Make or break. Put up or shut up. Now or never. No matter how one chooses to dress it up, the 2021 season will be pivotal for a handful of younger NFL players stepping into bigger spotlights. 

Think Mecole Hardman of the Kansas City Chiefs. The 2019 second-round pick projects to have a bigger role than ever in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense next year. If he doesn't meet expectations, the contender likely won't hesitate to start seeking out his replacement. 

There are similar stories across the league. Notable hefty investments by teams appear ready for the biggest stages of their respective careers—or their teams have patience that expires after this year. 

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, these are the most notable examples of players entering the put-up-or-shut-up zone. 


Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

It's only natural if San Francisco 49ers fans are most hyped for Deebo Samuel going into 2021. 

Samuel, after all, has flashed major upside over his first two seasons after the team made him a second-round pick in 2019. His debut year featured 802 receiving yards and three scores plus 159 rushing yards on 14 touches with three more scores over 15 games. 

But a sophomore slump compounded by injuries quelled the hype for Samuel. He made it in just seven games, catching 33 passes with one score. 

Still, Samuel has been wickedly effective when healthy, averaging 13.3 yards per catch and 8.4 yards per rush. It's safe to feel he'll be even more dangerous in 2021 on the same field as George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. 

But if he's not and some of this hype level isn't realized, San Francisco might start eyeing ways to find insurance plans, especially if it means avoiding messy contract-extension talks since Samuel's deal is up after 2022. 


Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons

It's almost easy to forget Hayden Hurst was a first-round pick in 2018. 

The Baltimore Ravens made the South Carolina product the 25th pick, then largely stashed him on the depth chart with little in the way of usage for two years. After that, Baltimore shipped him to Atlanta. 

Those Falcons, at least, gave him career-high usage via 88 targets over 16 games, which he turned into 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns. 

There's plenty of room for improvement, too. He only had a 63.6 catch percentage with four drops while playing 70 percent of the offense's snaps. Julio Jones and his 68 targets over nine games from last season (157 over 15 in 2019, etc.) is gone, so there's plenty of opportunity for Hurst to step up and post the best numbers of his career. 

Atlanta didn't exercise Hurst's fifth-year option despite the investment in trading for him, so he's got one chance to realize his potential or the Falcons could sweep him aside as a rebuild looms.