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The Eight NFL Players Who Could Make the Leap This Season

Two members of the Cleveland Browns and the handsomest quarterback in the league are among the most likely players to make waves in the fall

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the climax of the film Into the Spider-Verse (spoiler alert! ), Miles Morales asks his mentor, Peter B. Parker, when he will know that he is Spider-Man.

“You won’t,” Parker says. “That’s all it is, Miles. A leap of faith.”

Every year we see players make The Leap. As J. Kyle Mann put it for The Leap series on The Ringer’s YouTube Channel, in the NBA, players with a little experience and a lot of talent can quickly become stars if they consistently demonstrate the skills they’ve shown in their best moments. In the NFL, this happens less frequently than in the NBA, but surprise breakout players still pop up each season; here are the candidates to make The Leap this fall. We don’t know whether these players can pull it off, but like Miles Morales, we have faith.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

Baker already seems to be in midair. Heading into his second NFL season, he has the fourth-best odds to win MVP (11-to-1), trailing only 2018 winner Patrick Mahomes (5.5-to-1), Andrew Luck (6-to-1), and 2-time MVP Aaron Rodgers (10-to-1). Mayfield’s NFL career was a headline grabber from the moment he hit the field in the second half of Week 3 last year against the Jets and led Cleveland to its first victory in 635 days. (It’s also the day he won over his teammates, according to offensive line and tight end coach Bob Wylie, by responding to a heckling Jets linebacker with, “I don’t even know who you are.”)

Everyone knows who Mayfield is (though he lost Offensive Rookie of the Year to Saquon Barkley and paid up as a consequence), and there’s plenty of reason to think Mayfield could be spectacular in 2019. Once head coach and human blame deflector Hue Jackson was fired midseason, the Browns offense under interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens underwent a revelatory change. Kitchens focused on passing early and often and giving Baker more leash, and it paid off.

Baker Mayfield Under Todd Haley vs. Freddie Kitchens

Stat Under Todd Haley Under Freddie Kitchens
Stat Under Todd Haley Under Freddie Kitchens
Games 6 8
Pass Touchdowns 8 19
Interceptions 6 8
Sacks 20 5
Total QBR (Out of 100) 36 70
Completion Percentage 58.3% 68.4%
Yards per Attempt 6.6 8.6

In his first six games, Mayfield threw for 6.6 yards per attempt, which would have tied for 29th with Case Keenum across the entire 2018 season. But in his final eight games, his yards per pass attempt shot up to 8.6, which would have been third, just behind Mahomes, if stretched across the full season.

Now the Browns have had the offseason to adapt to Mayfield’s skill set. Kitchens was named head coach in 2019, and the team traded for Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The team also hired Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken away to fill the same role in Cleveland. Monken turned the Buccaneers into the league’s leading passing team by yardage last season with 320.3 yards per game and were second in net yards per attempt (7.7) despite switching between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick all season. As offensive coordinator, Monken maximized JaMarcus Russell at LSU and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, so he’s basically a sorcerer. The Browns’ offensive skill players are as talented as the Bucs’, if not more, and Cleveland boasts a superior offensive line and a far better QB in Mayfield. If Monken made Brandon Weeden, a first-round pick, and Ryan Fitzpatrick lead the league in yards per attempt, Lord knows what he can do with Mayfield and Odell.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers

The world’s most handsome quarterback got three games into his first full season in San Francisco before tearing his ACL. There’s not nearly as much hype surrounding him this year as there was this time last year, but we might quickly be reminded why the 49ers fell in love with him in the first place. Head coach Kyle Shanahan orchestrated the Falcons’ record-breaking offensive explosion in 2016 and the magic of Robert Griffin III’s rookie season in 2012, but his true masterpiece may have been last year, when he turned the undrafted Nick Mullens into the best rookie quarterback of 2018. Shanahan excels when one hand is tied behind his back, but after spending 2018 without ideal personnel, he’ll likely enter 2019 with an even better idea of how to execute the offense. San Francisco’s receiving corps is inexperienced, with Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin leading the way, plus rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd filling in behind them. But San Francisco’s true no. 1 option is tight end George Kittle, who set the record for receiving yards by a tight end last year. Jimmy is still a baby by NFL quarterback standards with fewer starts (10) than Mayfield (13), but he could grow up fast.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

There is no doubt that Cook is talented. He ran for 6.7 yards per carry and 38 touchdowns over the course of his final two seasons at Florida State. In his first four NFL games in 2017, he accrued 444 yards from scrimmage, but a torn ACL ended his season. Cook’s second season was marred by a lingering hamstring injury that kept him out of five games and hurt his productivity for much of the rest. But there’s reason to be optimistic in 2019. Last year, the Vikings entered the season focused on passing the ball under offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, but head coach Mike Zimmer fired him midseason, and the team adopted a more run-heavy approach under replacement Kevin Stefanski. In the offseason, Zimmer brought in zone-running game guru Gary Kubiak to run, run, and run again in 2019. Cook is a capable receiver as well as a runner agile enough to break plays. If he proves durable enough to manage the lion’s share of carries for Minnesota this season he could join the upper echelon of NFL running backs along with Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey.

Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In the strange world of NFL analytics fantasy nerd Twitter, Chris Godwin has a cult following. His performance in the 2017 Rose Bowl, highlighted by one outstanding touchdown catch, put him on the radar as a player with pristine focus on the ball in downfield situations.

As a rookie in Tampa Bay, he was 13th in yards per route run, perhaps the most indicative receiving statistic where the leaderboard consistently matches the eye test (the players ahead of Godwin in 2017 were a who’s who of the league’s best receivers: Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Tyreek Hill, Adam Thielen, Robert Woods, JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr., and Cooper Kupp, with Godwin clocking in at 13). In 2018, he entered the season fourth on the team’s depth chart behind Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Adam Humphries but still managed 59 catches on 95 targets for 842 receiving yards. Despite being fourth in the pecking order, Godwin was targeted 11 times inside the opponent’s 10-yard line in 2018—one of five receivers with double-digit targets in that zone along with DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster.

In the offseason, the Bucs traded Jackson to Philadelphia and let Humphries leave for Tennessee in free agency. Now Godwin has the no. 2 role behind Mike Evans all to himself entering his third season. With new head coach Bruce Arians bringing in a downfield-based offense, Godwin looks like a surefire bet for a 1,000-yard receiving season with an outside chance of becoming the league’s top no. 2 receiver.

Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona drafted Kirk in the second round out of Texas A&M last year, and he is primed to replace Larry Fitzgerald as Arizona’s no. 1 option in 2019. New Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury is going to bring college football’s most innovative offense into the pros this year, and Kirk may be the Robin to Kyler Murray’s Batman. Kingsbury’s Air Raid system is about flooding the field with so many receivers that the defense can’t possibly cover them all. Kingsbury told NBC Sports’ Peter King that he’ll be using five-receiver sets. That’s significant: There were more than 33,000 plays in the NFL last year, and just 97 of them (0.3 percent) featured five wide receivers. Kirk is familiar with Kingsbury’s Air Raid system from his time at Texas A&M, and with the Cardinals hoping to run an unheard of 90-plus plays per contest, according to running back David Johnson, there could be a silly amount of opportunity for Kirk. The Cardinals may throw the most passes of any team in the league this year, and Kirk could lead them in catches.

Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers

Bosa was drafted third overall out of Ohio State in 2016 as an elite pass rusher with almost no weaknesses. In his 35 career games he has 28.5 sacks. He’s been top-10 in pressure rate per PFF each of his three seasons. A rare rookie contract holdout and a hamstring strain cost him his first four games of the season, and yet he still finished his freshman year with 10.5 sacks—tied for third in the league in that span—and Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2017 he followed it up with a 12.5-sack campaign and earned a Pro Bowl trip. But last year his speed and strength were sapped by a foot injury that affected him throughout training camp and into the season. He didn’t debut until Week 11 against Denver in November and he managed only 5.5 sacks down the stretch. But Bosa is healthy entering the 2019 season and will be on a mission. Establishing himself in the class of Von Miller and Khalil Mack would put him in line for one of the largest contracts for a defender in NFL history and remind people why he was drafted ahead of Elliott and Jalen Ramsey in 2016.

Bradley Chubb, DE, Denver Broncos

Chubb had 12 sacks in his first season after being taken no. 5 overall in the 2018 draft. He could improve on that this year. New Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was the mastermind behind Chicago’s league-best defense in 2018. Chubb represents a better no. 2 pass rusher than any of Chicago’s edge defenders. With Denver adding two of the best cornerbacks available in free agency in Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, Chicago could have its secondary forcing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball a half-second longer than last year. Fangio has already discussed moving Chubb into a more dynamic role. Last year Chubb mostly played from one position on the line and did a bull rush, speed rush, or cut inside toward the huard. This year Fangio wants to move him around, perhaps even inside against guards, to get favorable matchups.

Schematics aside, Chubb will also just be a better player. Year 2 is generally a big season for pass rushers—look no further than Miller (11.5 sacks a rookie and then a career-high 18.5 in his sophomore season) Mack (4.0 sacks as a rookie and then 15 the following season), and J.J. Watt (5.5 sacks as a rookie followed by 20.5 in year two). Chubb may not be as talented as those three, but by playing alongside Miller under Fangio, he has as strong of a position to succeed as any young pass rusher could ask.

Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

Shot.

Forget the chaser, here’s another shot.

Garrett had 13.5 sacks last year, his second pro season, just 0.5 shy of the franchise record, and he did it in spite of erratic former Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, not because of him.

“I hopefully have more freedom to be the player I want to be,” Garrett told Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report in May. “[Former defensive coordinator and interim head coach] Gregg [Williams] was more like: ‘You win with these two moves. I don’t want to see anything else out of you.’ It’s kind of hard with two moves. I feel like you can’t always be so predictable. You can be as strong or fast as you want, but speed chop and power move aren’t always going to work. You have to mix up what you’re doing. Sometimes you have to stutter step, sometimes you have to spin inside, you have to run some games. You have to have some freedom to throw different looks at them, and we didn’t always have that.”

If Garrett managed 13.5 sacks with two moves, it’s scary to consider what he could do in 2019. The Browns traded for Giants pass rusher Olivier Vernon, the most capable defender of taking opposing attention off Garrett in his short career. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will bring some … uh, logic to the Browns defense that was lacking during Williams’s tenure (whether Wilks will instruct his players on where to put their testicles, as Williams did, remains to be seen). Crucially, Wilks will try to make Garrett better, not worse.

The Browns defense will go as high as Garrett takes them. Considering his jumping skills, his leaps don’t even require that much faith.