After going through the rosters of all 32 teams and talking about their biggest remaining need, I now want to talk about some young players around the league, who I think will take the next step in their development this upcoming season. Specifically I’m looking at second- and third-year players who haven’t been a Pro Bowl selection, reached a major milestone (1000 yard season, double-digit sacks, etc.) or are just looked at generally as one of the better players at the position already. I also didn’t want to talk about guys I already had on my list last year, like Kemoko Turay for Indianapolis or Justin Reid for Houston – who I believe already is one of the best young safeties in the game – and I ended up with only one former top ten pick, since the few I considered mostly haven’t broken out because they simply haven’t been on the field enough. At the same time I made it a requirement to have played at a least a little. So that excludes guy like Bengals offensive tackle Jonah Williams and a receiver I really liked, who is now on the Cardinals named Hakeem Butler.
For this exercise I considered what my evaluation of them was coming out of college, in terms of the development they still needed to make to be effective at the next level, situations they are now, whether it’s a change of scheme on their team or veterans that were let go in order to allow them to take on a bigger role, or just how high I was on them as draft prospects. I’m going to analyze their skill-set, how they fit with their respective teams and why I believe they are bound to break out in 2020.
In this version, we are looking at eight offensive players:
There’s a lot of people talking about the Broncos being a team that can make some noise this season and I have been hyping them up a little myself. But does anybody realize Denver was 3-6 last year before Drew Lock entered the starting lineup? They would go 4-1 the rest of the way, with the rookie signal-caller throwing for just over 1000 yards and seven touchdowns compared to three picks over that stretch. 13 of his 100 completions went for 20+ yards and he was responsible for 59 first downs (including rushing). The focus by the front office this offseason was to put a lot of talent around their QB. In the draft they added a route-running specialist in Jerry Jeudy from Alabama, a bundle of dynamite in Penn State’s K.J. Hamler and Lock’s former tight-end at Missouri in the long-striding, tall Albert Okwuegbunam. Throw a young star like Courtland Sutton, last year’s first-round TE in Noah Fant and a dynamic duo of backs into the mix you have an incredibly talented group of skill-position player. However, the Broncos also secured the interior of the O-line with free agent Graham Glasgow from Detroit and third-round pick Lloyd Cushenberry from LSU, while getting right tackle Ja’Wuan James back from injury. With Pat Shurmur coming in as his new offensive coordinator, Lock will be closer to a spread system he ran in college, as the Giants used 11 personnel on 74 percent of the snaps last season and Denver traded away fullback Andy Janovich. He will be given a lot of free completions off mesh concepts and screens to his backs. Shurmur will also draw up several bootlegs when he does have two tight-ends in there, where he creates targets on multiple levels coming towards the side the QB is rolling.
Lock really showed tremendous signs last season and the only quarterbacks in the AFC with more arm talent than him might be Josh Allen and that other guy that is pretty good in his division – Patrick Mahomes. You see him get the ball to his targets without being able to step into some throws and what I like about him is the fact he always keeps his eyes up while finding some creases to slip through within the pocket. In his first start versus the Chargers, Lock immediately gave the offense some much-needed juice after being held to three points at Buffalo the previous game. The following week the Broncos travelled to Houston in a game everybody expected them to lose and Lock led his offense to five straight scoring drives – including four touchdowns – to go into halftime up 31-3, with some help from the defense. The only bad game he really had came in a snow storm at Kansas City. What I think he still needs to improve upon mechanically is being a little more active with his footwork and swinging that back-leg through to maximize rotation, while not getting stuck on my primary receiver as much. If he can do that and understands how to utilize all those new pieces, I expect him to make a big sophomore jump.
I wasn’t sure if Sanders would qualify here, since he somewhat broke out already, but he didn’t fit any of the criteria I set for myself and I believe he could go from splash player to superstar this season. As a rookie, Sanders ran for 818 yards on 179 attempts and caught 50 passes for over 500 yards. That gave him an average of 5.8 yards per touch and he reached the end-zone six times. Early on in 2019, he didn’t get the opportunities he should have, with Jordan Howard getting 40 more carries through the first nine weeks, as long as he was healthy. When Sanders finally got the chance to be a bigger part of the offense, he made the most of his opportunities, averaging 1.2 yards more per touch and producing eight compared to the veteran’s two plays of 20+ yards. And don’t get me wrong – Howard is not a bad back by any means. We have seen him be very productive in Chicago before, when he has a pretty good O-line in front of him and he can make good decisions in a zone-based system, showing nice power and feel for the position. But this kid could be special.
I thought Sanders was a lot like his former teammate at Penn State in Saquon Barkley. And before anybody goes crazy here – I do realize that Saquon is bigger, stronger and just more freakishly athletic, but in terms of elusiveness and balance, there aren’t a whole lot of guys better than this young man. Sanders showcases good feel for space and setting up blockers, which really shines in the screen game. He is a true threat to the edge on wide zone plays, but at the same time very patient behind the line of scrimmage running inside duo or power plays, where you routinely see defenders end up on the wrong side of blocks. Philly’s offense lacked firepower in 2019, but now they have so much speed on that unit. They do run quite a bit of 12 personnel, but those tight-ends are more than just viable in-line blockers and they can be flexed out wide to possibly take a linebacker with him and indicate coverages for their RPO game. This should present a lot of light boxes for Sanders to run into, especially if you have first-round pick Jalen Reagor and DeSean Jackson on either end of the formation – teams then better keep two safeties high. Going back to my evaluation of Sanders coming into last year’s draft, I had him as my fourth-ranked back and this was my final statement on his analysis: “I think he would benefit from being part of a committee early on, where he can learn some of the subtleties at the position from a veteran and really shine from year two forward.“ That’s exactly the situation he was/is in. He is ready to go and I believe he will be one of the premiere two-way backs in the league this season.
I had Montgomery as my second-ranked running back coming into last year’s draft behind only Josh Jacobs, because of what he showed at Iowa State in terms of contact balance, the forced missed tackle rate and pass-catching production. In his rookie season in Chicago however, he averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. When you consider Mitch Trubisky did not provide him with any help by threatening the defense as a passer and a lot of penetration in the backfield being allowed, that number looked a lot worse than it would have on most other teams, especially considering 2.33 of those yards came after contact and he had to force 47 missed tackles. The amount of times he was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage and spin out of the grasp of a defender or find an alternative escape route would not lead to a lot of success for any back. His contributions in the pass game weren’t too shabby either, bringing in 25 of his 35 targets for just under 200 yards and a score. He displayed soft hands with just two drops on the year and he actually averaged 1.6 yards more per catch than teammate scat back Tarik Cohen, who actually let nine passes slip through his hands.
Montgomery has the look and game of a workhorse back in my view, with a thick build, the ability to absorb contact and surprising elusiveness. He has really good short area quickness to manipulate secondary defenders by pressing the line of scrimmage and then cutting behind a blocker to burst through a crease. You even see him jump over the feet of his own linemen at times, if he sees a crack. As a receiver, he was often used on swing routes to bind defenders in the flats, but he was also pretty successful on seam routes down the middle. The Bears interior O-line really struggled for large stretches in 2019, with Kyle Long being out for most of the season and James Daniels still adjusting to the guard position. Long has since retired since and I was never huge of Germain Ifedi when he was playing right tackle for the Seahawks, but putting him inside and as a pure run-blocker, I think he can at least be an upgrade at RG over Rashaad Coward. When there was room for Montgomery to run, he did produce. He had a couple of 100-yard games versus the Chargers and Vikings when he was allowed to stay on the field and build momentum, plus some stat-lines didn’t end up looking overly impressive when they wanted to ride him and sulk away games. Obviously you still have Tarik Cohen and his ability as a space-player, but the numbers weren’t super impressive last season and if the Bears want to go back to what they did in 2018, they need to run the ball downhill. They didn’t add a single running back in free agency or the draft – so that tells you their confidence in the second-year player and how he could break out this season.
This young man had a very interesting rookie season. In two years as a starter at Auburn, Slayton caught just 65 passes, but averaged over 20 yards per grab and scored ten times over that stretch. That made him just a fifth-round pick and he had a couple of big plays early, but at some point people started realizing that he was not just going to be one of those guys who can come in and give the offense is a boost with a play or two in a game, but he can actually be a full-time contributor at the receiver position. Slayton did kind of disappear in some games, but then he would come back the next week and take a couple of slants to the house from mid-field. 32 of his 48 catches last season went for first downs and 12 of them resulted in 20+ yard gains, as well as scoring eight touchdowns. He earned more trust from the coaching staff through the weeks and played at least 70 percent of the offensive snaps in all but one of the final eleven games of last season, while recording a passer rating right around 100 when targeted over the course of year one.
Slayton uses different speeds to his routes and forces defenders to open up their hips with sudden bursts, while being able to snap off in- and out-breaking routes in one step basically. He already runs a beautiful slant route, where he can V-release against inside-shading corners, selling the outside burst and then hitting that violent step and snap of the head to go underneath the defender. Once the ball is in his hands and he reaches the open field, Slayton can cross the face of the deep safety and outrace him to the pylon if given the chance. I also like the way he plucks the ball away from his frame and his feel for finding open space. However, he does need to work on adjusting routes on the feel and setting up some of his deeper routes more effectively. As a junior at Auburn he almost exclusively lined up in the slot and I could see the Giants move the second-year receiver around in 2020, after he was inside on less than five percent of the snaps as a rookie. Slayton Won’t turn 24 until this upcoming season is over and there is still a lot to grow still, number one being eliminating some focus drops (five last season). In the Jets game, when Slayton caught ten balls for 121 yards and two touchdowns, Gregg Williams gave the rookie so much respect that he had Jamal Adams shadowing over the top of the corner Slayton was matched up with and they even tried to play some mind-games with Daniel Jones, showing blitz with the All-Pro safety and then retreating late force the QB to hold onto the ball so the rush could get home.
Coming into last year’s draft as my number-two ranked receiver behind only D.K. Metcalf, Brown was the first player at the position to hear his name called and N’Keal Harry was the only other one to be selected in round one. In his debut campaign, the former Oklahoma standout caught 46 passes for just under 600 yards and seven touchdowns in the 14 games he dressed for. However, similar to Darius Slayton there were some valleys and peaks. In the season-opener, Lamar Jackson and Brown dismantled the Dolphins secondary, as the rook went for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The following week he had eight catches, but from that point on he never reached that 100-yard mark or caught more than five passes the rest of the regular season, putting up over 23 yards in only three of his final ten games. However when he Ravens were upset by Tennessee in the Divisional Round of the playoff, he was the only skill-position player to really show up, with seven grabs for 127 yards. Brown had a passer rating of 137.7 when targeted on the season, which ranked number one among all receivers with 50+ targets – so Lamar targeting the rookie led to great results. The young pass-catcher was dealing with a foot injury the entire year and while offseason stories may always be a little overblown, Brown said he had trouble walking normally at times.
That adds up with what I saw on film, as I thought he just didn’t quite have that burst off the ball that jumped out to me in college. Think of it almost like an edge rusher trying to jump out of stance and get upfield – if he can’t gain an angle on the quarterback, he needs to convert to power or find other way to adjust in the middle of the plays. For Brown it is about putting his defender at a disadvantage by forcing that guy to open up his hips or shifting his weight too far backwards. Browns’ speed is one of his biggest assets and it’s what can allow him to gain separation out of his breaks. He was actually already much more effective in the red-zone than you would think, with nine receptions from within 20 yards (13th among all NFL receivers), because he has a feel for how to avoid contact and is kind of slippery that way. His releases versus press are much better than a lot of receivers with a bigger frame. He may never be a great blocker simply based on his slender frame, but he does a pretty good job putting it in front of defenders to shield them. Brown will need to add to his route-tree and prove he can stay healthy, but he only turns 23 next week. So the sky is the limit for this kid. His rookie teammate from last year in Miles Boykin could be one of those guys ready to make a jump in his second season as well.
As I have talked about many times already, the Steelers offense was a mess in 2019. Their quarterback play might have ranked 32nd in the entire league without Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner and Juju Smith-Schuster were in and out of the lineup and the concepts were very simplistic because of that situation. However, if there was one glimmer of hope it was their third-round pick out of Toledo. Johnson touched the ball 63 times for 721 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers may not blow anybody away, but considering the situation he found himself in with an offense that was stagnant for large stretches of games with sub-par passers, they are actually pretty impressive. Johnson had kind of a breakout game in week four versus Cincinnati, catching all of his six targets for 77 yards and a score. After that he played at least two thirds of the snaps in all but two games the rest of the way. Altogether he hauled in 91 percent of the catchable passes his way and his 59 receptions also led all rookies. In addition to his work on offense, Johnson averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and scored on one of his 20 attempts as a rookie, down in Arizona.
His ability to see the field and recognize defensive pursuit tests opposing coverage teams as a return man also becomes a problem for defenses trying to corral him. I can’t even count the amount of shallow crossers he caught off mesh concepts, even in third-and-long situations, and he consistently made bigger plays than he should have with the defense knowing what’s coming. His hesitation, start-stop quicks and ability to beat defenders towards the opposite sideline led to some nearly impossible conversions. The Steelers took advantage of how elusive and slippery the rookie was by putting the ball in his hands on end-arounds, pop passes and quick screens as well. Overall he broke 18 tackles after the catch – second among all rookies on the season. With that being said, Johnson is so much more than just a return specialist and gadget player. He is a super skilled route-runner, who easily gets off press and already showed a lot of nuance on deeper developing routes, but with how incapable the two Steelers QBs were last season, he just didn’t get enough opportunities to take advantage of that skill-set. I love how he sets up his opponents off the line with slow-playing the release, head nods and then he catches those guys off guard when he turns on the jets out of nowhere. His eyes don’t give away his route and he really snaps that head around once he comes out of his break. At the same time you also saw him just run right by some corners on vertical patterns, where Johnson continues to fight with his hands as defenders try to pin him into the sideline. Johnson is a very smooth glider and runs some beautiful post-corner or out-and-up routes. The few things I didn’t like about Johnson in year one – he wasn’t not overly interested in getting involved as a blocker, his elbow got a little too far off his body, which gives defenders the opportunity to punch at it and he dropped six passes, because his eyes already moved downfield. It will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh will utilize their young receiving corp, but with Big Ben back under center all those guys should receive a boost.
This is the only player on my list to have been traded while being on his rookie deal. If you want to know how the Falcons feel about Hurst, you just have to look at them basically trading a second-round pick for Baltimore’s number three tight-end. That may be a little bit simplistic way of looking at it, considering Mark Andrews is a young superstar for the Ravens and Nick Boyle might be the best blocker at the position in the league, but Hurst has still only put up just over 500 yards and three touchdowns through his first two years in the league, while Atlanta decided to not pay one of the league’s best receiving TEs in Austin Hooper. Hurst has kind of been forgotten because of his limited production in that Baltimore offense, but I did think he was the best all-around tight-end coming out two years ago and the Ravens believed in him so much that they made him their original first-round pick, before trading back up into round one for Lamar Jackson. The former South Carolina Gamecock was kind of underutilized downfield with the Ravens, since Andrews became the designated route-running and Hurst was used for more simplistic duties as a pass-catcher and executing kick-out blocks in the run game- He was asked to slip into the flats off motion and after faking swift blocks or just running out there from a wing-alignment to create a high-low stretch a receiver on top of him, plus then he turned upfield for wheel routes at times.
Coming out in 2018, I thought Hurst was the most natural route-runner among the group, with his ability to sink his hips and create separation against safeties when flexed out wide, while having plenty of experience doing the dirty work as a true Y. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will absolutely make people pay attention when hearing his name once again. The tight-end position is a huge factor in that offense, especially as more of a vertical presence down the seams, when you look at what he did in Tampa with that young duo Hooper last year, when he finished with just under 800 yards in 13 games. What I believe will make Hurst successful is the ability to shield the ball from defenders with his body, giving comfort to Matt Ryan attacking the middle of the field and he is very physical after the catch, which he already flashed to some degree in Baltimore. Swap him for Hooper in that system with those kind of receivers around him and he could easily put up 600-800 yards and a few touchdowns. While he didn’t prude at a very high rate in his first two years, Hurst did average 8.9 yards on his 39 targets last season, which was actually 0.2 yards more than former Pro Bowl teammate Andrews. Get him going downfield with a similar target share as his predecessor received and he could easily finish top ten at the position in all the major categories.
I loved both Ragnow and James Daniels of the Bears – who I expect to take the next step as well – coming out together as centers two years ago respectively, while I wasn’t as bullish on Billy Price – which I feel pretty good about right now. I had Daniels slightly ahead among the two because of his agility and the way he could reach defensive linemen or scoop them up, but Ragnow I thought had a little more physicality for gap-schemes and was better at the nuances of the position. As a rookie for the Lions, Ragnow started all 16 games at left guard and already played very well. Last season however he and Graham Glasgow moved over one spot respectively and it had the second-year man at the pivot, where he allowed just two sacks and was called for holding twice. His college coaches called him “as natural a center as you’re gonna find” back in 2018 and I agree that is where he fits best. So entering year three, I believe he will take another step and establish himself as one of the premiere centers in the league. He is such a scrappy, smart player who will be a center(-piece) for what those guys are building in Detroit.
What has stood out to me about Ragnow from the first time I saw him play at Arkansas is his excellent snap-to-step quickness. He can get on the move and hook defenders in the zone run game, where he does a great job of setting up his teammates on combo-blocks and then transitioning to the second level, rarely leaving those guards in a situation, where the down-linemen has a chance to still cross their face. And yet, while there are more mobile centers, he is so good with his hand-placement and angles that you just don’t see those linebackers beat him to the spot or he at least creates a cutback lane behind that action. Detroit runs a heavy amount of half-line slides, where Ragnow keeps his eyes up towards the side is responsible for, but always has that help-hand ready to not force his guards to overcompensate against defenders in the A-gaps. He is also excellent at passing on assignments on twists. There are some issues with powerful nose-tackle occasionally, if he can’t shoot those hands first, and he tends to raise up too much, but he should be even better with two more consistent pieces to either side of him with rookies Jonah Jackson (Ohio State) and Logan Stenberg (Kentucky), who I project to make the starting lineup. Now with the Lions selecting D’Andre Swift 35th overall in the draft to go with Kerryon Johnson, this team clearly wants to pound opponents with the run game. Running zone schemes with that O-line and allowing those backs to stick their foot in the ground and get upfield gives them a recipe for success and an identity. Swift and Johnson are also excellent in the screen game, where Ragnow’s ability to choose the appropriate angles and put hands on people in space can really shine.
Other notable names:
Chris Herndon IV