You don’t have to look far these days to find rankings of just about anything NFL-related. With training camp around the corner, we’ve already gone position by position to grade the top 10 at each spot, sorted through all 32 head coaches, identified the best divisions by quarterbacks, and so much more. But what about the guys who aren’t necessarily getting as much love going into the new season? What about the players whose production — or durability — didn’t necessarily match their big names the last time we saw them?
Don’t worry. We haven’t forgotten about them. Slip-ups happen. And sometimes, they’re the precursor to a big rebound. With that in mind, here’s a look at 10 players most poised to have a bounce-back season in 2021:
Jimmy G has been done in by injuries more than poor play, and it’s possible — if not probable — that first-round pick Trey Lance will own the No. 1 QB job by season’s end. Even if Lance’s upside (or another Garoppolo injury) eventually provokes Kyle Shanahan to take the keys out of the veteran’s hands, though, there’s a solid chance the former Super Bowl starter will revive his stock this year. Lance’s presence alone will be motivating, but more importantly, Garoppolo should have a much healthier supporting cast. His resume is still lighter than you’d think, and he’s been solid rather than elite when healthy, but the pieces are in place for Garoppolo to at least boost his numbers en route to a new job elsewhere.
The only reason Dak isn’t much higher on this list is because the only thing he’s bouncing back from is an injury. Unlike Garoppolo, Prescott was literally leading the stat sheets before he hurt his ankle. His gaudy numbers weren’t completely offsetting Dallas’ porous defense, but they sure as heck gave the Cowboys a fighting chance. For crying out loud, he was on pace for just under 6,000 passing yards through five games. Prescott has to prove in 2021 he can both stay upright and finally win a big game on a hopeful playoff run. But everything else, namely the weapons out wide, suggests he’ll be in for yet another big year as the face of the franchise.
Barkley isn’t just trying to erase memories of an injury that wiped out all but two starts in 2020. He’s also working to erase memories of a sluggish start to last season, when he averaged just 1.8 yards per carry before going down. New York may ease him back into a workhorse role through camp and even into September, but even if he misses another start or three this year, the pure physical talent is undeniable. When he’s on the field and up to form, he’s one of the most explosive play-makers at his position. It helps that Daniel Jones and Co. have a few other offensive toys this year.
You could make the case he belongs even higher here. Despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry in six starts in 2020, Mixon was on pace to finish the year with something like 1,600 yards on the ground, plus another 300 or so as a receiver, before going down. He’s got the long-term deal from last summer to give him peace of mind. And now he’s got a healthier Joe Burrow with some additional weapons on offense. A Pro Bowl bid seems well within reach.
Let’s just start with this: It’s going to be pretty hard for him to be any worse than he was in 2020. It’s probably a stretch to assume a Frank Reich reunion means his 2017 MVP-caliber form is about to return in full force. But the change of scenery should make a legitimate difference after both organizational dysfunction and self-inflicted wounds piled up last year. Wentz is by nature more of an off-script play-maker than system-confined QB, but on the Colts’ playoff-ready roster, with Reich steering the ship, no one should be shocked if he throws close to 30 touchdowns and Indianapolis is back in the postseason.
Just call him Saquon Barkley, because injuries — a torn ACL, to be specific — robbed him of any chance to match prior production in 2020. The difference is Bosa, at 23, has just 18 NFL games under his belt. And at least 16 of them were absolutely dominant. If anyone should be ready to explode out of the gate this fall, it should be Bosa, who may miss Robert Saleh’s direction on San Francisco’s defense but should also benefit from a healthier supporting cast. Double-digit sacks, here we come.
As you can see, injuries play a big role here. Before 2020, McCaffrey had never missed a game, posting three straight 80-catch seasons to start his career. Then came ankle and shoulder issues that limited him to three contests and forced Carolina to lean heavily on backup Mike Davis and QB Teddy Bridgewater, both of whom are now gone. He’s not nearly as physically imposing as, say, Barkley. But few players are as reliable — serving as a constant, dual-threat safety valve — when healthy. Regardless of whether Sam Darnold pans out at QB, McCaffrey should be in for another big dose of touches.
Some starting WRs would be fine with a 51-771-3 stat line, but for Jones, those 2020 marks were thoroughly uninspiring. They also came in just nine games. Julio may not be in peak form entering his age-32 season, and his recent injury history suggests he’s far from a lock to play 17 games this year, but goodness, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy with a better makeup and situation for a rebound. Firstly, Jones is still one of the game’s most imposing bodies out wide, bringing such a high floor for production if he plays close to a full season. Secondly, he’s now opposite A.J. Brown and alongside Derrick Henry in an offense perfectly suited to his physical style of play. Would anyone be remotely surprised if he hits 1,000 yards and matches a career-high 10 touchdowns?
Like Bosa, here’s an elite pass rusher who just didn’t get a chance to produce in 2020, missing the entire year due to a neck issue. The reason Hunter is higher? His track record still doesn’t get the love it deserves, and he’s coming back to a defense that should be much closer to the norm for a Mike Zimmer unit. Still just 26, he racked up 54.5 sacks in his first five seasons, including 14.5 in back-to-back years from 2018-2019. Now he’s set to line up alongside Dalvin Tomlinson and old friend Sheldon Richardson. Don’t be stunned if he makes an immediate return to the league-wide leader board for sacks.
1. Odell Beckham Jr.
Is there a more simultaneously overrated and underrated wideout in the NFL? His critics say the Giants were right to deal him, that Baker Mayfield plays better without him, that he’s never fully invested, that he’s nowhere near as scary as his talent and early career suggests. What they miss is the fact he’s topped 1,000 yards every time he’s played at least 12 games (five times!), the fact he’s eclipsed 13.5 yards per catch in all but one season, and the possibility that he’ll go off in what could be his first full season under the Kevin Stefanski regime. Jarvis Landry may be Mayfield’s favorite, and the Browns’ offense starts on the ground, but if he can stay on the field, there’s no reason to think yet another 1,000-yard campaign won’t happen as Cleveland solidifies itself as a contender.