Every NFL Team's Most Promising Building Block Entering 2019
Every NFL roster has its stars, serviceable veterans and building blocks. In the age of free agency, it's important to stack up on that last category.
What's a building block? We'll focus on young and affordable players with something to prove who fit into three categories.
First, they must have between one and three years of experience in the league. On paper, all first-round rookies seem promising—that's why they're Day 1 picks—so we'll avoid the easy choices. Let's turn our attention to those with pro experience, which provides tangible performances at this level to dissect.
A building block should also have a significant role. Beyond the starters, nickelbacks and running backs in committees are included.
Last year, Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Desmond King lined up primarily in the slot and only started eight contests, but he played 77.22 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Though Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen started just seven games, he led the team in yards from scrimmage (1,169).
Finally, the word promising can be defined as showing signs of future success. Based on that premise, we'll keep established Pro Bowlers and All-Pros off this list. Players on a second deal with the same team are also excluded because their respective clubs have—on some level—deemed them keepers.
Using the criteria above, these selections highlight budding talents on each roster capable of becoming roster cornerstones for the coming years.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Haason Reddick
We seldom view inside linebackers as roster cornerstones, but defenders must show versatility at the position by supplementing the run defense, covering in space and rushing the quarterback in some schemes. Haason Reddick checks all those boxes. More impressively, he's done it amid constant change.
Reddick will play under his third defensive coordinator next season. He started with James Bettcher's 3-4 scheme in 2017, transitioned to Al Holcomb's 4-3 base alignment and will play in an odd-man front under Vance Joseph in 2019.
Joseph should be able to use Reddick in a variety of ways. Last year, he logged 80 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five pass breakups and four sacks. The Temple product possesses the speed to chase down ball-carriers, drop back in coverage or push the pocket as he did at the collegiate level (17.5 sacks).
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury briefly talked about Reddick's expanded capabilities, per Kyle Odegard of the team's official website: "He really moves well to the football. He's getting a better feel off the ball, and not always rushing like he did in college. That’s been good to see his development. I think having a guy like Jordan Hicks, too, a veteran player next to him, is really going to go a long way for him."
Although he'll line up at inside linebacker, Reddick's varied skill set should keep offensive coordinators on edge.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley
Calvin Ridley put himself on the league radar with a booming performance against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 last year, logging seven receptions for 146 yards and three touchdowns. The Atlanta Falcons lost the game, but the wideout from Alabama officially arrived in the NFL.
Ridley outperformed all rookie wideouts in each major statistical receiving category and finished as one of nine pass-catchers with at least 10 touchdowns. Despite his impressive first year, he wants to show more in the upcoming season, per wide receivers coach Raheem Morris (h/t Kelsey Conway of the Falcons' official website):
"I think when Calvin is saying he didn't have the season he wanted as a rookie player, I think he's talking about being consistent all the way throughout. Not having the player of the month, but the player of the year kind of a status. He's searching for greatness and I'm going to help him get there. He puts in all of the effort; he gives you all the work and there's no doubt in my mind he’s going to be successful."
If Ridley only scratched the surface of his talent during the past term, he's primed for a big sophomore year. Julio Jones will remain the go-to receiver, but the former Crimson Tide standout could become a high-end No. 2 option in an explosive passing attack.
Baltimore Ravens: EDGE Matt Judon
Matt Judon may not fill the leadership void left behind after Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley signed with the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, respectively, but he's a proven pass-rusher capable of cranking his production up a couple of notches.
In 2017, Judon played 72 percent of the Baltimore Ravens' defensive snaps. During that campaign, he logged career highs in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (17), and the latter number led the team.
Last year, Judon took the field for 65.02 percent of the team's defensive snaps and finished with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. There's a slight margin in his workload between the last two seasons, but the Ravens may see the best of him with more time on the field.
Going into the 2019 campaign, he's the lead pass-rusher with familiarity in defensive coordinator Don Martindale's scheme. The front office signed Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray and selected Jaylon Ferguson in the third round of this year's draft. Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams will also have opportunities to carve out roles in the rotation, but neither has shown much in their first two campaigns.
Judon's track record suggests he's the edge-rusher to watch in Baltimore. He's heading into a contract year, and a double-digit sack season could encourage the front office to keep him on the long-term books.
Buffalo Bills: CB Tre'Davious White
The Buffalo Bills would hope their most promising building block is quarterback Josh Allen, but his 52.8 completion percentage with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions may cause more concern than optimism.
Tre'Davious White deserved Rookie of the Year recognition with 18 pass breakups and four interceptions during the 2017 term. His numbers dropped to eight passes defensed and two picks last year, but that was largely because quarterbacks chose not to test his coverage.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats (h/t Nick Wojton of USA Today's Bills Wire), signal-callers targeted White on 12.9 percent of his coverage snaps. The approach makes sense considering the Bills didn't have a reliable cornerback opposite him in the secondary.
Based on the analytics, White can cut the field in half and force quarterbacks to look elsewhere. If the coaching staff can develop a solid No. 2 cover man on the perimeter, Buffalo would boast one of the stingiest pass defenses in the league.
More importantly, it's rare we hear the term "shutdown cornerback." If he sees more targets, White could put his name in that category with another standout season.
Carolina Panthers: OT Taylor Moton
In 2018, Taylor Moton started at left tackle at the beginning of the season but moved to the right side to replace Daryl Williams, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the first game.
With his standout campaign at right tackle and serviceable play on quarterback Cam Newton's blind side, Moton allows the Carolina Panthers to experiment with combinations across the line. The front office re-signed Williams and selected Greg Little in the second round of this year's draft.
Williams could slide inside or take on a backup role. If Little isn't ready to handle duties on the blind side, Moton could potentially move back to left tackle. At Western Michigan, Moton started at right guard during his junior campaign and earned third-team All-MAC honors, which indicates his ability to kick inside if the Panthers want Williams and Little on the perimeter.
For now, general manager Marty Hurney seems intent to keep him at right tackle, per Travis Hancock of WFNZ Sports Radio: "A bad O-line can keep you up at night. Moton is preferred at [right tackle], where Williams fits we will see."
Moton isn't just a roster building block. He's a potential plug-and-play starting option at three different positions across the offensive line.
Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith
Roquan Smith brings the ideal blend of speed, power and athleticism to the field at inside linebacker.
In his Week 1 debut, Smith didn't waste any time showcasing his natural football instincts with a sack on his first defensive play. Throughout the 2018 term, he reminded everyone why the Bears selected him with the No. 8 overall pick of last year's draft. The Georgia product finished the season with five sacks, five pass breakups, an interception and the team lead in solo tackles (89).
In addition to Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd coming off the edge, the Bears have another versatile defender who can charge downhill and help his teammates apply immense pocket pressure. He's also equipped to shadow pass-catching tight ends.
As the ninth overall pick of the 2016 draft, Floyd has been underwhelming as a pass-rusher (15.5 career sacks). Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan has missed 11 contests in three years with the team. Because of his expanded skill set, Smith can plug holes in both areas to compensate for subpar play and absences on the second level of the defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: RB Joe Mixon
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Fletcher Page, team owner Mike Brown isn't ready to talk about an extension with Dalton, who has two years left on his contract. If he falls short of expectations, we could see changes under center in the near future.
On the flip side, Joe Mixon experienced a sophomore surge in production last year. He ranked fourth in rushing yards (1,168) and added 296 receiving yards to his standout season.
Dalton has shown an average arm at best, and Green is heading into his age-31 campaign. Under new head coach Zac Taylor, we could see the rise of the ground attack with Mixon leading the charge.
In 2018, Mixon averaged 4.9 yards per carry behind an offensive line that ranked 22nd in adjusted line yards (4.10), per Football Outsiders. In April, the Bengals selected offensive tackle Jonah Williams with the 11th overall pick to upgrade a front line that struggled to create space for ball-carriers last year.
Playing behind an upgraded offensive line, Mixon is shaping up to become a noteworthy talent.
Cleveland Browns: QB Baker Mayfield
Without a doubt, Baker Mayfield has shown he's a building block and foundational piece for the Cleveland Browns. He provided an instant jolt to the offense against the New York Jets in Week 3.
Under short notice after Tyrod Taylor went into concussion protocol, Mayfield pushed his team to victory, throwing for 201 yards and completing 73.9 percent of his passes. Although he didn't throw for a touchdown, his accuracy opened up the offense. Running back Carlos Hyde scored the go-ahead touchdown to seal that game.
For the season, Mayfield threw 27 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions while completing 63.8 percent of his passes. The Browns were in the thick of a playoff race after Thanksgiving for the first time since the 2014 campaign.
Among the quarterbacks selected in the first round of last year's draft, Mayfield seemed most prepared to handle NFL competition. Despite losing a head coach and operating with a shaky offensive line through the first half of the season, he posted solid numbers in his rookie term.
Now, with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. joining his list of targets and former offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens taking over as head coach, Mayfield seems primed to propel the Browns to another level.
Dallas Cowboys: LB Jaylon Smith
The Dallas Cowboys may have the pre-injury version of Jaylon Smith on the field. Last offseason, he ditched his ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) brace, and his movements looked fluid on the field throughout the ensuing term.
In 2018, Smith covered the length of the field against the run and provided pocket pressure, recording 82 solo tackles, four pass breakups and four sacks. He showed flashes of the defender who won the 2015 Dick Butkus Award at Notre Dame before a torn ACL and ligament damage forced him to sit out his entire rookie season with the Cowboys.
Smith posted 81 combined tackles, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and a sack in a decent 2017 campaign that primarily saw him operating in a backup role. Now, coming off an impressive year, the Cowboys have opened extension talks with him, per Mike Fisher of 247 Sports.
Assuming he's put the knee injury behind him, Smith is an ideal centerpiece for an NFL defense. He can cover shallow areas in open space and disrupt action in the backfield on all three downs.
Denver Broncos: EDGE Bradley Chubb
Bradley Chubb wreaked havoc on offensive lines throughout his rookie campaign and even set the Denver Bronco's rookie sack record (12). Ironically, his teammate and pass-rush partner Von Miller previously held the leading mark with 11.5 sacks.
In 2018, Chubb's numbers compared closely to Miller's in sacks (12 to 14.5, respectively), tackles for loss (14 to 14), quarterback hits (21 to 26) and solo tackles (41 to 29), but he still missed out on a Pro Bowl invite. With his skill level, the North Carolina State product will rack up accolades in the near future while playing alongside a three-time All-Pro.
It's also not a random happenstance that Miller logged his second-highest total in sacks last year.
Offensive linemen will have to pick their poison going against the Broncos' edge-rushers. Although the veteran outside linebacker hasn't lost a step, he's going into his age-30 campaign. Chubb could become the team's consistent sack leader within the next year or two.
Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay
The Detroit Lions opted to trade wideout Golden Tate, which thrust Kenny Golladay into a bigger role during the second half of the 2018 season. He flashed on multiple occasions, recording a pair of 100-yard receiving games after Week 9 in addition to his 114-yard performance in the season opener.
Golladay's catch rate remained steady between his freshman and sophomore terms (58.3 to 58.8 percent), but he eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards with more opportunities last year. The Northern Illinois product can line up on the inside or outside, though the Lions signed Danny Amendola, who will likely handle most of the slot duties.
Opposite Marvin Jones Jr., Golladay will give quarterback Matthew Stafford a big target (6'4", 213 lbs) who can bring down contested catches and go over the top of smaller defenders. He's not Calvin Johnson, but the 25-year-old is a tough cover because of his sheer size.
Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones
It's time to give the other Aaron some recognition.
Of course, the Green Bay Packers' offensive success hinges upon Aaron Rodgers' arm, but head coach Matt LaFleur could push to balance the offense with more touches for Aaron Jones, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season.
"I'm just excited to be out there this year. [LaFleur] is going to marry the run and the pass game up. ... We're going to rely on the run, as well," Jones said during a locker room interview. When asked about a potential breakout year, he answered, "Oh, yes sir. Definitely."
According to Michael Cohen of The Athletic, LaFleur favors a running back by committee, but situational football could dictate who handles the majority of the touches.
Last year, Jones had the hot hand and churning legs on multiple occasions, but the Packers may have turned away from him prematurely.
Though Jamaal Williams will remain a factor in the ground attack, it's hard to limit a tailback who's advancing the ball at Jones' rate. Because he's able to catch out of the backfield, the 24-year-old could also handle third-down receiving duties.
Jones' efficiency and dual-threat skill set should allow him to emerge as the featured ball-carrier and complement to Rodgers on offense.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
The Houston Texans may rely heavily on Justin Reid's knowledge of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's scheme. The front office signed Tashaun Gipson, who already leans on the fellow safety for information. Others have lauded the Stanford product's mental capacity, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop.
"Other people had said he's almost too smart. He's a guy who knows everything," Gipson said. "There hasn't been a question yet—and I've asked him a lot of questions—he hasn't had the answer to. ... The mental part kind of blows you away because the guy is smart. That's one of the things that they told me."
As a rookie, Reid started just once within the first five weeks of the season, but he held onto a first-unit role throughout the campaign's second half because of his impressive production, registering 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. The 2018 third-rounder often compensated for lapses in a pass defense that ranked 28th in yards allowed.
In Barshop's report, Reid admitted he let a few opportunities slip away.
"I want to have a couple more PBUs [pass breakups] and a couple more interceptions," the Texans safety said. "I know that I had three last year but I dropped three, so I want to turn those three into six."
With experience and confidence, Reid may put together some Pro Bowl-worthy campaigns in the near future. Along with Johnathan Joseph, he could become the go-to guy in times of secondary strife.
Indianapolis Colts: CB Kenny Moore II
Kenny Moore II played most of his coverage snaps in the slot, but he can also line up on the outside. The 23-year-old took the field for 86.91 percent of the Indianapolis Colts' defensive snaps last season.
In 2018, Moore stood out as the Colts' top cover man, logging a team-leading 11 pass breakups and three interceptions. The front office selected defensive backs Rock Ya-Sin and Marvell Tell III in the second and fifth rounds of the draft, respectively, but the team's playmaking inside-out cornerback seems like a sure bet to retain his starting role.
After going undrafted out of Valdosta State in 2017, Moore has proved he can provide toughness on the inside and blanket receivers on the perimeter in base alignment. He's the ideal answer for spread offenses because of his sticky hands, reliable tackling and ability to shift positions in different scenarios.
Quincy Wilson, a 2017 second-rounder, has yet to develop into a consistent starter. Pierre Desir's best season (one interception and eight pass breakups) doesn't compare to Moore's production in coverage. The latter should take another step as a crucial component to the Colts secondary.
Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack
Among the potential building blocks in Jacksonville, running back Leonard Fournette easily comes to mind, but he's missed 11 games in his first two seasons and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Despite coming into the league with knee concerns, Myles Jack hasn't missed a game since he debuted in 2016.
Jack is a durable linebacker with impressive versatility. He lined up on the strong side of the formation before shifting to the middle following Paul Posluszny's retirement. The UCLA product plays a robust downhill style and wraps up ball-carriers and receivers in the open field and crowded areas.
On paper, Jack doesn't have flashy numbers in interceptions (one) or sacks (five), but he's a constant on the second level of the defense who's typically in the right spot to make stops. The versatile linebacker has 141 solo tackles over the last two campaigns.
Because of linebacker Telvin Smith Sr.'s decision to step away from the game, the Jaguars will rely on the three-year veteran to stabilize the defense by lining up, adjusting and positioning his teammates before the snap.
Kansas City Chiefs: DT Chris Jones
We can label Chris Jones a building block or an emerging star at interior tackle. He gave quarterbacks and running backs nightmares throughout the 2018 campaign.
The Kansas City Chiefs dealt Dee Ford and released Justin Houston, but their top pass-rusher still resides in the Arrowhead trenches. Last year, Jones ranked third in sacks (15.5) and fifth in tackles for loss (19) league-wide.
Jones' impressive campaign warrants a new deal, but head coach Andy Reid didn't provide any answers concerning contract talks during an open media conference: "I don't know that, I don't how they're talking. Or are you talking about me? I haven't talked to him. We just go, if you're here, you get better. If you're not, you don't."
Assuming Jones reports to the team or the Chiefs come to an agreement on a well-deserved new pact, he will continue to garner attention up front. In defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's one-gap scheme, expect the penetrating defensive tackle to post strong numbers in the coming years.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams
This isn't an oversight on tight end Hunter Henry, but he's coming off a torn ACL. Mike Williams, meanwhile, already took a big step following an injury-riddled rookie term. He registered 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns while playing 62.51 percent of the Los Angeles Chargers' offensive snaps last year.
Williams doesn't have a 100-yard game on his resume. However, he put together a strong outing against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15 of the last campaign (seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns) that suggested he's ready to take off in this league.
With nearly a quarter of his receptions going for scores during the last term, we cannot underestimate Williams' 6'4", 220-pound frame as a major benefit for quarterback Philip Rivers in the passing game.
The Chargers allowed wide receiver Tyrell Williams to walk during free agency, so the remaining Williams should expect to see more targets opposite Keenan Allen going forward.
Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson III
John Johnson III can line up at both safety positions, possessing the physical tools to excel closer to the box or in deep coverage. He matched 11 pass breakups from his rookie campaign and added four interceptions last year. The 23-year-old also ranked second on the Los Angeles Rams in solo tackles (82).
Johnson knows what he brings to the field extends beyond the average NFL safety. According to The Athletic's Vincent Bonsignore, he's aiming for a Pro Bowl invite.
"I think I deserve it. That's the only problem," Johnson said. "If I thought I was reaching for it, that would be one thing. But I'm right there, so I really want to accomplish it."
Johnson isn't cocky; he's aware of his top-notch coverage skills. The Los Angeles defensive back ranks second in pass breakups (22) among players at his position over the last two years.
If Johnson maintains his steady play in the secondary, he'll move from Pro-Bowl snub to undeniable standout for multiple seasons.
Miami Dolphins: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Last year, the Miami Dolphins trusted Minkah Fitzpatrick in various roles. He lined up deep in coverage, moved inside for slot duties, supplemented help in the box and defended wide receivers on the perimeter. Apparently, that's not going to change, according to head coach Brian Flores.
"He'll play corner, he'll play linebacker, he'll play free safety, he'll play strong safety, he'll play nickel," Flores said, per Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider. "He'll be all over the place. I think in all those different roles, I think he's done an okay job kind of learning all of those positions."
Fitzpatrick is the ultimate defensive chess piece.
Although his rookie campaign had its warts, he played well overall while juggling multiple roles. The Alabama product registered 51 solo tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Assuming Flores sticks to his word and moves Fitzpatrick around the field, the coaching staff will have plenty of secondary combinations for different packages. He allows teammates to shift to other spots, which may cause confusion for quarterbacks. The 22-year-old is the catalyst for a defense that will cause some headaches in upcoming seasons.
Minnesota Vikings: RT Brian O'Neill
It's difficult to build around a running back who's missed 17 contests in his first two seasons, which is the major concern for Dalvin Cook. The Minnesota Vikings likely felt the same way, hence why they selected Alexander Mattison in the third round of this year's draft.
The Vikings can count on tackle Brian O'Neill to patch up a maligned offensive line, which bodes well for outside runs and pass protection. According to the Washington Post's STATS, he allowed zero sacks in 15 games last season, which included 11 starts.
Under former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, the Vikings fielded one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league, ranking sixth in attempts. Kevin Stefanski will take over play-calling duties, while Gary Kubiak will serve as an influential offensive advisor.
Although the Vikings offense should be more balanced this year, the coaching staff may rely on quarterback Kirk Cousins and wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to move the ball in crucial moments. As a result, Cousins will need to stay upright.
Riley Reiff has been an average left tackle in pass protection through two years with the club, giving up 6.5 sacks in that span, per the Washington Post's STATS. If O'Neill can build on a strong rookie campaign, he possesses more upside as a cornerstone on the offensive line.
New England Patriots: RB Sony Michel
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's age has become a hot topic yet again. He's turning 42 in August, and he'll be without his top target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired after the Patriots' latest Super Bowl victory.
Even if the Patriots passing attack takes a step back without Gronkowski, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels found a potential workhorse in the backfield last year in Sony Michel.
Michel recorded 20-plus carries four times during the regular season and averaged nearly 24 rushing attempts across three playoff contests. He ran the ball 71 times for 336 yards and six touchdowns in those postseason games.
If the Patriots passing attack doesn't drop off, their offense should rank top five in scoring since Michel is efficient while handling a high volume of touches. The 2018 first-round pick adds another dimension to McDaniel's unit, which raises the difficulty for opposing defenses.
Michel missed three games as a rookie because of an offseason knee scope but still finished 15th leaguewide in rushing yards (931). He logged 115 more carries than James White, who ranked second on the team in rushing attempts (94).
The Georgia product is the unquestioned future at the position for the Patriots.
New Orleans Saints: OT Ryan Ramczyk
Ryan Ramczyk came into the league with a torn labrum, which forced him to miss the early portion of the New Orleans Saints' 2017 offseason program. Still, he handled spot duty at left tackle before establishing a home on the right side.
According to the Washington Post's STATS, Ramczyk has allowed six sacks over the last two seasons. Progress isn't always linear, but he's been a solid addition to the Saints offensive line.
"I think Ryan's got such a better understanding of what we're trying to do," position coach Dan Roushar said, per John DeShazier of the team's official website. "I think he's so conscientious of the areas that he wants to make growth in, and so, I see him working very diligently to improve the little things, the details of his craft."
The Saints have left tackle Terron Armstead under contract through the 2021 campaign, but he's missed 21 games because of knee, quadriceps and shoulder injuries over the last three seasons. If they decide to cut ties with him, Roushar can reconfigure the perimeter of the offensive line around Ramczyk, who's able to play on either side.
New York Giants: TE Evan Engram
An increasing number of receiving tight ends exploit mismatches in the passing game. Guys like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle can take advantage of linebackers in the middle of the field and safeties on deeper routes.
New York Giants tight end Evan Engram fits into that mold.
The Ole Miss product ran a 4.42-second 40-yard time at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine and showcased his soft hands through two seasons. He has 109 receptions for 1,299 yards and nine touchdowns in 26 contests.
Last year, Engram battled an MCL sprain, which cost him five games. However, he hauled in 70.3 percent of his targets, up from 55.7 percent in 2017.
The Giants' decision to deal wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns should create more opportunities for Engram. If wide receivers Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard have difficulty winning their matchups, quarterbacks Eli Manning and Daniel Jones could look to their 6'3", 240-pound target at tight end.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold didn't look as promising as Cleveland's Baker Mayfield as a rookie, but he showed enough flashes to illustrate his potential to become a franchise signal-caller under the right tutelage.
This offseason, the Jets hired quarterback whisperer Adam Gase as their new head coach. Darnold will go through an extensive learning process for the next few months under Gase.
As a rookie, Darnold made some head-scratching mistakes. He debuted with a pick-six against the Lions but showed resolve, throwing two touchdown passes and completing 76.2 percent of his passes in that contest. The USC product had several uneven performances in the following weeks, but no one can refute his arm talent.
Darnold will take chances with the football, but the coaching staff can help him in that area with situational football drills. Once the 22-year-old understands it's best to throw an incompletion and play another down rather than take unnecessary risks, he should be on his way to an impressive career under center.
Oakland Raiders: CB Gareon Conley
Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley accepted tough coaching and finished his sophomore season on a strong note.
He played only 12 defensive snaps in Week 5 and just three snaps on special teams the following game. After Week 5, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden pointed to his need to "find the right mix" at the position and Conley's struggles, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken.
Conley proved his worth through the remainder of the season, sharpening his wrap-up tackling technique and blanketing receivers in coverage. The Ohio State product finished the year with a team-leading 15 pass breakups and three interceptions.
In 2017, Conley battled a nagging shin injury that kept him off the field for most of the offseason and all but two games in the regular season. But in recent outings, he's flashed glimpses of his press-coverage ability and ball-tracking skills.
With only 17 games on his pro resume, Conley is still in the early stages of his development. Nonetheless, he's put together a solid stretch of performances and has Pro Bowl upside.
After allowing the most passing touchdowns of any team last year (36), the Raiders need that type of player in coverage.
Philadelphia Eagles: S Avonte Maddox
There's a common thread among building blocks on defense: versatility.
The Philadelphia Eagles may have stumbled upon a fourth-round gem last April in Avonte Maddox. He took on responsibilities as a nickelback, at free safety and in perimeter coverage as a rookie, registering 28 solo tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions.
Because of his production in various roles, the coaching staff will likely find ways to put him on the field. Maddox's experience also bodes well for his self-assurance.
"I feel more confident," Maddox said, per Evan Macy of PhillyVoice. "Last year, I came in and didn't really know what was going on, and now I know what to expect, I know most of the positions. I am pretty comfortable in them all right now. When I get out there, wherever they put me, I am focused on that."
Cornerbacks Ronald Darby (ACL) and Jalen Mills (foot) and safety Rodney McLeod (ACL) are each coming off season-ending injuries. Cornerback Sidney Jones also hasn't been able to stay healthy since he came into the NFL in 2017. Meanwhile, safety Malcolm Jenkins hasn't reported to OTAs, which "is believed to be at least partially contract-related," per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Paul Domowitch.
Because of Maddox's skill set and availability, he could emerge as the most reliable defensive back in the Eagles secondary for 2019 and beyond.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Sean Davis
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, safety Sean Davis, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and nose tackle Javon Hargrave are all going into the 2019 campaign with expiring contracts.
At this juncture, Davis looks like the top keeper among that bunch.
The Steelers can shift players around to fill a void at safety if Davis doesn't return, but he's still in the early stage of his career with some upside. The Maryland product can play in the slot, closer to the line of scrimmage or free safety, his primary role last year.
Davis flashed his coverage skills in 2017 with eight pass breakups and three interceptions. He didn't match those numbers last season (seven passes defenses and one pick) because of an adjustment to the deep-coverage role.
"I hope I play and stay at free safety," Davis said, per TribLIVE.com's Chris Adamski. "I want to hone in on free safety and really perfect my craft at that. I am versatile. I can do it all. But having another entire year at free safety, that's what I'd really like to do."
Going into his fourth season at a set position, Davis could have a year similar or better than his second year. With all of the depth and new faces in Pittsburgh's secondary (cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Justin Layne), he could become the stabilizing component.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Dante Pettis
In Week 3 of this past season, the San Francisco 49ers lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the year to a torn ACL. San Francisco's receivers finished with underwhelming numbers as a result, with Kendrick Bourne leading the way in both in catches (42) and yards (487).
The 49ers attempted to upgrade their wideout group with a pair of Day 2 selections in this year's draft (Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd), but Dante Pettis might take a significant sophomore jump, too. Over the offseason, Pettis bulked up to fill out his lean frame (6'1", 195 lbs).
"We loved the way he closed this season," genera manager John Lynch said, per Joe Fann of the 49ers' 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."
Those expectations put Pettis under the spotlight for the upcoming campaign. He recorded a touchdown in three consecutive games between Weeks 12-14 and had a 100-yard performance sandwiched in the middle.
Despite the excitement for Samuel and Hurd, Pettis' bulked-up frame and experience should help him lead all Niners wideouts in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He's more equipped to win matchups against physical cornerbacks and maintain route discipline through hand fighting and bumps downfield.
Seattle Seahawks: DT Jarran Reed
Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed quietly registered 10.5 sacks last season. He's an underrated emerging player at his position.
Defensive end Frank Clark garnered most of the praise for the Seahawks pass rush last season, but Reed ranked second on the team in sacks and recorded a team-leading 12 tackles for loss. His ability to push the pocket and stop the run allowed him to shine last year.
Reed underwent core-muscle surgery in late April, and head coach Pete Carroll said he won't return to the team until training camp, per Mark Inabinett of AL.com: "He won't make it through this time until after the break. He won't be back in time for the minicamp. But he's moving well, and he should be fine. But we just can't rush that. We've got to take our time with it."
Assuming he's healthy leading into Week 1, the 26-year-old could lead the Seahawks in sacks in 2019. Seattle signed defensive end Ezekiel Ansah this offseason, but the six-year veteran is coming off an injury-riddled season with only four sacks in seven contests.
As the constant on the Seahawks defensive line with a track record of production, Reed should garner more attention in the trenches going forward.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE O.J. Howard
New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians likes to throw the ball downfield. If quarterback Jameis Winston can avoid too many costly interceptions, O.J. Howard should benefit from that approach.
Howard landed on injured reserve with ankle and foot injuries in November, but he moved around with fluidity and reeled in several receptions during organized team activities, per Carmen Vitali of the Buccaneers' official website.
"Howard looks back to his incredible pass-catching self after having to cut his season short last year due to injury. The offense used him all over the field Wednesday. He made a couple great catches in situational drills where the Bucs needed to move down the field quickly. He was a reliable target to get chunk yardage when it mattered and looks poised to continue to be that guy as the season approaches."
Although Howard missed six games last year, he topped his rookie-season numbers in catches (34) and yards (565) while catching 70.8 percent of his targets. Based on the Buccaneers' projected style of offense and his trajectory as a pass-catcher, he's primed for a breakout campaign and a productive career under Arians.
The Alabama product fits into a group of rising talents at tight end.
Tennessee Titans: LB Jayon Brown
The Tennessee Titans fielded one of the league's stingiest pass defenses last year, ranking sixth in yards allowed and third in touchdowns surrendered.
Their air-tight coverage goes beyond a talented secondary. Linebacker Jayon Brown can disrupt the aerial attack before and after the quarterback throws the ball.
Brown registered six sacks, six pass breakups and an interception in 2018. Head coach Mike Vrabel believes his size and physical tools coincide with the direction of today's game, per Jim Wyatt of Titans Online.
"The size of linebackers has really diminished over the past 10 years. Most recently it is what is playing in college football. The more that offenses become spread out, the more that college defenses recruit athletic, quick, smaller (linebackers). We are very comfortable with where we are with Jayon Brown and his development as a linebacker."
Brown's tendency to break into the backfield and ability to use speed and awareness in coverage should put him in the conversation of the league's best emerging off-ball linebackers. He's a potential playmaker all over the field in any down-and-distance scenario.
Washington Redskins: DL Jonathan Allen
Since we can't list Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen as a package duo, the latter gets the nod because of his leadership qualities.
Allen suffered a Lisfranc sprain as a rookie, which limited him to only five appearances that season. He stepped into a leadership role last year, and his voice carries weight in the locker room.
Allen also had a telling comment about how the team pushes development, per AL.com's Mark Inabinett: "You should never feel comfortable, so we try to make everything and everybody uncomfortable in this building. That's just our goal every day is to make it as uncomfortable as possible for everybody to help promote growth."
To go along with his bark, Allen brought the bite on the field during his second season. He finished with eight sacks and was tied with outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan for a team-leading 11 tackles for loss.
Going into 2019, he stands out as a leader on defense, an effective pass-rusher and a budding talent.