NFL Sophomores Poised for Year 3 Breakouts in 2020

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2019

NFL Sophomores Poised for Year 3 Breakouts in 2020

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Judging an NFL player after just one season is silly. Doing so after two years is more sensible, though many players are still adjusting to the NFL. By the end of Year 3, we usually have a good idea if a player is going to be a star.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin is a prime example. He showed flashes as a rookie in 2017, started to gain attention in 2018 and ranks second in receiving yards in 2019.

    Here, we're going to examine some prospects from the 2018 draft who should have opportunities for their own breakouts in 2020. These are players who, because of expanded roles, better situations or better health, could enter star territory in Year 3. Not every breakout will be as dramatic as Godwin's, but each should be strong enough to convince fans their team made the right choice in 2018.

    We'll look at first- and second-round picks—since those are largely the players fans are waiting to see break out—who have yet to enter the national spotlight. So, MVP candidate Lamar Jackson, 2018 rookie star Bradley Chubb and 2018 All-Pro Darius Leonard were excluded.


Anthony Miller, WR, Chicago Bears

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    Two years ago, the Chicago Bears used the 51st overall pick on former Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller. He showed some promise as a rookie, catching 33 passes for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. While his touchdown production has dipped this year, his role in the passing attack has grown.

    Through 13 games, Miller has 41 receptions for 531 yards and one score.

    If Miller continues to develop, he could break out in a big way in 2020—though a lot will hinge on the growth of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. If Trubisky plays more like he has over the last couple of weeks and less like he did during the middle of the season, Miller should have a chance to shine.

    Miller could benefit from the departure of No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson II as well. Robinson is due to earn $15 million in 2020 but can be released with just $2 million in dead money. If Chicago determines that Robinson is no longer worth the price tag, Miller could become one of the team's most important pass-catchers.

Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold doesn't have his team on the cusp of the playoffs like Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen. He wasn't a rookie star like Baker Mayfield. He has had stretches of brilliance, however, and could take his turn in the spotlight in 2020.

    The No. 3 pick in 2018, Darnold has been hampered by injuries and a lack of surrounding talent in both of his pro campaigns. He's still shown growth and has been impressive over the past month.

    In his last four games, Darnold has passed for 1,117 yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. The Jets have won four of their past five games as well.

    With another year of development and some better talent around him—no Jet has reached the 700-yard receiving mark, and only one eclipsed that mark in 2018—Darnold very well could be the breakout quarterback of 2020.

Marcus Davenport, DE, New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints surrendered first- and fifth-round picks to move up to select former Texas-San Antonio pass-rusher Marcus Davenport 14th overall. That led to some lofty expectations, which Davenport has yet to reach.

    He was strictly a role player as a rookie, finishing with 4.5 sacks. He's been a starter this season and has 6.0 sacks through 13 games. While that isn't the premier sack production fans expected, Davenport has been a solid all-around player and has shown growth as an edge-rusher.

    "Coming into this season he needed to work on his contact balance, variety in his moves, stringing those moves together and attacking with a pass-rush plan," The Athletic's Deuce Windham wrote. "We've seen all of those things improve as the season has progressed."

    Unfortunately, it appears that Davenport's 2019 season is coming to an end due to a foot injury.

    As Davenport continues to add polish to his game, he should emerge as a dominant force off the edge and should finally reach the coveted 10-sack mark in 2020.

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions

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    Kerryon Johnson has shown signs of being a franchise running back for the Detroit Lions in his two pro seasons. He has averaged 4.5 yards per carry and has added 41 receptions and seven total touchdowns.

    But Johnson has also been hampered by injuries as well.

    Johnson, picked 43rd overall in 2018, finished his rookie season on injured reserve because of a knee injury. He's spent much of 2019 on injured reserve after undergoing knee surgery, though he has returned to practice and could be back for Week 16.

    Should Johnson be at 100 percent in 2020, he could enjoy the sort of breakout Minnesota Vikings back Dalvin Cook has had this season. Cook was limited by injuries in his first two seasons but has 1,611 yards from scrimmage this year.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins

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    The 42nd overall pick in the 2018 draft, Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki didn't get a lot of run as a rookie. He caught just 22 passes for 202 yards, but he's started to emerge this season.

    Gesicki has developed a rapport with journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and has become a regular piece of the passing attack. He has 37 receptions for 407 yards and two touchdowns through 13 games, including four starts.

    What's promising is that Gesicki isn't exactly playing in a talent-rich offense. That could change in 2020, as the Dolphins are armed with three first-round picks and are expected to have roughly $109 million in cap space.

    With better talent around him and another year of exposure, Gesicki could emerge as one of the top young tight ends in the NFL.

Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk has spent the past two seasons working his way toward being a No. 1 receiver. He hasn't reached that point yet, but the 47th pick in the 2018 draft could get there by 2020.

    For starters, Kirk will be in his second season alongside quarterback Kyler Murray. They've developed some chemistry—Kirk has 57 receptions for 616 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games—and should continue doing so.

    "We'd like to get it rolling more so," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the duo, per Katherine Fitzgerald of the Arizona Republic.

    Kirk may also have to move into the No. 1 receiver role next season. Veteran Larry Fitzgerald is playing on a one-year contract, and while there's been no indication he plans to do so, he could call it a career in the offseason.

Taven Bryan, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    In 2018, the Jacksonville Jaguars used the 29th overall pick on former Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan. To this point, however, Jacksonville hasn't got a ton of production in return for its investment.

    In nearly two seasons, Bryan has 42 tackles and two sacks.

    It's worth noting, though, that Bryan has until recently been a backup behind veteran Marcell Dareus. Bryan has started five of the past six games, however, after Dareus landed on injured reserve.

    Bryan should have a chance to shine over the final three weeks and likely even more so in 2020. Dareus is scheduled to make $22.5 million next season on a team option, but only $2.5 million of that is dead money. He'll likely be released, clearing the way for Bryan.

Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks used the 27th overall pick in 2018 on former San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny. However, they haven't fully incorporated him into the offense.

    Since being drafted, Penny has played the backup and complementary roles behind starter Chris Carson. Given Carson's effectiveness—he has 1,057 rushing yards, 242 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this season—that isn't a surprise. Penny, though, has shown his potential in flashes.

    He's averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 9.3 yards per receptions as a pro. But he'll also miss the remainder of 2019 with a torn ACL. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Penny will likely be out until training camp.

    Assuming Penny returns to 100 percent in 2020, the Seahawks may finally start phasing him in to the starting role. Carson will be entering the final year of his contract and may be viewed as expendable next offseason.

Ronald Jones II, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    As is the case with Rashaad Penny, Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II may be in store for a bigger role in 2020. The 38th overall pick in 2018, Jones was a borderline disaster as a rookie, finishing with just 44 rushing yards, 33 receiving yards and a touchdown on 30 touches. He's been much more productive this season.

    Through 13 games, Jones has 518 rushing yards, 241 receiving yards and five scores. He is, however, still splitting time with veteran Peyton Barber. That could change next season, as Barber is playing on a one-year deal.

    Jones has shown a lot of growth this season and should get a crack at a bigger workload even if Barber returns.

    "He started growing and understanding what it's like to be a professional," offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said in November, per ESPN's Jenna Laine. "I think he's a kid that believes now."

    Jones is poised to make a major breakthrough in Year 3.


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