The fun thing about professional sports is that we constantly get to see players and the games themselves grow and mature. The NFL is no exception to this trend. The league sees new stars emerge every year. A lot of times, we don’t even see the breakout seasons coming. Players like Antonio Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, put in work and turn into household names.
This season, I believe the following ten players will take huge steps forward and potentially even become stars. Unlike my previous articles, this one is not numerically ranked. The players appear in alphabetical order according to their last names.
The Packers have found their cornerback of the future in Alexander. As a rookie, the Louisville product showed a lot of potential. His numbers, one interception and 11 passes defensed, don’t jump off of the page. However, his play was smooth, and he will be Green Bay’s top cornerback moving forward. There are plenty of young cornerbacks in the league who are carving out names for themselves. I can’t wait to see where Alexander ranks among them.
Allen took snaps at defensive end and as an interior, defensive tackle-type player in 2019. After a disappointing rookie season that was cut short after five games because of injuries, the 2017 first-round pick put up good numbers in 2018. Allen finished the season with eight sacks and 61 combined tackles. He had some impressive showings as well. He had multiple sacks in two games, and in Week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys, Allen recorded a sack and ten tackles.
The Redskins have assembled a tough group of young defensive linemen. Alongside Da’Ron Payne and Montez Sweat, Allen is poised for a breakout year in 2019.
Bates showed up to Ball for the Bengals last season. The Wake Forest product started all 16 games and finished the year with 111 combined tackles, 73 solo tackles, seven passes defensed, three interceptions, and a defensive touchdown. The Bengals have quietly been stocking up on young players who are in line for greatness. Bates might have been a second-round pick last year, but he played up to first-round value.
People were sleeping on Chubb last season. A nasty injury he suffered in college had NFL team scared and Chubb fell to the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He was my third-best running back on the board. He proved his worth as a rookie. In nine starts and 16 appearances, Chubb racked up four 100-yard games. He crossed the 80-yard threshold three other times during the season and finished with a season average of 62.3 rushing yards per game on 5.2 yards per attempt. In his nine starts, Chubb averaged 84.2 rushing yards per game, which translates to 1,347 yards over 16 games. Chubb could be competing for a Pro Bowl spot in 2019.
Cook wouldn’t be the first great college running back to flunk out of the NFL because of injury issues, but I think he’ll finally pull everything together in 2019. The former Florida State standout has only appeared in 15 games through the first two seasons of his career. He looked good in his four-game rookie season, putting up 88.5 rushing yards per game on 4.8 yards per carry. His second-year averages weren’t as good.
With Latavius Murray no longer on the team though, Cook will be Minnesota’s feature back. He can still post numbers as he did in Week 15 last season when he carried the ball 19 times for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Cook has the tools to be great, he just needs to stay healthy.
Even though he fell into the second round, I thought that Guice was the second-best running back in the 2018 NFL Draft. Guice tore his ACL before the regular season last year, but he’s set to make his NFL debut in Week 1. I still have a lot of high hopes for Guice. He was dominant in college and I believe that his playing style will translate to the NFL. Having Adrian Peterson as a running mate will help take some pressure off of Guice and could open up opportunities for him this season.
Before tearing his ACL last season, Kupp was averaging 70.8 receiving yards per game. That translates to 1,132 yards over a 16-game season. Kupp was also catching five passes per game and had six touchdowns through the eight games he played. If not for the injury, the Rams might have finished the season with three 1,000-yard receivers.
The ACL tear was a big setback for Kupp, but he has incredible potential. It’s a wonder he fell to the third round of the 2017 draft. In 2018, Kupp’s best performance came in Week 4. He caught nine passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
As a rookie, Johnson showed signs of great potential. Before Johnson’s arrival, the Lions had struggled to get a running back over the 100-yard mark in a game. It was comical. Would you believe that, before a 101-yard performance in Week 3 by Johnson last season, the last time a Lion ran for over 100 yards was back in Week 13 of the 2013 season? Reggie Bush ran for 117 yards against the Packers. Bush finished with 1,006 yards that season. No Detroit back has eclipsed the 1,000 rushing yard mark since.
However, Johnson ran for 100 yards in a game twice last season. In ten appearances and seven starts, he averaged 64.1 rushing yards per game. If Johnson averaged that over a 16-game season, he would finish with 1,025 yards. I expect Johnson will become a 1,000-yard running back soon.
Houston has to be feeling good about drafting Reid in the third-round last year. He appeared in all 16 games for the team and made 12 starts. The 22-year-old Stanford product was all over the field last season. He finished the year with 88 combined tackles, 70 solo tackles, ten passes defensed, three interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdown. With Tyrann Mathieu leaving in free agency and Jadeveon Clowney holding out, the Texans need as many playmakers on defense as possible. Reid will look to build on a strong foundation in 2019.
When Kareem Hunt was cut last season, Williams was thrust into the fire as one of the backs charged with replacing him. Williams only registered carries in eight games last season and finished with 50 attempts on the season. He made just three starts in the regular season. It’s a small sample size, but Williams did have some eye-catching moments. In his three starts, he averaged 67.6 rushing yards per game and recorded three rushing touchdowns. In Week 16, on just 13 carries, Williams ran for 103 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. He also showed his pass-catching ability, hauling in six receptions for 74 yards in Week 15.
Williams cemented himself in the playoffs. In the Divisional Round, he ran the ball 25 times for 129 yards and a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts. The following week, against New England, he only registered ten carries for 30 yards and a touchdown. However, he caught five passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns. We’ll see if Williams can reproduce his late-season success in 2019.
Hubbard is another one of the young players the Bengals have brought in over the past couple of seasons. He was a third-round pick last year and never started as a rookie. However, he did appear in all 16 games and finished the season with six sacks, 39 combined tackles, and a forced fumble. I don’t think Hubbard will be a star, but he could easily become a regular starter in the NFL, assuming he continues to improve.
Hurst was supposed to be a high-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but a health condition discovered at the combine scared a lot of teams off. Hurst fell to the fifth-round where the Raiders scooped him up. Jon Gruden did a lot of things wrong in his first year back as the Raiders head coach, but he and his staff deserve credit for taking Hurst. The Michigan product appeared in 13 games and started ten times. He led the team in sacks with four and also recorded 31 combined tackles and a forced fumble.
D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley had better rookie seasons, but I think Kirk has the chance to breakout in 2019. Kirk finished with 43 receptions, 590 yards, and three touchdowns in 12 appearances and seven starts as a rookie. That’s just 49.2 yards per game, but he did cross the 75-yard mark four times. With a better quarterback, I believe Kirk can still be a successful player in the NFL. He will have to compete with a lot of other young receivers for playing time this season.
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