Yardbarker NFL writers Michael Tunison and Chris Mueller address some of the hottest issues in the league. This week's topic: breakout stars.
Tunison: The retirement of Rob Gronkowski decimated the supply of disarmingly goofy but talented tight ends in the NFL, seemingly leaving just Kansas City's Travis Kelce to carry the mantle. Ah, but to quote the legendary philosopher Yoda, there is another.
George Kittle was already demonstrating that he was a player to watch in 2018 on a derailed 49ers team that had to get starts out of QB Nick Mullens. He posted close to 1,400 receiving yards, which went largely unnoticed because it happened to be on a 4-12 team written off early in the season when its franchise quarterback went down with a knee injury. After seven games, Kittle is on pace for a slight dip in his numbers (40 catches for 462 yards), yet he's still the top receiving threat on an undefeated team that has positioned itself as the NFC favorite.
Kittle may not be quite as much of a cartoon jock as Gronk, but he has his moments. Like Gronk, he's big into pro wrestling, does a respectable imitation of The Rock, and got a rather large forearm tattoo of The Joker the day before he got married in the off-season, perhaps just to counter the narrative that the character is just for incels.
Mueller: It still sort of blows my mind that Kittle’s 1,377 receiving yards last season set the NFL season record for a tight end. I can’t remember another all-time record that was achieved with less fanfare, but like you said, his team was 4-12, and once Jimmy Garoppolo tore up his knee, everyone stopped paying attention.
Kittle is already known to fantasy owners -– what stat-sheet filler isn’t? -– but if San Francisco makes a run through the NFC, he’ll become a household name. That said, he’s barely the best tight end in the Bay Area, and he can’t hold a candle to Oakland’s Darren Waller when it comes to having a compelling off-field story.
Opiate addiction is an A-1 issue in the United States, and Waller is a testament to how ruinous those drugs can be and how there is hope for those who are addicted to get clean. If it’s a redemption story you seek, Waller is the breakout star for you. He missed all of 2017 due to a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, his second suspension since coming into the league in 2015. He has been clean for two years, and is the focal point of Oakland’s Antonio Brown-less passing attack.
Waller played 22 games from 2015-2018, catching 18 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Through seven games, he already has 46 catches for 496 yards and three scores. If he can keep it up, 100 catches and 1,000 yards aren’t out of the question. He’s also one of the main reasons the Raiders (3-4) are hanging around in the AFC playoff chase. He’s a big, athletic target, and so long as he can stay clean, Oakland may have the league’s next big thing at tight end.
Tunison: The cult of Gardner Minshew has attracted so much attention it's easy to forget he's only halfway through his rookie season. Seemingly out of nowhere, he has emerged to save the Jaguars season after Nick Foles went down with an injury in Week 1. Minshew (1,976 yards passing, 61.9 completion %) has played on a level on par with a franchise quarterback. His cult of personality has been infectious enough that Jacksonville was able to trade its other charismatic player, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, to the Ra,s without alienating much of its fan base.
Minshew has an astounding 13-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, has led two winning drives, and has a Jaguars team with no business contending at 4-4 and in position to take an AFC South with no clearly dominant team. With his trademark mustache and off-beat persona, he lends himself well to the ironic brand of dirt-bag bravado that plays well with football fans.
Jaguars fans, already given to outlandish displays of fandom, have been glad to play along. One fan, inspired by a poster spotted at a game in Cincinnati of a mostly naked Minshew wrestling a tiger, got the illustration airbrushed onto the hood of his car.
Jacksonville has won two straight, and Minshew threw for three touchdowns in the Week 8 win over the Jets. Jacksonville's ceiling is probably not that high, but for once the Jags can look to the future knowing they have a legitimate quarterback they can build around, after an endless stretch of high-profile busts and veteran stopgaps.
Mueller: Washington receiver Terry McLaurin has the same attention problem as Darren Waller, only orders of magnitude worse. No one cares about the Redskins (1-7), the franchise is a mess, and there appears to be little hope in the immediate future. McLaurin has been the biggest bright spot on the offense, even if he has sputtered the past two weeks.
He ended up with Washington thanks to a variation on the classic high school recruiting tale about a diamond in the rough; the Redskins were scouting his Ohio State teammate, Dwayne Haskins, and McLaurin kept making plays, so much so that Washington snatched him in the third round. He’s 13th in the league in yards per reception (16.4), and though things have cooled off somewhat since his spectacular pro debut (5 receptions, 125 yards and a touchdown), he’s still Washington’s best weapon. He’s been slowed by New England, San Francisco and Minnesota, the best defenses he’s faced, but that says more about Washington’s overall ineptitude than anything else.
Tunison: A big reason some fans are hesitant to embrace Niners defensive end Nick Bosa, despite huge production on the field, are his political views. Many fans didn't appreciate Bosa tweeting that Colin Kaepernick was a clown for his protests against police brutality, and for his various statements in support of the president. Donald Trump loves to stir the pot, and it likely only made things worse for Bosa's image that Trump tweeted congratulations to Bosa on draft night after the defensive end was selected second overall.
Bosa is hardly the only prominent conservative player in the NFL, and despite Trump's efforts to politicize the league, there are still plenty of conservatives following it. Chargers QB Philip Rivers once publicly endorsed Rick Santorum for president. Although he may not be the most marketable player in the NFL, he is still clearly a star.
Bosa has toned down the political talk since he was drafted. Many won't forget his previous stances, but in sports, so long as you produce well on the field, many are willing to forget that stuff. In only five starts this season, Bosa leads the league with 11 tackles for loss and is in the top 10 in sacks, tied with brother Joey of the Chargers, with seven.
Mueller: Thanks to Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham, the 2-5 Browns are a mess. The coach is in over his head, the quarterback is storming off during interviews, and many fans wonder when OBJ will blow up. But there's a great story in Cleveland too: Myles Garrett has turned into a top-five defensive player.
Garrett’s 10 sacks are tied for the league lead with Tampa Bay's Shaquil Barrett, and his 10 tackles for loss are tied for second, one behind Nick Bosa and Aaron Donald. He's the catalyst for a defense that ranks seventh in the league against the pass, believe it or not, and is better than its overall ranking (21st) suggests.
Garrett is thriving under defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the former Cardinals head coach, and should be able to feast on mediocre competition the rest of the season, starting against Denver in Week 9. After the Broncos, the Browns get the Bills, Steelers, Dolphins, Steelers, Bengals, Cardinals, Ravens, Bengals. If they can get it together offensively, Cleveland could go on a run. Garrett is unblockable and may generate plenty of Defensive Player of the Year buzz.