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10 players poised to step into spotlight this season

Sportsnaut logo Sportsnaut 6/15/2019 Vincent Frank, Sportsnaut
a man wearing a uniform: Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb. © Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb.

Football is a fickle game. Injuries can impact the entire season for some teams. It can also lead to young players stepping up after previously being unknown commodities.

For other teams, the reliance on unproven players has 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 set to step up during the 2019 season.

a football player holding a football ball © Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

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 Gallup will have to improve on the 48.5 percent catch rate from last season. Even then, there’s every reason to believe 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.

© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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 defending this stance. There’s no argument saying Bell doesn’t make Darnold better. With an improved running game, the second-year quarterback should excel. 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 s well. Look for a big 2019 season from the former USC standout.

© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers

Green Bay’s improved pass rush should help the team’s secondary. 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 their passes. Look for five-plus interceptions and a touchdown or two from Alexander during his sophomore campaign.

a football player holding a bat on a baseball field © Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, Denver Broncos

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

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23:  Roquan Smith #58 of the Chicago Bears in action during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. The Bears defeated the 49ers 14-9.  (Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Images) © Rob Leiter/Getty Images SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23: Roquan Smith #58 of the Chicago Bears in action during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. The Bears defeated the 49ers 14-9. (Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Images)

Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago Bears

Smith was slowed 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 with 121 tackles, five passes defended and five sacks. We’re expecting a big 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. 

a crowd of people watching a football ball © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

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 few in the NFL. Pettis average a robust 17.3 yards per catch during his rookie season. While the NCAA’s best returner struggled with consistency last season, we’re expecting him to step up as a sophomore. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at 100 percent healthy will only help.

a football player wearing a helmet © Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland Browns

Chubb will be Cleveland’s primary running back as a second-year player 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 about a young back who could be on the path to 1,500-plus yards this season. 

Shane Ray wearing a uniform © Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Shane Ray, outside linebacker, Baltimore Ravens 

A seemingly bright career with the Denver Broncos came to a crashing halt last 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, past success suggests 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 in 2016, when he recorded eight sacks.

© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Lockett, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks 

Now that Doug Baldwin has retired, Lockett will become the Seahawks’ No. 1 receiver. Given that QB 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 Lockett could be in line for a 1,500-yard season in 2019.

a group of people playing instruments and performing on a stage © Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Related slideshow: Top picks of 2019 NFL Draft (provided by imagn)

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