With most teams a little more than a week away from starting training camps, I wanted to look at the second- or third-year players, who I think will make the biggest jumps in 2019. Obviously I did not want to name Pro Bowlers or guys with All-Pro nominations and no Rookie of the Year candidates on either side of the ball. I also didn’t include players, who already recorded 1000 yards rushing or receiving, double-digit touchdowns, sacks or similar statistics. Moreover, to avoid repeating myself, you won’t find the names of any players that made my list already last year – such as Dalvin Cook, Chris Godwin and Malik Hooker – and neither did I put down anybody that I think already pretty much broke out, even if they numbers don’t quite show that – guys like Corey Davis, O.J. Howard, Carl Lawson, Jayon Brown and Jaire Alexander come to mind. My final criteria was that the players needed to have seen the field already, which ruled out guys like Derrius Guice and Isaiah Wynn, who I had rated as first-round prospects but missed their rookie years. So with the criteria set and making clear what is necessary for a player to actually break out, here is my list:
Ahead of last year’s draft, I had this USC standout as my number one quarterback and fifth overall prospect available. His numbers as a rookie didn’t like very good, throwing for under 3000 yards in 13 games and completing 57.7 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns compared to 15 INTs. However, you have to consider the circumstances surrounding him. Darnold was in a very horizontal passing attack with highly limited weapons. Quincy Enunwa looked like his favorite target early only, but missed five games, Robby Anderson wasn’t as consistent as he was in 2017 and fellow rookie Chris Herndon was actually the only guy he could trust throughout the season. Outside of two big Isaiah Crowell games, Darnold didn’t have a reliable run game to complement him and the O-line was definitely below-average. The Jets didn’t win any of the three games without their rookie QB and there were definitely some big moments by the third overall pick. Darnold was brilliant in a 48-17 wipeout of the Lions in week one, he put up 42 points against the Colts, almost pulled off an upset over the Texans who were on coming off a nine-game winning streak and he went tit-for-tat with Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau field. Gang Green simply didn’t have enough around him to finish some of those game, but after coming back from foot injury, he looked in command and made big plays downfield. This offseason the Jets front office upgraded at every level of the offense, adding Jamison Crowder in the slot, a superstar dual-threat back in Le’Veon Bell, a former All-Pro guard in Kelechi Osemele and Adam Gase calling the shots. Moreover I think the defense will take another step with the acquisitions of linebacker C.J. Mosley and my top-rated prospect in the draft in Alabama D-lineman Quinnen Williams. While I would go with Baker Mayfield after seeing him as a rookie, I still believe Darnold can be an excellent quarterback going forward.
When you look at the numbers of this seventh overall pick they seem very underwhelming – 52.8 completion percentage and more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes (10) over 11 starts. However, the supporting cast Allen had as a rookie might have been the worst in the entire league. I know Zay Jones ultimately led Buffalo in receiving yards because he was a starter in all but one game, but Allen basically made undrafted free agent Robert Foster a number one receiver from week ten on. After that Jason Croom was next in terms of yards through the air – Jason freaking Croom. Allen led all quarterbacks with over 600 yards rushing, with almost all of that coming off scrambles, often times on crucial third downs to extend drives. A lot of that had to do with a lackluster O-line that was in the bottom ten in QB hits allowed despite the rookie taking off as much as he did. They also didn’t manage to take pressure off the rookie by opening up holes in the run game, as Allen averaged twice as much yards per carry (7.1) as the rest of the team did (3.5). If you take away one fluky 41-10 destruction of the Jets, where that entire team simply didn’t show up, the Bills averaged less than six points per game with anybody else starting under center, not reaching 10 points or winning any of those four contests. Over the offseason the Bills added a multitude of free agents, including one of the best centers in the league in Mitch Morse, wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, tight-end Tyler Kroft and the ageless Frank Gore as well as a pass-catching T.J. Yeldon in the backfield. Plus, they also drafted Oklahoma’s Cody Ford to man one of those spots on the right side, a mini-Shay McCoy in FAU’s Devin Singletary and a talented, yet heavily under-utilized tight-end in Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox. All that combined with what I think will be a top-tier defense, I could see the rocket-arm QB make a huge jump in year two.
For some reason Matt Patricia and that Lions coaching staff held onto the Patriots’ idea of multiple backs, even though Johnson was clearly the most talented guy in that backfield. His ability to be a threat to the edge in the outside zone game combined with the ability to cut upfield in one step and the power he can build up that way are special. He also has the jump-cut to press double-teams and then escape on the backdoor in gap scheme, which is very impressive as well. And to make him true feature back material – while he didn’t catch the ball at a very high rate at Auburn, he showed last season that he can make things happen off screen passes and is more than just a check-down option out of the backfield. Overall the rookie averaged 5.4 yards a carry, but in several games he was limited a lot by the number of touches he received. You could argue that his share of touches will remain capped to some degree, having finished the season on the sideline, but in the three games Detroit did hand him the ball 15 or more teams, his average was even better at 6.9 yards. With the Lions transitioning to more of a run-centric offense, their RB1 should be the center-piece of their new attack. I think adding two tight-ends in Jesse James from the Steelers and top-ten pick T.J. Hockenson out of Iowa will only strengthen the edges and allow Kerryon to get to the outside even more, which will create better cutback opportunities as defenders need to flow with the play and have a tough time adjusting to how things develop. I know Theo Riddick will still have an impact as a third down back, but I would actually be shocked if KJ didn’t finish top ten in rushing this upcoming season.
I almost thought Aaron Jones did already break out too much to make this list initially, but due to a two-game suspension and share of carries in the Packers backfield, the second-year man’s totals didn’t meet the marks that I set, which would exclude him from the list. When you look at the averages however, you see a rising star, averaging 5.9 yards per touch and coming just one touchdown short of double-digits. This young stud out of UTEP should enter the season as the clear-cut number one option out of the Green Bay backfield. He has the burst, power and contact balance to rip off a big run every week and he got better, when he touched the ball more often. In the five games that he carried the ball 12+ times, Jones’ average even went up to 6.1 yards per run. With Matt LaFleur trying to install a zone-heavy rushing attack, that uses bootlegs and waggles off that, Jones is a perfect fit and a threat to run behind a behind a convoy off a throwback screen once a game. Moreover, he is also the most talented pass-catcher among that RB group, which is a major part of those Shanahan/McVay offenses LaFleur has come up under. Jamaal Williams is solely a check-down option in the passing game and Ty Montgomery was immediately traded after fumbling away the Packers’ chances against the Rams last season. Last year when LaFleur was OC on the Titans, Dion Lewis alone caught 59 passes as mostly an RB2 and Jones should definitely be on the field more. Obviously Aaron Rodgers is still the main attraction on the Packers offense and I expect him to still be among the best signal-callers in the league, but his name colleague Aaron Jones could easily go for 1400 yards from scrimmage and create even more big play opportunities off play-action.
It took a while for Pettis to get going, after catching three passes for almost 100 yards and a touchdown throughout his first five quarters as a pro. Following that he banged up his knee and wasn’t really used until after the 49ers bye in week 11. In the four games after that when he was on the field for over 80 percent of all of them, Pettis caught 17 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately he suffered a sprained MCL in week 16, but if he can stay healthy going forward, he could make a big impact for the Niners. The former Washington Husky is a silky smooth route-runner, who can separate by leaning his body one way and then breaking the other, plus the elite top-end speed to fly by defenders. I also like what he does when the scramble drill breaks out, uncovering late and making himself available. When Kyle Shanahan had him at his disposal, Pettis was used as a threat on jet and fly sweeps to keep defenders occupied and open up more room to run. Moreover, with his speed he is also great at clearing out space with post and go-routes for other receiver to catch the ball underneath. With a full offseason to get healthy and get deeper into the playbook, the second-year wideout could make a big jump in 2019 as Jimmy Garoppolo returns as well. John Lynch and the front office have made it a priority to add to the receiving corp, spending their second and third round draft picks on South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd in addition to having already signed Jordan Matthews and running back Tevin Coleman, who caught 31 passes as an RB2 in his second year in the league when Shanahan was the OC in Atlanta. I’m not quite sure how San Fran will utilize their receivers, as Samuel might start at Z, even though he did his best work in the slot, but I think you can pencil Pettis in at X and for 1000 yards through the air. Plus, he could be a big weapon in the return game, having set the Pac-12 record with nine punt return touchdowns.
Before the 2018 season started people looked at the Broncos’ duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas still as one of the best in the league, but I thought Thomas was already on the way down, which manifested itself in a disappointing year marked by injuries and ultimately being traded to Houston. However, I thought Denver was on their way to an upgrade when they drafted my third-highest graded receiver in SMU’s Courtland Sutton in the second round. That kid is a big-bodied, fast wideout with an aggressive mindset with the ball in his hands and as a blocker. While he did start the season as WR3, Sutton quickly earned the respect of the coaching staff and Thomas was sent to the Texans at the trade deadline to give the rookie more opportunities. Overall he caught 42 passes for over 700 yards and four touchdowns, drastically improving his catch rate over the second half of the season. While his role will certainly increase and the team will expect more from him, I believe with more designed plays for him and Joe Flacco under center he could really shine. Even if Joe Flacco isn’t a major upgrade over Case Keenum, you can see what he has done with big-bodied receivers in the past, such as Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree for a shorter period. I could see Sutton crack 1200 yards and possibly double-digit touchdowns, depending on how much they will target rookie tight-end Noah Fant in the red-zone. Moreover, I think DaeSean Hamilton will also take a step forward in his second year in the league, primarily playing in the slot. This should be a run-centric offense to complement what still could be a very strong defense, but there are definitely opportunities for play-action and deep shots, with Sutton as the prototype outside receiver.
Not a lot of people may know this, but this young Panther finished third among rookie tight-ends behind only Mark Andrews and Chris Herndon IV with 36 catches for 333 yards and two TDs. While this obviously depends on volume, Thomas catching 73.5 percent of his targets on the season was definitely impressive, as it was pretty much right on par with the Eagles’ Zach Ertz, who set a new record at the position for most receptions in a season. Ahead of last year’s draft, I had Thomas as my 65th overall prospect and I thought he was right up in terms of potential, but still pretty raw due to being a three-sport athlete with very limited Division 1 scholarships out of high school. However, despite my belief that he needed a year to develop, the Panthers already trusted him with a lot in the offense, splitting him out wide as the single receiver as well as assigning him in-line blocking duties. Thomas ran a lot of spot, zig and drag routes over the middle, where he showed pretty good fluidity for his size and how he can shield the ball with his big body. Ever since I saw him haul in a 71-yard touchdown at Indiana, I thought he had surprising pull-away speed once he gets going. Watching his tape from last year, I thought there were several more opportunities downfield, where he separated with body-leans and burst out of his breaks, but didn’t see the ball come his way. Some of that might have to do with how banged up Cam Newton’s shoulder was and the fact he didn’t trust his arm to deliver those bullet throws. Greg Olsen has missed a whole season over the last two years and didn’t even reach 500 yards over that stretch after having three consecutive 1000-yard season. I expect the veteran to bounce back to some degree, but Thomas is too good already to be kept off the field and he will be their guy of the future.
Unlike NFL teams who invested draft picks in the top half of the first round last year, I thought Connor Williams was the top tackle on the board and I was one of the few who believed he could stay on the edge full-time. However, when the Cowboys selected him out of Texas in the second round and were forced to slide Joe Looney in at center after Travis Frederick was put on IR with that autoimmune disease, it was left guard that really stood out as a position that Williams could compete for. While there were definitely some struggles early on, the rookie would go on to start 13 games and improve as the season went along. Williams’ biggest struggles came when he was one-on-one in pass protection, as he got a warm welcome to the league by Carolina’s Kawann Short in week one, and interior defenders had a two-way go against him, since he had always been dealing with the outside rush at the tackle spot. With a full offseason to examine and Frederick likely to be back in the middle for Dallas, we have yet to see how the coaches will put together that starting five. I’m not sure if they will move the second-year man to right tackle already, but I don’t believe they plan on re-signing La’el Collins, who is holding that spot at the moment. If I made the decision, I would put Williams out there, because of what I saw from him in terms of his balance, hand-placement and feel for the arc. That way Collins would move to guard, where I evaluated him to fit best out of LSU, whilst the Cowboys develop this year’s third-round pick Connor McGovern. They’d still have Xavier Su’a Filo to slide in at guard if they needed Collins to replace somebody at the tackle spot. No matter where they end up playing him, I expect Williams to be much more comfortable in year two on what should return to being one of the top O-lines in the league.
A year ago I had Turay “only” as my number nine edge rusher in a loaded class and ranked 72nd overall, because he had missed more than a full season over his sophomore and junior years while still learning how to use his hands properly. However, despite that I still thought he had tremendous talent and impacted plays on a much higher rate than his stats indicated at Rutgers. As a rookie he recorded four sacks on only 37 percent of the snaps on defense, while also adding 13 QB hits and 38 total pressures, which put him at a rate of 10 percent of his pass rush snaps. Those numbers would have probably been higher had he not missed two games and dealt with nagging hip and neck injuries, which kept him away from practice and recording any sacks over the Colts’ final seven games (including playoffs). With recently signed Justin Houston and Robert Mathis as a pass rush consultant, Turay can learn a lot this offseason from two guys who have combined for over 200 career sacks. Coming into his year two, the former second-round pick has to learn how to rush with more of a plan and not let allow blockers to get into his frame as much in the run game. However, I think he has some very uncommon athleticism and shows a great combination of speed and hustle to track ball-carriers down. With how many bodies the Colts have on the defensive front, I see them using Turay even more on twists and stunts as the guy they try to scheme free, because he can close that space in a heartbeat and arrive at the passer, especially when you see him draw his tackle upfield and then loop back inside. If he can stay healthy, I could see the 24-year old lead Indy in sacks this upcoming season.
This was an obvious choice for me. While I did bump down Harold Landry after a disappointing senior campaign at Boston College following a 16.5 sack-season, I was very surprised to see him fall to the second round in last year’s draft. With Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan slotted in at those outside linebacker spots, the rookie was more of a rotational piece and started just three games on the season. He ended up recording 4.5 sacks on about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, but I’m definitely thinking double-digits here in 2019. With both Orakpo and Morgan out of the picture, Landry will be a full-time starter and primed to break out as Tennessee’s top edge rusher. The second-year man shows incredible bend when running the arc on his speed rush, plus he can come back with transitioning that to power and working in push-pull maneuvers. What I love about him is the effort he rushes the passer with and that he is constantly looking to strip the ball when around the QB. I need to see him develop an inside counter this offseason and learn how to deal with NFL tackle length better, but I think he is on his way to becoming a true threat off the edge. In addition to that, he can hold his ground at the point of attack by playing one half of the blocker and I thought he made it look easy when moving in space, as he dropped into coverage at last year’s NFL combine. That entire Titans defense is loaded with young talented players, who are not talked about enough, when you look at guys like Jayon Brown and Kevin Byard under the coaching of Dean Pees and Mike Vrabel. That group will grow up together and be really good pretty soon.
When I put together my first round mock draft ahead of the actual one in 2018, I had Bryan slotted in with the Falcons at 26 because I thought they were in the market for another defensive tackle and that kid was exactly what Dan Quinn always describes as “urgent football players”. However, Atlanta made another excellent decision by drafting wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who I was much higher on than most people and I don’t think they are looking back at this at all. So far the former Florida Gator hasn’t really given them very much to second-guess either, as he recorded just one sack and three tackles for loss, being on the field for less than 30 percent of the Jaguars’ defensive snaps. With that being said, I think he is one of the guys who I could see make one of the biggest jumps heading into year two. Bryan has an elite get-off for a near 300-pounder and he flashed so much on tape when I evaluated him as a prospect. I thought his ability to torque his body, slip through openings or go back-door on run-plays was J.J. Watt-esque. Obviously the technique and understanding of blocking schemes was and still is nowhere near the one of a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but the physical components are all there. Bryan has two things you can’t teach – explosiveness off the snap and a non-stop motor. He has to learn how to play under more control and stay true to his technique, not spinning in the middle of traffic against the run or losing sight of what is going on in the backfield. With Malik Jackson signing in Philadelphia, the second-year man is in line to take over at 3-tech for one of the most talented defenses in the league. PFF gave him a grade of 71.1, which would have put him top five among rookie interior D-linemen, if they didn’t (falsely) categorize him as an edge defender. He could develop into a disruptive force by learning from some of the game’s best, such as Calais Campbell.
When I put out my big board ahead of the 2018 NFL draft, I had Edmunds as my seventh overall prospect because of the sky-high potential I saw in him. However, I thought he was quite far from being a finished product. At Virginia Tech he ran himself into trouble at times and found himself on the wrong side of the trash, as well as getting his eyes caught in the backfield instead of reading his keys at times. That’s why I was encouraged when he had a really strong under-the-radar rookie campaign with 121 tackles, five of them for loss, two INTs, 12 pass break-ups and a couple of sacks at MIKE backer. Edmunds’ athleticism and closing speed are off the charts. He also has unique size for the position at 6’5”, 250+ pounds with 34 ½ inch arms and mid-4.5 speed. The young man is perfect for Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy defense, where he can be used as that Tampa-2 middle linebacker with crazy ability to carry guys down the seams and get his hands on balls thrown over his head because of how long he is. At VT he actually covered guys in the slot one-on-one at times. I was also pleased to see some growth out of him to play under more balance, not overrunning plays and sniffing out bootlegs on the backside, plus then trusting his athleticism to turn his head and find crossers. I will continue to say this – that Bills defense can be one of the elite units in the entire league if only Josh Allen and company can take some pressure off them. With who they already have combined with 9th overall pick Ed Oliver out of Houston they are legit. I truly believe Edmunds could become a transcendent player if he ever reaches his ceiling and he only turned 21 a little more than a week ago.
Nobody I think moved up and down the board more before and during the 2017 draft than Gareon Conley ahead of his actual selection. I feel like he started off as a second-round pick, but after a strong combine he moved up into people’s first-round mock draft and was discussed as a potential top 15 pick before his status was unclear due to sexual assault charges, until the Raiders finally did surprisingly draft him 24th overall. While he has stayed out of trouble off the field, the organization hasn’t been very happy with him these first two years. As a rookie, Conley showed up at training camp with a shin injury and only appeared in two games before being put on IR for the season. Last year he only was on the field for about two-thirds of the defensive snaps due to banged up hip, but I thought he showed some promise. Coming out of Ohio State together with running Marshon Lattimore, who wounded up winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, I had Conley is a definite first-rounder. I thought he was very fluid for his size, had a good combination of 4.4 speed and 33-inch arms and was often times in that CB1 role for the Buckeyes, presenting excellent range and ball-skills from a wide receiver background in high school. However, I thought he would need some time to develop, especially when you looked at his horrendous hand usage at Ohio State, using weak punches from a flat-footed position when trying to jam receivers if he didn’t allow free releases in general. Of course these injuries have slowed some of that development down, but if he can finally stay healthy this year, I think he could the number one guy for a defense that clearly wants to utilize man-heavy schemes, if you look the personnel they have acquired recently. When I went back and watched Conley play the Steelers in week 14 last season, he allowed just three catches for 26 yards to AB and JuJu and two of those came on screens.
I had this guy as my 17th overall prospect in last year’s draft and third cornerback behind only Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander – and I didn’t think it was that big of a gap. Somehow Oliver fell all the way to the 58th pick in the draft and Atlanta might have found themselves a new number one corner. Coming out of Colorado, Oliver had rare length and speed in addition to that competitive edge I need to say from guys at the position. While the college tape on him was very limited, I thought his upside was outstanding, but he would need some time to develop. However, with all the injuries the Falcons suffered last season, Oliver was pushed into the lineup quickly and since they didn’t have some of the pieces needed to run their normal scheme accordingly, he was asked to play a lot of zone, which he isn’t as suited to do. I remember vividly how the Falcons were playing the Bengals in week four last season and they were in cover-two with 11 seconds left, but instead of sinking with A.J. Green on a corner route from a tight-split alignment, Oliver jumped on the swing route by the running back and allowed the game-winning touchdown. That’s definitely something he will learn from, but at the same time I don’t think the Falcons should ask him to do a lot of that going forward. I see Oliver as a perfect fit for that cover-one, press-bail scheme the Falcons actually want to run, where he can not only crowd receivers off the line and squeeze them into the boundary with his long arms, but also get his fingers on balls that most corners wouldn’t even come close to. With Atlanta’s two starting safeties and their rangy linebacker Deion Jones back healthy, this could be one of the scarier defenses in the league and Oliver could be the one asked to shadow the opposing number one receivers.
It wouldn’t be right for me to do finish this list without including one of my personal favorites here. I had Minkah as one of the four blue-chip prospects in last year’s draft. While I did think the first two in Saquon Barkley and Quenton Nelson were kind of in a league of their own and have proven me right so far, earning first-team All-Pro honors right off the bat, as well as Bradley Chubb finishing with 12 sacks, Fitzpatrick didn’t really get talked about at all his rookie year. He played 87 percent of the defensive snaps, but of those about 70 percent were split between outside and slot corner, while only playing 17.6 at free safety. He showed tremendous versatility, recording 80 tackles, two interceptions and nine PBUs, lining up all over the field for the Dolphins. His first pick came against Tom Brady and the second one he took to the house. Among all defenders with at least 200 snaps in coverage, Fitzpatrick ranked first in completion percentage and passer rating allowed – and nobody even talked about it once. At the moment his best position clearly is slot cornerback and I would have no problem leaving him for now, because he already is well on his way to becoming one of the very best at it, but I think because that was also his primary spot at Alabama and the fact he doesn’t have a lot of experience seeing the field from the deep safety position is what has limited his development in that area. When he was lined up at single-high we saw poor angles and he is still learning how to not let quarterbacks manipulate him. However, he definitely has the range and ball-skills to excel in that role down the road. It is harder to find that free safety than a pure nickel and coming from that Patriots background, I definitely believe Brian Flores is looking for his version of Devin McCourty. The new Dolphins HC has already mentioned that he wants Minkah to play a multi-faceted role in Miami’s new defense, where I see him at free on base downs and move down in the slot depending on situations. After all they don’t have anybody else that fits at free safety.
I realize that I have a lot of players from last year’s draft, probably because I remember them a little better but also because it was a damn good class and I saw them really flash as rookies. Reid was my fourth-highest graded safety and a mid-second round pick for me back in April of 2018. I thought he quietly had a really strong rookie campaign with 88 tackles, a fumble forced, two recovered and three interceptions. Reid already played over 900 snaps on the season, as it allowed the Texans to keep Kareem Jackson in the slot after starting him out at strong safety. I think the possibility of pairing him up with free agent safety Tashaun Gipson made Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson expendable, after they were raving about the leadership those guys presented. The brother of Panthers safety Eric Reid, Justin become one of my favorite prospects to watch because the versatility he brought to the table at Stanford and how he always showed up around the ball. In his first year in Houston he actually played a lot of deep coverage, but I could see them using him in more ways, helping out as an extra box defender and just being interchangeable with their safeties, especially since he was one of the most dependable tacklers among all DBs. Reid already made some incredible plays in year one, when you look at 101-yard pick-six against the Redskins in a close game or in their matchup versus the Browns, when fellow rookie Antonio Callaway thought he was going in for an easy walk-in touchdown, but Reid came from behind to punch the ball out inside the five. The Texans will face a much more challenging slate of quarterback in 2019, which could lead to valuable lessons for the second-year man, but he is a playmaker, who can really fill the stat sheet. If that pass rush can continue to get better, there might be even more chances to break on the ball on the back-end.
D.J. Moore & Curtis Samuel
Chris Herndon IV
Derek Barnett & Josh Sweat
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