Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Who gets Antonio Brown? Peter King thinks it’s one of these 5 teams

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I’ll take a crack at Antonio Brown’s landing spot here, keeping a few things in mind: He’s significantly hurt his market value (no kidding) since going AWOL from the Steelers the last week of the regular season and since going all scorched-earth on the Steelers in the last six weeks. The fact that GM Kevin Colbert would say he’s had three teams reach out about trading for the first player in history to catch 100 balls six years in a row tells you the market on Brown will be limited. (Three? If Brown didn’t have his baggage, it’d be 13.) But here’s my top choices for his smartest landing spot:

• Carolina. New owner David Tepper, a Pittsburgh guy, went to Pitt and then Carnegie Mellon, and donated $55 million to CMU, which now has a Tepper School of Business in his honor. He bought a 5 percent stake in the Steelers in 2009, preceding his purchase of the Panthers last year. So he’ll know the holes in Brown’s persona, but he’ll also know the difference Brown could make in a passing game that needs a downfield threat. Brown has averaged 114 catches and 1,524 yards a year for the past six years with the deep-armed Ben Roethlisberger, and he’ll be motivated to keep the distractions to a minimum so he can earn a new deal. Tepper is motivated to inject new life into a 24-25 team since Carolina’s Super Bowl appearance three years ago. Though GM Marty Hurney is a conservative type by nature, I think he could be convinced to take a shot on this get-rich-quick scheme. It’d thrill Cam Newton too.

• Washington. A smart guy in the league told me the other day: “Look for the desperate teams with Brown.” What team is more desperate than Washington, which is hemorrhaging fans, has no idea who the 2019 quarterback will be, has no idea who the 2020 coach will be, hasn’t won a playoff game in 14 years, and has an embattled owner searching for anything that will get his team out of the muck and mire of mediocrity? This also fits the Pittsburgh plan of wanting to send Brown out of the AFC. The problem, obviously, would be finding a quarterback to get the ball to Brown. But Washington’s a team that loves to win the offseason and hasn’t done so in a while. I’d be surprised if Bruce Allen and Kevin Colbert don’t talk about Brown.

• Tampa Bay. Dot-connecting. DeSean Jackson wants a new start out of Tampa. The new coach of the Bucs, Bruce Arians, was the Steelers’ play-caller in 2011, when Brown had his breakout NFL season. Arians wants to throw the ball deep more than any head coach in football. Makes sense to me.

• New York Jets. Makes a ton of sense, because the Jets aren’t averse to spending big in free agency so why would they be averse to making a big deal? I’ve maintained that Robby Anderson and a fairly high pick would be a fair trade, because it would rid the Steelers of the Brown headache and, though the Jets and Steelers meet this fall in New Jersey, wouldn’t mean the Steelers would be dealing him to anything but an occasional on-field rival. This is the franchise where Santonio Holmes went to disappear nine years ago. Anderson and JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a formidable receiver duo for the next few years too.

• Oakland. The Raiders have five first-round picks in the next two drafts (their own two, Chicago’s in 2019 and 2020, and the Cowboys’ this year), and Jon Gruden is a trading machine. Though it’s an AFC team, they don’t play each other till at least 2020.

• The others. I don’t see San Francisco, unless Jerry Rice gets hired as GM … Arizona could send the first pick in the second round this year, straight up, which seems like a fair deal … Green Bay could make Brown the receiver very happy. Not impossible, but hard to see such a straight-laced organization with a young head coach trying to find his footing taking the plunge.

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Inside scoop on why Packers, Broncos, Bucs and Cards made coaching hires

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Observations, stories, and some inside stuff on the eight coaching openings that now look filled, with six announced and two more (Brian Flores in Miami, Zac Taylor in Cincinnati) that appear to be done:

Kingsbury’s not apologizing for his past. New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record in six seasons at Texas Tech, said “there’s no question defense is an area I have to focus on” after his teams were consistent bottom-feeders in the NCAA on defense. But in hiring former Broncos coach Vance Joseph as his defensive coordinator, Kingsbury will likely have a job situation like Sean McVay with the Rams; McVay allows Wade Phillips to be the de facto head coach of the defense. “The mentorship of Josh Rosen will be extremely important,” Kingsbury said. On his jilting of USC after one month: “That is where I wanted to be. But when this opportunity arose, I took it.” I asked Kingsbury if there’s anything he thinks people should know about him after this stretch of a hire by the Cards. “No, I think I’m good,’’ he said. I get the sense Kingsbury understands why there is widespread skepticism about the hiring of a coach whose teams played exciting football but didn’t win enough, and there’s nothing he can say now to erase that. He’s got to coach Rosen and the offense well, and he’s got to win.

In Tampa, Arians knows the job is to get Jameis Winston to play well. “If Jameis is somewhere between 15 and 20 right now [in performance] among NFL quarterbacks,” GM Jason Licht told me, “is it really absurd to pick up his fifth-year option [at $20.9 million], considering what other quarterbacks make? No.” After being yo-yoed with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Winston will get the same coaching treatment Arians has given Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer in recent years. He’ll be coached hard. Dirk Koetter tried a version of that. Now Arians gets his turn. “I think we can eliminate some of his mistakes and make him play better,” Arians said. “There’s two things with a quarterback. There has to be trust between the coach and the quarterback. You have to be closer to your quarterback than you are to any of your players, because they mean so much to your team. Two, you’ve got to work with them on fundamentals daily. I call it going to the driving range for 25 to 30 minutes every day. That’s how we’ll work with Jameis.” Arians, by the way, said he didn’t expect to return to coaching; he thought he was finished after last year in Arizona. How many times have you heard a coach who walked away say a year later: “I realized how much I missed it?” Ditto Arians.

Elway wanted a traditional coach, and he got it. Not long after arriving at the Broncos practice facility for the first time last Wednesday, late in the day, and before even getting a tour of the place, Vic Fangio went up to his new office, put on Bronco sweats, and started watching tape of his team. That’s who—and what—the Broncos hired. He didn’t politic for the job (“I didn’t ask one person to reach out to John Elway for me,” he said), or for any job over the years; he first was interviewed for a head-coaching job by GM Bobby Beathard in San Diego … in 1997. It’s also amazing to think that Fangio first was a defensive coordinator with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. He reminds me of Arians getting the Cardinals job six years ago—Arians just assumed at his advanced age, he’s never get a shot, and he was bummed by it, but he could live with it. With Elway, Fangio found a guy who was buying what the coach was selling: discipline, unwavering rules for all, and an emphasis on making even the best players better. Fifteen minutes into their interview, Elway said, Fangio’s “death by inches” ethos swayed him. Fangio explained to the Denver media, and then to me. “Death by inches,” he said. “A player is off in the right technique just a little, and you let it go because he’s playing okay. A player’s late for a meeting by 30 seconds. One act. Meaningless. But if you don’t correct it, then two players walk in a minute late the next day. All these things build on each other. It’s death by inches—or, in our business, it’s losses.”

The Packers hope they got a good coach, and a good Aaron Rodgers partner. New coach Matt LaFleur, who has nine years of experience on the staff of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, spoke to Rodgers as part of his process. “You could hear the passion in his voice,” LaFleur said. “I believe him when he says he wants to be coached, and coached hard.” The year he considers the most significant in his development for this job was 2012 in Washington, when he saw head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan build an offense around the non-traditional skills of Robert Griffin III, and the team went to the playoffs. “That year taught me more about coaching than any other,” he said. “You find out what your players do well, and then you adapt your system to them.” That’s going to be vital in Green Bay, where Mike McCarthy’s system stalled while new offensive coaches around the league became mad scheming scientists. LaFleur is going to have to challenge Rodgers with new play designs, and he’s going to have to do it not only to keep a great quarterback interested. It’s why he was hired, regardless of the quarterback’s resume.

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