Draft picks, smart general managing and competent coaching are all commodities in high demand in the NFL, but perhaps the most important – and underrated – concept in football is the idea of natural progression among players.
If a number one draft pick never improves from his college level, then his value as a number one draft pick is essentially nil.
This is why teams like the Patriots and Seahawks are able to remain competitive year-in, year-out; they may not have the most raw talent in the league, but they do have the capacity to turn below average football players in to league veterans; third-round draft picks in to stars; sixth-round QBs in to the greatest player to ever play the game – you get the picture.
With well over half of the 2019 season in the books, now is the perfect time to take a look at which players in the NFL have made the leap in to superstardom, because doing so can often give you some unmistakeable clues as to which teams are well-managed, well-coached and have every chance to be competitive in their conference come the end of the season.
Note: rookies not considered as part of this list. The idea is to find players with a sample size of at least one season of prior performance to analyse.
5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers S
The outcry when the Pittsburgh Steelers traded an unprotected first round pick to the Miami Dolphins, on the same day they announced that QB Ben Roethlisberger would be placed on injured reserve with an elbow injury, was understandably pronounced.
At that point the Steelers were 0-2, had just been beat down 33-3 by the Patriots and were about to begin the Mason Rudolph era. A fair guess at that stage would’ve put the pick sent to Miami somewhere inside the top ten, and potentially even the top five.
Two months later, Pittsburgh have now won four straight and are a better than average chance – according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections – of making an incredibly unlikely playoff position.
Their turnaround, not to overstate it, is almost solely thanks to the Fitzpatrick trade. For three weeks in a row the sophomore safety has made game-changing, game-winning plays, and in just seven games in Pittsburgh he’s chalked up five interceptions, a forced fumble and two defensive touchdowns. In so doing he’s become the first Steelers defender to score in consecutive weeks since 1984.
In the course of just over one full season in the NFL, Fitzpatrick has gone from a better-than-average defensive player to legitimately All-Pro calibre, and maybe even given himself an outside chance at Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also dragged his team back to relevance, almost on his own.
He perfectly fits our definition of most improved players.
4. Dalvin Cook, Vikings WR
For some NFL players, talent is never the issue, it’s their ability to get out and stay out on the gridiron.
That’s certainly been the case for Dalvin Cook over his first three seasons of pro football. In his first game for the Vikings in 2017, Cook set the franchise’s rookie rushing record with 127 yards, and had over 400 yards of total offense in his first four starts in Minnesota.
Unfortunately, a torn ACL meant he missed the rest of that season, and his 2018 season was clearly one based around conservatism and recovery, as he rushed just 133 times in 11 games.
Now back to full health, Cook is officially now one of the biggest offensive threats in the league. In just 10 games he’s already notched up 991 yards on the ground, 424 in the air and ten total touchdowns on a Vikings team which has built itself around him.
His 1,415 yards from scrimmage through 10 weeks is the most for any other player in that stretch of time since 2014, and he has eight games of more than 100 yards offense.
Week 10’s demolition of the Cowboys (if not on the scoreboard at least on the box score) was the cherry on top of what’s already been a fantastic season.
3. D.J. Chark Jr., Jaguars WR
Much like the Steelers situation above, when Jacksonville’s starting QB Nick Foles went down with a shoulder injure mere seconds in to their opening game, most knowledgeable observers wrote the Jaguars’ season off.
In to the breach stepped new cult-hero Gardner Minshew III, but while we all love the Shoe and what he’s done for the Jags in their time of need – a 4-5 record is a remarkable achievement all things considered – it’s been D.J. Charks Jr. who’s the real hero.
Charks showed glimpses of promise as a rookie in 2018, but largely thanks to the fact the person throwing the ball to him was Blake Bortles, he struggled overall, finishing the season with just 14 catches for 174 yards in 11 total games.
This year, though, with some relative competence under centre, Charks has flourished, and his abundance of physical attributes has led to him becoming the true No. 1 wideout in Jacksonville.
So far this season he’s caught 43 passes for 692 yards and six touchdowns, and is clearly now entrenched within the NFL’s elite bracket of receivers.
With Nick Foles set to return – perhaps as early as this week – Charks is only about to get even better.
2. Nick Chubb, Browns RB
Nick Chubb was always going to be good, we all knew that, but did anyone pick that he’d be THIS good?
In 2018, as a second-round draft pick out of Georgia, Chubb started just nine games behind veterans Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, but flashed glimpses of his potential by ripping off over 1100 yards of total offense on less than 200 rushing attempts and only 20 receptions.
In just three carries against the Raiders in Week 4, Chubb ripped off two touchdowns of 63 and 41 yards respectively, becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to break 100 rushing yards on three or fewer carries.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that Chubb’s All-Pro potential was relatively evident, however the speed with which he’s reached that level has been phenomenal.
This season his game has gone to another level, with the sophomore RB racking up 919 rushing yards, 166 receiving yards and six touchdowns in just nine games.
His unparalleled speed makes him a threat to break off a run of any distance at any time, as he showed with an 88-yard explosion against the Ravens.
The Browns ended up winning that game against the Super Bowl contending-Baltimore, and Chubb picked up 165 rushing-yards and a career-high three touchdowns in the process.
From unproven rookie stuck behind two vets to perennial MVP candidate and likely All-Pro RB for the rest of his career; Chubb’s improvement has been stark.
1. Lamar Jackson, Ravens QB
To put it as simply as possible; there’s just no one else apart from Lamar that could possibly sit atop this list.
That’ll tend to be the case when you go from a QB who some doubted could even play the position, to one who is currently – and deservedly – the outright second-favourite to win the league’s MVP award, narrowly behind Russell Wilson.
Now, it’s not like Jackson has come from nowhere; he was excellent last season in taking over as the Ravens’ starter midway through the year, and leading the team to six victories in seven games and unlikely playoff berth.
That said, going in to the 2019 season the doubts still remained. They weren’t helped by an atrocious playoff performance to finish Baltimore’s season against the Chargers, in which at one point during the fourth quarter Jackson had just 25 total passing yards.
Through nine games of 2019, Jackson has 2,036 passing yards, 702 rushing yards, 21 total touchdowns and a glut of ridiculous highlights.
He hasn’t just put any concerns about his long term viability in the league to bed; he’s made them a camomile tea and washed the sheets.
In dismantling the Bengals in Week 10 to the tune of 15-17 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns, Jackson became just the second player in NFL history to put up two perfect passer ratings in one season, after he also dropped 324 yards and five touchdowns on the hapless Dolphins in Week 1.
Jackson’s ability to run the option and confuddle defenses with his legs was never an issue, but by adding what looks like a complete throwing game to his already-transcendent skills, he has become arguably the NFL’s most well-rounded QB.
He also become its MVP by the end of the season.