Rising NFL Stars to Keep an Eye on in 2019
It takes more than one productive campaign to spot a rising star in the NFL. Oftentimes, the buildup after multiple seasons provides a pattern that spectators should monitor going into the next year.
What's a rising star? It's a player without an All-Pro or Pro Bowl season and in the prime of his career.
We'll focus on those trending up with at least two seasons in the league.
It's also important to pinpoint prospective roles, usage for offensive players and scheme fit when identifying the next crop of stars. Ascending talents need a system that accentuates their skill sets for optimal production.
We'll highlight eight players who are on the verge of leaguewide recognition.
RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Although the Tennessee Titans fell short of a playoff berth because of a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 regular-season finale, team brass may have found its winning formula near the end of the season.
Running back Derrick Henry totaled 87 carries for 585 yards and seven touchdowns in the final quarter of the 2018 term; Tennessee went 3-1 in that stretch. The 6'3", 247-pound bruising ball-carrier makes decisive cuts, moves piles and breaks through arm tackles to rack up yards on the ground. He's a runaway freight train at full steam after the handoff.
According to TitansOnline writer Jim Wyatt, head coach Mike Vrabel would like the offense to pick up where it left off last year. "I think that is where the whole plan would like to start," Vrabel said. "If Derrick can do what he did at the end of the year at the start this year, he's certainly going to get a lot more opportunities."
The Titans added four-year Buccaneers receiver Adam Humphries and rookie A.J. Brown to bolster the wideout stable, but new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith may stick to what worked at the end of last season.
RB Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals selected two rookie running backs in the sixth round, Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson. Giovani Bernard projects as the No. 2 tailback on a crowded depth chart. That doesn't seem like an ideal situation for Joe Mixon to break out in the upcoming season.
However, two months before the draft, Mixon had his eyes set on 400 carries—essentially averaging 25 per game. Although he's unlikely to see that volume of rushing attempts, the dual-threat running back should become the focal point in Cincinnati's new system.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor spent two years with the Los Angeles Rams (2017-18) under Sean McVay, who featured Todd Gurley in a top-two scoring offense over the last two terms. The two-time All-Pro tailback led the league in yards from scrimmage (3,924) and touchdowns (40) in that span.
Like Gurley, Mixon can run and catch out of the backfield. He racked up 1,464 yards from scrimmage in 2018. If Taylor intends to carry some of the Rams' offensive principles to Cincinnati, he must force opponents to respect the ground attack. Los Angeles used play action more than any other club last year, per Football Outsiders.
As the lead running back, Mixon could see a lot of carries at the beginning of games and drives to set up play-action designs. Furthermore, his pass-catching ability will also allow him to stay on the field for all three downs and see targets in the flat.
Coming off a campaign with 1,168 rushing yards on 4.9 yards per carry, Mixon may produce a Pro Bowl-worthy season as the linchpin of the Bengals offense.
WR Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions traded wideout Golden Tate before the 2018 deadline. That decision combined with Marvin Jones Jr.'s knee injury allowed Kenny Golladay to see an uptick in targets. He recorded two 100-yard games between November and December.
Golladay finished the season with 119 targets, 70 receptions, 1,063 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Going into the 2019 term, he'll share the spotlight with Jones as tight ends Jesse James and T.J. Hockenson build a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has a history of establishing the ground attack, dating back to his time with the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings.
With a safety in the box for run support, Golladay could become the preferable target in one-on-one opportunities downfield because of his 6'4", 213-pound stature. He flashed the ability to go over the top of defenders on the perimeter and in the slot last season.
Now with wideout Danny Amendola likely to take over the slot position, expect Golladay to line up opposite Jones in two-wide-receiver sets. Based on his target volume (71) in his last seven games of the 2018 season, the versatile wideout should see a spike in production.
TE O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season, O.J. Howard landed on injured reserve with foot and ankle injuries; he missed six contests. Still, the Alabama product topped his rookie numbers, logging 34 catches for 565 yards with a 70.8 percent catch rate.
The Tampa Buccaneers traded wideout DeSean Jackson and a seventh-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for a sixth-rounder and allowed Humphries to hit free agency; he signed with the Titans. The front office added rookie sixth-rounder Scott Miller, but the subtractions from the core receiving unit should equate to more looks for Howard.
In addition, Howard described new head coach Bruce Arians' offense as "tight end friendly," per Gabrielle Shirley of WFLA. The Buccaneers skipper commented on the 24-year-old and Cameron Brate, who occupy the position.
"Both of them can block and have really good receiving skills," Arians said. "So, they are the fourth line of receivers. If they are the mismatch, they are the game plan. It is finding mismatches. Who is the best mismatch? Both of those guys have shown they will be mismatches on linebackers and safeties."
Brate may take some time to acclimate himself to the offense; he's recovering from a torn labrum in his hip. Howard has the potential to set new career highs in major receiving categories and flirt with a double-digit touchdown total if he stays healthy.
DT Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
In 2018, Chris Jones ranked third in sacks (15.5) and fifth in tackles for loss (19), but he didn't earn a Pro Bowl invite. The three-year veteran will likely sign a lucrative deal following a this season. NFL.com's Anthony Holzman-Escareno projected the defensive tackle could be in line for a new deal worth $18 million to $22 million annually.
Jones stands on the cusp of stardom, and changes to the defensive scheme may elevate his sack production. The Kansas City Chiefs hired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to replace Bob Sutton. He'll utilize a 4-3 alignment, which allows a pass-rushing interior tackle to take on one-gap assignments instead of two in the previous odd-man front.
Under Spagnuolo, Jones will have the opportunity to attack the pocket as his primary responsibility, but he can also use his quickness to take down ball-carriers who attempt to run between the tackles. He may also face fewer double-teams with defensive end Frank Clark on the edge.
With the recent rise in sack numbers for interior defenders, Jones is someone to watch going into the upcoming season.
LB Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Jaylon Smith entered the league on the mend. He tore his ACL and MCL and suffered nerve damage in his knee during his final collegiate game. He missed his entire rookie campaign and played in a backup role for most of the 2017 term. Last season, the Notre Dame product performed at optimal levels, recording 82 solo tackles, four sacks and four pass breakups.
Smith saw gradual physical progression over the last three years, and his coaches have noticed improvement this offseason, per the Dallas Morning News' David Moore. "Maybe more than anything else, I think he's moving more spontaneously now," head coach Jason Garrett said. "You see him maybe get in a compromising position and react his way out of it physically maybe better than he had before."
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said Smith's movement is more fluid.
In 2018, Smith barely left the field, lining up for 95.3 percent of the defensive snaps. The linebacker can effectively rush the passer and cover pass-catchers as an every-down defender. In probably his best shape since his significant knee injury, the 23-year-old could put together a Pro Bowl season.
S Damarious Randall, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns hired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who's known for his zone-coverage schemes, but he employed a fair number of Cover-1 looks as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals last season.
Regardless of the defensive design, safety Damarious Randall should make impact plays on the back end. He possesses the quickness to cover ground in a single-high safety role, which allows him to cover deep threats and help out cornerbacks over the top.
Through his four-year career, Randall has logged 14 interceptions—at least three in each campaign. In 2018, he put his tackling ability on full display, listing second on the roster in the category with 72 solo takedowns.
Randall's ability to read and react will allow him to flourish deep in center field. When bracketing wide receivers on the perimeter, the four-year veteran will rack up extra pass breakups because of his breaking speed and sticky hands.
In terms of tracking the football, Randall is one of the best in the league without a Pro Bowl or All-Pro season on his resume.
S John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams
John Johnson III brings versatility in spades. He can neutralize deep threats, stack the box in run support or play linebacker in sub-packages. Above all, the Boston College product performs at a high level in various roles.
In his second term, Johnson led the Rams in interceptions (four) and finished second in pass breakups (11) and solo tackles (82). Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips praised him late last season, per ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry.
"His tackling is so outstanding. Open field, around the ball, around the line of scrimmage, those kinds of things," Phillips said. "He's learned more and more about what to do in different areas that he plays."
The Rams secondary has notable names such as Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Eric Weddle, but Johnson had the best 2018 campaign in terms of coverage statistics.
With Talib and Weddle in the latter stages of their careers and Peters' struggles last year, Phillips may rely on Johnson to close the gaps on the back end.
Johnson could see more snaps at free safety following Lamarcus Joyner's departure to the Oakland Raiders. Lastly, it wouldn't come as a surprise to see the versatile defender frequently used to cover the middle of the field with an unproven group behind Cory Littleton at inside linebacker.