When Joe Burrow was healthy in his first NFL season, the connection he was building with fellow rookie Tee Higgins had fans believing this was going to be the franchise’s next great QB-WR tandem.
While that still may be the case, those hopes were cut short when Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury, though Higgins still went on to have a solid finish and would have hit the 1,000-yard mark had he not suffered a hamstring injury three snaps into the Week 17 finale.
Despite those setbacks, Pro Football Focus still has Burrow and Higgins among their top second-year breakout candidates.
Before he went down, Burrow showed flashes of strong quarterback play. He led the NFL in 300-yard passing games (five) through Week 8, but an injury-riddled offensive line led to some inconsistency from the former No. 1 pick. He was pressured 146 times in Weeks 1-11 — fifth-most — and recorded a 44.9 PFF grade under pressure compared to an 86.7 mark from a clean pocket. A healthy offensive line and a few offensive additions should set up Burrow for a Year 2 breakout.
There are few receivers getting as much breakout buzz as Tee Higgins. Bengals teammates and coaches have raved about his improvement this offseason, and following the departure of former star wideout A.J. Green, he is primed to explode in 2021. PFF’s projections forecast Higgins to rack up more receiving yards (1,172) than Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Allen Robinson II in 2021.
For Burrow, this is about as easy of a pick as PFF could have made. While there still aren’t many believers in the 2021 Bengals outside of Cincinnati, there’s plenty of reasons to trust this offense will take a major step forward and allow Burrow to play at an elite level.
Among those improvements include:
- Adding a stable and quality veteran in Riley Reiff at right tackle.
- Spending a second-round pick on a likely starter at guard in Jackson Carman.
- Reuniting with offensive line coach Frank Pollack, whose 2021 unit should be a major upgrade over the 2018 unit he did admirable work with.
- Adding an elite wide receiver prospect in Ja’Marr Chase.
- Hopefully having a healthy Joe Mixon for 17 games after he played in just six last year.
As for Higgins, there’s no question he has the potential to have a big Year 2 with the Bengals. The addition of Chase could certainly help or hurt that cause.
If Chase is the real deal, he could draw the focus of defenses and allow Higgins to operate more freely. Or, Chase could get a lot of Higgins’ targets and leave the latter struggling just to replicate his rookie season numbers.
One thing is for sure: As long as Burrow is healthy and back to 100%, he should have a big sophomore year.
Tee Higgins in 2020 (among rookie WRs):— PFF (@PFF) March 22, 2021
75.9 PFF Grade (3rd)
12 contested catches (T-2nd)
52 first down catches (2nd) pic.twitter.com/KQokUi9W6l