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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Calvin Ridley – Wide Receiver
6’1” 190 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Alabama
2018 statistics – 64 catches (92 targets), 821 yards, 10 receiving touchdowns, 16 games played
After witnessing their dominance over college football, you would imagine that Alabama has a bevy of star players at every position in the NFL. A lot of Crimson Tide players have been selected early in the draft, but they have not all produced at an elite level in the league. One position that consistently translates well from Alabama, to the NFL, is wide receiver. The Atlanta Falcons already had star receiver Julio Jones on the roster, but elected to draft another weapon from Bama in the 2018 NFL Draft. Following a strong rookie season, Calvin Ridley looks ready to become a force in his own right.
Ridley is a different type of receiver than Jones. Julio Jones is a big, physical threat at wide receiver. He often dominates his matchups with pure athleticism and strength. Ridley is a lot smaller, and wins his matchups with quickness and sharp change of direction. Both players have speed, which makes this Falcons’ passing attack very dangerous.
Calvin Ridley put up fantastic numbers for a rookie wideout, recording 10 touchdowns in his first year. The most encouraging part of Ridley’s receiving numbers, is that he was able to succeed while Jones performed at his usual, high level. These two appear to compliment each other well, and they could develop into one of the best receiving tandems in the entire league. I predict Ridley will build off his strong rookie campaign and gain over 1,000 yards receiving this season
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
O.J. Howard – Tight End
6’6” 242 lbs
3rd year pro – University of Alabama
2018 statistics – 34 catches (48 targets), 565 yards, 5 touchdowns, 10 games played (8 started)
Tight ends typically get off to slow starts in their NFL careers. The physicality, quickness, and responsibilities of a good tight end, are a lot different in the pros, in comparison to the college level. In recent history, many tight ends have been able to find success in their third season. All signs are pointing toward a massive third year for tight end O.J. Howard.
Howard is as athletic as they come at the tight end position. He can outrun linebackers and outmuscle defensive backs that are trying to cover him. He is the prototype, modern day tight end. Howard is explosive with the ball in his hands, and a legitimate big play target. Through the first two seasons of his career, Howard has been hampered by injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. If he can stay healthy, 2019 projects to be a big year for him.
Shaq Thompson – Linebacker
6’0” 230 lbs
5th year pro – University of Washington
2018 statistics – 79 tackles (50 solo), 4 tackles for a loss, 1 forced fumble, 14 games played (11 started)
Teams in the NFL are passing more than ever. “Base” personnel is usually a three wide receiver set for most offenses in today’s league. Offenses have more speed on the field, leading to mismatches with slower linebackers and safeties. The evolution of the passing game has forced defenses to add speed to their units. Shaq Thompson is the type of athletic defender that coaches want to use in today’s league.
Thompson, a former first round pick out of Washington, has helped the Panthers defense from multiple spots on the field. Thompson is excellent in coverage. He gains depth on his pass coverage drops and reacts well to the football. He has also been their SAM linebacker, and lined up on the defensive line in certain formations. At only 230 lbs, that level of versatility is impressive.
To this point in his career, Thompson hasn’t played the amount of snaps that you would like. The Panthers used linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in their two linebacker sets, forcing Thompson off the field. Thomas Davis signed with the Los Angeles Chargers this past offseason, so that should put Thompson on the field more. With the added snaps, I think Thompson will have his first 100 tackle season. I also think he will record at least 2 interceptions.
New Orleans Saints
Marcus Davenport – Edge Rusher/Defensive End
6’7” 265 lbs
2nd year pro – University of Texas San Antonio
2018 statistics – 22 tackles (12 solo), 4.5 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss, 1 forced fumble, 13 games played (0 started)
Pass rushers have always been a valued position in football. Getting to the quarterback is mandatory for any defense. If the quarterback has all day to throw, he’ll eventually find an open target. The Saints traded up in the 2018 draft to select their pass rusher of the future. Defensive End Marcus Davenport is a big, athletic rusher, that has high expectations going into his second season.
Davenport got off to a productive start in his rookie year, recording 4.5 sacks through the first seven games of the season. His rookie season was derailed following a toe injury during a Week 8 win vs the Minnesota Vikings. Davenport would return after missing three games, but didn’t look the same for the duration of the year.
This past offseason, Davenport posted on social media about an injury that bothered him throughout the season, suggesting that he played through the pain. After making a full recovery, I predict Davenport is set for a huge return in 2019. Look for the UTSA product to record a minimum of 8 sacks in his sophomore season.