Second-year NFL players who can become stars in 2020

Mecole Hardman Chiefs
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The improvement some young NFL players make from their rookie season to Year 2 is remarkable. The light flips on, and the game slows down.

Given the lack of time teams have had with their rookies this summer due to COVID-19, second-year players will be even more valuable than normal in 2020.

Here’s a look at five young playmakers who have a chance to flourish this season, helping their teams in big ways.

Diontae Johnson, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

A third-round selection out of Toledo last year, Johnson made an immediate impact as a rookie. Catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns, he proved to be one of Pittsburgh’s best weapons. And he did it playing with some substandard quarterbacks.

Ben Roethlisberger appears to be on track for a full recovery following season-ending elbow surgery last fall. Everyone’s been raving about his arm strength. If he can stay healthy in 2020, Big Ben will help Johnson become even more dangerous as an open-field weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.

Josh Allen, defensive end, Jacksonville Jaguars

Overshadowed last year by the tremendous campaign had by fellow rookie pass rusher Nick Bosa, Allen has a chance to become one of the best in the business this season. Last year, he was on the field just over 60% of the time for Jacksonville. Now that Calais Campbell has moved to Baltimore, Allen should get a shot to become a mainstay on the line.

Appearing in all 16 games and earning four starts, Allen tallied 44 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. He’s extremely athletic and quick off the edge and should only get better against the run. He’s an elite playmaker whose arrow is still very much pointing up.

Mecole Hardman, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

Playing with the most dangerous pure passer in the NFL, Hardman proved lethal as a rookie last season. The second-round pick out of Georgia averaged an absurd 20.7 yards per reception and showed exceptional explosiveness all season long.

Last year, Patrick Mahomes targeted Hardman a total of 41 times. The rookie turned those targets into 26 receptions for 538 yards and six touchdowns. Utterly lethal. And as Hardman further develops his game those numbers should only swell.

Jeffery Simmons, defensive tackle, Tennessee Titans

The Titans thought so much of Simmons last April that they selected him 19th overall despite the fact he was still recovering from a torn ACL. After opening the season on the reserve/non-football injury list, he appeared in nine games, starting seven. In those games, Simmons tallied 18 solo tackles and two sacks.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. The Titans expect Simmons to continue dominating inside. So much so that they traded star defensive tackle Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos for a mere seventh-round pick.

Marquise Brown, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have to be giddy about how things worked out for them after selecting Lamar Jackson at the end of the first round a couple years ago. Jackson won MVP last year and wowed opposing coaches for reasons other than his absurd athleticism and speed. A developing passer, he’s been working tirelessly with Hollywood Brown — who should explode as a second-year superstar in Baltimore.

Last year as a first-round rookie, Brown hauled in 46 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns. Jackson has said he will be running a lot less in 2020 than he did last year. That should lead to plenty more chances for Brown, who has speed to burn and roasted NFL cornerbacks regularly last year.