Every year, NFL fans are able to pleasantly surprised by players who outperform their expectations. Take running back Phillip Lindsay, for example, who was an undrafted free agent who ended becoming the Broncos’ lead running back. Or veteran tight end Jared Cook, who had a career year last season for the Raiders in his tenth NFL season. Whether they’re at the beginning or the back-end of their career, each team has at least one player who exceeds expectations. Who will those players be? Let’s pick the most likely candidate from each NFL team, going by division.
*All Stats and Grades Via Pro Football Focus
Baltimore Ravens: EDGE Pernell McPhee
Heading into his ninth season, we know what Pernell McPhee is: a solid rotational pass rusher. Still, the 30-year-old hasn’t played more than 385 snaps in each of the last three seasons, and as a result, his pressure numbers have regressed significantly. However, this season, he’ll have a chance to be a starter once again for a Ravens team in desperate need of edge rushers. A former fifth-round pick of the Ravens, McPhee was a tremendous, underrated player in his four seasons with the team, and his last two seasons as a starter, posted an 85.6 grade or better, via Pro Football Focus. With more playing time in Baltimore and in a familiar scheme, McPhee could emerge as the top pass rusher on this team.
Cincinnati Bengals: EDGE Carl Lawson
Despite being a very talented player coming out of Auburn, Carl Lawson wasn’t drafted until the fourth round of the 2017 draft due to durability concerns. Those issues have followed him to the NFL level; he’s yet to come close to playing a full season in each of his first two seasons. However, if Lawson can stay healthy, he can easily establish himself as one of the better young pass rushers in football. In his limited time, Lawson has had a pass-rushing grade of 75.1 or better, including an 80.9 pass-rushing grade. The talent is clearly there, and the Bengals also have a very solid front four with Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Sam Hubbard on the defensive line; Lawson is a prime breakout candidate if he can put his injury concerns aside.
Cleveland Browns: TE David Njoku
As a result of his elite athletic traits, tight end David Njoku was a very hyped up prospect coming out of Miami, and was drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft. However, in his first two seasons, he’s been rather mediocre, posting grades of around 66. Yet, optimism should remain high regarding the 23-year-old. Njoku was awful for the first two weeks with Tyrod Taylor under center, but once Baker Mayfield took over in Week 3, his production was significantly better. Furthermore, once new head coach Freddie Kitchens took over as the play-caller in Week 9, his statistics were amongst the league’s best at the tight end position. Njoku will always be an intriguing player as a result of his athleticism. However, there’s clear evidence that he could be on his way towards breakout out this season; he could be the X-Factor of the Browns’ playoff push this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR James Washington
After being drafted in the second in the 2018 draft, wide receiver James Washington was expected to add another element to a prolific Steelers offense that already included Antonio Brown and Juju Smith Schuster. However, the opposite happened; Washington was arguably the worst receiver in the entire NFL last season with a putrid 49.2 overall grade. While that may suggest that Washington is on his way to becoming a bust, there’s still reason to believe he’s still on his way to becoming a starting-caliber receiver. After trading Antonio Brown, the Steelers are counting on one of Washington, third-round pick Dionte Johnson, and veteran Donte Moncrief to be their #2 receiver. Considering Washington’s draft status, as well as his upside, it’s likely he’ll get the first crack to do so. That case is stronger after performing well with a 79.7 grade in the preseason; Washington has a chance to be an excellent fit in this offensive scheme as a vertical threat, and definitely be the latest of the Steelers’ latest successful receiver picks.
Buffalo Bills: LB Tremaine Edmunds
When the Bills drafted Tremain Edmunds with the 16th overall pick, it appeared to be an absolute steal; he was projected to be a top-ten pick. However, Edmunds’ rookie season didn’t go as planned; he only had a 57.4 overall grade and struggled in both coverage and run defense. Still, it’s important to not overreact to his rookie season. After all, the Virginia Tech product was a young rookie – he just turned 21 – which likely caused a rough transition into the NFL. We saw a glimpse of Edmunds’ potential in the final three weeks, when he had two games with a 74.8 grade or better. If that late success can translate into next season, he could become a key part of the Bills defense, and if that’s the case, Buffalo could be a surprise team next season.
Miami Dolphins: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Another first-round pick from 2018, versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was seen as one of the most polished defenders in the entire draft class. Right out the gate, the Alabama product flashed with multiple strong performances. Yet, in the latter half of the year, he had three games with grades in the 40s, and no game with a grade above a 65.8. Overall, he finished with a mediocre 61.9 grade and just a 59.2 coverage grade. Still, new head coach Brian Flores will bring in a Patriots-type scheme to Miami, which places an emphasis on versatile players. It’s currently unclear if the 22-year-old is better as a cornerback or a safety, but either way, if Flores can utilize his skillset properly, he could be one of the few bright spots on what is an awful roster on paper.
New England Patriots: EDGE Chase Winovich
Despite being one of the most productive edge rushers in the entire country in his final year in college at Michigan, Chase Winovich wasn’t even seen as the best pass rusher on his own team; Rashan Gary was selected in the first round by the Packers. Due to him being overlooked, it looks like Bill Belichick has found his latest project. He may have been a third-round pick, but Winovich picked up right where he left off, posting a 91.6 pass-rush grade in the preseason. He now is slated to be a starter right away on New England’s defense, and at this point, it wouldn’t be a good idea to doubt him any longer. The Patriots may have lost Trey Flowers in free agency, but there’s a chance they could get similar production from Winovich; draft steals like this is how they continue their reign over the rest of the NFL.
New York Jets: WR Jamison Crowder
Former general manager Mike Maccagnan may have been fired in May, but before he was, he made several splash signings for the Jets. He signed very popular players in running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker CJ Mosley to huge contracts, generating excitement within the fanbase. However, it was a smaller signing that he made that could ultimately pay the most dividends. By no means was the three-year, $28 million deal given to Jamison Crowder a small signing. After all, that’s a lot of money for an unproven slot receiver with injury concerns; last season, Crowder only posted a 60.9 overall grade in just 9 games. Still, Crowder’s production in prior years when healthy, as well as his fit in head coach Adam Gase’s offense, cannot be ignored. Just as recently as 2017, the 26-year-old put together a solid 72.5 grade season, and played in 15 games. Plus, as we’ve seen with Jarvis Landry and other slot receivers in the past, Gase’s system needs a productive slot receiver. If Crowder can stay healthy, he can thrive in this scheme, and can become a top option for second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
Houston Texans: CB Bradley Roby
In general, cornerback tends to be a very volatile position. Few players illustrate this more than Bradley Roby. The 27-year-old has had multiple seasons with a grade over 70, but he’s very inconsistent, as demonstrated last season with his poor 59.9 overall grade. He was only able to receive a one-year prove-it deal from the Texans in free agency, but considering he had a 77.5 coverage grade in 2017, he’s very capable of bouncing back. If he does, it’ll be a very welcome development for a Texans team that is a little thin in the secondary.
Indianapolis Colts: FS Malik Hooker
In a way, safety Malik Hooker has already had his breakout season; last season, he posted a 79.7 grade and an 81.6 coverage grade. However, he’s still not considered amongst the league’s best safeties, and heading into his third season, he looks primed to realize his full potential. The 23-year-old only had two interceptions last season, which hurts the public perception of him, but he has elite ball-hawking skills, and had that amazing coverage grade. If his luck improves this season, he could enter defensive player of the year conversations and could be considered a top-notch safety.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Dede Westbrook
The Jaguars have a large collection of receivers, but in order for their offense to have any sort of success last season, they’ll need one of them to take the next step towards becoming a #1 receiver. Without a doubt, Dede Westbrook has the best chance of reaching that potential. After all, the 25-year-old was once a Heisman Trophy finalist when he attended the University of Oklahoma, and was definitely the team’s best receiver last year with a 71.3 overall grade. Going from Blake Bortles to Nick Foles at quarterback should automatically help Westbrook’s production, but he’s also gotten tremendous reviews in training camp, and also was relied upon heavily in the duo’s only preseason game. Whether in the slot or on the outside, Westbrook is Foles’ top option, and he should easily have a career year in 2019.
Tennessee Titans: WR Corey Davis
Unlike Westbrook, Corey Davis was a top-five pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and has been the team’s #1 receiver since he was drafted. However, with little supporting talent and a mediocre quarterback in Marcus Mariota, he hasn’t quite lived up to his draft status. The 24-year-old did have a 76.7-grade last season, but he was rather inconsistent and didn’t put together the type of touchdown numbers you’d expect. Still, the 24-year-old ranked in the top 20 in targets last season, including plenty of red-zone targets. Plus, with the signing of Adam Humphries, the selection of AJ Brown, and tight end Delanie Walker coming back from injury, there likely won’t be as much attention drawn Davis’ way this season. His breakout to becoming a premier receiver feels inevitable.
Denver Broncos: DL Shelby Harris
Technically, Shelby Harris has already lived up to his potential on the interior of the defensive line; he had an amazing 90.8 overall grade last season. Still, he was more of a run defender than a pass rusher, and only had 391 snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. This season, it’s likely that he’ll be given a more prominent role, which could lead to his true breakout. After all, new head coach Vic Fangio has always produced an elite pass rush with his defenses, especially from the interior. From Justin Smith to Akeim Hicks, his defense always has one great interior rusher, and in Denver, Harris has the potential to be that guy. He had multiple games with an elite pass-rush grade, and considering the limited time he played, the 19 pressures he had is actually impressive. He may be already 28-years-old and has barely played over 1000 snaps, but he could be a difference-maker for what should be a great defense.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Darron Lee
Drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft, expectations were high for Darron Lee to become an integral part of the Jets defense. Yes, he was awful in his first two seasons, but last season, he was significantly better. He missed four games due to a suspension, but the 24-year-old had an 84.8 coverage grade, which doubled his previous grades. Still, the Jets shipped him off to the Chiefs for a sixth-round pick, where he could be the key to team’s Super Bowl push. Kansas City’s linebackers, Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens, were liabilities in coverage last season; the Chiefs had no chance defending receivers or tight ends in the passing game. His athleticism and overall talent make him a prime candidate to succeed change of scenery; he’s one of the more obvious potential breakout players this season.
Los Angeles Chargers: OLB Uchenna Nwosu
The Chargers defense is both young and talented, but they still continue to use resources to add more impact players. In the same draft that landed them Derwin James, they may have also selected another valuable player; linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (second round). For the most part, the USC product is an edge rusher; he was used mostly as a pass rusher and had 27 pressures last season. He can make an impact in coverage as well, but Los Angeles is using his strengths properly, which is great for them, even though he’s an awkward fit as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Currently, he’s expected to be a starter this season, and assuming he has more than 266 snaps, he could be extremely productive as a pass-rusher this season, especially with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa likely to draw the focus of opposing offenses.
Oakland Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst
When he entered the NFL draft, Maurice Hurst was seen as a borderline top-ten pick. However, health concerns dropped him to the fifth round, where the Raiders drafted him. Now, it appears that Oakland has landed an absolute steal. He only played in 472 snaps, but the 24-year-old didn’t have any public health issues last season, and posted a solid 72.4 grade. This preseason, he was very impressive with an 85.1 overall grade, and also had 4 pressures. He has the talent to be a terrific interior pass rusher, which is something the Raiders need; their pass rush is the weakest in football. It all comes down to stamina with him; if he can play 600-800 snaps, he could be a 10-12 sack player this season, and the preseason may be a sign that he’s ready to be that type of player.
Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith
The Bears had a historic defense last season, but after losing defensive backs Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan in free agency, they’re expected to regress in 2019. Still, Chicago will remain the top defense in football this season, and Roquan Smith is a huge reason why. The 22-year-old was a can’t miss prospect coming out of Georgia, and after being selected with the 8th overall pick, had super high expectations and was a rookie-of-the-year front runner. However, he was overshadowed by rookie linebackers Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch, and only had a 65 overall grade in his rookie season. Yet, it’s important to add context with that grade. Smith engaged in a holdout during training camp, so he was limited early in the season and had a rougher introduction to the NFL than expected. Still, he was a little better as the season progressed, and may be one of the most talented linebackers in the NFL. He just needs to translate that talent into better production, and considering he’s an athletic freak who’s solid in coverage, there’s still a great chance that he could end up being the best linebacker out of that amazing 2018 draft class.
Detroit Lions: S Tracy Walker
Under head coach Matt Patricia, the Lions are slowly becoming a defense-oriented team with a similar scheme to the Patriots. If that’s the case, they need to improve in the secondary. They’re slowly developing cornerback depth, but if they want to have any chance of being an above-average defense, they’ll need Tracy Walker to prove to not a one-hit-wonder. The 24-year-old wasn’t expected to make a major impact in his rookie season, but by posting an 89.8 overall grade in 286 snaps, he’s suddenly become an important component to their defense. This is rather simple; if Walker can once again have elite production, but in a large sample size, he’ll have to be considered a top-notch safety; he’s definitely a player to keep an eye on this season.
Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones
Much has been made about the failure of the Packers in the final season under head coach Mike McCarthy, but the blunder that tends to go overlooked was his inability to get running back Aaron Jones more involved in the offense. The 24-year-old averaged 5 yards a carry and had an 81.8-grade last season, but he was underutilized and only played in 376 snaps. However, new head coach Matt LeFleur will take over as the play-caller of the offense, and he’ll look to implement a zone-run heavy scheme. That’s a perfect fit for the elusive Jones, whose emergence should easily transpire this season with a heavier workload; he’s a must-draft in fantasy football leagues.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook
When the Vikings invested a second-round pick in running back Dalvin Cook, they expected him to be an immediate 1,000-yard rusher for them. However, the Florida State product has struggled with injuries in the past two seasons; his numbers have been limited. Could this be the year Cook is finally healthy for a full season? Maybe, but even if he isn’t, his efficiency should vastly improve this season. Similar to the Packers, the Vikings will adopt a zone-run scheme with new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, which means more carries for Cook and more opportunities to get into space. The offensive line is still a concern, but when healthy, Cook is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL; durability is the only aspect preventing him from reaching his full potential.
Dallas Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott
What? Isn’t Dak Prescott already an established player? Well, not exactly. The 26-year-old already has two playoff appearances and three straight seasons with a grade above 72, but he still appears to be rather underappreciated. When the idea of him making north of $30 million on his next contract gets brought up, the public perception is usually that he’s not worth it. Yet, he’s very consistent, and is poised to have his best season yet this season. For starters, the former fourth-round pick’s supporting cast should be much improved this season, with a full year of receiver Amari Cooper, the signing of slot receiver Randall Cobb, and the return of center Travis Frederick. With better weapons and better pass protection, improvement is almost guaranteed, but there’s another aspect that is very intriguing. Dallas fired the very conservative Scott Linehan from their offensive coordinator, and replaced him with the young Kellen Moore, who should be much more innovative this season. No longer being dragged down by the offense, Prescott should prove to be potentially worthy of a lucrative contract, and will get back to the outstanding numbers he had in his rookie season.
New York Giants: EDGE Markus Golden
In 2016, edge rusher Markus Golden looked like a future cornerstone of the Cardinals defense. In that season, he posted 53 pressures, and had a solid 72.7 pass-rush grade. However, the past two seasons, due to injury and a poor schematic fit, were a disaster, and as a result, he only landed a small one-year deal from the Giants in free agency. Yet, that may have been a blessing in disguise. The 28-year-old will be reunited with defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who was the defensive coordinator when he was flourishing at the beginning of his career. Plus, given how thin the team is at edge rusher, he’ll likely be a starter this season. With more playing time, finally back in the right scheme, and hopefully back healthy, Golden should get back to being a productive pass rusher, and could be in line for a multi-year deal in the offseason.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Miles Sanders
The Eagles may have traded for running back Jordan Howard, but when you invest a second-round pick in a running back, he’s expected to take on a major role. That’s good news for Miles Sanders, who could the missing piece to making this offense an elite unit. Philadelphia has it all; they have a tremendous offensive line, a franchise quarterback, and arguably the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. What they need is a game-changer in the backfield, and Sanders’ three-down back abilities as both a runner and receiver make him a perfect fit. The Penn State product will have the chance to get a lot of touches this season, and will have the luxury of running behind arguably the league’s best-run blocking offensive line in a lot of nickel packages. It’s safe to say he’s set up for success this season; he’s a dark horse to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Washington Redskins: IDL Jonathan Allen
Before injury concerns piled up, Jonathan Allen was once seen as a potential top-five pick coming out of Alabama. However, he fell to the 17th overall pick, and only played in 159 snaps in his rookie season. Last season was practically his rookie season; his 71.2 overall grade should be getting more recognition than it is. Notably, the 24-year-old flashed as a productive interior pass rusher down the stretch, while also remaining solid in run defense. His all-around talents on the interior of the defensive line give him a similar potential to terrific players such as Kenny Clark and Kawaan Short, which should excite Redskins fans. Washington has invested heavily in the trenches through the draft, and in his second full season, Allen should prove to be a cornerstone on the defensive line.
Atlanta Falcons: CB Isaiah Oliver
The Falcons have a dangerous offense with a lot of skill-position depth, as well as multiple talented players on defense, but they need their pass defense to be better this season. The pass rush is an issue, but in order to compensate for that, Atlanta needs a #2 cornerback to complement Desmond Trufant. Could Isaiah Oliver be up to the task? The 2018 second-round pick is slated to be a starter on the outside this season, and has a solid length-speed combination necessary to succeed in this defensive scheme. Though he was role player last season, only playing 240 snaps, it is noteworthy that he did well with a 69.6 coverage grade. Considering his abilities and his draft status, a strong second season should be expected; he could be the puzzle piece that Atlanta has been seeking.
Carolina Panthers: DL Gerald McCoy
With six Pro Bowl appearances and an All-Pro selection in his resume, Gerald McCoy has already had a very successful career. However, the 31-year-old was cut by the Buccaneers this offseason, and after signing with the division rival Panthers, will be out to prove he still has plenty left in the tank. He wasn’t his usual self last season, but McCoy still had a 78.1 overall grade as the sole piece on a very weak defensive line, which is impressive. Now, he’ll be a part of an interior pass rush with Kawaan Short, which has the potential to be a deadly duo. Now that he’s part of a better defense and can focus more as a pass rusher as a 3-4 defensive end, it’s likely his pass-rush grade will be closer to the 80.5 mark he posted in 2017; if so, his goal will be accomplished; he may earn one last lucrative contract next offseason.
New Orleans Saints: EDGE Marcus Davenport
Though the attention with the Saints will be with the offense, which is led by Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas, the player with the most pressure to produce is pass-rusher Marcus Davenport. New Orleans sacrificed two first-round picks to get him, since they traded up for him, and needs him to be a dominant edge rusher in order to help them squeeze the last juice out of the Drew Brees era. While he did have a 71.8 overall grade last season, he only played 416 snaps due to injury and had just a 636 pass-rush grade; he’s expected to be much better this season. Still, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. The 22-year-old was much worse down the stretch as he battled a thumb injury, and was always seen as a developmental project coming out of college. His athletic traits, the flashes he showed last season, and his health are all working in his favor, and as the #2 pass rusher opposite of Cameron Jordan, he could easily have 10-12 sacks this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
When your head coach says publically that you’re going to be a 100-catch receiver, expectations are going to be high. Still as a second-fiddle to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin is still going somewhat under-the-radar. A third-round pick in 2017, he’s done well in small sample sizes, but had struggled to move up the depth chart. Now, both DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries are gone, which opens up plenty of targets for the Penn State product. With 4.42 speed, he has the chance to be an excellent vertical threat, which is a great fit with quarterback Jameis Winston in head coach Bruce Arian’s scheme. With two 80-grade seasons, and also great route-running ability, he may already be a true #1 receiver and a top-ten player at the position. This will be the year that he finally earns that recognition waiting to happen; Godwin could even surpass Evans as the top player on this offense.
Arizona Cardinals: WR KeeSean Johnson
When the Cardinals drafted three receivers in this draft, Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler drew most of the attention from draft experts. However, it’s the team’s sixth-round pick, Keesean Johnson, who’ll make the biggest impact in 2019. The Fresno State product had a productive offseason, showing off in camp, moving up the depth chart, and posting a 71.2 grade in the preseason. More importantly, he also showed a nice chemistry with quarterback Kyler Murray, which is very important as both transition into the NFL. Christian Kirk will be the team’s slot receiver, while Larry Fitzgerald still has great hands, but Johnson’s ability to take the top off the defense, and contribute in other ways, will be very valuable for this offense; he’ll be a surprise producer this season.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Darrell Henderson
This is all indictive on running back Todd Gurley’s health. If the star running back is healthy, the depth behind him may not matter, but still, having arthritis in your knee doesn’t suggest that you’ll be a workhorse running back. That’s where third-round rookie Darrell Henderson comes in. Whether as a complement to Gurley or as a replacement, he’ll get plenty of touches this season. The Memphis product is extremely elusive, and is a big play waiting to happen at all times. Considering how heavily running backs are used in the screen game or as outside rushers, Henderson will be relied upon heavily, and he’s a great fit in this offensive scheme; if Gurley can’t handle a proper workload, he may have the best season out of all the rookie running backs.
San Francisco 49ers: QB Jimmy Garoppolo
When Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers and won five straight games down the stretch with an elite 86.6 grade, he was being hyped up as the next great quarterback. Yet, after tearing his ACL and having a poor preseason game, he’s suddenly a $137 million bust, according to NFL fans. Which one is it? The 27-year-old proved to be fit tremendously in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and demonstrated top-notch quarterback traits. He’s a fringe top-ten quarterback that’s being treated like a low-end quarterback, due to his injury and small sample size, but fans should be warned; sleeping on the Eastern Illinois product is a mistake. He’s the clear frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year, and a low-key MVP candidate.
Seattle Seahawks: WR John Ursua
To wrap up our list, let’s take a look at the biggest sleeper on this list: seventh-round pick John Ursua. Part of a draft that included flashy receivers DK Metcalf and Gary Jennings, the Hawai product was an afterthought when he was drafted. Still, he may be the potential savior of this offense. The Seahawks’ offensive personnel is strange; they’re a run-heavy team with a great out of the pocket quarterback, but with only deep threats at receiver. They lack a reliable receiver in the short-passing game, which is where Ursua could contribute. He was very productive in the slot in college, and was great with a 76.3 grade in the third preseason game this season. Plus, Metcalf is currently injured, opening up an opportunity for Ursua even more. This could all mean nothing; Ursua, like most seventh-round picks, could be a non-factor this season. Yet, his abilities in the slot are impossible to ignore; he could be a surprise difference-maker this season