Every season we see players come out and silence their doubters with big performances that make everyone stand up and take notice. Sometimes players struggle because of the situation they are in or because of injuries, and that leads to mounting criticism. Sometimes it’s a change in circumstance elsewhere on the team and people doubt that a player can still perform at their previous level. Whatever the reason, we have identified five players who can prove the doubters wrong in 2019.
In the aftermath of quarterback Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, it’s fair to wonder, at least briefly, how the change in quarterbacks will impact wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. It’s fair to wonder given the fact that Hilton’s lowest-graded season since 2013 was a 68.9 grade in 2017, a season that Luck missed through injury. That season he averaged 1.74 yards per route run, tied for 20th among wide receivers who saw at least 80 targets.
That being said, Hilton has proved over the years that he is a talented wide receiver. He has at least one reception of 60-plus yards in every season since arriving in the NFL out of Florida International, and he has averaged at least 15.9 yards per reception every season since 2014. While there will likely be a minor drop in production, don’t expect Hilton to fade into obscurity just because he has gone from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett.
A major injury, a small sample size of starts, and an absolute horror show of a preseason performance. Just three reasons why there are rumblings that Garoppolo may not live up to the 49ers' expectations and some even speculating that Nick Mullens can be better than him if given a chance this season. Look, that preseason outing was awful. His 17.1 overall grade reflected a horrendous sequence of throws that saw one pass picked off and another one that should have been. That being said, it’s a six-throw sample. And he followed it up with a 79.9 PFF grade the following week on a much bigger sample size.
Let’s instead focus on his five starts at the end of the 2017 season for the 49ers, when his 88.1 overall grade was the best in the NFL over the final five weeks of the season. Over that span, he ranked 11th in the NFL among quarterbacks with 100-plus dropbacks with a 73.7 adjusted completion percentage. Healthy again in 2019, don’t be shocked when he makes everyone forget about that preseason performance quickly.
Conklin delivered an impressive rookie season in 2016 that saw him perform as one of the best right tackles in the NFL, but he couldn’t quite reach those heights in 2017 and then saw his performance dip even further in an injury-hit 2018 season. Over the first three seasons of his career, we have seen his PFF grade drop from 80.6 to 71.8, to 66.8 and, with concerns over injuries and that drop in form, the Titans opted to decline Conklin’s fifth-year option, putting him in a contract year in 2019.
His preseason performance this year has given us hope that he can regain that rookie form though, producing a 91.4 PFF grade on 40 snaps this August. On an admittedly small sample size, he delivered both as a run-blocker and in pass protection, where he allowed just one hurry from 28 pass-blocking snaps. If he can get back to the level of play we saw from him as a rookie, when he allowed two sacks, two hits and 27 hurries on 603 pass-blocking snaps, he will put himself in position to do very well in free agency.
The Chargers' starting running back, Melvin Gordon, is still holding out for a new contract as we head into the season, but while it may seem like a big loss, it really isn’t when you consider what Ekeler has been able to do so far in his NFL career. The former undrafted free agent out of Western State ranked sixth among all NFL running backs with a PFF grade of 83.4 in 2018, thriving as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield.
He averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 117 carries last season, with 3.4 of those yards coming after contact. On top of that, he forced 16 missed tackles and saw 19 of his runs go for 10 or more yards. He was arguably even better in the passing game, forcing another 16 missed tackles on just 46 receptions and dropping just two passes. The big question is if he can handle a bigger role if Gordon continues to hold out, but everything we’ve seen from him so far suggests that the offense won’t take a dip with him in the lineup.
Winston hasn’t been a bad NFL quarterback in his four seasons out of Florida State; it’s just that with PFF grades of 70.2, 72.0, 73.7 and 69.9, he hasn’t come that close to living up to his billing as the number one overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. So what could help him have a career year in 2019 to change all of that? Enter new head coach Bruce Arians. Arians was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 when another former number one overall draft pick, Carson Palmer, had a career year. After producing PFF grades of 67.9 and 72.1 in his first two seasons in Arizona, Palmer led all quarterbacks with a 93.0 PFF grade in the 2015 regular season.
Winston’s grade breakdown is one of the most interesting of all quarterbacks in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2015, he leads all quarterbacks with the highest percentage of positively graded passes, but he also has the highest percentage of negatively graded passes. If he can keep those negatively graded passes down in 2019, he should thrive in a system that will push the ball downfield to an array of talented targets.