Every NFL Team's Most Promising Building Block Entering 2020

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 7, 2020

Every NFL Team's Most Promising Building Block Entering 2020

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    There are as many ways to build an NFL team as there are clubs in the league. You can focus on a high-powered offense or a stifling defense. Construct a punishing ground game or a potent passing attack.

    But regardless of how you decide to proceed with construction, every squad needs building blocks. And whether a team won two games or 12 in 2019, each has at least one promising building block. Some have many more.

    For the sake of this article, we defined a building block as a young, inexpensive player on their rookie deal—the sort of player who won't cripple a salary cap. Also, a "promising" building block has yet to realize their full potential, so we mostly stayed away from players who have been named to a Pro Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray

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    In each of the past two seasons, we've seen a second-year quarterback take a massive step forward—as in won Most Valuable Player honors.

    Asking for an MVP season from Kyler Murray might be unreasonable. But it's not at all unreasonable to think Year 2 could bring some big-time fireworks in the desert.

    It's not just a matter of Murray's talents—though those are significant. As a rookie, Murray threw for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns. He ran for 544 yards and four scores. Only one other rookie signal-caller has hit 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards: Cam Newton in 2011.

    Now, Murray has one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins, who joined a passing attack that already included an 11-time Pro Bowler in Larry Fitzgerald and a promising youngster in Christian Kirk.

    The ingredients are there for Murray to become the franchise quarterback the Cardinals hoped they were getting when they drafted him first overall in 2019.

Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley

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    Two years into his career, Calvin Ridley has yet to make a Pro Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons. He also has yet to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season—or even 900.

    However, Ridley was on pace to top 1,000 yards last year before an injury cut his season short, and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter recently told reporters (via Mark Innabinnett of AL.com) that he thinks we've yet to see Ridley's best.

    "I think Calvin's really good," Koetter said, "and you know he was on track for a 1,000-yard season last year. I think he would have got 1,000 yards had he not had to miss those last [three] games. I think Calvin is going to continue to grow and grow and grow."

    Ridley certainly benefits from playing opposite an all-time great in Julio Jones. But Ridley has done more damage in the end zone over the past two years—he's outscored Jones with 17 touchdowns to 14.

    No Falcons fan wants to think about the day Jones hangs up his cleats.

    But at least Atlanta's Plan B at the wideout spot is already in place.

Baltimore Ravens: RT Orlando Brown Jr.

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    This is one of the rare exceptions in this piece wherein a team's most promising building block has already been named to a Pro Bowl.

    After going 14-2 last year, the Baltimore Ravens had many young players who helped the team reach that lofty mark get recognition for doing so.

    Orlando Brown was a big part of that success—after slipping to the third round of the 2018 draft, Brown worked his way into the starting lineup full-time in 2019. The 6'3", 355-pounder made the most of the opportunity—per Pro Football Focus, in 1,105 snaps, Brown committed just three penalties, allowed three sacks and helped pave the way for the best rushing attack in league history. That got Brown a trip to Orlando, albeit as an injury alternate.

    Still, as good as Brown (the son of longtime Ravens stalwart Orlando Brown Sr.) already is, there's room for him to get better—much to the chagrin of edge-rushers in the AFC North.

Buffalo Bills: QB Josh Allen

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    In his second season with the Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen took a significant step forward as a quarterback. He improved his accuracy. He made fewer mistakes and turnovers. And most importantly, Allen got the Bills into the postseason for the second time in three years.

    This isn't to say Allen didn't still make some bad decisions—often when trying to salvage a play or drive. Per Marcel Louis-Jacques of ESPN, Bills head coach Sean McDermott indicated the next step in Allen's development is for him too realize he's a quarterback—and not a superhero.

    "It's the understanding that 'I don't have to do it all by myself,'" McDermott said. "'I'm a tremendous generator and playmaker, but I've got pieces around me.'"

    With Stefon Diggs' arrival, the weapons available to Allen will be significantly better than they were last year. He may never be a 70 percent passer, but the big kid from Wyoming with the even bigger arm has grown into a leader for the Bills entering his third season.

Carolina Panthers: EDGE Brian Burns

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    The Carolina Panthers are starting over. They have a new head coach in Matt Rhule. Quarterback Cam Newton is gone. So is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

    Someone is going to have to lead the new-look defense—and one of the candidates is edge-rusher Brian Burns.

    Burns came out of the gate red-hot in 2019, and Adam Rank of NFL.com wrote that Burns could be on the verge of a sophomore breakout.

    "Burns started with a burst, collecting 3.5 sacks in his first five games," Rank said. "But then he had some injury issues and things weren't the same. He did finish with 7.5 sacks and you saw glimpses of his athleticism. Burns was compared to Leonard Floyd coming into the league. Floyd is no longer with the team that drafted him. So it's up to Burns to meet expectations, and I believe he's going to do it."

    If the Panthers are going to engineer a quick turnaround, they need youngsters such as Burns.

    And he's going to have to fast-track right through building block to defensive leader.

Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith

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    After an impressive rookie season in which he tallied 121 tackles, Roquan Smith looked to be on his way to becoming one of the best inside linebackers in the game. However, he got off to a slow start in his second season.

    To his credit, Smith rebounded over the season's second half, and he finished Year 2 with 101 stops, two sacks and an interception. Per Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times, Bears linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said he saw considerable growth from Smith last year.

    "From the first game to the 13th game, saw growth in him on and off the field," DeLeone said. "I see a 22-year-old guy who is only going to continue to improve. There were some ups and downs [in 2019], but the way he finished and the way he was climbing upward at the end of it—and the way I feel [about] his mindset ... I see improvement and a really good upward trend for him."

    Smith's range, athleticism and instincts are all excellent, so it's a matter of putting it all together in 2020.

Cincinnati Bengals: EDGE Sam Hubbard

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    Come 2021, if Joe Burrow isn't the most promising building block for the Cincinnati Bengals, there are going to be a lot of bummed out fans in the Queen City...again.

    But as great as Burrow was for LSU last year, he has yet to play a down in the NFL, so he's out.

    However, even in last year's 2-14 mess of a season, there were bright spots—and the play of defensive end Sam Hubbard was one of them.

    A second-round pick out of Ohio State in 2018, Hubbard was quietly solid as a rookie—39 tackles, six sacks and a forced fumble. Hubbard ratcheted up his level of play in 2019, piling up 76 tackles and 8.5 sacks while playing 80 percent of snaps.

    Heading into his third season, the 6'5", 265-pounder has already become one of the better strong-side edge-rushers in the game. He's capable of both setting the edge and collapsing the pocket, and he continues a line of solid D-linemen to move through Cincinnati over the last decade.

Cleveland Browns: QB Baker Mayfield

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    A year ago at this time, Baker Mayfield looked like a sure-fire superstar. He had just broken the rookie record for touchdown passes in a season, and the Cleveland Browns were the most hyped team of 2019.

    But that hype quickly turned to disappointment, both for player and team. Mayfield threw for slightly more yards, but other than that, his performance fell across the board. He threw 21 interceptions—tops in the AFC.

    Still, we saw two years ago that Mayfield is more than capable of leading an offense. The Cleveland offense is loaded with receiving talent and features an upgraded offensive line.

    In many ways, this is a make-or-break year for Mayfield. But he remains a skilled No. 1 overall pick who enters the season as the unquestioned starter. He should have every opportunity to succeed.

    He's not just a building block in Cleveland. He's the building block.

    The franchise's future depends on him.

Dallas Cowboys: WR Michael Gallup

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    In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys led the NFL in total offense. Wide receiver Michael Gallup might not have been the biggest reason for that explosion, but he was most assuredly one of them. In his second year, Gallup doubled his reception total, topped 1,100 yards and scored half a dozen touchdowns.

    And he may have just been getting started.

    There are a couple of reasons to believe Gallup's arrow could still be pointing upward. The first is talent—Gallup is a Biletnikoff Award finalist who rewrote the record book at Colorado State. He's not exceptionally tall or exceptionally fast, but there also isn't a real flaw in his game. Size, speed, hands, route-running—Gallup has it all.

    Then there's the loaded wideout corps in Dallas. With Gallup alongside veteran Amari Cooper and rookie CeeDee Lamb, it will be difficult for opposing defenses to key on one player. That means plenty of single coverage for Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott to exploit.

Denver Broncos: EDGE Bradley Chubb

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    Bradley Chubb of the Denver Broncos is one of several players in this piece whose ascension from high draft pick to building block to Pro Bowler was derailed by injury.

    As a rookie, Chubb was a force—after being drafted fifth overall in 2018, he racked up 41 tackles and 12 sacks. Chubb and the great Von Miller combined to pile up a jaw-dropping 26.5 sacks between them.

    Last year was a different story, though. Chubb tallied just one sack in four games before he suffered a torn ACL, and Miller took a step back as a result. Gil Brandt of NFL.com expects that to change.

    "A strong Year 3 from Chubb could provide a major boost to a Broncos team on the verge of potentially turning things around in 2020—and if he proves better than Miller, he could even allow the Broncos to move on from the decorated but pricy veteran next offseason," Brandt wrote.

    That last part will be a matter of some debate. What isn't is that Chubb is the future for the pass rush.

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay

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    Exception time again. The Detroit Lions are running short on young building blocks—as evidenced by the whopping three wins they had in 2019. So, Kenny Golladay gets the nod after his Pro Bowl season in 2019.

    It most likely won't be his last.

    Golladay had already posted one big season in his second year in the pros. The third-round pick out of Northern Illinois caught 70 passes for over 1,000 yards and five scores.

    In 2019, Golladay was even better. His catches dropped from 70 to 65, but Golladay bumped his yards to 1,190 and scored a league-best 11 receiving touchdowns. His 18.3 yards per catch led the NFC among players with 40 or more grabs.

    It was a classic breakout—and it capped Golladay's climb from the 12th wide receiver selected in the 2017 draft to one of the top five receivers in the NFC.

Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones

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    Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers is entering the final year of his rookie contract. But per Dave Schroeder of WBAY, the 25-year-old isn't letting his uncertain future cloud his present.

    "Whether it is my first year or my last year on a deal, I am going to be just as motivated," Jones said. "It doesn't change just because a contract is on the line for me. I am going to continue to work and do everything in my power. I trust my agency and the Packers with that. I would love to be a lifelong Packer."

    After Jones' 2019 season, Green Bay surely wants to bring him back. In addition to topping 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career, Jones averaged 4.6 yards per tote and scored a league-leading 16 times on the ground.

    The Packers have constructed an offense that is centered as much on the running game as Aaron Rodgers' right arm. And despite the presence of Jamaal Williams and rookie A.J. Dillon, Jones is the foundation.

Houston Texans: RT Tytus Howard

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    The Houston Texans have dedicated a boatload of resources to trying to revamp one of the worst offensive lines in football. In 2019, that included spending the 23rd overall pick on Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard.

    When he was on the field as a rookie, Howard played well. Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed just two sacks in 488 snaps over eight starts at right tackle and left guard.

    A knee injury cut Howard's rookie season short, but he told Drew Dougherty of the team's website that his rehab is progressing well and he's working on eliminating mistakes and playing smarter in 2020.

    "I wish what I know now I knew then," Howard said. "When you know more and you study more, it just makes you play faster and play better. That's my goal for this year: to study more and know more."

    Tytus was a first-round pick because of his length, strength and athleticism—the question was whether he could make the jump from the SWAC to the NFL.

    As his technique and understanding of the game grows, he is only going to get better.

Indianapolis Colts: RT Braden Smith

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    When it comes to the Indianapolis Colts offensive line, most of the glory goes to left guard Quenton Nelson. It's for good reason—Nelson has been arguably the best interior lineman in the league from the moment he set foot on an NFL field.

    However, Nelson wasn't the only lineman drafted that year who has made an impact. In Round 2, the Colts selected Auburn guard Braden Smith. By the second month of his rookie season, Smith was forced into the lineup at right tackle.

    Not only did he take well to the change, but he's since become one of the more underrated tackles in the NFL—and a player Colts head coach Frank Reich believes doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

    "When we moved him, we knew we had a great run-blocker," Reich said, via Andrew Walker of the team's website. "... 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."

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Gardner Minshew II

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    After the Nick Foles era lasted one disastrous season, the Jacksonville Jaguars are embarking on another rebuild. Veteran players such as defensive end Calais Campbell are giving way to younger players.

    A few pieces of that rebuild are already in place. Edge-rusher Josh Allen racked up 10.5 sacks as a rookie in 2019. Wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. topped 1,000 yards in his second season. Both made it to the Pro Bowl, however—so their promise has been at least partly realized.

    That leaves the young quarterback the Jags are counting on to lead the team in 2020—and beyond.

    Not much was expected from Gardner Minshew II coming out of Washington State—he wasn't selected by the Jags until the 178th overall pick. But when Foles suffered a broken collarbone in Week 1, Minshew was forced into action.

    Fans quickly fell in love with the fiery youngster (and his mustache). But to his credit, Minshew wasn't just entertaining—he topped 3,200 passing yards and tossed 21 touchdowns against just six interceptions with a passer rating of 91.2 and six wins in 12 starts.

    And thus, Minshew Mania was born.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB Charvarius Ward

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    In 2018, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward wasn't even invited to the Scouting Combine. The Dallas Cowboys signed the former Middle Tennessee State standout as an undrafted free agent, but just before the season, the Cowboys dealt Ward to the Kansas City Chiefs for guard Parker Ehinger.

    The Cowboys would no doubt like a do-over.

    By the end of his rookie season, Ward was starting in his first postseason game. By 2019, he was a full-time starter. And as Sam Hays of Arrowhead Report wrote, Ward didn't just start.

    He shined.

    "In the 2019 regular season, 40 cornerbacks played at least 800 total snaps," he said. "Among them, Charvarius Ward had the fourth-lowest passer rating when targeted (67.3), trailing only Tre'Davious White, Richard Sherman and Stephon Gilmore. Ward was also ahead of Gilmore and close to White in yards per coverage snap, with White finishing at 0.97, Ward finishing at 1.00 and Gilmore finishing at 1.08."

    And Ward played a major role for the Super Bowl champions.

Las Vegas Raiders: DE Maxx Crosby

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    The Las Vegas Raiders spent a lot of draft capital in recent years on upgrading the pass rush—including the fourth overall pick in 2019 on Clemson's Clelin Ferrell.

    But a defensive end who was drafted quite a bit later has become the foundation for the team's new-look line.

    Maxx Crosby paced the team with 10 sacks, adding 47 tackles and four forced fumbles. It was an outstanding first season, but Crosby told Tashan Reed of The Athletic that he has his sights set considerably higher.

    "I want to be in the conversation no matter what," he said. "I want to be one of the best pass-rushers—and D-ends in general—in the game. I'm willing and ready for anything that's going to be thrown at me."

    If the youngsters around Crosby help take some of the pressure off, he may just get his wish.

Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams

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    The Los Angeles Chargers are turning the page after moving on from Philip Rivers in the offseason. Whether it's veteran Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert, the Chargers' new quarterback is going to need all the help he can get from the team's weapons.

    Weapons such as fourth-year wide receiver Mike Williams.

    Williams has been on something of a steady ascent over the past three seasons. After an injury-marred rookie year, Williams became a big-time red-zone threat for the 12-4 Chargers in 2018, reeling in 10 touchdowns. He scored just twice in 2019, but he averaged 20.4 yards per reception—tops in the league—and topped 1,000 yards for the first time.

    Williams isn't the No. 1 wide receiver for the Chargers—that title still belongs to Keenan Allen, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three years. But if Williams keeps it up, it won't be that long before he receives a Pro Bowl nod of his own.

Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson III

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    The 2019 season was supposed to be a coming-out party for the Los Angeles Rams' John Johnson III, a third-year safety who was coming off a 2018 season in which he logged 119 tackles and intercepted four passes.

    Six games into the season, however, Johnson suffered a shoulder injury.

    On NFL Total Access, Johnson said he is healthy and looking forward to being a leader for the Rams' new-look defense.

    "We've got young guys coming in, and I'm going into Year 4 and I feel like I'm kind of the OG of the group," he said. "I feel like I'm Year 8 or 9, so it'll be fun just coaching those guys up and seeing them out there running and ripping."

    Given all the personnel losses from the offseason, the Rams are going to need Johnson's help both in the box against the run and in pass coverage.

    He's shown he can do both at a Pro Bowl level.

Miami Dolphins: TE Mike Gesicki

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    At first glance, Mike Gesicki's 2019 numbers don't appear all that impressive—the second-year tight end reeled in 51 passes for 570 yards and five touchdowns.

    But those numbers don't tell the whole story. Of Gesicki's 89 targets, 46 came over the last six games. So did all five of Gesicki's touchdowns. The 6'6", 249-pounder went from an afterthought in the Miami Dolphins offense to a key target.

    Gesicki and the Dolphins will be implementing a new system under Chan Gailey, and he told reporters (via Josh Houtz of SB Nation) he's ready.

    "I'm excited for whenever practice rolls around to just kind of go out there and kind of prove myself to a new offensive coordinator and a new guy calling the plays, because it's exciting. As a competitor, it's something I look forward to," he said.

    The Dolphins drafted the player they hope will be their franchise quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa. Having a safety valve such as Gesicki can only help his development.

Minnesota Vikings: RT Brian O'Neill

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    In his first season in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, right tackle Brian O'Neill played 800 snaps for the Minnesota Vikings without allowing a sack. The following year, O'Neill played 967 snaps and allowed just one sack.

    Not a bad start.

    The Vikings made the playoffs last year on the back of their ground game—only five teams in the league gained more yards.

    But that ground game faces substantial questions. Center Garrett Bradbury struggled as a rookie. Left guard Pat Elflein has had three up-and-down seasons. The left tackle spot is also uncertain—veteran Riley Reiff has struggled, and second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland is far from a sure bet to start in Week 1.

    Those uncertainties put that much more pressure on the 6'7", 297-pound O'Neill to be the foundation for the line.

    There's going to be a lot of strong-side off-tackle work for Dalvin Cook in 2020.

New England Patriots: LT Isaiah Wynn

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    It might seem odd for left tackle Isaiah Wynn to be listed as a promising building block for the New England Patriots. After all, of the 32 games Wynn could have played over his first two years, he appeared in only eight. He lost his rookie season to a torn Achilles and lost half the following year to a toe injury.

    But if the Patriots are going to have success in the first year of the post-Tom Brady era, Wynn has to be promising.

    To his credit, Wynn played well when on the field—he allowed just two sacks and committed three penalties in 502 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. And we are talking about a youngster who was considered one of the top offensive linemen in the class of 2018.

    The 6'2", 310-pounder has the skill set to become a quality starter. If he doesn't—and in relatively short order—the Pats are going to be in even more trouble than they already are.

New Orleans Saints: C Erik McCoy

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    The New Orleans Saints have already shown that they believe Erik McCoy is an important building block. They did so by cutting loose Pro Bowl right guard Larry Warford just after drafting Cesar Ruiz in the first round.

    McCoy certainly did his part to justify that level of confidence. As a rookie, he made all 16 starts. In 1,058 snaps, McCoy gave up just a single sack.

    However, that season ended in disappointing fashion with a wild-card loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings—which McCoy said he hasn't forgotten.

    "I made it through my first full season as a starter," McCoy said, via Luke Johnson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I was healthy. But we lost in the first round; that always feels like a huge failure. And on a personal level, there are still a lot of things I have to work on to sharpen my game physically and mentally, which is a lot of what I've been doing in this time."

    Whether it's with Ruiz at center and McCoy at right guard or vice versa, the Saints will count on their young linemen for years to come.

New York Giants: QB Daniel Jones

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    It didn't take Daniel Jones long to capture the imagination of fans in New York. In his first extensive game action, Jones threw for 336 yards and two scores (and ran for two more) in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Just like that, "Danny Dimes" was born.

    There wasn't a ton of winning for Jones and the G-Men in 2019—he was just 3-9 as the starter. But he completed 61.9 percent of his passes, tossed twice as many touchdown passes (24) as interceptions (12) and reached 3,027 yards.

    In his second season, Jones will learn a new offense under Jason Garrett. He told Matt Lombardo of NJ.com that he's already studying as best he can.

    "[I'm] diving into some of the Cowboys' stuff and what they had done in the past," Jones said. "The rules make it tough to communicate a whole lot about that stuff, so there's a little bit of patience involved in that and getting to the point where we could get the playbook and kind of understand some of the concepts and get some of the verbiage."

    Given what that offense did for Dak Prescott, Jones' second season could be something.

New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold

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    On some level, "promising" isn't the best word to describe Sam Darnold and his second season. It started in disastrous fashion, as he missed a month with mononucleosis. The Jets won just one game over the first half of the season.

    But it was a different story over the second half of the 2019 campaign. Darnold's numbers weren't particularly gaudy—he threw just 13 touchdown passes over the final eight games. But he also tossed just four interceptions, and the Jets peeled off six wins to finish 7-9.

    As Brian Costello of the New York Post reported, Chis Simms of NBC Sports thinks Darnold has only just scratched the surface.

    "I'm really excited with Sam," Simms said. "After weathering the storm last year, you can see what kind of player Sam is. He's phenomenal in the pocket. He's one of the best at moving in the pocket and delivering the ball from awkward deliveries. He's got a great way of hopping around and finding a crease to make the throw. He is a phenomenal intermediate to short passing game quarterback. I thought last year he really took strides with his deep ball and pushing the ball downfield."

    With a retooled line in front of Darnold, maybe we'll find out if Simms is right.

Philadelphia Eagles: RB Miles Sanders

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    In May, Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders sent some eyebrows skyward when he used the term "MVP year" to describe the upcoming campaign.

    "My confidence is through the roof and I know what I can do for this team," Sanders then tweeted. "I ain't apologizing for saying that, just don't be surprised when it happen!"

    To call Sanders a long shot to win the award is an understatement. But it's not a reach to say he could be the most important offensive weapon that quarterback Carson Wentz has at his disposal.

    As a rookie, Sanders burst into prominence down the stretch for the Eagles. Over the last five weeks of the regular season, he topped 100 total yards three times. Sanders averaged 4.6 yards per carry, caught 50 passes and topped 1,300 total yards.

    Without that late-season outburst, the Eagles would not have won the NFC East.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB DEvin Bush Jr.

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    Prior to last season, it had been a long time since the Pittsburgh Steelers traded up in Round 1 of the draft to select a defensive player. The trade that brought Devin Bush to the Steel City also put quite a bit of pressure on the former Michigan standout to make a big impact as a rookie.

    Bush delivered.

    In 889 snaps, Bush paced the Steelers with 109 tackles, including 72 solos. He also made quite the dent in the big-play column. In addition to a sack, Bush intercepted a pair of passes and recovered four fumbles—returning one for a touchdown.

    Per Austin Nivison of 247Sports, Bush said recently that he's only just getting started.

    "Walking out of last season, I was just proud and happy that I finished my first season healthy," Bush said. "I was able to walk away without having anything happen to me. I didn't need surgery, rehab, or anything like that. The part I really work on in my game is becoming a better NFL player and better person off the field as well as on the field. Just getting better at being a professional and carrying myself that way."

San Francisco 49ers : LB Fred Warner

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    The San Francisco 49ers have no shortage of young talent on both sides of the ball. Edge-rusher Nick Bosa won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and made the Pro Bowl in 2019. The Niners thought enough of Deebo Samuel's first season at wide receiver to let Emmanuel Sanders walk in free agency.

    But there's another young player has been even more important over the past two seasons.

    By the end of his first training camp, Fred Warner had earned a starting role at linebacker. He finished his rookie season with 124 tackles—a total that slotted him third among all first-year players. His numbers dipped a bit in his second season, but Warner's big-play output and level of play improved.

    Warner's salary is a fraction of batterymate Kwon Alexander's, but Warner has grown into the best linebacker on the team. As a matter of fact, outside of Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks, Warner is probably the best off-ball linebacker in the NFC West.

Seattle Seahawks: WR DK Metcalf

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    Leading up to the 2019 draft, there was at least one pundit who believed DK Metcalf would struggle in the NFL.

    In that idiot's defense, teams had enough concerns about Metcalf that the 6'4", 229-pounder fell to the end of Round 2.

    But Metcalf made clear in his rookie season that I was way off about his pro prospects.

    Metcalf's numbers weren't jaw-dropping—58 receptions for 900 yards. But he scored zone seven times and showed in short order that his physicality and ability to high-point the ball make him a big threat in the red zone.

    His coming-out party came in the Hawks' playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles: seven catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.

    Metcalf could be the team's No. 1 wide receiver as soon as this season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Devin White

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    The additions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made to the offense have stolen the headlines this offseason, but second-year linebacker Devin White told Carmen Vitali of the team's website that the defense will determine how far the team goes.

    "Before we signed Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, any of those guys, me and Coach [Todd] Bowles always said in the offseason as we've been talking and preparing that we [the defense] were going to be the ones to carry the team," White said. "The team is going to go as far as we go."

    Tampa Bay fielded the best run defense last year, but the pass defense was among the worst in the league. If the Buccaneers are going to improve on that, it will take a second-year leap from White, who had an up-and-down rookie season last year after being drafted fifth overall.

    While is the prototypical 21st-century inside linebacker with excellent range and lateral agility. His talent shined through last year, and he and veteran Lavonte David should form a formidable duo.

Tennessee Titans: WR A.J. Brown

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    The Tennessee Titans were full of surprises. No one expected Derrick Henry to lead the NFL in rushing. No one expected Ryan Tannehill to revive his career and win Comeback Player of the Year honors. No one expected the Titans to not only make the playoffs but also to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

    And no one expected wide receiver A.J. Brown to pace all rookies with 1,051 yards.

    A 6'1", 226-pounder out of Ole Miss, Brown was the 51st overall pick and the fourth wide receiver selected. It didn't take long for him to demonstrate that pick was well spent. In his first game, Brown reeled in three of four targets for 100 yards.

    That was the first of five 100-yard games for Brown, a dangerous vertical threat. He's the pass-catcher the Titans thought they were getting when they drafted Corey Davis fifth overall in 2017—an impact player who can change games.

Washington Redskins: EDGE Montez Sweat

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Fans of the Washington Redskins were probably hoping to see Dwayne Haskins listed here. And maybe the second-year signal-caller will blossom into a franchise quarterback. But after his rocky rookie season, that's far from a sure thing.

    Edge-rusher Montez Sweat isn't a sure bet either—but his first year in the pros went quite a bit better.

    It's gotten lost in all the hullabaloo surrounding the arrival of Chase Young in the nation's capital, but Sweat had quite the debut. In 724 snaps, per Pro Football Reference, he amassed 50 tackles and seven sacks.

    Among his teammates, only Matthew Ioannidis had more.

    In 2020, Sweat will play on a stacked line that features five first-round picks. Given all that talent, it's going to be hard for opponents to double-team anyone with regularity without leaving others clear to wreak havoc.

    A 10-sack sophomore season is well within reach for Sweat.


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