Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Teams and Players

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2020

Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Teams and Players

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Every year, the early weeks of the NFL season bring a number of surprise players and teams. Some of them prove to be the real deal over the course of the season, while others turn out to be the product of a strong short-term stretch.

    Last season, for example, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson started the season looking like a viable MVP candidate. He was. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross III appeared to finally be the dynamic weapon the team thought it was drafting at No. 9 overall in 2017. He wasn't.

    Two weeks into the 2020 season, several similar breakout stars and teams have emerged. These breakouts have either showcased a significant jump from previous seasons or, in the case of teams and rookies, have exceeded expectations thus far.

    Using factors like surrounding talent, sustainability and scheme fit, we'll buy or sell these potential breakout stars and their outlooks for the 2020 season.

Buy: Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was supposed to be a star upon entering the NFL. He was coming off perhaps the greatest college quarterbacking season of all time and was a no-questions-asked No. 1 pick. However, he was also joining a 2-14 squad and playing without a preseason, so it was fair to wonder if he would be overwhelmed out of the gate.

    Through two games, Burrow absolutely looks like he belongs in the NFL. While he's made some rookie mistakes, he's shown a tremendous command of the offense, great confidence at the line of scrimmage, poise under pressure and plenty of toughness.

    "The guy is tough. He took a lot of shots, and he bounced right back up," Cleveland Browns pass-rusher Myles Garrett told reporters after the teams' Week 2 matchup.

    Don't expect Burrow to be a statistical marvel this season—he's completed a good-but-not-great 60 of 97 passes for 509 yards, three touchdowns and one interception—but he shouldn't buckle under the pressure of being a rookie on a bad team anytime soon.

    Burrow is a viable Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Sell: Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert wasn't expected to be a polished pro right away. In fact, he wasn't even supposed to start this early, as L.A. was set to roll with veteran Tyrod Taylor for the foreseeable future. However, an unexpected chest injury sidelined Taylor in Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Not only did Herbert get the start against Kansas City, but he also played well and nearly got the win. The Chargers took Kansas City deep into overtime, and Herbert finished 22-of-33 for 311 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception, 18 rushing yards and a rushing score.

    However, there are a couple of reasons to put the Herbert hype on hold. For one, he was playing against a team that likely spent no time preparing to face him. As well, the Chargers seem insistent on returning to Taylor as soon as he's ready to play again.

    "If Tyrod Taylor's 100 percent, he's our quarterback," head coach Anthony Lynn told the media.

    While Herbert could get a few more chances to prove himself this season—and indeed has a bright future—don't expect him to chase Burrow in the race for Rookie of the Year.

Buy: James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    A player who might vie with Burrow for rookie honors is Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson. The undrafted rookie out of Illinois State faced virtually no expectations coming into 2020. However, he obtained a few when the Jaguars released former starter Leonard Fournette.

    Still, Robinson has obliterated any post-Fournette expectations he may have carried and become a central piece of the Jacksonville offense. Through two games, he has rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown on 5.1 yards per carry and has added 46 yards on four receptions.

    Only seven players have rushed for more yards than Robinson.

    "What you guys are seeing now is probably what I've been seeing all of camp," head coach Doug Marrone said in a press conference.

    Will we continue to see greatness from Robinson this season? Probably. He has all but cemented himself as the team's new starter. He has a quality quarterback in Gardner Minshew II, and he's proved he can run over a playoff-caliber team like the Tennessee Titans.

Sell: Malcolm Brown, RB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    When the Los Angeles Rams parted with starting running back Todd Gurley in the offseason, few expected that longtime backup Malcolm Brown would be the heir to his proverbial throne. However, in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, Brown played a lot like a Gurley clone, racking up 79 rushing yards, 31 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

    Despite suffering a finger injury late in Week 2, he rushed for 47 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

    However, it's unrealistic to expect Brown to put up numbers like a top-tier back throughout 2020. For starters, the Rams are employing a committee approach at running back this season and are likely to ride the hot hand. The hot hand in Week 2 was Darrell Henderson, who rushed for 81 yards, had 40 receiving yards and found the end zone.

    Though rookie running back Cam Akers is dealing with a rib injury, he's also going to be in the mix this season. While Brown was able to get out from underneath Gurley's shadow in Week 1, he's unlikely to remain in the spotlight all season.

Buy: Las Vegas Raiders

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders might not be the biggest surprise of 2020, but after they thumped the New Orleans Saints on Monday night—a squad that has won 13 games in each of the last two seasons—they're 2-0 and just might be the breakout team of the year.

    The Raiders don't appear to be a mirage either. While they're far from flawless, their new-look offense appears to be one of the best in the NFL. Josh Jacobs is an elite running back, Henry Ruggs III is stretching the field—even if he isn't consistently making plays—and Darren Waller is playing like the next great NFL tight end.

    Perhaps more importantly, Derek Carr seems to have regained the MVP-caliber form he had back in 2016. He has completed 73.5 percent of his passes for 521 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

    Only three teams have scored more points this season than Las Vegas.

    While the defense is flawed, it can make plays when needed—the Saints scored just seven points in the second half. The Raiders might not be ready to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West crown, but they should be a playoff team.

Sell: Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders might be the next hot team in the NFL. What about the 2-0 Chicago Bears? They're tied for the NFC North lead and seem to be getting the best version of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to date.

    However, crowning Chicago as an NFC contender after it bested the Detroit Lions and New York Giants would be foolhardy. Those teams are winless and were playing without arguably their best offensive weapons—Kenny Golladay missed Week 1, while Saquon Barkley suffered a torn ACL in Week 2.

    The Bears defense is stout, but it isn't going to shut down every offense it faces. While Trubisky has indeed played well through two weeks, it could be misleading.

    Trubisky is still completing less than 60 percent of his passes and has played two of the most underwhelming defenses in the NFL. The Lions ranked dead last in pass defense a year ago and were missing rookie third overall pick Jeff Okudah in Week 1. The Giants ranked 28th in pass defense last season, and while they've shown improvements this year, they've still allowed five touchdowns and logged just two interceptions—both off Trubisky.

    This new-and-improved version of Trubisky isn't likely to last all season, especially once he starts facing stiffer competition. Don't expect Chicago to be the serious playoff contender it appears to be right now.

Buy: Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen showed flashes of talent in his first two pro seasons, but he struggled with consistency, pocket awareness and accuracy—he completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Now in year three, Allen looks like a brand-new quarterback and one who could follow Lamar Jackson as a surprise MVP candidate.

    Through two games, Allen has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 729 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He's also rushed for 75 yards and another score. Just as importantly, he's shown the poise under pressure that suggests he is indeed the franchise quarterback Buffalo believed it was drafting.

    "He's got ice water in his veins, man," head coach Sean McDermott told reporters.

    Can Allen sustain his greatness throughout the 2020 season? Absolutely. He's likely to fall back to earth a bit statistically—he's played the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins so far—but his confidence, athleticism, arm talent and new No. 1 receiver in Stefon Diggs aren't going anywhere.

    Expect Allen to remain in the MVP conversation through December.