Sometimes in the NFL, it feels like a contract year is enough to push a player to new heights. The potential for a new, lucrative deal intensifies training, sharpens focus, and we get the best version of that player before he strikes it rich in free agency or signs a mega extension with the team that drafted him.
And a lot of the time, these players seemingly ascend from obscurity, going from relative unknown to household name in one year on an expiring contract.
These are those players heading into the 2021 season, guys primed to break out on the final year of their current deal who haven't already asserted themselves as stars but will do so soon enough.
Okorafor has methodically chugged along in his developmental process since entering the Steelers organization as a third-round pick in 2018. And of course, even if it's not rapid, growth is crucial in the justification of a breakout prediction.
In his first two seasons combined, which spanned just 120 pass-blocking snaps, Okorafor allowed a pressure every 13.3 of those snaps. In a more expanded role last season, playing right tackle, Okorafor surrendered a pressure once every 26 snaps. HELLO.
He is making the more-difficult-than-advertised switch from the right side to left tackle this season, but Okorafor is a fourth-year pro now. He's ready for it. And the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun, are going to continue to center their offense around getting it out of his hands quickly. In 2020, Big Ben led the NFL with the quickest average time-to-throw figure (2.17 seconds) by a wide margin. Therefore, Okorafor won't have to protect for extend periods of time, and Roethlisberger isn't exactly at the point of his career where he hurts his blocking unit by running into pressure.
By the end of the season, the thick, deceptively athletic punishing blocker will be viewed as one of the better relatively young left tackles in football and will command a sizable raise in free agency.
Sweat was misused at Florida State and had knee injuries bother him during his entire career with the Seminoles. Now, as a full-time outside pass rusher, Sweat has repeatedly flashed early in his NFL career. And the breakout is coming in 2021.
After a minimal workload as a rookie, Sweat registered a pressure every 10.1 pass-rushing snaps in 2019. With his workload scaled back slightly in 2020, he was actually a tick less efficient, generating a pressure every 14.6 pass-rush snaps. But not every breakout pops off the spreadsheet.
Sweat improved individually as a rusher in Year 3. He proved he had more moves on which to lean to beat blockers on the outside. And, heck, he just turned 24 years old.
There's a relatively deep outside rusher group in Philadelphia, but Ryan Kerrigan turns 33 in August. Brandon Graham is already 33. Sweat has the spring in his step and the high-caliber athletic traits along with developed pass-rush plans to emerge as one of the better, more difficult matchups on the outside this year.
It was impossible for Franklin-Myers to attract attention on a defensive line with Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers as a rookie with the Rams in 2018. He ever so quietly forced a quarterback pressure once every 8.6 snaps, a rather high rate. He didn't make the team in 2019 then battled through injury after getting scooped up by the Jets.
Last season, while totally different from his Rams days, Franklin-Myers was not in a situation conducive to fanfare. With New York, he accumulated 51 pressures on just 353 pass-rushing snaps, or a pressure once every 6.9 pass-rushing snaps. Super good.
Still not 25 years old, on a defensive line that now boasts a little more talent around him, Franklin-Myers is in for a big season many of us should've seen coming had we not paid as much attention to Donald in Los Angeles in 2018 or watched more of the abysmal Jets last season. He's a high-energy rusher with active and heavy hands. Those are the ingredients needed to routinely get after the quarterback.
Man, I loved Reed as a draft prospect -- my No. 87 overall prospect in the 2018 class. He was picked by the 49ers at No. 142 overall in the fifth round. At Kansas State, Reed was a springy, assertive, strong tackler who played much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 188-pound frame. Always around the football.
He was a reliable tackler in his debut season in San Francisco but failed to register a pass breakup and was beaten for two touchdowns in his coverage area. Year 2 was better, allowing just one score with a pair of defended passes. Yet Reed was limited to just 130 defensive snaps. An injury before training camp in 2020 precipitated him being waived by the 49ers, and their NFC West rival Seahawks were quick to snatch him off the wire.
And last year he was outstanding in Pete Carroll's scheme as a movable piece who manned outside, slot, and box duties. On 630 snaps, Reed had two picks and seven pass breakups to go along with 62 total tackles and just one allowed touchdown.
Reed earned himself a starting, full-time gig in Seattle. He'll be a household name by the end of the season thanks to his twitch, instincts, and steady tackling habits in Carroll's defense.
Smith's departure and the Titans passing on the entire tight end class in the draft means Firkser is now the TE1 in Tennessee. In 2020, the Titans lead the league in offensive formations with at least two tight ends on the field -- 50% of their offensive snaps met that criteria. Gargantuan number. And 126 of Ryan Tannehill's targets went to the tight end position last season.
Firsker isn't the YAC monster Smith is, but he did catch 39 passes at nearly 10 yards per reception a year ago and flashed in a lesser role in each of his first two seasons in Tennessee.
This breakout will be predicated on opportunity and offensive philosophy more than pure talent. Firkser will be in line for loads of snaps and targets with the Titans, and if some of former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's scheme is retained, there'll be plenty of playaction tosses to the Firkser in the flat and on in-breaking routes after a fake handoff to Derrick Henry.
I'm not expecting elite tight end production from Firkser, but the volume will absolutely warrant him being on mostly everyone's radar by the end of the season.
In Philadelphia, a seventh-round pick just might Wally Pipp a former first-round selection. Jordan Mailata, the Eagles seventh-round pick in 2018, was healthy in 2020 when most of his team's line wasn't and slowly came into his own at left tackle with an awe-inspiring combination of size, length, balance, and power.
Mailata stood in for the Andre Dillard, the man handpicked in Round 1 of the 2019 draft to be Jason Peters' heir apparent at left tackle. Dillard tore his biceps before the 2020 regular season kicked off.
The two are set to battle for the starting left tackle gig, and for as much as I liked Dillard as a prospect, I'm siding with Mailata. He's going to win it outright, thereby relegating a 25-year-old former first-round pick to the swing tackle role in his third professional season.
And the 6-8, nearly 350-pound Mailata is a monster in pass protection and really gets after in for the run game. He allowed a pressure once every 15.6 pass-blocking snaps in 2020. While not spectacular, it's very encouraging Mailata managed that rate in his first NFL action as a 23-year-old. The Eagles have sneaky potential in the trenches if the group can stay healthy, and the former Australian rugby player will be one of the hottest impending free agents, but the Eagles would be silly to let him hit the market.
For those really paying attention, Phillips actually broke out in 2019 as a part-time player in Cincinnati's secondary with four interceptions and seven pass breakups on just 108 defensive snaps. Unbelievable efficiency in the play-making department.
Phillips was given a more substantial role in 2020, and while, unsurprisingly, he wasn't able to sustain the ridiculous splay-play productivity from 2019, on nearly 600 snaps, the former Western Michigan star had a pick and 12 pass breakups playing predominantly on the outside and occasionally in the slot.
With star William Jackson now in Washington, it's time for Phillips to step into the spotlight, and he will in 2021 thanks to his ball skills and light feet and allow him to track receivers at all levels of the field and disrupt passes thrown in his direction.