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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Malik Hooker – Safety
6’2” 214 lbs
3rd year pro – Ohio State University
2018 statistics – 44 tackles (30 solo), 2 interceptions, 4 passes deflected, 1 fumble recovery, 14 games started
Ohio State defensive backs have a solid track record in the NFL. Names like Malcolm Jenkins, Marshon Lattimore, and Denzel Ward, are respected as elite talents at their respective positions. Free Safety, Malik Hooker, has not earned that recognition yet, but there are plenty of reasons to expect that he will soon.
Hooker was a highly touted prospect after playing two seasons at Ohio State. He was selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Hooker made an immediate impact as a rookie, making 3 interceptions in his first 7 games. Hooker’s season would come to an end after tearing his ACL against the Jacksonville Jaguars. After recovering from his injury, Hooker had a solid sophomore campaign as well. Hooker only recorded two interceptions, but he played his role on the Colts’ defense last year. The young safety did miss two games though, and battled minor injuries throughout the season.
Year three will be an important one for Malik Hooker. The Colts’ defense was a very strong unit last season, and they will have high expectations once again this year. Hooker will have to stay healthy, and continue to make plays in the secondary for Indy. I see Hooker taking his game to the next level this season. He will lead the Colts in interceptions, while also recording more than 70 tackles this year.
Leonard Fournette – Running back
6’0” 228 lbs
3rd year pro – Louisiana State University
2018 statistics – 133 rushing attempts, 439 yards, 5 touchdowns, 3.3 yards per carry, 8 games started
Running backs have a tough time in the NFL. When they are drafted high, they are expected to perform early and often. If they have one poor season, critics begin to question their longevity, and start discussing replacement options at that position. This vicious cycle has now landed at the doorstep of LSU alumni Leonard Fournette.
After rushing for just 3.3 yards per carry in 2018, analysts are wondering how much more of Fournette we will see going forward. Fournette was one of the most highly discussed prospects at both the high school and college level. He has all the tools of an explosive ball carrier. Strength, vision, speed, and a bad attitude, when carrying the rock. Fournette performed well as a rookie, rushing for over 1,000 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns. His second season in the league was filled with injuries, and the Jaguars offense struggled as a whole.
Fournette is primed for a nice comeback this season. He has lost 20 pounds, and is in a much better place physically and mentally. The Jaguars also have a new quarterback. Super Bowl LII MVP, Nick Foles, signed a 4 year deal with Jacksonville this offseason. Foles is a legitimate passer, and should take some pressure off of Fournette this year. I expect Fournette to explode back onto the scene, finishing with over 1,000 yards rushing once again.
Justin Reid – Safety
6’1” 203 lbs
2nd year pro – Stanford University
2018 statistics – 88 tackles (70 solo), 3 interceptions (1 returned for touchdown), 10 passes deflected, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 16 games played (12 started)
The Texans defense was phenomenal last year. The front seven dominated opponents behind the play of JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. The secondary brought it as well, and a rookie safety fit right in with veterans. You won’t see many rookies perform like Justin Reid did last season. Reid made an immediate impact next to safety Tyrann Mathieu, and the duo performed as one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.
Reid brings a lot of different aspects to a defense. He is smart, strong, and fast for a safety. The Texans ran a lot of exotic defensive formations and blitzes. Reid was asked to cover tight ends, blitz, stop the run, and also excel in coverage. Reid checked all those boxes, and was a big part of the Texans success last year.
In 2019, Reid will have a much tougher task. Cornerback Kareem Jackson and fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu both left Houston in free agency. I have confidence that Reid will step up, and become the centerpiece of this secondary. Look for Reid to have a breakout season, registering more forced turnovers than he did last year. By the end of this season, he should be getting recognized as one of the top safeties in the game today.
Corey Davis – Wide Receiver
6’2” 205 lbs
3rd year pro – Western Michigan University
2018 statistics – 65 catches (112 targets), 891 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns, 16 games started
The 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Corey Davis was drafted to be the number one receiving option for quarterback Marcus Mariota. After two pedestrian seasons, I think we will see Davis hit his star caliber this year. Davis is a physical wide receiver with great leaping ability. He has above average footwork, and his combination of athleticism and technique are a dangerous blend at wide receiver. Davis could be considered an elite receiver very soon.
Wide receiver is the most talented position group in the NFL. There is a long list of names that many consider to be elite. Davis hasn’t produced like those players just yet, but he has shown the potential to do so. In a Week 10 beatdown of the New England Patriots, Davis had one of the best games of his career. Davis was often covered by All-pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and still managed to produce 7 catches, 125 yards, and 1 touchdown. That level of dominance against an elite secondary should give Titans fans an idea of what Davis could become. This season, I expect Davis to take a major step towards stardom. My prediction is that he will have close to 1,200 yards receiving while catching 8 touchdowns.