Breakout players emerge every season. A new coaching staff, new schemes, or rehab from an injury, are a few valid reasons to see major improvement in an athlete. I will be giving you 32 names to watch for the 2019 NFL season. One player per team.
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Roquan Smith – Linebacker
6’1” 236 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Georgia
2018 Statistics – 121 tackles (89 solo), 5 sacks, 5 passes deflected, 1 interception, 16 games started
Drafted 8th overall in the 2018 draft, Roquan Smith had high expectations for his rookie season. His first year in the league got off to a rocky start, as Smith held out of training camp due to contract disputes. Smith eventually signed, and had an instant impact on the regular season. Many of the traits that scouts fell in love with during the draft process, showed up on Sunday’s. His athleticism, instincts, and intensity made him a tackling machine, proving to be a force in the middle of that great Chicago Bears’ defense.
Despite the strong rookie season, Smith is often left out of the conversation for best linebacker in the NFL. It’s easy to understand why, with names like Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson already on the Bears defense. I believe Smith will force more turnovers, improve in coverage, and gain respect as a top tier linebacker in 2019. Expect big plays (and big hits) from this inside linebacker this season.
TJ Hockenson – Tight End
6’5” 247 lbs
Rookie Season – University of Iowa
Drafted 9th overall by the Lions. Winner of the Mackey Award, which is given to the best Tight End in college football.
I normally will stay away from listing rookies as breakout players. TJ Hockenson is an exception to this rule due to his position. Historically, tight ends get off to very slow starts in their pro careers. If you take a look at names like Zach Ertz, George Kittle, and Tyler Eifert, you will notice that their rookie seasons weren’t too inspiring. I think Hockenson avoids that trend and has a strong rookie season catching passes from Matthew Stafford.
Hockenson is one of the most athletic tight ends I have ever seen at the college level. He is an extremely versatile player that can line up in tight or flexed out at receiver. He is phenomenal after the catch, and a matchup nightmare for defenses. I believe Head Coach Matt Patricia will make it a point of emphasis to get Hockenson the ball in as many ways as possible. I predict Hockenson will catch around 60 passes, and find the end zone at least 4 times in 2019.
Green Bay Packers
Josh Jackson – Cornerback
6’1” 196 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Iowa
2018 Statistics – 49 tackles (39 solo), 1 fumble recovery, 10 games started
The Packers had a lot of very good options to highlight as potential breakout players. They have one of the most talented, young rosters in the league. Second year cornerback Josh Jackson has the potential to shine as a playmaker in Green Bay’s secondary this season. Jackson is a lengthy, athletic corner who was a superior playmaker at the college level.
Although not the most technically sound in coverage, Jackson’s sheer athleticism makes him a strong corner in “off” coverages (5-7 yards away from the line of scrimmage). After leading the NCAA in interceptions in 2017, Jackson didn’t record a single interception during his rookie year. Following a full offseason in the NFL, I am confident we will see Jackson back to making plays in coverage. Quarterbacks beware, as Jackson has the speed to take those interceptions the opposite way for a touchdown.
Mike Hughes – Cornerback
5’10” 190 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Central Florida
2018 Statistics – 22 tackles (19 solo), 1 interception (returned for touchdown), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes deflected, 6 games played (2 games started)
Second year cornerback Mike Hughes was off to a great start to his rookie campaign. Hughes had seemingly earned his spot as a consistent starter for the Vikings, even recording a pick-six in his first regular season game against the 49ers. Unfortunately, Hughes tore his ACL during a 27-17 win against the Arizona Cardinals.
With an extended period of time to recover and a full offseason in Minnesota, I think we see a strong comeback for Hughes this season. Head coach Mike Zimmer likes to leave his corners in press-man coverage, where Hughes finds success. I expect Hughes to emerge as the clear No. 2 corner for the Vikings this season.