"Making the leap" is a somewhat nebulous concept -- but there's no better time for nebulous concepts than mid-July.
And just because it's tough to set concrete benchmarks by which to measure whether a player has graduated from mediocre to good -- or good to great -- that doesn't mean it's not worth examining who could make a significant improvement in the coming season. After all, an ability to develop talent internally can be as important to winning as drafting and signing well.
So I decided to scan the NFL for candidates to make the leap in 2021. Here are my top 10:
It often takes players two full seasons to adjust to the NFL and show their true capability as pros, no matter how highly they're drafted. After a slow rookie year, the No. 3 overall pick from 2019 began to emerge as a defensive factor in 2020, collecting seven sacks and 55 tackles. The arrival of new Jets coach Robert Saleh, whose defensive lines were always among the league's best during his time as 49ers coordinator, signals Williams is headed for a monster Year 3.
The 2018 fourth-rounder had his best season in 2020, putting up 850 scrimmage yards (448 rushing, 402 receiving) and five total scores while ranking second on the Cardinals in touches (150). With Kenyan Drake now in Las Vegas, Edmonds is positioned to be the lead runner for the first time in his career. (Yes, James Conner did sign in Arizona, but I see him as more of a big-bodied complement at this point than an outright threat to vulture snaps from Edmonds.) Edmonds has a lot of talent, and he's someone that I've thought of for a while as being on the cusp of breaking out in the NFL. There's a strong chance it'll happen in 2021.
Though Allen did not win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, his numbers (10.5 sacks, 23 QB hits, two forced fumbles) would've supported it. Along with the Jaguars as a whole, Allen took a step back in 2020; he missed eight games with a knee injury and managed just 2.5 sacks. But I think he'll respond well to new coach Urban Meyer and defensive coordinator Joe Cullen -- in fact, I like Allen to outpace even his strong rookie production in 2021.
With Sammy Watkins signing with Baltimore, Hardman has an opportunity to solidify a spot as the No. 2 receiver in Kansas City behind Tyreek Hill. His production dipped in Year 2 in the NFL (13.7 yards per catch vs. 20.7 in 2019), but there are reasons to think he could flourish with a bigger role in the offense. We know he can make big plays -- even if that evidence is mostly based in what he's done in the return game -- and he did produce the third-best passer rating when targeted (116.3) of any player on the team with 50-plus targets, per Next Gen Stats. I know this selection is a bit of a projection, but I'm willing to bet on Hardman's potential in Year 3 with Patrick Mahomes.
I have faith that Jones will answer the doubters and settle his spot as the Giants' long-term QB in Year 3, thanks in no small part to the massive improvements made around him in the lineup. The additions of Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Rudolph, along with the return to health of running back Saquon Barkley, mean Jones will be working with the most firepower he's ever had at his disposal. Don't be swayed too much by Jones' lackluster TD-to-INT ratio (11:10) last season; the fact that he completed 62.5 percent of his passes despite working with pass catchers who had a hard time hanging on to the ball (the Giants ranked 12th in the NFL with 30 drops, per Pro Football Focus) is a good sign. I think the former top-10 pick has a chance to put up 20 TDs and complete over 64 percent of his passes in 2021.
I liked Burns coming out of college, but I wanted to see the 16th overall pick in 2019 add some weight. After a promising rookie season (7.5 sacks), that's exactly what he did, and it appeared to pay off -- he added another nine sacks in 2020, giving him 16.5 over the past two seasons, tied for 16th-most in the NFL in that span. The addition this offseason of Haason Reddick and the expected growth of 2020 draftees Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos should help Burns become an even better pass rusher than he has been to this point.
Pollard already started making the leap back in 2020, when he chipped in 628 yards from scrimmage (435 on the ground, 193 in the air) and five total TDs. I think the 2019 fourth-rounder is capable of being a 1,000-yard rusher if given the opportunity. I expect him to present Ezekiel Elliott with the first legitimate competition he's had for snaps since Elliott entered the NFL in 2016. Even if we presume Elliott keeps his hold on the starting spot, I'd expect Pollard's role to increase.
The Seahawks' selection of Brooks 27th overall last year raised some eyebrows, and his slow, injury-interrupted start surely didn't help assuage any doubters. But the Texas Tech product showed promise down the stretch, collecting 30 combined tackles between Week 13 and 17, second-most on the team in that span. Brooks will get a chance to impress even more in 2021, when he'll be asked to help replace departed defensive stalwart K.J. Wright. (If he can follow through on his vision of a pick-happy Year 2, so much the better.)
Davis looked like a fourth-round steal while hauling in seven touchdown catches as a rookie in 2020. He also racked up 17.1 yards per catch, the most of any rookie with 50-plus targets, and finished with a catch rate above expectation of +2.4 percent, third-best in that group, per Next Gen Stats. There are a lot of targets for Josh Allen to choose from in Buffalo, but Davis seems like a top candidate to play a bigger role this season -- especially if these spicy playoff highlights are still lingering in Allen's mind.
Smith has a strong opportunity to thrive in New Orleans as the No. 2 receiver, benefitting from the presence of Michael Thomas (presuming he bounces back from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2020) at WR1. I'll like Smith's chances of thriving even more if he can forge a connection with whichever QB (Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill) wins the top job.