Every year in the NFL, youngsters and veterans alike we’ve never heard of come out of seemingly thin air to have dramatically increased roles and impacts for their specific clubs. For whatever reason, whether it’s finally getting a coordinator to use them correctly, or the player himself breaks through a barrier – it’s a tried and true formula that comes to fruition every season. The trouble is trying to get ahead of the curve on which players may be up next to explode onto the scene. Below is my best guess for the 2019 campaign:
QB: Sam Darnold (NYJ)
A second-year player this fall out of USC, Darnold had an up-and-down rookie season for the Jets that saw him grow substantially over the course of the year. Perhaps none of the ups higher than his debut in which he absolutely dismantled the Lions on the road on Monday Night Football. The reaction from Jets fans was overwhelmingly positive in a transition year, and with a new offensive mind running the show in Adam Gase – it’s not impossible to think Darnold could continue the run of breakout QB’s we’ve seen the past two seasons (Wentz & Mahomes).
RB: Rashaad Penny (SEA)
Thought to be one of the better value picks on day two of the draft in 2018, the Seahawks shocked everyone when they felt confident enough to select Penny 27th overall in round 1. Seattle had good reason to do so as Penny led all of college football his final season at San Diego State with 2,248 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, good for a 5th place finish in the Heisman voting. He had a tough rookie season in 2018, playing behind Chris Carson for most of it, but when he did play he averaged nearly 5 yards-per-carry, evidence he can produce at the NFL level. With Carson’s presence and skill, Penny’s upside will continue to be capped - but when you draft a runner in the first round, the hope is that he’ll eventually be your starter. Combine that with Carson’s injury history, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s Penny’s show come November.
WR: James Washington (PIT)
For as long as I can remember, Pittsburgh has been head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league when it comes to identifying wide-out talent. From Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El, to Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have always had an elite wide receiving corps. Now with the exodus of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, that leaves Smith-Schuster as the only productive pass catcher from last year. James Washington is in his second year out of Oklahoma State and has elite size. Apart from that, he was able to spend most of last year adjusting to the NFL while still getting a handful of snaps. He’ll have a much larger role this fall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes one of Big Ben’s favorite targets.
TE: Chris Herndon IV (NYJ)
Chris Herndon is maybe the first truly unknown name on this list. This fall he’ll be a second-year player out of The U - picked by the Jets in the 4th round of the 2018 draft, a few selections after teammate and fellow member of this list Sam Darnold. As with most rookies, especially mid-round picks – Herndon had to battle his way up the depth chart, but once he became the team’s primary receiving tight end, he quickly became a security blanket for Darnold. Herndon improved every week and by season’s end, finished second on the team in receiving behind Robby Anderson with around 500 yards and 4 TD’s. After being the 6th tight end taken in the draft, he posted the best numbers out of any of them. I’d expect Herndon to become an even bigger part of the offense this year as his rapport with Darnold grows.
OL: Will Hernandez (NYG)
Hernandez is another guy you’ve almost certainly never heard of before unless you’re a Giants fan, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a beast. He’s a 2nd rounder out of UTEP and someone the front office clearly had earmarked to block for Saquon Barkley, who they drafted a round earlier. People close to the team say he is nasty when engaged on the offensive line and Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded him as the 21st best guard in the league his rookie season. With all the hype surrounding Quinton Nelson, Hernandez quietly turned in a fine rookie season. With Eli in decline, the defense in shambles, and OBJ gone, the Giants will want to run the ball often - and they’ll look to Hernandez to do it.
DI: Solomon Thomas (SF)
There’s no other way to say it. Solomon Thomas has been a disappointment since arriving in the Bay Area a few years ago. Thomas played his college ball at Stanford, was selected third overall in 2017, and was thought to be the next great thing on the interior. It hasn’t worked out that way so far, but if the 49’ers hope to contend for a playoff spot in 2019, Thomas will be a big reason why. He apparently has had some struggles with depression in the past that could be affecting his play to this point. But, if he can keep that behind him, he has the size and athleticism to compliment DeForest Buckner and make the San Fran defensive interior one of the best in the NFC.
EDGE: Harold Landry (TEN)
Another player entering his second season, Harold Landry was a player I really personally enjoyed in college. With an ability to bend the edge like few can, his closing speed and balance allowed him to just clobber quarterbacks at Boston College. Now in the NFL, Landry found out the tackles are a little harder to beat with the same trick every time. He was by no means disappointing in 2018, but with a full season of experience under his belt I’d expect him to take a big leap into the 2019 season and become a name for one of the NFL’s sneaky best defenses the last couple of seasons.
LB: Roquan Smith (CHI)
While having a solid rookie season for the Bears in 2018, it was very apparent that Roquan Smith is just scratching the surface of how dominant he can be in the league. Drafted high by Chicago out of Georgia where he starred for years, expectations for him were high in the Windy City. Hampered due to a preseason hold-out regarding a clause in his contract about suspension pay, Roquan wasn’t as up to speed with the complexity of NFL schemes as he would’ve been otherwise. Because of this, he was a little slow out of the gate, but his talent was obvious. He finished as the 39th best linebacker according to PFF, but it’ll be interesting to see him take on an expanded role captaining the middle of the defense with his speed and athleticism.
CB: Donte Jackson (CAR)
Another SEC guy, you couldn’t miss Donte Jackson in the LSU purple and gold on Saturdays. He was a 2nd rounder for coach Ron Rivera’s team back in 2018 and for all the hype of his teammate Greedy Williams in the 2019 draft, Jackson consistently looked like the better player. He gelled well in Rivera’s zone defense and had a pretty good rookie year, especially considering the type of wide receiver talent the NFC South has to offer (Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Michael Thomas). This defensive system was able to produce a star out of nowhere in Josh Norman a few years back, and Jackson looks like he has the tools and the head on his shoulders to be another great Carolina corner.
S: Jessie Bates III (CIN)
This pick is maybe cheating a little bit, because you could make the argument Jessie Bates has already broken out in this league – but the thing is nobody has heard of him. He and Donte Jackson were literally picked back-to-back in the draft, which goes to show how important second round picks are, but also demonstrates how good players on bad teams can disappear. The Bengals weren’t good last season, and the prognosis isn’t much better this year, but Bates can play. PFF rated him as the 12th best safety in the entire league as a ROOKIE. Assuming he can stay healthy, I’d expect him to take another step forward his sophomore season and become 2019’s Eddie Jackson.