Yardbarker's Sam Robinson, Chris Mueller and Michael Nania weigh in on players who could either be stellar or stinkers in 2020.
QB Drew Lock, Broncos
ROBINSON: The Broncos loaded up on offense in the offseason, selecting wide receivers in Rounds 1 and 2 of the draft -- the first time that strategy has been employed since the Cardinals in 2003. Rookie WRs Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler -- as well as two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon, a free-agent signee -- give Lock a shot to become their long-sought post-Peyton Manning solution at QB.
A 2019 second-rounder, Lock flashed in his five-start audition by leading the Broncos to a 4-1 finish. He threw seven touchdown passes and three interceptions, and his 309-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Texans turned heads. With only low-end backup Jeff Driskel behind Lock, the Broncos are not hedging their bet.
Lock is far from a sure thing, however. He averaged a pedestrian 6.5 yards per attempt, and, per NextGenStats, his average completed air yards figure (4.6) matched the NFL’s second-worst mark last season.
But the 2019 Broncos possessed a fraction of the firepower their 2020 edition does. Thanks to elite separation ability, Alabama’s Jeudy graded as the second-best wide receiver prospect Pro Football Focus has charted in six years. Electric after the catch at Penn State, Hamler would likely have been drafted higher than 46th had COVID-19 not nixed pro days and workouts.
With 2019 first-round tight end Noah Fant and Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay rounding out the young corps, the Broncos are as deep at the skill positions as they’ve been since 2014’s Demaryius Thomas-Emmanuel Sanders-Wes Welker-C.J. Anderson-Julius Thomas quintet.
While Lock and his crew must digest new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s scheme without a true offseason, the Broncos’ skill cadre represents one of the NFL’s most improved position groups. Lock not being up to the task of unleashing the corps would be a considerable letdown, but this scenario could make the Broncos an attractive destination for a higher-floor veteran arm next year.
Edge rusher Vic Beasley, Titans
In outside linebacker Rashaan Evans and defensive end Jeffery Simmons, the Titans may have long-term pass-rush anchors. However, their Cameron Wake flier failed last season, and they traded five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey to the Broncos in what amounted to a cap cut.
The resurgent team needs Beasley, an addition in free agency, to come through as vital auxiliary support. The Titans gave him a decent prove-it deal -– one year, $9.5 million –- but the former top-10 pick submitted a maddeningly uneven five seasons in Atlanta. The ex-Clemson dynamo registered 15.5 sacks and earned All-Pro honors in 2016 but combined for 14 sacks in the 2015, ’17 and ’18 seasons.
Last year, though, after the Falcons could not find a trade partner for Beasley, he recorded 6.5 of his eight sacks in Atlanta’s final eight games. The contract-year push worked, and with the Titans not drafting an edge rusher, they are set to align Beasley opposite edge rusher Harold Landry. This is a major risk for the contending team.
Even factoring in Beasley’s stellar 2016, he ranks 78th with just 46 quarterback hits since 2015. Since 2017, Pro Football Focus places Beasley’s pressure rate 75th of 88 qualified pass rushers. This inconsistency is almost certainly the reason the Titans have hovered on the fringes of the Jadeveon Clowney rumor circuit. If Beasley’s second chance fails, the Titans (21st in pass-defense DVOA last season) will rue not investing more in their pass rush.
RB Kenyan Drake, Cardinals
Will the real Drake please step up?
The version Arizona got when it acquired him from the Dolphins was pretty good. He wasn't a great passing threat for the Cardinals, but after averaging just 3.7 yards per carry with Miami on 47 attempts, he blossomed as a runner in the desert. Drake’s yards per carry with Arizona jumped to 5.2, and in eight starts for the Cardinals, he totaled 643 yards, 80.4 per game. The latter figure would have tied him with Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson for eighth best in the league, if projected over a full season.
Despite lackluster receiving statistics in Arizona (28 catches for 171 yards), Drake’s recent history suggests he’s a threat in that department; he had 53 catches and five receiving touchdowns for Miami in 2018.
There wasn’t any real mystery to Drake’s success, either. The Cardinals simply gave him a chance. In 54 games for Miami, he averaged 8.3 touches per game. That number more than doubled with Arizona, to 18.9. Although he’s 26, Drake has just 456 career carries, so there should be plenty of tread left on his tires.
What remains to be seen is whether his blistering finish to 2019 was a glimpse of his true potential or just a hot streak that coincided with a change of scenery.
Tight end Eric Ebron, Steelers
MUELLER: The boom-or-bust label was made for Ebron. The Steelers signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal, and in theory, they could have a major bargain. Ebron’s physical skills and pedigree -– the tight end was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft –- suggest limitless potential, particularly in the red zone, where the Steelers were last in touchdown percentage in 2019.
In all but one of Ebron’s first six seasons, however, potential and pedigree haven’t equaled production. He has just 27 touchdown catches in six seasons, 13 in a breakout 2018 that saw him make major strides in Indianapolis after four disappointing years with the Lions, his original team.
Much of Ebron’s success was chalked up to playing with Andrew Luck and escaping the perpetual dysfunction in Detroit. Given the way 2019 went, it seems likely that Luck was the major reason why Ebron was able to maximize his natural talent; with Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer at QB last season, Ebron resembled the player that scuffled with the Lions.
The Steelers are betting that Ben Roethlisberger can have a Luck-like effect on Ebron, and that the combination of Roethlisberger’s play-extending abilities and Ebron’s physicality will create matchup issues for defenses. That all sounds nice, but it only works if Ebron hangs onto the football. His 8.2 percent drop rate was second worst among tight ends in 2018, and his 9.6 mark was last at the position in 2019.
If Ebron’s butter fingers return, the Steelers will be left with a tight end who can’t catch and doesn’t block -– the football equivalent of a shiny sports car that breaks down five minutes into a drive.
WR Breshad Perriman, Jets
NANIA: A first-round pick by the Ravens in 2015, Perriman missed his entire rookie season with an injury and was then a major liability upon returning from 2016-17. Over that span, he averaged just 21.3 yards per game on a miserable 5.7 yards per target and scored only three touchdowns.
After a one-year pit stop in Cleveland, Perriman signed with the Buccaneers in 2019 to serve as the team's third wide receiver behind the league-best duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. For 12 weeks, it was more of the same disappointment. Perriman predictably was not targeted often over that span (3.6 targets per game), but the problem was that he did little with the targets he did get. Perriman caught only one touchdown pass and had 139 yards receiving on 32 targets (4.3 yards per target) through Week 12.
Then he had a stellar December. As Evans and Godwin battled injuries, Perriman's snap counts and target volume increased, and he dominated in his new role as a primary target. Over the final five weeks of the season, Perriman tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (five) and ranked second in receiving yards (506), averaging 101.2 yards per game on an absurd 13.7 yards per target.
In free agency, Perriman was unable to land a multi-year agreement, so he signed with the Jets on a one-year, $7 million deal. After letting Robby Anderson walk to Carolina, New York will rely on him to spearhead a thin group of outside wide receivers. The Jets hope he can maintain a level of play at least somewhat close to the dominance he showed in his first stretch as a No. 1 option in December.
DE Dante Fowler, Falcons
The Falcons paid Fowler like a premier best edge rusher, giving him a three-year, $45 million deal ($29 million guaranteed). He fit that description in 2019, but that was the first time Fowler was even remotely in the "elite" conversation over his five years in the league.
Fowler, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft by the Jaguars, missed his entire rookie season with an ACL injury and struggled to get going when he returned in 2016. He ranked 49th among edge rushers with 39 pressures, and the next season, ranked 44th with 37.
Midway through 2018, the Jaguars traded Fowler to the Rams, and he still couldn't put much heat on the quarterback, finishing the season with 39 pressures and four sacks. Fowler returned to the Rams on a one-year, $14 million "prove-it" deal -- and prove it he did. The Florida product finally lived up to his top-three billing, posting career bests of 67 pressures (11th among EDGE) and 11.5 sacks (10th).
Atlanta hopes Fowler's 2019 season was a sign he finally is an elite player. One of the questions surrounding Fowler's breakout year was the fact that he played next to Aaron Donald, a huge focus of offensive lines and one of the NFL's best players. But fortunately for the Falcons, they have a top-tier enforcer anchoring their defensive line in Grady Jarrett.
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