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Monday, February 18, 2019

10 NFL players who exceeded expectations in 2018

James Conner

The NFL has been somewhat predictable over the past several seasons, but that changed in a significant way in 2018. In fact, this season felt like a new era had been ushered in, which can be cemented if the Kansas City Chiefs defeat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for a trip to the Super Bowl.

Much of the change can be attributed to young talent, but it wasn’t entirely exclusive to rookies and sophomores. In fact, several aging veterans broke through their shells in 2018 and performed at unexpected levels, so the norm was essentially thrown out of the window.

Here’s a look at 10 (of many) players who exceeded expectations in 2018.

10. Jared Cook, TE, Oakland Raiders

Jared Cook has spent a decade in the NFL with four different teams and has consistently provided a quality veteran presence at the tight end position. His best year came in 2011 when he recorded 49 receptions for 759 yards and three touchdown for the Titans, which is a moderate level of success for the 31-year-old. But the former third-round pick saved his best for 2018 as Cook hauled in 68 receptions for 896 yards and six touchdowns, which all represented career highs. Cook’s 13.2 yards per reception were also the second-highest total in his career. Whether or not he’s able to replicate this level of success in 2019 remains to be seen, but at least for one year, Cook performed well beyond his expectations.

9. Chris Jones, DE, Kansas City Chiefs

Over his first two seasons as a pro, Chris Jones amassed just 8.5 sacks and appeared to be somewhat struggling with the NFL transition. Still, the 2016 second-round pick had potential written all over him and in 2018, he realized it. But Jones didn’t just hit his ceiling, he burst through it like the Kool-Aid man through a wall, recording 15.5 sacks, which was good for third in the league. He also earned a 90.8 Pro Football Focus grade, good for seventh-best among all interior defensive linemen. That’s quite the leap for a player who had been considered an under-performer through his first two seasons, so he justifiably finds himself on this list.

8. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos

While New York Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley dominated the 2018 NFL Draft hype and then erupted during the regular season, Phillip Lindsay very quietly put up strong and unexpected numbers of his own. After joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado, Lindsay soon found himself in the starting role and never looked back. In 15 games this season, Lindsay averaged 5.4 yards per carry en route to 1,037 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. However, he was far more valuable than that, tallying 1,471 all-purpose yards and 10 total touchdowns, earning himself a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team and the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

7. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Who in the world could have possibly foreseen the dominance of Darius Leonard? The 2018 second-round pick not only surprised by carving out a full-time defensive role for the Colts, but he essentially established himself as one of the most dominant linebackers in the NFL. His 163 tackles led the league, but he brought so much more to the table. Leonard added nine stuffs, seven sacks, eight passes defensed, two interceptions and more. He was named an AP First Team All-Pro and landed a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team. And while Leonard was initially snubbed for the Pro Bowl (and not happy about it), he was named an alternate and will hopefully find his way onto the roster before the game itself.

6. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Sean Lee has been the man in Dallas since 2010, so to see him go down hurt early in 2018 was somber for all true NFL fans. But with Lee down early, it ushered in the era of Leighton Vander Esch. And that very literally meant a new era — not just a bridge until Lee returned. Vander Esch, who was taken No. 19 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, played so well out of the gate that Lee was relegated to the bench. That alone tells you what Vander Esch meant to the Dallas defense, but it was really just the tip of the iceberg. In 16 games, the linebacker recorded 140 tackles (102 solo), three stuffs, seven passes defensed and two interceptions. As a result of his superb season, Vander Esch was named to the Pro Bowl, the PFWA All-Rookie Team and earned an AP Second Team All-Pro nod.

5. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

When George Kittle was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the 49ers weren’t exactly sure what they were getting. The potential was most certainly there, but mid-round picks are generally hit or miss. However, midway through his rookie season, it became clear that Kittle may be something special. And in 2018, any question about that evaporated as the sophomore tight end hauled in 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. It was a wildly unexpected, record-breaking season for the 25-year old, who has now established himself as an important cog in San Francisco’s offense for the foreseeable future.

4. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes didn’t surprise in 2018 in the sense that no one saw him coming, but rather, he surprised by dominating in a way that few could have imagined. After all, who could have foreseen a sophomore quarterback freshly added to the starting role passing for 5,097 yards 50 touchdowns while tossing just 12 interceptions. For good measure, Mahomes added 272 yards on the ground and two more touchdowns. It was just a record-breaking, franchise-altering season for the 23-year-old, who should walk away with league MVP honors and, quite possibly, even a Super Bowl title.

3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Washington Redskins

It’s a strange day to see a future Hall of Fame running back on a list like this, but no one saw Adrian Peterson returning to form quite like he did in 2018. And if you claim you did, your pants are on fire. For the first time since 2015, Peterson not only eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, but also stayed healthy enough to appear in all 16 games. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry, which was his second-highest total since 2015, and that can also be said about his eight combined touchdowns. It was a real turn-back-the-clock season for the 33-year-old Peterson, who had struggled in recent years with the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings. Now he’ll attempt to return in 2019 and replicate his recent success.

2. Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

When the Bengals selected Tyler Boyd with their second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, expectations were somewhat high. However, at least initially, Boyd failed to live up to his billing, amassing just 828 receiving yards and three touchdowns over his first two seasons. But that all changed in 2018 as Boyd finally came into his own, hauling in 76 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns, which were all career highs to go along with a catch rate of 70.4 percent, which was also a career-high. And while much of Boyd’s success came because A.J. Green missed seven games, he proved to the organization they rely on him as a quality No. 2 in 2019.

1. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

As the 2018 regular season approached, there was some legitimate uncertainty regarding Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and his willingness to play on the franchise tag. Ultimately, Bell proved he wasn’t bluffing and sat out the entire season, ushering in the era of 2017 third-round pick, James Conner. And what Conner did was nothing short of remarkable as he took over the starting role and gained 1,470 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 combined touchdowns, earning a trip to his first Pro Bowl. While the Steelers failed to qualify for the playoffs, it was through no fault of Conner, who stepped into an unforgiving and somewhat awkward role to establish himself as one of the better running backs in the league.



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