The ascent to stardom for an NFL player is not always a straight line. Some are thrust into the limelight immediately, but others must patiently wait for their opportunity to make a mark.
However it is achieved, new stars are born in the NFL every year with each one hungry and determined to make their fans and critics alike remember their name. Moreover, every team has at least one candidate, in my eyes, of making that leap. Here is that candidate for the 16 teams that make up the NFC.
Dallas Cowboys: Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback
In a year in which the Dallas Cowboys have everything to prove, the fourth-year secondary piece from Colorado is no different. The main criticism levied against him deems that he gives up too many catches. However, that is simply as a matter of volume. Only 11 players were targeted more than Awuzie last season.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Awuzie had the third best forced incompletion % in the league on available opportunities. Even according to the eye test, it seemed that some of Awuzie’s unsavory coverage numbers were only exacerbated by relatively miserable luck compared to most corners; swollen by seemingly unfair numbers of laser-like throws and acrobatic catches on perfect coverage in extended samples of film.
Awuzie is at his best with his eyes on the QB and the ball in front of him rather than backtracking. Therefore, rumors continue to swirl in Jerry World that Awuzie may transition to a vacant safety spot. Wherever he ends up, Awuzie may finally become the player he was drafted to be when it counts most for his future.
Honorable Mentions: WR CeeDee Lamb, TE Blake Jarwin
Washington Redskins: Dwayne Haskins, Quarterback
Amidst a 2-5 record in seven starts and a clear developmental learning curve, the former Ohio State signal caller quickly found himself facing the wrath of the press and some of his own fans alike. However, such a hasty conclusion may be ill-warranted in a year that he was not expected to so suddenly become the future of his franchise.
Not to mention the coaching was in flux from as early as October with his only reliable receiver being his college teammate, Terry McLaurin, and his offensive line play was uneven at best. In his first year, he made plenty of strides in the right direction as well as his anticipation, decision-making, and confidence all drastically improving on film.
Haskins demonstrated an incredibly strong arm, a blossoming pocket presence, and excellent command of game tempo for an offensive game plan that was not catered towards his strengths. In a critical and logistically challenging offseason, Haskins has reportedly stepped up to the challenge by losing 18 pounds on his hefty frame to help him become more elusive inside the pocket.
New offensive coordinator Scott Turner has been impressed by his new QB’s acumen; noting that he has absolutely put in the work to learn his new offense in addition to showing a great amount of clarity in his progressions. With a chance to establish himself as Washington’s long-term solution behind center, Haskins has shown the initiative to take it.
Honorable Mentions: WR/RB Antonio Gibson, WR Kelvin Harmon
Philadelphia Eagles: K’Von Wallace, Safety
Conventional wisdom typically would indicate that a fourth round pick is not likely to find his niche in the NFL in his first year. However, with the endless praise scouts and football writers dole out on him, Wallace does not seem to have the aura about him possessed by most mid-round picks; PFF indicated him as one of their “biggest steals” in the 2020 draft class.
It just so happens that his fit is nearly perfect as well, as Wallace has a strong sense of where to be on the field in addition to the ability to play multiple roles (he also tackles well enough to project as a nickel/dime LB) at his position, which are two of the most important traits needed for the prototypical Jim Schwartz safeties.
He compares favorably to another one of Schwartz’s finest safeties in Glover Quin Jr., who is another mid-round pick that is a shade under 6 foot who made his reputation around the league by being unrelenting in man and zone coverage.
Like Quin Jr., Wallace seems to possess natural instincts in coverage in addition to being the “aggressor” at the point of contact closer to the line of scrimmage. Wallace’s promise may not allow him to stay under the radar too long.
Honorable Mentions: RB Miles Sanders, OT Andre Dillard
New York Giants: Leonard Williams, Defensive End
Surely, such a pick is bound to draw the ire of some New York Giants fans. However, most fans look at the capital given up to acquire him and the financial commitment Dave Gettleman has invested in him to keep him around. However, they ignore the talent and consistent impact that Williams brings to the defense as a whole.
For 6’5”, 302 lbs, Williams can move with fluidity and has a natural ability to “get skinny” in the trenches by shedding blocks and winning 1-on-1 battles to either tackle the ball carrier near the line of scrimmage or create pressure even if that pressure does not result in a sack. He has natural flexibility in his get-off that is not something that can be taught, but more of a testament to his natural abilities.
Simply put, although his past hasn’t shown any year for Williams that would truly be considered a statistical anomaly in comparison to the rest of the league, he has the athletic traits and positional skill set that so few others can put together on a week-to-week basis. With a year on his franchise tag, Williams is primed to make some noise in 2020.
Honorable Mentions: OG Will Hernandez, WR Darius Slayton
Detroit Lions: D’Andre Swift, Running Back
The Lions selection of Swift not only represents potential, but a crucial insurance policy for his running mate Kerryon Johnson. Although his talent is undeniable, the durability of Johnson’s knees has already raised a massive red flag in the mind of Lions GM Bob Quinn enough so to select Swift in the second round of this year’s draft.
The latest product of the Georgia running back factory is as crafty in open space as he is explosive, has ridiculous agility, and minimal tread on his legs from his collegiate career. At full health, he and Johnson provide a war chest of options on gameday for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who is renowned for placing emphasis on a run-heavy offense in the past.
Furthermore, franchise QB Matthew Stafford’s season-ending shoulder injury last year may incentivize the Lions to be more cautious with their centerpiece in contrast to their air-assault game plan that has been consistent throughout the last decade in Detroit, which will open the door for Swift to make his mark on the ground.
Honorable Mentions: C Frank Ragnow, LB Jahlani Tavai
Chicago Bears: David Montgomery, Runningback
The Bears selected Montgomery in last years’ draft under the assumption that he would become the new do-it-all, workhorse back that Matt Nagy needed. At the end of the season, that was not exactly the case, but there were encouraging signs of promise from the former Iowa St. Cyclone, as he was powerful, relentless, and effective on film.
However, he struggled with decision making occasionally, as many rookies tend to do by looking hesitant on finding and taking gaps. That also may have played into another major issue regarding his volume, as Nagy simply did not put the ball in his hands enough, as he elected for a more experienced, but much less talented back, in Mike Davis.
Nagy may not have that choice next year, as the Bears went 5-1 in the six games that Montgomery averaged more than four yards per carry. At times, the rookie was indispensable to giving a spark to an otherwise rudderless offense. Hopefully, Nagy is ready to unleash him.
Honorable Mentions: WR Javon Wims, CB Kevin Toliver
Minnesota Vikings: Irv Smith Jr., Tight End
Behind the sturdy and trusted Kyle Rudolph, Smith had a difficult time making himself the preferred tight end of Kirk Cousins in his first year. However, his speed and crisp-route running should make him a go-to-guy in Minnesota with more exposure and an expanded role within his offense.
That is practically promised with the presence of Gary Kubiak on the coaching staff, as he is a coordinator known for creating schemes that favor target share towards tight ends.
With Stefon Diggs shipped off to Buffalo and a potential Dalvin Cook holdout in the arms, questions of who commands targets and touches in Minnesota are suddenly arising quicker than ever. Smith now has the opportunity to be an x-factor for a squad looking to make a splash next season.
Honorable Mentions: WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney
Green Bay Packers- Darnell Savage Jr., Safety
With an appropriate surname for a high-motor, ground-covering bullet in the secondary, Savage projected to be arguably the best safety in the 2019 draft. He’s well on his way to claiming that title, as he showed incredible acumen in diagnosing plays as well as pre-snap adjustments.
He plays like his cleats are on fire, as he secures tackles like no tomorrow. Against him in coverage, opposing QBs averaged a paltry QBR of 89.3, which is not out of this world, but incredibly promising for a first year starter at the safety position.
With their championship window rapidly closing, Aaron Rodgers’ hopes of claiming a second Lombardi trophy to his name depend heavily on young defensive players’ such as Savage’s development under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Honorable Mentions: OG Elgton Jenkins, TE Jace Sternberger
Atlanta Falcons: Isaiah Oliver, Cornerback
To begin their 2019 season, the Falcons started 1-7 and were all but dead in the water and primed for a shot at Ohio State phenom Chase Young. However, fortunes changed quickly in Atlanta following a mid-season bye week, as the Falcons finished 6-2 down the stretch. What powered such an unexpected and remarkable turnaround?
Well, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris was given defensive coordinator duties, and the entire group’s performance was nearly unrecognizable in stark contrast to the hapless group that had been torched throughout the first half of the season. Oliver perhaps embodies this turnaround best, as he was repeatedly picked on to start the year (he allowed a passer rating of 119.4 through Week 9).
In the weeks after the bye, he looked much more composed and disciplined by cutting down on his own defensive penalties from the first half of the season (from 5 to 3) and looking much more self-assured in complex coverage schemes.
His improvement in press coverage was noticeable to new secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., who said “I thought over the last eight games he did a really good job of connecting his feet and his hands in his press game… He stayed more square. That gave him the ability once they got up the field to connect at the top of the routes.”
The tools have always been present for Oliver, as he is sticky in man coverage with a lanky frame that can swat balls down from rare air. Now, with Desmond Trufant gone, it’s up to Oliver to continue the upward trajectory of the Falcons secondary.
Honorable Mentions: OG Chris Lindstrom, TE Hayden Hurst
Carolina Panthers: Brian Burns, Defensive End
Under new head coach Matt Rhule, plenty of the Panthers current roster is looking for a fresh start. Burns is definitely not one of those players. Following a promising rookie season with 7.5 sacks, the 2nd year product from Florida State is looking to get back to right where he left off.
With otherworldly positional speed and a developing variety of pass rush moves to reach the QB, the sky’s the limit. If anything, the changes put in place under the new regime will benefit Burns’ development, as the Panthers now plan to run a base 4-3 defense.
Now, Burns will spend much more time with his hand in the ground as a member of the d-line. With the selection of DT Derrick Brown to command some gravity in the trenches, Burns should be up close and personal with the opposing team’s QB plenty. Although the Panthers defense is far from a finished product, Burns stands to be the unit’s likely focal point for their new era.
Honorable Mentions: WR Curtis Samuel, QB Teddy Bridgewater
New Orleans Saints: C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Safety
In a league that constantly becomes bigger, faster, and stronger, versatility is key for those trying to keep up. Gardner-Johnson is a player who not only fits that meta, but has the potential to excel everywhere. He has the man coverage skills to contain some of the league’s most dynamic wideouts, quick instincts off the snap, and the ability to become a near-reckless blitzer in sub packages.
He is already the best option the Saints have at covering anybody from the slot after slipping to the fourth round of the 2019 draft, while being mocked in the late first. Vonn Bell’s departure in free agency makes the case for Gardner-Johnson’s emergence all the more strong, as safety and nickel corner snaps are up for grabs in New Orleans.
Honorable Mentions: WR Tre’Quan Smith, TE Adam Trautman
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sean-Murphy Bunting, Cornerback
The Buccaneers secondary is not full of household names. Or at least, more optimistically, not quite yet. Murphy-Bunting is a second-year corner who posted 3 interceptions (including one pick-six against the Detroit Lions) and 8 pass deflections in 10 games during his rookie season.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht dealt out effusive praise for his second round selection last year, “With Bunting, what we liked about him: first of all, a superb kid, locker room guy and teammate. We compared our meetings with him to those with Devin [White] in terms of just his infectious personality and I think he’s got a lot of leadership qualities in him. He can play outside, he can play inside, he’s a tough guy. He’s very smart. He’ll get his opportunities at all of those places.”
More than that, Murphy-Bunting is a natural ballhawk who is tested in his versatility in zone and man coverage by the Buccaneers base 3-4 odd scheme.
Even when he’s occasionally left on an island, he has done a fantastic job in dealing with his growing pains and becoming more consistent in adversity. Opportunities to be a key cog for a Super Bowl contender should power a breakout campaign.
Honorable Mentions: TE O.J. Howard, RB Keshawn Vaughn
Los Angeles Rams: Cam Akers, Runningback
With a Todd Gurley sized hole in the Rams’ backfield, the question of who can emerge as the Rams’ most prominent runner hangs heavy in the balance. The second round selection from Florida State may be the most apt candidate to become the new bellcow in L.A.
In a year in which the Seminoles’ offensive line was far below average and the program continued to deal with its downturn following the end of the Jameis Winston era, Akers still managed to preserve his draft stock and impress in terms of football analytics.
According to PFF, Akers was the most elusive running back in college football; causing missed tackles on 32% of his touches and averaging 4.0 yards after contact per rushing attempt. Although his route running and timing is a work in progress, Akers has the potential to be a dual-threat in the NFL by being capable on passing downs as well as on rushing downs.
He is a dynamic cutter in space who accepts contact naturally with incredible burst and solid size. Although his starter status is not a given quite yet, the competition in the Rams’ backfield is up for the taking.
Honorable Mentions: S Taylor Rapp, WR Josh Reynolds
Arizona Cardinals: Hakeem Butler, Wide Receiver
Between the surprising acquisition of Deandre Hopkins and the seemingly meteoric rise of Kyler Murray’s MVP odds in sportsbooks, expectations are high in Arizona for 2020. However, one of the more forgotten aspects of Arizona’s roster turnaround comes in the form of the return of Butler, who unfortunately did not get to play in his rookie campaign due to a broken hand he suffered before last season even started.
Now, he is back in the mix for Kliff Kingsbury to deploy in his offense. His 6’5” frame is menacing enough for opposing defensive coordinators. Then, they have to consider his incredible catch radius and overwhelming speed that make him a daunting vertical threat. Simply put, he is a momentum-shifting play just waiting to happen when he gets open, and Kyler Murray is acutely aware of that.
Even in a strong receiving corps with the aforementioned Hopkins as well as the productive Christian Kirk and the shifty slot presence of Andy Isabella, Butler has an opportunity to bring this offense over the top.
Honorable Mentions: LB Isaiah Simmons, RB Kenyan Drake
San Francisco 49ers: Fred Warner, Linebacker
Is Fred Warner exactly anonymous within football circles and nearly impossible to identify for a breakout campaign? Not even close. He was just named the ninth best linebacker in the NFL by CBS Sports. However, there are undoubtedly more mountains to climb for the third year product.
His missed tackle rate increased by about 3% from two years ago, and he went from 9th to 17th in run stops in the same period of time. However, he improved exponentially in coverage by emerging as a consistent answer to defend tight ends and slot receivers alike.
His experience as a former safety has started to show more in his game as his awareness in space has improved. With two more years on his contract, the time has come for Warner to put everything together to make himself the highest paid player at his position. One might wager he’s perfectly capable of stepping up to the challenge.
Honorable Mentions: CB Emmanuel Moseley, WR Brandon Aiyuk
Seattle Seahawks: Will Dissly, Tight End
Health is a massive stipulation in order for Dissly to take the next step in what has been an unfulfilling career thus far. He endured a season ending patellar injury during week 4 of his rookie season and an achilles tear during week 6 of his sophomore campaign.
However, when he is on the field, he becomes an integral part of the Seahawks offense. Last year, he reached the end zone four times in five weeks as Russell Wilson’s primary red zone target, and averaged about 52 yards per game over the Seahawks’ first five games.
He has reliable hands and blocks well enough in the run game to schematically fit offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s gameplan. Provided decent health next season, Dissly should be able to make some noise in the Pacific Northwest.
Honorable Mentions: DT Poona Ford, LB Jordyn Brooks
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