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The Brandt Report

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tom Brady among locks to play better in 2020

Every prediction comes with some amount of uncertainty -- but sometimes, you just know a certain individual is on the verge of playing better than he did the year before.

Whether they're about to reverse a slump or thrive in a bigger role, the following seven guys are guaranteed to play better in 2020 than they did in 2019. Some are getting healthy superstar teammates back, some are entering sunnier situations, some should get a boost from new colleagues -- but all should level up by the end of the season. (Note that I stayed away from players who lost huge chunks of time due to injury, because anyone in that situation is pretty much inherently going to play better just by being able to play at all.)

Without further ado, here are the seven players locked in on a 2020 upswing:

JuJu Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR

2019 stats: 12 games, 42 catches, 552 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs, 13.1 yards per catch.

Smith-Schuster might never hit the same heights as the guy he replaced as Pittsburgh's No. 1 receiver in 2019. Then again, Antonio Brown set the bar extremely high in his prime, so it's probably not fair to hold that against Smith-Schuster. And there are still reasons to believe Smith-Schuster will look more like the player who caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns playing opposite Brown in 2018 than the player who finished last season with the meager numbers you see above. First and foremost is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return under center. That might seem obvious, but for a true understanding of just how dramatically Pittsburgh missed the quarterback last season, consider that the Steelers recorded 1,960 fewer passing yards in 2019 with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges trying to fill Big Ben's shoes. Secondly, the rest of the supporting cast around Smith-Schuster should be better, with fellow receiver Diontae Johnson set to make strides in his second pro season and Eric Ebron coming aboard at tight end. Finally, there's the incentive for Smith-Schuster of playing the final season of his rookie contract; he'll have every reason to put himself in the best possible position with the potential to enter free agency at the young age of 24.

Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns · QB

2019 stats: 16 games, 59.4 completion percentage, 3,827 yards, 22:21 TD-to-INT ratio, 78.8 passer rating.

Mayfield's failure to build upon his impressive 2018 rookie season helped cost coach Freddie Kitchens his job after just one year. Kitchens' replacement, former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, is expected to install the kind of balanced offense that helped QB Kirk Cousins thrive in Minnesota; with the Vikes being one of three teams in the NFL who ran more than they passed last season, Cousins was able to make magic on play-action (1,264 yards, 14:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 129.1 passer rating, per Next Gen Stats). Mayfield will have plenty of skill-position players to work with. Nick Chubb ranked second in the NFL in rushing last season. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are proven 1,000-yard veteran receivers. The tight end spot should be much more formidable this fall, with free-agent signee Austin Hooper joining David Njoku, whose fifth-year option was picked up by the Browns, indicating Cleveland has faith in the former first-round pick. And, of course, Mayfield should enjoy much better protection on the perimeter of the offensive line, with free-agent signee Jack Conklin and first-round pick Jedrick Wills sliding into the tackle spots. Mayfield has done himself no favors in terms of how he's handled media scrutiny, but he should be one of the league's most improved quarterbacks in 2020. If he isn't, expect the Browns to decline his fifth-year option and resume the search for a franchise passer that dates back to Bernie Kosar's 1980s heyday.

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

2019 stats: 16 games, 60.8 completion percentage, 4,057 yards, 24:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 88.0 passer rating.

The question of whether Brady or Bill Belichick deserves more credit for the Patriots' unprecedented stretch of success will kick into high gear when they take the field with different teams this season. But I'm more interested in seeing whether Brady's mediocre 2019 performance stemmed more from an age-related drop-off, a lack of top-tier talent at receiver and tight end or an offensive approach by coordinator Josh McDaniels that didn't feature the kind of complementary running game that helped ease the team's march to a sixth Super Bowl title two seasons ago. Brady won't have to worry about skill-position talent in Tampa, with Rob Gronkowski emerging from retirement to join prolific wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. The quarterback is obviously entering uncharted waters as he prepares to play a season at age 43. According to CBS Boston, only five quarterbacks have ever attempted a pass in an NFL game at 43 or older -- including Steve DeBerg, whom I drafted for Dallas in 1977 -- and the results have not been pretty. We all know who will ultimately win the battle between Tom and time. But I get the feeling Brady will put up a much better showing in 2020 than he did last year.

Sony Michel
New England Patriots · RB

2019 stats: 16 games, 247 carries, 912 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs, 12 catches, 94 yards.

After rushing for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games as a rookie in 2018, Michel was expected to become the kind of bell-cow back the Patriots hadn't fielded since Corey Dillon in the mid-2000s. But Michel failed to hit the 100-yard mark in a single game in 2019, finishing with a paltry average of 3.7 yards per carry while contributing little in the passing attack. Presuming Jarrett Stidham will replace Brady as the Patriots' QB, it would behoove New England to rediscover the ground attack to give the second-year pro time to get his proverbial sea legs. That will mean getting Michel back on track behind an offensive line returning four starters and center David Andrews, who missed 2019 with medical issues. It will be interesting to see if Damien Harris can work his way onto the field in a supporting role after the former Alabama back essentially redshirted last season.

Miles Sanders
Philadelphia Eagles · RB

2019 stats: 16 games, 179 carries, 818 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs, 50 catches, 509 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs.

Sanders entered last season as part of a running back committee intended to also feature Jordan Howard and Darren Sproles. Howard (who left via free agency) and Sproles (who retired) are now gone, paving the way for Sanders to become the first every-down back of Doug Pederson's coaching tenure. Sanders averaged 74 rushing yards over Philly's final six games of 2019, even with the aerial attack becoming a virtual nonfactor with injuries leveling the receiver corps. He also proved himself a threat in the passing game, logging 50 catches for 509 yards and three scores in Year 1. It will be interesting to see how the career of Sanders, a second-rounder, compares to that of former No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley, whom Sanders replaced as the starter at Penn State in 2018.

Khalil Mack
Chicago Bears · OLB

2019 stats: 16 games, 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 4 passes defensed.

Who really won the 2018 trade that sent Mack from the Raiders to Chicago, where he inked a record-setting $141 million contract? Mack was unbelievable in his first game with the Bears, recording a sack, a fumble recovery and a 27-yard touchdown return on an interception. Mack went on to post 12.5 sacks while Chicago won the NFC North behind the third-ranked defense in the NFL, apparently getting the immediate edge over the Raiders, who mounted one of the league's worst pass-rushes in '18. Now, though, it's fair to wonder whether the Raiders will be better off in the long run, thanks to the draft capital accumulated and cap space saved, with Mack coming off a relatively mediocre 2019 (8.5 sacks, including just 4.0 over his final 12 games of the year).

All that said, I think Mack will make good on his personal vow to play much better in 2020. He'll have more familiarity with Chuck Pagano's scheme in Year 2 under the defensive coordinator, while free-agent addition Robert Quinn will provide an upgrade over Leonard Floyd, who was released this year after failing to live up to his first-round promise. Hopefully, Mack can lead a roster-wide renaissance in what is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace.

Chris Harris
Los Angeles Chargers · CB

2019 stats: 16 games, 6 passes defensed, 1 INT, 55 tackles.

Harris and Von Miller entered 2019 as two of the NFL's top defensive players -- but both Broncos players endured off seasons in new head coach Vic Fangio's scheme. Harris had been most effective serving primarily in the slot, but he spent most of his time outside last season, a switch that ended up making nobody happy. It also couldn't have helped that he likely knew he was playing his final season in Denver. The Chargers have plans to move Harris back inside while also deploying him in other ways, with an expansive coverage package under excellent coordinator Gus Bradley that includes expanded man concepts. And by staying in the AFC West, Harris will get at least two annual chances to show the team where he began his career as an undrafted free agent that it made a big mistake by not keeping him.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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