NFL 2020: Rookies who will make a big leap in Year 2, including predictions and more


Once an athlete achieves his dream of being of the chosen few who beat the odds and lands an NFL contract, they quickly realize just how hard it is to dominate at the highest level of the sport. It’s a league of attrition — with few being able to establish themselves quickly — but every year there’s a group of rookies who either live up to expectations or flat-out surpass what others thought them capable of, and it’s always a blast to see it unfold in real time.

The 2019 season was no different in that regard, with first-overall pick Kyler Murray blowing past the “size hate” to land Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and he’s just one example. That being said, Murray was still very obviously a rookie who had several stumbles in his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, but that also means he’s in position to level up in Year 2. The same goes for several other players now entering their sophomore NFL season and, in this column, we’ll take a look at 10 second-year talents who are likely to take a large step forward in 2020.

Some you’ll see coming, but others you won’t. 

Offense

If you don’t think there’s a way the OPOTY can improve, you don’t know much about football. For all the great things Murray did in 2019, including a strong 3,722 passing yards, he struggled to put points on the board consistently with his arm and made more errors than you’d like to see when trying to accomplish that goal — having just 20 touchdowns to go along with 12 interceptions. To be fair, he did add another 544 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to his rookie resume, and some of his passing woes were due to lack of top-tier receiving weapons not named Larry Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals want more from former second-round pick Christian Kirk, and their tight end corps was mostly nonexistent last season. The good news is Kirk took a step forward himself in his second year and stands to do the same in his third, and if Arizona can locate a third WR option, land an impact TE and Murray dives into film to cut down on his turnovers and improve on his understanding of opposing defenses; he could one-up himself in a big way this season. The Rookie of the Year is just getting started.

2020 Prediction: 4,300 passing yards, 27 passing TDs, 9 INTs, 650 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs

Things couldn’t have started off more disastrous for the Broncos in 2019. They traded with the Baltimore Ravens to land Joe Flacco, convinced he would find his Super Bowl MVP form despite all indications to the contrary. What’s worse is the Broncos didn’t have the offensive line to protect an aging, mostly immobile quarterback, and you can guess what happened when the two things met as Vic Fangio did his best to turn things around in his first season as the team’s head coach. Lock wasn’t yet ready to be unleashed after suffering a thumb injury in the preseason that landed him on injured reserve.

In the end, it was Flacco finishing the season on injured reserve and Lock returning to active duty to deliver a 4-1 record as a starter, and you’d be remiss if you simply looked at his 1,020 passing yards, seven TDs and three INTs in those five games to determine his potential. Lock is the real deal, but needs more reps as a starter before he can truly find his groove and, barring another injury, I’d expect we see him break out in 2020. The caveat here being the Broncos need a WR compliment to Courtland Sutton, with Emmanuel Sanders no longer in tow. Noah Fant helps in a big way, but DeSean Hamilton is who I’m looking at with that comment.

2020 Prediction: 3,750 passing yards, 25 passing TDs, 10 INTs

Pollard was an award-winning collegiate dynamo in the return game, but he looked completely indecisive in his first year handling those responsibilities for the Cowboys. That led to mistakes and some that were almost, if not for them being cleaned up at the last second, but there’s no denying he can change the game on the special teams front. What’s more, he’s also proven he can be an impact compliment to two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, when he’s not shoved in the closet at random points during the season. 

The more offensive reps Pollard gets, the more mentally, physically and emotionally refined he’ll become, and what Mike McCarthy has planned for Kellen Moore’s offense — by way of installing West Coast tweaks — will set Pollard up for strong success as a receiver out of the backfield in 2020. Elliott will see those duties as well as the bell-cow back, but expect him to be spelled a bit more to give Pollard a chance to spread his wings. Moore learned from his first-year mistakes, McCarthy’s presence helps, and John Fassel is a special teams guru who should unlock the potential in Pollard as an NFL return guy.

2020 Prediction: 600 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs, 200 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs, 650 kick return yards, 1 kick return TD 

You can almost literally feel the potential in Brown waiting to burst out of his chest. This was a rookie who started only 11 games due to injury, but still delivered 584 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns on the season. A speedster who can take the top off of the opposing defense virtually on-demand, it feels like the sub-4.4 second (sub-4.3 second, if you ask him) talent didn’t fully unleash in his first year. That hints at an improved second season wherein head coach John Harbaugh seeks to establish Brown as one of the better deep threats in all of football. 

Brown was second only to Mark Andrews in receiving yards for the Ravens, but also had 71 targets, and another offseason to build chemistry with league MVP Lamar Jackson will only see that number increase going forward. With an average yard per catch of 12.7 and sticky hands that caught nearly 65% of passes thrown his way, the one lovingly known as “Hollywood” — albeit due to him hailing from Hollywood, Florida — is ready for the lights, the camera and all the action this season. All he has to do is stay healthy.

2020 Prediction: 1,115 receiving yards, 14 receiving TDs

It was a breakout season for Samuel in his debut for the Niners, but this column isn’t about who’ll break out as much as it is about who’ll see drastic improvement — regardless of how well they did as a rookie. As such, you can’t justifiably look at Samuel and somehow presume he won’t be even better in Year 2. Yes, the former second-round pick inhaled 802 receiving yards, but he also had only three receiving touchdowns in an otherwise impressive season. Samuel was also put on display by the Niners in Super Bowl LIV as a jet sweep threat because of his sneaky speed and downright bullying physicality, regularly imposing his will on anyone who attempted to tackle him.

The trade for Emmanuel Sanders is what helped Samuel find his way as teams had to play more honest with he, Sanders and George Kittle on the field, but Sanders is an unrestricted free agent and Samuel now has the confidence to ascend to Jimmy Garoppolo’s top WR target (outside of Kittle) going forward, in the event Sanders doesn’t return. If that happens, look for much more from Sanders, and that includes in the run game as well. Sure hands, underrated speed and a bloodthirsty drive to bowl over defensive backs sets him up for what could possibly be a Pro Bowl year in 2020.

2020 Prediction: 1,210 receiving yards, 7 receiving TDs, 200 rushing yards, 5 rushing TDs

Defense

Keeping on the defensive line, there’s a justifiable expectation Sweat joins Ed Oliver in being two of the more dominant pass rushers in the league soon. Sweat logged two more sacks than did Oliver, but he was also able to establish himself with the Redskins as a definitive Day 1 starter — taking the field as one in all 16 regular season contests. A First-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC talent out of Mississippi State, however, Sweat entered the league with more polish and, as such, should have an even better chance than Oliver of eclipsing his rookie year in his sophomore effort.

Sweat is every bit the monster at the NFL level he was in college, but he hasn’t come close to learning all the tricks of the trade. A year under his belt gives him the chance to review his own film and note mistakes that cost him a 10-sack season in his first attempt, and if the Redskins get their hands on Chase Young in the 2020 NFL Draft, there’s simply no double-teaming or chipping anyone on the Washington defensive front. Considering playing Sweat straight up is a suicide mission for all but a handful of NFL offensive tackles, well, you get the idea.

2020 Prediction: 11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 85 combined tackles, 20 QB hits

Despite the hype surrounding Oliver leading into the draft, there were some who thought he’d take a while to acclimate himself to pass rushing at the NFL level after hailing from a smaller collegiate program at the University of Houston. Needless to say, he proved the latter wrong. The ninth-overall pick effectively made good on his draft status by impacting games and while he didn’t have the season we all saw from Nick Bosa — the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year — the physical specimen that is Oliver wasn’t as far behind as some would think (and from the interior of the defensive line, no less).

He posted five sacks in only seven starts, along with 43 combined tackles and eight hits on opposing quarterbacks. This hints at things to come for Oliver and the promising Bills defense, and he can truly establish himself as a leader in 2020 if he grinds away this offseason to hit the next level in his NFL progression sooner than later. Oliver has double-digit sacks written all over him, and while that’s more realistically a Year 3 goal for most pass rushers who enter the league — and difficult for an interior lineman to accomplish — there’s nothing stopping Oliver from doing it on a defensive front that demands one-on-one matchups across the board.

2020 Prediction: 10 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 80 combined tackles, 15 QB hits

It was slated to be a strong season for Abram with the Raiders. He was highly-touted ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft and for good reason, because he’s a hard-hitting safety who can also cover. There are times when the latter can be a liability as he looks to line up his next bone-rattling blow, but Abram is a box safety so that’s more-or-less his job — which also includes aiding in run support. The Raiders were amped to unleash him in 2019, but the former first-round pick suffered a torn rotator cuff following a Week 1 battle with the Broncos, and went to injured reserve.

He wouldn’t return to the field last season but, now fully healed, is poised to do in Year 2 what he hoped to in Year 1. The former First-Team All-SEC talent out of Mississippi State is champing at the bit to get to work, and that spells trouble for receivers and running backs who cross his path soon. Now taking up residence in Las Vegas, the odds of Abram not having a great year are slim, so bet on him and not the house.

2020 Prediction: 2 INTs, 6 PBUs, 2 sacks, 60 combined tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

Here’s a name many NFL fans aren’t keenly aware of, but the Colts and the AFC South know who Ya-Sin is. The former second-round pick was a First-Team All-AAC talent and dug his heels in quickly when he landed in Indy as their 34th-overall pick last offseason. He wasn’t able to land his first career interception until Week 11, but he’s starting to find his NFL legs. There are areas he’ll need to sharpen going forward, but all indications are Ya-Sin will be a strong addition to the Colts roster for some time to come.

It’s also key to note that INTs aren’t the only measure of success when assessing cornerbacks, because coverage matters as well, and Ya-Sin’s five pass deflections show he can identify the play and react quickly to break up targets. Growing pains aside, the 23-year-old was good enough to land a nod to the PFF All-Rookie Team for grading out well, and it shouldn’t be an issue for him to improve upon a promising, but flawed, first year out. As Malik Hooker levels up on the back end, Darius Leonard continues his dominance at the second level, Ya-Sin will have more opportunities in the future to make game-changing plays opposite Pierre Desir.

2020 Prediction: 3 INTs, 10 PBUs, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 73 combined tackles

Curveball

Of the promising second-year defensive players I’ve listed here, Johnson arguably has the most work to do to reach the next stage of his NFL potential, but he has the ability to do it. The most impactful play Johnson made in 2019 was a blocked punt he recovered and returned for a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round, but the Chiefs ended up mounting a lethal comeback to send the Texans packing, and a key part of their preparation for 2020 is to repair their secondary. A former second-round pick, Johnson is being looked upon to help get things going in that direction, and more snaps will mean more opportunities to prove himself in Houston.

No, Johnson didn’t enter the 2019 NFL Draft with a list of honors under his belt, but that’s mostly because he still needs to refine his skills. They’re raw, but they exist, and another offseason in the NFL will only serve to polish what’s present within him. The team can help Johnson and others in the secondary by re-establishing their pass rush and, if they can, Johnson will have a more realistic chance at landing more than seven starts and no interceptions. They selected him high in the draft for a reason, after all. His seven pass deflections were top-5 on the team, so catch the hint here, and having both Tashaun Gipson and Justin Reid on patrol behind him won’t hurt.

2020 Prediction: 2 INTs, 1 DEF TD, 12 PBUs, 63 combined tackles





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