The 2021 NFL Draft class has been the talk of the gridiron world recently. Even then, there’s a ton of young players from last year’s iteration set to take that next step as sophomores.
Chase Young was great for his Washington Football Team as a rookie. However, the expectation is that the former No. 2 pick will enter the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation under Ron Rivera in the nation’s capital this coming season.
On the offensive side of the ball, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has been given the keys to the kingdom and has a shiny new toy. Could he excel as a sophomore?
Below, we take a look at five second-year NFL players who will take that next step once the 2021 season comes calling in September.
Chase Young, EDGE, Washington Football Team
Young was the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned Pro Bowl honors after Washington made him the No. 2 selection in that year’s NFL Draft. In the process, he recorded 12 quarterback hits, 10 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. In no way does this mean Young can’t take that next step as a sophomore.
Still only 22 years old, there’s really no ceiling when it comes to Young’s NFL career moving forward. He should also be helped by the continued presence of fellow former first-round pick Montez Sweat and what will be an in-person training camp this coming summer. Look for Young to take off big time, potentially challenging for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2021.
Jonathan Taylor, running back, Indianapolis Colts
Already underrated coming out of Wisconsin last year, this former second-round pick was absolutely amazing as a rookie. Taylor recorded an eye-opening 1,468 total yards and 12 touchdowns at a clip of 5.5 yards per touch. He proved to be a dual-threat option out of the backfield, catching an absurd 92.3% of his 39 targets.
We’re expecting Taylor to take that performance to new levels in 2021, potentially surpassing the 2,000-total yard mark while competing with Derrick Henry for the NFL rushing title. He has a generational guard in Quenton Nelson blocking in front of him and a new quarterback in Carson Wentz under center. Despite Wentz’s struggles a season ago in Philadelphia, he still boasts a better arm than last year’s Colts’ starter, Philip Rivers. That could open things up for Taylor on the ground.
C.J. Henderson, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
These Jaguars will be relying on Henderson to take that next step as a sophomore after their defense gave up 34 passing touchdowns against 12 interceptions a season ago. For his part, Henderson played in just eight games as a rookie and recorded one interception in the process.
The good news for this Florida product? Jacksonville signed stud veteran cornerback Shaquill Griffin away from the Seattle Seahawks in free agency. That type of presence should help the former Florida standout up his performance moving forward. In his eight games a season ago, Henderson graded out as the second-best rookie cornerback via Pro Football Focus metrics.
Tee Higgins, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
It was somewhat of a surprise to see Higgins last to the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft after a dominating career with the Clemson Tigers. The stud receiver responded accordingly, hauling in 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns. He was among the top NFL rookies on either side of the ball.
That was magnified when rookie No. 1 pick Joe Burrow was on the field. In the 10 games Burrow started prior to suffering a torn ACL, Higgins averaged north of four catches for 63 yards. Now that the Bengals added stud fellow receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and with A.J. Green in the Arizona desert, expect Higgins to take that next step in 2021.
Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
After moving off Carson Wentz earlier in the offseason, these Eagles flirted with moving up in the 2021 NFL Draft for Justin Fields. Instead, Philadelphia found a way to add a reigning Heisman winner in wide receiver Devonta Smith. It’s now clear that general manager Howie Roseman and Co. are going all in with Hurts during the 2021 NFL season.
For good reason. Once he took over for a mistake-prone Wentz as a rookie last year, Hurts brought a whole new dynamic to Philadelphia’s offense. Boasting a dual-threat ability, the former Heisman finalist is set to shine with running back Miles Sanders in front of a healthy offensive line next season. Look for Hurts to take that next step, proving to a skeptical Eagles brass that he’s a franchise quarterback.