No matter how estimable their physical talent or football acumen, some players need a full year in the NFL before they get the hang of the new schemes, and understand their place. In 2018, Patrick Mahomes, George Kittle, and Kenny Moore were among those players who really came to life in their sophomore seasons.
There’s an impressive list of players who could do the same thing in 2019–those prospects from the 2018 draft class who are just coming into their own. Here are the most likely candidates for big second-year bumps.
Sam Darnold | Lamar Jackson | Nick Chubb | Kerryon Johnson | James Washington | Dante Pettis | Dallas Goedert | Mark Andrews | Braden Smith | Orlando Brown, Jr. | Isaiah Wynn | Harold Landry | Kemoko Turay | Genard Avery | Daron Payne | Maurice Hurst | Jerome Baker | Tremaine Edmunds | Levi Wallace | J.C. Jackson | Jessie Bates III | Justin Reid
Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets
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Why are the Jets so high on Darnold after a rookie year in which he threw 17 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions? Injuries had a role in Darnold’s halted early development, but it’s last December that is a hopeful indicator. In four December games, the USC alum threw six of his touchdown passes to just one interception, while he managed no touchdowns and four picks in November. Darnold appeared to see the field more clearly later in the season, his mechanics looked cleaner, and he finally resembled the player the team selected with the third pick in the 2018 draft.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
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Jackson became the Ravens’ starting quarterback for good in mid-November when injuries and ineffectiveness signaled the end of Joe Flacco’s time in Baltimore. While Jackson had mechanical and accuracy issues—most prominently, his tendency to throw with his feet too close together, which led to some errant throws—he did energize Baltimore’s offense in ways Flacco never could.
Head coach John Harbaugh has pointed to a “revolutionary” offense in 2019 that will help Jackson—in truth, it’s a series of concepts that look a lot like what offensive coordinator Greg Roman dialed up for Colin Kaepernick from 2012 through 2014. Invention aside, if Jackson is able to use his otherworldly athleticism in a structure that also expands his efficiency as a passer, the Ravens will have a multi-threat offense we haven’t seen since the Kaepernick days, or Michael Vick’s peak tenure in Atlanta.
Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns
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Former Browns head coach Hue Jackson didn’t give Chubb, the team’s second-round pick in 2018, many reps in the first half of the season—this despite a three-carry, 105-yard, two-touchdown game against the Raiders in his fourth NFL game. But from Week 7, the first time Chubb got double-digit carries, through the end of the regular season when Jackson was gone and Freddie Kitchens had taken over the offense, only Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Joe Mixon gained more yards than Chubb’s 823. No back in the NFL avoided more tackles than Chubb’s 36 in that time frame, and Chubb had 15 carries of 15 yards or more on the full regular season—on just 192 carries.
Cleveland’s backfield will be loaded when Kareem Hunt lands following his eight-game suspension, but by then, Chubb may have made his presence inevitable with his obvious talent.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions
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The Lions released Theo Riddick in late July, which gave more of a focus to Johnson—a focus he earned in his rookie season with 814 yards from scrimmage in just 10 games. Johnson’s inaugural campaign came to a sudden end with a knee injury in Week 11, but when he was on the field , he displayed every attribute you’d want from a feature back. A potential high-volume target in the passing game, Johnson caught 32 passes on 39 targets for 213 yards and a touchdown, and 245 of Johnson’s 641 rushing yards came on his nine carries of 15 yards or more.
James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert could go on a TED Talk tour about finding receiver value outside of the first round, so when Pittsburgh selected Washington out of Oklahoma State in the second round of the 2018 draft, it certainly raised attention. There were questions about Washington’s route complexity and understanding coming into his rookie season, but never a doubt about his downfield speed. He caught just 16 passes in 38 targets for 217 yards and one touchdown in his rookie year, and had just two receptions of 20 air yards or more.
Not ideal, but in Pittsburgh’s preseason opener against Tampa Bay, Washington caught that same number of deep passes in a single game, including a 43-yard reception from backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs in which he completely torched Tampa Bay starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. With Antonio Brown off to Oakland, the Steelers will rely more on Washington’s explosive potential, and he might be ready for the responsibility this season. And it’s also worth noting that Brown also caught just 16 passes in his rookie season of 2010. He caught 69 passes in 2011, and he was on his way.
Dante Pettis, WR, San Francisco 49ers
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In the second half of his rookie season, Pettis ranked fifth among all first-year receivers with 24 catches. He caught those passes out of 32 targets for 371 yards and four touchdowns with undrafted rookie Nick Mullens as his quarterback. The return of Jimmy Garoppolo should give Pettis more intermediate and deep opportunities, as well as the ability to break off routes and follow Garoppolo through various scramble drills. Pettis’ exceptional sneakiness in and out of breaks makes him a prime asset in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Dallas Goedert, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
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The Eagles led the league last season in percentage of passes to their tight ends, with a 36% rate. Goedert was a big part of that equation, adding his talents to Zach Ertz’s and aligning himself with head coach Doug Pederson’s preferred offensive philosophy. The second-round rookie from South Dakota State caught 33 passes on 44 targets in 2018, and added three more catches on five targets for 50 yards in the 2019 preseason opener against the Titans. Goedert has the size and route understanding to beat defenders with precision and body control, making him especially dangerous in the red zone.
Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
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When you’re dealing with a young starting quarterback and changing your offensive system halfway through the season as the Ravens had to do in the transition from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson in 2018, tight ends who can make contested catches and create yards after the catch. In the second half of the 2018 season, Andrews caught 16 passes on 24 targets for 339 yards, with 8.4 yards after the catch. That last number led all rookie right ends, and points to how valuable Andrews will be in 2019.
Braden Smith, OT, Indianapolis Colts
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
General manager Chris Ballard has built an estimable inside offensive line with center Ryan Kelly, and guards Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski. The surprise guy last season was Smith, selected in the second round out of Auburn. A guard in college, Smith moved to right tackle in the NFL, getting better as the year went along with his strength and movement skills. Per Pro Football Focus, Smith allowed four sacks, nine quarterback hits, and 25 quarterback hurries in 601 pass-blocking snaps. With a full season at this new position under his belt, expect better things from this talented offensive lineman.
Orlando Brown, Jr., OT, Baltimore Ravens
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Brown had one of the worst scouting combine performances in the history of the event, finishing near the bottom in speed and agility tests, and blaming his 14 bench-press reps on the fact that he wasn’t sticking to his “breathing routine.” The Ravens were unconcerned and selected the Oklahoma alum in the third round, getting themselves quite a bargain in the process. His NFL team paid attention to the tape, which showed Brown to be quite the mauler at the line of scrimmage. Brown played mostly at right tackle, fitting in a couple games on the left side, and didn’t allow a single quarterback sack in 410 pass-blocking reps. He’ll be a key part of Baltimore’s offense as it transforms under quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Isaiah Wynn, OT, New England Patriots
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Much is expected of Wynn, who is expected to replace Trent Brown at left tackle, and thus will protect the NFL’s most esteemed blind side, as well as adding his talents to what became the league’s most formidable power-running team in the second half of the season through the Super Bowl. New England’s first-round pick in 2018, Wynn lost his entire rookie season to a torn Achilles tendon, but he gave up just four sacks, two hits and 20 quarterback hurries in his entire collegiate career at Georgia, excelling at both guard and tackle. It’s a lot to handle, but having Wynn’s talent, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, will certainly help.
Harold Landry, edge-rusher, Tennessee Titans
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Landry first caught my attention at a different level after a phenomenal game against the Eagles in which he had a sack and two quarterback hurries, forced a fumble, and showed presence as a pass defender. The Boston College alum, selected in the second round by the Titans, finished his rookie season with four sacks and 34 total pressures, despite an ankle injury that he dealt with most of the season. Landry has bulked up a bit and has worked on the counter moves vital to consistent pressure at the NFL level. 2019 could be his signature year.
Kemoko Turay, edge-rusher, Indianapolis Colts
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Turay had bouts of production around frustrating injuries at Rutgers, but the Colts thought enough of him to select him in the second round of the 2018 draft. Turay finished his rookie season with five sacks and 40 total pressures, showing an estimable ability to bend the edge with pure speed, and get to quarterbacks with stunts up the middle. He officially put the league on notice with two sacks against the Eagles in Week 3, beating left tackle Jason Peters for one quarterback takedown, and crashing inside for another. Turay excelled as a rotational pass-rusher in Matt Eberflus’ defense, and could steal a bigger role in 2019.
Genard Avery, edge-rusher, Cleveland Browns
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Avery proved his “draft steal” status by amassing five sacks and 42 total pressures as a stand-up endbacker in Gregg Williams’ frequent blitz packages. Avery had just 366 pass-rushing snaps in his rookie year, but he showed everything you need to create pressure from the edge—speed around the turn, the upper-body strength and leverage to create a bull-rush, and enough persistence to recover from a block and still make a play. Avery is fighting for time in a stacked group with Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon above him, but don’t be surprised when he makes the most of his opportunities once again.
Daron Payne, DI, Washington Redskins
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When you watch Payne’s tape, you’re immediately struck by his estimable combination of short-area quickness and killer strength. It’s a skill set that had the Alabama alum winning battles against a lot of NFL guards right away. Payne finished his rookie season with five sacks, 27 total pressures, and 34 stops. The 13th overall pick in 2018, Payne was a relatively under the radar guy to some because his role with the Crimson Tide was to soak up blocks more than it was to get after the quarterback—but the Redskins saw his pass-rush potential and were amply rewarded. Payne could become one of the NFL’s best interior defensive linemen in a big hurry.
Maurice Hurst, DI, Oakland Raiders
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Hurst was flagged for a heart condition at the 2018 combine, which caused him to fall to the fifth round despite a senior season at Michigan in which he amassed 5.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 49 pressures—the most for any interior lineman in his draft class. Hurst made it through his rookie campaign for the Raiders without any attendant health concerns, and played well everywhere from nose shade tackle to five-tech end, racking up four sacks and 11 total pressures in just 252 pass-rushing snaps. If Hurst stays healthy, he has the speed through gaps and strong hand movement to dominate offensive linemen throughout the league.
Jerome Baker, LB, Miami Dolphins
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The third-rounder from Ohio State arrived with a quickness in Week 5 of his rookie year, when the Dolphins faced the Bengals, and Baker picked up two sacks of Andy Dalton—one on an A-gap blitz, and one from the edge in a different pressure package. Versatile to a fault, Baker had five total pressures on the season, amassed 59 tackles and 29 stops, and proved credible in coverage. At 6’1” and 225 pounds, Baker fits the modern paradigm of the lighter, faster linebacker, and could be an every-down starter for the Dolphins in 2019 and beyond.
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo Bills
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Edmunds might have more “upside”—there’s that dreaded draft word—than anybody else on this list. Even a cursory film review of the 6’5”, 250-pound Virginia Tech alum who ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine would show far more than a workout warrior—in his last two seasons for the Hokies, Edmund led all college linebackers with 121 stops, and he also showed the ability to crash through the line on blitzes and move back into coverage with more agility than you’d expect from a player his size. Edmunds lived up to his potential in his rookie season with 13 total pressures, 90 tackles, 38 stops, two interceptions, and five pass breakups. Edmunds is only 21 years old coming into his second NFL season, and as his on-field acumen matches up with his ridiculous athleticism, the sky’s the limit.
Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills
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Undrafted in 2018 despite picking off three passes for Alabama and allowing a 47.3 passer rating in the 2017 season, Wallace made believers of those who had doubted his size-speed combination with a dynamite rookie campaign in which he excelled down the stretch, allowing 10 catches on 19 targets for 94 yards, eight yards after the catch, and an opponent passer rating of 84.1. Wallace is projected to be the Bills’ startuing outside cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White in 2019, and he’s earned that designation with his ability to trail receivers downfield and break up passes. Wallace would do well to work on his catching ability, as he had several dropped interceptions last season that would have made his rookie year even more impressive had they gone the other way.
J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots
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Another undrafted cornerback with “potential future star” written all over his profile after an excellent rookie season, Jackson stepped into the Patriots’ secondary and did what not a lot of young players do—he took command of Bill Belichick’s complicated schemes and showed an increasingly consistent ability to keep up. On the season, Jackson allowed just 33 catches on 64 targets for 452 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 60.2. He has a perfect sense of how to stick to a receiver for the NFL team that plays the most man coverage.
Jessie Bates III, S, Cincinnati Bengals
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Bates came out of Wake Forest in the second round and immediately became a factor in Cincinnati’s defense. On 33 targets, he allowed just 19 catches for 218 yards, 113 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, three interceptions, four pass breakups and an opponent passer rating of 59.9 — fifth-best in the NFL among safeties who played at least 50% of their defense’s snaps.
Tested in both single-high and split-safety coverages in his rookie campaign, Bates had no trouble matching his range and natural athleticism with an uncanny sense of route concepts and receiver placement. This gave him the ability to anticipate where the ball was about to go, and the confidence to jump the route for the interception or deflection.
Justin Reid, S, Houston Texans
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The Texans’ secondary has gone through radical changes in the 2019 offseason, but Reid has the opportunity to be a rare bastion of consistency. Asked to play the deep third out of disguised two-high looks and patrol the seam in quarters coverage, the third-round Stanford alum proved up to the challenge. Though he allowed four touchdown passes on the season, he also picked off three passes, and he has the range and athleticism to become that rarest of all defensive backs—a deep safety who can erase the competition on a consistent basis.
Touchdown Wire editor Doug Farrar has also covered football for Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, the Washington Post, and Football Outsiders. His first book, “The Genius of Desperation,” a schematic history of professional football, was published by Triumph Books in 2018. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 …22