One thing that's been great to see in 2020 is all the members of the 2019 draft class who are coming into their own, especially given the fact that they didn't enjoy the kind of offseason and preseason that traditionally helps players build on their first pro campaign. Below, I've listed 11 second-year pros who have caught my eye, taking into account what they've done so far and the promise of what's to come, though you should note that I heavily weighed each player's impact on their teams in 2020.
NOTE: I did not include players who are out for the year, which is why you won't see names like Nick Bosa or Devin Bush on here. I've also included a brief round-up of players who just missed the cut at the bottom.
2020 stats: 5 games | 39 targets | 22 rec | 496 rec yds | 5 rec TD | 22.5 ypc
The three-cone drill tells you a lot when it comes to forecasting NFL success at the receiver position. Despite DK Metcalf's slow time (7.38 seconds) in that exercise at the NFL Scouting Combine, I ranked him 16th among prospects (and first among receivers) and brought him to the draft, because I was sure he would be a first-round pick anyway. That three-cone likely contributed to Metcalf's slide into the late second round, where the Seahawks grabbed him 64th overall. Since then, he's outpaced all eight receivers drafted ahead of him. As SI.com pointed out, Metcalf is one of three players in NFL history -- joining Randy Moss and Charlie Brown -- to record 80-plus catches, 1,350-plus receiving yards, 12-plus TD catches and 17-plus yards per catch in his first 21 NFL games. At the rate Metcalf is going, delivering clutch, game-winning grabs like he did in a Week 5 thriller against the Vikings, he might just have a chance to join Moss someday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2020 stats: 6 games | 65.9 pct | 1,487 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 10 pass TD | 6 INT | 370 rush yds | 6 rush TD | 1 fumble lost
Kyler Murray seems to be developing an affinity for tormenting the NFC East this season, racking up six touchdowns (three passing and three rushing) in games against Washington and Dallas that Arizona won by an average of 21 points. It's safe to expect more Murray fireworks when the Cardinals wrap their series against the division in Weeks 14 (at the Giants) and 15 (vs. the Eagles). But he's not here solely because he can run wild against weaker opponents. His continued growth at quarterback, along with a much-improved defense, has helped transform a Cardinals franchise that finished with the NFL's worst record in 2018. Murray is currently on pace to skirt 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards for the season, with a boost in total touchdowns (27 passing and 16 rushing, up from his rookie figures of 20 passing and four rushing).
2020 stats: 6 games | 82 rush att | 305 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3.72 ypa | 20 rec | 163 rec yds | 1 rec TD
The third-round pick from Iowa State (73rd overall) was my preseason pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. That didn't pan out -- but the skills David Montgomery has displayed this season show why I was high on his chances. Looking beyond his modest rushing production this year, Montgomery has established himself as an on-field threat that defenses must account for, keeping opponents honest and preventing them from teeing off on Nick Foles. Montgomery has also contributed as a pass-catcher, ranking third on the team in receptions behind primary targets Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham. His emergence as a factor in the aerial attack is welcome for Chicago in the wake of Tarik Cohen's season-ending ACL tear.
You might be surprised to see Montgomery ranked this high, and as the sole running back on the list, while Raiders back Josh Jacobs, who absolutely dazzled as a rookie, did not make the top 11. Montgomery and Jacobs are both very good players who have posted very similar stats this season. Jacobs has more total touchdowns (five), but Montgomery has the edge in yards per reception (8.2 to 7.2), and the two are neck-and-neck in missed tackles per attempt (0.21 for Jacobs, 0.22 for Montgomery) and yards after contact per attempt (2.7 even), per Pro Football Focus. Finally, Jacobs posted a slight decline in yards per carry (from 4.8 in 2019 to 3.6 this year) and is carrying negative marks in Next Gen Stats' rushing yards over expectation metric (-19, fifth-lowest among players with 50-plus carries) and RYOE per attempt (-0.18, seventh-lowest). Montgomery isn't off the charts in either category, but he's outperforming expectations (with an RYOE of 9 and an RYOE per attempt of .011), and he ranks eighth in rushing percentage over expectation (43.9%), narrowly beating out Jacobs, who ranks 10th (42.9%).
As I see it, Montgomery has done more to help the relatively undermanned Bears win games (and lead the NFC North) this year than Jacobs has done to help the Raiders, who are enjoying a hot start by QB Derek Carr -- and, as I explained up top, I'm factoring this year's impact very heavily into this ranking.
2020 stats: 6 games | 2.0 sacks | 7 QB hits | 17 QB pressures | 20 tackles | 3 tackles for loss | 2 FFs | 0 FRs
In the SiriusXM NFL Radio interview I do each Friday with Panthers coach Matt Rhule, I learned just how bullish Rhule is on Brian Burns, who seemed not to have the trust of the previous coaching staff in Carolina. Though the former 16th overall pick appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, Burns started just five contests and played just 43 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2019; so far this season, Burns has started every game, playing 70.5% of the defensive snaps. His sack count isn't up yet, but he's on pace to finish with significantly more pass-rush snaps (347 to 251) and QB pressures (45 to 27), per Next Gen Stats, and he's already close to eclipsing his 2019 tackle total (25), with 20 so far.
2020 stats: 6 games | 6 passes defensed | 1 interception | 25 tackles
Aaron Rodgers had only thrown two pick-sixes in 6,601 career attempts entering the Packers' game against the Buccaneers last Sunday -- and Jamel Dean snagged the third, jumping a pass to Davante Adams and taking the return to the house to set off a Tampa rout. Dean, who later credited his ability to make that pick to extensive film study, is the highest-graded player by PFF on the Bucs' top-ranked defense. The team has drafted oodles of cornerbacks over the past few years, but it looks like general manager Jason Licht finally got it right, with Dean and Carlton Davis (a second-rounder in 2018) thriving under coordinator Todd Bowles, who is on track to be a strong head coaching candidate in 2021.
2020 stats: 5 games | 0 sacks allowed (Pro Football Focus) | 3 pressures allowed
Since 2013, the Saints have drafted five offensive linemen with third-round picks or higher: LT Terron Armstead (Round 3, 2013), LG Andrus Peat (Round 1, 2015), RG Cesar Ruiz (Round 1, 2020), RT Ryan Ramczyk (Round 1, 2017) and C Erik McCoy (Round 2, 2019). I was excited about McCoy's potential out of Texas A&M, and he hasn't disappointed, having jumped right in to fill the big shoes of three-time Pro Bowler Max Unger. PFF currently grades McCoy as the second-best run-blocker (behind Ramczyk) on the Saints' O-line.
2020 stats: 6 games | 58 targets | 36 rec | 487 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 13.5 ypc
Terry McLaurin has shined despite the QB issues that have plagued this franchise for decades. He's also received little support from the NFL's least-potent ground game, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. The former third-round pick out of Ohio State has caught passes from five different QBs (Dwyane Haskins, Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, Kyle Allen and Alex Smith) in his brief career, and yet, he's clearly established himself as Washington's most productive skill player, ranking in the top 10 in receptions (ninth) and receiving yards (ninth) in the NFL through Week 6.
2020 stats: 3 games | 53.2 pct | 425 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 1 pass TD | 2 INT | 4 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble lost
Drew Lock's ugly fourth quarter in Sunday's win over the Patriots overshadowed the fact that, at 23, he became the youngest quarterback to ever beat Bill Belichick's Patriots at Gillette Stadium. I'm not completely sold yet that Lock is the long-term answer to Denver's quarterback problems, which stem back to Peyton Manning's retirement. But I am impressed with Lock's 5-3 record as a starter in his career thus far, and by his ability to succeed despite instability at the receiver position, with Emmanuel Sanders being traded away last year before Lock played a meaningful snap and this year's No. 1, Courtland Sutton, being lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2.
2020 stats: 3 games | 24 targets | 17 rec | 179 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 10.5 ypc
A.J. Brown is terrorizing defenses once again after missing two games with a bone bruise earlier this season, racking up stellar numbers against Buffalo (seven catches, 82 yards, one TD) and Houston (five catches, 58 yards, two TDs) in Weeks 5 and 6. The trust that QB Ryan Tannehill has in Brown was evident when Tannehill targeted Brown on that last-second scoring throw to force overtime against the Texans. Like DK Metcalf, his former Ole Miss teammate, Brown is a bona fide No. 1 receiver who was a steal of a second-round pick.
Crosby's 2020 stats: 5 games | 4 sacks | 5 QB hits | 8 QB pressures | 9 tackles | 4 tackles for loss | 0 FFs | 0 FRs
Mullen's 2020 stats: 5 games | 5 passes defensed | 0 interceptions | 18 tackles
I'm going to bend the rules a bit by squeezing in a pair of deserving Raiders here. Maxx Crosby has continued on the QB-hounding pace he established as a rookie, racking up four sacks through the first five games of 2020 after collecting 10 last year. He's establishing himself as the pass-rushing threat this franchise sorely needed after the 2018 trade of Khalil Mack to Chicago. Trayvon Mullen is starting to blossom as well, emerging as a No. 1 cornerback who excels in pass coverage. His NFL stock will only continue to rise if he can become better against the run. (And in case anyone is wondering why Crosby and Mullen made the cut over Josh Jacobs, I see these two players as slightly more important to Las Vegas' defense than Jacobs is to Las Vegas' offense at this point, though all three are crucial to the Raiders' hopes in 2020.)
JUST MISSED THE CUT
- Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders
- Josh Allen, DE, Jaguars
- Bobby Okereke, LB, Colts
- Darrell Henderson, RB, Rams
- Devin White, LB, Buccaneers
- Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Colts
- Garrett Bradbury, C, Vikings.