From Ja’Marr Chase to Kyle Pitts to Jaylen Waddle, the 2021 NFL Draft produced several instant-impact stars who quickly cemented themselves as home-run selections.
Yet not every high-profile prospect from last year’s rookie class made a seamless transition from college to the pros. While a slow start doesn’t necessarily mean a player will fail to live up to expectations, it does ramp up the pressure to make the all-important year-two leap.
Last season, Joe Burrow certainly did just that by completing a league-high 70.4% of his passes while leading the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl berth.
On the other side of the ball, fellow 2020 first-rounder A.J. Terrell announced his arrival by earning second-team All-Pro honors in his second year with the Atlanta Falcons.
Looking at the 2021 draft class, several candidates look primed to follow in Burrow and Terrell’s footsteps. So, who should NFL fans expect to become household names by the end of the 2022 season?
Here are five second-year players poised for breakout campaigns.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Talk about having the odds stacked against you. Not only did Trevor Lawrence go from playing for perhaps the top college football program in the country to arguably the NFL’s worst-run franchise, but he also had to spend his rookie season (part of it, at least) getting coached by Urban Meyer.
In other words: The former Clemson star didn’t have a shot at succeeding in 2021.
Luckily for Lawrence, the Jaguars realized the error of their ways and replaced the disgraced Meyer with someone who won a ring as an NFL head coach just five years ago. With Doug Pederson in charge, the franchise’s promising second-year quarterback has an intelligent, creative tutor who turned Nick Foles into a Super Bowl MVP with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In addition to having a significantly better coaching staff around him, Lawrence also has a stronger supporting cast that includes veteran wideouts Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, longtime New York Giants tight end Evan Engram, and a healthy version of a speedy playmaker and trusted college teammate Travis Etienne.
Coming off a frustrating first season in which he posted an ugly 12:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completed just 59.6% of his attempts, Lawrence looks bound to make substantial leaps across the board. Plus, don’t underestimate his ability to do damage with his legs.
Between Pederson’s presence and better weapons, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick has two distinct advantages heading into Week 1 that he didn’t have a year ago.
Rashod Bateman, WR, Baltimore Ravens
An aggressive run on receivers put the Baltimore Ravens in a position to take the final consensus first-round prospect left. And by using the 27th overall selection on Rashod Bateman, general manager Eric DeCosta devoted his first Day 1 pick to a player who could hopefully become Lamar Jackson’s No. 1 target.
While nobody would call Bateman’s rookie campaign a failure, he didn’t come close to delivering the same type of production as fellow first-round wideouts Ja’Marr Chase (81 receptions, 1,455 yards, 13 TD), Jaylen Waddle (104/1,015/6), or DeVonta Smith (64/916/5).
But after posting a solid-but-unspectacular line of 46/515/1, the big-bodied receiver has a golden opportunity to double those numbers. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, the former University of Minnesota star doesn’t just have a strong frame and large catch radius; he also has a coaching staff that’s banking on him to become the team’s primary playmaker.
Given his draft status and Baltimore’s lack of proven depth at the position, there’s no doubt Bateman faces enormous expectations heading into the 2022 season.
By all accounts, the talented wideout seems poised to become the go-to target the Ravens desperately need. Plus, with Lamar Jackson looking to get paid, you can be sure Bateman will receive plenty of chances to showcase his skills.
Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets
Ironically, the next receiver off the board after Bateman posted similar numbers as a rookie. And like his counterpart in Baltimore, Elijah Moore should be a major threat to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in 2022.
Of course, unlike Baltimore’s promising second-year wideout, the New York Jets’ No. 1 receiver doesn’t have the benefit of playing with a star quarterback.
That might be the only reason not to get completely excited about what Moore could do this season. Though undersized, the 5-foot-10, 178-pound wideout brings elite quickness and excellent route-running techniques. In fact, the former SEC standout showcased those skills for a solid stretch as a rookie by totaling 34 receptions for 459 yards and five TD between Weeks 8-13.
Assuming Zach Wilson gets healthy and makes a year-two leap of his own, Moore should threaten for 1,000 receiving yards and also make an impact as a ball carrier.
Christian Barmore, DT, New England Patriots
Looking for a second-year defender who could earn Pro Bowl consideration this season? Look no further than one of the few second-round picks made by Bill Belichick that actually looks poised to pan out.
Unlike Day 2 disasters like Cyrus Jones (2016), Duke Dawson (2018), and Joejuan Williams (2019), the Patriots appear to have a budding star on their hands in the form of the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Barmore.
Widely viewed as the top defensive tackle in his draft class, the physically imposing lineman fell out of the first round entirely due to work ethic concerns. Luckily for one of Nick Saban’s biggest stars, he landed with an organization led by the legendary Alabama coach’s best friend.
Coming off a solid debut season (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits), Barmore may soon force Belichick to put him on the field on all three downs.
Strong, powerful, and athletic, the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Defensive MVP brings a ton of tools to the table. If Barmore continues to make strides against the run and refine his pass-rush technique, he will prove NFL teams wrong for passing him over.
And considering Belichick’s track record of drafting and developing early-round defensive linemen (Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones), there should be no shortage of optimism surrounding his latest uber-talented prospect.
Kwity Paye, DE, Indianapolis Colts
While Barmore doesn’t necessarily have to rack up double-digit sacks to be a star, the pressure is squarely on Kwity Paye’s shoulders to hit that mark–and quickly. Based on all the factors at play, Indianapolis Colts fans should feel confident about the team’s top pick in 2021 becoming a bonafide star in 2022.
At 6-foot-2, 261 pounds, the Guinean native boasts an impressive physique, excellent athleticism, and a ton of upside. Paye flashed some of his potential as a rookie (four sacks, 10 quarterback hits), but he certainly got outshined by fellow first-rounders Micah Parsons (13 sacks) and Jaelan Phillips (8.5 sacks).
Plus, No. 50 overall pick Azeez Ojulari recorded eight sacks and 13 quarterback hits in his first season with the New York Giants.
This season, however, Paye should at least double the numbers he put up in Year 1. With another offseason to work on his pass-rush arsenal and veteran defensive end Yannick Ngakoue now lining up opposite him, the second-year pro has a good shot at hitting the 10-sack threshold himself.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference