Kyler, Chubb and 7 Other NFL Young Players on the Verge of Superstardom in 2020
Most NFL players don't start their careers as the face of their franchise or the league as a whole. They often need time to grow and develop.
Circumstances then dictate when they blossom into elite performers.
The NFL's past two MVPs—Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson—didn't take the league by storm as rookies. Instead, their dominance began during their sophomore seasons.
The following nine players are already good. But in 2020, they're poised to become among the best at their respective positions, much like Mahomes and Jackson.
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had far more success as a rookie than either Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson did. The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year threw for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns and added 544 yards and four scores on the ground last season.
He should be even better in 2020.
"There's definitely a different level of confidence, a different level of command of the offense and he feels it," head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters about Murray's maturation. "Even though we haven't been able to get out on the grass, he definitely feels a lot more comfortable heading into year two."
Quarterbacks often take a significant leap between their rookie and sophomore seasons. They now understand what they'll face, develop a better understanding of schemes and executions, and have a full offseason to concentrate on nothing but football.
The Cardinals aren't relying entirely on Murray's natural maturation, though.
Arizona traded for four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to serve as Murray's top target. General manager Steve Keim re-signed left tackle D.J. Humphries and drafted future right tackle Josh Jones to solidify the offensive front, too.
The Cardinals selected Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft because his exceptional abilities as a passer and runner made him a perfect fit for Kingsbury's scheme. As his level of confidence rises with a better surrounding cast, Murray could quickly enter the same conversation as Mahomes and Jackson.
Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns have plenty of skill-position talent, but running back Nick Chubb is their driving force.
The 2018 second-round pick ran for 2,490 yards and 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons despite playing behind one of the league's worst run-blocking offensive lines. As such, Chubb generated the second-most yardage after contact (1,480) of any running back in the league since 2018.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 24-year-old back is the only runner since 2006 to average over four-plus yards after contact per carry for his career.
Last season, Chubb fell 46 yards short of Derrick Henry for the rushing title. Under new head coach Kevin Stefanski in 2020, he'll be entering a system where he'll be featured even more.
Stefanski served as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator last season, and the Vikings were one of only three teams to run the ball more than they passed. He figures to implement a zone-heavy scheme, which Chubb should excel in thanks to his patience and vision along with his outstanding power.
The additions of Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills at right and left tackle, respectively, should also give the Browns a far superior front five compared to the group Chubb ran behind for the last two seasons.
A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans wideout A.J. Brown looked like a legit first-round talent at Ole Miss, but he slid to the second round due to questions about whether he could consistently play outside the numbers and separate against NFL defensive backs.
Brown answered those questions by leading all rookies with 1,051 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. His 8.7 yards after catch per reception last season is the most by any rookie receiver since the site created the stat in 2006, according to Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle.
With Derrick Henry drawing so much defensive attention, the Titans' play-action passing attack is extremely effective. Brown has the size and ability to turn any small gain into a potential scoring opportunity.
However, he still has areas in which he can improve as a sophomore.
"There are some things at the top of the route," head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters. "There are things I, along with [wide receivers coach] Rob [Moore] and [offensive coordinator] Arthur [Smith] can help him to help him play physical and stay away from pass interference."
The Titans re-signed quarterback Ryan Tannehill this offseason, so he and Brown should continue to build upon last season's burgeoning relationship. The 22-year-old will only get better now that he has established himself in the Titans offense and will continue working with the same quarterback.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills
Stefon Diggs will be under a different level of scrutiny after the Buffalo Bills traded 2020 first-, fifth- and sixth-round picks and a 2021 fourth-rounder to acquire him and a seventh-round pick from the Minnesota Vikings.
Although Diggs has yet to make a Pro Bowl, he has amassed more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. He's a stellar route-runner who can consistently create separation.
"You look at the production that Stefon has experienced over the course of his career, that speaks for itself. He's played in big games. He's had big roles in those games," Bills head coach McDermott told reporters. "We believe that, and it's been shown and proven to this point, people are able to come to Buffalo and become the best version of themselves. He's certainly been awfully good to this point."
In Buffalo, Diggs will no longer be playing in the shadow of Adam Thielen. Instead, he'll be in the spotlight since the Bills are the presumptive AFC East favorite after Tom Brady's departure from the New England Patriots.
Diggs' addition might be viewed as the final piece of the puzzle to push a neophyte playoff squad into a potential division champion. He should also benefit from quarterback Josh Allen's continued growth.
Allen significantly improved between his first and second seasons. If he keeps building upon that progress, he'll help Diggs receive the recognition he deserves as one of the league's best wideouts.
Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
During the 2018 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens spent the No. 25 overall pick on tight end Hayden Hurst and then spent a third-round pick on Mark Andrews.
This offseason, the Ravens traded Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons, clearing the way for Andrews to gobble up even more snaps in 2020.
"I've always been someone who wants to take the next step and be great—each and every year getting better," Andrews said after learning about the trade, per Ryan Mink of the Ravens official site. "I think I had a good year last year but it's all about improving on that. I don't feel any extra pressure with Hayden being gone."
This past season, Andrews finished fifth in receiving yardage (852) and first in touchdowns (10) among tight ends. He and New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook were the only two tight ends with four or more touchdown receptions at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus.
While he may never be a dominant in-line option like George Kittle, Andrews could become even more effective as quarterback Lamar Jackson continues to progress. His impact can't be overlooked in the NFL's most unique offense, and his role should continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.
Josh Allen, Edge, Jacksonville Jaguars
San Francisco 49ers edge-rusher Nick Bosa was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and is already well on his way to superstardom, but Jacksonville Jaguars edge-rusher Josh Allen may not be far behind.
Allen led all rookies with 10.5 sacks last season and finished second behind Bosa in total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. The 2019 No. 7 overall pick continually improved throughout his rookie campaign.
"He came in Day 1 and really worked hard," head coach Doug Marrone said, per John Oehser of the Jaguars official site. "He really didn't have any type of first year where you kind of go down at the end of the year. He stayed strong throughout the whole year. We were able to move him around a little bit. He showed some versatility."
Regardless of whether the Jaguars oblige Yannick Ngakoue's trade request, Allen figures to move into an even more prominent role next season. He'll likely serve as the team's top pass-rusher opposite K'Lavon Chaisson, whom Jacksonville selected 20th overall in April.
Allen has the explosiveness, flexibility and power to become one of the league's sack leaders. He could quickly make the Jaguars forget about Ngakoue whenever they move on from him.
Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers
The fifth-ranked San Francisco 49ers defense wouldn't have been nearly as successful without Fred Warner patrolling the middle of the field.
The 49ers' defensive line is integral to their success, but Warner became an eraser along the second line of defense. The 23-year-old is a true sideline-to-sideline defender who's at his best in coverage.
Warner is a capable run defender, but his ability to match up against tight ends, run with some receivers and match up in zone makes him truly special. He expects to further improve in 2020 since the 49ers' linebacker corps remained intact this offseason.
"Us having a year working together is going to be huge for us," Warner told reporters. "Everything is going to move along a lot smoother, we'll be a lot faster, and we'll make more plays at the end of the day."
In two seasons, the 2018 third-round pick has averaged 121 total tackles. As he continues to grow into a leadership role, he should begin to gain national recognition as an elite middle linebacker.
Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White are the NFL's best at their position, but Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers isn't far behind.
Alexander has the natural tools and competitiveness to hound opposing targets at a level few corners in the league can match.
According to Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle, the 2018 first-round pick ranked among the top 10 corners in both contested target percentage and forced incompletion percentage over the last two seasons. That means he's a sticky coverage corner who continuously competes for the ball whenever he's in phase.
Not every cornerback possesses the ability to turn and run with any receiver and pester them throughout the catch process. Some are better zone defenders. Others win with their physicality at the jam.
Alexander has the physical tools to do it all, and his tenacious personality only amplifies his abilities.
Gilmore will turn 30 in September, and the Patriots are expected to take a step back in 2020. If the eight-year veteran regresses at all, Alexander has the ability and mentality to claim the title of the league's best pure shutdown corner.
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers changed how everyone views modern-day NFL defenders thanks to Derwin James.
The 2018 17th overall pick became a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler as a rookie because defensive coordinator Gus Bradley didn't pigeonhole him into a specific position. The Chargers technically list James as a safety, but he can play as a sub-package linebacker, nickel corner, outside corner and can rush the passer, too.
The Chargers now have slightly different plans for him after signing four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who will take over as their primary nickel corner.
"To be able to move around, just adding Chris, it lets me be more free," James said, per Sports Illustrated's Jason B. Hirschhorn.
James is the NFL's ultimate defensive weapon. He's a positionless defender who never has to come off the field, which allows Bradley to be more creative with his play-calling.
James suffered a stress fracture in his foot in mid-August that limited him to only five games in 2019. But if he stays healthy, he should vault right back into the All-Pro conversation this coming season.