In this week-long series, NFL Network analysts examine the notable Year 2 players at different position groups who are poised for a breakout campaign in 2021. Today, Brian Baldinger spotlights eight players in the trenches.
Becton's combination of size (6-foot-7, 364 pounds), power and movement is rare. There's no doubt about that. In a challenging 2020 season (to say the least) for the organization, the No. 11 overall pick was a bright spot, establishing himself as a building block for the offense. When dissecting the film, Becton more than flashed. He routinely threw big, powerful defenders right out of the club, especially in the run game. Unfortunately, he did miss some time with an assortment of injuries and illnesses, but he was a force on the field when available. The left tackle had the highest PFF grade of any Jets offensive lineman and the second-highest grade of any offensive player behind only Jamison Crowder (min. 100 snaps). And, I believe he is better than his play showed at times last year and talented enough to expect shutouts on Sundays vs. even the league's best pass rushers. If he can line up for all 17 games this year, Becton could reach Pro Bowl status.
There's a reason Dalvin Cook had a breakout season in 2020. The hogs up front began to play well when Cleveland moved to right guard. Once Cleveland and Brian O'Neill meshed on the right side, Cook (and really the offense in general) absolutely took off. The Vikings have addressed the offensive line over the past several years, and it's starting to pay off. Expect Cleveland, who was solid in nine starts at right guard last year, to switch to left guard and team up with rookie tackle Christian Darrisaw, with one of the NFL's top running backs benefitting greatly.
The Giants got a tad lucky over the weekend when they found out Lemieux won't need surgery after suffering a knee injury during the first week of training camp. While he is expected to miss a few weeks, he should step right in as a quality starter upon his return. For proof, look no further than the impact he made as a rookie. The Giants were reeling at 1-6 heading into November -- although beginning to play better -- and chose to start their fourth-round rookie guard against the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs. They pulled Lemieux from the left on a variety of plays from traps to powers and sweeps, taking the Bucs to the brink before losing by two. But the Giants looked like a real offense that day. They then went on a four-game win streak; Father Judge's coaching and Lemieux's pulling had me believing they could turn things around. Why, you ask? It's because whenever the Giants had great teams -- Super Bowl teams -- they had great pulling guards. In the 1980s, they had Billy Ard at left guard. In 2007 and 2011, they had Chris Snee at right guard. Forget what the grading services say, this kid has an inner fiber that burns hot and there's a lot of nasty to his game. The Giants found their guard! Look for Lemieux to really impact the run game in Saquon Barkley's return and protect Daniel Jones in a big year for the quarterback.
I have the good fortune of working out at a place called the Bro Barn, Lane Johnson's backyard barn that's filled with iron, sleds, bars, kettlebells, you name it. Basically any equipment that big guys can throw around to get even bigger and stronger. Having grown up not too far from Johnson, Runyan has made it his adopted home since coming into the league, and we'll see the payoff soon. Runyan has experience playing across the line, including as a left tackle at Michigan (mostly because he was the Wolverines' best option) and sparingly at both guard spots (137 snaps at LG, 22 at RG) on last year's very good Packers offensive line. He is best-suited to play guard and should provide quality snaps for a Packers unit that seldom rebuilds and often reloads.
Year 1: 16 games | 2.0 sacks | 12 QB hits | 34 tackles | 8 TFL
The product Brown put on the field as a rookie was exactly what he showed while wearing No. 5 at Auburn: a holy terror inside who is unblockable at times. He is just that strong. Like with most rookies, there were some learning curves for the Panthers DT in his first season at the pro level as he told Joe Person of the Athletic, "It's very humbling. You come in, there’s a lot of expectations. And you realize the consistency level has to be every single week." Brown was very solid for the Panthers' young defense (starting 15 games), but I do think we'll see an improvement in his pass rush with his natural ability to push the pocket. With more experience, Brown has a chance to eventually become an elite, dominant force inside -- and it starts in 2021.
Year 1: 11 games | 1.0 sack | 5 QB hits | 30 tackles | 2 TFL | 1 FR
Hamilton caught my eye early last season as a backup defensive tackle. He's a big man who can move and when he escaped on this particular play, I knew he was more than just a flash player. The Jaguars did too as he became a starter by Week 6. That lasted just six weeks before a knee injury placed him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. In Year 2, expect Hamilton to be a key piece in a young Jags defense that's still a few years away. When talking to first-year head coach Urban Meyer, who recruited Hamilton to the Buckeyes out of Pickerington, Ohio, about the third-round D-tackle, Meyer's eyes lit up. Hamilton's got a lot of promise with good size, a good base and relentless work ethic. He needs to refine some of his technique but he's one to keep an eye on.
Year 1: 14 games | 1.5 sacks | 4 QB hits | 33 tackles | 3 TFL | 1 INT
The 49ers used the first-round pick acquired when they traded away DeForest Buckner to Indy to select Kinlaw. The rookie flashed in 2020 and, at times, looked crazy good before missing the final two games of the season with a knee injury. Before Nick Bosa's season-ending injury in Week 2, Bosa's influence on Kinlaw's play was apparent, and there's no doubt that this duo is going to attract a lot of attention when Bosa gets back on the gridiron. Kinlaw, who has enormous size (6-5, 324 pounds), power and movement, spent too much time wrestling his opponents last season. Now, it's time to learn moves and counter moves AND learn when to use them. I like what I've seen so far, but we need to keep an eye on his knee over the next month after having a setback in his recovery last week. If he has a full recovery, which I believe he will, you can bet the Niners WON'T REGRET trading Buckner knowing what Kinlaw can bring to the table at the start of the season.
Year 1: 14 games | 4.0 sacks | 4 QB hits | 22 tackles | 5 TFL | 1 FF
The Seahawks have been searching for pass rushers in the worst way since the departures of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett after the 2017 season. They attempted to fill the the void by drafting L.J. Collier in the first round of the 2019 draft and paying Jadeveon Clowney big money, but to no avail. Robinson, a fifth-round pick out of Syracuse, flashed in limited action last season, playing 29 percent of the team's defensive snaps while making one start. Yet, he found a way to get to the quarterback, tallying four sacks. Most defensive linemen take a full year -- sometimes more -- to learn the pro game. I expect Robinson, despite a lot of competition at the LEO spot, to step up in 2021 based on the movement and how he escaped the clutches of his opponents a year ago.