On Monday, I spotlighted one key homegrown player on his rookie contract for each AFC team who could make an enormous impact by taking a leap in his development in 2020.
Now it's time to tackle the NFC.
There is often concern about the permanent damage created by exposing rookie quarterbacks to NFL action before they are ready. What about cornerbacks? The Cardinals lined up Murphy, the first pick of the second round last year, for 1,105 snaps in 2019. He allowed the second-most receptions in football, according to Pro Football Focus. Murphy may see fewer snaps this year as a slot corner with Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford on the outside, but that was the plan last year, too. With Alford now 31 and Peterson appearing far off his peak last season, the Cardinals need Murphy to improve or their cornerback group could sink the defense.
Ridley is good. Can he be great? A third-year player who is turning 26 years old this season, he started putting up monster numbers after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu at midseason. An abdominal injury curtailed Ridley's run, where he had finally combined his silky smooth routes with great plays after the catch. His game speed also improved. Ridley is a solid second banana, but the Falcons would love for Julio Jones and Ridley to produce like two WR1s after the team failed to address its lack of receiver depth this offseason.
On a per-snap basis, Burns was playing like a dominant pass rusher early last season. A wrist injury that led to surgery dramatically reduced his playing time, with coaches apparently not trusting him against the run. Still, Burns' production (eight sacks and 30 pressures, according to PFF) is undeniable for someone who didn't even play 500 snaps. Burns is Carolina's best chance to have a premier pass rusher, if the new staff knows how to use him.
Bears fans love Roquan Smith. Bears coaches love Roquan Smith. Bears teammates love Roquan Smith. PFF does not love Roquan Smith. Smith ranked 44th among 58 off-ball linebackers who played at least 500 snaps last season. The eye test isn't thrilling, either. He gets washed out of running plays too often. His expected strength entering the league was in pass coverage, but he hasn't stood out there, either, sometimes getting taken off the field. There is value in a heady defensive signal-caller whom numbers can't fully evaluate, but there just haven't been the impact plays expected from a top-10 pick. Perhaps this is the year Smith earns all that love.
The Cowboys are a rare team in which off-ball linebackers feel like the key to the entire defense. Vander Esch was a revelation as a rookie, feeding off Jaylon Smith to make them one of the best duos in football. Vander Esch was only healthy for nine games last year, underwent neck surgery and watched his buddy Smith take a big step back. This feels like Sean Lee's career all over again, with the Cowboys being a totally different team when Vander Esch is on the field. LVE has an even higher ceiling than peak Lee if healthy, but neck injuries are far more worrisome than any nagging hamstring.
Tight end is notoriously difficult for young players transitioning to the NFL. Hockenson looked like he could be an exception with a monster Week 1 performance as a rookie, but he wound up with similar or lesser production to other rookies drafted later, like Dawson Knox, Irv Smith Jr. and Noah Fant. I'm not that worried. Hockenson suffered more than most after Matthew Stafford was injured, and he still displays the athleticism and versatility necessary to keep defenses off balance. The natural development of Hockenson is high on the list of reasons why the Lions' offense should have more juice this year.
Playing nearly every snap when healthy as a rookie, Savage may have guessed right a few too many times early. That early success led to some overaggressiveness that occasionally cost him during the rest of his rookie year, when he played nearly 1,000 snaps. Logging that much time as a rookie free safety is bound to be a learning process, and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a good history of getting the most out of his safeties. A second-year jump from Savage would help the Packers' secondary play to its potential.
Rapp's presence is why the Rams shouldn't be sweating the retirement of Eric Weddle. A 2019 second-round pick who showed quickly that the NFL wasn't too fast for him, Rapp played with great instincts and aggression when used as a third safety early in the season. Asked to start 10 games after John Johnson's injury, Rapp was less convincing in coverage deep down the field. That's not his strength. With Johnson back this year to play free safety, Rapp figures to be moved all around the field like an Eric Berry type, creating havoc and big plays.
Minnesota's defensive end position was among the league's best in the last decade, with stellar production from Jared Allen to Everson Griffen to Danielle Hunter. Is Odenigbo up next? A fourth-year, seventh-round pick who has been cut by three different teams, Odenigbo doesn't have the profile of a premier player. But he sure looked like one on the field down the stretch, recording seven sacks and 27 pressures in under 400 snaps. The Vikings don't have much depth behind him, so the team is betting big on Odenigbo to deliver.
If you want to know a true Saints fan from a fake, just ask them about CGJ. The real ones know that Gardner-Johnson was everywhere in his 546 snaps last season, making plays in the backfield on quarterbacks and down the field on slot receivers. He finished in the top 10 among all safeties in QB pressures and the top 20 in PFF's "stops" statistic despite starting the year as a special teamer. When he sets his sight on a target, it goes down hard. He'll be a starter after the Saints let Vonn Bell leave in free agency, and if CGJ isn't a star, then Saints Twitter got it all wrong.
Can you still win with run-stuffing behemoths up front who only pressure the quarterback on occasion? Giants general manager Dave Gettleman is fixing to find out, with his second first-round pick from a year ago quietly enjoying a nice rookie season. Both Lawrence and teammate Dalvin Tomlinson graded among PFF's top 16 interior defenders with less than 500 snaps and Leonard Williams wasn't far behind, yet Big Blue's defense was dreadful. The Giants not only need Lawrence to improve -- they need a 1980s style of defense to prove effective again.
Letting Jason Peters walk because of his age and injuries makes sense. That doesn't mean it was easy. The Eagles better be right about last year's first-round pick because Peters was still playing at a high level last season, higher than Dillard's uneven 336 snaps. I have no idea whether Dillard will become a stalwart, but drafting a left tackle early has similarly high stakes to taking a quarterback. You either have a huge leg up on the rest of the league or the pick sets your offense back for years.
The 49ers wouldn't have reached the Super Bowl without Greenlaw. It wasn't just his famous tackle of Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister that clinched the NFC West and a No. 1 seed; it was his rangy dynamism before and after that highlight. The 49ers know Greenlaw's value. By the Super Bowl, the fifth-round rookie was playing over big-ticket free agent Kwon Alexander on passing downs. Fred Warner and Greenlaw may not be Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman yet, but that's the type of potential that should have 49ers fans dreaming of the young duo getting back to the big game.
Watching Metcalf's route tree expand as his rookie season wore on was a very good sign. The Seahawks smartly focused early on what Metcalf did well as the team's "X" receiver in the red zone and on long sideline routes. Later in the season, he began to show an aptitude for deep and shallow crossing routes. Now that he's shown he can produce on the outside, Seattle coaches say he'll be used more in the slot, where he's an even bigger mismatch. A second-year leap from Metcalf would give the Seahawks the best 1-2 wideout combination (with Tyler Lockett) of the Pete Carroll era.
I know he's not a complete running back. I know that he won't be on the field on third downs if he doesn't improve his pass blocking. I also know that he's the most talented pure runner on the Bucs' roster by far, and there should be plenty of opportunities for big holes in the TOMPA offense. Tom Brady has already won Super Bowls with one-dimensional runners (Sony Michel, LeGarrette Blount, Antowain Smith) leading the way, so there should still be a place for a runner like Jones with make-you-miss ability.
Haskins took a disproportionate amount of heat for acting like a rookie at times last season. He didn't get a lot of attention for the times he showed next-level maturity on the field. His ability to go through his progressions and make throws with anticipation was impressive. There were some ugly rookie moments, too, but Haskins protected the ball well and showed some traits you can't teach. He's in a difficult spot with a shaky offensive line and an unproven receiver group, but I still see as much upside here as any quarterback in the 2019 class not named Kyler Murray.