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Which NFL Breakout Performances Are Here to Stay?

Many players have ascended to new levels of success in 2020. Which ones will be long-term stars?

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Each year in the NFL, there are players whose star begins to shine so bright that it forces observers to take note. Some break through for the first time, while others reclaim the potential they had earlier in their career. Whatever the case may be, these breakthroughs are always exciting and can prove integral to the success of their respective squads.

With half of the 2020 NFL regular season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and several breakthrough performances. Below, we take a look at some of those players who have stood out through the first half of the year, and break down why their performances might be sustainable moving forward.

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

Herbert has been tremendous since taking over the Chargers starting job in Week 2 and he has emerged as a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. As The Ringer’s Riley McAtee noted after Los Angeles’s gutting defeat to the Raiders last week, Herbert has been historically efficient for a first-year quarterback. Tyrod Taylor’s presence made it seem unlikely that Herbert would see much of the field for the Chargers in his rookie season, but the former Oregon star hasn’t looked back since being pressed into starting duty.

Part of the reason Herbert’s play has been so surprising is that he’s succeeding under pressure, which was not something he did well during his final season at Oregon. According to Pro Football Focus, Herbert ranked 124th out of 129 qualified FBS quarterbacks in negatively graded play under pressure during the 2019-20 collegiate season. Seven games into his NFL career, Herbert ranks third among qualified passers in completion rate under pressure (59 percent), fifth in adjusted completion rate under pressure (74.0), and first in passer rating under pressure (101.6). This was the area that gave many draft pundits the most pause when discussing Herbert’s potential, and he’s stunningly curbed those issues.

Passing numbers from a clean pocket, though, are more stable and more likely to reveal how a quarterback will perform over time. Through seven games, Herbert is 21st in completion rate (71.0), 17th in adjusted completion rate (79.4) and 18th in passer rating (106.1) when not under pressure, according to PFF. Those numbers are near the middle of the pack, but are undoubtedly a solid foundation for Herbert to build on. Herbert has notched a completion rate that is 4.4 points higher than expected (tied for fourth), despite attempting tight-window throws on 18.6 percent of his attempts (eighth), per Next Gen Stats. His overall adjusted completion rate (77.8) ranks 12th in the NFL.

The initial returns suggest that Herbert’s breakout campaign is just the beginning of what should be a productive career. The next step: winning.

Jeffery Simmons, DL , Tennessee Titans

The Titans selected Simmons 19th overall in the 2019 NFL draft. As a rookie, he missed seven games as he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered after his final season at Mississippi State, but he appeared in nine games (seven starts), and made an impact as Tennessee improbably reached the AFC championship game. Simmons is fully healthy this season and has taken his game up another level to emerge as one of the NFL’s most talented interior linemen.

In seven starts, Simmons has notched 21 quarterback pressures and two sacks, plus leads all defensive tackles in ESPN’s run-stop win rate—despite drawing double teams at a high clip.

He’s made impact plays in several of Tennessee’s victories this season, including a monstrous fourth-and-goal stop against the Broncos in Week 1, a forced fumble (recovered by Desmond King for a touchdown) against the Bears, and a fumble recovery also against the Bears last week. Simmons’s improvement has made him a force and a crucial presence in helping the Titans remain a contender this year.

Fred Warner, LB, 49ers

Warner doesn’t have the national recognition he likely deserves, although his teammates, opposing players and coaches frequently emphasize the third-year middle linebacker’s talents.

Warner has been outstanding this season for a Niners defense that’s lost many of its past key contributors. He’s one of the league’s best coverage linebackers—opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 50.4 when targeting him this year—and is just as capable as a run defender. Warner is ninth in the league with 74 total tackles and his 84.2 player grade ranks second among linebackers (min. 502 snaps), according to PFF.

Brian Burns, Edge, Panthers

Brain Burns has made the Year 2 leap. The 2019 first-round pick was productive as a rookie last year, recording 7.5 sacks and making five starts. But this season, he’s been consistently dominant, stressing opposing offensive lines and passers with his pass-rushing talents. His spin move has been especially effective, but he’s shown that he can generate pressure without it, too.

Burns has been disruptive. He’s generated three forced fumbles, 31 pressures, and 11 quarterback hits. He was a major reason why the Panthers nearly upset the Chiefs last week, as Burns knocked down Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes three times and pressured him just as many. First-year coach Matt Rhule was high on Burns upon joining Carolina, and has made him a key piece in his talented defensive line. Burns ranks fifth among defensive ends and outside linebackers in ESPN’s run-stop win rate (32 percent) and fourth in pass-rush win rate (27 percent).

The game appears to have slowed down tremendously for Burns. The twitchy edge defender might not have the flashiest stats or play for a title contender, but he’s cemented himself as a dominant player off the edge.

James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

At 805 total yards from scrimmage, Robinson enters the halfway point on pace to shatter the record for scrimmage yards (1,473) by an undrafted rookie. The Jaguars haven’t had much to celebrate this season, but Robinson’s ascension has been noteworthy. He’s sixth in the NFL in rushing (580 yards), averaging 4.4 yards per carry behind an offensive line that’s a middling run-blocking unit. Robinson is averaging only 1.9 yards before contact per carry (tied for 36th among qualified ball carriers), per Pro Football Reference, but he’s 11th in yards after contact (2.5).

Robinson’s burst is impressive, and it’s been useful both in working through holes to get upfield and beating linebackers along the perimeter as a receiver, despite lacking elite straight-line speed. Robinson has a skill set that suggests he should continue to be productive. Per Pro Football Reference, Robinson is tied for 21st in attempts per broken tackle (13.2). If Jacksonville can ever improve its offensive line and passing game, Robinson should thrive.

Emmanuel Ogbah, DL, Miami Dolphins

Ogbah has been a crucial part of the Dolphins’ surprising start. The fifth-year defensive end has settled in nicely with Brian Flores’s squad, posting a career-high seven sacks, tied for fourth most in the NFL and the most ever by a Miami player in their first eight games with the club. Ogbah has been the Dolphins’ most disruptive lineman, generating 34 pressures, three forced fumbles, and deflected three passes.

The former second-round pick has been a notable catalyst for a defense ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’s pass defense DVOA.

Travis Fulgham, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles offense has been abysmal and is dealing with a litany of injuries that hamstrung the unit before the year even started. But Fulgham has emerged as an intriguing piece within Philadelphia’s barren receiving corps.

Fulgham—a 2019 sixth-round pick who appeared in just three games (and recorded no catches) for the Lions last season—has been targeted 44 times this year. He’s made 29 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns, recording just one drop. He’s averaging 87.0 receiving yards per game, which ranks sixth in the league.

Despite quarterback Carson Wentz’s struggles, Fulgham has shined. He enters the week tied for seventh in PFF’s receiving grades (86.0). The former Old Dominion wideout is a late bloomer at 25 years old, but will remain a fixture within Philadelphia’s passing game through the rest of the year, and potentially beyond.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Jefferson has already established himself as one of the NFL’s best receivers. The former LSU speedster and first-round pick has recorded 34 catches for 627 yards (15th), three touchdowns, and just one drop. His 18.4 yards per catch ranks second in the league.

Jefferson has been a great replacement for Stefon Diggs, and Minnesota has used him similarly to how they used Diggs within their offense. Jefferson has similar route-running ability and knack for routinely getting behind defenses. He’s proved that he’s dangerous after the catch, too, ranking ninth in yards after catch per reception (6.6). If his career path is any similar to Diggs, then it’s safe to assume that his production will last well beyond his rookie campaign.

Jessie Bates III, S, Cincinnati Bengals

Bates is a third-year starter for Cincinnati, and he has immediately contributed after being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft out of Wake Forest. He was a productive player in his first two years, but he appears to have taken a leap in the Bengals defense this season. His instincts have always been good, but he’s made improvements as a pass defender and they’re showing up tangibly. The rangy safety is very reliable in pass coverage, boasting a 90.5 coverage grade—the highest mark in PFF’s database this year.

Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 9 of 23 (39.1 percent) throws when targeting him for 83 yards—an average of 9.2 yards per completion and a combined passer rating of 13.5. The average depth of targets when throwing at Bates has dropped from 10.9 to 8.3 this season. He has a great nose for the ball and helps stuff plays where he’s not targeted. He’s notched 57 total tackles (37 solo), 10 pass deflections, and two interceptions. The Bengals defense isn’t much to write home about, but Bates has played at a high level that merits attention.