The NFL is always full of great young talent, and this year is no different. Here are seven players who could break out and become legitimate NFL stars in 2019.
7. Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns
The New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley had a fantastic rookie season, but so did Chubb; he just didn’t get much recognition for it. Drafted with the third pick of the second round in 2018, Chubb joined a backfield that included new free agent signing Carlos Hyde and pass-catcher Duke Johnson. Because of the presence of Hyde in particular, Chubb touched the ball a total of 16 times over the first six games.
Despite this, he finished the season with 996 rushing yards (he had gone over 1,000 before being tackle for a loss in the final game of the year against the Baltimore Ravens), 149 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns, all while not fumbling once. He was Pro Football Focus’s top-graded RB in 2018, and the advanced stats absolutely love him; his elusive rating was second-highest of any RB since 2009, he forced a missed tackle every 4.4 attempts, and he was the second-highest-graded running back when facing boxes with eight or more players.
With the addition of Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns will probably throw the ball more often this season, but Chubb should still have an excellent year. Kareem Hunt is suspended for the first eight games, so Chubb will be a workhorse over the first half.
With the plethora of receiving weapons at Cleveland’s disposal, defenses won’t be able to devote as much effort to stopping the run, so Chubb should have every opportunity to dominate. He has also been working on his receiving ability out of the backfield, which would only make him a more dangerous player.
6. Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
The seventh-overall pick in 2017, Williams caught just 11 passes during his rookie season, but he showed why he was a top prospect last year. He finished with 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 scores. He doesn’t have great speed to create separation, but at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he doesn’t exactly need it.
With Tyrell Williams moving on to Oakland, Mike will see a larger share of targets, and that number could increase even more if Melvin Gordon misses time due to a contract holdout. Williams is a major red zone threat who should continue to become more involved in the offense and could establish himself as one of the game’s top targets.
5. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
Cleveland’s Denzel Ward was the best rookie cornerback last season, but Alexander deserves to be talked about with Ward. He led all NFL corners in contested target rate at 36.7 percent. He struggled against Adam Thielen and Julio Jones, but he also shut down Brandin Cooks.
The Packers dramatically upgraded their talent at safety (adding Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage) and the defensive line (Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Rashan Gary), so Alexander should benefit. Green Bay could be a legitimate sleeper team in 2019, thanks in large part to Alexander anchoring their secondary.
4. O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tight ends usually take a few seasons to get acclimated to the pro game, which is why Howard is such a good breakout candidate. In 2018, he had a better year than his rookie season despite playing four fewer games.
New head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t have a history of utilizing tight ends all that much, but he also has never had a player like Howard at the position. If Arians can work his magic on quarterback Jameis Winston and make him more consistent, Howard should be in for a huge season.
3. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
LVE was considered a reach when Dallas selected him 19th overall in 2018, but he had a fantastic rookie season and combined with Jaylon Smith to form one of the top linebacking tandems in football. Vander Esch finished with 140 total tackles and seven passes defended. He isn’t a pass-rusher, but he’s a great blend of past and present; he’s an athletic and rangy coverage backer in a throwback run-stopping thumper’s body.
Smith is in the final year of his rookie contract, and the Cowboys still have to pay Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper. If they can’t afford to keep Smith, Vander Esch will be more than capable of picking up the slack.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns
All the surprise first overall pick in 2018 did during his rookie season was completely change the culture in Cleveland, lead the Browns to seven wins, and set the rookie passing TD record, all in 13.5 games.
If Mayfield isn’t a star now, he will be very soon. He’s a very divisive player and person, but love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny his talent and impact. PFF ranks him as the 10th best QB in the league, and he could be even higher by the season’s end.
Mayfield’s goal for this year is to lead Cleveland to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s him.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Barkley finished with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 15 touchdowns in 2018, while winning offensive rookie of the year. He’s already a star, but we haven’t seen anything close to his best. With Odell Beckham Jr. now in Cleveland, Barkley will be the sole focal point for the Giants’ offense.
He will be helped out by an improved offense line that now features Kevin Zeitler at right guard, one of the league’ best offensive linemen. Barkley’s rookie year was great, and he should be even better in 2019.