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2021 NFL season: Candidates to Make the Leap from each AFC team

Some of the league's greatest breakout seasons of the last decade were presaged by a Making the Leap column on We also once gave Chase Daniel some pop.

For this year's edition, we're picking young players on each NFL team that are ready to take a big step in his development. Check out the candidates from the AFC below.

Training camp is finally here! Be sure to check out NFL Network's extensive live coverage, including Inside Training Camp every day and highlighted by Training Camp: Back Together Saturday Fueled by Gatorade on July 31.

J.K. Dobbins
Running back · Age 22

Playing running back next to Lamar Jackson is like playing offensive lineman in front of Tom Brady: He's going to make you look better. Dobbins' advantages in the Ravens' offense partially explain why he led the NFL in Football Outsiders' value-per-rush metric -- but that doesn't tell the whole story. Dobbins is already one of the best outside zone runners in football, with the juice and vision to win on the edge in a way Gus Edwards and the 2019 version of Mark Ingram could not. Fantasy owners shouldn't be that worried about Edwards; Dobbins is built for the 300-carry life.

Gabriel Davis
Receiver · Age 22

Don't punish Davis just because so many NFL teams missed on the fourth-rounder. Any rookie that finishes in the NFL's top five in yards per catch (17.1) while scoring seven touchdowns and finishing second among receivers on his AFC championship-making squad in offensive snaps should have first-round worthy hype. He should be a bigger part of the Bills' offense than 34-year-old free-agent pickup Emmanuel Sanders

Tee Higgins
Receiver · Age 22

Draft Twitter hipsters dismissed Higgins, a second-round choice in 2020, but the Bengals aren't about drafting cool. They love big-name players with big production from bigger programs. That paid off with the former Clemson Tiger, who won consistently as a rookie whether he lined up in the slot or when he ran routes deep on the outside. It's rare to see a player with his length able to break tackles and come down with jump balls. 

In a loaded rookie receiver draft class, the fantastic production (908 yards) Higgins managed despite catching passes from Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley for half the season was overlooked. Don't be shocked if Higgins winds up leading the Bengals in receiving, at least for a year, alongside Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd

Jedrick Wills
Left tackle · Age 22

Wills was excellent for a rookie left tackle on the best offensive line in football, even if he didn't have the stretches of dominance that we saw from fellow 2020 first-rounders Tristan Wirfs of the Bucs or Mekhi Becton of the Jets. There are reasons to believe Wills will continue to prosper in 2021. He was much better as a pass protector than a run blocker, and run-blocking is more easily taught -- especially when one of the best to ever coach linemen, Bill Callahan, is helping out. Wills also learned well on the job. Of the nine sacks/QB hits he was credited with giving up last season, according to Pro Football Focus, only two came from Week 8 on (including playoffs).

Jerry Jeudy
Receiver · Age 22

Jeudy just moves differently. I'm not sure how anyone can watch Jeudy run a handful of routes and not become convinced he's a star. The drops were frustrating, but he wouldn't be the first great receiver to have streaky hands -- and he's going to have plenty of opportunities for streaks, because he's always open. Hopefully, Teddy Bridgewater can put the ball on target more often than Drew Lock did a year ago.

Zach Cunningham
Linebacker · Age 26

It's weird to put a player who already received a big second contract on this list, but the Texans are a weird team. There just aren't many young developmental players to track (pass rusher Charles Omenihu is one), and I'm curious to see how Cunningham responds to new coordinator Lovie Smith's system. Already established as one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league, Cunningham became more of a liability in coverage over the last two years. There is some belief in Houston that Smith's zone-coverage bonafides and the fifth-year pro's athleticism will help make this system a better fit. It may be July-inflected optimism, but I'm buying it.

Jonathan Taylor
Running back · Age 22

It's rare to see a light bulb go off as obviously as it did for Taylor midway through his rookie season. The second-round pick was initially hesitant and often hit the wrong gap, but the game eventually slowed down for him early in downs before he sped away from tacklers. After Week 13, only Derrick Henry gained more rushing yards on the ground among NFL RBs. There's no reason why Taylor can't stake his claim as one of the best rushers in football.

It's hard not to like Shenault, who bounces off defenders as if he were a young Maurice Jones-Drew playing wide receiver instead of running back. Urban Meyer has sung his praises this offseason, as have beat writers, which puts the 2020 second-rounder on this list over cornerback C.J. Henderson, selected with the ninth overall pick last year. Meyer's offenses can always make use of players who make plays after the catch, and that's Shenault's specialty, giving him a chance to be the AFC's answer to Deebo Samuel.

L'Jarius Sneed
Cornerback · Age 24

The Chiefs have a way of coaching up terrific production at cornerback from surprising places. Enter Sneed, a fourth-round pick who ranked higher in PFF's coverage metrics than any 2020 rookie. The Chiefs are starving for some young players to develop as foundational pieces on defense, and Sneed's natural ability to adjust to the ball in the air has him on a sneaky star track.

Trayvon Mullen
Cornerback · Age 23

Mullen declined in 2020, like much of the Raiders' defense. But the 2019 second-rounder's tenacity and effort still showed up each week. A new defensive system led by new coordinator Gus Bradley can only help a Vegas D that has nowhere to go but up. Mullen's strong rookie season, leadership skills and propensity for getting his hands on the ball (14 passes defensed in 2020) all bode well for his third NFL season and should help make at least one of general manager Mike Mayock's heavy investments in the secondary pay off.

Justin Herbert
Quarterback · Age 23

Herbert made hard throws under pressure look easy, and he made impossible throws look possible. If not for one of the league's worst offensive lines and a defense that couldn't hold a lead, his Offensive Rookie of the Year season would be better recognized as one of the great quarterback debuts in NFL history. Playing like a top-10 QB from the jump is nearly unheard of, so the ceiling here is for Herbert to make a run at the MVP award in Year 2, like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.  

Austin Jackson
Left tackle · Age 21
Robert Hunt
Offensive line · Age 24
Solomon Kindley
Offensive line · Age 24

I believe with all my heart that many of the players on this list will make that leap. However, there are a few others who were included because they are so vital to their teams' success -- and that's the case with Miami's second-year offensive linemen. PFF was not particularly enthused about the trio's play -- and they weren't the only ones who found the O-line lacking. Dolfans will swear up and down that we're all wrong. With Hunt likely moving inside to guard and Jackson asked to hold down left tackle after the team passed on Penei Sewell at No. 6 overall, this group could make or break this offense.

Damien Harris
Running back · Age 24

My well-coiffed Around the NFL co-host Dan Hanzus said he would bet his life on the 2019 third-rounder improving this season, while making a player comp to Corey Dillon that I like so much, I'm stealing it here. All Bill Belichick has ever wanted is a slashing, decisive runner like Harris to go all 1980s on the lightweight defenses dotting the league. With Harris -- and a powerhouse offensive line -- Belichick is ready to play heavy.

Quinnen Williams
Defensive tackle · Age 23

Williams' second-half surge came just in time for fans wondering if he was going to live up to the predraft hype that accompanied his selection with the third overall pick in 2019. You could argue that he's already Made the Leap, but playing the DeForest Buckner role in Robert Saleh's defense would be another step up. The only concern here is that Williams is coming off foot surgery (he's currently on the PUP list) and has missed three games in each of his two seasons thus far. Otherwise, he has the game and the personality to become a New York favorite, starting now.

You have to get open a lot to drop the ball as much as Johnson did in 2020. While the streakiness was frustrating, Johnson makes too many excellent hand catches and grabs in tight traffic to believe that he's destined to struggle with drops forever. In a league increasingly reliant on man coverage, Johnson's ability to beat one-on-one matchups is nearly unmatched, as our old friend Matt Harmon loves to point out. I'd take the 2019 third-rounder over Chase Claypool as the Steelers' No. 1 wideout this year, and I'll take Johnson to go over 1,200 yards in his third pro season.

Jeffery Simmons
Defensive tackle · Age 23

A handful of the players on this list -- like Simmons -- are already great, so they should probably be on a Let's Make Them More Famous list instead. At any rate, Simmons built on his impressive rookie season in 2019 by cranking up the pass rush from the interior in Year 2, recording 41 pressures at 301 pounds. There's still another step for him to go up, and it should result in a Chris Jones-like contract in a few years. 

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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