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Three down-roster players from 2020 looking at a breakout year in 2021

The key to success for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021 may depend more on young, under-the-radar veterans than it will on the 2021 rookie class.

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NFL: OCT 11 Giants at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The second NFL year can be a break-out party for talented NFL players., although for some players that breakout doesn’t happen until their third or fourth years in the league. It is a widely held belief that NFL players take a quantum leap in performance from their rookie season to their second season. After all, they’ve been through their first full season, they’ve been through a full NFL-level offseason strength & conditioning program, they’re hopefully a little more mature, and they’ve had ample time to improve their technique. But that belief usually only applies to higher-round draft picks. For bottom-roster guys, that leap in performance sometimes doesn’t happen until their third or fourth year in the league - if at all.

  • Doug Free, for example, a fourth-round pick in 2007, became a starter in only his third NFL season and remained a key piece for the Cowboys offensive line until his retirement after his tenth NFL season.
  • Miles Austin entered the league as an undrafted free agent and played sparingly in his first three NFL seasons (just 18 receptions for 354 yards), but then put together two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons.
  • Tony Romo joined the Cowboys as a UDFA in 2003, and didn’t start his first game until his fourth season, yet eventually ended up earning $127.4 million in the process, and that’s excluding endorsements and his subsequent broadcasting deals.
  • More recently, 2019 sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson played just 18 defensive snaps in his rookie season before emerging as a starter at safety in his second NFL season.
  • Similarly, Dalton Schultz (fourth round, 2018) played sparingly in his first two NFL seasons with just 13 receptions over two years, but emerged as a starter in his third season with 63 receptions for 615 total yards.

Today, we’re going to ask you to nominate your Breakout Player for 2021. But before you start typing a response (e.g. “CEDEE LAMB, SUKKAHHZZZ!”) you can only select players that fit very specific criteria.

Every year, Football Outsiders release their list of Top 25 Prospects, in which they nominate the 25 players they think are most likely to have a breakout year. To qualify as a Breakout Player, the following criteria must be met:

  • Drafted in the third round or later, or signed as a college free agent
  • On the roster in 2020
  • Entered the NFL between 2018 and 2020
  • Fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps
  • Age 26 or younger in 2021.

Last year, FO had Connor McGovern make the list for Dallas, with Tony Pollard receiving an honorable mention.

Football Outsiders haven’t released their list of 2021 breakout players yet, but the table below lists all the qualifying Cowboys players who meet the criteria outlined above.

Name POS Rookie season Draft Round Snaps
3-year veterans
Cedrick Wilson WR 2018 6th 382
Steven Parker S 2018 UDFA 78
Malik Turner WR 2018 UDFA 2
2-year veterans
Luke Gifford LB 2019 UDFA 1
Mitch Hyatt T 2019 UDFA 0
1-year veterans
Neville Gallimore DT 2020 3rd 416
Tyler Biadasz C 2020 4th 426
Reggie Robinson II CB 2020 4th 0
Bradlee Anae DE 2020 5th 6
Ben DiNucci QB 2020 7th 94
Rico Dowdle RB 2020 UDFA 212
Sean McKeon TE 2020 UDFA 64
Ron'Dell Carter DE 2020 UDFA 26
Francis Bernard LB 2020 UDFA 7
Azur Kamara LB 2020 UDFA 0
Stephen Guidry WR 2020 UDFA 0
Sewo Olonilua FB 2020 UDFA 0
Aaron Parker WR 2020 UDFA 0
Isaac Alarcón T 2020 UDFA 0
Hunter Niswander P 2020 UDFA 0

This is not a particularly awe-inspiring list, and frankly, most players listed here won’t make the 53-man roster this year, never mind warrant consideration as breakout players. Nevertheless, here are three players that probably have the best chance of seeing considerable playing time in 2021:

OC Tyler Biadasz is a bit of a cop-out as a breakout player choice. His 426 snaps come in just below the Breakout Player threshold, but he likely would have played a lot more, had it not been for a mid-season hamstring injury.

The Cowboys started the season with Joe Looney at center (Looney remains unsigned to this day), but when Looney went down with an MCL sprain, Biadasz took over at center in a chaotic situation: The O-line was already playing without both Tyron Smith and La’el Collins at tackle, Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury in Biadasz’s first start, Zack Martin would miss two games while Biadasz was starting, and Biadasz would end up snapping the ball to three different QBs between Week 5 and Week 8 (Prescott, Dalton, DiNucci).

Biadasz didn’t remind anybody of Travis Frederick just yet, but he also didn’t appear to be overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in, and despite all the adversity, he found himself listed on PFF’s mid-season all-rookie team.

DT Neville Gallimore. The Cowboys have now drafted a DT on Day 2 in three consecutive drafts: Trysten Hill in the 2019 second round, Neville Gallimore in the third in 2020, and Osa Odighizuwa in the third round this year. Additionally, they added Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins in free agency. And even if they did release Antwaun Woods, that still leaves a crowded DT room.

Gallimore got nine starts last year, and flashed spectacularly on some snaps later in the season. We’ll soon see whether he’s improved enough over the offseason to come out on top of the DT heap this year.

S/CB Reggie Robinson. There is no factual basis for this selection. The Cowboys moved Robinson (fourth round, 2020) from corner to safety in his rookie season, and he was inactive for the first 11 games. He did not have a single defensive snap last year, but played 65 snaps on special teams over the last five games.

The Cowboys have safety rotation that doesn’t have much to show beyond Donovan Wilson, so climbing the depth chart might be easier here than at other positions, but we’ll have to see if the team plays him at corner or safety. His 6-1, 205 size and 4.44 forty time might make him an interesting option for the new defensive coaching regime.

Over to you: From this list above, who would you pick as your 2021 Breakout Player for the Dallas Cowboys?