In this four-part series, NFL Network analysts Willie McGinest, Terrell Davis, Reggie Wayne and Gil Brandt examine youngsters who are poised for a breakout campaign. Today, Terrell Davis identifies running backs.
Who will break out and take the spotlight in 2019? I have a few ideas.
In this piece, I'm sticking with players who are playing under their rookie contracts in 2019, so guys like Tevin Coleman -- who signed a contract with the 49ers this offseason -- don't qualify. I also didn't consider players such as Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon and Alvin Kamara, who already had big years.
Taking all of this into consideration, here are three young running backs who are poised for a breakout campaign:
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
2019 projection: 1,150 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns.
How many times last season did Mike Zimmer say he wanted the offense to run the ball more? I lost count by November. This is why no one should be surprised that he brought in Gary Kubiak, who came out of retirement, to guide and help the unit under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Kubiak is the right guy to right this offense -- I know because I played for Kubiak as the running back for the Denver Broncos from 1995 to 2002. Kubiak brought out the best in me (and the entire Broncos' offense) during our run to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s. In fact, Kubiak's offenses ranked among the top five in total offense and top 10 in scoring offense in eight of his 11 seasons as Broncos offensive coordinator (1995-2005). Great news for Kirk Cousins, Cook and the entire offense.
Knowing Kubiak's history, Cook should get a lot of opportunities this season, far more than the 133 carries he had in 2018. The third-year pro has the natural ability to be a top-10 running back, and we've seen glimpses of his talent in the last two seasons. Unfortunately, injuries (ACL in 2017; hamstring in 2018) have prevented him from staying on the field for a full season. With a healthy offseason under his belt and more than a year having passed since his knee injury, Cook will be a major player in the Vikings' offense in 2019.
Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019 projection: 750 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Jones' rookie campaign was a disappointing one, as he was a healthy scratch for the first three games of last season and then was sidelined with a hamstring injury later on. Thankfully, it's a new season. Bucs running backs coach Todd McNair said during minicamp earlier this month that Jones looks more like the player the Bucs took in the second round than the one on the field last fall. This is an encouraging report heading into next month's training camp. He's talented, explosive and is going to get his opportunities to win the starting job over Peyton Barber. If he performs to his ability, Jones could lock up the RB1 gig before too long. Jones and the ground game should also benefit from Jameis Winston's development under first-year Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. And let's not forget what David Johnson did under Arians' direction as well.
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
2019 projection: 800 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Recovering from a knee injury, Chris Carson still came into minicamp in "better shape" than anyone. But the story out of Seattle was Penny, who has also dedicated himself to being a better pro -- with that comes health -- this offseason. Penny, who did not start last season, received most of the reps during OTAs and looked comfortable doing so.
The second-year back battled nagging injuries (finger, knee) in 2018 but is ready to prove why he was a first-round draft pick. With his new approach, expect Penny to make the most of his opportunities, giving him a real shot at taking over the starting job at some point in the first half of the season. As the RB1, Penny's athleticism and natural ability to be full display this fall in Brian Schottenheimer's run-first offense.