It’s an easy bet that the Colts’ offensive line, the Saints’ and Patriots’ secondaries, and Buccaneers’ and Cowboys’ pass-catching corps will be among the NFL’s best position groups in 2020. But a handful of less-heralded units have the untapped potential to rise up the ranks this season. Taking stock of offseason free-agency additions, draft picks, and the development arcs of a few promising young players, here are six of the league’s fastest-ascending or most underrated units.
Ravens Defensive Line
The Ravens’ unstoppable offense under league MVP Lamar Jackson stole the spotlight for Baltimore in 2019, but the team’s always-tough defensive front heads into 2020 with the potential to be one of the league’s best. Longtime stalwart Brandon Williams is the anchor in the middle and outside linebacker Matt Judon (who collected 9.5 sacks in 2019 and will play on the franchise tag) is a rising star on the edge. Tyus Bowser (5.0 sacks) and Pernell McPhee (3.0 sacks) both return to the team’s outside linebackers group, and while interior defensive linemen Michael Pierce (signed with the Vikings), Domata Peko (still a free agent) and Chris Wormley (traded to Steelers) are all gone, the team grabbed some big-name replacements in former Jaguar Calais Campbell, former Bronco Derek Wolfe, and third-round rookie Justin Madubuike. Add in developing role players in Jaylon Ferguson (a third-rounder in 2019) and Daylon Mack (a 2019 fifth-rounder) plus veteran role players in Justin Ellis and Jihad Ward, and this unit looks far more talented and deep than it did last year.
Campbell in particular could propel the Ravens’ defensive line into the stratosphere. Acquired in March for a fifth-round pick as Jacksonville looked to shed salary, the five-time Pro Bowler finished third among interior defensive linemen last season in Pro Football Focus’s pass rush productivity metric (behind only the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Chiefs’ Chris Jones) and racked up an impressive 71 pressures on the year, second among all interior defensive linemen and 11th among all defensive linemen. Baltimore will need breakthrough performances from its edge players in Ferguson and/or Bowser if they hope to reach their full potential, but Campbell’s presence will provide a boost to the players around him and give the team’s young outside linebackers group the chance to create some havoc.
Giants Pass Catchers
Daniel Jones’s rookie performance was impressive enough on its own merit, but it was doubly so when you consider that he was playing with a decimated pass-catching corps for much of the year. After trading away superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. over the offseason, New York notched the third most adjusted games lost at the receiver position in 2019 (24.6), per Football Outsiders, while tallying the fifth-most adjusted games lost at tight end (14). Corey Coleman tore his ACL on the first day of training camp and missed the entire year, Sterling Shepard missed six games with a concussion, and Evan Engram missed eight games with a foot injury. And though it’s not accounted for in that Football Outsiders stat, the team also missed Golden Tate for the first four weeks of the season after the receiver was suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy. Ultimately, replacement-level receivers like Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler were both pushed into major snaps. But if the team’s core pass-catching nucleus can stay healthy and on the field together this year, Jones should have a very intriguing mix of established veterans and ascending young talent at his disposal.
Tate is the elder statesman of the group, and while the soon-to-be 32-year-old is likely already on the down slope of his career, he can still do some damage both down the field and on quick-hitting throws over the middle. He’s particularly effective from the slot, where his gyroscope balance and natural tackle-breaking talent places him among the league’s best at picking up yards after the catch. Shepard is an underrated playmaker at all three levels as well. The fifth-year pro dealt with the effects of two concussions early in the season but finished out the year strong, reeling in 32 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns over the team’s final six games (an 85-catch, 824-yard pace over a full season). And Darius Slayton, who was a surprise contributor as a rookie last year after falling to the fifth round of the draft, brings near-limitless potential as the team’s outside threat. The former Auburn standout paced all Giants receivers with 701 snaps played in 2019, reeling in 48 catches with team highs in yards (740) and touchdowns (eight). He brings speed, size, and a knack for winning at the catch point―and could put together a big breakout season in 2020.
Of course, we can’t forget about the team’s tight end duo of Evan Engram and Kaden Smith. Engram has 4.4-second 40-yard-dash speed, making him a threat up the seam and after the catch, and he just needs to put together a full season to cement himself among the league’s elite at the position. Smith showcased some intriguing chemistry with Jones down the stretch, starting the team’s final six games while catching 30 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in that stretch (an 80-catch, 712-yard pace). The former 49ers sixth-rounder may have carved out a role in the team’s passing game this year with that relief performance, especially in the red zone, where his size and strength make him a mismatch.
Washington Defensive Line
Washington’s defensive line has certainly generated some buzz this offseason after adding Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young with the second overall pick of the draft, but I’m not sure we all appreciate just how big of a jump this group could make in 2020. Young brings the potential to be the keystone for the Washington front line―a catalyst who can give an already talent-packed unit the same type of supercharged boost that Nick Bosa gave to San Francisco’s defensive line last season. Young is just that good; he’s a game-wrecking force with a rare combination of size, strength, and explosive speed who can win on the edge with both power and finesse. And as opposing teams inevitably dedicate additional resources to keeping Young at bay, it should help give everyone on the Washington front more opportunities to slice through the line and into the pocket.
Like the 49ers, Washington has accumulated talent over multiple years, investing heavily in both free agency and the draft on the defensive line. The team features four other former first-rounders in Ryan Kerrigan (5.5 sacks in 2019), Jonathan Allen (6.0 sacks), Da’Ron Payne (2.0 sacks), and Montez Sweat (7.0 sacks), the latter three of whom are still ascending young players whose best football is in front of them. And considering the trio of Matthew Ioannidis, Tim Settle, and Ryan Anderson, this group was deep, versatile, and talented even before adding my top-ranked player in the draft. Under new head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, Washington’s defensive line looks ready to dominate games. That group alone should help pull the team out of the cellar.
It’s always best to temper expectations for rookie quarterbacks, even one as talented as Joe Burrow, the Bengals’ new signal-caller. But while the former Heisman winner and top pick lands on the league’s worst team from 2019, it’s hard not to be at least a little bullish about his prospects in Year 1 thanks to the talented collection of receivers around him.
Seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green should be back on the field after missing all of last season to a foot injury, and while the 31-year-old is likely a little past his prime at this point, he gives Burrow a go-to playmaker whom the rookie can look to in high-leverage situations. Past Green, the rest of the team’s receiving corps provides a diverse spectrum of talents and skills. Tyler Boyd, fresh off his 90-catch, 1,046-yard, and five-touchdown campaign, is a reliable and tough slot receiver who always seems to get open and move the chains on third down. John Ross has battled injuries during his three-year career but has scintillating take-the-top-off-a-defense speed. Auden Tate emerged as an acrobatic contested-catch battler last year and could find a role in the red zone. And rookie Tee Higgins could end up doing a little bit of it all: The second-rounder out of Clemson has vise-grip hands, understated deep speed, and is extremely savvy at the catch point, able to twist and contort in the air to come down with the ball. Add in quality depth in Alex Erickson and Stanley Morgan Jr., and Burrow should have no shortage of options in the passing game as a rookie.
Dolphins Pass Catchers
Let’s stick with a similar theme here: I’m not sure when Tua Tagovailoa will make his debut for the Dolphins (he’s still rehabbing from hip surgery), but when he does, he’ll be throwing to an ascending squad of pass-catchers. The team finally got its go-to guy in DeVante Parker, who broke out in 2019 after struggling with injuries and inconsistency earlier in his career. Parker tallied 72 catches for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns last year, relying on his combination of size and speed to win on the outside and in the red zone. Tight end Mike Gesicki had a mini-breakthrough of his own. The athletic former second-round pick finished second on the team in 2019 with 51 catches, 570 yards, and five touchdowns, showcasing playmaking talent that should translate in Year 3.
Rookie receiver Preston Williams likely would’ve challenged both Parker and Gesicki for the team lead in catches and yards had he played the entire season, but he suffered a torn ACL in Week 9. Williams quickly emerged as a big play threat on the outside for the Dolphins, reeling in 32 passes for 428 yards and three scores in just eight games. That’s not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent, and I’d expect once Williams gets fully healthy he’ll pick right up where he left off. Past that leading trio, Miami boasts an athletic group of role players. Albert Wilson, who is finally healthy, gives the team a make-you-miss creator out of the slot, Allen Hurns is quality depth on the outside, and the diminutive Jakeem Grant is a speed merchant who’s effective on end arounds and screen plays.
Raiders Offensive Line
When it comes to ranking the league’s top offensive lines, the Colts, Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens, and Saints are frequently discussed. But it might be time to give the Raiders more of their due: Under the direction of longtime offensive line coach Tom Cable, Oakland’s offensive line rebounded from an awful 2018 campaign to finish sixth in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric in 2019, ranking sixth in both adjusted line yards (run blocking) and in adjusted sack rate last year according to Football Outsiders. Now in Las Vegas, that group returns all five starters and has added some developmental talent to boost the depth at multiple positions.
The team’s starting group should benefit from the advantage of continuity in 2020, particularly if the league’s typical offseason schedule is shortened. Left tackle Kolton Miller showed improvement last season after struggling as a rookie, and has a chance to make a real jump again this season. Left guard Richie Incognito, center Rodney Hudson, and right guard Gabe Jackson make up one of the most solid interior offensive line trios in the NFL. On the right side stands the 6-foot-8, 380-pound Trent Brown, who played well after signing to a four-year, $66 million contract last offseason.
Las Vegas boasts some quality depth behind their starting group. Backups Andre James, Denzelle Good, David Sharpe, Jordan Devey, and Brandon Parker each logged 100-plus snaps in 2019, which will be valuable this year should any of the team’s starters go down. The Raiders also got what I consider excellent value when they grabbed Clemson interior lineman John Simpson in the fourth round. The mauling road-grader of a lineman should be the perfect fit in Jon Gruden’s offense.