Which Surprise Starter Could Emerge for Every NFL Team in 2020?
NFL organizations try to prepare for every possibility, but surprises always occur. These surprises can be positive or negative. Sometimes, they're both.
An injury could lead to an opportunity for another individual, who shines when thrust into the lineup. Or an opportunity could arise when a player is benched or departs. Maybe someone simply outperforms expectations.
A year ago, Ryan Tannehill was a failed first-round pick expected to serve as Marcus Mariota's backup after being acquired via trade. Mariota struggled, Tannehill became the starter and the Titans thrived as the 31-year-old signal-caller led the way.
Projections can be made well before training camp occurs by looking at each squad's current setup and the options it has at each position. Each team will almost certainly have a surprise starter from the incoming rookie class, a developmental option or a veteran ready to reassert himself.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Hakeem Butler
The Arizona Cardinals swindled the Houston Texans out of four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but the move won't lessen opportunities for the team's younger targets.
A year ago, the Cardinals drafted three wide receivers. Hakeem Butler is the most physically gifted of the bunch. Unfortunately, the 6'5", 227-pound target missed his entire rookie season with a broken hand. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury hasn't forgotten about the young man's potential, though.
"Tons of ability," Kingsbury told reporters in May. "He's healthy. ... He knows what we expect of him and what we think he can be. I'm really excited when we can finally get him back on the field."
Butler is a massive target and legit vertical threat, which will only add to an offense that features Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald.
Atlanta Falcons: S Jaylinn Hawkins
The Atlanta Falcons knew their secondary needed reinforcements. The organization drafted Clemson's A.J. Terrell and Cal's Jaylinn Hawkins in the first and fourth rounds, respectively.
Obviously, expectations will be heaped on Terrell. Hawkins won't be viewed in the same manner, but maybe he should.
"The physicality, the play-making ability, the turnovers that he's created, that's been a big factor," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said of Hawkins, per Will McFadden of the team's official site. "And, so, adding another guy like that on to the defense, that's a big push."
Hawkins isn't a stellar athlete, but he understands angles and route recognition since he played wide receiver and cornerback before converting to safety. He should immediately serve as a sub-package contributor and insurance behind Keanu Neal, who has suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries.
Baltimore Ravens: LB Malik Harrison
The Baltimore Ravens allowed Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor to leave in free agency, creating a gigantic hole at inside linebacker.
L.J. Fort remains as the unit's veteran. General manager Eric DeCosta invested a first-round selection in LSU's Patrick Queen and double-dipped by selecting Ohio State's Malik Harrison with the 98th overall pick.
Queen's strengths stem from his athleticism and ability to work in space, whereas Harrison is more physical. Those complementary skill sets should feed off each other. As a result, both rookies could start this fall, and the Ravens wouldn't need to lean on Fort.
"We can move those guys around. ... You can kind of stereotype them a little bit: You have a big thumper and you have a sideline-to-sideline speed guy," head coach John Harbaugh told reporters. "But really, they've both done both, and I'm sure that we can do whatever we want."
Buffalo Bills: CB Josh Norman
Josh Norman could experience a career revival with the Buffalo Bills thanks to a reunion with Sean McDermott.
McDermott served as the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator during a period when Norman worked himself into being one of the league's best cornerbacks. Norman eventually left Carolina, signed with the Washington Redskins on the league's richest cornerback deal and saw his overall level of play decrease over the last four seasons.
Norman's usage in a different scheme didn't play to his strengths. That won't be the case in Buffalo, where he'll return to the system in which he thrived.
The cornerback spot opposite Tre'Davious White should be an open competition, though Levi Wallace started all 16 games last season. Now in the right situation, the 32-year-old Norman could take the spot and not look back.
Carolina Panthers: OG Greg Little
The Carolina Panthers selected Greg Little in the second round of the 2019 draft with the expectation he'd become the team's future left tackle. Little started three games but didn't fare particularly well.
This offseason, the Panthers traded five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to the Los Angeles Chargers for left tackle Russell Okung. With the veteran now set to take over blindside duties and Taylor Moton starting at right tackle, the plans for Little seem less certain.
WFNZ's Kyle Bailey reported the team "is interested in seeing what Greg Little could be at guard."
The team's interior is far more fluid. Dennis Daley, Tyler Larsen and John Miller, who signed as a free agent this offseason, are the team's top options. However, Little's potential inclusion shifts the dynamic because of the second-year blocker's level of talent.
Chicago Bears: LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Nick Kwiatkoski's free-agent departure will create ripple effects throughout the Chicago Bears defense. He started eight games last season because of injuries to Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith.
While Trevathan and Smith return, the team's third linebacker spot remains important since that duo has combined to start a full 16-game slate just twice in 10 total seasons. Plus, another linebacker could get extra opportunities in sub-packages.
The Bears didn't sign or draft anyone to fill this role.
Instead, Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Josh Woods will have an opportunity to serve as depth and possibly more. Iyiegbuniwe should have the edge as a 2018 fourth-round pick—Woods went undrafted that year—and the fact that he played in 31 games over the last two seasons.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Markus Bailey
The Cincinnati Bengals featured the league's worst set of linebackers last season, and the front office made sure to rectify the situation by signing Josh Bynes in free agency and drafting Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey.
Bailey may have been the last of the prospects drafted, and he's a seventh-round pick who's coming off a season-ending knee injury, but his skill set translates well to the professional game.
The two-time Purdue Boilermakers team captain works well in space. Bailey may not be the ideal athlete at the position after two ACL reconstructions, but he's a potential three-down linebacker if given the opportunity to compete for playing time.
The Bengals could reach a point where all three linebackers are starting at some point this fall, and they'll be better off than they were last season.
Cleveland Browns: S Sheldrick Redwine
New Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told reporters he would like to transition away from a traditional 4-3 front "to a dime system with an extra safety or nickel package," per Fred Greetham of Orange and Brown Report.
Nickel is the leaguewide base formation because of the number of multiple-receiver sets defenses face on a down-by-down basis. But the utilization of extra defensive backs within a specific scheme differentiates each team's approach.
In Cleveland, Woods clearly wants to use more safeties. The Browns have Karl Joseph, Andrew Sendejo and this year's second-round pick, Grant Delpit, as their top options. But Sheldrick Redwine, whom the organization chose in last year's fourth round, shouldn't be overlooked.
Redwine came into the league as an instinctive safety who could very well be placed in a position to start, especially considering Joseph's extensive injury history.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Aldon Smith
Aldon Smith was well on his way to becoming one of the NFL's greatest pass-rushers after registering 33.5 sacks through his first two seasons. But he has been arrested multiple times for driving under the influence and has faced domestic violence and weapons charges as well, and he hasn't played since 2015.
It's easy to forget how good Smith was. The 2011 seventh overall pick previously ranked top-five all-time in sacks per game, per NFL GameDay.
The NFL conditionally reinstated the 30-year-old in May. If he returns anywhere close to form, the Cowboys would definitely receive a pass-rush boost.
"I feel great," Smith told SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Inside the Star's Matthew Lenix). "I feel young. I feel [like I'm in] my 20s. I feel fresh. So I'm good on that. My weight's good. I'm a little heavier, but it's all muscle and I've been carrying it long enough and I move well, if not better. I mean, I'm healthy."
Denver Broncos: C Austin Schlottmann
Normally, third-round draft picks aren't guaranteed starting spots, nor should they since questions arise about their readiness to take over from Day 1.
Even so, 2020 third-rounder Lloyd Cushenberry III looks like an instant starter at center for the Denver Broncos. While this may ultimately prove to be true, it's not a given.
Austin Schlottmann started four games in 2019 and will compete for the opportunity to snap the football to quarterback Drew Lock. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio has already declared a competition at center among Cushenberry, Schlottmann and Patrick Morris.
It's possible offensive line coach Mike Munchak is more comfortable with having the veteran start instead of inserting a rookie into the lineup with limited on-field learning opportunities.
Detroit Lions: LB Jahlani Tavai
Jahlani Tavai doesn't just need to be on the field; the versatile linebacker needs to be in the Detroit Lions' starting lineup.
However, the Detroit Lions have multiple starting-caliber linebackers after this offseason's dealings.
Jarrad Davis remains on the final year of his rookie deal. Plus, the front office signed Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland in free agency. Those three could very well be the team's starting linebackers, even though Tavai is more talented than Davis and has a more varied skill set than Collins at this point in the veteran's career.
What makes Tavai special is that he excels in multiple areas. He's simultaneously adept at getting after opposing quarterbacks and dropping into coverage.
Considering Matt Patricia's lineage as a coach from the Bill Belichick tree, Tavai's level of diversity should warrant a starting job, though it's not guaranteed.
Green Bay Packers: RB AJ Dillon
Expect a different approach from the Green Bay Packers offense in Matt LaFleur's second season. The scheme should look more like the one he led as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator.
Derrick Henry took over as Tennessee's primary ball-carrier during the 2018 campaign. Green Bay's 2020 second-round pick, AJ Dillon, has the potential to do the same this fall.
"I don't want to compare AJ to Derrick other than the fact they're both big humans that run really fast," LaFleur told reporters. "I think any time you've got a big back in cold-weather places, toward the end of the season when teams get a little bit beat up, that's a challenge to tackle."
Aaron Jones may have tied Henry with 16 rushing touchdowns last season, but the veteran back can expect his workload to decrease with the 247-pound Dillon now on the roster.
Houston Texans: EDGE Jonathan Greenard
Anthony Weaver took over for Romeo Crennel as the Houston Texans defensive coordinator this offseason. Weaver plans to employ more of an attacking scheme with built-in flexibility in how certain individuals are utilized.
The Texans are set with Whitney Mercilus at outside linebacker, and Brennan Scarlett started 10 games last season. But the Texans defensive staff has plans to utilize the franchise's third-round pick, Jonathan Greenard, to his fullest.
"John Greenard was a guy that you could see," Weaver told reporters. "Doing a bunch of things for us, and I think position flexibility, particularly in the defense we're trying to institute, adds a tremendous amount of value."
Greenard is a more fluid edge-rusher compared to Scarlett, and the rookie could usurp a starting spot as a result.
Indianapolis Colts: TE Mo Alie-Cox
Two years ago, Eric Ebron led all tight ends with 13 receiving touchdowns. His production took a serious downturn in 2019 with Andrew Luck's retirement and Jack Doyle's return to the lineup.
Ebron signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, which will create more opportunities for another tight end with Philip Rivers now in place to lead the Indianapolis Colts offense.
Rivers has a long history of throwing to Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry.
Doyle will continue to be the starter, but Mo Alie-Cox should receive plenty of chances since the Colts used two or more tight ends on 33 percent of their offensive snaps last season, according to Sharp Football Stats.
The Colts signed Trey Burton this offseason, but he was a free-agent disappointment for the Chicago Bears, while Alie-Cox brings more size and athleticism to the position.
Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Ryquell Armstead
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette is extremely talented, but friction exists between the 2017 fourth overall pick and the team's coaching staff.
Earlier this offseason, NFL Network's Michael Silver reported the Jaguars were working their way through a "functional retool." Fournette becomes a potential sticking point in this transition. The Associated Press' Mark Long tweeted that Jacksonville's coaches "pretty much hate the guy."
Fournette may be a gifted power runner, but he is replaceable. If the front office does decide to move its previous first-round investment, Ryquell Armstead can shoulder a much bigger workload.
While Armstead did not play well as a rookie in 2019 and averaged only 3.1 yards per carry, the Jaguars won't give up on the young ball-carrier so soon after investing a fifth-round draft pick in him.
Kansas City Chiefs: OL Lucas Niang
The Kansas City Chiefs offense is loaded, and the unit lost very little this offseason. However, Stefen Wisniewski, who started at left guard throughout the team's Super Bowl run, has signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Chiefs have veteran options in Andrew Wylie and Mike Remmers to start at left guard. A third possibility could emerge in this year's third-round draft pick, Lucas Niang.
"I think right off the bat he'll have a chance to kick in there and compete at guard," general manager Brett Veach told reporters.
Niang played tackle in college and excelled. He didn't allow a sack the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. But Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz are set at tackle. Niang can make more of an impact at guard.
Las Vegas Raiders: OG John Simpson
Will Gabe Jackson be the Las Vegas Raiders' starting right guard this fall?
The above question continues to swirl after the organization placed Jackson on the trade block in March, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
At this point, the Raiders have two options if they're eager to move Jackson: Either they take whatever a suitor is willing to relinquish for the soon-to-be 29-year-old blocker, or they release him and save $9.6 million.
Either way, general manager Mike Mayock covered the team's bases by drafting Clemson's John Simpson in this year's fourth round. Like Jackson, Simpson is a powerful guard at the point of attack and tailor-made for the Raiders' offensive scheme.
The 2019 consensus All-American played in 50 games with 29 starts at Clemson and could be an instant starter.
Los Angeles Chargers: LT Forrest Lamp
Too much of an emphasis is placed on body type and arm length when evaluating offensive linemen. The quality of a prospect's film is often overlooked when he doesn't fit a certain mold.
The Los Angeles Chargers' Forrest Lamp serves as a perfect example. Lamp played as well or better than any tackle prospect in the 2017 draft class. The Western Kentucky product ranked first overall in pass-blocking efficiency during his senior season, per Pro Football Focus.
Yet he never had an opportunity to play the position in the NFL before moving to guard.
Now, the Chargers have a left tackle problem after trading Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers. Trey Pipkins and Sam Tevi, who previously started at right tackle, will compete for the starting spot. Give Lamp a legit shot to win the job, and he may just surprise.
Los Angeles Rams: LB Terrell Lewis
The Los Angeles Rams need someone—anyone—to fill the void left by Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews. They combined for 19.5 sacks last season.
Aaron Donald collapses the pocket, but the Rams don't have anyone else who can consistently apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
General manager Les Snead did invest a third-round pick in Alabama's Terrell Lewis. Lewis set career highs as a junior with 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Those numbers aren't overly impressive, but they represent the potential found in a naturally gifted athlete.
Lewis has all of the physical tools (6'5" and 262 pounds with 33⅞-inch arms) to displace Samson Ebukam or Leonard Floyd as a starting outside linebacker if his upside translates to the professional level.
Miami Dolphins: S Brandon Jones
The Miami Dolphins revamped their secondary this offseason, making Byron Jones the NFL's highest-paid cornerback opposite Xavien Howard and drafting Noah Igbinoghene in the first round and Brandon Jones in the third.
The flexibility head coach Brian Flores has within this group is outstanding, so drafting a prospect like Jones shouldn't come as a surprise.
Jones is listed as a safety, but he found his niche a year ago when the Texas Longhorns staff primarily used him to cover the slot.
As Pro Football Focus noted, Jones took at least 154 snaps in the box, as the free safety or over the slot. This year's 70th overall pick should find a way onto the field even though he wasn't the first defensive back Miami drafted.
Minnesota Vikings: DT Hercules Mata'afa
Weight, or lack thereof, has always been a problem for Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa. He dominated in college at Washington State despite being an undersized defensive tackle. The Vikings list the defensive lineman at 254 pounds.
But it's time to get serious about Mata'afa as a potential starter at 3-technique over Shamar Stephen. The 24-year-old lineman tweeted a photo showing he weighed 289 pounds as of early April.
Co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson made a point to include Mata'afa during a discussion about his group up front.
"Don't forget Hercules Mata'afa, too," Patterson said, per the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Dane Mizutani. He added: "There's great talent within the group. There's a good mix of experience and youth. You've still got a good group of guys that are working to continue to progress their games, and I think we've got some guys that are ready to turn the corner."
New England Patriots: QB Brian Hoyer
For the last 20 years, the New England Patriots have consistently been the NFL's most well-prepared team. A foundation of Bill Belichick's mantra, "Do your job," and having Tom Brady lead the squad onto the field built such a stable situation.
Brady is no longer in New England, and the Patriots don't have the luxury they once did at the quarterback position.
The coaching staff could take the surprising approach of leaning on veteran Brian Hoyer instead of inserting the presumed favorite for the job, Jarrett Stidham. Hoyer knows the system. He can step in and lead the Patriots when practice and preparation could be limited.
Furthermore, Stidham isn't guaranteed to excel even if he does start. Belichick could look to Hoyer so the team remains competitive through this transitory phase.
New Orleans Saints: DT Shy Tuttle
Sometimes a team must make room for talented young players who've earned more playing time, even if that squad has established starters.
The New Orleans Saints are relatively set along their defensive front with Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown and Marcus Davenport. However, Shy Tuttle, who signed with the organization as an undrafted free agent last year, played well enough in a limited role to possibly become a featured performer.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tuttle graded 30th overall among qualifying defensive tackles last season.
On top of that, Rankins is coming off a season-ending ankle injury while entering the final year of his rookie contract. Tuttle could very well become his long-term replacement.
New York Giants: CB Corey Ballentine
The New York Giants signed James Bradberry to a three-year, $43.5 million free-agent contract this offseason, but that won't solve all of the unit's secondary issues.
DeAndre Baker's standing with the team and league remains up in the air after he was arrested on four counts of armed robbery with a firearm and four counts of aggravated assault. However, his attorneys say they have sworn affidavits from two witnesses that state the cornerback didn't rob or point a gun at anyone, per the New York Post's Paul Schwartz.
As of now, the Giants must operate under the assumption Baker will miss games this season.
Corey Ballentine and Sam Beal are the logical replacement options. While Ballentine struggled as a rookie, he could excel as a true outside corner after being moved inside a year ago to cover the slot.
New York Jets: CB Bryce Hall
Bryce Hall was one of the best cornerbacks in the 2020 draft class, but he tumbled to the fifth round because of a devastating leg injury during his final season on campus.
Hall suffered a broken fibula, torn deltoid ligaments and a dislocated ankle. However, he's expected to be fully healthy once the New York Jets take the field for training camp.
"The first time I really got a prognosis was a week before I went to the combine," Hall told the Roanoke Times' Doug Doughty. "The doctors and my [personal trainer] said I should be 100 percent by training camp."
Prior to said injury, Hall displayed elite ball skills. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6'1", 202-pound defensive back led the nation with 23 forced incompletions during the 2018 campaign.
Philadelphia Eagles: LB T.J. Edwards
The Philadelphia Eagles' linebacker corps is concerning. A projected starting group of Nathan Gerry, Jatavis Brown and possibly Alex Singleton doesn't inspire much hope.
The younger options on the roster present some upside, though. The Eagles may be better off moving forward with T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley and this year's third-round pick, Davion Taylor.
Of the previously mentioned linebackers, Brown has the most starting experience. The 2016 fifth-round pick has also battled injuries throughout his four-year career. As such, Edwards could easily find himself running the Eagles defense as its "Mike" linebacker.
"He's the kind of player that nobody in our scouting department gets excited about because he's not fast or splashy, but he knows how to play," an NFC linebackers coach told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein before the 2019 NFL draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RT Zach Banner
The Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff made the odd decision to move a more-than-capable right tackle in Matt Feiler to guard, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Joe Rutter.
Feiler could still start at right tackle depending on how training camp competitions play out, but the organization wants to give Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner a chance to earn the spot.
Okorafor, a 2018 third-round pick, may be considered the favorite, but Banner placed himself in a position to secure the job after getting in shape. He admitted to The Athletic's Mark Kaboly that he once had a "binge eating problem" in college and entered the league at 360 pounds.
Now, Banner has shown why he was a fourth-round pick in 2017 despite those weight issues thanks to putting in the necessary work to be considered for the position.
San Francisco 49ers: DT Kevin Givens
So much of the San Francisco 49ers' success last season was built upon the play of their defensive front. The approach should continue this fall, but the group won't look the same after general manager John Lynch traded DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts and Sheldon Day signed with the same AFC South squad.
The 49ers responded by drafting Javon Kinlaw with this year's 14th overall pick. However, San Francisco's effectiveness derived from its depth and how its pass-rushers came at opposing quarterbacks in waves.
Opportunities should arise for others, especially since Solomon Thomas is in the final year of his rookie contract after three disappointing seasons.
Kevin Givens signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent last year. He's undersized but very active. His ability to get into the opponent's backfield fits perfectly with the 49ers.
Seattle Seahawks: TE Colby Parkinson
Yes, Colby Parkinson recently suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot during an offseason workout, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
No timeline has been provided for the rookie fourth-round pick's return. Even so, his inclusion is based on the possibility of a return this season with a heavy emphasis on the injury histories found among the Seahawks' other tight ends.
Veteran Greg Olsen hasn't played a full season since the 2016 campaign. Will Dissly suffered serious leg injuries to end his first two seasons. Jacob Hollister is a fine backup, but the organization clearly wanted to upgrade the position.
A healthy Parkinson is an instant mismatch. At the very least, the 6'7", 251-pound target is a red-zone and third-down threat. At best, the Stanford product is the starter at some point during his rookie campaign.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Tyler Johnson
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already feature the game's best wide receiver combo in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. The rich got richer when Minnesota's Tyler Johnson fell to the Buccaneers with the 161st overall pick in this year's draft.
"I was just shaking waiting on that one," head coach Bruce Arians told reporters. "I actually sat here and watched that game [the Outback Bowl] here in Tampa with my son and said, 'I've got to get this guy.' I mean, it was like we really wanted him."
Scotty Miller is a capable slot receiver, and the Buccaneers have enough talent at tight end to predominantly rely on 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers).
But Johnson led all wide receivers in the 2020 class with an average of 3.49 yards per route run out of the slot, per Pro Football Focus.
Tennessee Titans: DL Larrell Murchison
Jeffery Simmons and DaQuan Jones are extremely talented along the Tennessee Titans defensive front, but the team's front office chose to trade five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos this offseason.
Casey's departure creates opportunities for others along the defensive line, starting with Isaiah Mack, who is expected to take over a starting role. The depth behind Simmons, Jones and Mack is suspect, though.
Tennessee drafted North Carolina State's Larrell Murchison in this year's fifth round. Murchison is a versatile piece of the puzzle with the capability to play on the edge or move inside to defensive tackle.
The third starting spot shouldn't be viewed as a foregone conclusion now or any point during the regular season depending on individual performances. If Murchison adjusts quickly, he could push Mack to play alongside Simmons and Jones.
Washington Redskins: QB Kyle Allen
Dwayne Haskins is the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback.
However, the organization and the league itself face uncertain times. Haskins may not be prepared because of a regime change after a truncated preseason or could perform below expectations during the regular season, opening the door for Kyle Allen.
Head coach Ron Rivera discussed Allen's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Turner and his system after Washington traded for the 24-year-old quarterback.
"If we were told, 'Hey, you've got two weeks to go,' I would feel very comfortable with Kyle," Rivera told reporters, "because here's a guy that knows the system, has been in the system and could handle it for us for a period of time, and we'll see how that goes. That's kind of the thought process behind it for us."