10 NFL players set to step up next season

By Vincent Frank
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Football is a fickle entity. Injuries can impact the entire outcome for a team. It can also lead to young players stepping up big time after previously being unknown commodities.

For other teams out there, the reliance on unproven players have paid off in the past. Just think about Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns last season.

It’s in this that we check in on 10 NFL players that are set to step up during the 2019 season.

Michael Gallup, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

A third-round pick of the Cowboys last year, Gallup performed well as a rookie. He caught 33 passes for 507 yards and averaged a robust 15.4 yards per catch. The 6-foot-1 receiver will have to improve on the 48.5 percent catch rate from last season. Even then, there’s every reason to believe that Gallup will take his game to the next level in 2019. He’s slated to start opposite Amari Cooper with free-agent acquisition Randall Cobb starting in the slot. That will give Gallup an opportunity to improve on the numbers we saw in 2018.

Sam Darnold, quarterback, New York Jets

Did the Jets make a mistake by signing All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell to a massive contract? There’s an argument that can be made defending this stance. There’s absolutely no argument in favor of the belief that Bell doesn’t make Darnold better on the field. With an improved running game, the second-year quarterback should excel big time. Darnold is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him throw more touchdowns (17) than interceptions (15). Adding a valuable slot receiver in Jamison Crowder should help him as well. Look for a big 2019 season from the former USC standout.

Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers

Green Bay’s improved pass rush should help the team’s secondary in a big way. Adding Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and rookie Rashan Gary is no laughing matter. Among those set to benefit the most, Alexander can become a true ball hawk after recording just 11 passes defended and one interception as a rookie last season. We’re expecting him to take advantage of quarterbacks having to rush passes. Look for five-plus interceptions and a touchdown or two from Alexander during his sophomore campaign.

Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, Denver Broncos

Now that Demaryius Thomas has moved on from the Broncos, it’s safe to suggest that Sutton will be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver this coming season. The former second-round pick caught 42 passes for 704 yards as a rookie last season. That came with him catching passes from the likes of Case Keenum. Just imagine how much better Sutton will be with a strong-armed Joe Flacco tossing him the rock in 2019. We would not be surprised if the big-bodied 6-foot-3 receiver gained 1,000-plus yards in 2019.

Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago Bears

Smith was held back some last season after holding out into training camp. The former top-10 pick didn’t have a full offseason prior to his rookie year. Despite this, Smith responded by putting up 121 tackles, five passes defended and five sacks. We’re expecting an even bigger performance in 2019 as Smith fine tunes his role in Chicago. Seen as a generational talent heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, it would not be a surprise if Smith tallied 150-plus tackles and double-digit sacks as a sophomore. That’s just how good he is.

Dante Pettis, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers

Already one of the best pure route runners in the NFL, Pettis is a walking mismatch. His short-area quickness and speed out of the route is rivaled by very few around the league. This came out in droves during a rookie season that saw Pettis average a robust 17.3 yards per catch. While the NCAA’s best ever returner struggled with consistency last season, we’re expecting him to step up as a sophomore. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being 100 percent healthy after missing all but three games last season will only help.

Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland Browns

Chubb will be Cleveland’s primary running back as a sophomore after averaging a robust 5.2 yards and going for nearly 1,000 rushing yards last season. Chubb didn’t even get regular playing time until Cleveland’s seventh game. That tells us a story of a young back who could be on the path of 1,500-plus yards this coming season. Add in other Browns weapons in that of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and this is magnified further.

Shane Ray, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens

A seemingly bright career with the Denver Broncos came to a crashing halt this past season. Ray struggled with injuries and failed to make an impact in the Mile High City. The former first-round pick recorded just six tackles and one sack in 11 games. However, the past success is there to suggest a change of scenery will work well for Ray. Playing on a Ravens defense that’s stacked up front, we wouldn’t be surprised if Ray duplicated the success he had with Denver back in 2016 when he recorded eight sacks.

Tyler Lockett, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks

Now that Doug Baldwin was forced into retirement, Lockett will become the Seahawks’ No. 1 receiver. Given that Russell Wilson recorded a perfect passer rating when targeting Lockett last season, this is no small thing. A threat to go the distance on every play, Lockett caught 81.4 percent of his targets and averaged 16.9 yards per catch in 2018. Those are eye-opening numbers. They also lead us to believe that Lockett could be in line for a 1,500-yard season in 2019.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers

A mere fifth-round pick last year, Valdes-Scantling impressed big time as a rookie. He put up nearly 600 yards and averaged north of 15 yards per reception. Now with Matt LaFleur calling the shots in Green Bay, he’s continued to impress during the Packers’ off-season program. Entering his sophomore season, Valdes-Scantling is likely to be the No. 2 receiving option for Aaron Rodgers. We’ve seen how the likes of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have performed in that role in the past. Expect much of the same from this youngster in 2019.