Following on from my article pinpointing a player from each AFC team that needs to step up in season 2020, here’s one player that must emerge for every team in what will surely be another loaded National Football Conference in 2020.
Isaiah Simmons, linebacker, first season
There’s been a concerted effort to steer clear of rookies while writing this piece, but this pick is too obvious. Arizona had the worst defence in the league last season, giving up more than 4000 yards and 27.6 points per game (28th). Simmons leaves the University of Clemson after being named the sixth All-American in school history to try help rectify a pass defence that finished second last in 2019 and that could only manage 17 total takeaways (equal fourth worst). Simmons finished his career with 28.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 22 pass breakups, four interceptions (including one pick six), five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 1856 career snaps over 44 games. Last season, Simmons was the everywhere man for the Tigers, lining up in the box on 239 plays, at deep safety for 130 snaps, cornerback seven snaps and even spent time on the defensive line (106 snaps). There’s some buzz surrounding the Cardinals this season, which primarily concerns the offence after the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, but the other side of the ball is desperate for difference makers outside of Chandler Jones. The defensive savior Isaiah Simmons cometh, to instill defensive security, and only then shall there be peace and harmony for all who live in the desert valley.
Takkarist McKinley, pass rusher, fourth season
Atlanta finished equal second last in 2019 for sacks with 28. There’s a handful of teams in the league with serious pass rush issues heading into season 2020, and the Atlanta Falcons are one of them. While McKinley, a first-round pick of the Falcons in 2017, finished second on the team for quarterback hits with 13, he could only muster 3.5 sacks in 14 games before ending the season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. After a promising 2017 rookie season in which the man out of the University of UCLA totaled 19 tackles with six sacks and two forced fumbles in 16 appearances, McKinley simply hasn’t developed into the player the Falcons thought they were getting with their first-round pick three years ago. McKinley has registered 50 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 29 appearances across the two seasons since his 2017 rookie year. Atlanta, unlike some other pass rush needy teams, were busy this off-season trying to find help. The Falcons signed Dante Fowler in free agency, traded for fellow first-round disappointment Charles Harris from Miami and spent their second-round pick on defensive end Marlon Davidson. The Falcons need to generate some pressure in the biggest way, and a breakout year from McKinley, who had his fifth-year option declined in April, could be just the ticket. If not, it’s possible Atlanta could see its three divisional opponents go past them this season after making the Super Bowl just four seasons ago.
Donte Jackson, cornerback, third season
Make no mistake, the Panthers are a team in transition this season. There will be five new starters on defence alone after being gutted in the off-season through free agency losses and premature retirements. Jackson will be one of only two players set to return in the secondary on a defence that finished 18th last season for takeaways (21) and had a turnover differential of -14 (30th). Of the six players who managed an interception in 2019, only Jackson and safety veteran Tre Boston return (both players led the team with three interceptions, along with departed number one cornerback James Bradberry). Through his 29 games in two seasons, Jackson has seven interceptions with 17 passes defended to go along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. While he has been a solid contributor for the Panthers early in his career, Jackson is now considered the veteran of the cornerback group in Charlotte that doesn’t feature much established talent behind Corn Elder and journeyman Eli Apple. Rookies Troy Pride and Stantley Thomas-Oliver should crack the starting line-up also, but the onus is on Jackson to take his play to the next level for a defence that allowed the second most points per game in 2019 (29.4).
Mitch Trubisky, quarterback, fourth season
Some players in this series have been selected because their development is crucial to the performance of the position group or overall output of their side of the ball (offence or defence). Then there’s the much-criticised Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky, with the immediate hopes and dreams of the franchise and city of Chicago resting on his still relatively young shoulders. Trubisky’s drop off from season 2018 to 2019 was quite stark. While his completion percentage only dropped by 3.2 per cent (from 66.6 to 63.2) and he threw two less interceptions (12 in 2018 to ten last season), Trubisky threw seven less touchdowns (17, down from 24 in 2018), had his average yards per throw drop from 7.4 in 2018 to 6.1 last season and saw his quarterback rating plummet from 95.4 to 83, all while attempting 84 more passes and playing an extra game (excluding playoffs). Trubisky finished season 2019 with a bit of a flurry, throwing 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions for 1921 with an average quarterback rating of 89 through the last seven games of the season. The issue is, with Trubisky under centre, and despite making the playoffs in 2018, the best offence the Bears had was their 21st ranked offence in 2018. With former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles now in town, the writing might be on the wall for Trubisky in the windy city.
Chidobe Awuzie, cornerback, fourth season
The Cowboys have plenty of worries heading into a season in which some have them slated as Super Bowl contenders. The secondary is one of them, a group that finished tenth in pass defence but ended a Jekyll and Hyde season in 2019 with the equal worst interception number with just seven. Add to this the loss of star cornerback Byron Jones, and this is going to be an interesting secondary in season 2020, to say the least. Awuzie, a second-round pick of the Cowboys in 2017, is the man who needs to take the next step in the secondary for the Boys. After appearing in 41 of a possible 48 games for the Cowboys through three seasons, Awuzie has amassed 171 tackles, 32 passes defended with three interceptions and two forced fumbles while working his way up the depth chart in big D. Awuzie played 95 per cent of defensive snaps last season, allowing a quarterback passer rating of 89.1 when targeted. The young man drafted out of the University of Colorado looks like assuming the number one cornerback spot vacated by Jones in a cornerback room that has an average experience of 2.4 seasons (and a combined 17 interceptions). With rookie Trevon Diggs likely to start as the number two cornerback, Awuzie needs to show his talents that saw him drafted at pick 60 overall in 2017 and force more than his current average of one interception per season.
D’Andre Swift, running back, first season
Detroit haven’t had a running back eclipse the 1000-yard mark in a single season since Reggie Bush rumbled his way to 1006 yards in 2013. The Lions front office drafted Swift out of the University of Georgia with their second-round pick to hopefully change that. Swift rushed for 2265 yards in his final two season at Georgia, more than the rest of the Detroit running back group have tallied in their collective careers (1715). Swift also finished his career at the Bulldogs with 20 rushing touchdowns and 666 receiving yards. The Lions haven’t had a top ten offence since 2013, while the running game has been ranked dead last twice in the six seasons since then. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has led this Lions offence admirably for over a decade now with almost no threat of a run game to be found. In fact, the Lions have finished with a top ten passing offence five times since Stafford took over as franchise quarterback in 2009 (as opposed to zero for the run game). Detroit fans will surely hope things can turn around on the back of what they hope could be the next star running back out of Georgia. If Stafford can return healthy in season 2020 after a back ailment sidelined him for the final eight games of the season, and Swift can impact the run game immediately, the Lions could be a sneaky playoff contender in a division that feels as wide open as it has been for years.
Green Bay Packers
Allen Lazard, wide receiver, third season
No need to muck around with this one, the Packers simply must find somebody to catch passes other than Devante Adams. Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Packers’ group of wide receivers 24th in the league heading into the new season. Last season, Devante Adams led the receiving core with 83 receptions and five touchdowns despite missing a quarter of the season. Lazard was the next wide receiver on the list with an astonishing 48 less catches but did real in 35 catches on 52 targets for 477 yards and three touchdowns. The 2018 undrafted free agent out of Iowa State also averaged 9.2 yards per target, turning 24 of his 35 catches into first downs or touchdowns, including 13 on third down. After having a breakout season of sorts in 2019, Aaron Rodgers and the Pack offence are desperate for one of the younger receivers (be it Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Equanimeous St Brown) to go to another level in 2020, particularly after no help arrived in the recent NFL draft. All eyes should be on Lazard, with Rodgers’ passer rating climbing to 115.6 when targeting him last season. All three of Lazard’s touchdowns come last season on plays of 20-plus yards, so expect him to be the man to help the Packers passing offence finish higher than the 17th ranking it mustered last season under first year head coach Matt LaFleur.
Los Angeles Rams
Cam Akers, running back, first season
Akers enters his rookie season in the NFL the likely starter for a Rams offence that struggled mightily last season with the flame-out of running back Todd Gurley. While the offence overall only fell from second in its NFC championship year in 2018 to seventh last year, the run game took a nosedive, falling from third in 2018 with an average of 139.4 yards per game to 26th (93.7) in 2019. The offence also fell from second in the league for points scored per game in 2018 (32.9) to 11th last season (24.6). With Gurley having now left Hollywood, the next two running backs on the depth chart (Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson) combined for 402 yards in 2019. Enter Akers, who leaves the University of Florida State as just the third Seminoles running back in program history with multiple 1000-yard seasons. Akers tallied 1144 yards and 14 touchdowns on 231 carries while running behind the second-worst offensive line in college football last year according to Pro Football Focus. Akers should be right at home running behind the 19th best run blocking offensive line unit in professional American football according to Football Outsiders. Seriously though, if the Rams are any hope of having success in its new stadium in 2020 and beyond, they need to provide Jared Goff with the same fearsome ground game he had only a couple of seasons ago.
Mike Hughes, cornerback, third season
Minnesota had a mass exodus on the defensive side of the ball this off-season, with the secondary being hit particularly hard. Under-performing veteran Xavier Rhodes was cut, and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander left in free agency, leaving the Vikings to replace more than 2000 snaps vacated by those three players from last season. The cornerback group remaining in the twin city combined for 762 snaps last season, led by Hughes, who played in less than half the Vikings defensive snaps in 2019. The former first-round pick out of the University of Central Florida has been bitten by the injury bug during his first two season for the Vikings, only appearing in 20 of a possible 32 regular season games. Through two seasons, Hughes has just two interceptions with 12 passes defended, 65 tackles and three forced fumbles while also being used on special teams as a return specialist (averaging 7.3 yards per punt return on 16 attempts with four fumbles). Minnesota hit the draft hard this year, using nine of its record 15 picks on defence, including three at the cornerback position. If Hughes can’t live up to his first-round billing and lead a shaky cornerback group in season 2020, it could be a long season for the back end of the Vikings’ defence and the last one for Hughes in purple.
New Orleans Saints
Alex Anzalone, linebacker, fourth season
The Saints lay claim to one of the most complete rosters in all of American football and as such are considered a genuine Super Bowl contender going into season 2020. The Saints have had a top ten offence each of the last three seasons, while the defence has risen consistently from 17th in 2017, 14th in 2018 to 11th last season. One of the soft spots on the Saints’ roster during that time span has been the middle of the defence. In 2019, the team’s leading tackler was Demario Davis with a combined 111 stops. Just one other linebacker ranked inside the team’s top ten for total tackles (veteran AJ Klein with 69). Add to this the fact that three of the team’s top five tackles from a season ago are no longer with the team, and it’s clear somebody in the defence’s back seven needs to step up. Anzalone’s first three seasons in the big easy have been dogged by injuries, with the former third-round pick missing 20 games through injury. In his lone healthy season in 2018 in which he appeared in all 16 regular season games, Anzalone finished equal fourth on the team for total tackles with 59, forced three fumbles and had an interception. New Orleans spent just one of its four draft picks on the linebacker position, so they’ll be banking on improvement from within. Anzalone, health permitting, could be the man for a potential championship-winning defence in NOLA.
New York Giants
Andrew Thomas, offensive tackle, first season
Big Blue are another team with plenty of candidates for this category, but the selection here is the rookie left tackle from Georgia. Thomas will likely be charged with replacing under-performing veteran Nate Solder at left tackle on an offensive line that ranked 17th last season and allowed a sack on 8.1 per cent of pass plays (eight most in the league last season). Thomas finished his junior season at the University of Georgia with an offensive tackle grade of 92.4 per Pro Football Focus, the highest by any Power-5 offensive tackle in the 2020 NFL Draft. In his three year at the collegiate level, Thomas missed just one game, allowing only five sacks and 25 pressures in 41 starts for the Bulldogs. Thomas also bring versatility, with 15 of those starts coming at the right tackle position, and the other 26 at left tackle. After using its highest draft selection (pick four) on an offensive lineman since 1974, the Giants will be expecting Thomas to not only start straight off the bat, but have a meaningful influence on a line that anchored the 24th ranked offence in yards and 19th in points per game (21.3) in 2019. Young quarterback Daniel Jones showed some real promise in his rookie season. Get him some legitimate protection and the G-men’s offence could be fun to watch this season.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, wide receiver, second season
What happened to the wide receiver group in Philadelphia last season was brutal and made this otherwise talented team difficult to watch on offence. By the end of the season, quarterback Carson Wentz’s top wide receiver was former college quarterback Greg Ward, who began the season buried six spots deep on the depth chart (Ward and Deontay Burnett were the only wide receivers to catch a pass in the Eagles’ wild card playoff loss to Seattle). Of the three wide receivers to catch more than 20 passes last season, one is gone (Nelson Agholor left in free agency) and the other (veteran Alshon Jeffrey, who led all receivers with 43 receptions in ten games) is coming off a severe hip injury and might not make the final roster cut this season. Philly used its second-round draft pick on Arcega-Whiteside in 2019 expecting him to be Wentz’s contested catch specialists and red zone threat. All the rookie could come up with was a stat line of ten receptions for 169 yards and a touchdown. That’s an underwhelming rookie season for a team that desperately could have used a break-out campaign. The Eagles welcome three rookies to the wide receiver group this season, including first-round pick Jalen Reagor. Another disappointing season for Arcega-Whiteside and it’s unlikely the former Stanford star will see a third season in the city of brotherly love.
San Francisco 49ers
Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback, fourth season
It’s strange to think the Niners would need to somebody in the secondary to step up after posting the number one pass defence in the league last season. But despite the dominance of the front seven on defence this season, San Francisco only finished with a plus-four turnover differential (11th in the league) and nabbed 12 interceptions (only four belonging to members of the secondary not named Richard Sherman). San Francisco need one of its young cornerbacks to take the next step opposite the gun veteran Sherman in 2020. Witherspoon looked like he might be the man in San Fran after his rookie season in 2017, producing an excellent cornerback grade of 74.5 according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked 38th among qualified players. Witherspoon took an enormous step back the following season, finishing with a grade of 44.5 in 2018 that ranked dead last among 112 qualified cornerbacks in the NFL. The former third-round pick was playing well last season before a foot injury sustained in Week 3 kept him sidelined until Week 11. In that time, rookie Emmanuel Moseley made the number two cornerback spot his own, finishing with a Pro Football Focus grade of 70.4, which ranked him as the 31st cornerback in the NFL. Richard Sherman isn’t going to play forever, and after not spending a single draft pick on a cornerback in April, the improvement needs to come from within.
Rasheem Green, pass rusher, third season
For a team in the dark horse Super Bowl category, Seattle sure are a lopsided American football team. Seattle’s offence finished in the top ten for total yards (eighth with 5991) and points per game (ninth with 25.3) last season despite being held back by the 26th ranked defence that could only manage 28 sacks (second worst in the league). Luckily, the Seahawks had Green, who led the team with an astronomical four sacks. Okay, that’s not a great number, and it’s clear the Seahawks need to find ways to get to the opposition’s quarterback far more often to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But there is some promise with Green, who led the team with four sacks, had five quarterbacks hits, three tackles for loss and three forced fumbles despite only playing on 50 per cent of the defensive snaps. Seattle have made a name for themselves over the last decade or so for drafting and developing its own defensive stars. For the sake of the defence and its immediate championship hopes, they need Green to come to the party. The Seahawks also used two of their 2020 draft picks on pass rushers Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson in an effort to inject the pass rush with some much-needed juice. A sack rate of 5.1 per cent (third lowest in the league in 2019 per Football Outsiders) isn’t going to cut it in the NFC West.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ronald Jones, running back, third season
Despite finishing with the third ranked offence last season, the Bucs’ running game finished 24th, averaging 95.1 yards per game. Jones and Peyton Barber were the only Bucs backs with more than 100 rushing attempts last season, and Jones is the only one of the pair returning this season. After a bitterly disappointing rookie season in 2018 when the former University of Southern California back rushed for 44 yards on 23 attempts with a lone touchdown in just nine games, Jones had a quietly productive season in 2019. Jones rushed for 724 yards on 172 attempts with six touchdowns. Jones had six runs of 20 yards or more and one of 40 plus, which saw his average yards per rush attempt jump from 1.9 in 2018 to 4.2 last season. He also got involved with the passing game, tallying 31 receptions for 309 yards with more than a third of catches going for a first down. Jones’ ability as a pass catcher out of the backfield will be amplified with Tom Brady coming to town given the legendary quarterback’s tendencies to use his backfield friends in the passing attack. While Jones showed signs of improvement last year, the Bucs’ ground still struggled overall in what panned out to be an unbalanced offence. For a magical season to come to fruition in 2020, Tampa Bay needs a consistent running game for TB12 to lean on.
Dwayne Haskins, quarterback, second season
It was a pretty quiet off-season in the nation’s capital. On the field, the roster has players all across the roster that new head coach Ron Rivera needs to emerge to give the team any chance in the NFC East this season. However, fairly or unfairly, this team will go as second-year quarterback Haskins goes, which if 2019 is anything to go by, might not be very far. Washington finished in the bottom third of the league last season across all major offensive metrics, including dead last in passing offence (175.8 yards per game) and points per game (16.6). Haskins had a difficult time of it in his rookie season for sure, throwing for 1365 yards, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions, a completion percentage of 58.62 and overall quarterback rating of 78.1 (ranked 32nd among quarterbacks to have started at least nine games). The first-round pick showed some signs down the stretch last year, throwing for 1225 yards with seven touchdowns, three interceptions and an average quarterback rating of 88.9 through his last seven games in 2019. It’s not going to be easy again for Haskins in 2020, who is stuck with the worst set of skill position players in the league according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. This franchise has a lot on its plate at present. It’s a lot to ask of a 23-year-old, but Washington just needs Haskins to win them some American football games this season.