Breakout performances happen all the time in the NFL, with promising prospects or unknown backups emerging as consistent contributors and reliable starters. It’s a little less common, though, for those breakout players to ascend into the next stratosphere as a true superstar; with so much established talent at every position, it’s a special occurrence when a player reaches that top tier and cements himself among the league’s elite.
But that’s exactly what a handful of playmakers look poised to do this year. For the most part, these guys may not be household names, and most are still working on landing lucrative endorsement deals (or in some cases, a big-money second contract). Each could be on his way to a spot in the top echelon at their respective positions. Excluding quarterbacks—that needs to be reserved for a column on its own—here are a few players on the cusp of superstardom.
WR Chris Godwin, Buccaneers
The receiver position in particular is crowded at the top, loaded with superstars like Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, and Julio Jones. And while Godwin came into this season generating plenty of hype as one of the most exciting no. 2 options in the league, he was often overshadowed by another top name at the position, his teammate Mike Evans.
Through six weeks, though, Godwin not only looks like the Bucs’ new go-to guy, but he’s emerged as one of the best receivers in the league―full stop. He’s third in the NFL in catches (43) and leads the league in receiving yards (662) and touchdowns (six), making Godwin the top-scoring fantasy receiver and one of just four 23-year-olds all time to notch 662-plus yards through the first six games of a season―joining Hopkins (2015), Andre Rison (1990), and Jerry Rice (1986). That’s pretty elite company.
Boasting size (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) and top-end speed (he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine in 2017), Godwin can do it all for the Buccaneers, lining up all over the formation to take the top off defenses on one play and grab a short pass and pick up yards after the catch on the next. Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston—who’s not exactly known for mistake-free efficiency—has a near-perfect passer rating of 148.6 when targeting Godwin this year. The third-year pro out of Penn State has turned a whopping 38 of his 43 catches into first downs. Oh, and he has about as reliable hands as they come, with just one dropped pass this year. Godwin’s meteoric rise is no fluke; he’s here to stay.
CB Jaire Alexander, Packers
There are a few big names among the NFL’s elite tier of cornerbacks, too, from newly minted Ram Jalen Ramsey to Patriots star Stephon Gilmore, the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson, the Dolphins’ Xavien Howard, and the 49ers’ Richard Sherman. But Alexander, Green Bay’s second-year corner out of Louisville, has made his case this year to be included in that group.
The 22-year-old playmaker has surrendered just one touchdown on 43 targets this season, allowing a 51.2 percent completion rate and a 75.7 opponent passer rating in coverage. He’s picked off one pass and leads the NFL with 11 forced incompletions―most in the league and three more than anyone else, per Pro Football Focus. Alexander mixes speed with versatility; he’s shown off his elite instincts in zone coverage and has been sticky when asked to play man-to-man:
Alexander hasn’t been perfect this year, and had a rough outing in the team’s victory over the Cowboys in Week 5, surrendering eight catches for 201 yards in coverage, per PFF. But he’s also demonstrated one of the crucial traits necessary to play cornerback at a high level: unwavering confidence. After getting shelled by the Cowboys, he came out last week in Green Bay’s Week 6 win over the Lions and gave up just one catch for 3 yards. The 18th pick of the 2018 draft is already living up to his top billing.
CB Marlon Humphrey, Ravens
Humphrey has built on a strong performance in 2018 with more outstanding play this season. The third-year pro has racked up two picks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and five pass breakups in six games, tied for sixth most at the position, per PFF. He’s surrendering a paltry 3.7 yards per target—fifth best among all defenders—and an opponent passer rating in coverage of just 36.2. In fact, Humphrey has ranked third among all cornerbacks with 100 or more targets in opponent passer rating (67.3) since coming into the league as the 16th pick of the 2017 draft.
The ultimate sign of how much he’s developed in his two years and change in the league, though, is that with veteran corner Jimmy Smith on the sideline nursing a knee sprain, the Ravens have asked Humphrey to play shadow coverage on their opponents’ best receivers. In the past three games, the 23-year-old has traveled with Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd, Steelers star JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Browns star Beckham. He’s held that trio to a combined 12 catches and 105 yards. Don’t be surprised when you start hearing Humphrey’s name tossed in with some of the elite players at the cornerback position.
OLB T.J. Watt, Steelers
Watt has an eminently recognizable football name, of course, and he posted 13.0 sacks in 2018―so it’s not like he’s exactly flown under the radar in his first two seasons in the league. But while the Steelers have gotten off to a rough start to begin this season, the third-year pro certainly hasn’t: Watt has taken the proverbial next step as a pass rusher and the 25-year-old has emerged as one of the best edge players in the NFL.
Through six games, Watt has racked up 27 pressures—tied for 13th among all edge defenders—with 13 hurries, nine quarterback hits (tied for second and just one behind his brother, J.J., who leads the league with 10), 4.0 sacks, and a league-best nine quarterback knockdowns. He isn’t quite as big as his older brother, but the younger Watt boasts many of the same traits: explosive speed, strength, tenacity, and indefatigable hustle. Put another way, he’s a pain in the ass for offensive linemen.
LB Shaq Thompson, Panthers
With longtime Panthers stalwart Thomas Davis now with the Chargers, Thompson has picked up the slack in Carolina’s linebacking corps, hitting his stride as a playmaker. After playing a limited, rotational role during his first four seasons (he played on 60 percent of the team’s snaps in 2018), the fifth-year pro’s workload has skyrocketed this season—and he’s been in on 98.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this year. Thompson has contributed against both the run and the pass, racking up 54 tackles—ninth in the league and just nine short of the NFL leader—with two sacks and a pair of passes defensed. He’s tied for third among linebackers with 23 stops (which PFF classifies as tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense), and has missed only four tackles all year.
The first four years Thompson spent as a part-time player and understudy to Davis have seemed to pay off. With the ability to float seamlessly between inside linebacker, outside linebacker, plus slot corner and the occasional outside cornerback spots, Thompson’s embraced his full-time role in the Panthers defense and elevated the entire unit.
Slot CB Justin Coleman, Lions
The Lions’ decision to sign Coleman to a four-year, $36 million deal was met with more than a few double-takes over the offseason, but through six games, the diminutive corner has been worth every penny and then some for Detroit’s defense. Coleman’s made a handful of big plays in key situations for the Lions this year, including multiple pass breakups in the end zone during the team’s matchup with the Chiefs:
Justin Coleman was making so many plays against the Chiefs. pic.twitter.com/VpxkprHXEf— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) September 30, 2019
He had a crucial goal-line pick in last week’s tilt vs. the Packers, too.
JUSTIN COLEMAN!!!! WOW!!! pic.twitter.com/bd7zhR2YY7— #BusinessIsSuspended (@FTBeard11) October 15, 2019
Coleman is tied for second in the NFL with seven pass breakups and brings to the Lions the versatility to line up both on the inside (261 snaps) and outside (59). All-Pro corner Darius Slay was asked if Coleman is playing well, and his answer says it all: “He’s playing fucking awesome.” Coleman was quietly one of the Seahawks’ best coverage defenders in 2018 and has emerged as one of the best slot corners in the league this season.
TE Austin Hooper, Falcons
The list of the NFL’s elite tight ends is not long―especially after Rob Gronkowski retired over the offseason. Zach Ertz, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce represent the unquestioned headliners of the group, and, depending on who you ask, are typically followed closely by Evan Engram and Hunter Henry. But while Baltimore’s Mark Andrews and Oakland’s Darren Waller have certainly seen their stars rise this season, Hooper has quietly leapfrogged those two and plenty others (including preseason contenders like O.J. Howard, Eric Ebron, Jared Cook, Vance McDonald, Jack Doyle, and Trey Burton, among others) into the position group’s elite tier.
Hooper isn’t quite as flashy as Kittle or Kelce and is not as well established as Ertz, but there’s really no way to argue with his production. After catching 71 passes for 660 yards and four touchdowns in 2018, Hooper has blossomed as a top option in the Falcons’ passing attack, and he’s on pace to finish the year with 112 catches for 1,280 yards and eight touchdowns. Among tight ends, the fourth-year pro ranks first in routes (222), first in catches (42), second in yards (480), and is tied for second in touchdowns (three). Hooper’s proved to be more dynamic than he’s typically given credit for: He ranks fourth at the position in yards after the catch (192), is tied for fourth in broken tackles (four), and has racked up 23 first downs for Atlanta, which ranks second only to Kelce. And if all that wasn’t convincing enough, how about this: He’s currently outpacing Julio Jones in both catches and yards. He’s turned into one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets.