NFL Rookies Poised for Breakout Sophomore Seasons in 2019
In the NFL, there's an abundance of untapped potential, but it's not easy to optimize production, especially regarding rookies who are adjusting to pros.
In some scenarios, a roster rebuild could slow player progress. On a field with 10 teammates, synergy or the lack thereof can affect production. A first-year signal-caller cannot move the chains without quality pass-catchers. A majority of ball-carriers need a strong offensive line to attack run defenses.
In other cases, rookies have to simply play their way into bigger roles, which may lead to increased production. Lastly, injuries create opportunity—the next man up must fill the void.
Taking depth charts and likely roster changes into consideration, let's analyze eight rookies who've flashed their capabilities but have more to look forward to next year as probable sophomore standouts.
QB Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals
Among the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of April's draft, Baker Mayfield looks far ahead of the group, statistically, throwing for 2,877 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His peers have either struggled tremendously, logged few starts or sustained injuries.
Arizona Cardinals signal-caller Josh Rosen should see the biggest improvement in production from his rookie to sophomore seasons in a breakthrough campaign. While there's still uncertainty over whether Lamar Jackson will start Week 1 next season, we know Rosen will hold his spot atop the depth chart.
Though wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's future remains up in the air as an impending free agent, Rosen built a solid rapport with Christian Kirk. The tandem connected on 43 pass plays for 590 yards and three touchdowns before the Texas A&M product landed on injured reserve with a broken foot.
Running back David Johnson will remain in the backfield as a threat on the ground and in the aerial attack. Another offseason with the rookie signal-caller should help with their timing in the passing game.
Whether Fitzgerald returns or the Cardinals acquire a wide receiver, Rosen should have the experience and weapons for a strong sophomore season.
RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 rushing offense features a three-man platoon, including Chris Carson, Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny. The coaching staff pushed toward re-establishing the ground attack in 2018, and it's worked in the team's favor.
Davis will hit the free-agent market in March. It's likely the Seahawks will allow him to sign elsewhere, since Carson and Penny will be on the books for years. Through 13 games, all three tailbacks have logged at least 81 rush attempts. A subtraction in the backfield would lead to more carries for the remaining ball-carriers, which bodes well for the rookie.
The Seahawks selected Penny with the No. 27 overall pick. Though Carson may hold on to the formal No. 1 spot on the depth chart, the San Diego State product should handle a significant workload because of his draft status.
Penny flashed his receiving skills during the spring—an aspect to his game that's yet to shine this season. The 22-year-old has nine catches for 75 yards. That skill set will allow him to stay on the field for all three downs. In a two-man share, we could see a major leap in yards from scrimmage from him.
WR Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos laid the groundwork for wide receiver Courtland Sutton's production spike, trading Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans before the October 30 deadline.
Wideout Emmanuel Sanders then suffered a torn Achilles during a Dec. 5 practice, which ended his 2018 campaign. As a result, Sutton is the team's top wide receiver for the remainder of the year. He'll gain experience against the opponent's top cornerback in one-on-one matchups.
As a rookie, Sutton may struggle with the added attention, but the competitive push should set him up for significant growth. Furthermore, it's not a guarantee Sanders will take the field for Week 1 next year because of the timing of his injury.
Quarterback Case Keenum will have ample opportunities to develop a strong rapport with Sutton, who could remain the team's No. 1 receiver for weeks into next season.
WR DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers
After shaking off a slow start, Carolina Panthers rookie DJ Moore has logged at least 90 receiving yards in three of his last seven games.
The Maryland product didn't start in the first six outings and failed to eclipse 60 yards in each. Since Week 8, though, he's taken the field for at least 70 percent of the Panthers' offensive snaps. With the extra opportunities, Moore has produced in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system.
Quarterback Cam Newton has a shoulder injury, which may impact Moore's production down the stretch, but it's a good sign the quarterback and wideout have a budding on-field relationship.
Moore is second on the team in receiving yards with 676 and has hauled in 73.4 percent of his targets. He'll likely fall short of 1,000 yards, but the 21-year-old should pick up where he leaves off this year with a healthy quarterback under center. If wide receiver Devin Funchess signs elsewhere, expect a stellar 2019 campaign for the former Terrapin.
DE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
Considering defensive end Marcus Davenport's 2018 workload, it's clear the New Orleans Saints coaching staff didn't want to rush his development. He's played a reserve role behind Alex Okafor in all 10 appearances and was on the field for less than 60 percent of the team's defensive snaps in each game.
Additionally, Davenport had a thumb injury, which required summer surgery, and a toe ailment that cost him three games. Still, he's shown glimpses of his pass-rushing prowess, logging four sacks.
To become a complete defensive end, Davenport will also need to stop the run, but that part of his game should develop with more snaps.
Okafor signed a two-year, $6.8 million deal with the team in March, but he's not a major contributor on the defensive line (three sacks), leaving the door open for Davenport to take the starting job next season. The front office didn't move up to the No. 14 overall spot—sending two first-round picks and a fifth-rounder to the Green Bay Packers—to develop a high-potential pass-rusher on a methodical timetable.
Davenport could double his rookie sack count with All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins demanding most of the attention as threats to collapse the pocket.
DL Kemoko Turay, Indianapolis Colts
While there's some attention on potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Kemoko Turay has made a decent impact in the pass rush with four sacks. He also leads the team in quarterback hits (12).
As a defender on the field for less than 60 percent of his team's snaps in nine of 12 games, Turay may be scratching the surface of his full potential. General manager Chris Ballard talked about developing the Rutgers product gradually, per Andrew Walker of the team's official website:
"Kemoko, he was our starting right end for a lot early in the season, and we didn't want to give him too much, being a rookie and playing [for the] first time in the NFL. [He's] been nicked the last couple weeks, so his play time's been limited a little bit, but very pleased and we think he's still got big upside. I don't think we've seen the best of what Turay can be."
Coming out of Rutgers, Turay may have drawn red flags because of his injury history. According to NFL.com, shoulder issues and surgeries cost him significant time in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He's only missed one game this year, though. In good health, he's a potential game-changer on the defensive line.
EDGE Harold Landry, Tennessee Titans
Linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan will become free agents in March. The former will turn 33 years old in July, and the latter will head into his age-30 campaign next year. After leading the Tennessee Titans pass rush over the last two years, they have a combined two sacks in 2018. Rookie edge-rusher Harold Landry has 2.5.
Landry sustained a mid-high ankle sprain before the regular season, which probably factored into a slow start. He didn't suit up for Week 1 because of the ailment but hasn't missed a game since.
The Boston College product isn't wreaking havoc on offensive lines yet, but he's on the cusp of impacting games, as his 19 solo tackles and eight quarterback hits show.
Assuming the rookie second-rounder absorbs snaps leftover from the potential absence of one or both veterans ahead of him, Landry could rack up sacks at a high rate. Based on his collegiate film, he possesses the quickness and ability to bend his body when rushing the passer off the edge.
CB J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
Long before cornerback J.C. Jackson logged his first NFL start, which came against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13, he impressed the coaching staff during the offseason, earning quality reps as an undrafted rookie.
NESN.com's Doug Kyed may have nailed a comparison between Jackson and Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler during the summer: "Jackson is lining up across from [Stephon] Gilmore in the top defensive unit and definitely doesn't look out of place. It's not crazy to say he could be the next Malcolm Butler as an undrafted free agent with off-field problems that could thrive as a potential future starter," he wrote.
Clearly, the Maryland product isn't a stranger to lining up with the starters, and it shows. In 10 appearances, Jackson has two interceptions and three pass breakups. He's displayed his playmaking ability in limited opportunities, taking the field for just 25.9 percent of his team's defensive snaps.
Cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty have expiring contracts. Rookie second-rounder Duke Dawson hasn't played a snap because of a hamstring injury. If Jackson holds a prominent role for the remainder of the year, he'll be a potential front-runner to open next season as a starter.
Safety Devin McCourty talked about Jackson's coverage instincts after the 24-10 win over Minnesota, per NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry. "One-handed catches. Great ball skills. Like today. It's a long throw, it looks like the guy might have a step. As soon as J.C. turns his head, he locates the ball as good as anybody I've seen that we've had at corner."
Because of Jackson's awareness, he has a shot at a breakout season as a ball hawk in 2019.