In NFL.com’s Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JUDY BATTISTA leads off a roundtable on players set to break out in 2020.
We’re a little more than two weeks from the kickoff of the NFL season, and while absolutely nothing is normal about this training camp, at least one thing feels familiar: Wild optimism is sweeping through every team.
We joke about this every year. Every player is in the best shape of his life; every general manager feels good about the roster additions; every coach likes his team’s energy. And this season, with no offseason work and no preseason games, the crystal balls are probably even cloudier than usual.
After 10 days of padded practices, though, it’s starting to become clearer for whom the buzz is warranted.
Last week, we talked about dark-horse teams we think are playoff contenders. This week, we’re focusing on individual players — not the Patrick Mahomeses of the world, but the ones you might not be hearing about every day of camp who we think will make the biggest impact this season.
My choice for a breakout veteran is third-year Jacksonville wide receiver D.J. Chark Jr. Yes, Chark made the Pro Bowl last season, but little attention is ever paid to the Jaguars’ passing game. It’s time to change that. Chark is big (6-foot-4), fast (ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds) and had 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Seventeen of those receptions went for at least 20 yards, and he has had a superb training camp in which his bond with quarterback Gardner Minshew has been showcased. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden calls Chark a “specimen,” and he has already talked about using him in the slot in addition to the outside, where he flourished last season.
The Jaguars feel good about the weapons they are putting around Minshew, which also includes Dede Westbrook, rookie Laviska Shenault, Chris Conley and the tight end signed in free agency, Tyler Eifert. But there’s not much question that Minshew’s No. 1 target is Chark, and my prediction is this is the first time we’re going to be talking this much about a Jaguars receiver since the Allens — Robinson and Hurns — were in Duval.
My colleagues Jeffri Chadiha, Jim Trotter and Mike Silver have their favorites, too, so I ask you guys: Who are the veterans you expect to make an impact this season?
MICHAEL SILVER: Last season on Dec. 15, I returned to my seat in the front row of the Nissan Field press box after an end-of-the-third-quarter coffee break, eager for some action. Two playoff-bound teams, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, were waging a tight, relatively unremarkable battle for AFC South supremacy, and the caffeine infusion seemed exceedingly necessary.
Trailing 14-7 with the ball at their own 27-yard line, the Titans called a run-of-the-mill toss to running back Derrick Henry, who expertly sashayed through a series of small openings and raced to the right sideline. Except — as I finally noticed about 20 yards in, with the action unfolding right in front of my vantage point — it wasn’t Derrick Henry.
Rather, the ball-carrier was a guy wearing No. 81 who looked like Henry, ran like Henry and, as he pulled into the secondary, seemed like he might be even faster than Henry.
The man who’d taken the pitch from Ryan Tannehill and rambled 57 yards before being dragged down from behind by Texans safety Justin Reid was, in fact, tight end Jonnu Smith. I sat there with my mouth open, watching the replay over and over. By game’s end, Smith had caught five passes for 60 yards, blocked his face off and basically convinced me he’s the Next Big Thing.
The Titans selected Smith, a former Florida International standout, in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has steadily increased his production and, by all rights, 2020 will be the season he breaks out and becomes a bona fide star.
My reasoning: He’s too good not to. The 6-3, 248-pounder has incredible speed and athleticism for his size, and the Titans are a team still searching for consistent weapons in the passing game. Wideout A.J. Brown had a promising rookie season in 2019 and should continue to improve, but if I’m Tannehill, I’m looking for No. 81 early and often this year.
JIM TROTTER: Mike, my breakout player is someone who wasn’t even on the field last season. Or the season before that. San Francisco running back Jerick McKinnon missed the past two seasons after tearing his ACL shortly before the 2018 season opener, but he has looked healthy and explosive in training camp this year. Smart fantasy owners would be wise to grab him at some point, because I expect him to put up numbers. Remember, it was 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan who reminded reporters that there was a reason McKinnon was one of the team’s celebrated free-agent acquisitions in March 2018, when he left the Vikings to sign a four-year, potential $30 million deal that included a reported $18 million in guarantees.
Blessed with quickness, speed and a receiver’s hands, McKinnon was viewed as a game-changing third-down back who could also take snaps on first and second down. Based on how he has looked in camp this month, there is no reason to think he won’t fulfill those expectations. His skill set combined with the scheming and game-planning of Shanahan and his assistants virtually ensures that a healthy McKinnon will be a force. He joins a deep backfield that includes Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson Jr., but his talent is such that there will be ample opportunities to distinguish himself.
McKinnon is only 28 years old and has relatively few miles on his tires. He never carried more than 159 times in any of his four seasons with the Vikings, during which he annually grew as a threat out of the backfield, his reception total going from 21 to 43 to 51 in his final three seasons. San Francisco has a talented young linebacker corps that can run with most backs, but no one has been able to keep pace with McKinnon during one-on-one drills in practice. My prediction is that’s simply a prelude of what’s to come when the real games start.
JEFFRI CHADIHA: This might be considered cheating, but I’m going with Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt. Yes, I understand that he already had a breakout season, which was back when he led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2017. That also feels like an incredibly long time ago. You know, back before the Kansas City Chiefs dumped Hunt in the second half of the 2018 season after a video surfaced that showed him pushing and kicking a woman during an altercation at a Cleveland hotel, and he missed the first eight games of last year while serving a suspension.
If we’re going by Judy’s criteria — which asks us to name the player who is flying under the radar right now but is well-positioned to have a major impact — then Hunt fits the bill. He only gained 179 yards in eight games with the Browns in 2019. He also had a prime spot to watch teammate Nick Chubb run for 1,494 yards, which was third-most in the league last season. Now that Hunt is preparing for a full season with the Browns, people aren’t paying enough attention to what he can do in this offense.
Hunt came into training camp looking very much like a man trying to remind people of his talents. He spent this offseason working out with his old high school track coach, which resulted in Hunt reporting to camp with a leaner look and more explosiveness. The Browns also don’t see any issues with finding enough touches for both Hunt and Chubb in this offense. If anything, Hunt might have a greater impact on the passing game than Chubb, as he had 53 receptions in that same rookie season that saw him lead the league with 1,327 rushing yards.
The Browns understand that Hunt is going to be hungrier than ever to prove himself. He’s only 25 years old and missed a great opportunity to be part of a Super Bowl champion team in Kansas City. Now Hunt is part of an offense that has its own potential to achieve greatness, with Chubb, quarterback Baker Mayfield and receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry representing other key contributors. New head coach Kevin Stefanski, who formerly worked as the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator, also has a reputation for spreading the football around and maximizing the skills of his running backs.
So am I taking a huge leap of faith with a player who’s already made one Pro Bowl? No. But in the time that’s elapsed since his release by the Chiefs, it feels like some people have forgotten what he can do on the field. This year, he’ll remind everyone of exactly what kind of player he used to be.
BATTISTA: Let’s talk about rookies now — and I have who I think will be one of the most impactful rookies here in New York, blotting out the sun: the massive (6-7, 370 pounds!) Jets offensive tackle Mekhi Becton. On the first day in pads at Florham Park, Becton was at left tackle with the starters and the Jets badly need him to anchor that spot immediately. Upgrading a terrible offensive line was the priority for general manager Joe Douglas, for the sake of quarterback Sam Darnold, who was relentlessly pressured last season and, according to Next Gen Stats, struggled badly in those situations, having the lowest passer rating in the league against the blitz.
Running back Le’Veon Bell, who had a miserable season in 2019, will benefit from Becton’s shockingly good movement, too. On one play at practice, Becton came off the ball at the snap, quickly got to the second level of the defense and smashed into a middle linebacker.
Sports talk radio in New York is probably going to spend a lot of time talking about the weapons (or lack thereof) the Jets have for Darnold, but I expect you won’t hear Becton’s name very often, which is exactly how you like offensive linemen.
SILVER: I’m definitely going to get laughed at by my esteemed colleagues who graduated from Michigan (Jeff) and Miami (Judy) — and probably even by the proud Howard grad (Jim), too — but my rookie to watch is Arizona Cardinals linebacker Evan Weaver, a sixth-round pick out of … the University of California.
Yes, I’m biased. And yes, I know Weaver isn’t slated to be a starter, or even considered a lock to make the 53-man roster.
At Cal, Weaver was a tackling machine who was constantly around the ball, came up huge in pivotal moments and never stopped letting his opponents know, even in post-game interviews. He looks like Mr. Incredible (from the 2004 animated Pixar flick) and plays every down like an unheralded and overlooked maniac trying desperately to get people’s attention.
I’m predicting that somehow, some way, Weaver will do just that. It may be primarily on special teams, or it may be as a fill-in, or he may simply will his way onto the field. I know the NFL is a whole different level than the Pac-12, and I know the odds aren’t stacked in his favor.
But I believe in The Weav.
BATTISTA: Mike talks about a Cal guy. Who could have ever seen this coming?
TROTTER: Mike going with a Cal guy might have been the most predictable part of this column. LOL. That said, I’m going with Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell. The former Clemson star started 30 games for one of the nation’s top college programs, and though he had some issues in the national title game against LSU — what corner didn’t have trouble with that passing game? — he regularly met and exceeded the challenge.
Terrell’s talent and competitive spirit have jumped out to those observing Falcons practices, as he has embraced the challenge of lining up against Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. It stands to reason that if he can hold his own against those two, he should be comfortable matching up against a deep pool of talented receivers in the NFC South.
CHADIHA: I’ll let Mike take his chances with the unheralded Cal alums. I prefer to go with more highly regarded players when it comes to picking rookie breakout performers. That’s why wide receiver CeeDee Lamb stands out in this category. You take a guy who was arguably the best player at his position in the draft and add him to a Dallas Cowboys offense that already has plenty of firepower, and it’s hard to see where things could go wrong. Without even playing a down yet, Lamb already feels like a strong bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
What’s not to like about this situation? First off, Lamb is a monster. He has the size, hands and route-running ability to be a star from Day 1. He’s playing for a team that has two other dangerous receivers — Pro Bowler Amari Cooper and third-year pro Michael Gallup — and one of the best running backs in the game in Ezekiel Elliott. Talk about minimizing the pressure on a first-year talent. Lamb will go into most games knowing that he’ll be the fourth or fifth person on this offense that opposing defenses will be trying to stop.
Lamb should benefit from a lot of winnable matchups against third and fourth cornerbacks. He’ll have an offensive-minded head coach, Mike McCarthy, who loves using multiple receivers in his system. I get that plenty of first-year players will be struggling to transition into the league because of the offseason practice time that the COVID-19 pandemic took away. I just don’t see Lamb being part of that unfortunate group.