We hit the AFC Making the Leap candidates earlier in the week. Here's one player from each NFC squad ready to take a big step in his development.
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Breakout seasons often come down to getting the ball more. Edmonds is already a top-five running back in receiving value in 2021, according to Football Outsiders, and figures to get more carries this season with only James Conner to compete with. It's trendy to line up running backs as wideouts, but few can win from the outside or the slot as consistently as Edmonds.
Terrell is unfortunately best known for struggling to cover Ja'Marr Chase in the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship. That helped lead to Draft Twitter universally condemning the Falcons' selection of Terrell over CeeDee Lamb as a reach, yet I haven’t seen many of the same analysts apologizing a year later. Terrell belongs. On a dark 2020 Falcons defense, the rookie was a ray of light. In today's NFL, holding up as an average starting corner in Year 1 is a sign of great things to come. (So is defensive coordinator Dean Pees showing up in town.)
Burns reminds me of a young Robert Quinn. His first step and juice are off the charts. So is his effort, which -- combined with his speed -- allows him to impact plays he appears out of. My friend Nate Tice broke it down better than I could earlier this offseason. Burns is already an impact rusher, but if he improves again in his third season, he could be an All-Pro.
The Bears traded Anthony Miller last week because they didn’t need him. In Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney, Chicago could quietly have one of the better combinations of vertical threats in football. It just so happens they drafted a quarterback in Justin Fields who's well-equipped to get the ball down the field where the Tulane product's speed make him a tough cover.
I’ll admit that the Diggs' selection is based more on the eyeball test and the reality that the Cowboys don’t have many young developmental players to tout. Diggs was beat early and often as a rookie, but his play improved throughout the season. FOX’s Troy Aikman couldn’t get enough of him, and I was also quite impressed by Diggs' fluidity and plays on the ball during his best reps. He arrived in training camp this season making plays, with one of the Cowboys starting jobs locked down.
Aubrey Pleasant, passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach
Do not take Pleasant’s inclusion as the only coach on this list as a total indictment of the Lions' roster. Just a partial indictment. The Flint native's move from the Rams to the Lions was a coup for Dan Campbell, as Pleasant's work coaching up Rams cornerbacks over the last few years was second to none. Don't be surprised if Pleasant lands on some defensive coordinator interview lists if he can turn around the struggling group in Detroit. Last year's No. 3 overall pick, Jeff Okudah, is coming off a rough rookie season, and the rest of the group lacks proven talent, so Pleasant should get noticed if he can help them settle down.
When a team drafts a "project" like Gary in the top 15, you just want to see obvious development by his second season. Gary showed that late last year, with the best month of his career coming during the Packers' final games. He had two contests with at least six pressures and ranked as a top-10 edge rusher, per Pro Football Focus, in that limited sample size. The Packers' defense is at its best with Za’Darius Smith rushing from the interior while Gary provides the speed off the edge, an alignment we'll see more of in 2021.
The Rams rely on developing mid-to-late-round selections into quality starters to make up for all the first-round picks flying out the building and all the monster veteran deals inside of it. Fuller looks like their latest hit -- a deep center safety whose quick adjustment to the pros allowed the team to let John Johnson leave in free agency. Despite a truncated rookie offseason, Fuller looked like a five-year vet from his first snap.
I struggled to find a quality Making the Leap candidate on some teams. In Minnesota, I loved three: Woods, tight end Irv Smith Jr. and cornerback Cameron Dantzler. I chose Woods because I've always thought he was underrated and he's entering a perfect situation. Mike Zimmer has a history of getting safeties like Anthony Harris, Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton to play better than anyone thought possible. Perhaps the secret is playing next to Harrison Smith, but leaving the mess in Dallas for this defense should help Woods finally use all his range to the fullest.
Michael Thomas isn't expected to play for a while and it's worth wondering if he'll be the same player when he returns. The team's most accomplished wideout is Tre'Quan Smith, and the starting tight end (Adam Trautman) had less than 200 yards last season. Taysom Hill isn't going anywhere and makes way more money than Winston. So, yeah, there are a lot of factors working against Jameis, but the Saints' excellent offensive line and better offensive head coach will set him up to beat modest expectations. This is absolutely a vote for Sean Payton, not to mention a player in Winston with 70 career starts and an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, a higher career figure than Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and ... (drumroll please) Tom Brady.
Year 2 didn't provide the considerable step forward that many wanted from Danny Dimes, if it provided a step forward at all. His reduction in turnovers came with a reduction in the impressive improvisational plays that provided hope during his rookie campaign. He threw well deep when he got the chance, but was under pressure so often and struggled so much with men in his face that it was hard to evaluate much else. The Giants' O-line was miserable and there's no guarantee it's any better this year. That said, the weapons around Jones are certainly upgraded and should be healthier. I believe he'd be close to a league-average starter if he were protected, as evidenced by the fact that he fished 18th out of 42 quarterbacks in PFF's grading of players who took at least 20 percent of their teams' dropbacks in 2020. Being league average in actual production would represent a big leap -- and might be enough for the Giants to make the playoffs.
This pick is almost cheating because Goedert was on pace for more than 800 yards a year ago if not for injuries getting in the way. Still, he piled up his 2020 production while sharing the field with Zach Ertz on a broken offense. Ertz is more than likely to be an ex-Eagle by Week 1, and Goedert has the skill set to be the NFC's second-best tight end behind George Kittle.
Aiyuk is so damn fun. He is also so much better as a route runner than he was given credit for during the draft process -- and he can make tacklers look absolutely silly as he runs around, through and over them. I can't believe the 49ers drafted a receiver that I'd take over Deebo Samuel as the team's future No. 1 just a year after Samuel, but here we are. (And that future starts now.)
Robinson has some obstacles in his way, despite recording four sacks and 18 pressures in only 344 snaps as a rookie. He faces the soft bigotry of being a fifth-round pick, where every big play he makes is an indictment on Darrell Taylor, Rasheem Green, L.J. Collier and other players selected higher than him. Robinson is also fighting for snaps as a backup to Carlos Dunlap at the team's LEO spot with a whole gang of edge players signed this offseason like Kerry Hyder and Aldon Smith. With all that said, I'm trusting my eyes on Robinson. He looks like a young, ascending talent on a rookie contract playing for an organization that could desperately use more guys like that.
Everyone played so well for the Bucs down the stretch last year that it's hard to find someone with room to improve. One place to start is at safety, where Winfield made massive plays early in his rookie year and then during the Bucs' playoff run. In between, he was a difference maker as a run stuffer and player near the line of scrimmage, but still had some rookie moments in coverage, finishing 52nd out of 64 safeties in PFF's grading among players who logged at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps. Winfield has already shown he's savvy beyond his years and is likely to improve on that weakness on the way to becoming one of the most complete safeties in football.
The question about Gibson entering his rookie season was whether the college wide receiver could hold up between the tackles. He wound up being one of the most impressive power runners in football. Gibson’s development was obvious for all to see; there isn’t a part of his game that is lacking. I would take Gibson over all six running backs taken ahead of him in the 2020 NFL Draft. Heck, I would take Gibson over all but five running backs (Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffery) in the entire NFL right now.