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The Brandt Report

Ten players who will rebound after slow starts to the 2021 NFL season

With four weeks of the 2021 NFL season in the books, it can feel like some narratives are already being set in stone. But the fact is, it's still early -- there's still plenty of time for things to change. That's especially true for those players who have started slower than expected.

Below, I've listed 10 players who I have faith in to rebound from slow starts in 2021. Some have already started to turn the corner, and others are still waiting for true breakouts, but all should be playing better by the time Week 18 comes than they did to kick of the year:

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB

Taylor already overcame one slow start, as a rookie last season, when he rounded into shape down the stretch to vault into the top 10 in rushing yards. He didn't exactly hit the ground running in 2021, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry through the first three weeks, including a truly uninspiring mark of 3.3 over Weeks 1 and 2. I think that was probably a reflection of team-wide struggles, as the Colts spent much of those three games trying to come back from deficits, and lode-bearing pieces on offense like Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson dealt with injuries. On Sunday against the Dolphins, though, Taylor roared back to life, churning out 103 yards on 16 carries, including a 38-yard run and a 23-yard score. Those big plays are an encouraging sign -- consider that in the first half of his rookie season, he posted just one run of 20-plus yards, but in the second half, he racked up six.

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · RB

After a strong rookie season (1,307 rushing yards, 721 receiving yards, 15 total touchdowns) and a decent second year, Barkley lost most of 2020 to a torn ACL. His slow start to 2021 (44.7 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1-3), while not unusual for a player recovering from an injury like that, kept open the question of whether the Giants would still get the return they envisioned when selecting him second overall in 2018. Sunday's performance against New Orleans surely helped ease whatever concerns anyone might have had. While Barkley's rushing totals didn't stand out (52 yards on 13 carries), he did post his first multi-touchdown effort (one on the ground, one in the air) since December 2019, punctuated with the game-winner in OT. There is every reason to believe Barkley will continue to play better as he puts more time between himself and his injury -- especially encouraging were his efforts catching the ball (five catches, 74 yards).

DeVonta Smith
Philadelphia Eagles · WR

Smith averaged less than 40 yards per game through the first three weeks of the season, then finally cracked the 100-yard mark against the Chiefs with a superior outing on Sunday. And while Kansas City's lackluster pass defense might have had something to do with that, I would expect we'll see plenty more days like it going forward. One factor to keep an eye on is whether he and Jalen Hurts are able to develop more chemistry on deep throws. Smith has been targeted deep on nearly a quarter (22.6%) of the passes that have gone his way, per Next Gen Stats -- but he's only caught one of those throws. He and Hurts appeared to be out of sync on most of the rest, whether Smith was trying to fight through heavy coverage or the ball was in a place where it was difficult for Smith to make a play. If he and Hurts can find a better rhythm on those throws, look for Smith's yardage totals to balloon.

Randy Gregory
Dallas Cowboys · DE

The former second-round pick has been through a lot in his career, and he's struggled to translate his potential into on-field results, totaling 10.5 sacks over the previous six seasons, significant portions of which he missed via suspension. And though he'd been elevated to starting duty this year, he'd been mostly quiet -- until Sunday against the Panthers, when he registered his third multi-sack game as a pro. Gregory has a chance to finally put it all together and be a real force up front for a Cowboys defense that could use the help, with DeMarcus Lawrence out with a broken foot

Shaquil Barrett
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · LB

Barrett had logged just one sack heading into Sunday's game, his lowest total through the first three weeks of a season since 2018, when he was still a reserve in Denver. Against the Pats, though, he looked like the dominant Barrett of old, seeming feistier than he had been, producing a big second-quarter sack that helped kill a New England drive. His pressure total through four weeks (11) is a bit off-pace from where he was at this point last season (19), but hopefully for Tampa's 32nd-ranked pass defense, Barrett can continue trending in the right direction.

Zach Wilson
New York Jets · QB

After three weeks, Wilson was about as low as a quarterback could get, having completed just over half his passes (55 percent) with a gnarly 2:7 TD-to-INT ratio and zero wins. The only place to go from there, as they say, was up -- and that's the direction Wilson began heading in Sunday's overtime win against the Titans. For the first time as a pro, Wilson topped 90 in passer rating (97.3) and 7 yards per throw (8.74). Not coincidentally, this was also the first game in which Wilson was not sacked multiple times. It was inevitable that Wilson would be challenged this season, given his relatively limited college resume. Most rookie quarterbacks go through bumps; think of Peyton Manning's 28-pick debut in 1998. Week 4 was a good sign that we'll see better days from Wilson as he moves through 2021.

Trevor Lawrence
Jacksonville Jaguars · QB

Like Wilson and, frankly, any rookie QB, Lawrence will need time to adjust to the pro game -- and to learn how to overcome losing, which he's never really had to do at any level of football before. The No. 1 overall pick did show signs of improvement against the Bengals last Thursday, making leaps in just the first half alone, in terms of knowing where to go with the ball. Though he failed to record a touchdown pass for the first time all season, Lawrence completed 70 percent of his throws, logged his first passer rating over 95 and chipped in a rushing score. The talent is there. Lawrence might have a ways to go before he's winning regularly again, but I expect him to continue to make more real strides before the season is over.

Chase Young
Washington Football Team · DE

Watching Young, who has the physical profile of a top-end pass rusher, it's difficult to understand why he's gone this deep into his second pro season without logging a sack. But if we look back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign, when he racked up 7.5 sacks relying heavily on his speed rush, we see that he also started slowly a year ago. Sacks aside, some of Young's numbers this season (per Next Gen Stats) are actually better than or close to where they were after his first four full games of 2020 (excluding Week 3 of 2020, when he was limited by injury, and Week 4, which he missed):

  • First four full games of 2020 (Weeks 1, 2, 5 and 6): 9 pressures, 9.6% pressure rate, 3 hurries, 3.80 seconds time to hurry, 2 QB hits
  • First four games of 2021: 12 pressures, 8.9% pressure rate, 8 hurries, 3.34 seconds time to hurry, 2 QB hits

The sacks should come eventually. Dealing with what head coach Ron Rivera called "extra attention" from opposing offenses, or the hyped expectations that came with being named the NFL's best defensive rookie, no doubt added a level of difficulty. I'd also like to see him diversify his attack a little bit. But he's got the talent to produce, and that's what I expect him to do.

Kyle Pitts
Atlanta Falcons · TE

Pitts has been relatively quiet on the stat sheet, with a five-catch, 73-yard outing against the Bucs in Week 2 standing as his best game of the year so far. But he's shown flashes. Consider the spectacular twisting grab, made on the run, to snag a ball thrown behind him against Tampa for a 24-yard pickup, or even the 25-yard catch with about a minute left that helped set up the winning kick for the Falcons against New York in Week 3. It would also help Pitts if Atlanta had another receiving threat besides Calvin Ridley who could come in and take some attention away. But he's got a chance to be pretty special, and I think we'll see more and more of those flashes as he gains experience. 

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

Though Harris is catching the ball, having collected 26 receptions already, he's not really making an impact on the ground, where he's averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. But I still have faith in my pick to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Yes, the Steelers' offensive line is a hindrance, but I believe one of Harris' main problems is game-plan-related. To me, he seems like one of those backs who does best when working with a large volume of carries, like Herschel Walker, who used to become more productive the more he carried the ball. Consider that over his final two seasons at Alabama, Harris averaged just over 17 carries per game. Through his first four games in the NFL, meanwhile, he's topped 15 carries just once. If Harris ends up becoming a bigger focal point of the offense -- which would not be out of the question as the Steelers figure out how to proceed with a diminished Ben Roethlisberger -- he should pick up the pace down the road.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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