Offseason stories are inevitably dominated by what’s new: coaching changes, player acquisitions and draft picks. But the biggest area for potential growth on each roster comes from within. This week, I’ll take a look at one homegrown talent from each team who could provide a huge boost by taking the next step in his development, beginning today with AFC clubs. Who will follow in the footsteps of the breakout players from last year’s list, like Dee Ford, Joe Mixon and Marlon Humphrey?
For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll only look at players who are still on their rookie contracts and whose growth would be welcomed by their organizations. All stats are according to Pro Football Focus.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson, quarterback. Of all the players on this list, Jackson is the most significant to his team’s success. As a 21-year-old rookie quarterback last season, Jackson lined up for 568 snaps and only threw 170 passes (29.9%) — that’s a percentage that looks out of the 1930s. All of those Ravens zone runs were an effective midseason change of pace for a stagnant offense, but there’s little reason to believe their 2019 attack will look the same.
The Ravens promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator with the idea of rebuilding their offensive playbook from scratch around Jackson’s skills. While Roman will take advantage of spread concepts and Jackson’s running ability, the Louisville product has more accuracy, touch and ability to throw deep than he was asked to show as a rookie. Don’t forget that Jackson’s first start last season came in Week 11. A full offseason as the starter with a largely new group of weapons around him (like first-round pick Marquise Brown) offers Jackson the tools to take a big second-year leap as a passer.
Buffalo Bills: Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker. As a 20-year-old rookie defensive signal caller at a new position (middle linebacker), Edmunds understandably struggled early last season. By December, the first-round pick was the Defensive Rookie of the Month. Buffalo treasure Kyle Williams, who retired this offseason, tapped Edmunds to run the players’ weekly Thursday film session. As the game slowed down for Edmunds, his instincts, film study and pass coverage ability took over. If he builds on that progress to become the AFC’s answer to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly — with Matt Milano alongside as his version of what Thomas Davis was to Kuechly — the Bills‘ defense will be tough to beat to the outside.
Cincinnati Bengals: Carl Lawson, defensive end. Add up Lawson’s stats through two seasons, and there’s a clear picture of a potential star: 9.5 sacks, 18 QB hits and 55 hurries on only 702 snaps. He had such a low snap count partly because the Bengals don’t trust him on running downs and partly because of a torn ACL suffered last October. The Bengals lacked edge-rushing juice a year ago, ranking 28th in the NFL in sacks, and didn’t do much to address the position in the draft or free agency. Their best hope of finding a difference maker opposite Carlos Dunlap is for Lawson to develop into a terror in his third season.
Cleveland Browns: Genard Avery, defensive end/linebacker. Avery was the hidden gem of a preposterously good Browns draft class, which was headlined by Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb. Avery’s 42 pressures and sure tackling were both outrageous for a fifth-round pick in a part-time role. Now he’s expected to replace Jamie Collins, released in March, as the team’s strong-side linebacker on early downs while also getting work as a defensive end. His versatility is exactly what creative coordinators should be looking for. Though he was once viewed as a ‘tweener, the profile of this 250-pound outside ‘backer with the ability to play on the line or off the ball may soon look more like the prototype.
Denver Broncos: Courtland Sutton, wide receiver. Sutton was the subject of an unfair amount of offseason hype last season — and still, he mostly delivered. For a second-round pick to accumulate 704 receiving yards as a rookie is impressive, no matter how he got there. Now an unfair amount of expectations will be placed on him again. With Emmanuel Sanders coming off a torn Achilles tendon and Demaryius Thomas having been traded away last season, Sutton is the closest thing to a No. 1 receiver the Broncos have. He struggled with drops and getting open in that role late in the season after Thomas was shipped out and Sanders was injured, with fellow first-year receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick outgaining Sutton in the season’s final quarter.
That sluggish finish was a typical part of Sutton’s learning curve and his jump-ball ability should be a perfect match for new quarterback Joe Flacco‘s strengths. (Not that Broncos fans need to be told about Flacco’s ability to throw a jump ball.)
Houston Texans: Keke Coutee and Jordan Thomas, wide receiver and tight end. I’m grouping both of these young Texans players together because there are so many similarities. Both outproduced their Day 3 draft slots as rookies, and both will be asked to do much more in their second season. Coutee battled injuries as the team’s best slot receiver, yet showed his potential with 11 catches for 110 yards in the Texans‘ forgettable playoff loss. Thomas is a sixth-round pick with outrageous size (6-foot-5, 277 pounds) and rare athleticism. He enters 2019 as the heavy favorite to start at tight end. If the Texans offense is going to become less dependent on DeAndre Hopkins, it will need these 2018 pleasant surprises to kick it up another notch.
Indianapolis Colts: Kemoko Turay, defensive end. As great as general manager Chris Ballard’s 2018 draft class looks now, it could look even better after the 2019 season. Turay was off to a fast start as a rookie second-round pick before an injury slowed his progress and apparently impacted his practice effort. Still, he put up 38 pressures on only 383 total defensive snaps and may have the most pure edge-rushing talent of anyone on the entire team, outside of free agent pickup Justin Houston. Yet another 2018 Colts second-rounder (Tyquan Lewis) will also vie for snaps at end and inside, but Turay has the biggest upside to help the Colts at a position where they could use more playmaking.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, running back. It says a lot about the 2019 Jaguars that so many offensive players were prime candidates for this list. While left tackle Cam Robinson or wideout Dede Westbrook would have also made sense, no other player should set the tone for the Jags like Fournette. Tom Coughlin built this roster up front to run the ball. Fournette doesn’t need to suddenly play like the No. 4 overall pick he was in 2017; he just needs to stay healthy, stay in shape and run hard. The big plays should follow like they did in his rookie season, and his underrated pass-catching skills should make the offense more versatile. If the Fournette of 2018 (3.3 yards per carry and 624 yards from scrimmage in eight games) shows up again, though, this offense has no chance.
Kansas City Chiefs: Demarcus Robinson, wide receiver. If Tyreek Hill doesn’t play for the Chiefs this season (a child-abuse investigation involving Hill was reopened by a prosecutor in April), the natural inclination is to expect veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Mecole Hardman to soak up Hill’s targets. But don’t look past Robinson. The 2016 fourth-round pick could never pass Chris Conley on the depth chart, but he’s flashed playmaking ability when given the chance. With Conley (who signed in Jacksonville) and now possibly Hill gone, Robinson could easily top his career production (500 yards) this season.
Los Angeles Chargers: Dan Feeney, guard. Feeney is the only AFC player to land on this list two years in a row, in large part because most every other key homegrown Chargers player has already exceeded reasonable expectations. Feeney, on the other hand, ranked No. 80 out of 81 PFF qualifiers at guard last season, and he was dead last in pass protection. The 2017 third-rounder stands on this list to represent the entire Chargers offensive line, which quietly imploded down the stretch, torpedoing their title chances. With the same group back once again, the Chargers will need improvement to come from within.
Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris, defensive end. Since the rules of this exercise — only rookie contracts — prevents me from going with receiver DeVante Parker again, let’s take a gander at another recent first-round pick. Harris, taken No. 22 in 2017, was once seen as a test of the popular “great film vs. combine metrics” debate when he came out. So far, the folks who prioritized his disappointing athletic testing over the scouts who loved his spin move look correct.
His career has gotten off to a slow start — 3 sacks and 12 QB hits in 843 snaps over two seasons. But Harris will be given a second chance under new coach Brian Flores, because the Dolphins‘ edge-rushing options are perhaps the least proven in football. The Dolphins will need some pleasant surprises in the front seven to step up, with Harris squarely in the spotlight.
New England Patriots: Sony Michel, running back. Michel was good as a rookie. Can he be great? Playing behind one of the best Patriots offensive lines of all time, Michel consistently ran hard in the regular season, if not always to daylight. But the 2018 first-round pick put it all together in a playoff run that included 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns over 71 carries. Those are the kind of numbers associated with a dominant workhorse back. While Michel won’t have to keep up that pace in an absolutely loaded Patriots backfield, his ceiling has been strangely underrated. He could become a true game-changer for Tom Brady with improved elusiveness and pass-catching ability.
New York Jets: Robby Anderson, wide receiver. Despite multiple arrests early in his career, Anderson has already proven to be an incredible success story for an undrafted player who wasn’t even invited to the combine. He’s already one of the game’s best deep threats, with the second highest rate of catches over 20 yards for receivers with at least 200 targets over the last two seasons. Yet, he still has a lot to prove.
Anderson admitted to struggling with inconsistency and injuries early last year before closing strong with 23 catches for 336 yards and three scores in the final four games, when the light turned on for rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. Now playing under a coach who plans to use him in more ways, Anderson has a golden opportunity to make life-changing money if he puts together a big contract year. If he can produce like a true No. 1 receiver, the rest of the Jets‘ weapons (Quincy Enunwa, Jamison Crowder and Chris Herndon) should fall right into place behind him.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Sean Davis, safety. No one has played more snaps for the Steelers‘ defense over the last three seasons than Davis, yet the team still doesn’t seem entirely sure what it has in the 2016 second-round pick. After settling into his role as a free safety — his third position — Davis was less streaky overall in 2018. GM Kevin Colbert has poured resources into the team’s secondary, and it looks better on paper than it has in years. They’d look even better if Davis made enough big plays to inspire Colbert to sign him to an extension.
Oakland Raiders: Kolton Miller, left tackle. Bringing in veteran receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams and rookie running back Josh Jacobs was nice. None of it will matter if Derek Carr isn’t protected better. Miller was the Jon Gruden regime’s first ever draft pick last season at No. 15 overall. After one season of desultory play, the pick looks like a reach. It’s not a problem that the Raiders are leaving Miller on the left side while putting high-priced free agent Trent Brown on the right side. All tackles matter. It’s a problem if Miller doesn’t improve quickly after a season in which he was one of the league’s worst starters at slowing down opposing pass rushers, even before he started battling injuries.
Tennessee Titans: Harold Landry, outside linebacker. The Titans finished No. 28 in team pass rushing last season according to PFF, and this was clearly the biggest weakness on an otherwise solid defense. If Landry steps up in his second season, he and veteran signee Cameron Wake could form a formidable edge duo. The second-round pick was a draftnik favorite, and his quick first step is obvious on tape. But Landry struggled to hold up stopping the run, and he was enveloped too often by bigger left tackles. The Titans‘ young linebackers (Jayon Brown, 2018 first-rounder Rashaan Evans and Landry) could give this defense a much-needed identity, with Landry the key to fixing the pass rush.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.