NFL preseason action just got going with the league’s 32 teams hopeful that the 2019 campaign will bring new riches.
These teams will be relying on players to hold up their end of the bargain. Whether it’s a quarterback in New England or San Francisco or a wide receiver in Atlanta, here’s a look at the 10 most important players heading into the 2019 season.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots
It’s easy to draw the conclusion that the defending champs are not as talented of an overall team as the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns in the AFC. That’s fine. It’s also preseason talk. With Brady and Bill Belichick still aboard, it’s hard to count the Patriots out. That’s why the onus is going to fall on this all-time great quarterback in 2019. Can he get something from rookie N’Keal Harry and veteran castoff Demaryius Thomas after the retirement of Rob Gronkowski? Can the 42-year-old quarterback continue to play at an elite level? The answers to these questions will dictate the AFC title ace.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
Should Elliott remain a holdout through the start of the regular season, it’s going to have a huge impact on Dallas’ title aspirations. In the eight games Elliott has missed during his career, Dak Prescott boasts a 4-4 record with a 76.3 rating. In games the two have played with one another, Prescott is 28-12 and boasts a 100.0 quarterback rating. This leads us to the conclusion that Jerry Jones statement about not needing Elliott to vie for a Super Bowl is ridiculous. He’s the single-most important player on the team.
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
Hill’s importance to the Chiefs is two-fold. The young receiver must keeep his nose clean off the field after a couple rather troubling incidents. On the field, Hill makes reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes better. It’s that simple. The three-time Pro Bowler recorded 87 receptions for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. A total of 754 of those yards came on deep routes. Hill’s ability to take the top off the defense is unparalleled in today’s NFL. As long as he’s healthy and clean off the field, Hill’s importance will remain there for Kansas City.
Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers
Balance. It’s something Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has not had throughout the vast majority of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. It’s also something Green Bay is going to need in 2019 if it wants to rebound from a sorely disappointing non-playoff 2018 campaign. The onus is going to fall squarely on Jones’ legs after he put up 934 total yards and averaged nearly 6.0 yards per touch as a sophomore. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur will use Jones more than Mike McCarthy did the past two seasons. That’s going to lead to renewed expectations for the young back.
J.J Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans
Even more so than Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins on offense, Watt’s importance to the Texans’ Super Bowl aspirations can’t be underscored. When healthy, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a legendary performer. He’s recorded a combined 126 quarterback hits, 54 sacks, 23 passes defended and 14 forced fumbles in his past three full seasons. Though, Watt played a total of eight games in 2016 and 2017. He’ll need to be at full health and performing at an elite clip for Houston to come out of the AFC.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
Pressure would be an understatement for Garoppolo as he heads into what could be a make-or-break season for the quarterback in Northern California. Coming off a torn ACL, it’s time for this former Patriots backup to prove he’s worth both the 49ers’ time and the cash they spent on him. Garoppolo has started a grand total of 10 regular-season games in five seasons. He’s returning under center for a 49ers team that has clear playoff expectations. Can Jimmy GQ prove he’s a top-10 starter in the league? The answer to this question is important to both the 49ers’ future and Garoppolo’s tenure in Santa Clara.
James Conner, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Conner was absolutely amazing in Le’Veon Bell’s stead last season as the now former Steelers running back held out. He tallied 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns at a clip of 5.4 yards per touch. Conner also caught a robust 55 passes. Now the full-time guy behind Ben Roethlisberger, the pressure is squarely on Conner to provide much-needed balance on offense. Simply put, Pittsburgh can’t have Big Ben throwing the ball at an alarmingly high clip. After all, he led the NFL in pass attempts (675) and interceptions (16) last season.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
Any time you’re handed a fully guaranteed three-year contract, the pressure is going to be on you. Add in Minnesota’s struggles last season after being considered legit Super Bowl contenders, and this is magnified further. Cousins has everything he needs on offense with Dalvin Cook at running back, two stud tight ends and the best receiver tandem in the NFL, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Simply put, Cousins must up his game big time if the Vikings want to win an ultra-competitive NFC North. That makes him a highly important player.
Nick Foles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville’s entire team struggled in 2018. It was something to behold after earning an AFC Championship Game appearance the previous season. Maybe he was just a scapegoat. Maybe he’s not a starter-caliber quarterback. Whatever the narrative is surrounding Blake Bortles, the Jags jettisoned him out of town in favor of this former Super Bowl MVP. Now an unquestioned starter for the first time since 2015, Foles is out to prove he can be a top-end arm on a playoff team. There’s $88 million reasons Foles is important to the Jags’ success. There’s 16 games for him to prove it.
Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons
When Jones is healthy and at the top of his game, there’s not a more impactful receiver in the NFL. Here’s a dude that’s averaging 105 receptions for 1,600 yards over the past five seasons. His importance to the success of Matt Ryan and the Falcons can’t be understated. This is especially true when it comes to the red zone. After all, Jones is averaging a mere six touchdowns during the past half decade. He’ll need to double that number in 2019 for the Falcons to have a chance in the NFC South.