2019 Breakout NFL Stars Who Will Be Even Better in 2020

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2019

2019 Breakout NFL Stars Who Will Be Even Better in 2020

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Though football is often considered the ultimate team sport, the NFL is star-driven. What makes the league so fascinating is that new stars arrive yearly. From Lamar Jackson and Chris Godwin to Josh Allen and Shaquil Barrett, this season has seen its share of players step into the spotlight.

    Here, we'll examine some 2019 breakout stars who should be even better in 2020. We'll look at players who took a big step forward this year who—because of factors such as roster changes, increased playing time, increased experience and health—have the potential to rise further.

    We've excluded rookies, as well as players such as Jackson and Godwin who reached an All-Pro level in 2019. While they could indeed improve, they're already among the NFL's elite.

         

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    While quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn't going anywhere as the face of the Green Bay Packers, one could argue that running back Aaron Jones has been just as important this season. The third-year back has 984 rushing yards, 431 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns—one shy of the franchise record (Ahman Green, 2003).

    "Twenty touchdowns is big at any level," Jones said, per Bill Huber of SI.com. "You ask me, you don't see too many people putting up 20 in high school, college, wherever, so to do it at this level would be big time."

    While Jones may not approach the 20-touchdown mark again in 2020, he can put up more yards. Why? Well, there's a strong chance Green Bay upgrades its receiving corps in the offseason.

    Davante Adams is a fine No. 1 receiver, but the Packers lack a legitimate No. 2—Jones is second on the team with 47 receptions. The Packers rank just 21st in passing offense, a number that should improve with a better cadre of pass-catchers. This, in turn, should open up even more running room and underneath routes on which Jones can thrive.

WR DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins selected former Louisville wideout DeVante Parker with the 14th pick in 2015. During his first four seasons, Parker only rewarded Miami with flashes of promise. Then, the Dolphins underwent major offseason changes.

    They fired head coach Adam Gase and hired Brian Flores as a replacement—and traded quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the Tennessee Titans and brought in journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    For Parker, the changes produced a career year. He has 64 catches for 1,065 yards and nine scores over 15 games. That's more yards than Parker produced over the last two seasons combined (979)—and matches his previous career total in touchdowns.

    Parker can and should be even more productive in 2020. Another year in coordinator Chad O'Shea's offense will help. Also, Miami stripped down its roster ahead of 2019 in an act of organizational tanking. Armed with three first-round picks and the most cap space in the NFL, the Dolphins have the means to add talent in the offseason.

CB Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills

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    If you've followed the Buffalo Bills over the past couple of years or are simply a big fan of defense, Tre'Davious White's breakout hasn't been surprising. However, the former LSU standout was named to his first Pro Bowl this season, and with Buffalo in the playoffs, he has entered the national spotlight—for reasons other than Rob Gronkowski's 2017 cheap shot.

    "Quick question why isn't Tre White up for Defensive player of the year talk?" former NFL cornerback Antonio Cromartie recently tweeted

    White has been the epitome of a shutdown corner. This season, he has 17 passes defended and six interceptions to go with 58 tackles and two forced fumbles.

    Statistically, the 24-year-old White can get better. Buffalo will likely continue to add weapons around second-year quarterback Josh Allen, while Allen should continue to grow as a signal-caller.

    With a more mature quarterback and additional offensive talent, the Bills should score more than their 20.5-points-per-game average from 2019. This will force opposing quarterbacks to test White more.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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    Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp missed the second half of 2018 with a torn ACL. He returned to have a breakout 87-catch 1,062-yard 2019—with a game remaining.

    There are two big reasons he can be even better in 2020.

    For one, Kupp will be another year removed from the ACL tear. This could allow him to be more explosive—much like Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is, over two years after his ACL tear.

    The Rams may also recover from the offensive slump that has plagued them for much of 2019. Quarterback Jared Goff hasn't been the same efficient passer he was the two previous years—he has 19 touchdown passes and 21 turnovers—and has endured a continually shuffling offensive line.

    A bounce-back year from Goff, coupled with more consistent line play, should help Kupp rack up the receptions next season.

TE Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Second-year tight end Dallas Goedert has stood out down the stretch for the Philadelphia Eagles. This is partially because of opportunity, as the Eagles have scrambled for healthy pass-catchers, and partially because of Goedert's growth as a player.

    "He's so tough, not only in the run game, but made some big catches tonight and extended some drives for us," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said following the Week 16 win over the Dallas Cowboys, per Andrew Kulp of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "Got a great rapport with Carson [Wentz] being on the same page."

    That growth should continue in Goedert's third season, as should the level of opportunity. With inconsistent wide receiver Nelson Agholor scheduled to become a free agent—and possibly on his way out—Goedert should remain a prominent piece of the passing attack.

    Now, Goedert won't replace perennial Pro Bowler Zach Ertz as Wentz's favorite target. However, the 2018 second-round pick should give Philadelphia a premier mismatch alongside Ertz.

WR DJ Chark Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Though the Jacksonville Jaguars have moved between Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew II at quarterback, there has been one constant in their passing attack: second-year wide receiver DJ Chark Jr.

    Chark only caught 14 passes as a rookie but has exploded to become the team's top receiving threat this season. In 14 games, he has caught 69 passes for 974 yards and eight touchdowns. With a little more consistency under center, Chark could be even better.

    Now, we can only speculate on whether Jacksonville can find that consistency. With either a healthy Foles or a full offseason with Minshew as the guy, the Jaguars offense should be in a better position at the start of next season.

    Additionally, Chark will be entering his third year and his second as a full-time starter. By adding a little veteran savvy to his game, he should go from being a promising breakout player to a bona fide star.

TE Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    After several years with the Baltimore Ravens and a limited role in the Oakland Raiders offense at the end of 2018, tight end Darren Waller got a starting opportunity this year and shined.

    With one game to go, he has caught 84 passes for 1,038 yards and three touchdowns. While he's a Pro Bowl alternate and may eventually get into the game, Waller is looking to be even better.

    "I feel like there has been growth in all aspects of my game, but I also know there's progress left to be made. There's a lot of work to be done," Waller told NBC Sports.

    After a full year as a starter in Oakland's offense, Waller should be a more effective player in 2020. He should also benefit from an offense set to mature in year two—core players such as Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and Josh Jacobs are all in their first seasons with the Raiders.

    And as far as stars go, Waller will be one of the brightest ones the Raiders bring to Las Vegas.

RB Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler did an admirable job as the team's starter for four weeks before Melvin Gordon III returned from his holdout Oct. 6. During that span, he produced 490 combined rushing and receiving yards to go with six touchdowns.

    However, Ekeler's time in the spotlight didn't end with Gordon's return. He's emerged as perhaps the NFL's best receiving back and has 83 receptions, 950 receiving yards, 511 rushing yards and 11 combined touchdowns. This has been while Gordon has taken a significant share of the backfield workload.

    Gordon has 786 combined rushing and receiving yards and eight scores in 11 games. Yet, there's a good chance that the impending free agent will be out next season, opening the door for Ekeler to have a bigger role.

    While the 5'10", 200-pound Ekeler may not be built to be an every-down back, he'll likely split the work with Justin Jackson, as he did to start this season. Unlike Gordon, who is a talented receiving back, Jackson is less likely to cut into Ekeler's role as a pass-catcher.

    With Gordon out, Ekeler should have a chance to cross the 100-reception line.

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