NFL 2019: Here are five second-year players who could emerge as stars in the upcoming season
We loved these players as 2018 prospects, and now they've got the opportunity for a big 2019
The 2018 NFL Draft class is my baby. Sort of.
While it technically was the fifth class I thoroughly evaluated, it was my first analyzing draft prospects here at CBS Sports, so it'll always be a group I deeply revere.
There are some prospects from that class I really liked who, for one reason or another, didn't have huge rookie seasons in 2018. A few from that collection are primed to have breakout second seasons in the NFL. And I'm here to tell you why, with a look at all five of them below.
(For reference, this was.)
Courtland Sutton, WR, Broncos
Sutton was my WR1 and No. 5 overall prospect in the 2018 class. I compared him to. So, yeah, I loved him as a prospect. I saw a big, super-smooth receiver with impeccable contested-catch ability and sneaky yards-after-the-catch skills. He ran 4.54 at over 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds and rocked his three-cone drill with a scintillating 6.57 time, proving his fluidity when changing directions.
Sutton had 22 touchdowns in his final two seasons at SMU and a posted high-end receiving yard market share of 39.3% as a junior and an average mark in 2017 at 28.3%. He accounted for for 38.5% of the receiving touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons combined. Big number.
After landing in Denver on a team with two clear-cut, established veterans at receiver in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, I wasn't expecting much from Sutton as a rookie, mostly due to lack of opportunity. Thomas was traded to the Texans on Oct. 30. Here are Sutton's splits from 2018 with and without Thomas on the Broncos roster.
|Targets Per Game||Receptions Per Game||Receiving Yards Per Game|
Sutton with Thomas on Broncos roster (8 games)
Sutton without Thomas on Broncos roster (8 games)
While Sutton didn't experience a dramatic spike in opportunity or production, his figures were better across the board. As a whole, he averaged a hefty 16.7 yards per reception with four receiving touchdowns. Sutton had 15 receptions of 20 or more yards as a rookie, the 19th-most among all pass catchers last season. Two more than Stefon Diggs. Sutton also drew four defensive pass interference calls, the 11th-most in football among receivers, per Football Outsiders.
In all, Sutton had a splashy, low-volume rookie season without that legitimate breakout game. Now, without Thomas eating into his targets for half a season, a new quarterback in Joe Flacco, and 32-year-old Sanders returning from tearing his Achilles on Dec. 5, Sutton is in prime position to erupt as a sophomore in the NFL.
According to Next Gen Stats, Flacco's 8.4 Intended Air Yards (IAY) number in 2018 was tied for the 13th-highest among qualifying quarterbacks. When he's been at his best as a professional, Flacco has been an aggressive, downfield thrower, a passing style that suits Sutton's deceptive speed, size, and high-pointing prowess perfectly.
Maurice Hurst, DT, Raiders
Hurst was my DT1 and No. 7 overall prospect in the 2018 class. My pre-draft comparison for him a mix of. During his four-year career at Michigan, he racked up 32 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, including 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as a senior.
No, those raw numbers weren't bananas. Hurst's film was. At Michigan, he played with an incredible first step, low-center-of-gravity power, and mastery level pass-rushing/block-defeating moves that made him super disruptive against the run and pass. His size, athleticism, and overall game fit exquisitely with what's needed from the modern-day defensive tackle in the NFL.
A heart condition precipitated a plummet to the fifth round, and the Raiders actually drafted a defensive tackle (P.J. Hall) ahead of him in the second round. As a rookie, Hurst led the Raiders with four sacks while playing just 45.9% of the defensive snaps. While he didn't hit the ground running, he flashed the burst and refined hand use easily noticeable on his collegiate film.
Fortunately for Hurst, after many mock drafts connected Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver to Oakland in Round 1, Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden didn't draft any defensive tackles at all in the 2019 Draft.
Veteran interior defensive lineman Clinton McDonald, who appeared on 40.7% of the team's defensive snaps last year, remains unsigned. Johnathan Hankins is penciled in as the starter next to Hurst, and Hall should be the main rotational player at that position. Hurst outplayed him by a wide margin in 2018.
As a rookie in 2010, former fourth-rounder Geno Atkins registered three sacks for the Bengals as a part-time player. With current Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on the staff in Cincinnati at the time, Atkins moved into more of a full-time role in 2011 and had 7.5 sacks to go along with 10 tackles for loss. Guenther should be fully aware of how to deploy a smallish, quick interior penetrator like Hurst to tap into every ounce of his talent.
James Washington, WR, Steelers
Washington was my WR2 and No. 18 overall prospect in the 2018 class. My pre-draft, who through the first five years in the NFL career didn't have a season with a yards-per-catch average under 15.7 and led the league by averaging 20.7 yards per reception in 2015 with the 49ers.
Washington played in a wide-open offense at Oklahoma State and was a productive downfield threat from the moment he stepped onto the field in Stillwater, Oklahoma. As an 18-year-old freshman in 2014, he caught 28 passes for 456 yards (16.3 yards per) with six scores. After that, he had campaigns with 1,087 yards, 1,380 yards, and 1,549 yards and respective receiving yard market shares of 23.6%, 32.7%, and finally 30.6% -- solid three-year numbers but altogether unspectacular -- while accounting for 32.6% of the team's receiving touchdowns over those three years, a rather sizable percentage.
At 5-11 and 213 pounds, Washington has a running back's body but routinely took the top off defenses with deceptive yet incendiary acceleration and serious sustained long speed. He was a menace to secondaries on slants and and showed tremendous tracking the football down the field, often coming down with it in traffic despite rarely having the height advantage. At the combine, he tested as a middle-of-the-road athlete for the position, but I decided to trust what I saw on film, essentially labeling him as someone who was more explosive on the field relative to the competition than he was in shorts.
Of course, as a second-round rookie on a team that already featured Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Washington was a long shot to make a big impact in his first year, and he didn't. He finished the season with 16 receptions for 216 yards with one score on 38 targets, meaning his yards-per-target figure was a lowly 5.7. However, in two of the last three games, Washington parlayed 9 targets into six receptions for 129 yards. That equates to 14.3 yards per target. Sure, it's a small sample size, but impressive nonetheless.
Between the departures of Brown and Jesse James, the Steelers lost 206 targets, 134 receptions, 1,720 yards, and 17 touchdowns from a season ago. Add in currently unsigned offensive skill position players who contributed last season -- Justin Hunter, Stevan Ridley, and Darrius Heyward-Bey -- and the total "lost" receiving production in Pittsburgh's offense is a massive 225 targets, 141 receptions, 1,768 yards and 17 scores through the air. The only pass-catching additions for the Steelers this offseason have been free agent Donte Moncrief, who had 48 catches for 668 yards with three touchdowns on the Jaguars last year, and third-rounder Diontae Johnson, who tested poorly at the combine but, like Washington, plays faster.
Washington has a monster opportunity to emerge as the clear-cut No. 2 in Pittsburgh, and it's worth mentioning that Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in completions (452) and attempts (675) last season, although Brown's presence was likely a major factor there. I expect Washington to consistently showcase his explosiveness and stellar ball-tracking skills as a big-play threat in a breakout second season in the NFL.
Derrius Guice, RB, Redskins
Now a year removed from the 2018 class, it's easy to think the running back group was all about Saquon Barkley. While Barkley was my RB1 and No. 6 overall prospect, Guice wasn't considerably lower on my board as RB2, at No. 12 overall.
I was that high on Guice, whom I first noticed -- like many others did -- when he ran as Leonard Fournette's backup as a freshman 2015 and averaged a hefty 8.5 yards per carry on 51 rushes for LSU. Iand described the former Tigers star as "a nuanced but violent runner with underrated athleticism."
As a sophomore, Guice averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 183 attempts with 15 touchdowns. In his junior year, he averaged 5.3 yards per rush and scored 11 more touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 27 passes for 230 yards with three receiving touchdowns in his final two seasons in Baton Rouge. Guice runs urgently with flexible ankles, outstanding vision to slip through the cracks between the tackles and possesses the ability to make multiple, devastating cuts if necessary. He also has a super-strong lower half to power through tackles and deceptive but not amazing long speed. Guice ran 4.49 at a compact 5-10 and 1/2 and 224 pounds at the combine.
A preseason knee-ligament tear derailed his rookie campaign before it really ever started. That led to Washington signing Adrian Peterson. Peterson performed outstandingly for a 33-year-old running back who started the 2018 regular season with more than 2,500 career carries and 2,700 career touches on his resume. But check Peterson's splits from last season:
|Rushes||Yards||Yards Per Attempt|
First 7 Games
Last 9 Games
Last year, Peterson went over the 3,000-touch mark in his illustrious career and is now 34. There's a good chance he begins the season as the Redskins' starter after signing a two-year deal in March.
But for as remarkably resilient as Peterson -- who I firmly believe is part robot -- has been in the NFL, no one would be shocked nor condemn him if he didn't have an efficient season at his age in his 13th NFL season after his gigantic workload.
As for other competition to Guice, injuries derailed Samaje Perine's second NFL season in 2018. He carried the ball just eight times for 32 yards after averaging just 3.4 yards per rush as a rookie the previous year. Washington used a fourth-round pick on Bryce Love, but he's recovering from a torn ACL and is aiming for a mid-training camp return. He's a speedy, change-of-pace back anyway, so Love wouldn't be a major threat to Guice's touches.
The Redskins finished 26th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards last season, an indication their offensive line struggled in the run game. But a fully healthy Trent Williams should help in 2019, as should the insertion of first-round bust at tackle Ereck Flowers, who'll play guard in Washington and has always been better paving lanes on running plays than in pass protection.
Altogether, Guice is set up pretty well to split between-the-tackles carries with Peterson to begin the 2019 season then emerge as Washington's top back by the midway point of the season, and looks like one of the best young runners in the league.
Frank Ragnow, C, Lions
Ragnow was my OC1 and No. 33 overall prospect in the 2018 class. I, a large, powerful center who wins the leverage/angle battle frequently and, when healthy, is an elite, top 3 center in football.
At Arkansas, Ragnow routinely won in the same way. First with gargantuan strength at the point of attack to anchor against bull rushes or to move wide-bodied defensive tackles in the run game. Impressively, his film also demonstrated impeccable angles and leverage wins in the trenches and when he needed to climb to the second level on combo blocks in the SEC. Lastly, his grip strength was superb. Counter moves rarely fazed him.
However, Ragnow was much more effective at center as a junior and senior than he was at right guard as a sophomore, although he famously never allowed a sack in his entire career with the Razorbacks.
He wasn't brutal as a rookie with the Lions but didn't play to his full potential. To me, a big reason why was due to his position, left guard. Graham Glasgow, who played center on 99.9% of Detroit's offensive snaps last year and did so decently, is speculated to move to right guard this upcoming season to replaced the retired T.J. Lang. Good news for Ragnow, going back to his most comfortable position. And good news for the Lions' offensive line as a whole.
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