Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Players

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2019

Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Players

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    Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press

    Two weeks is sometimes all it takes to identify the next wave of NFL breakout stars. 

    Think back to last season, when New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley had 134 rushing yards, 102 receiving yards and a score over the first two weeks. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster racked up 240 yards and a score on 18 catches during that same span.

    This year, some of the current crop of breakout players will forge ahead to solidify themselves as stars, while others will taper off. The players featured here either haven't had a massive breakout before or have defied expectations with one explosive performance or two back-to-back strong showings. 

    It's time to buy or sell the next wave of potential breakouts from a season-long perspective based on sustainability, their surrounding pieces and more. 


Buy: Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson's breakout wasn't hard to see coming, which makes him a buy. 

    Those who saw Jackson sling it in college knew he had good touch and anticipation. Last year's Ravens offense was built around Joe Flacco, but this year, a revamped set of weapons and playbook is all about Jackson. 

    Through two games, Jackson has completed 71.9 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He's run the ball only 19 times, but he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry. 

    One could argue the level of competition has helped, since the Ravens have faced two soft defenses in Miami and Arizona. Jackson's overwhelming numbers might regress, especially since teams could only prep for what the Ravens put on film last year, but his decision-making (he's thrown zero interceptions across his last 178 regular-season passing attempts) and the ability of a deep threat like Marquise Brown isn't going away. 

    Defenses will adapt, but Jackson is dynamic and smart enough with the football to keep the Ravens in contention. He may also put himself in the conversation for some individual hardware by season's end. 

Sell: John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    John Ross III is one of the NFL's most explosive playersjust watch the burst on this Week 2 touchdown!and it appears as though he may finally live up to his potential.

    The Cincinnati Bengals' new forward-thinking coaching staff is allowing Ross, the No. 9 overall pick from the 2017 draft, to play through mistakes. Through two games, he already has a career-high 270 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches, and he's scored on plays of 66 and 55 yards.

    However, Ross may not be able to sustain his hot start.

    After dropping seven passes on 58 targets last season, Ross already has two drops on 20 targets this year. He's the epitome of a boom-or-bust receiver, and he could veer toward the bust territory once defenses adapt and A.J. Green takes targets away upon his eventual return. 

    An offensive line now down to its third and fourth options at left tackle might only get worse as the season progresses for the 0-2 Bengals, too. That could put more pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton to get the ball out quickly, which would limit the number of deep targets Ross receives.

    Ross is explosive, but he won't be able to keep up this pace. 

Buy: Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Redskins

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins selected Terry McLaurin with a third-round pick this spring, but he was somewhat of an afterthought heading into the season.

    Washington figured to have a spread-it-around attack with either a journeyman veteran (Case Keenum) or a rookie (Dwayne Haskins) under center, limiting the appeal of any pass-catcher. The Ohio State product also went without a single target in the preseason.

    His breakout started in his NFL debut, when he caught five passes for 125 yards and a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. He followed that up with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

    "McLaurin turned so many heads in training camp, coach Jay Gruden relayed to Fox broadcasters Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis, that the Redskins were forced to pull him off special teams even though the former Ohio State star was drafted with that skill set in mind," according to's Chris Wesseling.

    McLaurin has already toasted what should be strong Philadelphia and Dallas defenses, and that doesn't include a would-be 70-plus-yard touchdown that Keenum overthrew him on in Week 1. He's playing like a first-round wideout, and that doesn't figure to change in a Washington receiving corps desperately in need of go-to options. 

Sell: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Dalvin Cook tallied a career-high 154 rushing yards and a score against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, including a 75-yard touchdown scamper that won't leave the highlight reel anytime soon. 

    That was Cook's second consecutive strong performance after he erupted for 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. 

    This is what the Minnesota Vikings envisioned when they took Cook in the second round of the 2017 draft. But Cook missed 17 games over his first two seasons, which prevented him from establishing himself as one of the league's premier running backs.

    Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has completed only 52.4 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Defenses may soon start selling out to stop Cook and daring Cousins to beat them through the air.

    Cook will need to flash season-long durability and produce against eight-man boxes to be a full-on buy. 

Buy: Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Austin Ekeler is doing teammate Melvin Gordon III and his holdout no favors. 

    The Los Angeles Chargers are relying on Ekeler as their starting running back in Gordon's absence, and he's established himself as a legitimate dual threat. Ekeler has rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and he's added 12 catches and on 13 targets for 163 yards and another two scores.

    That isn't bad for an undrafted product who watched 26 other running backs hear their name called on draft day. 

    Ekeler has shown flashes of this upside in the past, but his season-long outlook is promising until Gordon's return. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, Ekeler was only the fourth player in the past 10 years with 150 scrimmage yards and three scores in an opener. 

    Ekeler did his damage against what should be strong Indianapolis and Detroit fronts, too. He's a modern-day NFL back in a potent Chargers offense, so he isn't going to fade away.

Sell: D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Perry Knotts/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver D.J. Chark has erupted out of nowhere, turning 13 targets into 11 catches for 201 yards and two scores over two games. Last season, the 2018 second-round pick caught 14 passes for 174 yards and zero touchdowns across 11 games.

    However, a few caveats apply. 

    Chark's 146-yard outburst in Week 1 came against a Kansas City defense that got radically overhauled this offseason. His seven-catch, 55-yard performance in Week 2 came against a Houston team that coughed up nearly 400 passing yards against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1.

    Chark is starting to develop into what the Jaguars hoped he could be, but defenses will start throwing more at him accordingly. With sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew now under center in place of Nick Foles, Chark's production may fluctuate on a week-to-week basis.  

Buy: Jacoby Brissett, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    When Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired in August, it seemed to portend doom for the team's playoff hopes.

    Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett had other ideas.

    The 2016 third-round pick has completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 336 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in two road games, leading the Colts to a 1-1 mark. Brissett came up short in an overtime road duel with Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, but he took down the Tennessee Titans' stout defense Sunday.

    Brissett's last major chunk of playing time came in 2017, when he completed less than 60 percent of his 469 attempts. He's made strides since then and is now playing behind an elite offensive line with skill-position weapons such as star receiver T.Y. Hilton, running back Marlon Mack and tight end Eric Ebron.

    It wouldn't be a shock if Brissett continued at this pace while the Colts flirt with playoff contention.

Buy: Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Of Lamar Jackson's explosive supporting cast, Marquise Brown could qualify but feels like he could taper off against better competition and when the big plays get taken away.

    That doesn't seem to be the case for tight end Mark Andrews, though.

    Andrews, a third-round pick in 2018, caught just 34 passes with three scores as a rookie and wasn't a great fit in the Joe Flacco-led offense.

    Things change quickly. Through two weeks, Andrews has caught 16 passes on 17 targets, tallied 220 yards with 100-plus yards in each showing and scored twice. Not only is Andrews getting peppered with targets, but the ball is also traveling more than 11 yards down the field before his receptions—and he has zero drops.

    Andrews is a mismatch nightmare now that he's both developed further and found a more defined role in the Jackson-led offense, which has him looking like a guarantee to produce all year.