Running back: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
We don’t need Barry Sanders to tell us that Barkley has “potential for all-time greatness.” The NFL’s most physically gifted tailback forced 71 missed tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus. No other player at his position forced more than 60. On his best days, Barkley seems to combine Bo Jackson’s speed, Walter Payton’s determination, Marshawn Lynch‘s power and Marshall Faulk’s receiving ability. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft accounted for 33.5 percent of his team’s yards from scrimmage, second only to Ezekiel Elliott‘s figure of 34.2. In Barkley’s case, that number stands to rise with an improved offensive line and the absence of ultra-productive wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Speaking of whom …
Wide receiver: Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
After spending a half-decade concealing the blemishes of Eli Manning‘s decline phase, Beckham landed in Cleveland with the quarterback of his dreams. Whereas Manning’s diminishing deep ball has too often limited the Giants‘ aerial attack to a series of slants and screens over the past few years, Baker Mayfield broke the rookie record for touchdown passes by burning opposing secondaries with pinpoint downfield strikes. From the time Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling duties in Week 9 through the end of the regular season, Mayfield led all NFL quarterbacks in completion rate (55.9), yards per attempt (19.3) and touchdowns (7) on deep passes (20-plus yards), according to Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, Beckham’s average of 2.6 yards of separation from the nearest defender leads all receivers since 2016. In other words, this is a match made in heaven — perhaps even of 2007 Tom Brady-Randy Moss proportions. We have the most talented big-play receiver in football joining forces with an exceptionally accurate, strong-armed passer with the aggressiveness to carpet-bomb the furthest reaches of the field.
Edge rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
The formerly downtrodden Browns are suddenly awash in blue-chip talent. A textbook havoc-wreaking 4-3 defensive end, Garrett won his play-to-play battles to the tune of 66 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats, behind only Aaron Donald (73) and Dee Ford (69) last season. Now that blockers have to contend with Olivier Vernon on the other end and Sheldon Richardson alongside earth-mover Larry Ogunjobi in the middle, Garrett figures to face fewer double-teams. From Garrett’s rookie year to his second go-around, his sacks-per-game percentage increased from 63.6 to 84.4. A similar spike this season could see him making a serious run at Aaron Donald‘s sack crown.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ramsey was never right last season, bickering with the press in training camp and battling through ankle and knee injuries once the games began. Hall of Fame careers are not always ascendant. The year before, Ramsey was arguably the most complete corner in football, teaming with A.J. Bouye in a shutdown secondary. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 draft appeared to be on his way to a Patrick Peterson-like string of All-Pro selections and perennial contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Now that Jacksonville has added promising rookie Josh Allen to an already-formidable front four, Ramsey’s job should be easier than ever in a bounce-back season.
Safety: Jamal Adams, New York Jets
Already the leader of Gang Green’s defense entering his third season, Adams earned one of the starting safety spots on my 2018 eye-test All-Pro squad. Now that versatile Chargers star Derwin James is sidelined following foot surgery, Adams is the natural choice to force his way onto The AP’s official list. Rivaling James as a terror at the line of scrimmage, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 draft led all safeties with 22 combined sacks, hits and hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Considering new coordinator Gregg Williams’ history as a blitz-happy button-pusher, Adams will be wrecking more backfields in 2019.
Defensive back: Earl Thomas, Baltimore Ravens
Three years ago, the Ravens signed 31-year-old Eric Weddle to stabilize their secondary. The longtime Chargers stalwart went on to earn three consecutive Pro Bowl berths before Baltimore opted for an upgrade. Counting on lightning to strike twice with a savvy veteran safety, the Ravens brought in the best of his generation in 30-year-old Earl Thomas, who earned first-team All-Pro honors in three straight seasons from 2012 through ’14. On pace for career highs in interceptions and passes defensed, Thomas proved he had plenty of playmaking ability left in the tank before breaking his leg in Week 4. If Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale still has the top combination of scheme and talent in the league, as CBS analyst Tony Romo opined in Week 13 of last season, Thomas will be the centerpiece of the defense.
Interior defensive lineman: Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos
Sometimes the million-to-one shot pays off. This projection is a considerable reach, a flight of fancy based on Harris’ flashes of dominance, Vic Fangio’s defensive brilliance and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks‘ epiphany in Chicago. Hicks showed his own flashes of disruption with the Saints and Patriots before Fangio helped flip the switch that transformed him into one of the most productive interior defenders in the league. Albeit in part-time duty, Harris jumped off the film as a menace against the run as well as the pass in 2018. He picked up where he left off last season in the Broncos‘ “Monday Night Football” preseason Week 2 clash with 49ers, batting down a pass on each of the first two series. If Fangio turns him loose and doubles his snap count with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb bringing constant heat off the edge, this could be a fearsome trio at the heart of a rejuvenated Denver defense.
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