The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster Heading into 2020 Season

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 17, 2020

The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster Heading into 2020 Season

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The NFL is built on superstars. Fans go to stadiums and tune in on TV each week to see Patrick Mahomes throw. And Ezekiel Elliott run. And Aaron Donald wreak havoc.

    All are fantastic players—the very best in the world at what they do.

    But to even make it to the league, a player has to be exceptionally skilled. There are any number of players who do their jobs without ever getting big contracts. Or endorsement deals. Or profiles on pregame shows.

    For some, it's a matter of youth—of being on the verge of taking a step forward. For others, it's a matter of the position they play or where they play it—glory isn't divided equally. Or it could be a matter of being mired on the depth chart behind a star. Or even just straddling the line between very good and great.

    Whatever the reason, every team has a player who deserves more recognition than they get—or at least will once the 2020 season gets rolling.

    Every team has a best-kept secret.

Arizona Cardinals: CB Byron Murphy Jr.

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    Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. might be better as a player who is kept a secret—from opponents.

    Murphy was thrown to the proverbial wolves as a rookie, and as so many first-year cornerbacks do, he struggled. Murphy allowed 69.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, and his passer rating against was 111.2.

    However, as Jess Root reported for Cards Wire, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Murphy's trial by fire could help.

    "Last year I thought he got run down a little bit," Joseph said. "He played his best ball early and kind of sloughed off late. But I think what he did last year as far as playing that many reps is going to benefit him this year."

    Murphy played more snaps than any rookie cornerback in 2019, via Root, but he's not going to be tasked with doing as much with a healthy Robert Alford ready to take over outside.

    With a year's experience and playing a more natural role (for him) inside, Murphy is going to surprise some people.

Atlanta Falcons: S Damontae Kazee

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    Damontae Kazee is the epitome of a well-kept secret. His own team isn't sure whether he's a cornerback or a safety—he's played both the last two seasons. He's yet to start all 16 games in a season three years in.

    Four could be the charm, though. Because Kazee seems to keep playing...well.

    After barely playing as a rookie, Kazee logged 991 snaps for the Falcons in 2018. Not only did Kazee play, but he shined—he recorded 82 tackles, tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions and allowed just 53.3 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed.

    Kazee's playing time dropped a bit last season—but not by that much—and in 803 snaps at both safety and slot cornerback, Kazee tallied 74 tackles, picked off three more passes and surrendered a passer rating of just 66.3.

    Kazee has everything a team could want in a 21st-century safety—he can play all over the formation, isn't shy about chipping in against the run, has a nose for the big play and can hold his own in coverage.

    And while he may not be a starter in Week 1, it is going to be hard to keep Kazee off the field.

Baltimore Ravens: WR Miles Boykin

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    The Baltimore Ravens were an offensive juggernaut in 2019, piling up more rushing yards than any team in NFL history. The passing game wasn't as prolific, though, and young wide receiver Miles Boykin was essentially an afterthought—he had just 13 catches for 198 yards.

    There's room for optimism in those admittedly paltry numbers, however. Three of those 13 catches went for touchdowns. Two gained 39 or more yards. And Boykin himself said, per Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun, there's room for improvement.

    "Overall, I think I played well, but I could have done better," Boykin said. "There are a lot of things to work on, but I'm better prepared this year.

    "I have to work on my consistency and making plays when my number is called. I want the team to be able to count on me in big moments."

    Boykin entered the NFL a talented but raw prospect—a lanky, quick 6'4", 220-pounder who drew a comparison to Kenny Golladay. With a year of experience under his belt, Boykin should be set for a larger role opposite Marquise Brown.

    Give Boykin a bump in targets, and more than a few defensive backs are going to be surprised when he blows past them.

Buffalo Bills: S Jordan Poyer

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    At 29, Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer is one of the elder statesmen on this list.

    He also may well be the best safety casual fans have never heard of.

    A 2013 seventh-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, Poyer was a part-time player over four seasons in Cleveland. But since his arrival in Buffalo in 2017, it's been a different story. In each of his three seasons with the Bills, Poyer has tallied at least 95 tackles, chipping in five sacks and 11 interceptions over that span.

    The Bills have quietly built one of the best defensive backfields in the game, and Poyer and batterymate Micah Hyde have been a big part of that. The two safeties are essentially interchangeable, and that affords the Bills quite a bit of defensive flexibility.

    Bills Mafia already knows Poyer quite well. But with Buffalo sporting its highest profile entering a season in a long time, fans across the country are about to get an introduction.

Carolina Panthers: WR Curtis Samuel

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    As Jason Hewitt of Sports Illustrated wrote, there was more than a little speculation this offseason that the Carolina Panthers might trade wide receiver Curtis Samuel. But that speculation was based less in Carolina's interest in shopping the fourth-year pro than it was in teams' calling Carolina to see if Samuel was available.

    That should tell you something.

    Granted, Samuel's numbers haven't been especially impressive—his 54/627/6 stat line in 2019 marked career highs across the board. But he has showed flashes (especially last year) of the elusiveness in the open field that led the Panthers to pick the running back in Round 2 in 2017 and convert him to wide receiver.

    What Samuel does well (turn short throws into long gains) appears to mesh well with both Carolina's new offense and the team's new signal-caller, Teddy Bridgewater. Christian McCaffrey may be the engine that drives the offense, but Samuel's coming-out party is, well, coming.

    Soon everyone's going to know what had all those teams interested in playing Let's Make a Deal.

Chicago Bears: WR Anthony Miller

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    Given what the Chicago Bears have looked like offensively the past couple of seasons, it can be argued that just about every skill-position player on the team is such a secret that even Chicago doesn't know what it has.

    With the arrival of quarterback Nick Foles, however, there's renewed optimism that the offense will be much improved. And if that happens, wide receiver Anthony Miller is likely to be a big beneficiary.

    There have been signs of considerable potential from the third-year veteran. During the Bears' run to the NFC North title in 2018, Miller reeled in seven touchdown grabs. Miller had 11 catches in 2019 of 20 yards or more. But a combination of injuries and mediocre quarterback play have capped his ceiling.

    Per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune, Miller said that's going to change.

    "I feel like this is going to be my best year yet," Miller said. "I've matured a lot on the field, and I've gained a lot of knowledge, especially this offseason. I've been studying up a lot on other players and seeing what they do so I can enhance my game."

    With Taylor Gabriel gone, Miller should have ample chances to show he's right.

Cincinnati Bengals: FS Jessie Bates III

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the best teams at keeping good players a secret over the last 25 years.

    They just bury the shine under all the stink. It's hard for a guy to build a rep playing for a two-win team.

    However, free safety Jessie Bates III is making it hard not to notice him.

    A third-year pro out of Wake Forest, Bates has blossomed into arguably the most underrated deep safety in the NFL. Bates racked up a whopping 111 tackles as a rookie, ranking fourth among defensive backs. He followed that with 100 stops last season.

    Admittedly, Bates backslid in coverage last year, allowing four scores and a 100.1 passer rating. But he's also posted three picks in each of his professional seasons, displaying a nose for the big play in the process.

    If the Bengals are able to take a step forward defensively, it will be because Bates did too. And that should be enough to get him his first Pro Bowl nod—and some fame.

Cleveland Browns: OLB Mack Wilson

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    On some levels, Mack Wilson's first season as a member of the Cleveland Browns was a forgettable one. Thrown into the starting lineup after an injury to Christian Kirksey, Wilson did what many rookies do early on—he struggled. In 14 starts, Wilson allowed a 71 percent completion rate and whiffed on 13.7 percent of his tackle attempts.

    He's such a secret that even he doesn't know he's good.

    Despite those struggles, however, and the departures of Kirksey and Joe Schobert in free agency, the Browns didn't do a lot to upgrade their off-ball linebackers. The coaching staff appears to have confidence that in Year 2 Wilson will look more like the linebacker who was one of the best players in the country at his position while at Alabama.

    If he does, the opportunity will be there for Wilson to not only have a big year but also become the leader of a young cadre of linebackers on the shores of Lake Erie.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Chidobe Awuzie

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    The loss of veteran cornerback Byron Jones in free agency was a blow for the Dallas Cowboys.

    For Chidobe Awuzie, however, it's a chance to come out from Jones' shadow and establish himself as a key contributor and a rising young cover man in his own right.

    Playing opposite Jones over the past two seasons has kept Awuzie busy. He's been targeted early and often by opposing quarterbacks—an average of 6.2 times per game. And as Awuzie has gained experience, he has gotten better—his passer rating against and touchdowns allowed (89.1, three) improved in 2019 relative to his rookie season (96.4, five).

    As good as the Cowboys are offensively, their fortunes in the NFC East will depend on whether they can rush the passer without Robert Quinn and play coverage without Jones.

    If Awuzie helps get Dallas back into the postseason, well...

    Play well in Dallas, and you tend to get famous quickly.

Denver Broncos: ILB Alexander Johnson

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    Alexander Johnson of the Denver Broncos didn't start a game until Week 5 of the 2019 season.

    By the end of the campaign, he had grown into the best off-ball linebacker on the Denver roster. He tallied 93 tackles (tied for second on the team) while adding 1.5 sacks and an interception.

    Per Aric DiLalla of the team's website, former Broncos great Al Wilson said he only scratched the surface:

    "When you watch linebackers, you always wonder if a guy is going to show up on film. And obviously this is a guy that just shows up on film. He just seems to be around the ball, he just seems to make plays. Some of those things you just can't coach. It's just a natural God-given ability that he has, and he has that natural knack for the ball and instincts that you need to be a good middle linebacker. I believe that he can be an All-Pro, Pro Bowl middle linebacker if he just continues to study the game, stay focused and committed to it. There's no question he can be one of the best middle linebackers in the business."

    This year, Johnson will enter the summer as an entrenched starter—and a potential defensive star in the making.

Detroit Lions: S Tracy Walker

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If Tracy Walker puts together another season in 2020 like the one he just had, the third-year pro isn't going to be a secret any longer.

    As a matter of fact, if Walker played in a bigger market or for a better team, that ship probably would have sailed.

    In a season that was short on bright spots, Walker was one for the Lions. Not only did he up his game after entering the lineup as a full-time starter, but he also became one of the team's most dependable tacklers. It's not every day when a safety leads his team in tackles, but that's exactly what Walker did in 2019.

    There's still room for him to improve his game—especially in pass coverage. But on a defense as desperate for playmakers as any in the NFL, Walker has shown the ability to be one for years to come.

Green Bay Packers: WR Allen Lazard

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    It was no secret entering the offseason that the Green Bay Packers needed help at the wide receiver position. The depth chart in Titletown appeared to consist of Davante Adams and a bucket full of question marks.

    However, the Packers apparently felt differently—Green Bay didn't do much to upgrade the position group in free agency or the draft.

    Allen Lazard has to be a big part of the reason for that.

    Lazard went from late-season practice squad add in 2018 to a camp cut to re-signed on the practice squad to making the team to finishing the year second on the Packers in receiving yards at the position (477).

    Per Wes Hodkiewicz of the team's website, Lazard said it has been a wild ride.

    "My whole experience in the NFL—being in Jacksonville last year and then coming here to a team that didn't make it to the playoffs for two years in a row and to be able to make it to the NFC championship, I got to experience what it's like to win, the process that it takes and the work it requires to put in," he said.

    Now, of course, Lazard will have to deal with another new hurdle.

Houston Texans: C Nick Martin

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    The offensive line of the Houston Texans has been a much-maligned unit—and with good reason. Over the last three years, the Texans have surrendered a staggering 165 sacks.

    That's 55 sacks a season, for the math-averse.

    However, not every player on that line has been a turnstile. Over that same three-year span, Nick Martin has started 46 games in the middle. In that time, the 6'4", 295-pounder has played 3,085 snaps, allowing just six sacks and nine quarterback hits while committing nine penalties.

    It's not especially easy for a center to develop a national profile—especially while playing in the AFC South. The Campbell's Chunky soup people aren't likely to come calling, though it would make sense for that particular advertiser to use an offensive lineman as a pitchman.

    But in three short years, Martin has become one of the better pass-blocking centers in the game—and the leader of the O-line for a team that has made the postseason in each of the last two years.

Indianapolis Colts: RT Braden Smith

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    It's not at all unusual for a player who lined up at tackle in college to kick inside in the pros as the result of a lack of length or quickness. However, it's not that often someone does the opposite like Braden Smith of the Indianapolis Colts.

    A right guard at Auburn, Smith was pressed into action at tackle by injuries at the position during the 2018 season. He more than held his own in his first game against the New England Patriots—and he's been a fixture there ever since.

    Per Andrew Walker of the team's website, head coach Frank Reich compared Smith to super-guard Quenton Nelson:

    "Rightly so Quenton has gotten a lot of attention—[but] Braden has played lights out. When we moved him we knew we had a great run blocker. I mean, you just watch his college tape, you knew he was a great run blocker. When he got here you knew the pass blocking needed some work, but he worked hard at that. So that was going to be the big question moving him out to right tackle, 'How would he handle it?' He's just continued to get better and better."

    Smith may start to approach Nelson's renown this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Chris Thompson

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    It's hard to single out a best-kept secret for the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's a franchise in flux—the Jags are shedding veteran talent as they embark on another rebuild, and their fortunes with high draft picks has been laughably bad.

    Since the fifth-year option became a thing for first-round picks in 2011, the Jaguars have never had a player play out a fifth season under the option. Blake Bortles was extended after his option was picked up. Jalen Ramsey was traded.


    Given that, the team's best-kept secret might be a player who just arrived, a scat back who has skirted the edges of fame for some time but just hasn't been able to get over the hump because of injuries.

    In 2016, Chris Thompson appeared to be a player on the rise—he averaged 5.2 yards per carry for the Washington Redskins and hauled in 49 passes. But since then, he's missed 17 games.

    The talent is there. And the Jaguars need a dependable pass-catcher out of the backfield behind Leonard Fournette—especially with young quarterback Gardner Minshew II under center.

    If Thompson can stay on the field, he may well still get his day in the (Florida) sun.

Kansas City Chiefs: RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif

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    There are some people who know the whole story about Kansas City Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. But not nearly as many as should.

    It's a story that goes well beyond the game of football. Not that Duvernay-Tardif isn't a very good offensive lineman—he's the starter at right guard for the reigning Super Bowl champions. Per Pro Football Focus, Duvernay-Tardif surrendered just two sacks and committed just three penalties in 899 snaps in 2019.

    But Duvernay-Tardif is also one of the most fascinating human interest stories in the NFL. Not only is he a rarity in that he played collegiately in Canada, but Duvernay-Tardif also just so happens to be the first medical school graduate to play in the NFL.

    That's right—he is a doctor. While most players are sitting at home waiting for the world to reopen, Duvernay-Tardif is working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic at a long-term care facility outside of Montreal.

    The only question now is who plays him in the movie about his life.

Las Vegas Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst

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    Maurice Hurst's NFL profile has bounced around more than a Superball.

    Heading into the 2018 combine, Hurst was widely viewed as a first-round prospect and one of the best defensive tackles in his class after a standout career at Michigan. But after being diagnosed with a heart condition, his stock free-fell all the way to Round 5 before the Raiders rolled the dice on the 6'2", 291-pounder.

    Since then, Hurst has posted two decent (if unspectacular) seasons—49 tackles and 7.5 sacks over two years and 994 snaps.

    With veteran tackle Maliek Collins and defensive end Carl Nassib joining the team in free agency, the Raiders have their deepest and most talented defensive front in quite some time. There may not be a 15-sack superstar among the bunch, but with second-year pros Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell on the outside and Collins flanking him inside, Hurst has the support around him to propel him to a career-best season.

    We may still see that first-round potential.

Los Angeles Chargers: OT Trey Pipkins

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    Heading into the 2019 draft, Trey Pipkins III was considered a talented but raw tackle prospect after playing collegiately at Sioux Falls. Lance Zierlein of labeled him a likely Day 3 pick.

    "Developmental tackle prospect who offers NFL-caliber size, length and athletic ability for teams willing to work out the technique kinks," Zierlein wrote. "Pipkins has quick feet but needs to prove he can gain adequate depth with his initial pass slides in order to work to his set points against edge speed. He has Day 3 draft potential, but the jump in competition makes him a likely practice squad candidate early on."

    But then the Chargers spent a third-round pick on Pipkins, traded veteran tackle Russell Okung and didn't sign or draft an obvious replacement—despite the fact that Pipkins allowed four sacks in 251 snaps as a rookie.

    As things stand today, Pipkins is the front-runner to be the blind-side protector for either Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert when the Bolts travel to Cincinnati in Week 1.

    Head coach Anthony Lynn and general manager Tom Telesco appear to have seen something in the young 6'6", 304-pounder.

    Soon enough, we'll see if they are right.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Josh Reynolds

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    One way or another, Josh Reynolds isn't going to be a secret much longer.

    After three uneventful seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Reynolds has been thrust into a larger role. The trade that sent Brandin Cooks to the Texans opened a void in the passing attack, and head coach Sean McVay said he's confident Reynolds can slide into Cooks' role as the team's primary vertical threat.

    "I do think he has the ability to stretch the top shelf of the coverages in a lot of the ways that Brandin did," McVay said, per Kevin Modesti of the Southern California News Group. "I think there's a narrative where sometimes you don't respect Josh's speed because he's got such an effortless gait. But when you look at him compared to others, he's eating up ground, his stride length is so long."

    Reynolds has shown some ability to make an impact in the past—he averaged 15.5 yards per catch in 2019 and found the end zone five times the season prior. But he was trapped behind Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods on the depth chart.

Miami Dolphins: TE Mike Gesicki

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    Start a conversation about the best tight ends in football, and the first two names you'll hear are probably Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers. Rob Gronkowski's return to the NFL this year will get him a mention. The Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz and the Ravens' Mark Andrews may get some run, too.

    If the 2020 season plays out like the 2019 campaign did, Mike Gesicki of the Miami Dolphins will enter that conversation, too.

    It went largely unnoticed on a bad Dolphins team, but the second-round pick out of Penn State had an excellent season, reeling in 51 passes for 570 yards and five scores in his second year. Gesicki averaged 11.2 yards per catch and didn't drop a pass. In fact, Gesicki has yet to tally a drop in the pros.

    New Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is going to need a safety valve underneath once he enters the starting lineup.

    Gesicki can be just that kind of reliable checkdown (and more) for years to come.

Minnesota Vikings: DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

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    For the past several seasons, the Minnesota Vikings have quietly fielded one of the NFL's better one-two punches at defensive end in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen.

    Well, Griffen's gone now. But it looks like the Vikings won't miss a beat up front—because as it turns out, a more-than-capable replacement was waiting in the wings.

    A seventh-round pick of the Vikings in 2017 who spent time with the Browns and Cardinals before re-joining the Vikings, Ifeadi Odenigbo barely touched the field in 2018. But in his second season, Odenigbo got a chance to show what he could do, playing about one-third (368) of snaps.

    The former Northwestern standout made the most of that playing time and then some, tallying 23 tackles, seven sacks, a forced fumble and even a touchdown.

    It was a performance that earned Odenigbo a much larger role in his third season—and may well have made Griffen expendable in the Twin Cities.

New England Patriots: QB Jarrett Stidham

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    The number of people who expected Jarrett Stidham to enter the 2020 season as the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots numbered exactly one. And that one wasn't Stidham—or his mother.

    It was the only person whose opinion counts.

    Going from a six-time Super Bowl winner to a second-year Day 3 pick who has attempted four career passes is the switch to end all switches. But Bill Belichick told NFL Network (via Isaiah Houde of Patriots Wire) he has confidence in the young signal-caller:

    "Stid worked really hard last year. He was our backup quarterback the entire season and I know he's working hard in the offseason. I know he's made a lot of progress in terms of understanding our offense and understanding opponent defenses like all players do from Year 1 to Year 2.

    "I am sure he will get out there and be ready to go, be prepared, compete hard, and we'll see where it takes us."

    Frankly, no one knows what Stidham can do in the pros. His stats at Auburn in 2017 and 2018 weren't especially impressive. Nor is the skill talent around him in Beantown.

    If Stidham shows out as even a competent starter, it will be something of a revelation.

    And proof that no one keeps secrets like Darth Hoodie.

New Orleans Saints: DE Trey Hendrickson

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    New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson faces a harsh reality as he enters the final year of his rookie contract.

    To get any kind of considerable payday in 2021, he is probably going to have to leave the Big Easy.

    It's not a matter of talent. Hendrickson has shown enough of that that there will be demand for him on the open market. Playing 38 percent of snaps last year as the third defensive end, Hendrickson racked up 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He's shown to be a capable pass-rusher and edge-setter.

    The problem is that it will be next to impossible for him to better those numbers markedly. The Saints have an established superstar at one end spot in Cameron Jordan and a rising first-round pick at the other in Marcus Davenport.

    The consistent playing time it would take for Hendrickson to realize his considerable potential just doesn't appear to be there.

    Though as Plan B's go, Hendrickson is everything a team could ask for.

New York Giants: EDGE Oshane Ximines

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    The New York Giants don't have an elite edge-rusher. But as Paul Schwartz of the New York Post reported, head coach Joe Judge doesn't think the G-Men necessarily need one.

    "I think you have to use what you have available to you," Judge said. "Everybody really wants an elite guy. I think that's a true statement. No one's going to turn down a good football player. But you have to find ways, if you don't have necessarily that one elite guy, of getting production out of maybe two to three other players that complement each other."

    The thing is, the Giants might still wind up with one—provided Oshane Ximines continues to improve.

    A second-year pro out of Old Dominion, Ximines had just 25 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie. But he showed signs of marked improvement down the stretch, including a two-sack effort against the Eagles in December.

    Edge-rushers face a steep learning curve in the pros. That's doubly true for one from a small program. But Ximines has the talent and ability to be a consistent thorn in the side of signal-callers.

New York Jets: CB Brian Poole

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    Brian Poole is probably never going to be a great cornerback. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Falcons in 2016. He's yet to be named to a Pro Bowl and is on his second team. He has five interceptions in four seasons.

    However, Poole is a very good slot cornerback. Poole isn't the least bit shy about getting dirty against the run—he's piled up 59-plus tackles in all four of his seasons. He's also held his own in coverage—so much so that it can be argued he was the most consistent performer at his position on the New York Jets in 2019.

    If the Jets have any chance of improving on last year's 7-9 finish, Poole will have to be that consistent performer again—the cornerback situation for Gang Green isn't great.

    There's little reason to think he won't be, though even in the nation's biggest media market, it's not likely too many will take notice.

    Call it the curse of very good. Talented enough to play in the NFL, skilled enough to start and be effective.

    But not quite a star.

Philadelphia Eagles: TE Dallas Goedert

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    There's good news and bad news for Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert.

    The good news is that Goedert plays for a team that uses as many two-tight end sets as any in the NFL.

    The bad news is that at season's end Goedert will all but certainly be right back where his is now—stuck on the depth chart behind one of the best players in the league at the position in Zach Ertz.

    That's not to say Goedert won't occasionally get his. With the wideout corps besieged by injuries down the stretch last year, Goedert was pressed into full-time duty. He answered the call, setting career highs nearly across the board. In December's massive victory over the hated Cowboys, Goedert hauled in nine passes for 91 yards and a score.

    On 20 other teams, Goedert would be the No. 1 tight end. And if he got the snaps and targets that go with it, he might well be one of the best in the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Steven Nelson

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    In 2019, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden was a Pro Bowler.

    But he wasn't the best cornerback on his team.

    Steven Nelson doesn't get mentioned much alongside Stephon Gilmore, Tre'Davious White, Xavien Howard and all the high-end corners who don't play in the AFC East. But in 2019 at least, Nelson's numbers compared favorably with the best players at his position.

    In 1,011 snaps, Nelson was targeted just 74 times—a compliment in and of itself. He allowed just half of those passes to be completed for 491 yards. The 27-year-old didn't allow a touchdown pass and had a passer rating against of just 65.8.

    By weight of comparison, Gilmore allowed a higher completion percentage (50.5). White allowed more yards in coverage (626). And Howard surrendered a vastly higher completion percentage (65.4).

    If Nelson can back up last year's production in his second year in the Steel City, it's going to be awfully hard to deny him recognition as an elite corner.

San Francisco 49ers: OLB Dre Greenlaw

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    The 49ers have one of the most star-studded defenses in the NFL. Whether it's lineman Arik Armstead, inside linebacker Kwon Alexander or cornerback Richard Sherman, there are players at all three levels who make fat salaries.

    In his second season, Dre Greenlaw is set to make just over $750,000—pennies compared to his teammates. But in last year's march to Super Bowl LIV, Greenlaw filled in for the injured Alexander, finishing his first season with 92 tackles.

    Greenlaw wasn't perfect—as is often the case with young players, he occasionally got caught out of position, especially in pass coverage. But he played well enough that it's not unreasonable to predict a training camp battle for the second nickel linebacker spot next to Fred Warner.

    Frankly, had John Lynch known Greenlaw would be such a find last year, the 49ers probably wouldn't have handed the oft-injured Alexander a $54 million contract.

Seattle Seahawks: S Quandre Diggs

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    When the Lions traded safety Quandre Diggs to the Seattle Seahawks in October, it didn't make a ton of noise.

    It should have—the Diggs deal might not have been the felony larceny that the DeAndre Hopkins deal was, but it was a theft nonetheless.

    Over the past few seasons, Diggs has become one of the better coverage safeties in the game. In 2018, he surrendered a passer rating of 86.5. Last season, Diggs gave up less than 100 yards in coverage and allowed a completion percentage of just 45.5.

    A converted cornerback, Diggs has the kind of versatility teams crave. And with a full offseason with his new team under his belt, Diggs should be set to adopt a leadership role.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Ronald Jones II

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Running back Ronald Jones II of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has received his fair share of criticism over his two years in the NFL. Much of it has been deserved—Jones averaged 1.9 yards per carry in a disastrous rookie season and was benched for a time in 2019 for struggles in pass protection.

    Miss a blitz pickup that gets Tom Brady decked, and you're apt to be looking for a job.

    When the Buccaneers spent a third-round pick on Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn in this year's draft, it signaled to some that Jones' days as the starter were numbered.

    It's equally possible that he's on the verge of a career year.

    Jones quietly wasn't terrible for the Buccaneers last year—he averaged 4.2 yards per carry, caught 31 passes, scored half a dozen touchdowns and topped 1,000 total yards. And a quick look at Tampa Bay's depth chart shows Vaughn's arrival may have had as much to do with a frightening lack of solid options behind Jones as it did anything the 2018 second-round pick did (or didn't do) on the field in 2019.

    Given all the weapons on the Bucs offense, the lead back is going to be in a good position to do damage on the ground.

Tennessee Titans: EDGE Harold Landry III

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Tennessee Titans edge-rusher Harold Landry III came into his own in 2019. After a modest 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie, Landry piled up 68 tackles and nine sacks.

    But despite those solid numbers, there's been more talk regarding the possibility that Jadeveon Clowney will join the Titans than there has that the 2018 second-round pick out of Boston College is one of the NFL's ascending pass-rushers.

    Not only do the Tennessee Titans want that to change, but they need it to.

    After last year's surprising run to the AFC Championship Game, the Titans have vastly increased expectations. And while Tennessee added former NFL sack king Vic Beasley Jr. in free agency, Landry will be counted on to anchor the pass rush.

    If Landry continues his upward trajectory and posts double-digit sacks, he will be in line for both his first trip to the Pro Bowl and a big contract extension.

Washington Redskins: ILB Cole Holcomb

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Washington Redskins linebacker Cole Holcomb is another young player who was thrown into the fire in 2019. Forced into a full-time role by injuries, Holcomb tallied 105 tackles as a rookie. Only safety Landon Collins had more stops on the team, and Holcomb's 74 solo tackles led all rookies' tallies.

    Holcomb's first season wasn't without bumps in the road—he was roasted in coverage, allowing a completion percentage of 83.7 and a passer rating of 115.4. However, per Zach Selby of the team's website, Washington head coach Ron Rivera said Holcomb has the skill set to take a big step forward.

    "He played out in space a little bit and came back into the box and played linebacker," Rivera said. "Those are the kind of guys that you want, because you want that position flexibility."

    Holcomb may have struggled in coverage, but his range was one of the more appealing things about his game coming out of college. Provided that experience brings with it improvement, Holcomb has a good chance to emerge from a murky position group as a three-down starter for what could be a sneaky good defense.


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