The Unheralded Building Block for Every NFL Team's Future

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2018

The Unheralded Building Block for Every NFL Team's Future

0 of 32

    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    In the early stages of players' careers, you can see their potential almost immediately—Pro Bowlers and All-Pros in the making.

    While it's easy to point to an established veteran as the key to a team's success, a sharp eye for talent can spot a roster building block years in advance—that's a general manager's job. How does a certain player fit into the club's future? What level of impact can he provide on the field?

    As the 2018 season winds down, it's clear some unheralded contributors have a promising future with their respective teams.

    While highlighting underrated roster assets, we'll avoid obvious selections with All-Pro or Pro Bowl seasons coming into this year. In addition, first-rounders have been omitted since they're highly regarded as the top picks for their teams.

    Who's the understated component of each squad's success?

         

Arizona Cardinals: WR Christian Kirk

1 of 32

    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Not to place too much pressure on wide receiver Christian Kirk, but he's set to follow Larry Fitzgerald as the No. 1 option in the passing attack.

    Fitzgerald's contract expires at the end of the season. He's averaging a career-low 46.1 yards per contest. Before Week 15, Kirk led the team in receiving yards (590) despite going down for the year with a broken foot in Week 13.

    Almost immediately, the Texas A&M product leapfrogged wide receiver Chad Williams on the depth chart. The latter joined the team as a 2017 third-rounder, but he's gone through two nondescript terms in Arizona with 14 catches, 144 yards and a touchdown. Kirk finds himself in prime position to build a strong rapport with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, especially if Fitzgerald decides to hang up his cleats.

    The Cardinals drafted Kirk in the second round in April, which indicates their assessment of his ability to grow with Rosen long-term.

Atlanta Falcons: S Damontae Kazee

2 of 32

    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    For the Atlanta Falcons, there's a silver lining to the unfortunate injuries in the secondary. Safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) landed on injured reserve within the first three weeks. Their absences allowed Damontae Kazee to see more time on the field.

    Kazee came into the league as a cornerback out of San Diego State with an impressive track record for forcing turnovers, logging 15 interceptions between his junior and senior terms. His ball-tracking skills translated on the professional level at safety this season. He's racked up six interceptions, tied for third-most in the league.

    Neal and Allen should retain their starting spots. The Falcons drafted the former in the first round two years ago and extended the latter on a three-year, $19.5 million deal during the summer. The coaching staff must find a way to keep Kazee on the field. There's no substitute for a defender who can take the ball away from an offense.

Baltimore Ravens: TE Mark Andrews

3 of 32

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In April, the Baltimore Ravens double-dipped at tight end, selecting Hayden Hurst in the first round and Mark Andrews in the third as part of a revamped aerial attack.

    Hurst underwent surgery to address a foot injury, which sidelined him for the first four weeks of the season. The South Carolina product scored a touchdown in Week 8 but doesn't have the volume or consistency that suggests he's a building block.

    Andrews hasn't stood out as a go-to option with quarterback Lamar Jackson under center, but he's able to run down the seam as a safety blanket in the passing game. The Oklahoma product can flash as a viable red-zone option once the rookie signal-caller settles in the pocket. The former Sooner secured two touchdown receptions with Joe Flacco at the helm.

    It's too early to call Hurst a bust, but Andrews' availability gave him the edge as the tight end to value while the offense develops in the coming seasons. He's hauled in 28 passes for 415 yards with a 65.1 percent catch rate. He seems like an underrated pass-catching tight end who could produce big numbers with more targets.

Buffalo Bills: WR Robert Foster

4 of 32

    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Since Week 10, Robert Foster has produced at the level of a No. 1 wide receiver, listing 13th in receiving yards (438). The Alabama product put together a breakout performance (three catches for 105 yards) with quarterback Matt Barkley under center but continues to post strong numbers with rookie first-rounder Josh Allen.

    Aside from a strong offensive line, a reliable receiver can help a young quarterback grow rapidly as a pocket passer. The Buffalo Bills waived Kelvin Benjamin; Zay Jones improved between his freshman and sophomore campaigns but remains hit-or-miss as a pass-catcher.

    At 6'2", 196 pounds, Foster possesses the size to match the physical play of bigger cornerbacks. He's also shown the ability to break away from defenders in the open field. In a five-week period, the undrafted product has provided a much-needed spark to the aerial attack, logging 94-plus yards in four games. The Bills may have stumbled upon their top wideout in an undrafted rookie.

Carolina Panthers: RT Taylor Moton

5 of 32

    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Whether the Carolina Panthers want to ground-and-pound the ball or protect quarterback Cam Newton, right tackle Taylor Moton can help with the objective.

    In his rookie season, Moton played minimal snaps as a reserve, but he had ample opportunities to secure a starting role this year. Initially, the Panthers planned to give him a shot at the starting left guard position following Andrew Norwell's exit. Then Daryl Williams dislocated his knee and tore his MCL, which changed the plans for the offensive line.

    During training camp, Moton took starting reps at right tackle and solidified his spot on the line. He opened the year on the blind side in place of Matt Kalil, who's been on injured reserve after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, and then moved back to the strong side.

    Moton's initial push to start at left guard indicates potential inside-outside flexibility in his game. During his four-year stay at Western Michigan, he lined up at right tackle and right guard, so the assessment makes sense.

    Moton has adequately manned the right tackle spot, but his potential to play three other positions shows his unique value to the offensive line moving forward.

Chicago Bears: S Eddie Jackson

6 of 32

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Chicago Bears have a history of celebrating all-time linebackers. Naturally, Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith garner most of the buzz for a top-three defense in scoring and yards allowed. The unit also features a budding talent in the secondary.

    Eddie Jackson has emerged as a playmaking safety in pass defense; he's recorded four interceptions over the last five outings and six in total. Though cornerback Kyle Fuller leads the team with seven picks, the Alabama product can take some credit for the Bears' league-leading 26 interceptions.

    As a rookie, Jackson patrolled the field as a sure tackler on the back end, accumulating 53 solo takedowns. The 26-year-old still brings that aspect to this year's defense, but he's far more active in coverage as someone to avoid when throwing the deep ball. The second-year pro has become one of the more notable players on the rise.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tyler Boyd

7 of 32

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Cincinnati Bengals may have found their ideal complement to wideout A.J. Green in the passing attack. In his third season, Tyler Boyd has hit a high note in the offense as a viable threat on the perimeter.

    With Green in action, Boyd found ways to beat defenders in one-on-one matchups. He logged three 100-yard performances in the first eight weeks. Then Green, a seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, missed Weeks 10-12 and tore a ligament in his toe during Week 13. Over the last five weeks, Boyd has still managed to log 50-plus yards or a touchdown each game without Green to demand coverage at full strength.

    In Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders, Boyd eclipsed 1,000 yards with a 70.4 percent catch rate for the season. Keep in mind the 24-year-old reached the accomplishment with backup quarterback Jeff Driskel under center since Week 12. Perhaps defenses will begin to pay attention to a Bengals wide receiver other than Green.

Cleveland Browns: RB Nick Chubb

8 of 32

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    While there's immense pressure on quarterback Baker Mayfield to pull the Cleveland Browns out of the NFL gutter, he doesn't have to accomplish the feat alone. The front office traded running back Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars in October, which allowed the coaching staff to unleash Nick Chubb.

    Initially, it seemed as though Chubb would join a three-man backfield with Hyde, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Browns in March, and Duke Johnson, who inked a three-year extension in June.

    Now, with Hyde in Jacksonville and Johnson handling just a handful of carries per game, defenses have dealt with a full dose of Chubb. The Georgia product has started the last six contests and averages an impressive 5.2 yards per carry. He's logged at least 18 rush attempts in six contests, which indicates his standing as the clear-cut featured back.

    Even in a passing league, it's important to field a balanced offense, especially in Cleveland where the weather can adversely affect the passing game. Mayfield will continue to grab headlines, but his lead ball-carrier plays a vital role in the Browns' ability to close games with a lead.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Anthony Brown

9 of 32

    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys have a cornerback group loaded with upside. Byron Jones, a 2015 first-rounder, covers the boundary. In 2017, the front office double-dipped on Day 2 of the draft, picking up Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively. However, slot defender Anthony Brown has shown his 2016 sixth-round status won't keep him out of the rotation.

    On the inside, Brown brings physicality while moving toward the line of scrimmage; he's logged two sacks this season. The Purdue product has been solid in his primary responsibility as a cover man as well, logging seven pass breakups and an interception.

    Brown doesn't provide many highlight plays but finds himself in the right place at the right time—whether it's stepping up to tackle a running back or neutralizing the quarterback's slot option. He's on the field for 74 percent of the snaps as a significant component of the league's seventh-ranked pass defense.

Denver Broncos: RB Phillip Lindsay

10 of 32

    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Before the Denver Broncos signed running back Phillip Lindsay as an undrafted product out of Colorado, who thought he'd list fifth in rushing yards 15 weeks into the season?

    The Broncos may not have envisioned that Lindsay would pan out so quickly in the pros. The team selected Royce Freeman in the third round of April's draft, but he's clearly No. 2 to the undrafted rookie. The 24-year-old has emerged as one of the biggest surprises this season.

    At 5'8", 190 pounds, Lindsay runs with feistiness, and he's not afraid to take a handoff at the goal line. Five of his nine touchdown runs started inside the 5-yard line. The Broncos will finish with a non-winning record, but they can attribute a large portion of their offensive success to a ground attack that ranks third in touchdowns.

    Quarterback Case Keenum can manage a game and pick his spots to throw downfield, but the Broncos lean on Lindsay to move the chains. He's tied for sixth in first-down runs (48).

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay

11 of 32

    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The Detroit Lions sent wide receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles before the trade deadline, knowing they have a potential rising star in Kenny Golladay at the position.

    Tate saw high upside in the Northern Illinois product. He talked about Golladay's ball-tracking skills and work ethic during the spring, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. "Kenny's still a young guy trying to figure it out, but he's moving at a great pace," Tate said. "If he can just keep the mentality he has coming in, he studies, and just tries to get better every day, I'm telling you, this guy can be dominant. He's a WR1 kind of guy."

    Since the trade, Golladay has started each game. His expanded role yielded a spike in production from last season. With Marvin Jones Jr. out for the year because of a knee contusion, the 2017 third-rounder leads the team in targets (104). He's experienced his fair share of ups and downs with the spotlight on him, but the 6'4", 213-pound wideout has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards this season.

Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones

12 of 32

    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Since 2008, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has handled the pressure of following a franchise icon in Brett Favre. The Packers' successes and failures have rested on his arm.

    At this point, it's clear Rodgers' brilliance in the pocket isn't enough to win the NFC North decisively anymore; he needs help. Spectators also realized another Aaron, running back Aaron Jones, could become the complementary asset in the offense.

    Jones took part in a three-man platoon in the Packers backfield during his rookie campaign last season. He opened this year serving a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy but then broke out as the top ball-carrier on the depth chart. The 2017 fifth-rounder recorded a career-high 145 yards on the ground against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10.

    In Week 15, Jones suffered a sprained MCL. Before the injury, he consistently logged more touches than Jamaal Williams. Assuming the 24-year-old returns healthy next season, he has a clear pathway to a significant workload as a key cog in a balanced offensive attack.

Houston Texans: WR Keke Coutee

13 of 32

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Houston Texans acquired Demaryius Thomas before the trade deadline to bolster a shallow wide receiver corps. He hasn't eclipsed 65 receiving yards since the move. The front office can release him and save $14 million, per Over the Cap.

    Even if it's not a given the Texans part ways with Thomas because of his modest production and bloated contract, wide receiver Keke Coutee will have a prominent role in the passing attack. Unfortunately for him, he's struggled to stay on the field because of a nagging hamstring ailment.

    Coutee has only suited up for six games, but he logged a 100-yard performance in his regular-season debut in Week 4. Quarterback Deshaun Watson showed immediate trust in the rookie fourth-rounder, targeting him 15 times in the contest. DeAndre Hopkins' presence on the field should create favorable one-on-one opportunities for the Texas Tech product.

Indianapolis Colts: DT Denico Autry

14 of 32

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard stumbled upon an underrated gem during free agency, signing defensive tackle Denico Autry to a three-year, $17.8 million deal. The 28-year-old has flashed as an interior pass-rushing asset.

    Autry leads the team with a career-high nine sacks. While there's plenty of attention paid to edge-rushers, the Colts have a fifth-year veteran who's equipped to make a quick first step off the line of scrimmage to beat offensive guards in the trenches.

    The Colts can terminate Autry's deal at any point in the next two seasons and recoup the cash, but it's highly unlikely with his contributions up front. Though he's yet to show an ability to disrupt throws with his hands in Indianapolis, it's part of his skill set. The 28-year-old broke up seven passes with the Raiders in 2017.

    In a year or so, Autry may be viewed as one of the most underpaid playmakers because of his impact on passing downs.

Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack

15 of 32

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Going into the 2016 draft, concerning reports about Myles Jack's knee circulated discussion circles. He tore his meniscus three games into his junior term at UCLA. The recovery timetable likely caused him to drop to the second round, but he hasn't shown any ill effects while playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    In 2017, the Jaguars earned the name "Sacksonville" because of their aggressive pass rush, logging 55 sacks. Within an aggressive front seven, Jack displayed his ability to cover the field on all three downs, recording 66 solo tackles, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries while playing 97.9 percent of defensive snaps.

    Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny retired at the end of the 2017 campaign, which created a void at the heart of the defense. After lining up on the outside for two seasons, Jack shifted inside in the base defense, but his production has remained steady. He ranks second on the team in solo tackles (62) and returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown.

    Jack stabilizes the defense with reliable tackling and plays a vital role in defending the short passing game.

Kansas City Chiefs: DE Chris Jones

16 of 32

    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones leads the team in sacks (14) and tackles for a loss (17) by a wide margin. The third-year pro is putting together his best season yet.

    The Chiefs don't receive much credit for playing solid defense. But if the 24-year-old continues to rank in the top five of sack leaders, there's room for optimism on that side of the ball. 

    In 2019, Jones will go into a contract year, but he seems to be a keeper when considering his progress over the last three years. His totals in solo tackles, quarterback hits and sacks have increased every season. 

    Following a breakout year, Jones will likely sign a lucrative new deal in the offseason. With his ability to reach the backfield and his steady development, he's earned a well-deserved pay raise.

Los Angeles Chargers: CB Desmond King

17 of 32

    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Cornerback Desmond King isn't a primary starter for the Los Angeles Chargers. He's opened 11 of his 30 career regular-season games with the first unit, but that isn't indicative of his value on defense.

    Since joining the Chargers as a 2017 fifth-rounder, King has served as the team's primary slot cornerback. He's been on the field for more than two-thirds of the defensive snaps in both seasons.

    In 2017, King flashed the ability to take down the quarterback on designed blitzes, recording four sacks. This season, he's wreaking havoc with three interceptions and 10 passes defensed. The Iowa product also provides a boost to the special teams unit, returning kicks and punts for a combined 762 yards and a touchdown. 

    King's ability to defend the slot, log takeaways and set up the offense with good field position cements his place in the team's success.

Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson

18 of 32

    Harry How/Getty Images

    Between two All-Pro cornerbacks, the Los Angeles Rams have a second-year player who's carving out a role as a high-end coverage safety. John Johnson leads the team in interceptions (four) and is tied for the team lead in pass breakups (10) with linebacker Cory Littleton.

    Coming out of Boston College, Johnson earned a starting role as a rookie last year. He displayed solid open-space tackling on the back end and cemented his spot at safety. This season, the 22-year-old has either matched or improved on last year's numbers across the board. 

    Fellow safety Lamarcus Joyner played under an $11.3 million franchise tag this season, but he'll become a free agent again in March. If the Rams lose him in the offseason, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can use Johnson in either safety spot. His versatility would give the front office flexibility as they search for a potential replacement for Joyner. 

Miami Dolphins: CB Xavien Howard

19 of 32

    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Along with Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, Dolphins corner Xavien Howard leads the league with seven interceptions. When discussing the NFL's best ball hawks, the 25-year-old deserves mention.

    Howard suffered two knee injuries during his rookie campaign, one of which was a torn meniscus that cost him nine games. He played all 16 games as a sophomore and put his potential on display with four interceptions and 13 pass breakups, both of which led the team. 

    Howard's impact plays and ability to cover No. 1 wide receivers makes him a cornerstone in the Dolphins secondary. Opposing quarterbacks figure to avoid his side of the field in critical moments, making them easier to predict and exploit accordingly.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook

20 of 32

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings inked Kirk Cousins to the most lucrative fully guaranteed deal in NFL history, but the $84 million quarterback can't carry the franchise to a Super Bowl title only through the air.

    The Vikings field a top-10 passing offense with two wideouts on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards and a quarterback completing 70.5 percent his attempts. Despite all of that, they're only 7-6-1 and are trying to hold on to a playoff spot. They also fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after a 21-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14.

    In 2017, the Vikings used a second-round pick to select running back Dalvin Cook. He's only shown a few glimpses, partially because of injury. The 23-year-old tore his ACL four games into his rookie campaign and dealt with a nagging hamstring issue this season. 

    Now off the injury report, Cook must show the explosiveness from his years at Florida State. In Week 15, he recorded his best rushing performance as a pro, racking up 136 yards and two touchdowns. With that type of production, the Vikings will become one of the most difficult teams to stop once they're in sync. 

    Matched with a high-powered aerial attack, Cook could get this offense humming at the right time.

New England Patriots: OG Shaquille Mason

21 of 32

    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    As quarterback Tom Brady ages, it becomes more important for the New England Patriots to invest in their ground attack.

    In August, the Pats signed offensive guard Shaquille Mason to a five-year, $45 million extension. The 25-year-old didn't usurp Andrew Norwell as the highest-paid player at the position, but that hefty investment shows his importance to New England nevertheless. 

    It isn't a coincidence that the Patriots extended Mason and selected running back Sony Michel in the first round this past offseason. If Brady truly intends to play until he's 45, New England must preserve his arm and keep him upright.

    Offensive linemen like Mason don't receive much credit, but the Patriots ball-carriers know his value in the trenches. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots rank second in adjusted line yards when running behind the mid-guard areas.

    New England's rushing offense should continue to flourish with the 25-year-old clearing lanes on the interior.

New Orleans Saints: OT Ryan Ramczyk

22 of 32

    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    In a league with an increasing number of pass-rushers bearing down on offensive linemen, it isn't easy to start as a rookie. But offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk jumped into the fray right out of Wisconsin and held his own as a solid pass protector for the New Orleans Saints.

    During his rookie campaign, Ramczyk started a few games on the blind side before moving to right tackle. The Saints have left tackle Terron Armstead signed through 2021, but he's now missed 20 games over the past three seasons. If the Saints do decide to release him and save some cash, the coaching staff may revisit the idea of moving Ramczyk to the blind side.

    In the meantime, quarterback Drew Brees can stand in the pocket and deliver strikes because of his solid pocket protection. And as Ramczyk's run blocking improves, expect Saints running backs to attack the edge more often.

New York Giants: DL B.J. Hill

23 of 32

    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The New York Giants need a pass-rusher opposite Oliver Vernon on the second level, but rookie defensive end B.J. Hill has compensated for the lack of pressure off the edge with a team-leading five sacks.

    Big Blue traded Damon Harrison, one of their most accomplished defensive linemen, to the Lions. Dalvin Tomlinson has solidified his spot at the nose of the front line. Despite the subtraction of a high-end run defender who occupies blockers, Hill has slipped through trenches to make an immediate impact. 

    As a rookie, the NC State product looks impressive in defensive coordinator James Bettcher's scheme. Vernon is still the top pass-rusher for this defensive group when healthy, but he now may have long-term help on the interior.

    Considering Hill recorded no more than 3.5 sacks in each of his four seasons at NC State, the Giants have to be thrilled that he's added another layer to his growing skill set.  

New York Jets: LB Jordan Jenkins

24 of 32

    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The New York Jets needed a pass-rusher to emerge, and linebacker Jordan Jenkins answered the call. He currently leads the defense in sacks (seven) and has 14 quarterback hits, which puts him in a three-way tie for second on the team.

    After two nondescript seasons as a pass-rusher, the Georgia product is now strategizing his way to the quarterback, switching his patterns to catch offensive linemen off-balance.

    "I'm starting to set up moves...I might go bull, bull, bull and then the next couple of rushes do a stutter to set things up, twist things up," he said, per Eric Allen of the team's official website. "The last couple of years I might do different moves, but I wouldn't set them off of one another."

    Position coach Kevin Greene deserves some of the credit for developing Jenkins into a consistent threat off the edge. All of the sudden, the Jets front seven can force quarterbacks to squirm in the pocket as opposed to allowing them to comfortably pick apart the secondary.

Oakland Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst

25 of 32

    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst should've been a first-round pick. Instead, he fell to the fifth round because of a heart condition detected heading into the draft.

    Putting the draft-day fall behind him, Hurst has played at a high level, missing only one game with ankle injury. He isn't going to garner Defensive Rookie of the Year attention, but the Michigan product leads the the Raiders' anemic pass rush with four sacks.

    Based on his collegiate film, Oakland can expect Hurst to reach the quarterback a handful of times every year. Because of his ability to collapse the pocket, the rookie may fit the mold of Geno Atkins, who defensive coordinator Paul Guenther coached in Cincinnati. 

    Hurst has a long way to go to reach All-Pro status, but he's a solid building block for a defense that needs his push toward the pocket and propensity to wrap up ball-carriers. 

Philadelphia Eagles: CB Rasul Douglas

26 of 32

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Cornerback Rasul Douglas hasn't played more than 50 percent of snaps in either of his first two seasons, but that should change next year. Ronald Darby will hit the free-agent market, Jalen Mills struggled before suffering a season-ending foot injury, and Sidney Jones hasn't been able to stay healthy since coming into the league in 2017.

    Despite the limited snaps, Douglas has produced when on the field. As a rookie, he snagged two interceptions and ranked third on the team in pass breakups (11). Since Week 10 of this season, he's logged five starts and ranks third on the roster in combined tackles (41).

    At 6'2" and 209 pounds, Douglas possesses the size to match up against big-body pass-catchers and the strength to press quicker wideouts as they start their routes. He can also become a factor in run defense because of his solid tackling. 

    Douglas proved capable this season of handling coverage duties on the boundary and making stops closer to the line of scrimmage. He may start opposite Jones in 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers: RB James Conner

27 of 32

    Justin Berl/Getty Images

    With one year left on Ben Roethlisberger's contract, the Pittsburgh Steelers have to think about a looming transition under center. Similar to Roethlisberger's debut in 2004, the coaching staff could help the next signal-caller, presumably Mason Rudolph, with a productive ground attack.

    Running back Le'Veon Bell's decision to sit out for the season thrust James Conner into the starting role. Through 12 games, he's responded with five 100-yard performances.

    Similar to Bell, Conner can catch passes out of the backfield and block, which allows the Steelers to lean primarily on him as opposed to a committee. 

    Assuming Rudolph eventually takes over for Roethlisberger, he'll need time to develop a rapport with wideouts Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In the meantime, Conner would likely have a critical role in moving the chains on the ground. 

    If Roethlisberger decides to play beyond the 2019 campaign, he can also lean on a reliable rushing offense to carry him through rough patches in the twilight of his career.

San Francisco 49ers: TE George Kittle

28 of 32

    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    Whether it's with C.J. Beathard, Jimmy Garoppolo or Nick Mullens under center, tight end George Kittle can burn defenders downfield. He ranks 10th in the league with 1,154 receiving yards, more than double his total from last year.

    Kittle has repeatedly streaked down the field and racked up yards after the catch en route to touchdowns, most notably against the Chargers in Week 4 and Broncos in Week 14. He's built like a big-body wide receiver (6'4", 250 pounds) and has rare speed for his size.

    The San Francisco 49ers don't have a dominant No. 1 wideout on their depth chart. Until the front office lands a premier pass-catcher or Dante Pettis develops into a go-to target, Kittle looks like the top receiving option for Garoppolo when he returns to action. 

Seattle Seahawks: DT Jarran Reed

29 of 32

    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Despite coming out of Alabama as a second-rounder, defensive tackle Jarran Reed slipped under the radar after two quiet seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. In his first few years, he played alongside big names, so his lack of impact plays made him somewhat of an afterthought.

    Reed has broken out this season as an interior pass-rusher. With a career-high 8.5 sacks, his value has spiked, as he's wreaking havoc on offensive lines. 

    Defensive end Frank Clark garners most of the attention for Seattle on the edge, which opens lanes for Reed on the inside. The agile 306-pounder is also capable of bursting through the line to stop the run. The third-year veteran leads the team in tackles for a loss (10). 

    In other words, Clark isn't the only Seattle defender who's outplaying his current contract.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin

30 of 32

    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could move on from DeSean Jackson, who carries a $10 million cap hit next season and can be released with no dead money. He started the season with three 100-yard performances in the first four weeks, but he has failed to eclipse 70 yards or score since Week 8. 

    The Buccaneers should elevate 2017 third-rounder Chris Godwin on the depth chart next season. The 22-year-old has recorded 84 catches for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns in 30 games over the past two years, but he started in only five of those contests.

    Tampa Bay inked wide receiver Mike Evans to a five-year, $82.5 million extension this past March, which cements his spot as the team's No. 1 receiving option. With Jackson going into his age-33 campaign on a costly deal, Godwin projects as the building block opposite Evans in the passing attack.

    Over the last two games, Godwin has been targeted 13 times, but he hauled in only one catch for 13 yards. Though his recent performances may raise concerns, his overall production suggests he'll bounce back.

Tennessee Titans: LB Jayon Brown

31 of 32

    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    As a senior at UCLA, linebacker Jayon Brown put his coverage skills on display with six pass breakups and three interceptions. This year, he's shown the ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage with six sacks and eight tackles for a loss. 

    Aside from his impact plays, Brown can diagnose the action and react quickly to ball-carriers and receivers. He's been on full-duty field patrol with 52 solo tackles during his sophomore campaign.

    The 2017 fifth-rounder's coverage skills haven't faded, and he's added more physicality to his play style. His ability to stay on the field for all three downs should lead to productive seasons under head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

    As Wesley Woodyard heads into the final year of his contract, expect to see more of Brown alongside first-rounder Rashaan Evans at inside linebacker in the coming seasons.

Washington Redskins: DL Matt Ioannidis

32 of 32

    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    At the beginning of the season, Washington Redskins defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis largely served in a reserve role. After he logged a sack in each of his first three games, his snap count gradually began to rise.

    Heading into Week 16, the third-year pro is now second on the team in sacks (7.5). 

    Ioannidis has started 18 of his 37 career regular-season games, but he's likely to become a key cog on an upstart defensive line alongside Da'Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen moving forward. The trio, which has a combined 19.5 sacks this year, could become one of the top pass-rushing front lines in the NFL.  

    Ioannidis is heading into a contract year in 2019. Washington should consider his pass-rushing production as a solid complement to Ryan Kerrigan, who's had at least 7.5 sacks in each of his first seven seasons. Ioannidis helps spread the pocket pressure across the front, which creates opportunities for his teammates to take advantage of one-on-one situations.