Meet the NFL's class of 2019: 10 players who graduated to stardom

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Each year, the NFL brings a new batch of stars. Yeah, some players are stars who just start burning brighter, and some are stars who begin to fade. But what we're talking about here is a group of players who weren't stars when the season began but, through some combination of on-field success and off-field popularity, used the 2019 season to launch themselves into real sports stardom.

This, of course, does not guarantee continued stardom, or even unbroken success, as you can see if you check out last year's list. But each season has its own batch of fresh stars, and each year we like to honor those who graduated to stardom during the season. Our 2019 list:

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Who he was in August: A 2018 first-round pick who'd taken over for Joe Flacco midway through his rookie season and led the Ravens to a 6-1 record and a division title, but who'd flopped against the Chargers in the playoffs, was frightfully fumble-prone and, quite honestly, was getting a lot more attention for his running ability than his passing ability. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh spoke of a new offense that would revolutionize football, skepticism abounded, free-agent wide receivers stayed away and the assumption was that the 2019 Ravens would be a run-first offense behind a run-first quarterback.

The numbers: Jackson led the NFL in touchdown passes(36) and in Total QBR (81.1). He fumbled just nine times in 15 games (as opposed to 12 in seven starts in 2018) and threw just six interceptions to go with all of those touchdown passes. And, oh yeah, he can still run. His 1,206 rushing yards ranked sixth in the league among all players, not just quarterbacks, and he rushed for seven more touchdowns.

Who he is now: The presumptive winner of the 2019 MVP award and the league's most breathtaking player this side of Kansas City. Jackson's running, passing and leadership abilities combined to make him the breakout quarterback star of the season and a model of the kind of quarterback teams will look to build their offenses around in the future. Of course, they'll have to find one as good and fast as Jackson is in order for that to work.

Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers

Who he was in August: The No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft and the fourth defensive lineman the 49ers drafted in the past five first rounds. He was a star at Ohio State of whom much was expected at the NFL level (hence the No. 2 pick), but to the uninitiated he might have been viewed as Joey Bosa's kid brother.

The numbers: Bosa had nine sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the regular season and has added three sacks in two playoff games. ESPN Stats & Info had him credited with 60 quarterback pressures in the regular season, second only to Green Bay's Za'Darius Smith, who had 63.

Who he is now: The final infinity stone in a 49ers defensive line that has powered its way into the Super Bowl. There are no easy outs along San Francisco's front, but Bosa is the electrifying, athletic star of the group, a player who seems to make some sort of impact on just about every drive.

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

Who he was in August: The Titans' power back -- a bruising former Heisman Trophy winner who'd cleared 1,000 yards for the first time in 2018 with a furious finish but was still seen as maybe a little too one-dimensional for an NFL in which the top backs all seem to be really good pass-catchers in addition to big-time runners.

The numbers: Henry rushed for a league-leading 1,540 yards on a league-leading 303 carries in spite of sitting out a game for rest late in the season. He tied Green Bay's Aaron Jones for the league lead with 16 rushing touchdowns. Henry rushed for 211 yards in the Week 17 victory that put Tennessee in the playoffs, 182 in the Titans' first-round playoff victory in New England and 195 in their second-round playoff victory in Baltimore, becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 180 or more yards in three consecutive games before the Chiefs put a stop to things in the AFC Championship Game.

Who he is now: You can be one-dimensional when that one dimension is out here totally wrecking fools. Henry looked like the most dominant physical force in the entire league down the stretch and in the first two weeks of the postseason -- a back no one seemed capable of tackling even in the increasingly unlikely event they wanted to try. He's an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and it'll be fascinating to see how he's valued on a market that doesn't usually value running backs after a season in which he amassed 409 total touches (counting postseason).

T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Who he was in August: A promising third-year edge rusher coming off a 13-sack sophomore season that included six forced fumbles and 21 QB hits. And J.J. Watt's younger brother.

The numbers: Watt's sack total increased to 14.5 in 2019, his forced-fumbles total to a league-leading eight and his QB hits total to 36. He was the heart and soul of a Pittsburgh defense that kept the team in the playoff hunt to the very end in spite of a stunning rash of injury problems on the other side of the ball.

Who he is now: Well, certainly not a one-year wonder. And not a guy who has to live in his brother's shadow, if he ever did. Watt has emerged as one of the top edge rushers in the league, and at age 25 his stardom appears to be on the rise.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Who he was in August: An injury-prone running back with star potential who'd played a combined 15 games and rushed for a combined 969 yards in his first two NFL seasons. The Vikings went to camp believing they had a fully healthy Cook for the first time since his rookie season and excited about his potential as the centerpiece of their offense.

The numbers: He did miss two games due to injury, but only two, and in the 14 he played he rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards. The Vikings made the playoffs as the NFC's second wild-card team, and Cook had 130 total yards and two touchdowns in their first-round playoff upset winin New Orleans.

Who he is now: The Vikings hope he's past all of the injury hurdles of the early part of his career and ready to carry a bell-cow workload for them into the foreseeable future. He's also contract extension-eligible and on the list of very interesting running back contract candidates over the next couple of years.

Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets

Who he was in August: An emerging star as a back-end playmaker and leader who made last year's "Next Up" list in this very space.

The numbers: The only real standout "number" for Adams is his 6.5 sacks, which obviously led all defensive backs. Blitz-happy Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deployed Adams as a supplemental pass-rusher in addition to his other duties, and Adams took to the role gleefully.

Who he is now:He's as multidimensional a threat at the safety position as the league has. He played 403 snaps as a deep safety, 369 snaps as a linebacker and 94 snaps as a slot corner in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Info's player tracking. And who can forget his game-winning run stuff against the Cowboys in October?

Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts

Who he was in August: Another member of our "Next Up" list from a year ago, and a guy who probably would have made the main list if he hadn't been an offensive lineman (because it's really hard for offensive linemen to attain real "stardom"). Nelson was a dominant force as a rookie on the Colts' line in 2018 and a key part of the rushing attack that propelled Indianapolis' playoff run that season.

The numbers: The Colts didn't repeat their playoff appearance, but they did finish as a top-seven rushing offense in spite of the surprise preseason retirement of their quarterback and a late-season fade. Nelson also ran for a glorious fat-guy touchdown in a Week 11 victory over the Jaguars, though unfortunately the play was called back due to a replay review. Luckily Nelson and his fellow linemen got to pull off theirkeg-stand end-zone celebration before the TD was ruled short.

Who he is now: The keg-stand celebration guy, of course, and one of the stars of last week's Pro Bowl skills challenge. So even though we don't usually put offensive linemen on here, Nelson has earned a spot.

Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns

Who he was in August: Certainly not the most glittering star in the Browns' offensive galaxy, but the one through which they planned to run their (ultimately disappointing) offense. Chubb had been the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL from Week 7 through the end of his rookie season in 2018, and with Kareem Hunt suspended for the first eight games, the expectation was that the Browns would lean hard on Chubb for the first half of the 2019 season.

The numbers: They did. Chubb was the NFL's leading rusher through Week 16, only to be edged out at the finish line by Henry. Chubb finished with 1,494 rushing yards on 298 carries -- an average of 5.01 yards per carry.

Who he is now: Chubb will head into the season as perhaps the most reliable element in a notably volatile situation in Cleveland. The hope is that the Browns recover from 2019's disappointment and the array of talent they assembled a year ago can deliver on its promise in 2020. But while they wonder about many things, it seems as if they can be sure of what they have in Chubb as a true star running back.

Tre'Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills

Who he was in August: A solid third-year cornerback on a probably-underrated defense who'd had four interceptions in his rookie season and two in his second.

The numbers: White doubled his career interception total with six in 2019, and opponents had a 45.0 passer rating when targeting him. He also contributed two forced fumbles and his first career sack.

Who he is now: The league's top corner in 2019 was New England's Stephon Gilmore (who we decided was already too big a star to make this year's list). But after Gilmore, there's a debate to be had about who's the second-best in the league right now, and White is smack in the middle of that debate.

A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans

Who he was in August: Probably the second-best-known rookie receiver out of Mississippi, behind Seattle's DK Metcalf. Brown was the 51st overall pick in the 2019 draft.

The numbers: Brown finished his rookie season with 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns, but it was in the second half where he really popped. From Week 9 on, only three players -- Miami's DeVante Parker, New Orleans' Michael Thomas and Carolina's DJ Moore-- had more receiving yards. Only the Chargers' Mike Williams had a higher yards per catch average over that time than Brown's 23.43, and no wide receiver had more yards after the catch starting in Week 9 than Brown's 329.

Who he is now: The go-to guy in the Titans' passing game, and one of the most explosive players in the league when the ball is in his hands. Henry was the focal point of Tennessee's offense, but the Titans' passing game was as efficient as any in the league once Ryan Tannehill took over as quarterback, andBrown's playmaking ability was a big part of that.

Who's next up

These are the players who haven't quite graduated to stardom but need only a couple more credits to get there:

ShaquilBarrett, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Came out of nowhere to lead the NFL in sacks after Tampa Bay signed him to a one-year contract in free agency. He'll likely get more years this time around.

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins: His connection with Ryan Fitzpatrick was dazzling. Is he finally living up to his first-round pedigree?

DJ Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers: If he played in a bigger market for a better team, he might have made the big list. But fantasy players know.

Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders: Slam dunk Offensive Rookie of the Year until an injury-plagued final month of the season.

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers: While the focus was on Aaron Rodgers' "down" year, the Green Bay run game carried the Pack to a 13-3 season.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Early-season trade acquisition was a vital piece to a Steelers defense that kept the team in the hunt all year long.

Ryan Ramczyk, OT, New Orleans Saints: Again, it's tough for offensive linemen to really become "stars," but Ramczyk made first-team All-Pro and is a monster run-blocker.

Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is there a new No. 1 WR in Tampa Bay whose name isn't Mike Evans?

Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers: The front seven of the NFC champs is loaded with stars, but Warner is an all-around playmaker in the middle of it all.

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