NFL Youngsters Ready to Blossom in 2nd Half of 2018 Season
It isn't easy to light it up in the NFL.
Players need a suitable system that accentuates their strengths. Some talented youngsters have to wait for an injury, a trade or a new coaching staff to perform at optimal levels.
Heading into the second half of the 2018 season, several rookies and second-year players have an opportunity to blossom in an expanded role or have trended up in recent weeks.
When a starter goes down, it's next man up. In some situations, the backup exceeds expectations, solidifying a spot in the rotation or a significant increase in playing time. For others, a crowded depth chart can stunt development, but outperforming competition at the position may lead to more snaps.
Let's put the spotlight on eight youngsters—players with no more than two years in the league—who started slow but have a pathway to a strong finish to the 2018 campaign.
RB Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
As a rookie, Marlon Mack took a backseat to running back Frank Gore, who signed with the Miami Dolphins this past offseason. The South Florida product averaged 3.8 yards per carry and accumulated 583 yards from scrimmage in 14 appearances in a backup role.
With Gore out of the picture, Mack had a clear shot to secure the lion's share of carries even though the Colts selected two running backs in April's draft, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. He needed time to recover from shoulder surgery in the offseason, and then a hamstring issue lingered into the regular season, costing him four games.
Mack had a moderate role in Weeks 2 and 6, recording a combined 22 rush attempts for 123 yards. But with strong performances in the last two contests, he became the first Colts player to log back-to-back 100-yard games since Joseph Addai in 2007.
Head coach Frank Reich served last season as the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, who utilized a running-back-by-committee approach. Expect to see the same in Indianapolis, where three ball-carriers have at least 52 carries this season.
Nonetheless, Mack logged 25 rushing attempts in his fourth start. He's the featured back with dual-threat capabilities as a ball-carrier and receiver. If he stays healthy, he's poised to peak down the stretch.
RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Heading into Week 7, the Cleveland Browns traded running back Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fifth-round selection.
That created an opportunity for rookie second-rounder Nick Chubb to produce as the featured tailback.
Since Hyde's exit, Chubb has capitalized on the extra touches, logging 36 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown. Though Duke Johnson Jr. is the Browns' pass-catching back—Chubb has only two receptions all season—the rookie figures to handle 15-20 carries per contest as the early-down replacement for Hyde.
Chubb has been far more efficient on the ground than Hyde was, averaging 6.1 yards per carry compared to the veteran's 3.4 yards-per-carry average with the team. He profiles as a downhill runner who can make one cut and explode through a lane with quickness.
As a starter seeing the bulk of the workload, Chubb could reach the 1,000-yard mark in his first season.
WR Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Denver Broncos sent wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans for a fourth-round pick on Tuesday. The teams also exchanged seventh-round selections.
The decision to trade a four-time Pro Bowl wideout with five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons shows confidence in rookie second-rounder Courtland Sutton, who caught three passes for 78 yards Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In total, Sutton has 17 receptions for 324 yards and two touchdowns through eight games. He has yet to catch more than three catches in a game, but that will likely change with Thomas no longer in Denver. The 30-year-old was second on the team in targets (56), while Sutton is third at 37.
Despite quarterback Case Keenum's uneven play under center (10 touchdowns passes and 10 interceptions), Sutton will have a clear opportunity to blossom in the second half of the season. The Broncos likely want to see what their high draft pick brings to the offense opposite Emmanuel Sanders.
WR Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals fans caught a glimpse of their team's future when quarterback Josh Rosen connected with wideout Christian Kirk for a nine-yard game-winning touchdown pass against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
After a slow start, Kirk's production has become more consistent in recent weeks. He's had at least 57 receiving yards or a touchdown in each of his last four games.
In all three seasons at Texas A&M, Kirk recorded at least 919 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. His early production in college and now in the NFL suggests he can adjust quickly to what's going on around him.
It didn't take Kirk long to surpass 2017 third-rounder Chad Williams in Arizona's pecking order at wide receiver. With the second-most targets (46) of any Cardinals player, expect the Texas A&M product to continue taking strides forward in the second half of the season.
DE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
Alex Okafor technically starts at defensive end for the New Orleans Saints, but Marcus Davenport plays a sizable role as a reserve. The rookie first-rounder has played 213 defensive snaps in seven games, during which time he's recorded seven solo tackles, four sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Over the last three weeks, Davenport had three sacks, including two against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on Sunday night. He took advantage of the Vikings' weak offensive line, which is promising for a player with room to develop. The rookie first-rounder is tied with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins for second on the team in quarterback hits (seven).
The coaching staff continues to place more trust in Davenport as the season progresses. After logging less than 38 percent of the team's snaps in the first two weeks, he's lined up for at least 45 percent of the defensive plays over each of the last five outings.
The Saints gave up a future first-rounder to trade up for Davenport at No. 14 overall in April. At some point this season, he may supplant Okafor, who has only one sack and two quarterback hits.
DT Jonathan Allen, Washington Redskins
In 2017, Washington fielded the NFL's worst run defense. This year, the unit ranks second and has allowed more than 100 rushing yards only once this season—104 to the Colts in Week 2.
Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen doesn't deserve all of the credit for tighter running lanes up front, but he should get a hefty portion.
"Despite his youth, Allen has become a leader on the defense, the player who speaks most about getting through adversity," Washington Post reporter Les Carpenter wrote.
Along with his leadership, Allen's early production bolsters his stature in the locker room. He's one of three players on the roster with at least four sacks, and he leads the team in quarterback hits with nine.
The second-year defensive tackle lines up next to rookie interior defender Da'Ron Payne to form a solid Alabama-rooted one-two punch on the front line. His guidance and production have noticably bolstered a unit that couldn't stop anyone last season.
In his first year, Allen missed 11 games with a Lisfranc foot sprain. He's fully recovered and looks the part of a top-20 draft pick, as he's taken a major sophomore leap.
CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers didn't waste any time developing cornerback Jaire Alexander.
In Week 1, he lined up for 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps. The rookie first-rounder flashed at times during his first four appearances, notching 15 solo tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a half-sack.
Alexander suffered a groin injury and missed two games, but he returned to action Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. He popped up all over the field with seven solo tackles and five pass breakups while covering wideouts Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.
If Alexander stays healthy, he should continue to play a majority of the snaps at cornerback. The 21-year-old's ability to defend the boundary and the slot gives Green Bay's coaching staff the flexibility to shuffle players around on the back end.
Alexander's solid tackling will keep him on the field in a secondary with other youngsters, Kevin King and Josh Jackson, also progressing under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Given his versatility, expect him to have a productive second half of the season.
S Tedric Thompson, Seattle Seahawks
For the Seattle Seahawks, it's a next-man-up situation at safety.
Kam Chancellor remains on injured reserve with a neck injury, and Earl Thomas' season ended because of a lower leg fracture. Bradley McDougald has played well, but the soon-to-be 28-year-old isn't a youngster.
Meanwhile, Tedric Thompson is set for a big step forward.
Following Thomas' injury, the Seahawks inserted Thompson in the starting lineup for their Week 5 matchup against the Rams. Seattle lost the game but may have found a starting-caliber safety in the process.
The Colorado has product logged 12 solo tackles, two pass breakups and an interception in three starts.
"We're extremely confident in T2, Tedric Thompson," linebacker Bobby Wagner said in early October, per John Boyle of the team's official website. "We were confident going into the season with him, with his ability and the things that he’s shown throughout the preseason and everything else."
If Thompson mirrors the ball-hawking ability he displayed at Colorado, where he had 13 interceptions in four seasons, the Seahawks would have an unheralded gem to replace Thomas.