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NFL 2021: Bills pass rusher Ed Oliver, Falcons’ receiver headline players primed to break out in third year

Most of us want instant impact in today’s NFL, but not too long ago we collectively were content with a young player not reaching his full potential until his third season. There was much more patience even a decade ago when it came to every position, most namely quarterback and receiver. 

After pinpointing contract-year breakouts earlier this week, it’s time to zero in on the third-year pros who, right now, aren’t extremely well known but will be recognizable names during the 2021 NFL season after taking noticeable steps forward. 

The Falcons are going to be all Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts in 2021, right? Well, mostly. But Matt Ryan is going to sling it. He led the NFL in completions in 2019 and completions and attempts last year. There’ll be plenty of targets to go around in Atlanta even with Ridley and Pitts as the ultra-hyped duo to replace Julio Jones. 

And the slippery Russell Gage is there too. But Olamide Zaccheaus, who had no business going undrafted after a dazzling career at Virginia, has done nothing but showcase big-play ability when given the opportunity. As a rookie, he had a 93-yard touchdown reception. Then, in 2020, Zaccheaus turned 30 targets into 20 catches for 274 yards and a score, including converting three of five contested-catch situations and 16 first downs. 

At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, you’d think Zaccheaus has to play inside. But he actually played on the perimeter five times more in his second season with the Falcons. Zaccheaus was an ultra-consistent chain-mover at Virginia, with an average of 89 receptions, 977 yards, and seven touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Cavaliers. With the majority of defensive attention on Ridley and Pitts, Zaccheaus is going to feast underneath and occasionally over the top thanks to sharp, sudden routes, deceptive wiggle after the catch, and surprising downfield speed. 

Last season, Pollard was the better, more efficient option than Ezekiel Elliott. For Cowboys fans, it probably felt sacreligious to want Pollard to get the football over Elliott, but the former was better for Dallas’ offense. 

Pollard averaged 4.3 yards per rush compared to Zeke’s 4.0. Pollard forced a missed tackle once every 4.03 touches. While of course there was a sizable volume difference, Elliott’s forced a missed tackle once every 5.33 times he touched the football. 

And for as thick and naturally talented as Elliott is, he’s now carried the football over 1,400 times in his NFL career, twice leading the league in carries. 

Don’t be shocked when Dallas’ coaching staff more evenly distributes the handoffs in 2020. Pollard just turned 24 and has only 187 carries of NFL mileage on his legs. The Cowboys offensive line will start the season the healthiest its been in a while, and Pollard is the springy type making waves in today’s space-oriented NFL. 

Jones was a pass-rushing specialist at Ohio State, one of the new-age slender defensive tackles who wins with quickness and hand work to the quarterback. He generated 30 pressures on 360 pass-rushing snaps last season. And he built on an impressive rookie campaign with an even more efficient second season in Denver’s defense rushing the passer from the inside. 

Every 12 pass-rushing snaps, Jones pressured the quarterback (on 360 opportunities), a respectable rate for such a young defensive tackle. For context, Fletcher Cox and Jonathan Allen’s rates were between 10 and 11 a season ago on about 100 more pass-rushing opportunities. 

Jones has long understood how to win the leverage battle with his hands, and his feet are married perfectly with his upper body to get an angle advantage as he’s deploying a move to get the offensive lineman off balance. 

Now totally “NFL strong,” Jones can lean on power when necessary, giving him the full arsenal needed to be a consistently annoying rusher for offensive line units. 

In 2020, the former fourth-round pick out of Iowa had four interceptions and eight pass breakups on one of the most porous secondaries in the NFL. The latter fact made Hooker easily overlooked. 

He tested as a high-caliber athlete at the 2019 combine, equipped with sub 4.50 speed and scintillating agility as illustrated by his 6.81 time in the three-cone drill. 

Tennessee finished with the 30th pass defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last year. Essentially, the only place to go is up. And GM Jon Robinson made a concerted effort to solidify that group this offseason with additions like cornerback Caleb Farley in the first round of the draft, versatile safety/corner hybrid Elijah Molden in the third and Janoris Jenkins in free agency. 

The pass-rushing acquisitions of Denico Autry and Bud Dupree should give the defensive backs more opportunities, and Hooker, a free safety at heart, will pounce on those chances to make a play on the football. He’ll be widely considered one of the best young safeties in football at the end of the season. 

Oliver was one of the more hyped defensive prospects in the 2019 class and somewhat surprisingly fell to the No. 9 overall pick after a career at Houston in which he was clearly the most talented player on the field in basically all of his games. 

And despite Aaron Donald-esque athleticism, through two years in Buffalo, Oliver has been just good, not great. But some of his development was slowed in 2020 when the block-eating Star Lotulelei opted out, thereby relegating the sub-300 pound Oliver to the nose tackle position early in the season. 

And what’s funny about Oliver’s reputation as somewhat of a disappointment heading into Year 3 — he’s actually been very productive as a pass rusher. As a rookie, he generated a pressure once every 12 pass-rushing snaps then lowered that figure to 11.7 on 60 more pass-rushing snaps in 2020. He’s the only defensive lineman (not counting edge rushers) from the 2019 class with at least 30 pressures in each of his first two NFL seasons. 

With Lotulelei back, Oliver will be pushed away from the ball into the three-technique position he was born to play. And he’s had ample time to add strength and a few moves to his supremely quick first step and sustained speed to the quarterback. Oliver will live up to his pre-draft hype this season with the Bills.