The NFL is a league of opportunities, but not all opportunities are created equally. Some of last season's rookies entered environments where they were behind other players on the depth chart or were being asked to do too much because the team had no one else to lighten the load.
In an effort to project the players who might break out in Year 2, we explored the moves that each team made this offseason and how it might impact the 2019 rookie class. 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray were excluded from this project because they have already broken onto the scene. The criteria essentially means non-household names and Pro Bowl selections will not be considered for the list.
The quarterback position is highly exposed in the NFL so it is more difficult to find a potential breakout player. Lock is a strong candidate for two reasons: 1) continuity within Denver's offensive system and 2) significant additions made to his supporting cast.
General manager John Elway added Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in the draft to pair with Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. The offensive line is still a concern but the assortment of skill players on that roster is impressive. Melvin Gordon was signed in free agency to share Phillip Lindsay's burden of carrying the football.
Running back: Miles Sanders, Eagles
Some might question what more Sanders needs to show to be considered a 'breakout' player. The answer is consistency. What gets lost in conversation is his performance over the first eight games of the season. During those games, he recorded 294 rushing yards on 66 attempts (4.46 yards per carry). It is a respectable figure but the sample size is small.
The Penn State product really started to differentiate himself with a larger workload down the home stretch. He had 113 carries for 524 yards (4.64 ypc). He also became a reliable contributor in the team's pass attack as well. When the season ended, Sanders had all of the momentum.
Wide receiver: Mecole Hardman, Chiefs and Darius Slayton, Giants
The expectation was that Sammy Watkins would move on this offseason, which would allow Hardman to assume a larger role. When Watkins agreed to return on a pay cut, Hardman's fantasy value took a dive. However, the team still intends to feed him more targets this season. When the Georgia product had the ball in his hands last season, he took advantage. It will be exciting to see him in a larger sample size.
Slayton burst onto the scene with 48 receptions for 740 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. With another year in the system alongside quarterback Daniel Jones, the Auburn product should be even more productive. During the first half of the season, he was consistent but it was not until the second half that he really posted some impressive statistical days.
Tight end: Jace Sternberger, Packers and T.J. Hockenson, Lions
The breakout team is going to run 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) because the tight end class was honestly more intriguing than the wide receivers. Sternberger and Hockenson were the two chosen, but I could have made arguments in defense of Noah Fant and Dawson Knox as well.
Green Bay was linked to the top tight ends available in free agency, but was unable to sign them. Parting with Jimmy Graham was the right decision, but it left them with a vacancy at the position. Sternberger, a third-round pick, is going to be asked to shoulder a larger share of the targets.
Hockenson was the first tight end taken, but his first season could only be described as 'so-so.' There is no question that an injury to veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford stifled his development. The Iowa product's production should more closely resemble his potential in the upcoming season.
Offensive tackle: Jonah Williams, Bengals and Tytus Howard, Texans
Williams was viewed as a likely NFL offensive guard by many, but he has the ability to be a solid left tackle blocking for Joe Burrow. Cincinnati is essentially adding two first-round picks considering Williams missed all of last season. The franchise might get some consistent play from that position for the first time since Andrew Whitworth left in free agency.
Howard was the consolation prize for Houston, who had Andre Dillard taken out from underneath them by the Eagles. The rookie was moved a few times before finally settling in at right tackle. He was starting to play some good football when he sustained an injury. Howard played in just eight games last season, but he should show improvement in 2020.
Offensive guard: Dalton Risner, Broncos and Elgton Jenkins, Packers
The Denver offensive line was not a unit that inspired fear in the eyes of its opposition. Risner played fairly well and only improved as the season progressed. In addition to betting on Risner, I am betting on offensive line coach Mike Munchak -- one of the best in the business -- and his ability to develop the player.
Jenkins played really well in spurts but there was some inconsistency in his play. Jenkins' ability to be physical and dominate opposing players as a rookie was impressive. Green Bay will need the lineman to continue his progression following a parting of ways with veteran offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Center: Garrett Bradbury, Vikings
The first season for Bradbury was a bit of a disappointment. There were higher expectations for the first center taken in the 2019 NFL Draft. Minnesota really devoted some assets to improving the offensive line this offseason and that should only aid Bradbury. There is a lot of talent in the N.C. State product's frame and there are good odds that it will bubble to the surface in Year 2.
Defensive tackle: Jeffery Simmons, Titans and Quinnen Williams, Jets
Simmons was regarded as a top-five talent in the 2019 NFL Draft, but he was coming off an injury. When Simmons took the field for the first time after missing seven games with the Titans, his presence was felt. He was a difference maker immediately. In fact, he was so good that the team felt comfortable moving on from veteran Jurrell Casey this offseason. With a full season, the Mississippi State product should garner more recognition league-wide.
Williams disappeared as quickly as he appeared a year earlier with the Crimson Tide. The former No. 3 overall selection recorded 2.5 sacks as a rookie. His play was not awful but it was uninspiring compared to the resources the team invested in him. There is clearly a lot more talent present than what fans witnessed in 2019. Of course,did himself no favors. It is important to note that the defender only recently turned 22-years-old and still has a lot of football left to play.
Edge rushers: Brian Burns, Panthers and Montez Sweat, Redskins
Burns had a great season but was overshadowed by Bosa and Josh Allen. Despite playing roughly half of Carolina's defensive snaps, the Florida State product concluded the year with 7.5 sacks. They allowed him to learn at a slower pace but now he must show what he learned with a new head coach and defensive coordinator. Burns is tremendous around the edge and has a knack for targeting the football. His play could lead to several game changing moments this season.
Sweat had seven sacks last season for the Redskins. All the team did was add CBS Sports' No. 1 overall 2020 NFL Draft prospect, edge rusher Chase Young, to that defense. Teams will not be able to scheme against Sweat or Young solely, which means the team could be a nightmarish matchup for opposing teams; similar to the 49ers' defensive front a year ago.
Linebacker: Devin White, Buccaneers and Drue Tranquill, Chargers
During the 2019 NFL Draft, there was a lot of conversation about Devin Bush versus White. Bush contributed early but White showed the type of potential down the stretch that should be expected of a No. 5 overall selection. He finished the year with 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception. If he plays an entire season the way he did down the stretch, Tampa Bay has a chance to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon them.
Tranquill is a more mobile linebacker used primarily in sub packages. Our breakout defensive team is going to be smaller, but no less impactful in our approach to combat more spread style offenses. Tranquill was all over the field last season. He should have more opportunities to make an impact with an improved defensive unit around him this season.
Cornerback: Greedy Williams, Browns and Sean Murphy-Bunting, Buccaneers
Williams missed a large portion of the season dealing with a hamstring injury. When he was active, the defense was not exactly geared towards his strengths. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods' scheme is much more conducive to the LSU product fulfilling expectations. Cleveland will need bounce back seasons from Denzel Ward and Williams with the return of Ben Roethlisberger and the introduction of Burrow to the AFC North.
Murphy-Bunting recorded three interceptions last season, but the casual fan would not recognize his name. Tampa Bay should receive more time under the spotlight this season thanks to Tom Brady. The second year cornerback out of Central Michigan has the opportunity to introduce himself to a larger audience.
Safety: Juan Thornhill, Chiefs, Johnathan Abram, Raiders and Taylor Rapp, Rams
Similar to the tight end class, there are some really good safeties who could not be left off this list. I could make a case for Green Bay's Darnell Savage as well, but he played most of the season. Thornhill suffered a torn ACL in the regular season finale but not before recording three interceptions during his rookie campaign. The ceiling is really high for him.
Abram missed the entire season with a torn rotator cuff. The energy and attitude that he brings the defensive side of the ball should help the Raiders defense play with an edge. Vocal by nature, Abram had already begun to assert himself as one of the leaders on that side of the football before sustaining his injury. He can play closer to the box if asked.
Rapp had the benefit of learning from Eric Weddle for a season. The former is an instinctive player that should capitalize on his chance in 2020. He recorded two interceptions in 15 games last season.