1 Player on Each NFL Team Who Could Break Out Before the Season Ends
As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day. In NFL terms, potential doesn't always turn into immediate production. That applies to rookies and veterans who need opportunities with the right teams.
Going into November and December, clubs with losing records will start to focus on developing talent. All year round, injuries thrust backups into prominent roles. Lastly, player progression will allow youngsters to take more snaps down the stretch.
In 2018, we saw Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander blossom midway through the season. He logged 10 of his 11 pass breakups after Week 7, partially because a groin injury sidelined him for a couple of games early.
Whatever the case, we'll likely see several inexperienced talents and veterans in new situations emerge as key pieces for contenders or building blocks for rebuilding squads.
Let's take a look at all 32 teams and highlight breakout candidates, excluding players with Pro Bowl or All-Pro seasons.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Christian Kirk
Christian Kirk broke out with his best professional performance last week, making a statement against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 32nd-ranked pass defense with 138 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
The budding rapport with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray shows promise. The tandem should continue to produce as the passing attack takes shape under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
In October, Kirk missed three games with an ankle injury. Based on Sunday's output, he's probably playing closer to full strength.
The Arizona Cardinals selected three wide receivers in this year's draft: Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson. But Kirk, a 2018 second-rounder, will likely lead this group whenever Larry Fitzgerald hangs up his cleats.
Fitzgerald can still pull down an impressive catch near the sideline, but Kirk's growing connection with Murray may help him surpass the 36-year-old in receptions and receiving yards by the end of the season.
Atlanta Falcons: CB Kendall Sheffield
Initially, the Atlanta Falcons inserted Kendall Sheffield into the slot position, but Desmond Trufant's toe injury opened a spot for the rookie fourth-rounder on the outside. Head coach Dan Quinn liked what he saw against the Cardinals in Week 6.
"I was pleased with Sheffield playing outside," Quinn said, per Will McFadden of the team's official website. "We've featured him more at nickel, so to see him work outside, I thought he really responded to the challenge."
In Trufant's absence, Sheffield has blanketed pass-catchers on the back end, especially in the last outing against the New Orleans Saints.
"Sheffield was targeted seven times and allowed five receptions for only 28 yards and zero first downs or touchdowns," Pro Football Focus noted.
The Falcons may not have to rush Trufant back to action. Sheffield's versatility could allow him to stay on the field in various packages even if the veteran makes a full recovery.
Baltimore Ravens: OLB Tyus Bowser
Don't look at Tyus Bowser's sack numbers and write him off. As Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh pointed out, the third-year linebacker put together a solid performance after Pernell McPhee went down with a triceps injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7, per Daniel Oyefusi of the Baltimore Sun.
"Tyus was all over the field," Harbaugh said. "He had pressures. He had tackles. Did he have a sack? I don’t think he had a sack, but he got some quarterback hits."
Bowser and rookie third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson will soak up the majority of snaps opposite Matt Judon. Although Ferguson has high upside, Bowser was a second-round pick in 2017.
He only has 5.5 sacks on his NFL resume, but he has a prime opportunity to translate his potential into production in an expanded role. He recovered a fumble for a touchdown in Week 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Of course, the defense needs more production at the point of attack, but Bowser has made his presence felt. If his sacks pile up, he could handle a bulk of the snaps over Ferguson and become a solid complement to Judon.
Buffalo Bills: RB Devin Singletary
Following his best game as a pro against the Washington Redskins, logging 20 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown, Devin Singletary only had eight rushing attempts for 42 yards against the Cleveland Browns' 27th-ranked run defense in Week 10.
The Buffalo Bills seem hesitant to turn over the reins to Singletary, but he's averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per carry compared to Frank Gore's 4.0-yard rate.
Buffalo signed Gore, who's 36 years old, to a one-year deal and selected Singletary in the third round of the 2019 draft. The latter's efficiency and potential should put him in the driver's seat to finish the season.
Going into Week 11, Singletary has 48 rushing attempts, but his fresh legs could allow him to handle 10-15 carries per game through the final seven weeks. He's also a pass-catching threat with 15 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown.
Carolina Panthers: WR Curtis Samuel
Barring injury, Curtis Samuel will probably eclipse his career numbers in catches (39), receiving yards (494) and touchdowns (five).
He's the No. 2 option behind DJ Moore, but the third-year wideout has recorded big plays and reached pay dirt in three of the last four weeks. Even though Kyle Allen has taken over for an injured Cam Newton under center, Samuel averaged at least 17.5 yards per reception in two of those outings.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has utilized Samuel's speed (4.31 40-yard dash) and versatility, designing plays to free him in space so he can run after the catch. The dynamic playmaker also has six carries for 46 yards and a score.
As Samuel's chemistry with Allen develops, we could see an uptick in his 50 percent catch rate, potentially yielding more production outside of the red zone.
Chicago Bears: RB David Montgomery
The Chicago Bears' 27th-ranked scoring offense won't draw many non-fanbase viewers to the television, but the unit has a physical playmaker who can move the ball on the ground.
In Week 8, David Montgomery ran through the Los Angeles Chargers' 19th-ranked run defense, registering 27 carries for 135 yards and a touchdown. The Bears lost 17-16, but head coach Matt Nagy knows he can feed the rookie against subpar fronts.
Chicago will play four clubs with run defenses that rank 23rd or worse in the final seven weeks. With quarterback Mitchell Trubisky struggling to move the offense downfield—he's tossed just eight touchdowns in as many games—he can hand off to Montgomery to gouge defensive lines.
If the Bears want to make a late push for a playoff spot, they may have to rely on Montgomery's legs instead of Trubisky's arm.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR Auden Tate
The winless Cincinnati Bengals don't have much to celebrate, but the offense may have a wide receiver primed to emerge even with rookie Ryan Finley under center for the remainder of the season.
A.J. Green underwent offseason ankle surgery and has not played in 2019, while John Ross III suffered a collarbone injury in Week 4. Their absences opened opportunities for Auden Tate to secure a solid role in the passing attack. The 6'5", 228-pounder ranks second on the team in catches (30) and yards (427).
Because of Tate's large frame, he could serve as a safety blanket for Finley. The second-year wideout has shown the ability to secure contested catches with steady snaps.
In a season headed nowhere, the Bengals should contemplate shutting Green down for the year after the 31-year-old veteran experienced a setback in his recovery. In the meantime, Tate may continue to see solid production as the No. 2 option behind Tyler Boyd, especially when the Bengals reach the red zone.
Cleveland Browns: LB Mack Wilson
After Week 2, the Cleveland Browns placed Christian Kirksey (torn pectoral) on injured reserve, opening the door for Mack Wilson. Thus far, he's performed at a solid level, logging 39 tackles, three pass breakups and a sack in nine games (seven starts). He also drew praise from running game coordinator and linebackers coach Al Holcomb.
"Obviously, it is on-the-job training being a young guy, so he is going to go through some growing pains," he said, per Andrew Gribble of the team's official website. "Every day, he learns more and more and more, and he is starting to feel a little more comfortable not only with the system but with the speed of the game at this level."
Last week, Wilson chased down Bills quarterback Josh Allen for a third-down stop near the sideline. That's just a small glimpse of the rookie fifth-rounder's quickness and his ability to cover the field.
Coming out of Alabama, Wilson didn't earn recognition for his straight-line speed, but he's able to track ball-carriers as well as receivers after the catch, and he can finish with clean tackles for crucial stops.
Dallas Cowboys: S Xavier Woods
In recent years, safety has seemed like a need for the Dallas Cowboys.
In 2018, rumors swirled about Earl Thomas III as a potential target after his holdout for a new contract with the Seahawks. Before the Oct. 29 trade deadline, the Cowboys inquired about New York Jets safety Jamal Adams, per Connor Hughes of The Athletic.
With that said, Dallas has a developing player at the position: Xavier Woods, who earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after his performance against the New York Giants in Week 9. Head coach Jason Garrett talked about the 24-year-old's progression, per David Helman of the team's official website.
"Xavier is a smart guy, an instinctive guy, we saw that coming out of school," Garrett said. "But the more he plays games and sees the different situations, he starts to pounce on situations more and more."
Woods has recorded 49 tackles, three pass breakups and a team-leading two interceptions in 2019. The third-year pro needs one more pick to reach a career high.
The Cowboys still play three clubs with 14 or more giveaways, which increases Woods' chances of forcing turnovers. The Louisiana Tech product isn't a ball hawk, but he's gradually evolving into an impact player.
Denver Broncos: TE Noah Fant
In Week 9, Noah Fant had a huge game, catching three passes for 115 yards and a touchdown en route to a 24-19 victory over the Browns. He broke multiple tackles and benefitted from wideout Courtland Sutton's downfield block on a 75-yard play early in the second quarter.
While Sutton has stood out among the Denver Broncos' upstart talent, leading the team in receptions (44), yards (692) and touchdowns (four), Fant could become the second-best option in the passing attack over the next seven games.
The Broncos traded wideout Emmanuel Sanders to the San Francisco 49ers, which opened up targets for other pass-catchers. After Fant's performance in his last outing, he's put his name on the radar.
Despite a quiet start, the rookie possesses the skill set—which includes speed (4.5 40-yard dash) and solid hands—to create mismatches. Brandon Allen or Drew Lock may eventually lean on the Iowa product when pushing the ball through the air.
Detroit Lions: LB Jahlani Tavai
Could we see a sudden shift at linebacker for the Detroit Lions?
Head coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni seem to have a growing trust in Jahlani Tavai. The rookie second-rounder made pre-snap calls in the last outing, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
"Just nine games into his NFL career, Tavai has made a positive impression in an otherwise ordinary unit," Birkett wrote. "The fact that the Lions entrusted him to relay the defensive signals is significant, after they let Devon Kennard do it earlier this year when [Jarrad] Davis was injured."
With more responsibilities, Tavai recorded three solo tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. Davis took a slight hit in his snap count, lining up for fewer than 88 percent of the defensive plays for the first time this season.
The Lions are tied for 26th in sacks (19). Because of Tavai's play speed and his ability to pressure the pocket, the coaching staff may continue to expand his workload. More importantly, he can disrupt the passing lanes, providing coverage in shallow areas.
Green Bay Packers: LG Elgton Jenkins
Offensive linemen, especially guards, don't provide clear-cut statistics that make it easy to highlight their performances. If you've watched the Green Bay Packers, who have experienced great success on the ground in recent outings, you'll see Elgton Jenkins move defenders against their wills.
Zach Kruse of Packers Wire painted a picture of what Jenkins brings to the trenches.
"On the final drive, Jenkins was moving people in the run game," Kruse wrote of his performance in Week 8. "He has such a good feel for coming off the combo block at the point of attack and getting to the second level to erase a linebacker. The rookie was solid right away, but he's getting better and better each week."
In Week 3, Jenkins took over at left guard after the team placed Lane Taylor (biceps) on injured reserve. The second-rounder hasn't flinched since moving to the first unit. According to the Washington Post's STATS, he's allowed just one sack. Equally important, he's opening lanes for the ground attack.
Houston Texans: LB Brennan Scarlett
The Houston Texans needed someone to fill their pass-rushing void with Jadeveon Clowney in Seattle and J.J. Watt (torn pectoral) on injured reserve. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus leads the team in sacks (5.5), but another capable defender would help this unit force opposing quarterbacks into uncomfortable situations.
In London, Brennan Scarlett logged the second multi-sack game of his career and forced a fumble. If the 26-year-old linebacker shows up consistently near the pocket, he'll play a bigger role, and he has started the last three outings.
The Stanford product's expanded role and his ability to push the pocket could become a welcome sign for the Texans' 25th-ranked pass defense. With less time to stand back and fire from the pocket, quarterbacks would find it difficult to pick apart the secondary. Houston has allowed at least 250 passing yards in five consecutive contests.
During the offseason, Scarlett signed a one-year extension, which keeps him on the books through the 2020 campaign. Clearly, the front office has some confidence in his ability to produce.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Zach Pascal
Last year, tight end Eric Ebron put together a breakout campaign with Andrew Luck under center. This season, we could see Zach Pascal propel himself to new heights once quarterback Jacoby Brissett returns to action from his knee injury.
The Colts need a pass-catcher to emerge. They're 0-7 in games without wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who has missed the last two contests with a calf injury. He's expected to miss three-to-four weeks.
When healthy, rookie second-rounder Parris Campbell didn't look ready to handle a bigger role, logging just 15 catches for 115 yards and a score. Now he's recovering from hand surgery. Pascal has produced at a level that fits the part. The 24-year-old is second on the team in receiving yards (347) and touchdowns (four).
Furthermore, he had a strong outing against the Texans in Week 7, hauling in six receptions for 106 yards and two scores. He also secured 14- and 17-yard passes from Brian Hoyer after Brissett went down with an MCL injury in Week 9.
If Brissett misses more time, Hoyer could rely on Pascal as his No. 1 receiver while Hilton recovers from injury.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Chris Conley
During the offseason, Chris Conley built an immediate rapport with quarterback Nick Foles, per Phillip Heilman of The Athletic. In Week 1, the signal-caller broke his collarbone, putting the connection on hold.
Still, the fifth-year pro is second on the team in receiving yardage (461), and he is second in yards per catch (20) among all players with at least 20 grabs. He could see an uptick in his target share with Foles set to take over for Gardner Minshew II.
Foles, who's familiar with Conley from their time in Kansas City in 2016, may shift the pecking order a bit. He targeted both DJ Chark Jr. and Conley twice in Week 1 before leaving the game.
That small sample size doesn't indicate Dede Westbrook—who's second on the team in targets to Chark—will be the odd man out. Nevertheless, Foles' chemistry with Conley may lead to more volume and production for the 27-year-old wideout, who signed a two-year deal last offseason.
Kansas City Chiefs: CB Charvarius Ward
Coming into the season, the Kansas City Chiefs pass defense was under a microscope after a rough 2018 campaign in which it allowed the second-most yards. The front office let cornerback Steven Nelson hit free agency and replaced him with Bashaud Breeland.
Despite Breeland's much-needed starting experience on the perimeter, Charvarius Ward has stood out on the opposite side. He leads the team in solo tackles (42), pass breakups (six) and interceptions (two).
Seth Keysor of The Athletic highlighted Ward's development and his high-pressure role within defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's system.
"… It's impossible to project how Ward will do in the future," Keysor wrote. "However, he has picked up where he left off last season and seems to have even improved, which has allowed Spagnuolo to leave him on an island against most receivers and trust that he'll get the job done."
Thus far, Ward has made a giant step in his sophomore term. As he matures in a starting spot, we'll likely see more impact plays. He is part of the reason Kansas City ranks eighth in passing yards allowed through 10 weeks.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Drue Tranquill
In Week 5 against the Broncos, Drue Tranquill saw an increased workload on defense (20 snaps) and showcased some of his potential that appeared in preseason action, recording six tackles.
According to Daniel Popper of The Athletic, Tranquill earned a spot in the linebacker rotation for the remainder of 2019:
"[Defensive coordinator Gus] Bradley revealed this week that Tranquill will now be a part of a three-man linebacker rotation with [Thomas] Davis and [Denzel] Perryman, playing both Mike and Will. He should continue to see his defensive snap counts rise as the season progresses, starting [Week 6] against the Steelers."
Perryman didn't take the field against Oakland in Week 10 because of a knee injury, and Tranquill started as the middle linebacker. The rookie fourth-rounder capitalized on the opportunity. He led the team in total tackles (14) and played 100 percent of the defensive snaps.
Because of Perryman's injury history, we should expect to see a lot of Tranquill in November and December. He's shown promise in small doses, which bodes well for his outlook going forward.
Los Angeles Rams: S Taylor Rapp
We can argue that wideout Cooper Kupp deserves a mention here, but he broke out in the first half of the season and is sixth leaguewide in receiving yards (792).
According to Stu Jackson of the Los Angeles Rams' official website, Vito Gonella, an area scout, called Taylor Rapp a "money-man tackler."
The safety didn't open the year as a starter, but John Johnson suffered a shoulder injury. Since sliding into a first-string position, the rookie second-rounder has flashed all over the field, leading the Rams in solo tackles (20). A defender with a solid technique can cut down on yards after the catch and help out in run defense, which is what we've seen from Rapp this year.
As Rapp gains experience, he can use his field awareness to provide more impact in coverage. Thus far, the 21-year-old has three pass breakups.
Miami Dolphins: WR DeVante Parker
Anyone who's followed the Miami Dolphins knows this is long overdue.
In recent years, DeVante Parker has generated offseason buzz only to underachieve during the regular season with a sprinkle of minor injuries to slow him down.
In 2019, Parker is on the pathway to career highs in catches (57), receiving yards (744) and touchdowns (four). He's scored in four of the last six contests and leads the wide receiver group with undrafted rookie Preston Williams (knee) on injured reserve.
Albert Wilson hasn't picked up where he left off before his hip injury last season, recording 11 catches for 58 yards and a touchdown in six outings.
Parker should see the majority of the targets in the final seven weeks. The Dolphins will face four pass defenses that rank 15th or worse in yards allowed, which gives the 26-year-old a chance for a strong finish to a contract year.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Mike Hughes
Dalvin Cook leads the league in rushing yards (991), which means he isn't a second-half breakout candidate. The third-year running back is already performing at the top of his game.
Cornerback Mike Hughes may fit that bill, though.
Hughes had a tough time covering Cowboys star receiver Amari Cooper in Week 10 in place of Trae Waynes (ankle). On several plays, he kept pace with the dynamic wideout but couldn't prevent some spectacular catches.
Hughes did finish with two pass deflections, which brought his total to six for the season. He isn't a full-time starter, having lined up for only 46.48 percent of defensive snaps, which makes his production in limited action particularly notable.
Before he tore his ACL in October 2018, Hughes showed promise. Aside from an interception, he has matched or improved on last year's numbers and is showing progression.
The Vikings coaching staff may want to consider swapping out Xavier Rhodes, who has struggled this season, for Hughes in the coming weeks. If not, Hughes could continue impacting the game in a reserve role.
New England Patriots: DE Chase Winovich
Wideout N'Keal Harry is a potential breakout candidate for the New England Patriots, but he's coming off injured reserve (ankle) and might not carve out a substantial role behind Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett II and Mohamed Sanu.
On the flip side, third-round rookie Chase Winovich has flashed on special teams and as a defender through nine games.
Winovich has 4.5 sacks on the year, and he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown during a Week 6 outing with the New York Giants. With the Patriots having traded defensive end Michael Bennett to Dallas, the rookie may stand to increase his snap share in the coming weeks.
Over the next four weeks, the Patriots will face Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. They'll need a high-motor defender on the field—someone who's capable of chasing down signal-callers attempting to move the pocket.
Winovich is one of three Patriots players tied for second on the team in sacks. His potential could help him develop at an impressive rate if he gets more opportunity in the second half of the season.
New Orleans Saints: DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
P.J. Williams opened the season as the New Orleans Saints' slot cornerback, but he recently served a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Patrick Robinson, who has played only 10 defensive snaps all year, missed the last two games because of a hamstring injury.
With Williams sidelined in Weeks 7 and 8, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson played 91 and 98 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps, respectively. He made his presence known on the field, registering a combined 10 solo tackles, three tackles for loss and four pass breakups in those outings.
Despite Williams' return from his short ban, Gardner-Johnson could slip back into a prominent role if necessary. The former acknowledged the latter's impressive performances in his absence, per Amie Just of the New Orleans Advocate.
"It's not always easy for a rookie to come in and play at a high level and be able to just step up," Williams said. "He has a lot of versatility. He can do a lot of things, and he stepped up and did his job."
Gardner-Johnson could line up as a nickel cornerback or at safety, which gives defensive coordinator Dennis Allen the opportunity to use him in various personnel packages and situations. He played 47 percent of defensive snaps against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10 even with Williams back in the fold.
The rookie's ball-tracking skills and reliable tackling should help him carve out a decent role in the second half of the season.
New York Giants: WR Darius Slayton
Take one guess as to who leads the New York Giants in receiving touchdowns.
Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram would be logical choices, but they're all incorrect. Instead, rookie fifth-round wideout Darius Slayton leads Big Blue with five touchdown catches.
Against the Jets in Week 10, Slayton had his best showing, hauling in 10 receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns. With Shepard still sidelined because of a concussion and Engram "day-to-day, week-to-week" with a mid-foot sprain, Slayton could build on that strong outing after the Giants' Week 11 bye.
In the final quarter of the season, the Giants will play the Dolphins, Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles (twice). Each of those teams have allowed 15 or more receiving touchdowns, which ranks 17th or worse.
Until Shepard and/or Engram return, Slayton should see more targets from rookie quarterback Daniel Jones as they continue to develop a rapport. With porous pass defenses on the schedule at the end of the year, he has a chance to rank near the top of receiving categories among rookie wide receivers.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold says his team still has a chance at the playoffs. He's mathetmatically correct, but the second-year signal-caller has a much better chance at a breakout ending to a season that started out on the wrong foot.
Darnold missed three games with mononucleosis, but he produced a gem against the Cowboys in a Week 6 victory, registering 338 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Since then, he has thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
To turn Gang Green's season around, Darnold must show vast improvements under center.
Fortunately, three of the Jets' next four opponents rank 15th or worse in passing yards allowed. That should give Darnold an opportunity to find a groove in the pocket and help his club rattle off some wins.
Through his first 19 career games, Darnold has an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions (24) and has completed only 59.5 percent of his passes. The USC product will aim to salvage his sophomore campaign over the coming weeks and provide a positive outlook going into the 2020 offseason.
Oakland Raiders: S Erik Harris
Erik Harris isn't a typical breakout candidate.
The 29-year-old safety mostly lined up on special teams during his two years in New Orleans and last season with the Raiders. But he played significant snaps at safety in 2018 and has taken on an even bigger role through nine games this season.
Harris flew under the radar until he put together a highlight performance in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Chargers, logging three pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. If not for an offsides penalty, he would've been credited with a third pick.
The Raiders rank 30th in pass defense and have allowed the league's second-most passing touchdowns (24). Harris might be the ball-hawking defender Oakland's secondary needs to stop the bleeding in coverage.
Signal-callers must locate Harris when they step up to the line of scrimmage since he's capable of forcing a turnover and scoring on the other end.
Philadelphia Eagles: LB Nathan Gerry
The Philadelphia Eagles' linebacker corps has gone through significant turnover over the last year. Since 2018, the front office has released Mychal Kendricks, allowed Jordan Hicks to hit the free-agent market and cut Zach Brown.
The Eagles need stability at linebacker outside of Nigel Bradham. Kamu Grugier-Hill has been in and out of the starting lineup, opening 13 of the last 22 games with the first unit.
Nathan Gerry has started the last five games and provides some coverage skills to the second level of the defense. He played safety for four seasons at Nebraska and registered 19 pass deflections along with 13 interceptions.
This season, Gerry has displayed his ball-tracking skills with two pass breakups and a pair of interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 5. He's also effective near the line of scrimmage, having notched the third-most tackles (33) on the team and a sack.
Based on Gerry's recent production and workload—he played at least 87 percent of the defensive snaps in each of his last four games—he's headed toward a strong finish to the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Diontae Johnson
Diontae Johnson has locked down the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver spot behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. The rookie third-rounder is tied for the team lead with three touchdown receptions.
Smith-Schuster sees a "young JuJu" in Johnson, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor.. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner offered even more praise for the Toledo product.
"He's made his opportunities. I don't really put a number on him. ... I know there's going to be games that present opportunities and you need to make your plays. If you do, we're all going to be talking about you that week. If you put the ball in the end zone, usually people are talking about you that week."
Smith-Schuster and Johnson have a similar number of catches and receiving yards since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with an elbow injury in Week 2. Both have been a huge help for second-year signal-caller Mason Rudolph.
Pittsburgh's 27th-ranked passing attack isn't explosive by any means, but Johnson's expedited learning process provides Rudolph with a viable secondary option to Smith-Schuster. Johnson has at least four catches and 64 yards in two of his last three outings, including a season-high 84 yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Deebo Samuel
The 49ers suffered their first loss Monday against the Seattle Seahawks in overtime. Star tight end George Kittle missed the game with a knee injury, and No. 1 receiver Emmanuel Sanders exited in the second quarter because of a rib ailment.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Tuesday that Sanders is day-to-day and is likely to be a game-time decision, while Kittle is unlikely to play in the Niners' Week 11 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. That should open the door for rookie receiver Deebo Samuel to carve out a larger role on offense.
Aside from Kittle and Sanders, the 49ers lack consistent pass-catching threats. Even if the latter returns Sunday, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo may continue to feed Samuel after his big game Monday.
Samuel secured eight out of 11 targets for 112 yards against the Seahawks, which goes down as his best performance to date. Perhaps the second-rounder needed experience in a prominent role to spark the beginning of a breakout run.
If Sanders misses time, Samuel is line for a boost in target share. But even with a pass-catching group at full strength, the South Carolina product can still serve as a high-potential third option with a tremendous ability to rack up yards after the catch.
Seattle Seahawks: TE Jacob Hollister
Recently claimed wideout Josh Gordon may begin to cut into rookie receiver DK Metcalf's target share, but Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has turned tight end Jacob Hollister into a red-zone weapon.
In his two years with the Patriots, Hollister didn't score a touchdown. He opened the year on the Seahawks' practice squad, but he's hauled in three scores—all within 10 yards of the end zone—over the last few weeks.
Fellow tight end Will Dissly caught four touchdowns in Seattle's first six games of the season, but he went down in Week 6 with a torn Achilles. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Hollister has seamlessly slid into the position and began to produce right away.
In the Seahawks' overtime victory over the previously undefeated 49ers on Monday, Hollister caught a team-high eight passes and grabbed the team's only receiving touchdown. If he stays healthy, he could become one of the most surprising breakout performers in the second half of the 2019 season.
Tight end Ed Dickson will make his season debut in Week 12, but head coach Pete Carroll told reporters that fellow tight end Luke Willson has a notable hamstring injury.
While Dickson knocks off some rust following an offseason knee scope, expect Hollister to see most of the looks at tight end in the passing game. The latter has been targeted 16 times over the last two contests, so he's seeing enough volume to rack up impressive numbers in a starting position.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Ronald Jones II
Following Week 9, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II officially took over the starting role. Head coach Bruce Arians said the USC product had been the "most explosive" player out of the backfield.
Since moving into the starting role, Jones has piled up 188 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage in two games. That suggests Arians made the right decision to flip the depth chart order.
Peyton Barber and Jones each had 11 rushing attempts Sunday in the Buccaneers' 30-27 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, but the latter led the team in receptions (eight) with 77 receiving yards. Coming into Week 10, he had 15 catches for 157 yards in 17 pro games.
On Wednesday, Arians said Jones can do even more in the passing game, according to Scott Smith of the team's website. He also said his route tree is growing, which suggests his big outing against the Cardinals isn't necessarily an anomaly.
Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich employ a pass-heavy approach on offense, but Jones' expanded role could allow him to eclipse 100 total yards on any given Sunday for the rest of the season.
Tennessee Titans: OLB Harold Landry
Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Harold Landry hasn't become an elite playmaker yet, but he's trending in the right direction. The second-year edge-rusher has logged a sack in each of his last three games and leads the team in tackles for loss (10).
Currently tied for 12th leaguewide in sacks, Landry's recent hot streak could push him into the top 10 by the end of the season. He shows an explosive burst off the edge and the closing speed to take down quarterbacks before they can react to the threat of pressure.
Landry doesn't provide much when dropping back in coverage—his lone career interception came on a tipped pass—but he's effective when moving toward the line of scrimmage.
If defensive coordinator Dean Pees continues to put Landry in situations to do what he does best, the Titans could have a breakout pass-rusher set to rack up double-digit sacks. That level of production would cement him as one of the league's top young pocket-pushers.
Washington Redskins: TE Jeremy Sprinkle
Redskins tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis have been sidelined because of lingering effects from concussions. The former landed on injured reserve in October, and the latter has missed the past five games.
With the Redskins sitting at 1-8, the coaching staff will likely turn to young players at various positions.
On Monday, head coach Bill Callahan announced rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be the starter for the rest of the season, according to ESPN's John Keim. Even if Davis eventually returns, third-year tight end Jeremy Sprinkle figures to take a majority of the snaps at the position moving forward.
Sprinkle has started eight out of nine games this season and has logged a catch in each game. He's played at least 74 percent of the offensive snaps in each of his last four outings.
The 6'5", 255-pound Sprinkle could emerge as a safety valve for Haskins in the passing game. The rookie signal-caller will need a big target to help bail him out of high-pressure situations behind a shaky offensive line that ranks 28th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.