The NFL's Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position in 2020
Every year, dozens of young NFL players rise up their teams' depth charts and into the leaguewide conversation for excellence at their positions.
Now that the heart of free agency is complete, it's an appropriate time to speculate on who might emerge at every NFL position in 2020.
In doing so, we put some criteria in place, looking only at players who:
- Are entering their second, third or fourth seasons
- Have yet to receive Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors
- Have yet to record a 1,000-yard, double-digit-sack or similarly statistically awesome season
With all of that in mind, based on early-career trajectory and/or roster changes, here's a breakdown of a dozen potential breakout stars for the upcoming campaign.
Quarterback: Sam Darnold, New York Jets
The expectation was that Sam Darnold would break out as a sophomore in 2019, but a September mononucleosis diagnosis derailed the early portion of his second NFL season. The New York Jets quarterback wasn't able to hit his stride until November, but he posted a solid 13-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a decent 93.3 passer rating as the Jets went 6-2 in the second half of the season.
"I feel like I did improve with seeing defenses, recognizing coverages and what kind of pressures they were bringing," he said near the end of the season, according to Ethan Greenberg of the Jets' official website. "It was just a little bit easier to see coverages, and I think as I continue to play, with experience, I'm going to continue to get better that way."
Darnold's career numbers—sub-60 completion rate, sub-7.0 yards-per-attempt average and 28 picks to 36 touchdowns—aren't pretty. Yet it's important to keep in mind that he had limited support as a rookie and was adjusting to a new offense while less than 100 percent in 2019.
The USC product is still only 22, and now he'll at least have a full year under his belt in Adam Gase's offense. He should also benefit from what appears to be an improved offensive line—they added new projected starters in Connor McGovern and George Fant—and the Jets should get him more support with four of the top 80 picks in this month's draft.
While Darnold could miss departed wide receiver Robby Anderson, the incoming Breshad Perriman caught 25 passes for 506 yards and five touchdowns just in the month of December last year in Tampa. He might actually be an upgrade over Anderson.
There's still room for a lot to go wrong, and we wouldn't blame you for lacking trust in Gase, but Darnold looks primed to explode in 2020.
Running Back: Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
Among 29 NFL running backs with at least 150 carries in 2019, Devin Singletary of the Buffalo Bills ranked No. 1 with a yards-per-attempt average of 5.13.
The 2019 third-round pick looked strong all season, but his opportunities were limited by the presence of veteran workhorse Frank Gore. But Gore hasn't been re-signed, and it looks as though the Bills are ready to let Singletary loose in 2020.
"If we want him to be the workload guy, I think he could definitely do it," Bills general manager Brandon Beane recently told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk. "I think Year 2 is going to be better for him."
Beane did leave the door open for another back to join the fray, but there should be little doubt Singletary will see a lot more action after averaging at least 4.0 yards per attempt in all but two games in 2019. He also finished strong with 134 scrimmage yards on 19 touches in Buffalo's lone playoff tilt.
He was one of just six qualified backs to break a tackle every eight carries or fewer.
The 22-year-old is ready to take off.
Wide Receiver: DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Barely 22 years old, wide receiver DK Metcalf showed up when it mattered most down the stretch for the Seattle Seahawks.
The 2019 second-round pick caught 17 passes for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the final three games (one regular-season, two playoff) of his rookie campaign. In a postseason triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles, Metcalf scored a game-breaking 53-yard touchdown and made two clutch 3rd-and-long receptions (one on a scoring drive, the other to essentially ice the win).
He entered the league as a raw route-runner, and he dropped seven passes, but at least none of those drops came in the playoffs.
Metcalf has the size, speed, catch radius and overall talent to reach superstardom, and he's well-supported by a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback in a balanced offense that features the attention-hogging Tyler Lockett.
"I think I did pretty good, but there's always something I can work on," Metcalf said in February, per Joe Fann of NBC Sports Northwest. "That's going to be my main focus during the offseason is just working on the things I saw as flaws during my rookie season and just build on that."
If he can do that, he'll become a star before celebrating his 23rd birthday.
Tight End: Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
Watch for a new environment to allow Hayden Hurst to make a leap in 2020.
The tight end fell short of expectations as a 2018 first-round pick the last two years in Baltimore. But now he's replacing Austin Hooper on the Atlanta Falcons roster after Hooper made the Pro Bowl with more than 70 catches and 600 yards in each of his last two seasons there.
That doesn't mean Hurst is guaranteed to be a Pro Bowler in his third year, but he should greatly benefit from a smaller crowd at the tight end position in Atlanta.
The 26-year-old is a superb athlete, a large target and a tremendous pass-catcher who hasn't dropped a pass in his two NFL seasons. He's gently used, but he also quietly caught 77 percent of the passes thrown his way as a sophomore in 2019.
He was one of just five tight ends to catch 75 percent of his targets while averaging 11 or more yards per reception, but he played just 41 percent of Baltimore's offensive snaps. Now he'll have an opportunity to continue to produce like that with a lot more playing time.
Offensive Tackle: Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
Injuries could be a concern for Isaiah Wynn. Ditto for the fact that the New England Patriots offensive tackle will no longer benefit from Tom Brady's legendarily quick release. But the powerful, athletic, technically sound 23-year-old earned a middle-of-the-pack Pro Football Focus grade despite being severely limited by a toe injury in 2019.
Wynn has made only eight career starts, but the 2018 first-round pick out of Georgia still likely benefited greatly the last two years from the tutelage of venerable offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired in January.
For what it's worth, injuries weren't a factor during his standout career at Georgia.
"Given what we saw from him in college, it should only be expected that Wynn continues to improve," wrote PFF's Ben Linsey earlier this offseason, "making him a strong breakout candidate in hopefully a full season of action next year."
Guard: Max Scharping, Houston Texans
The oft-embarrassed Houston Texans offensive line appears to be turning a corner, thanks partly to the promise exhibited by 2019 second-round pick Max Scharping at the left guard position.
The Northern Illinois product suffered from a lack of consistency and occasional growing pains during his rookie season, but he still excelled broadly as a pass-blocker. Scharping surrendered just three sacks and was hit with just one accepted holding penalty in 16 games (14 starts).
He became one of Houston's most reliable players down the stretch and had the league's highest PFF pass-blocking grade in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Last offseason, Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller called Scharping a "developmental project" with the "length, size and athleticism" to become an NFL starter. He clearly has room to grow, and he should do plenty of that in 2020.
Center: Chase Roullier, Washington Redskins
You could argue that Chase Roullier has already broken out, but our options are limited at center, and the pleasant surprise from the sixth round of the 2017 draft has yet to make a Pro Bowl or earn national attention.
That should change soon. Roullier was responsible for just one penalty and three sacks as a 14-game starter for the Washington Redskins in 2019, and he's been penalized just three times in his three-year career.
The 26-year-old Wyoming product is extremely strong and capable of dominating in space. He's been quietly awesome the last two years, and it's only a matter of time before he gets recognized for his ability.
Edge Defender: Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers
Brian Burns was on the field for just 43 percent of the Carolina Panthers' defensive snaps in 2019, but the Florida State product still finished his rookie campaign with 7.5 sacks.
After a strong start, the No. 16 overall pick also underwent wrist surgery in October, limiting his effectiveness down the stretch. Still, when he looked fully recovered late in the year, he recorded two sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss on 55 snaps in the final two weeks of the regular season.
He's healthy now as he approaches his 22nd birthday, and the path has been cleared for more opportunities in 2020. Veteran edge defender Bruce Irvin has reportedly left for Seattle, while Mario Addison is now a member of the Buffalo Bills. Carolina added Stephen Weatherly in free agency, but it's obvious Burns will be the top dog on the edge going forward.
He has the quickness and athleticism to become an NFL star. It could happen in 2020.
Interior Defensive Lineman: Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins
Christian Wilkins didn't have a lot of support from a gutted Miami Dolphins defense during his rookie season, and the highly touted Clemson product had an up-and-down campaign as a result. But he still led all first-year defensive linemen by a large margin with 56 tackles, and it's a good sign that he stood out as both a pass-rusher and a run defender in several strong December performances.
Year 2 in Brian Flores' defense should be much more productive for Wilkins, who should benefit greatly from far more talent around him.
In free agency, the Dolphins invested in Shaq Lawson to spruce up the defensive line while also adding proven defensive starters in Kyle Van Noy and Byron Jones. And they'll almost certainly use some of their five picks in the first two rounds of the draft to further bolster the D.
Wilkins discussed his learning process in January, per Alain Poupart of the team's official website:
"How much have I learned? More than I learned earning two degrees at a top-20 public institution in college in four years. This year has been so big for me just learning everything on the field, off the field, just how to manage things, learning different techniques and just learning so much about the game and just trying to process so much information. It's a lot. I'm definitely finding a lot out about myself through this year, through the good times, the bad times, the things happening on the field, off the field. I'm just learning a lot."
That's a good sign.
Off-Ball Linebacker: Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos
Alexander Johnson was one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL down the stretch in 2019, but the undrafted 28-year-old didn't see the field until October and didn't register on many radars because he wasn't making splash plays in a high-profile spot. After all, his Denver Broncos were out of contention while he was beginning to break out.
Johnson came out of nowhere, but there's reason to believe he could have a special career despite the late start. You might remember that Johnson—who was known as "A.J. Johnson" in college—was a star at the University of Tennessee before he was accused of rape and suspended from the team in 2014. He was acquitted in July 2018 and signed with the Broncos that August.
On the field, he looked like a budding star in 2019. In 2020, he should have a chance to start from the get-go and register nationally as a run-stopper with superb instincts.
"The Broncos got incredible production out of him for 12 games as he was one of the league's best run defenders and solid in coverage," wrote PFF's Steve Palazzolo in January, "and he provides a strong piece on the field for Denver's defense moving forward."
Cornerback: Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis has intercepted just one pass in two low-impact NFL seasons, but there were signs of progress in his sophomore campaign.
After giving up an opposing passer rating of 119.8 as a rookie, the second-round pick out of Auburn dropped that number to 80.0 while surrendering completions on fewer than half the passes thrown his way as a sophomore.
He still gave up too many big plays, but at the age of 22, he was PFF's 23rd-ranked corner after several strong late-season performances against the Saints, Lions and Texans (he was stellar in coverage against DeAndre Hopkins in Week 16).
Watch for him to pick up in 2020 where he left off in 2019.
Safety: Julian Love, New York Giants
You might be unfamiliar with Julian Love, who hardly saw the field in the first 11 weeks of the 2019 New York Giants season. While he did shine down the stretch, few might have noticed because the Giants were so far out of contention at that point.
The Notre Dame product finished the year with 37 tackles (five for a loss) while excelling inside and outside the box as well as in coverage in the final five weeks of the regular season. He's a former cornerback who is well-polished considering he was a mere fourth-round pick who was 21 years old for his entire rookie campaign.
The tape is really encouraging. Love is a strong tackler with the ability to provide stellar coverage in the slot, and his instincts and versatility should benefit the Giants in 2020.
Of course, it should also help that he'll have more support after the Giants added James Bradberry ahead of Deandre Baker's second year at cornerback.