1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2018
Stardom isn't easy to achieve and requires two key ingredients: standout individual performance and outside recognition.
Harrison Ford wouldn't have become one of the most successful actors in cinematic history if no one showed up to watch Star Wars 41 years ago.
The same applies in the NFL.
Some players will work in anonymity for years and leave the league after long, successful careers—but never achieve stardom.
Others are poised to break through after strong performances and be recognized for their outstanding play. These are the individuals worthy of identifying before they reach star status.
None of the following players have been to a Pro Bowl or named to an All-Pro team, yet their abilities to dominate are just under the surface. They are ready to explode this fall and become the NFL's next batch of household names.
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Greatness is thrust upon certain individuals. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seems to be one of those people.
Expectations are running wild after he helped lead the Niners to a 5-0 record during his initial starts with the franchise and signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract this offseason.
Early signs are promising, and Garoppolo's long-term potential has energized the organization. He's also drawing the league's attention, and his play is reminding some of the GOAT's.
"I watched his tape, and it was him doing his best impression of Tom [Brady]," four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, who signed with the 49ers this offseason in part because of Garoppolo, told The MMQB's Robert Klemko. "It was quick releases, quick reads, trying to eliminate the pass rush through speed of execution more than your line being great."
Recently, Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey said Garoppolo is a product of San Francisco's system. Spoiler alert: All quarterbacks are products of their surroundings. But the ability to diagnose defensive fronts and coverages pre- and post-snap while getting the ball out quickly and accurately is what a quarterback is supposed to do.
Five games aren't enough to anoint anyone the next great player. However, Garoppolo seems to be the closest thing to a surefire bet at the game's most important position.
Others to Watch: Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears; Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs; Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Running Back: Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers added two important components to the backfield this offseason. Garoppolo was the headliner, but Jerick McKinnon may be just as important to the team's success.
Kyle Shanahan's offense is predicated on a zone-running attack and heavy doses of play-action passes.
Last season, Carlos Hyde didn't have enough speed to be an outside threat nor the quickness to identify an emerging hole and burst downfield. McKinnon falls on the opposite side of the spectrum with his 4.41-second 40-yard-dash speed. Also, McKinnon is an adept receiver and has 142 career catches.
"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said after the team announced McKinnon's signing, per the Sacramento Bee's Eric Barrows. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you've still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."
The 26-year-old showed how effective he can be in limited doses with the Minnesota Vikings. Now, he'll take over as a lead back in a system catered to his skill set.
As McKinnon slashes through defenses and Garoppolo slings the ball, the 49ers could have an exciting offense that'll help them compete in the NFC.
Others to Watch: Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens; Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals; Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
Wide Receiver: Albert Wilson, Miami Dolphins
Albert Wilson may be a surprise inclusion considering all of the young wide receiver talent around the league. Wilson holds two advantages, though.
The free-agent addition is one of the NFL's best in one area: According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson gained more yards after catch when targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage last season than any other wide receiver. The Miami Dolphins coaching staff plans to take advantage of that.
"When you have the kind of athletic ability he does, the speed he does, the playmaking ability, you just try to find ways to get the ball in his hands and let him do his thing," head coach Adam Gase said, per the Sun Sentinel's Chris Perkins.
In addition, plenty of targets freed up when Miami traded Jarvis Landry—who set an NFL record with 400 receptions in his first four years—to the Cleveland Browns. Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker will experience increased target shares, but Wilson will benefit after setting a career high last season with 42 receptions for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Wilson is a much faster option than Landry, and Gase's offense already showed it will lean on its slot receiver if he's reliable.
Others to Watch: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers; Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Robby Anderson, New York Jets
Tight End: David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
The Los Angeles Chargers' Hunter Henry would have been the choice before he suffered a torn ACL during OTAs.
Instead, the Cleveland Browns' David Njoku is next in line as the tight end most likely to break through. That's thanks to a combination of outstanding athleticism, growth at the position and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Njoku converted from wide receiver to tight end with the Miami Hurricanes before being selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. The 22-year-old's maturation remains ongoing after his 32 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns during his rookie campaign.
He showed flashes of brilliance during his first season, though. Njoku demonstrated he could separate from linebackers, threaten the seam and contort his body to make incredible catches. As he learns to be more consistent, he'll become more prominent in the Browns offense, especially with Haley calling the plays.
"I told all the coaches when we sat down and met for the first time that our job is to take the players we have and put them in the best possible chance to succeed and not worry about a lot else," Haley said after his hiring, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
The 6'4", 246-pound former track standout with 4.64-second 40 speed and a 37.5-inch vertical is a mismatch waiting to happen.
Others to Watch: Trey Burton, Chicago Bears; Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons; George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Offensive Tackle: Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints
Whether or not the New Orleans Saints wanted Reuben Foster with the 32nd pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the organization ended up with the right player in offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
The first-year blocker bounced from left to right tackle because of injuries among teammates before settling in on the strong side. Ramczyk played every offensive snap last season, per Pro Football Reference, and became a reliable protector for quarterback Drew Brees.
"I think one of the things you see from Ryan is that he's steady week to week; he's smart," head coach Sean Payton said in December, per the Times-Picayune's Herbie Teope. "It's very unusual for a rookie to play over there on the left side and play on the right side, but I'd say there's a maturity level to him and a calmness to him that feels more like a third- or fourth-year pro."
As the 24-year-old gets comfortable at his new position, his technique and consistency will improve.
"I think fundamentally he's just improved an awful lot," offensive line coach Dan Roushar said of Ramczyk's offseason work, per the Times-Picayune's Josh Katzenstein.
The rookie ranked seventh among all offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and he'll be even better this fall. Right tackle is more important than ever, and Ramczyk is already one of the best.
Others to Watch: Charles Leno Jr., Chicago Bears; Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons; Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions
Guard: Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ali Marpet is already counted among the NFL's most versatile linemen. The 2015 second-round pick from Hobart College began his career at guard before moving to center last season. He'll return to guard this fall.
"I obviously played two years at right guard, so I feel comfortable playing guard, but moving to the left side will be new," Marpet said, per Bucs Wire's Bonnie Mott. "But it's going to be a lot easier when you're playing next to good players, which should help out a bit with the transition."
Marpet transitioned well to snapping the football, but the Buccaneers had a chance to sign a top free-agent center. Ryan Jensen's acquisition speaks volumes: Tampa Bay's coaching staff has enough confidence in Marpet to move him without any concern about his performance. Last season, Marpet finished fifth among centers in run-block success percentage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Guard is a better fit, though, since he graded higher during his first two campaigns.
"His 16.5 mark, however, stands as a career-low for the three-year veteran, as he recorded percentages above 18.0 in both of his first two seasons in the NFL while playing guard," PFF's Austin Gayle noted.
Left guard may be something new (again), yet it will provide Marpet with an opportunity to show he's an elite blocker at all three interior positions.
Others to Watch: Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns; Gabe Jackson, Oakland Raiders; Shaq Mason, New England Patriots
Center: Brandon Linder, Jacksonville Jaguars
The best offensive lineman on arguably the league's most talented roster tends to work in anonymity. Brandon Linder is the pacesetter up front for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but few people outside Jacksonville could even name the starting center.
In fact, Linder had the highest-graded game of any offensive lineman last season, according to Pro Football Focus. More importantly, said performance came during the divisional round when the Jaguars toppled the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jacksonville is a run-first team (as much as any squad can be in today's NFL), and the ability to re-establish the line of scrimmage is vital.
Leonard Fournette isn't Barry Sanders. Sure, the talented runner can create a few yards on his own, but usually some push is required for the 228-pound back to gain ground. Linder is a tenacious blocker who can improve with a better surrounding cast.
The center is bound to find recognition this season after the Jaguars invested a five-year, $66.5 million deal in Andrew Norwell. With an elite guard next to Linder, the 26-year-old center won't have to overcompensate for the unit's weakest position, and the interior's success will get more attention thanks to Jacksonville's investments.
The organization knows how good Linder is and made him the NFL's second-highest-paid center last offseason.
Others to Watch: Matt Paradis, Denver Broncos; David Andrews, New England Patriots; Chase Roullier, Washington Redskins
Defensive End: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett is the complete package and about to unleash hell upon the NFL.
Few defenders have come into the league with as much raw potential or fanfare, and Garrett delivered when healthy. To be more accurate, the 2017 No. 1 pick never played at full strength after he suffered a high-ankle sprain in preseason practice. Even so, Garrett produced positive results after missing the first four games and another later in the year.
The crown jewel of the Browns roster finished second among rookies with seven sacks and served as a consistently disruptive force. He excelled with a rare combination of size (6'4", 272 lbs), first-step quickness, flexibility, versatility, outstanding natural athleticism, the strength to hold the point of attack and an outstanding work ethic.
"Sometimes he can be his own worst enemy in that respect because he works so hard physically that he has to do a good job with recovery also," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon. "The next thing is this—and he knows—if he stays healthy, watch out."
Oftentimes, the young edge-rusher created pressure only to finish a step or two short of another sack. Cleveland's new-look secondary, which features Denzel Ward, T.J. Carrie, E.J. Gaines and Damarious Randall, will help the defensive front become more effective.
Others to Watch: Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals; Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs; Derek Barnett, Philadelphia Eagles
Defensive Tackle: Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
Grady Jarrett's three-sack performance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI hasn't been forgotten. It signaled the start of something special. Jarrett is well on his way to being an unblockable force, but he's had to prove many doubters wrong.
Jarrett fell to the fifth round of the 2015 draft because he didn't fit typical size requirements for NFL defensive tackles. The 6'0", 305-pound interior defender always relied on quickness and leverage to overcome bigger blockers. He's continued to do so with Atlanta.
"We had a sense that would happen with him because he has such quickness," head coach Dan Quinn said, per The MMQB's Jonathan Jones. "Really good traits for a 300-pound guy that he can beat you to the punch. Get-off at an inside position is really one of the attributes that make him hard to block because he's kind of coiled up, coiled up and then he's ready to go."
A defensive tackle doesn't need to be 325-plus pounds to effectively defend the run. First-step quickness and technique can overcome. Jarrett is the perfect example. The 3-technique led all defensive tackles last season in first contact at or behind the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Blowing up the line of scrimmage and collapsing the pocket is more valuable than ever, and few do either as well as Jarrett.
Others to Watch: DeForest Buckner, San Francisco 49ers; Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers; Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants
Linebacker: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt is ready to make a name for himself. The Pittsburgh Steelers chose the outside linebacker in the first round last year to become more athletic while trying to boost an anemic edge presence.
Watt tied for second among rookies with seven sacks. He defended seven passes and snagged an interception as well.
The majority of 3-4 outside linebackers are pass-rushers by nature. Watt started as a collegiate tight end before he flipped to defense during his final two seasons at Wisconsin, but he shows more comfort while working in space than most linebackers.
Pittsburgh's coaching staff will take advantage of his flexibility by switching him from right to left outside linebacker. That could help maximize's Bud Dupree's athleticism, as the 2015 first-round pick struggled during his first three seasons. Watt feels up to the task, but he knows the defense will lean on him, especially after Ryan Shazier's spinal injury.
"An outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, you're meant to be a splash player," Watt said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Joe Rutter. "I want to make more splash plays."
The Steelers built their once-vaunted defense around outstanding linebacker play. It's been missing in recent seasons. Watt can change that.
Others to Watch: Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings; Myles Jack, Jacksonville Jaguars; Matt Judon, Baltimore Ravens
Cornerback: Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Marshon Lattimore's Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign overshadowed Tre'Davious White's standout rookie performance. White was as good as Lattimore in nearly every area yet fell short in the voting.
Still, Buffalo's 2017 first-round pick produced 69 tackles, 18 defended passes, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. White is a well-rounded defender with exceptional lower-body fluidity and the ability to cover outside the numbers or over the slot.
As a result, White is expected to improve during his second campaign.
"Tre'Davious has been the opposite," head coach Sean McDermott said of a potential sophomore letdown, per The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn. "The way he has prepared himself, he came back and he's in shape when he came back to camp this year. He's just picked up really where he left off in January."
Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy's additions along the defensive front and cornerback Vontae Davis' inclusion will also help the young corner's maturation. An improved pass rush is necessary to help the secondary after the unit managed only 27 sacks last year. The veteran corner, meanwhile, will teach White a trick or two.
"He's a good kid," Davis said, per Dominic LoVallo of the Bills' official site. "He listens. He's full of energy. He's always upbeat. He's also a good player. I think he can be one of the best in the league one day."
Others to Watch: Bradley Roby, Denver Broncos; Kendall Fuller, Kansas City Chiefs; William Jackson, Cincinnati Bengals
Safety: Adrian Amos, Chicago Bears
Adrian Amos is a great representative of a modern safety. Free and strong designations no longer apply. The position is required to do so much more than fit into nice, neat little boxes.
The NFL's top safeties play in the deep third or half, down near the box and cover the slot and even a little nickel linebacker if needed. Amos does all of these things as a proverbial Swiss army knife for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
"I watch people that played in this type of scheme because if I look at other places that have true strong safeties and things like that, they play a different scheme than us. Like Kam Chancellor; he plays down low, just roaming," Amos said, per The Athletic's Kevin Fishbain. "We've got different responsibilities, so you can’t really pinpoint."
Amos and Eddie Jackson form an exciting, young safety tandem. The 25-year-old veteran is a physical presence who moves from position to position, while the second-year Jackson displays tremendous ball skills and is a growing voice in the Bears secondary.
Amos is further along thanks to a better understanding of the scheme—which is a major positive. Fangio's retention as defensive coordinator became new head coach Matt Nagy's best offseason decision. Those on that side of the ball can continue to build upon last year's success—especially Amos.
Others to Watch: Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams; Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills; Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints