. Nate Tice recently posted a clip of the Texas A&M product getting the best of Browns offensive guard Wyatt Teller, who had his own breakout campaign in 2020.
Really nice throw on the move from Baker but check out #92* Justin Madubuike with the strong two-hand swipe to win and create the pressure.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) June 11, 2021
Madubuike really started to flash for the Ravens once he was able to consistently play at the end of the regular season and playoffs. pic.twitter.com/t4baTlTcm2
Oh yeah, and all he has done this offseason is train with three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Xavier McKinney, DB, Giants
McKinney could be another example of clinging to pre-draft optimism but he made some big plays down the stretch after he returned from injury. McKinney was my highest-rated safety because of his consistency and well-rounded style of play. He is not the most flashy but should be a reliable piece for Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who is regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the game. There are enough other talented pieces on that defense -- Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, James Bradberry, Adoree' Jackson, Jabrill Peppers, etc... -- to allow the second-year defensive back to play freely.
Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears
Mooney begins a run of wide receivers. The 2020 NFL Draft was renowned for its production of competent pass catchers so it should come as no surprise to see a handful on this list. Mooney was labeled a deep-threat specialist last season despite averaging just 10.3 yards per reception. The quarterback play was hardly consistent and yet Mooney found a way to be. He finished his rookie season with 61 receptions for 631 yards and four touchdowns. Allen Robinson II will be the bell cow in that offense but there will be more opportunities for Mooney and others following the trade of the team's third-leading receiver from 2020 -- Anthony Miller. The inevitable insertion of rookie quarterback Justin Fields into the starter's role could lead to some big plays down the field for the former fifth-round pick.
He is a unanimous top 50 wide receiver, according to CBS Sports' fantasy football experts.
Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Colts
The inclusion of Pittman could be blind faith in the player. Despite missing three games, he compiled 40 receptions for 503 yards and one touchdown. As the season progressed, he felt more like a go-to option for that Colts passing game, which was to be expected when his primary competition was 31-year-old T.Y. Hilton and former undrafted free agent Zach Pascal. Pittman ended the season on a high note in the wild card round where he caught nine passes for 90 yards.
The health, or lack thereof, of Carson Wentz may have some sweating the future of Pittman, but the USC product should still be a key contributor.
Shenault concluded the 2020 campaign with 58 receptions for 600 yards and five touchdowns, which is respectable considering he missed two games and was limited for a few others. Jacksonville suddenly has a wealth of playmaking options and Shenault could be Trevor Lawrence's safety valve in the way that he always seemed to find Amari Rodgers as plays broke down last fall. The Colorado product is viewed in a similar range as Mooney from a fantasy perspective. The only concern is how Urban Meyer will adapt to the professional game.
Adam Trautman, TE, Saints
New Orleans parted ways with veteran tight end Jared Cook this offseason, which organically creates more opportunities for Trautman, who is a rather large, athletic tight end formerly of Dayton. As a rookie, he finished with 15 receptions for 171 yards and one touchdown. The Saints lack true vertical pressing options in the pass game so one would expect there to be a lot happening near the line of scrimmage regardless of whether or not Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is starting.
Trautman is a top 10 tight end, on average, according to CBS Sports' fantasy football experts.