Every NFL Team's Biggest Breakout Candidate

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2019

Every NFL Team's Biggest Breakout Candidate

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    One week makes for a small sample size in the NFL, but it certainly can bring signs of things to come.

    Last season, for example, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passed for 256 yards and four touchdowns in his season opener. That performance could have been a fluke, of course, but it wasn't. It was the beginning of one of the biggest breakout seasons in recent memory.

    With one full week of the 2019 season complete, now is the perfect time to consider this year's potential breakout stars. While there may be no Mahomes-like rise in 2019, every team has at least one player with the potential to go from mediocrity to megastar this season.

    Using Week 1, the preseason and a little bit of projection, we'll determine who those players are and why they could break out in 2019. Players with a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod on their resumes won't be eligible.


Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray

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    Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray is poised to be a star in the NFL. His ability to win with both his legs and his arm will make him one of the more exciting players to watch, as will his presence in Kliff Kingsbury's college-concepts offense.

    There will be a learning curve, of course, as was evident during Arizona's season-opener against Detroit. The Cardinals looked lifeless for most of three quarters, and they trailed 24-6 at one point in the fourth.

    However, an 18-point outburst in the fourth quarter sent the game into overtime and showed just how explosive Murray can be. He only rushed three times for 13 yards, but he kept several plays alive with his legs and used his arm and vision to light up the Lions for 308 yards and two touchdowns passing.

    There will be some ups and downs with Murray in 2019, but he should finish the season as one of the league's rising stars.

Atlanta Falcons: RB Ito Smith

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    For the past several years, the Atlanta Falcons have relied on a two-man rotation at running back. Tevin Coleman, who had 1,076 combined rushing and receiving yards last season, has been a big part of it.

    However, Coleman is now gone, and second-year back Ito Smith has taken his place in the rotation. Alongside starter Devonta Freeman, Smith will look to lead the Falcons rushing attack in 2019.

    Smith has gotten off to a solid start too. Though he only got six carries in the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings, Smith averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry. He also added a reception for nine more yards.

    Considering Freeman only averaged 2.4 yards per carry in Week 1, there's even a chance that Smith eventually takes over as the leading rusher. If he remains a complementary back, though, he should still find his way into the spotlight this season.

Baltimore Ravens: TE Mark Andrews

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    In 2018, the Baltimore Ravens used a first-round pick on former South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst. However, it's been 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews who has emerged as Baltimore's primary receiving tight end.

    Now, there's a good chance Andrews emerges as one of the top receiving tight ends in the entire league. With the Ravens focused on making Lamar Jackson more of a passing quarterback, Andrews is set to rack up the stats.

    In Week 1, the Oklahoma product caught eight passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. The presence of rookie wideout Marquise Brown, who had 147 yards and two scores in the opener, is also significant. However, Brown won't be able to break big plays every single week, while Andrews should remain a consistent target for Jackson all season long.

Buffalo Bills: RB Devin Singletary

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    There's a big reason why the Buffalo Bills were willing to part with running back LeSean McCoy after the preseason. His name is Devin Singletary.

    A third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Singletary has quickly established himself as one of the most explosive weapons on Buffalo's offense. He only carried the ball four times in the season opener, but he amassed 70 yards rushing and had five catches for 28 yards.

    The Bills have other options at running back, including ageless veteran Frank Gore. However, it should be Singletary who breaks out and becomes the face of Buffalo's rushing attack—along with dual-threat quarterback Josh Allen, of course.

Carolina Panthers: WR Curtis Samuel

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    Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is already a star. What the Panthers need is another reliable offensive player Cam Newton can rely on. Through two weeks, that player has been former Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel.

    Samuel wasn't a consistent receiving option in his first two pro seasons. He saw limited playing time as a rookie and produced just 494 yards receiving and five touchdowns in 2018. So far this season, Samuel already has seven receptions for 114 yards. He had four catches for 82 yards in Carolina's Week 2 loss on Thursday night.

    DJ Moore is primed to be Carolina's primary downfield receiver, but Samuel can break out and become a reliable second option and outlet receiver in 2019. The Panthers desperately need him to, because McCaffrey cannot be a one-man show every single week.

Chicago Bears: LB Leonard Floyd

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    Since being drafted ninth overall back in 2016, Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd has shown flashes of greatness—he had 7.0 sacks as a rookie—but he has never developed into a consistent playmaker.

    This could change in 2019.

    Floyd is entering his second season playing opposite Khalil Mack, and the two could emerge as the league's best pass-rushing tandem this season. Floyd had 2.0 sacks in his first year with Mack. He has half that many after just one game this year.

    "All of us who have been around and seen him operate for the last seven months, we all expected that from him," Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said, per Dan Wiederer, Colleen Kane and Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.

    Don't be surprised if Floyd finishes with double-digit sacks and earns his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR John Ross

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    Can it be? Has John Ross finally figured out how to play wide receiver at the NFL level? If Week 1 is any indication, the answer is yes.

    The Cincinnati Bengals took Ross with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft. Though the Washington product possesses legitimate 4.22-second 40-yard-dash speed, his production over his first two seasons was sporadic at best. He didn't register a catch as a rookie and had just 21 catches for 210 yards in 2018, though he did score seven touchdowns.

    Then, Ross had his breakout game in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. He caught seven passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. If he can keep his consistency up, Ross could quickly become the new focal point of Cincinnati's passing attack—especially with A.J. Green still nursing an ankle injury.

Cleveland Browns: WR Rashard Higgins

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    The Cleveland Browns have two premier receivers at the top of their depth chart—Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Though he'll constantly be overshadowed by that duo, receiver Rashard Higgins is poised to become a productive and dangerous receiver in his own right.

    Higgins has unquestionable chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield, as evidenced by his 572 yards receiving in 2018. Now, he's beginning to emerge as a downfield threat and a legitimate playmaker in Cleveland's offense.

    In Week 1, Higgins caught two passes for 46 yards, an average of 23 yards per reception. Should he continue improving, Higgins may actually replace Landry as Cleveland's No. 2 receiver with Landry filling more of a possession-receiver role.

Dallas Cowboys: WR Michael Gallup

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    With Ezekiel Elliot back in the fold, the Dallas Cowboys have a premier offensive trio. Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper have the potential to make the Cowboys a dangerous offense in 2019. To be an elite offense, however, the Cowboys need another weapon to emerge.

    Well, that weapon appears to be second-year man Michael Gallup. The Colorado State product broke out in Week 1 with seven receptions for 158 yards and a 22.6 yards-per-reception average.

    Cooper is going to remain Dallas' No. 1 receiver for the foreseeable future. However, more performances like this one from Gallup could have the Cowboys questioning whether they really need to hand Cooper a hefty contract extension in the offseason.

Denver Broncos: WR Courtland Sutton

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    Offensively, the Denver Broncos didn't have a lot to be happy about in Week 1. Quarterback Joe Flacco was spotty at best, and the running game didn't get going until the second half with Denver trailing. Second-year receiver Courtland Sutton, however, was a bright spot.

    Sutton finished the game with seven catches for 120 yards. He looked like a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, and that's exactly what he may be for Denver moving forward.

    Though he showed promise as a rookie in 2018—he had 704 yards and four touchdowns—this could be the year in which Sutton truly breaks out. It will take a little more consistency from Flacco, but Sutton appears on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign.

Detroit Lions: TE T.J. Hockenson

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    The Detroit Lions had two big reasons for drafting former Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson eighth overall this past April. One is that the Lions needed a reliable pass-catching tight end for Matthew Stafford to utilize. The other is that Hockenson appeared ready-made to be a professional and a star.

    "You can tell the way he acts and presents himself," veteran tight end Logan Thomas said, per Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press. "He can handle anything that comes his way."

    Hockenson certainly handled the Cardinals defense in Week 1, catching six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

    After one week, Hockenson leads all tight ends in receiving yards. That's one way to break into the NFL.

Green Bay Packers: LB Preston Smith

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    Outside linebacker Preston Smith spent four years with the Washington Redskins. Over the last three, he was a solid starter. He had flashes as a pass-rusher with 8.0 sacks in 2017, and he was a good all-around defender, but Smith was never really a star.

    Now that he's a member of the Green Bay Packers, though, Smith's time could be now. Playing for a high-profile franchise will help, and so will playing in coordinator Mike Pettine's aggressive defensive scheme.

    Smith played like a perfect fit for Pettine's defense in Week 1. Against Chicago, he amassed five tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup.

    While matching these numbers on a weekly basis will be difficult, Smith should be poised to top his career highs in tackles (53), sacks (8.0) and passes defended (4) this season. If he does, a Pro Bowl berth will likely follow.

Houston Texans: S Justin Reid

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    The Houston Texans defense was a borderline disaster in Week 1. It gave up 510 yards of total offense and allowed the New Orleans Saints to put together a game-winning field-goal drive with less than a minute remaining.

    The play of strong safety Justin Reid, however, was encouraging.

    Reid, a 2018 third-round pick out of Stanford, had a promising rookie season. He finished with 88 tackles, 10 passes defended and three interceptions. Now, he could be headed to his first Pro Bowl appearance, at least if the Texans remain in the national spotlight.

    Reid had an impressive 10 tackles against the Saints. He appears to be one of Houston's top defenders, and he should have little trouble topping the 100-tackle mark in 2019.

Indianapolis Colts: Jacoby Brissett

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    The Indianapolis Colts lost star quarterback Andrew Luck to retirement during the preseason, which stinks if you're a Colts fan. However, their season is not lost, as Jacoby Brissett is poised to break out as a quality starter in 2019.

    Brissett is now in his third season with the Colts, and his second with head coach Frank Reich. Indianapolis, which didn't have Luck during training camp, has had plenty of time to cater its offense to Brissett. The early results are encouraging.

    Though the Colts lost a close overtime game to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, it wasn't because of questionable quarterback play. Brissett was fantastic, finishing 21-of-27 for 190 yards and two touchdowns. He should be more than capable of leading the offense—possibly to the playoffs—this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: S Ronnie Harrison

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars like what they have in second-year safety Ronnie Harrison, which is why they allowed Barry Church to depart in the offseason.

    "We feel that he has the ability to make plays. Sometimes you have guys back there, they can play the position, they can defend," head coach Doug Marrone said, per Debbi Taylor of Forbes.

    Harrison finished 2018 with 32 tackles, three passes defended and an interception. He also finished as Jacksonville's starter at strong safety. Now, he appears poised to build off a promising rookie campaign and to break out as a full-time starter. He finished Week 1 with six tackles.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Sammy Watkins

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    Virtually the entire NFL world has been waiting for Sammy Watkins to break out. Originally a Bills first-round pick in 2014, the talented wide receiver has one 1,000-yard season on his resume but has never played up to a Pro Bowl level.

    With Kansas City Chiefs No. 1 receiver Tyreek Hill set to miss extended time, Watkins now has the opportunity to cash in on the potential he's long held but never realized.

    Watkins was the star of the show in Week 1, catching nine passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. That was the breakout performance everyone has been waiting for, and it should signal the beginning of Watkins' breakout season.

Los Angeles Chargers: RB Austin Ekeler

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    Who needs Melvin Gordon? Seriously, if there's a team out there looking to add the Pro Bowl running back, it should call the Los Angeles Chargers—because they certainly aren't hungry for his return.

    The Chargers have a breakout start in the making in running back Austin Ekeler. Gordon's former backup showed out in Week 1, rushing for 58 yards and catching eight passes for 96 more. He also found the end zone three times.

    Heading into the season, many folks wondered if the duo of Ekeler and Justin Jackson would be good enough for the Chargers to survive Gordon's holdout. Not only is the pair good enough, but it should erase any thought of giving Gordon a long-term extension.

    This should only be the beginning for Ekeler, who is poised to break out in a big way over the course of 16 games.

Los Angeles Rams: RB Malcolm Brown

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    For four seasons, Los Angeles Rams running back Malcolm Brown has lived in the shadow of Todd Gurley. Though he remains Gurley's backup, Brown appears ready to finally seize his own time in the spotlight.

    Gurley, who dealt with a knee injury for much of last season, may no longer be an every-down back—which is OK since the Rams have themselves a capable complement in Brown. The former Texas standout finally got a chance to prove it in Week 1.

    Brown finished the season opener with 11 carries for 53 yards and two touchdowns. As a running complement to Gurley, he should be in store for many similar games in 2019.

Miami Dolphins: DT Davon Godchaux

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    It's unfortunate, but the Miami Dolphins simply don't have many players with legitimate breakout potential this season. This is partially due to the fact that Miami is tanking and unlikely to win many games. It doesn't help when the team keeps trading away quality players like Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil.

    Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux is an exception. He's quietly developed into one of the league's better interior defenders, and he regularly shows up on the stat sheet. He finished the 2018 season with 48 tackles and a sack. He racked up another five tackles in the season opener.

    Godchaux is one of the best defenders on Miami's roster, and one of the best Dolphins players overall. He should put together a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign in 2019, even though his presence on a bad Dolphins team will likely ensure he doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook

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    For two years, the Minnesota Vikings have been waiting to see what they really have in running back Dalvin Cook. Taken with the 41st overall pick in 2017, Cook had all the potential to be an NFL star, but injuries have made it impossible for him to break out.

    Cook suffered a torn ACL four games into his rookie season. Injuries limited him to just 11 games in 2018. Now two years removed from the ACL injury, though, Cook appears healthy, ready to handle a full workload and poised to be a breakout star.

    In Minnesota's season opener, Cook rushed for 111 yards and 5.3 yards per carry. He also added nine yards on two receptions and scored twice. Perhaps more importantly, he carried the ball 21 times—the most in a game since his rookie season—and the workload did not appear to bother him.

    If Cook is finally capable of being Minnesota's workhorse back, he's going to become a star.

New England Patriots: OT Isaiah Wynn

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    Offensive linemen aren't often recognized as breakout players, but New England Patriots tackle Isaiah Wynn has the chance to be exactly that. The 2018 first-round pick didn't play as a rookie because of a torn Achilles. Now, he's healthy and protecting the blind side of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.

    The Patriots thought enough of Wynn to let 2018 starter Trent Brown walk in free agency. That was a risky move, but it appears Wynn is up to the challenge of replacing him.

    Wynn started in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steeles and handled himself well. He was strong in the running game and agile in pass protection. Brady was only sacked once by a defense featuring the likes of T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree. Expect Wynn to be an anchor of the line moving forward.

New Orleans Saints: WR Tre'Quan Smith

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    New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith had a promising rookie campaign in 2018. He finished with 28 receptions, 427 yards and five touchdowns. He should be even more productive in year two.

    Now, Smith is likely to remain overshadowed by Drew Brees' favorite targets, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. However, Smith is one of New Orleans' top three receivers—alongside Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.—and he's going to have several big-play opportunities each game. 

    The addition of tight end Jared Cook will make it difficult for opposing defenses to double-cover any wide receiver other than Thomas—Cook is too much of a downfield threat to consistently cover with a linebacker.

    Smith should see a lot of one-on-one coverage in 2019. He had two catches for 26 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 but should have some much bigger games ahead of him.

New York Giants: S Jabrill Peppers

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    2017 first-round pick Jabrill Peppers has been decent during his pro career, but he's been far from a star. In two seasons with the Browns, he amassed 136 tackles, eight passes defended, a sack and two interceptions. He was also mired in obscurity during Cleveland's 0-16 campaign and overshadowed by its emerging offense in 2018.

    After being traded to the New York Giants, though, Peppers has a chance to find the spotlight. He's certainly embracing the chance to play for his hometown Giants.

    "It's a Jersey thing," Peppers said, per George Willis of the New York Post. "It's everything. That's who I am."

    Peppers had seven tackles in Week 1, putting him on pace to top the 100-tackle mark this season. With his punt-return ability also a factor, Peppers could become a Giants building block for the foreseeable future.

New York Jets: DT Quinnen Williams

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    If the New York Jets are going to have a breakout star from a year ago, it's probably going to be quarterback Sam Darnold. The USC product had a promising rookie season and appeared poised to possibly put forth a Pro Bowl campaign in 2019.

    However, Darnold is now set to miss time due to mononucleosis, which puts a damper on his breakout potential. 

    Darnold could still return to have an impactful season, but for now, the breakout star appears to be rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. The former Alabama star wasn't a major factor in Week 1, but that should change moving forward.

    The Jets will be leaning heavily on their defense with Darnold out, and Williams has legitimate Pro Bowl potential.

    "Whether a team is running a 3-4, 4-3 or hybrid defense, Williams is a plug-and-play starter with early All-Pro potential," Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller wrote before the draft.

Oakland Raiders: TE Darren Waller

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    By the end of the 2018 season, Oakland Raiders tight end Darren Waller had played in 22 NFL games and caught 18 passes for 178 yards. That isn't the most impressive resume, but the Raiders still put faith in Waller as their starting tight end in 2019.

    Why? Because Oakland believed the 2015 sixth-round pick of the Ravens could be a breakout player.

    Based on Waller's season-opening performance against Denver, it seems the Raiders were right. The Georgia Tech product performed like a top-tier receiving tight end, gashing the Broncos defense for seven catches and 70 yards.

    It's only been one game, but Waller is currently on pace for a 1,120-yard campaign—which would definitely qualify as a breakout season.

Philadelphia Eagles: DE Derek Barnett

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    The Philadelphia Eagles selected former Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett with the 14th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Up until this season, he's made some noise as a situational pass-rusher but hadn't quite lived up to his draft status.

    In two seasons, Barnett had produced just 37 tackles to go with 7.5 sacks.

    Now, Barnett appears poised to be a starting-caliber defender and more than just an occasional sack-producer.

    Barnett didn't register a sack in the season opener, but he did flash some nifty pass-rush moves—as team reporter Fran Duffy pointed on on Twitter—and finish with four tackles. His ability to impact both the running and passing games makes him a legitimate breakout candidate in year three.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR James Washington

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    Despite being a second-round draft choice, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington wasn't able to make a lot of noise as a rookie in 2018. This is likely to change in 2019, in part because No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown is no longer with the team.

    With Brown gone, JuJu Smith-Schuster slides into the No. 1 role, and Washington is right behind him. 

    However, Washington has to capitalize on his opportunity to break out, and so far, he's doing exactly that. Washington was an absolute star in the preseason, averaging 20.8 yards per reception and scoring twice. Though the Steelers offense was terrible in the season opener against New England, Washington proved what kind of downfield weapon he can be in games that matter.

    Washington finished Week 1 with just two receptions, but he racked up 51 yards on those catches. Not every defense the Steelers face will have a secondary like New England's, and Washington should have a good chance at topping the 1,000-yard mark this season.

San Francisco 49ers: LB Fred Warner

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    As a rookie, if San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner had received a Pro Bowl nod, few would have questioned the decision. He finished 2018 with 124 tackles, six passes defended and a forced fumble.

    Players on bad teams often get overlooked, however. The good news is that with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and a ton of talent on the defensive line, San Francisco may no longer be a bad team.

    If the 49ers get some time in the spotlight this season, so will Warner. His season started off spectacularly as he racked up nine tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble in the season opener.

    Though he was already excellent as a rookie, having guys like Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead playing in front of him should allow Warner to make several plays at the second level this season and to break out into stardom.

Seattle Seahawks: WR DK Metcalf

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    Doug Baldwin's surprise retirement early in the offseason left the Seattle Seahawks looking for a new No. 1 receiver. Many assumed it would be veteran Tyler Lockett. However, if Week 1 was an accurate indication, it's actually going to be rookie DK Metcalf.

    The Mississippi product won with both his separation ability and his size against the Bengals, and Russell Wilson found him four times for 89 yards. Running back Chris Carson was the only other player to register more than two catches on the afternoon.

    With a 6'4", 229-pound frame and legitimate 4.3 speed, Metcalf has all the physical tools to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Adjusting to the nuances of the pro game is often a challenge for even the most gifted wide receiver prospects, though. Fortunately, Metcalf appears to be making a very quick transition.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin had a strong sophomore campaign in 2018. He caught 59 passes for 842 yards and seven touchdowns. However, with slot receiver Adam Humphries gone, this is the season in which Godwin could truly break out.

    Godwin is now the clear No. 2 receiver next to Mike Evans, and in Week 2, Godwin was actually Jameis Winston's preferred target.

    Godwin finished his second game with eight receptions on nine targets for 121 yards and a touchdown. Through two weeks, he has 174 yards and two scores on 11 receptions. He should easily top the 1,000-yard mark this season, and it won't come as a major shock if he out-produces Evans in multiple games.

Tennessee Titans: LB Rashaan Evans

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    Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Rashaan Evans had a good rookie season in 2018. The first-round pick out of Alabama finished with 53 tackles and one pass defended. However, he had gotten off to a slow start because a hamstring injury kept him out of the preseason.

    After a complete preseason this year, however, he appears fully prepared.

    In Week 1, Evans racked up six tackles, five solo. He was a big part of a dominant defensive performance that held a talented Browns offense to just 13 points. With a full year and a complete offseason under his belt, Evans should be in line for several more standout performances throughout the year.

Washington Redskins: WR Terry McLaurin

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    At some point, former Ohio State quarterback and first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins will become the face of the Washington Redskins. Former Buckeyes receiver Terry McLaurin's third-round draft selection appeared to be a move to help Haskins' development as a pro.

    Giving Haskins a familiar target was certainly a smart idea.

    However, McLaurin isn't waiting for Haskins to see the field. Even with journeyman Case Keenum under center, McLaurin is already breaking out. He caught five passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 and already appears to be the best receiver on Washington's roster.

    "If we were smart, we would have drafted him in the first round," head coach Jay Gruden said, per Craig Hoffman of 106.7 The Fan.