Cornerbacks typically endure miserable rookie seasons: The receivers they cover are bigger, faster, and smarter than the ones they encountered in college, while quarterbacks are quick to exploit every gaffe. But Trevon Diggs’ rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys was especially awful. The University of Alabama standout and second-round draft pick allowed easy touchdowns, snorted on multiple tackles, and often looked like he wasn’t confident in his assignments.
A year later, Diggs leads the NFL with six interceptions. He has intercepted at least one pass in every game this season.
Experience isn’t the only reason for Diggs’ improvement. The entire Cowboys defense played like it was spending the 2020 off-season disrupted by Covid-19 with its Zoom cameras turned off, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan muted in one browser window and Minecraft went into the other. The Cowboys defense is still giving up a lot of distance now that Dan Quinn has replaced Nolan and normal practice routines have returned, but at least everyone knows where to stand, and Diggs turnover has helped Dallas start the season 4-1 .
He is one of several NFL players to enjoy breakout campaigns in 2021.
Cordarrelle Patterson, receiver, Atlanta Falcons
Patterson spent his first eight NFL seasons as a kickoff returner in a league that is no longer of much use to kickoff returners.
In 2013, he left the University of Tennessee with a scouting combine meetables bingo card. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound receiver with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash time was drafted 29th overall by the Minnesota Vikings, who then spent four years half-heartedly attempting to capture such a marvel of size and speed. their transgression. That’s not too uncommon: Thor himself might show up at some training camps and the coaches would say, “Gosh, there’s no part in our plan for a demigod. Do you know bulky, tight ends?’
Patterson is tied for the NFL record with eight kickoff return touchdowns. But more than 60 percent of kick-offs started to result in touchbacks, so his services weren’t much in demand. He bounced from the Vikings to the Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears, where he earned three-time All-Pro announcement as a returnee, but saw little more than a sense of duty in their offenses.
This season, Patterson finally landed with the Atlanta Falcons, a team desperate enough to try a crazy strategy: handoffs and short passes to the player who has made a career out of scoring 100-yard touchdowns. Patterson has averaged 93.6 yards from scrimmage per game this season and has scored five touchdowns. The Falcons rebuilt are only 2-3, but the emergence of Patterson is one of the few factors that keeps the team competitive.
Rondale Moore, Receiver, Arizona Cardinals
The 5-foot-7, 185-pound Moore barely fits the NFL prototype. He’s fast and elusive, of course, but he suffered two seasons with short injuries after getting 114 passes as a freshman at Purdue in 2018. NFL teams are typically wary of little athletes with long injury histories, but the Cardinals believe conventional wisdom. is for squares, so they chose Moore in the second round of the April draft.
Moore may have been typified as a little-used gadget specialist on other teams, but Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury loves gadgets. Moore moves all over the formation in Kingsbury’s unpredictable attack, catching screen passes and taking wrong instructions. According to Pro Football Reference, Moore ranks third in the league with 222 yards from catch on 21 receptions, and averages 8.3 yards per rush.
With Moore weaving through defenders after catching short throws from 5-foot-10 quarterback Kyler Murray, Cardinals games sometimes look like Take Your Child to Work Day. But the Cardinals are 5-0, so the kids should be fine.
Derwin James, Safety, Los Angeles Chargers
James finished third in the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award voting, as he registered three interceptions and 3.5 sacks as a versatile safety, edge rusher and run stuffer for the Chargers.
Then came the injuries: A broken foot wiped out most of James’ 2019 season, a meniscus tear throughout 2020. The Chargers team has had such horrendous injury luck over the past few seasons that it wouldn’t have been shocking if James had suffered an injury. meteorite on the first day of training camp. Instead, James is once again thriving in a universal role, with 1.5 sacks, one interception, one force fumble and a team-high total of 43 tackles for the Chargers (4-1).
James hasn’t quite escaped his injury curse this year. He dislocated his shoulder against Kansas City in Week 3, but only missed a handful of snaps. Teammate Joey Bosa told the Los Angeles Times that James “just put it back in and got right back on the field.”
Self-surgery in the locker room is a skill that comes in handy when playing for the Chargers.
James Robinson, Running Back, Jacksonville Jaguars
In their latest attempt to turn their fortunes around, the Jaguars hired legendary college coach Urban Meyer, handed first-choice in the 2021 draft to quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and used a stockpile of additional draft picks to rethink their roster. So obviously the best player on the team this year is a man they tried to replace.
Robinson broke the Jaguars roster as an unwritten rookie in 2020. He became the starting running back days for last year’s season opener when Leonard Fournette was unexpectedly fired, presumably for not fitting into the team culture. (Fournette now fits into the culture of defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.) Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards last season, but Meyer fielded the Clemson back for all intents and purposes Travis Etienne with the 25th overall pick. When Etienne injured his foot in the preseason, Robinson was pushed back into the lineup.
Robinson is fourth in the NFL with 387 rushing yards. His 149 rushing yards in Week 5 nearly spurred the sad Jaguars to their first win of the season. Trailing the Tennessee Titans, 31-19, early in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars drove to the 1-yard line, where Meyer ordered a fourth-down transfer to… Carlos Hyde, Robinson’s veteran backup. Hyde was full for a loss, ending the rally.
Robinson will become even more famous once he finds a way to no longer fit into the Jaguar team culture.