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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Avonte Maddox – Cornerback
5’9” 183 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Pittsburgh
2018 Statistics – 35 tackles (28 solo), 2 interceptions, 4 passes deflected, 1 forced fumble, 13 games played (9 started)
The Eagles had trouble in the secondary during the 2018 season. Injuries to starters Rodney McLeod and Jalen Mills hampered the unit early. More injuries occurred to their replacements, and the group looked pitiful by the middle of the season. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins remained healthy and kept the defense together, but there was another unsung hero in the secondary. Cornerback Avonte Maddox was a huge contributor during his rookie season for the Eagles.
Maddox was drafted in the 4th round as a cornerback out of Pittsburgh. He was asked to play safety after a season ending injury to McLeod in Week 3. Maddox showed speed, great instincts, and aggressiveness while playing out of position. At just 5’9” and 183 lbs, it was impressive watching him accept the challenge of playing safety. Maddox had his own injury trouble last season, and missed three games after injuring his knee in a Week 11 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Maddox would return at cornerback in Week 15 against the Rams. The defense felt his impact, as he recorded 2 pass breakups and an interception in that game. During the 2019 season, I predict Maddox will have more games with this level production. He will likely start in the slot cornerback position for the Eagles this season. I see Maddox as a rising star in this secondary, and I expect him to lead the Eagles in pass breakups this year.
Xavier Woods – Safety
5’11” 181 lb
3rd year pro – Louisiana Tech University
2018 Statistics – 56 tackles (39 solo), 2 interceptions, 9 passes deflected, 1 forced fumble, 14 games started
If you sit back and watch the Dallas Cowboys defense, you’ll notice their speed at linebacker and size at cornerback. Their front office has done a great job of adding athletic players, that can match up well with modern day offenses. The Cowboys run a lot of man coverages, leaving their athletes 1-on-1 to contain receivers. An underrated aspect of running man coverage is the deep safety help behind the man coverage. Free safety Xavier Woods had a very good season last year, holding the back end together and preventing big plays down the field.
Woods, a late round pick out of Louisiana Tech, plays one of the most important roles on the Cowboys defense. Woods plays fast and has strong play recognition skills. He’s a decent tackler, and displays his range consistently. With his first season as a starter under his belt, he is primed for a career season this year. After recording 9 pass deflections in 2018, I predict Woods will turn some of those into interceptions. He should lead the Cowboys in interceptions, in 2019.
New York Giants
Sterling Shepard – Wide Receiver
5’10” 194 lbs
4th year pro – University of Oklahoma
2018 statistics – 66 catches (107 targets), 872 yards, 4 touchdowns, 16 games started
A 2nd round pick in 2016, Sterling Shepard has carved out a productive career for himself so far. His receiving numbers are solid, and he proved to be a valuable receiving option playing next to Odell Beckham Jr. With Beckham being traded to Cleveland, Shepard needs to step up as the top receiving threat for the Giants. It’s his time to shine in New York.
Shepard should be the leading receiver for the Giants this season. He is a fantastic route runner, and is very quick in and out of his cuts. The addition of Golden Tate should also benefit Shepard. The duo will put a lot of stress on defenses with short and intermediate routes. I would like to see Shepard make improvements as a deep threat this season. Defenses will be stacking the box to contain Saqoun Barkley, so he will have opportunities to win against single coverage. Shepard has seen his yards per reception decrease with each season that he has been in the league. The Giants will need that number to head in the opposite direction if they want to have a successful 2019 campaign. I predict Shepard will have his first season with over 1,000 yards receiving this year.
Da’Ron Payne – Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle
6’3” 320 lb
2nd year pro – University of Alabama
2018 statistics – 56 tackles (35 solo), 6 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes deflected
Da’Ron Payne was one of my favorite college players to watch at Alabama. He dominated offensive lines with his combination of strength and quickness. Payne wasn’t as dominant in his first year for Washington, but the future is bright for this young defensive lineman.
Payne plays an important role in Washington’s 3-4 defense. With just three down defensive lineman, the nose tackle is the key to controlling the line of scrimmage. Payne did so last year, playing with great leverage against interior lineman. He has violent hands, and did a good job controlling blockers at the point of attack. Payne is a very smart football player with a great feel for how lineman are trying to block him.
In his second season, I expect Payne to become more of an impact player. With his combination of athleticism, intelligence, and technique, I believe he can develop into one of the best defensive tackles in football. Look out for Payne to increase his tackles for a loss and sack numbers this season.