Predicting Every NFL Team's Breakout Player for 2019
Every year, each team has at least a breakout player or two. Usually several, depending on how you define breakout. Our definition considers players who rise up their team's depth charts and into the leaguewide conversation for excellence at their positions.
And with offseason programs getting underway following free agency and the draft, this seems like an appropriate time to speculate on who might emerge from every NFL roster in 2019.
In doing so, we put some criteria in place, looking only at players who:
- Are entering their second, third or fourth season
- Have yet to receive Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors
- Have yet to record a 1,000-yard, double-digit-sack or similarly statistically awesome season
With those in mind, here's a breakdown of 32 potential breakout stars for the upcoming campaign.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Haason Reddick
After struggling to make an impact as the No. 13 overall pick in 2017, Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Haason Reddick made significant progress as a sophomore last season. And it should be seen as a good sign that two of the 24-year-old's four sacks came in the final three games of the year, while 33 of his 53 tackles came in the final six weeks.
Pro Football Focus believes the Temple product came out of the 2018 season "on the right path to living up to his first-round billing," and it's hard to disagree.
He can do a little bit of everything, and he should have many opportunities to prove that with Deone Bucannon, Markus Golden and Gerald Hodges all out the door.
It's a lot easier to have confidence in Reddick right now than 2017 first-round defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who has come along a lot more slowly. Or 2018 second-rounder Christian Kirk because, after adding four receivers this offseason (three in the draft, one in free agency), there will be a crowd at wide receiver in Glendale.
Atlanta Falcons: CB Isaiah Oliver
You wouldn't be faulted for rolling with recent first-round picks Takkarist McKinley or Calvin Ridley here, but the former didn't make as much progress as expected as a sophomore while the latter will still be fighting for reps with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
But when the Atlanta Falcons moved on from both Robert Alford and Brian Poole early in the offseason, they were signalling that they believe in 2018 second-round cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who came on strong late in a promising rookie season.
"Against [the Carolina Panthers] in Week 16," PFF's Cam Mellor wrote of Oliver, "he put forth his career-high game grade at 88.7, securing his first interception. With some more time in and a little more seasoning, Oliver has all the tools to be special."
The Colorado product has the size (6'0", 210 lbs) and strength to deal with outside receivers consistently in 2019, and his head coach appears to be a believer as well.
"I think he’s going to really thrive," Dan Quinn said in February, per Kelsey Conway of the team's official website. "He got reps, he got experience and I think he’s one who is going to take a big step."
Baltimore Ravens: OT Orlando Brown Jr.
Orlando Brown Jr. was considered a project at best and a flier at worst when the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the third round of the 2018 draft. After all, the U-Haul-sized Oklahoma product was a disaster at the NFL Scouting Combine and looked to be in need of development entering the league.
But an injury to James Hurst paved the way for Brown to get a shot at right tackle in October, and he made the most of that opportunity. Per Pro Football Focus, the 6'8", 345-pound 23-year-old surrendered pressure on only 4.8 percent of his 378 pass-blocking snaps, which ranked eighth among qualified right tackles.
"Orlando came in here really raw, and he's just a big guy," Ravens strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders said earlier this offseason, per Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun. "I think Orlando's strength gains that he made last offseason, and really the whole way through the season, it was just a week-to-week jump. I couldn't be more excited to have Orlando here for the whole offseason."
So, while Ravens 2017 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley could be ready to finally crack the Pro Bowl at left tackle, and more recent first-rounders Marlon Humphrey and Lamar Jackson are expected to get better in 2019—the biggest man on the roster might actually be on the verge of the biggest leap.
Buffalo Bills: LB Tremaine Edmunds
Buffalo Bills 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson just hasn't made enough progress to be considered someone on the brink of a breakout season. 2017 first-rounder Tre'Davious White arguably broke out as a rookie before suffering a sophomore slump in 2018. And 2018's No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen might still need some time to develop into a franchise quarterback.
But their other first-round pick from last season might actually take the biggest step for Buffalo in 2019, because linebacker Tremaine Edmunds really started getting comfortable and more effective down the stretch as a rookie.
Still only 20 years old at the time, the 16th overall selection out of Virginia Tech had two interceptions, a sack and 43 of his 80 tackles in the month of December.
That improvement was reflected in his PFF statistics.
"In Weeks 1-8, Edmunds had an overall grade of just 47.1, but that jumped to 70.5 over the last eight games of the season," wrote PFF's Ben Linsey. "He especially improved in coverage; Edmunds improved his passer rating when targeted mark from 111.5 in the first half of the season to 68.7 over the second half of the season. That late improvement gives a reason for optimism heading into next year."
Carolina Panthers: WR D.J. Moore
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey might technically be qualified for this spot, but let's be real—despite failing to make the Pro Bowl, the 2017 first-round pick broke out in a big way with nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore last season.
You might even be able to make that argument for 2018 first-round wide receiver D.J. Moore, who shined while catching 55 passes for 788 yards as a rookie. But Moore wasn't dominant like McCaffrey, he scored just two touchdowns and was rather inconsistent. He amassed 80-plus yards in four games but also was held to 20 or fewer yards in six outings.
So there's plenty of room to improve, and the Maryland product has the ability to take it to a whole new level in 2019. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was severely restricted by a balky shoulder last season, but if he's able to get it deep more easily and consistently after offseason surgery, Moore could benefit in a major way.
Look for him to become a 1,000-yard receiver in 2019.
Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith
This was pretty much a toss-up between emerging linebackers who were drafted in the top 10 by the Chicago Bears two years apart. Ultimately we sided with 2018 first-rounder Roquan Smith over 2016 first-rounder Leonard Floyd simply because Smith was about as good as a rookie as Floyd was in his third season.
In other words, Smith is rising at a much faster rate.
He excelled particularly in coverage, and stood out in that area late in the season (his sole interception and three of his five passes deflected came in December), as well as in Chicago's playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. But he also quietly recorded more sacks (five) than the Floyd (four), despite the fact the latter rushed the passer significantly more often.
You get the feeling the 22-year-old is on the verge of an explosion.
Cincinnati Bengals: DE Sam Hubbard
Cincinnati Bengals rookie third-round pick Sam Hubbard started zero games and was on the field for just 45 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2018, but the Ohio State product still recorded six sacks, with three coming alongside six quarterback hits in the final month of his maiden NFL campaign.
The 23-year-old was even named to the PFF team of the week for Week 15, and got a shoutout from departed head coach Marvin Lewis in his outgoing press conference.
"I watched a guy, in Sam Hubbard, who is going to win in this division," said Lewis, per Mike Dyer of WCPO Cincinnati. "And that’s awesome."
Now, with veteran defensive end Michael Johnson still unsigned, Hubbard should have plenty of opportunities for an increased role alongside longtime starter Carlos Dunlap.
That's enough to get him into this spot ahead of 2018 first-round center Billy Price, as well as slowly improving recent first-rounders William Jackson III and John Ross, especially considering that recent second-rounders Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd have arguably already broken out.
Cleveland Browns: RB Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield might become a superstar in 2019, but on a team level he already broke out with 27 passing touchdowns, 3,725 passing yards and a 93.7 passer rating during an abbreviated rookie campaign.
Instead let's look at Mayfield's top running back, Nick Chubb, who as a rookie second-round pick put together three 100-plus-yard performances in the final seven games of a promising debut season.
Chubb fell just short of 1,000 yards on the year, but his 5.2 yards-per-attempt average was the fifth-highest qualified mark in the league. The Georgia product started slow, but he was simply dominating defenders late in the year.
And sure, Cleveland signed Kareem Hunt early this offseason. But Hunt will be suspended for half of the regular season, and Scott Petrak of Browns Zone believes Chubb will remain the No. 1 guy even after Hunt returns.
A lot of Browns might break out in 2019, but Chubb's leap might just be a little higher than those expected from rising stars Denzel Ward, David Njoku, Antonio Callaway, Larry Ogunjobi and Austin Corbett.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Michael Gallup
High-end 2016 draft picks Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch have already broken out for the Dallas Cowboys. 2017 early-rounders Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie showed no signs of significant improvement in dud sophomore seasons on defense. Throw in that 2018 second-round guard Connor Williams generally struggled as a rookie and the obvious leftover name is Michael Gallup.
But that doesn't mean the 2018 third-round wide receiver is the Cowboys' top potential breakout player strictly by default. Cases could have been made for young defensive backs Jourdan Lewis or Anthony Brown, or even the gradually improving Maliek Collins at defensive tackle.
Gallup, though, flashed just enough as a rookie to indicate he might have a bright future in this league.
You might recall that the brightest flash came in last year's playoffs, when the Colorado State product made a tremendous touchdown catch in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks and then caught a career-high six passes for a career-best 119 yards the following week against the Los Angeles Rams.
Gallup benefited substantially from the presence of Amari Cooper, and there's no reason to think the 23-year-old won't be a lot better coming off his first full offseason.
Denver Broncos: OT Garett Bolles
Despite the fact he fell short of the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro nod, Denver Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb broke out with 12 sacks as a rookie. But the team is still waiting on its first-round pick from one year prior to emerge, and this just might be the year for offensive tackle Garett Bolles to become something special.
Even though he was, again, penalized far too often in 2018, the No. 20 overall pick did show signs of improvement as a pass-blocker during his sophomore season, and he at least cut down on his mistakes following Denver's Week 10 bye.
Could it all come together in his age-26 season? He certainly has more support than in the past, with veteran Joe Flacco finally bringing some stability to the quarterback position in Denver and new arrivals Ja'Wuan James and Dalton Risner sprucing up the offensive line.
That unit also added the highly respected offensive line coach Mike Munchak as part of wholesale coaching changes, and as Travis Wakeman of Broncos Wire points out, Munchak has a habit of getting offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl.
Bolles just might be his next case.
Detroit Lions: RB Kerryon Johnson
We rarely run into opportunities to praise a Detroit Lions team that hasn't won a playoff game since the Kardashian family looked like this. So let's take a moment to acknowledge the fact the Lions made it difficult to whittle it down to just one young 2019 breakout candidate.
Detroit is somewhat sneakily loaded with young talent, and any of the following players could explode in 2019:
- Linebacker Jarrad Davis, whose numbers shot up across the board during a strong sophomore season in which the 2017 first-round pick suddenly became an effective pass-rusher.
- Offensive tackle Taylor Decker, who has become a strong pass-blocker and a stalwart on Matthew Stafford's left side three years into his career as a 2016 first-round selection.
- Guard Frank Ragnow, who struggled in pass protection as a rookie first-round pick but has already become an asset as a run-paver.
- Running back Kerryon Johnson, who was one of just three qualified backs to average 5.4-plus yards per carry, during a rookie season that would have been massive if not for the fact he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.
- Defensive tackle Da'Shawn Hand, who earned the highest PFF grade among all rookie defensive linemen during a fantastic rookie season that was also cut short by injury.
And that's without including fast-rising receiver Kenny Golladay (not qualified after surpassing the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore in 2018) or high-ceiling 2016 third-round interior offensive lineman Graham Glasgow.
But it's the presence of Glasgow, Ragnow and Decker (along with Golladay and Stafford) that has us favoring Johnson, who is extremely well-supported in an offense that finally has the ability to run the ball. He says he's fully recovered from that knee injury, and the 21-year-old second-round pick should have a sizable workload in what is expected to be a run-first offense.
Green Bay Packers: CB Jaire Alexander
You could argue that Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones broke out when he led all qualified players at his position with a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average last season, and you could also argue that Jones might continue to have trouble trying to reach the 1,000-yard mark in an offense that is unlikely to stop leaning heavily on Aaron Rodgers.
So while there's reason to be excited about Jones entering his third year, we'll instead go with second-year cornerback Jaire Alexander in Green Bay.
The No. 18 overall pick had an up-and-down rookie campaign that at least featured more ups than downs before he seemed to hit a rookie wall in December. But he wasn't healthy for much of that season, and his first full offseason should help.
Alexander was still a top-25 corner at Pro Football Focus as a 21-year-old, and now he'll have a hell of a lot more support from a defense that upgraded in multiple spots this offseason. He really flashed his playmaking skills in a memorable October performance against the Rams (seven solo tackles and five passes deflected), and there should be plenty of that to come in 2019 and beyond.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
Third-round safety Justin Reid was really good as a rookie in 2018. The Stanford product intercepted three passes (one for a touchdown), recorded 88 tackles, recovered two fumbles and registered 10 passes defensed in what some might have already viewed as a breakout campaign.
But Reid still has yet to really emerge as a household name, and he remained generally overshadowed by fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu last season.
Mathieu is gone, along with veteran Kareem Jackson, leaving Reid as the clear-cut centerpiece of the Houston secondary. And we're looking for the confident 22-year-old to explode under those circumstances. A full offseason under his belt will help.
"He was able to play a lot of football for us and made some big plays," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said earlier this offseason, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "I think you'll see a lot of improvement from year one to year two because of how much he played and how used to the game he is now. He'll be able to go out there and be more comfortable right away."
Indianapolis Colts: RB Marlon Mack
Indianapolis Colts 2018 rookie sensations Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson both had Pro Bowl campaigns out of the gates, narrowing the field of potential breakouts for the 2019 season. But Indy has drafted well, and several young Colts appear to be on the verge of big things.
Three such players are offensive tackle Braden Smith, center Ryan Kelly and safety Malik Hooker, all of whom have shown promise early on but have yet to emerge as studs.
Instead, though, we're rolling with running back Marlon Mack, who lacked consistency at times but was the only back in the AFC to rush for 115-plus yards on five or more occasions (playoffs included) as a sophomore in 2018.
Critically, three of those performances came in Indy's final five games, including a dominant playoff effort in which he carried the Colts offense while amassing 148 yards in playoff victory over the division-rival Texans.
Mack finished his first playoff experience with a 5.9 yards-per-attempt average, and now the 2017 fourth-round pick looks prepared to become a 1,000-yard rusher in his age-23 season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Dede Westbrook
The Jacksonville Jaguars are a veteran team with a lot of well-accomplished players. A lot of their younger guys have either already broken out (Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue have been to Pro Bowls and Leonard Fournette has a 1,000-yard season under his belt). Or they don't appear to be on the brink (Cam Robinson is fighting back from a bad rookie season and an injury-derailed sophomore campaign, while DJ Chark, Taven Bryan, Ronnie Harrison and Will Richardson were babied as rookies).
That leaves two realistic breakout candidates in fourth-year linebacker Myles Jack and third-year wide receiver Dede Westbrook. And both answers might be correct.
Jack has been steady but he didn't really take off in Year 3 the way many expected as he's yet to become a playmaker. That could change, but the ceiling might be higher for Westbrook.
The 2017 fourth-round pick lit up the league in his very first preseason and has flashed sporadically ever since. Injuries and a lack of consistency have caused problems, but bad quarterback play hasn't helped either.
That could also change in 2019 now that Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles is on board, and Westbrook could stand to benefit the most. After all, Foles relied heavily on his slot receivers the last couple years with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the speedy Westbrook does most of his damage in that spot.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Demarcus Robinson
Breeland Speaks can become a top-notch player for the Kansas City Chiefs, and it looked like the 2018 second-round pick would have a hell of an opportunity as a sophomore when the Chiefs parted ways with pass-rushing standouts Justin Houston and Dee Ford. But sure enough, Kansas City brought in veterans Frank Clark and Alex Okafor, which probably means that 2018 third-round nose tackle Derrick Nnadi has a better chance to break out next year than Speaks.
But both of those guys are runners-up to 2016 fourth-rounder Demarcus Robinson, who just might be in the right place at the right time considering the wide receiver situation in Kansas City.
Tyreek Hill's future with the team is very much up in the air, but it doesn't feel like the superstar receiver will be back anytime soon. He's facing potential legal and/or league-imposed consequences stemming from serious off-field developments related to alleged domestic violence against his 3-year-old son.
And while there's some hope that second-round rookie Mecole Hardman could play a Hill-like role, he could need some time to develop after catching only 60 passes in an unconventional role the last three years at Georgia.
That could leave Robinson and fragile veteran Sammy Watkins as surefire starters in an advanced, well-run offense that features the reigning MVP at quarterback.
And while Robinson was hardly a factor for much of his first three NFL seasons, the 24-year-old Florida product scored three touchdowns in his final three games of the 2018 regular season, including an 89-yard bomb from Patrick Mahomes in the season finale.
Robinson finished the year with a strong catch rate of 66.7 percent and a solid yards-per-reception average of 13.1. And now the only thing separating the 24-year-old from the Chiefs' top receiver job is a wideout who has missed 15 games in his last three seasons.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams
Yours truly partook in this exercise last year, and I tried not to predict a breakout from the same player two years in a row. But Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams made enough progress without totally breaking out in 2018 that the 2017 No. 7 overall pick remains a stellar breakout candidate for 2019.
It helps that there are few other strong options on the Chargers roster. Youngsters Joey Bosa, Derwin James and Desmond King have already broken out by our standards, and I'm not convinced recent high-profile newbies Jatavis Brown, Uchenna Nwosu, Dan Feeney, Sam Tevi, Forrest Lamp or Austin Ekeler have breakout seasons in them right now. Some are in tough situations, while others just haven't indicated that they're on the verge.
So we'll stick to Williams, who after a nearly useless rookie season put together a respectable sophomore campaign that included 43 catches, 664 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. Now veteran Tyrell Williams has signed elsewhere, and the 24-year-old Clemson product should therefore expect an increased role in the Los Angeles offense.
It's a good sign that in their biggest game of the year, the Bolts leaned heavily on Williams by targeting him a team-high 11 times in a playoff loss to the New England Patriots.
Los Angeles Rams: LB Samson Ebukam
Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Samson Ebukam is also somewhat of a default choice here, because the Rams are a veteran team with few strong breakout options and it wouldn't feel right to reuse safety John Johnson III after a four-interception campaign in which PFF graded him as one of the 75 best players in the NFL.
While they'll all play increased roles and face more pressure, young Rams offensive linemen Joseph Noteboom, Brian Allen and Austin Blythe haven't given many indications that they're about to become stars.
With tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett hurting each other's individual progress, and with steady wide receiver Cooper Kupp recovering from a torn ACL, that basically leaves Ebukam.
Still, there's reason to believe the 2017 fourth-round selection could be on the right track. He had three sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a pick-six and 40 tackles in a sophomore season that revealed a knack for finding the ball and making plays.
And that showed up in his advanced stats. In fact, the only player on the Rams roster with a higher PFF pass-rush grade was Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Look for Ebukam to take another big step as part of a rotation with veterans Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews in 2019.
Miami Dolphins: RB Kalen Ballage
The ageless Frank Gore led the Miami Dolphins with 156 carries and 722 rushing yards in 2018, but Gore is now a member of the Bills. That could pave the way for 2016 third-round pick Kenyan Drake, but 2018 fourth-rounder Kalen Ballage might also have a chance to steal the top job in the Miami backfield.
Regardless, Ballage has earned a shot. His 2018 yards-per-attempt average (5.3) was nearly a yard better than Drake's 4.5 mark, and in the final month of his rookie season he had four 12-plus-yard runs to Drake's one.
Much of the Arizona State product's small sample came on one 75-yard run in one 123-yard December game against the Minnesota Vikings. But Bleacher Report's Matt Miller noted when Ballage was drafted that he "has a toolset that is perfect for the NFL with power, speed, hands and versatility as a route-runner." This is a guy who as a junior the Pac-12 had 400-plus yards as bother a runner and a receiver, and the tape shows just how explosive he can be.
He's a more decisive runner and a better receiver than Drake, who doesn't have the same ceiling. Watch for him to prove that this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Mackensie Alexander
In the last six years, the Minnesota Vikings have used three first-round picks on cornerbacks. But the corner they selected in 2016's second round might be in the process of emerging as their best all-around player at that position.
That's how good Mackensie Alexander became down the stretch in his third season.
After a slow start, the 25-year-old emerged as a versatile, oft-dominant presence in the slot. He finished the year with zero touchdowns allowed in coverage, which helped him earn props from PFF as the Minnesota's most improved player.
But Alexander didn't just stand out in coverage. He tied for the NFL lead among corners with four sacks while excelling as a run defender.
That's more than enough for Alexander to beat out fellow young Vikings Dalvin Cook (who wasn't quite as explosive coming back from a torn ACL last year), Brian O'Neill (who still has a ways to go after a decent rookie season) and Ben Gedeon (the jury remains out after two seasons).
New England Patriots: CB J.C. Jackson
Rising New England Patriots offensive cogs Joe Thuney and Sony Michel could become Pro Bowlers this year at guard and running back, respectively, but the former doesn't have a J.C. Jackson-level ceiling and the latter might fall victim to New England's notoriously deep rotation at running back.
So Jackson is our guy after a shockingly strong rookie season at cornerback for the Super Bowl champions.
The Maryland product wasn't even drafted last year, possibly as a result of his rocky past (he was arrested in connection with an armed robbery in 2015 but was eventually acquitted of all charges). Regardless, he shined almost immediately under Bill Belichick, intercepting two passes in his first four games while emerging as a reliable outside cover man in support of veteran Stephon Gilmore.
According to PFF, Jackson's passer rating allowed of 42.0 was the lowest qualified mark in the NFL in 2018.
It didn't even take the 23-year-old a full season to essentially supplant Jason McCourty outside, and now he's likely to enter the 2019 campaign as a clear-cut starter opposite Gilmore.
New Orleans Saints: DE Marcus Davenport
Fantasy football managers might be more interested in a potential rise from 2018 New Orleans Saints third-round pick Tre'Quan Smith than the team's first-rounder, Marcus Davenport. But while Smith flashed at times as a rookie in a loaded offense, he'll still take a back seat to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara and could have to fight for reps with Ted Ginn in 2019.
That makes Davenport the better breakout candidate, especially because the No. 14 overall selection should seamlessly move into a starting role opposite the productive Cameron Jordan now that veteran Alex Okafor is gone.
The raw UTSA product managed 4.5 sacks as a rookie even though he was on the field for only 40 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps. And health was also a factor. Davenport missed three games and was hampered in others due to a toe injury, and he suggested on Twitter after early-offseason surgery that he played through an injury that should have ended his 2018 campaign prematurely.
But he still put together a solid 30 quarterback pressures on 296 pass-rushes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Per Luke Johnson of the Times-Picayune, Saints head coach Sean Payton continues to believe that Davenport "is going to be a dominant player for us," while general manager Mickey Loomis also added this offseason that the team is "looking for big things from him" going forward.
So are we.
New York Giants: S Jabrill Peppers
The New York Giants take a lot of heat these days, but they do deserve credit for the fact they possess a large number of promising young players who could break out in 2019. In fact, we considered as many as 10 on an original list that included defensive tackles B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson, linebackers Lorenzo Carter, B.J. Goodson and Sam Beal, offensive linemen Will Hernandez and Chad Wheeler, wide receiver Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram.
But the winner has gotta be new Giants safety Jabrill Peppers, who appeared to be a deal-breaker for general manager Dave Gettleman in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade.
The Giants likely see the third-year first-round pick as an immediate replacement for departed Pro Bowler Landon Collins, and that's not a wild notion. Peppers was a game-changer in two standout seasons at Michigan. And although he struggled to become acclimated with a far-from-ideal Cleveland coaching staff as a rookie, he flourished in a bounce-back sophomore campaign that included a pick, a sack, 79 tackles, three fumble recoveries and the 23rd best PFF grade among 104 qualified safeties.
Peppers is still only 23 years old, and he should have every opportunity to become a star in 2019.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
Young key cogs Robby Anderson, Jordan Jenkins and Marcus Maye are also breakout candidates for the 2019 New York Jets, but we applied Occam's razor and went with the team's simpler answer: franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold.
The No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 draft experienced an up-and-down start to his career before missing three weeks in November and December due to a foot injury. But Darnold appeared to come back from that break refreshed, and the USC product took his game to another level to finish his rookie season strong.
In the final four weeks of the regular season, Darnold completed 64 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdown passes to just one interception for a 99.1 passer rating. He also made some big-boy throws during that run. In fact, only eight quarterbacks completed more 20-plus-yard passes during the final four weeks of the 2018 campaign.
Now Darnold has an offensive-minded, passing-game-oriented head coach in Adam Gase, a superstar running back with top-notch pass-catching skills in Le'Veon Bell and more support on defense after the Jets embarked on an offseason spending spree.
Expect significant improvement in 2019 for a dude who still hasn't turned 22.
Oakland Raiders: CB Gareon Conley
The Oakland Raiders will be hoping for big sophomore leaps from 2018 draft picks Kolton Miller, Arden Key and Maurice Hurst this season, but their top pick from one year prior is coming off a promising second season and should be considered the top breakout candidate on the roster.
Per PFF, Gareon Conley's opposing passer rating of 72.8 ranked 14th among qualified cornerbacks, and he added three interceptions in his first relatively full year as a starter. It's also a good sign that he had four of his best games in the second half of said season, with the Ohio State product excelling in coverage in consecutive performances against the Cardinals, Ravens, Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers (where he helped to limit both Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster).
"He’s a lot more confident now," Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said at the conclusion of that hot streak, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. “He missed a lot of training camp. He was hurt. Missed most of last season. I think his preparation has been better. I think he’s been able to practice."
Conley's transition from the Big Ten to the NFL was plagued by controversy and injuries, but he's healthy and flourishing now. 2019 could be a statement season for the highly talented 23-year-old.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Rasul Douglas
The Philadelphia Eagles' top pick from 2016 (quarterback Carson Wentz) has already emerged, while early 2017 and 2018 selections Derek Barnett, Sidney Jones and Dallas Goedert might still need time to do so as a result of injuries and/or roster-related circumstances.
But two cornerbacks selected in the middle rounds of the last two drafts got real hot down the stretch last season, and both 2017 third-rounder Rasul Douglas and 2018 fourth-rounder Avonte Maddox could have what it takes to push presumed starters Jones and Jalen Mills this summer and fall.
We'll roll with Douglas here because he was a higher pick and he's a little further along in terms of experience, but Maddox performed so well in critical late-season victories over the Rams and Texans that he's got to be viewed as a strong runner-up.
Meanwhile, Douglas intercepted two passes in the last four games of the year as a starter, and he outperformed the slightly younger Maddox in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Terrell Edmunds
The Pittsburgh Steelers' top three picks from 2016—cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave—have yet to take off and didn't look to be on the verge on stardom in their third seasons. Three of the team's first four picks from 2017—outside linebacker T.J. Watt, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner—were Pro Bowlers in 2018, while the fourth—corner Cameron Sutton—has hardly seen the field.
That leaves a small pool of potential Pittsburgh breakout players to get excited about, especially after second-round receiver James Washington struggled as a rookie in 2018.
But one player who has the ability to make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 is 2018 first-round safety Terrell Edmunds, who recorded 78 tackles, four passes defensed and an interception while starting 15 games last season.
Edmunds wasn't a headliner as a 21-year-old rook, but as PFF notes, the Virginia Tech product "delivered some solid performances in the second half of the season."
If he can pick up in September where he left off in December after a productive initial full offseason, Edmunds could become a tremendous asset to the Steelers defense in 2019.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Dante Pettis
My 2018 San Francisco 49ers breakout pick, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, let me and 49ers fans down with a sophomore slump last season, so I'm not making that mistake again.
Not only will we avoid Witherspoon here, but we'll stay away from their most active 2018 rookies, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey and linebacker Fred Warner, both of whom flashed at times but lacked consistency in 2018.
Among young 49ers who have yet to fully break out and are likely assured significant roles in 2019, that leaves intriguing second-year wide receiver Dante Pettis.
The second-round pick out of Washington put together a solid rookie season, but it's easy to ponder what could have been. Pettis had clear and immediate chemistry with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and he and Jimmy G hooked up on several big plays early. But then Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, Pettis hurt his knee a week later and then the 23-year-old wasn't a factor again until the end of November.
Even without Garoppolo, Pettis finished strong. Another knee injury cut his rookie campaign short in Week 16, but between Week 11 and Week 15 only eight receivers amassed more yards and only one scored more touchdowns than Pettis.
"We loved the way he closed this season," 49ers general manager John Lynch said of Pettis earlier this offseason, per Joe Fann of the team's official website. "There's some maturation that I think is naturally going to come in terms of putting some girth on and some strength. I think this offseason is very important for him."
The 49ers' depth chart at wide receiver can be scaled, and Garoppolo is back. So if Pettis can have better injury luck as a sophomore, he could become wildly productive in 2019.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Rashaad Penny
I know what you're thinking.
"Brad, you're a really great writer. But also, Chris Carson is the No. 1 running back for the Seattle Seahawks."
Firstly, thanks! You're a great reader! Secondly, nope. Not gonna last. Carson had a nice breakout season and held off first-round rookie Rashaad Penny for the top spot in the Seattle backfield in 2018, but the Seahawks didn't use a No. 27 overall selection on a running back so that he could provide a change of pace.
Penny managed just two touchdowns and under 500 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, but he was coming out of the Mountain West Conference and scouts suggested to Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller that the San Diego State product could "struggle picking up an NFL playbook."
He indeed started slow, Carson took advantage with a surprisingly strong September and October and Penny could never fully catch up.
But ultimately he actually averaged more yards per carry (4.9) than Carson (4.7), and, in his first full offseason, he should supplant the 2017 seventh-round pick for the top spot on that running back depth chart.
That gets him the nod here ahead of young corners Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers (both of whom had up-and-down 2018 campaigns) and other still-underwhelming recent premium selections like Germain Ifedi, Nazair Jones and Tedric Thompson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
You know somebody is bound to break out on the offensive side of the ball in offensive mastermind Bruce Arians' maiden season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the clear-cut top two candidates are fellow early-round 2017 draft picks O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin.
Both pass-catchers improved immensely as sophomores, but the big difference is Godwin played 16 games for the second year in a row while Howard's campaign was cut short by a season-ending injury for the second consecutive year.
So the third-round wide receiver has a little bit more going for him right now than the first-round tight end. Now that DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries are gone, Ridley might also have a clearer path than ever to reps, while Howard will still deal with solid veteran Cameron Brate sharing his position.
Godwin's two best games of the 2018 season came in December, after embattled quarterback Jameis Winston had reclaimed the starting job from veteran teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick. And so it also works out well that the Bucs plan to make this Winston thing work in 2019.
The stars are simply aligning for a player who already somewhat broke out with 842 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a 22-year-old sophomore—a run which included three 100-plus-yard games in the second half of the year.
"I think Chris Godwin is going to be close to a 100-catch guy, especially because I think he can play in the slot," Arians said at the NFL annual meetings in March, per Scott Smith of the team's official website. "He's never coming off the field."
Tennessee Titans: LB Rashaan Evans
Maybe this is the year 2017 first-round wide receiver Corey Davis becomes a superstar for the Tennessee Titans. But the Titans signed Humphries on the open market and used a second-round pick on A.J. Brown, so a huge season is far from guaranteed for Davis within a run-heavy offense.
And maybe this is the year fellow 2017 first-rounder Adoree Jackson explodes—but Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan remain the top two cornerbacks on the Tennessee roster.
The path might actually be clearer for Tennessee's 2018 first-rounder, Rashaan Evans, who Titans head coach Mike Vrabel expects will "take some jumps" in his sophomore season.
And why not? He started slow as a result of a summer hamstring injury, but Pro football called Evans a "second-half star" in 2018, noting that his overall grade of 83.4 between Weeks 10 and 17 ranked first among rookie linebackers.
"You really have to remember, Rashaan didn't really get to do anything until the season actually started," Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees in February, per David Boclair of the Nashville Post. "You watch the film on him and the end, as compared to the beginning, it's night and day."
A full, healthy offseason could be magical for the 2017 All-SEC selection out of Alabama.
Washington Redskins: DE Jonathan Allen
The Washington Redskins used mid-first-round selections on big, talented former Alabama defensive linemen in both 2017 and 2018, and both Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne could break out in 2019 after shining together in 2018.
Both were still also getting acclimated, and Payne probably has a little more progress to make coming off his rookie season. At least the significantly older Allen (he's 24, Payne is 21) has an extra offseason and an added (albeit abbreviated by injury) regular season under his belt.
Allen, who missed all but five games as a rookie due to a Lisfranc injury, looked tremendous when he was out there in his first season and really gained steam down the stretch as a sophomore.
"His 11.7% pass-rush win rate leads all qualifying interior defensive linemen from the 2017 NFL Draft," PFF's Austin Gayle wrote of Allen this offseason, "as does his 9.3 pressure percentage and 51 total pressures."
He nearly didn't qualify here based on our criteria after recording eight sacks last season. Don't expect him to be a candidate again in 2019.