Now that we’ve talked about the top overall players in the NFL, I want to shift my focus more towards the young up-an-coming stars of the game. Specifically, I will look at players coming into their second and third seasons, who are not looked at like that quite yet. So you won’t see any names like Alvin Kamara or Carson Wentz. This list includes those who have already seen the field a lot, had their last year cut short by injuries or just didn’t get the opportunities to shine quite yet. But what combines them all for me – I think they could break through this upcoming season.
DeShaun Watson is already talked about as the next great player at the quarterback position and a lot of people have fallen in love with Patrick Mahomes and his big arm down in Kansas City, but I believe there should be a lot of optimism about the first QB drafted last year – Mitch Trubisky. I already mentioned the Bears as a potential surprise team in 2018, because of how they are built up front on both sides of the ball, but with the weapons they have brought in for their sophomore signal-caller in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton, combined with Matt Nagy taking over play-calling duties, I expect his numbers to look much better this upcoming season. Trubisky has already shown flashes of excellent mobility and ability to thrown on the run on bootlegs off the Bears’ zone-running attack, plus more focus on RPOs with Trey Burton flexing out as a coverage-indicator, I see Nagy unleashing last year’s second overall pick out of North Carolina.
This was by far the easiest choice and a big reason I decided to write this list. Cook was on his way of taking the league by storm before getting hurt in week four last year. The then-rookie out of Florida State led the league in rushing with 354 yards and showed his versatility with 11 catches as well. While he doesn’t have the pure power to go straight through people as a short-yardage back, his vision, burst to the second level, ability to run through arm-tackles, combined with the lateral agility and fluidity to reduce the area to attack, make him an extremely dangerous runner of the ball. I thought Minnesota would add some help on the offensive line, but they are better than the sum of their parts as an overachieving unit and Cook went off behind it when they were still figuring things out early on last season. With Kirk Cousins under center now and the duo of Diggs & Thielen outside, opposing defenses won’t be able to stack the box to stop the up-and-coming star.
The Titans are another team, who I mentioned as a squad that could catch some people off guard in 2018. They already were a playoff team, despite using schemes that didn’t really fit their personnel, especially on offense. Henry is one of those players, who I think simply wasn’t utilized in the right fashion. While at 6’3, 245+ pounds you’d expect a running back to be a gap-scheme battering-ram, Henry is a zone-runner through and through. He doesn’t have the type of stop-and-start quickness of a smaller guy to jump from gap to gap or a natural leverage advantage, but much rather it’s his ability to build up momentum and get to the edge, where he uses his off-arm exceptionally well to keep defenders away from his body. When opponents can square the enormous former Heisman winner up, they have a chance, but once he gets a full head of steam and has an angle on defenders, it’s over.
Godwin didn’t see a lot of snaps for the Buccaneers with veterans Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson as the starting outside receivers and unlike a lot of NFL clubs, Tampa Bay used a heavy amount to two-tight sets with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. When they did trot out in three-receiver sets Adam Humphries was their primary slot. However, when Godwin was on the field, he made most of his opportunities, earning the second-highest grade among rookie receivers by Pro Football Focus. In his only two starts, he averaged 83 yards through the air and ended the season with a seven-catch game for over 100 yards and a game-winning TD. Considering both Jackson and especially Humphries struggled at times last season, while the rook showed a lot of promise, I expect his role to increase quickly in his sophomore campaign. He is a downfield threat and high-percentage guy in contested catch situations. I think the majority of his snaps will come in the slot, where he already did some damage in 2017.
Going into last year’s draft, it was Haason Reddick and Forrest Lamp who really caught my eye as big-time prospects coming from smaller schools. While Reddick played the whole year in various roles for the Cardinals, Lamp was already lost for the season with a torn ACL back in August and is now looking to make his debut in year two. The Chargers also drafted Indiana’s Dan Feeney a year ago, who I liked a lot and I thought had a solid rookie campaign, but it was Lamp who I had as my number one offensive lineman available. After seeing the transition inside from playing left tackle for the Hilltoppers in limited time at the Senior Bowl, I projected him to be a high-quality guard at the next level. I have yet to see him back on the field, but his athletic ability to mirror the best pass rushers at the collegiate level and the grip he keeps on defenders leave me with very high hopes for the second-year man.
Coming out of Temple as a left tackle, many (including me) expected Dawkins to move inside after they saw the strides over course of Senior Bowl week. With Cordy Glenn being banged up once again, Dawkins was asked to start 12 games at that left tackle spot, including a Wildcard Round appearance, and held up very well. He had his fair share of trouble early on, but steadily improved and over the course of the final nine games allowed a total of just 22 pressures, as well as helping to pave the way for LeSean McCoy running the ball. What I already liked about Dawkins when I evaluated his tape at the collegiate level are the quick jump off the ball, pad-level and well-coordinated feet. He came out of Temple already technically refined and that’s what led him to early success. The Bills traded Cordy Glenn to the Bengals due to their confidence in Dawkins, so now it’s time for him to clean up some of the facets of his game.
Not sure how likely it is to find a list with consecutive Temple Owls. Reddick started the first three games of the season, but came off the bench in different situations and played a variety of roles in James Bettcher’s hybrid defense for the rest of the year. He played inside linebacker for the most part, but he got a shot at rushing the passer late in the season due to Markus Golden getting hurt. In just 46 pass-rushing snaps, he came up with three quarterback hurries and one more hit. The former safety recruit and then standout defensive end showed high football IQ and an ability to adapt to different circumstances. I’m excited by what I saw from him covering curl-zones and attacking underneath routes. Steve Wilks bringing that 4-3 front over from Carolina, Reddick will likely play WILL linebacker, where he can run around freely and use his speed. The Panthers blitzed at a high rate for their standards in 2017, so expect the second-year man to put some heat on quarterbacks as well as covering backs and tight-ends one-on-one. I could also see the Cardinals let Reddick put his hand in the ground and get after QBs on third downs.
I don’t want to hear anything about arthritic shoulders and all that stuff. There is no way Jonathan Allen should have fallen all the way to the 17th overall pick. A Lisfranc injury actually did cost Allen all but five games of his rookie season, but when he was on the field he was man-handling offensive linemen. Ten tackles and only one sack don’t really sound like the numbers I would have liked to see from my second overall prospect in the draft just behind Myles Garrett, but when I put on the tape I was totally fine with my original grade for when he came out of Alabama. I thought Allen was the most dominant player in all of college football in 2016, before declaring for the draft. His amount of natural power is unbelievable and he has much better flexibility and quickness than he gets credit for as a pass-rusher. If you need any indication of what he is capable of, watch him take the lunch money of a former All-Pro in Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele in week last three last season.
I remember putting Witherspoon on my list of late-round sleepers a year ago, but the 49ers decided to pull the trigger in round three already. The physical dimensions are outstanding already, coming in at 6’3” with 33 inch arms. With 4.45 speed, good ball-tracking ability and a gift for stacking receivers, I really liked him as a press-corner prospect. My concerns with him were the ability to change directions in zone coverage and the disinteresting in defending the run. Even though I still didn’t like what I saw in off-coverage too much and that he only lined up on the left side, I have a much better feeling after seeing him play the run much tougher. Witherspoon started the final nine games of the season and was on the field for every single snap in six of those. He fits the Niners’ single-high safety defense perfectly, that leans heavily on cover-one and -three where his he can really make use of his size. With Richard Sherman coming over from Seattle and the addition of the super-rangy Tarvarius Moore at free safety in the draft, I think Witherspoon could have a big year as a number two guy.
I was already vying for the Broncos to use Simmons in a more featured role two years ago and now that he has been given the opportunity to be a key figure in the Broncos defensive scheme, I expect a big year from him in his second season as a full-time starter. Simmons shows range, awareness and secure tackling ability. While the Broncos even trusted Simmons even as a single-high safety, he should benefit from more of a downhill or underneath role, where he can be aggressive against the run and not have to worry about defending 53 yards wide grass, once ball-carriers slip through the second level. Simmons showed a lot of improvement in his pass coverage as well. With Aqib Talib sent to Los Angeles and Bradley Roby moving into the starting lineup, I could see him and Chris Harris stay on the outside primarily, while dropping Simmons down into the slot and leaving him one-on-one with people from that spot.
Over the course of the 2017 season, Baker was on the field only for about half the defensive snaps for the Cardinals, but through the final seven weeks he missed a total of just two plays. Arizona used a multitude of safeties at the same time and they were all asked to line up everywhere on the field. The second-year defensive back has that Honeybadger-type of attitude, where he plays way bigger than his size would indicate and he is a very dependable tackler. His run-support is outstanding and he presents a versatile skill-set. He played single-high, dropped down into the slot, stopped the run, rushed the passer and did everything in-between. Baker was bodied occasionally by bigger receivers and tight-ends, but he never stops competing. He fights through the hands of his receiver late, hustles off the backside and down the field. The new Cardinals key piece also has kind of a sneaky style of play, as he slips through cracks and shows up around the ball. A lot of times he came down late before the snap and basically became an extra defender in the box.
Okay, I’m kind of cheating on this one. While Hooker has only started six games in his brief NFL career, I believe he already broke out. Even though it’s his three interceptions in that limited period of time that has people talking, I have gone all in on him due to the improvement he showed in his open-field tackling compared to his Ohio State tape. Anybody who scouted Hooker in college knows about his ridiculous range to make plays on the ball outside the numbers from his deep middle spot, but there was serious concerns about his tackling technique as a last line of defense. The kind of aggressive angles towards the ball combined with a lack of a break-down and medical reports about shoulder issues caused Hooker to drop all the way to the middle of the first round, but I had him as a top-five prospect and what I saw from him last season has me very excited. With Earl Thomas less than a year away from turning 30, I could definitely see Hooker take over as the premier guy as that deep middle safety.
Some more names:
Dede Westbrook & Keelan Cole
Marlon Humphrey & Tavon Young