As the 2020 season draws closer, we’ll be looking at three players from each skill position (apologies to the OL) poised for a breakout this upcoming campaign. Make sure to check out the other positions as they come out!
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
The third year TE comes into the season with no real competition, and that includes former Falcon Austin Hooper, who is now with the Cleveland Browns, and if you’re Hayden Hurst, you’re loving the opportunity and getting ready to do damage. The Falcons offense likes to make use of their tight ends, and Hurst should expect about 125+ targets this season. Last year, for the Baltimore Ravens run-heavy offense, Hurst started four of the 16 games he played, catching 30 balls or 39 targets (76.9% catch rate) for 349 receiving yards and a couple of scores. If we project even just 100 targets for Hurst, at last season’s catch rate, that would be 77 receptions, which is pretty spectacular for the position.
The former 25th overall pick by the Ravens in 2018 just couldn’t get passed Mark Andrews, who took advantage of Hurst’s stress fracture his rookie season, on the depth chart. However, the Falcons saw enough in Hurst that they traded a second and fifth round pick for him, as well as getting back a fourth round pick, when Hooper signed with the Browns. The big (6’4″ and 265 pounds) and fast (4.67 40 time at the 2018 NFL Combine) should be a favorite target of Matt Ryan, as well as have the space to do damage as both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will stretch the field and Todd Gurley will keep some LBs playing the box, opening the middle. How much can Hurst break out? Don’t be surprised with a Pro Bowl selection for the guy.
Irv Smith, Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Last season, as a rookie, Smith had the luxury of easing into the league with veteran Kyle Rudolph lining up for the Vikes at TE. And that slow burn showed in the box score, as well as percentage of snaps that he played, starting off at about 50 percent of them, up to 85 percent by the end of the season. He finished the season starting seven of the 16 games he played, being targeted 47 times, garnering 36 receptions, 311 receiving yards, and a couple of scores. Solid, but nothing too eye-popping.
But, what does make the eyes pop is the athleticism, as well as the ability to block, particularly for the run. At only 6’2″, but a solid 242 pounds, Smith surprised the coaches with his run blocking ability. This can only help Smith stay on the field. And in a Gary Kubiak offense, the TE definitely gets his share of footballs thrown his way. The trade of Stefon Diggs, opens up the prospect of Smith getting more opportunities as rookie Justin Jefferson is unproven and second-year WR, Bisi Johnson is still inexperienced. After WR1 Adam Thielen and RB Dalvin Cook, Smith could end up finishing third in targets and receptions for the Vikings, and in that offense, that definitely will qualify as a breakout.
Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans
Smith comes in as the Titans’ TE1 after the departure of Delanie Walker, who had been the man at the position since 2013 for Tennessee. When Walker was hurt last year, Smith filled in admirably. In fact according to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric, Smith owns the highest grade for which they have data (four years ago to present). In other words, Smith took advantage of his opportunities. Last year, he was targeted 44 times, catching 35 receptions for 435 yards (12.5 yards per catch) and three TDs.
Smith did have to go through some inconsistency last season, but it was only his second season and there weren’t enough consistent snaps for him until Walker went down. Also what needs to be considered is, with Derrick Henry, the Titans will obviously take advantage of his abilities and run, run, run the ball. But that can also play to Smith’s advantage as more defenders will be up at the line. The targets should come Smith’s way with A.J. Brown taking the lion’s share of them, but not so much that Smith can’t conceivably get almost double the looks he received last season. Just that alone will have Smith as a top ten TE; and if he can get more red zone looks, which he may with everyone focusing on Henry, Smith can be a top five TE.