1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2019

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 8, 2019

1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2019

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Every year, a handful of rising NFL stars become full-blown superstars. 

    Last year, it was Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Darius Leonard, Byron Jones, Eddie Jackson, Derwin James and Jamal Adams. The year before that, it was Carson Wentz, Alvin Kamara, Adam Thielen, Demarcus Lawrence, Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes and Kevin Byard.

    Ruling out those who have already earned Pro Bowl or first-team All-Pro nods, here's one player at each position in line to explode into stardom this fall and winter. 


Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    This is admittedly not a surprise pick.

    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield completed 68.4 percent of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns to eight interceptions while posting a 106.2 passer rating in the second half of his uneven but magnificent rookie season. With Odell Beckham Jr. joining his pass-catching corps, Mayfield is primed to explode.

    Other young quarterbacks could follow suit, but each of them have more obvious warts. New York Jets sophomore Sam Darnold is a little further behind in his development and has a weaker supporting cast. Ditto for Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens.

    New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians is a magician, but Jameis Winston made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, so the interception-happy 25-year-old doesn't qualify here. Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans remains untrustworthy, and we'll need to see how San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo bounces back from a major knee injury. 

    In other words, Mayfield is the obvious choice here. And while the bar might be set terrifyingly high for someone with 14 career starts under his belt, the stars do appear to be aligned for the 24-year-old as he enters his first full season as an NFL starter.

Running Back: Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Three particular running backs stand out as breakout candidates this fall: Detroit Lions sophomore Kerryon Johnson, second-year Browns back Nick Chubb and third-year Green Bay Packers rusher Aaron Jones. 

    Johnson and Jones are the only two backs this century with yards-per-attempt averages above 5.40 on at least 100 carries. However, the Packers also have Jamaal Williams, new head coach Matt LaFleur is already talking about a committee approach, and Aaron Rodgers still runs what will likely be a pass-heavy offense.

    Meanwhile, new Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press in May that his team will "always be about running the football." 

    To boot, Birkett believes Johnson could catch 60-plus passes in 2019. 

    Chubb could be in for a big sophomore season after averaging 5.2 yards per rush as a rookie, but the Cleveland receiving corps appears to be special. He'll also have company in the backfield midway through the season when 2017 rushing champion Kareem Hunt returns from a suspension. 

    Johnson looked special before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. He says he's fully recovered from that knee injury and he should be in for a tremendous age-22 season.

Wide Receiver: D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton couldn't throw the ball more than 30 yards down the stretch of the 2018 campaign, yet D.J. Moore was one of only five wide receivers to average more than 14 yards per reception and catch at least 67 percent of the passes thrown his way on 30 or more receptions.

    The 2018 first-round pick was hardly a factor in his first nine career games before he busted out with 471 yards in the final seven weeks. He did so even though Newton's throwing arm had turned into a bucatini noodle. 

    That should no longer be the case after Newton underwent shoulder surgery early in the offseason. He was throwing by the time the team wrapped up the offseason program and should be able to help Moore break out in 2019. 

    The 22-year-old beats out rising Jacksonville Jaguars slot star Dede Westbrook, who should be in for a big year with Nick Foles taking over under center but doesn't have the same ceiling as Moore. 

Tight End: O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Jameis Winston believes "the moon" is the limit for tight end O.J. Howard, and—bad joke alert!—the third-year tight end might be manning his own Apollo mission in 2019. 

    The 2017 No. 19 overall pick has yet to completely, um, take off. But that isn't unusual for a young tight end, especially since each of Howard's first two seasons have ended prematurely due to injuries. 

    In the six games that preceded Howard's season-ending high ankle sprain last November, he was on fire. During that stretch, the Alabama product was the only qualified tight end in the NFL to average more than 14 yards per reception and catch more than 74 percent of the passes thrown his way. 

    That was enough to earn the third-highest Pro Football Focus grade at the tight end position even though he played in only 10 games. 

    If the 24-year-old can stay healthy in 2019, he'll have a better chance to become a superstar than fellow rising tight ends like Hayden Hurst (facing stiff competition), David Njoku (fighting for targets), Tyler Kroft (currently injured again) and Darren Waller (only 18 career catches despite the hype).

Offensive Tackle: Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    For Ryan Ramczyk, this year might be more about finally earning national recognition than breaking out. The 2017 first-round pick has already been a strong supporting cast member for Drew Brees and the rest of the New Orleans Saints offense the last two seasons. 

    Pro Football Focus graded the Wisconsin product as the 72nd-best player in the NFL last season. He was a second-team PFF All-Pro and PFF's Run-Blocker of the Year. He's yet to be honored as a first-team All-Pro or make a Pro Bowl, but that should change if he improves his pass-blocking in his third season. 

    As PFF's Cam Mellor notes, Ramczyk is "becoming the gold standard at right tackle."

    While Baltimore right tackle Orlando Brown also looks primed to become a Pro Bowler in 2019, he's still a little raw and is a year behind Ramczyk, who should take that final step and become a superstar this season.

Guard: Joe Thuney, New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Joe Thuney's PFF pass-blocking grades have increased dramatically in each of his first three NFL seasons, and he seems to come through in big moments.

    After playing a huge part in shutting down Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald in the New England Patriots' Super Bowl LIII victory, the 26-year-old third-round pick might be on the verge of interior offensive line stardom. 

    Thuney experienced ups and downs as a rookie starter, but he also performed remarkably well in Super Bowl LI. An extra half-season's worth of playoff games over the last three years have assuredly helped accelerate his physical and mental development. 

    Breakout New York Giants guard Will Hernandez might have a higher ceiling coming off a promising rookie season, but Thuney is much farther along and is far more likely to explode in 2019. 

    Expect him to make his first Pro Bowl in January. 

Center: Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    As a rookie first-round pick in 2016, Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly flashed his upside as a potential future perennial Pro Bowler. With little support, Kelly started all 16 games and excelled down the stretch as a pass-blocker that year. 

    Since then, he's missed 13 of a possible 32 games due to injury. But when he's on the field, he continues to show signs of improvement. Per PFF, the Alabama product has surrendered just one sack as a pass-blocker in 35 career outings.

    Kelly could become a dominant center in this league, and it's a good sign that he's fully healthy entering his fourth training camp with the Colts. 

    There aren't a lot of rising young centers right now—we're still waiting on Billy Price in Cincinnati, while Cody Whitehair has already become a Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears—but the 26-year-old Kelly looks prepared to become a star in 2019. 

Interior Defensive Lineman: Jonathan Allen, Washington Redskins

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Vita Vea of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like a star late in his rookie season, earning top-10 grades from Pro Football Focus over his final six games. However, he failed to stand out before that, and there's no telling how he'll react to the transition from Gerald McCoy to Ndamukong Suh opposite him.

    Other rising interior defensive linemen like Jarran Reed of the Seattle Seahawks and Derrick Nnadi of the Kansas City Chiefs seem to have lower ceilings than Jonathan Allen, who bounced back from an injury-derailed rookie season and recorded eight sacks as a sophomore with the Washington Redskins in 2018. 

    PFF's Austin Gayle sang Allen's praises in May: 

    "Injuries and inconsistency have kept Allen from reaching his maximum potential in the NFL, but what he’s done is still extremely impressive. His 11.7 percent pass-rush win rate leads all qualifying interior defensive linemen from the 2017 NFL draft, as does his 9.3 pressure percentage and 51 total pressures. He is easily the best interior pass-rushing talent in the 2017 class and is within reach of elite play if he can improve his game-to-game consistency and stay healthy."

    With plenty of talent surrounding him, it'd be surprising if the 24-year-old didn't make his first Pro Bowl in 2019. 

Edge-Defender: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Bradley Chubb came into the league as a complete package, tallied 12 sacks in a solid rookie season and is almost certain to make his first Pro Bowl if he continues on that pace in 2019. 

    Chubb's sack totals don't tell the whole story of his rookie season. According to PFF, no rookie edge-rusher since 1996 has recorded more pressures (57) than the NC State product accumulated for the Denver Broncos in 2018. 

    "His pass-rushing talent is plain frightening for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks," PFF's Ben Cooper wrote in February. 

    With Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt coming off their first Pro Bowl campaigns and Joey Bosa already well-established, Chubb is the easy choice for this season's top breakout edge-defender. Sam Hubbard and Marcus Davenport showed promise in Cincinnati and New Orleans, respectively, as rookies last season, but the former will have to fight for reps and the latter has to prove he can stay healthy. 

    With Von Miller attracting plenty of attention on the opposite edge, look for Chubb to take a leap in 2019. 

Off-Ball Linebacker: Rashaan Evans, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel expects 2018 first-round linebacker Rashaan Evans to "take some jumps" in his sophomore season, and it's hard to disagree. 

    The 2017 All-SEC selection out of Alabama got off to a slow start last year as a result of a summer hamstring injury, but PFF called Evans a "second-half star," noting that his overall grade of 83.4 between Weeks 10 and 17 ranked No. 1 among first-year linebackers. 

    "You really have to remember, Rashaan didn't really get to do anything until the season actually started," Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees said 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."

    Now fully healthy, the 23-year-old will enter his second NFL campaign with a full offseason under his belt, which should enable him to do Pro Bowl-level damage in Tennessee. 

    "He hasn't disappointed," Jim Wyatt of the team's official website wrote in reference to the offseason Evans has put together. "He's been flying around, looking good.”

    Evans enters training camp with at least a slight edge over fellow 2018 first-round linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who also stood out in the second half of his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills but might need more time to develop.

Cornerback: Rasul Douglas, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Philadelphia Eagles corner Rasul Douglas already has five career interceptions despite having started only a dozen games. Two of those picks came when the depleted Eagles secondary was leaning on him heavily in the final month of the 2018 regular season, and he was one of Philly's best players in the team's playoff victory over the Bears. 

    Given a chance to start consistently on the outside, Douglas has the playmaking ability to become a game-changer in the NFC East. And the 2017 third-round pick might have that opportunity in his third NFL campaign. 

    Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are both working their way back from major injuries, and Douglas is better than Mills, Avonte Maddox and Cre'Von LeBlanc. Darby has missed 15 games the last two seasons, and 2017 second-rounder Sidney Jones has missed all but 10 games thus far in his career. 

    The Eagles have plenty of options at cornerback, but Douglas might be in the best position of them all. 

    The West Virginia product posted a photo this offseason that indicated he's bulked up considerably, according to Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. When defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked about players who impressed at OTAs, he mentioned Douglas immediately. 

    "I think Rasul Douglas is in that category," Schwartz said, per Zangaro. "Over the last couple years, even though he wasn't a starter, he probably has a year of starting experience under his belt and you're starting to see that when he goes out."

Safety: Jabrill Peppers, New York Giants

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Jamal Adams and Derwin James might be the future at the safety position, but both of those players are the present as well after making the Pro Bowl in 2018. 

    And while Minkah Fitzpatrick, Justin Reid and Jessie Bates III all had promising rookie seasons, 2017 No. 25 overall pick Jabrill Peppers might be a little closer to an explosion after jumping to the Giants following a strong sophomore season in Cleveland. 

    It might not take long before we see Peppers as more than just "the guy who was traded for Odell Beckham Jr." Giants general manager Dave Gettleman seemed to view the Michigan product as a a deal-breaker in that trade, and he might not be off-base if he believes Peppers can replace departed star Landon Collins. 

    Peppers failed to deliver while working in a clearly dysfunctional environment as a rookie, but he took a major leap in a bounce-back second season in which he recorded 79 tackles, three fumble recoveries, a pick, a sack and the 23rd-best PFF grade among 104 qualified players at his position. 

    Watch for the versatile, explosive two-time first-team All-Big Ten defensive back to emerge as a superstar in his new home this fall. 


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