Last season saw top-notch performances from many of the NFL’s rookies—Saquon Barkley, Derwin James and Baker Mayfield, to name a few—but several haven’t quite tapped into their full potential. Which sophomores could put up stand-out performances in 2019?
While you’re at it, here’s a few of our other roundtable discussions this summer: New expansion cities, new players, new franchise cornerstones, best throwback uniforms and NFL schedule changes we’d like to see.
JOSH ROSEN, QB, DOLPHINS
I feel like, at some point this season, the Dolphins would like to get an extended evaluation on Rosen before committing to drafting a quarterback atop the 2020 draft. Whether or not that means putting him under center to start (Ryan Fitzpatrick is currently repping with the ones), or letting Fitzpatrick play until the Dolphins phase out of the playoffs, Rosen will get a chance to play in this practical, quick-strike offense behind a better offensive line than he did in Arizona. The Dolphins could end up looking like major power players heading into the 2020 draft with both a high pick and a quarterback worthy of some serious capital. — Conor Orr
SAM DARNOLD, QB, JETS
It’s cliché to pick a QB to make a jump in his second season, but there are plenty of reasons to project a big step forward for Darnold in Year 2. His play sagged midway through his rookie season, and then he missed three games with a foot injury, but Darnold closed with some strong performances late in the year, including back-to-back games with a passer rating north of 100 in Weeks 15 and 16. The Jets hired Adam Gase as head coach with his ability to develop Darnold top of mind, and that’s been his top priority since January. With a new direction for the offense; the addition of a playmaker like Le'Veon Bell, who can both make things happen and be a trusted outlet for Darnold; and 13 games of experience from his rookie season under his belt, Darnold should be in a much-improved position for his second NFL season. — Jenny Vrentas
CHRISTIAN KIRK, WR, CARDINALS
Kirk is the name above all here. He’s coming off a rookie campaign that was OK but below his capabilities, catching 43 balls for 590 yards and three touchdowns. Everyone struggled in Arizona last year, and Kirk ended the season on IR (foot). But the Cardinals promise to have more consistency on the offensive side of the ball with Kyler Murray at QB and offensive “guru” Kliff Kingsbury running things. Now should be the time the Cards phase out Larry Fitzgerald and make way for the No. 1 receiver of the future in Kirk. — Jonathan Jones
PHILLIP LINDSAY, RB, BRONCOS
The addition of free agent right tackle Ja’Wuan James to a young, improving offensive line makes Phillip Lindsay my favorite breakout candidate. Lindsay topped 1,000 yards last season on 192 carries without once carrying the ball more than 19 times in a game. The Broncos seem to be planning to use him as a receiver more this season, with packages utilizing both Royce Freeman and Lindsay on the field at the same time. Conservatively, I’d expect Lindsay to top 1,500 all purpose if all goes well at the QB position. — Robert Klemko
ROQUAN SMITH, ILB, BEARS
Yes, Smith had a good season last year, but I think he is going to really stand out this year. In OTAs earlier this summer, the Bears inside linebacker called his rookie season, “an OK season”—so by Smith's definition, leading the team in tackles (121 combined, 89 solo), and putting up five sacks, four pass breakups, eight tackles for loss and an interception is just em>OK. Smith wants more, and he should be capable of a lot more. For one, he’ll be a full participant in training camp. Last season, he missed 29 days and fifteen practices as part of a contract holdout. Smith is already an incredibly fast player, but with a season of diagnosing offenses, he should be able to play even faster, and his performance will have an impact on whether the Bears defense can maintain its dominance. — Kalyn Kahler
TREMAINE EDMUNDS, LB, BILLS
With Leighton Vander Esch, Roquan Smith and Darius Leonard all approaching superstardom, it will be easy to forget the other gifted linebacker from the 2018 draft. Edmunds looked every bit like the NFL’s youngest player early in 2018, especially in zone coverage, where he struggled with his drops, route recognition and eye discipline. But as the season progressed, so did the talented linebacker. Each week you saw more flashes of the smooth speed that convinced Buffalo to draft Edmunds in Round 1. You also saw better play recognition (including in coverage). The Bills are a well-coached defense with a scheme predicated on aggressive looks and a solid, not overly expansive, array of different coverages each week. It’s a situation conducive to developing talented young players. Edmunds will reap those benefits and shine in 2019. — Andy Benoit
MICHAEL BADGLEY, K, CHARGERS
It will be difficult for Badgley to improve upon his 2018 season, at least statistically. Last year the Chargers’ rookie kicker made 15 out of 16 field goals and 27 out of 28 extra points, percentages that placed him among the league leaders. He then made five more field goals in the playoff win over the Ravens, though he did have another blocked. Badgley missed out on All-Pro honors (Justin Tucker) and the AFC Pro Bowl nod (Jason Myers) largely because he didn’t start playing until Week 6, so I’d bet he was barely considered.
If we’re looking for breakout players, we know there’s one thing that always helps: Having a cool nickname. Michael Badgley is no longer simply Michael Badgley to the football watching public. He is now the Money Badger. He will be called Money Badger in four prime time games. Normal human beings who you may see walking around in supermarkets and parks will name fantasy football teams after him.
To address the elephant in the room: I am fully aware how risky it is to stake any sort of professional credibility on a Chargers kicker. But 2019, Badgley’s first full season, is the year the Money Badger becomes a star. — Mitch Goldich
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