The NFL is a young man’s game. Sure, veteran stars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are still among the best in the game, but success in the NFL nowadays is about stockpiling young talent on relatively inexpensive rookie contracts.
The salary cap isn’t a concern in most fantasy football leagues. But fantasy GMs covet young talent just as much as their NFL counterparts. Each and every year the top first-year players are highly sought-after—even overvalued.
Of course, sometimes things don’t quite go as planned for highly drafted rookies, whether due to injuries or just a slow start in the pros. Others were late-round picks or undrafted free agents from whom little was expected over the first year or two of their careers.
However, whether a player’s drafted inside the top 20 or in the final round, just because things don’t fall into place right away doesn’t mean they never will. Some young players just need a little team to get their sea legs under them or for the opportunity to showcase their talents to come along.
That’s the case with these young individual defensive players, all of whom could be on the verge of a breakout season in 2019.
Marcus Davenport – DE, New Orleans Saints
“Cam is like the coach that you can’t really turn off,” Davenport said. “But you know I say that lovingly. Because he’s always there, he’s always trying to help me. He’s someone, when I have an idea and I can’t get to my (position) coach, I spitball it with him. He’ll pull me over to the side, give me some constructive criticism. Help me out, try to get my mind right for the next play and yeah really, he’s like a big brother helping me out.”
Injuries slowed Davenport’s adjustment to the NFL last year after starring at tiny UTSA. But there’s a reason the Saints dealt this year’s first-rounder in the 2018 draft to move up and draft the 6’6″, 266-pounder. The athleticism and upside are certainly there, and playing opposite Jordan will help prevent opponents from keying on him.
Sam Hubbard – DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Hubbard was actually something of a pleasant surprise for the Bengals as a rookie, tallying 39 tackles and six sacks in just over 500 snaps. Heading into Year 2 he told Adam Baum of the Cincinnati Enquirer he expects marked improvement from both himself and the league’s worst defense in 2018.
“I think we got a lot of good dudes that have great play-making ability,” he said. Right now, we’re just getting better every day and that’s the main thing. We’ve made a lot of progress from where we started to where we are now. The biggest key is sticking together when adversity hits this season because it’s NFL football and adversity hits every team.”
With veteran Michael Johnson gone, Hubbard will start opposite Carlos Dunlap for the Bengals in 2019. If he can keep up his per-snap production with that increased role this season, he could easily work his way into the DL2 conversation.
Jerome Baker – OLB, Miami Dolphins
A third-round pick of the Dolphins out of Ohio State, Baker made 11 starts as a rookie, amassing 77 tackles three sacks and a pick-six . As Alain Poupart wrote for the team’s website, Baker’s already made quite the impression on new head coach Brian Flores.
“Bake has done a good job,” Flores said. “He’s done a really good job. He’s learned the concepts and the defenses to a solid level. He’s done multiple positions. Obviously, he’s fast, he can tackle, he’s smart, he’s tough. He’s got some leadership qualities, and that’s starting to develop a little bit.”
Baker hasn’t just developed into a three-down player for the Dolphins—there’s a real chance that he’ll lead all Miami linebackers in snaps in 2019. If that’s the case, Baker could be set to pile up some gaudy tackle numbers—that Miami defense is going to be on the field a ton this season.