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Dalvin Cook, Sammy Watkins among top 10 transformed players

Around The NFL's Chris Wesseling is poring through the Week 1 game film, reinforcing assessments gleaned from preseason action, training camp reports and inside scoops to compile a list of 2018 afterthoughts already serving notice that this season will be drastically different.

On this list, you will NOT find names like Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Colts running back Marlon Mack, Giants tight end Evan Engram, Packers pass rusher Za'Darius Smith or Rams linebacker Cory Littleton. By the end of last season, all of those younger talents had shown enough promise to reasonably project breakouts on the horizon. So in the first Position Power Rankings of the season, we are concentrating, instead, on bounce-back candidates and unheralded role players thrust into the 2019 limelight.

Returning from an ACL injury that derailed his rookie campaign, Cook never found a sustained groove behind a beleaguered offensive line and shaky play-calling last season. He looked reborn this summer in godsend Gary Kubiak's outside-zone run scheme, exploding for an 85-yard touchdown run in limited preseason action. That momentum carried over to Week 1, as he sliced and diced Atlanta's defense for 120 yards and a pair of scores on 23 touches, showcasing physicality, agility and an extra gear that were too often missing in 2018. After the game, star wideout Adam Thielen was understandably biased in his praise: "That's the strength of our team. We have one of the best running backs in the league, if not the best."

Benefitting from the open prairie land provided by Andy Reid's creative scheming, Patrick Mahomes' golden arm and Tyreek Hill's game-breaking speed, Watkins is the envy of every No. 2 receiver in the league. After traveling the world, working out like a fiend and finding balance in his life this past offseason, though, Watkins was no sidekick in the season opener. He exhibited the quickness in traffic and acceleration in the open field that we haven't seen since he entered the NFL with the fanfare befitting a No. 4 overall draft pick. Far from disappearing when Hill went down with a first-quarter injury, Watkins served as Mahomes' chain-moving go-to target the rest of the way, finishing with a career-best 198 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions.

Now we know why the Bears pulled the cord on 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard at final cuts. Undrafted out of UTEP in '16, Robertson-Harris spent his rookie campaign on the reserve/non-football illness list before serving as a backup over the past two seasons. Finally afforded an opportunity to start alongside Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, he treated Packers offensive linemen like a bouncer restoring order in a roadhouse melee. "Robertson-Harris, holy cow," Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur raved to The MMQB's Albert Breer early this week. "Everybody knows about Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack, but this Robertson-Harris guy -- he's a bona fide game-wrecker. Did you see some of the stuff he did? 95?"

Absent confidence and any semblance of effectiveness as a rookie, Jones was trending toward bust territory this offseason. On the heels of glowing camp reports, however, he was barely recognizable in Week 1. Last year, he was slogging through tar pits. This year, he's breezing through corn fields. Last year, he was Cyril Figgis. This year, he's Sterling Archer. Twenty pounds heavier yet somehow noticeably faster, Jones showed sharp jump-cuts, explosion to and through the hole and power to break arm tackles on 13 tantalizing carries versus the 49ers. This coaching staff can't deny the obvious play-making difference between their 2018 second-round pick and holdover Peyton Barber. Keep riding that red-hot hand, Bruce!

Avid viewers of HBO's "Hard Knocks" were offered an early glimpse at Waller's featured role in Jon Gruden's offense. By the end of the third quarter in Monday night's season-opening victory over the Broncos, Gruden's reclamation project had already hauled in more passes (seven) than he managed all of last season (six). The great-grandson of New Orleans jazz legend Fats Waller, this converted wideout has the size (6-foot-6, 255 pounds), athleticism and opportunity to thrive as Jared Cook's worthy successor in Oakland.

Overshadowed by Chris Ballard's other second-round pick, Darius Leonard, Turay fell out of the rotation when the Colts caught fire down the stretch last year. With Jabaal Sheard opening the season on the shelf, Turay has now emerged as the designated third-down edge rusher, bringing the heat opposite former Chiefs All-Pro Justin Houston. After Houston jumped offsides to nullify Turay's strip-sack of Philip Rivers in the third quarter, Turay beat fill-in left tackle Trent Scott a second time later in the quarter for a legitimate sack, forcing yet another fumble. This performance comes on the heels of an impressive August, which should lead to regular playing time regardless of Sheard's health.

This is not Scott Linehan's establish-and-reestablish-the-run grinder. Thanks to new play-caller Kellen Moore's beautiful mind and a shoddy Giants secondary, Cowboys receivers were operating with as much open space as any offense outside of Kansas City. Moore used shifts or motion on 69.4 percent of his plays, up a whopping 25.8 percent from Linehan's usage rates in a stale 2018 attack. Amari Cooper may have salvaged Dak Prescott's offense last year, but Moore is adamant about incorporating Gallup, Randall Cobb and underrated tight end Blake Jarwin in a pass-oriented system this time around. Inconsistent as a rookie, Gallup showed big-play potential in the preseason and followed that up with a team-leading 158-yard performance in the blowout victory over New York. Not for nothing, he's also the perfectly named Cowboys deep threat.

Hyped as a rookie to watch last summer, Sutton teased with a prototype skill set that too often failed to result in a Case Keenum completion. By the end of the year, I questioned if the rangy receiver was more of a jump-ball specialist than all-around threat. He put those doubts to rest Monday night as the bright spot in an otherwise-dismal Denver attack, totaling 120 yards -- much of it after the catch on slants and crossers that dissected Oakland's defense. If the opener was any indication, Joe Flacco desperately needs Sutton to emerge as a reliable second fiddle to Emmanuel Sanders.

Bruised and battered while dragging his injured knee around, Burfict was a liability on a Cincinnati defense that set franchise records for futility in 2018. Considering the concussion concerns that also hung over his season, it was fair to wonder if the Raiders were signing for damaged goods. Installed as the leader and on-field brains of former Bengals coordinator Paul Guenther's defense, Burfict answered those questions with authority Monday night. The allegedly reformed bad boy set a physical tone as Oakland's swarming defense shut down Denver's ground attack, one of the NFL's strongest a year ago. Rejuvenated in the Black Hole, Burfict will stay hitting. But can he stay healthy?

What to make of Ross' fantasy-football cornucopia (158 yards, two touchdowns) in his return to the Pacific Northwest? A mainstay on the injured list as well as the rumor mill prior to Sunday's outburst, the former Washington Huskies star drew an astonishing 12 targets with A.J. Green out of the lineup. The result was a mixed bag, combining the usual drops with a pair of big plays and several chain-moving grabs. From a fantasy perspective, it's a promising sign that Ross featured so heavily in his head coach's debut. Once Green returns, though, the targets will dwindle. Even with his rare speed, he can't count on a wheel-route flea-flicker and a safety mistiming his jump for bankable big plays each week.

Other names to watch:D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars; Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo Bills; Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Sam Hubbard, DE, Cincinnati Bengals; Carlos Hyde, RB, Houston Texans; Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills; Shaq Thompson, LB, Carolina Panthers.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.


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