NFC West: Attempting to reveal the next wave of NFL stars

In a division stacked with big-name talents like Aaron Donald and Russel Wilson, many players fall under the radar.

With the 2019 season just about to kick off, expectations and excitement is at an all time high. As a new season comes rolling in, the changing NFL landscape presents the emergence of new stars throughout the league. As for the NFC West, it remains no different. Everyone knows players like Patrick Peterson, Todd Gurley, Bobby Wagner, Larry Fitzgerald and Russell Wilson… but who are the next waves of stars leading the divisions best into the future? Each team is represented as we do a deep dive into eight players who have a chance to rise into the ranks of the NFL’s elite. 

Los Angeles Rams

S John Johnson III

This one is cheating just a little. Rams safety John Johnson III is fresh off a dynamite sophomore season that included 119 tackles, 4 interceptions and 11 pass breakups. So clearly some may argue that Johnson has already asserted himself as one of the best young safeties in the NFL.

What I envision, however, is an even larger step for Johnson. After the 2019 season, Johnson could very well end up as being one of the top two or three safeties in the entire league. We are in an awkward time for safety play. For awhile now, the former Seattle Seahawks (current Baltimore Ravens) safety Earl Thomas and Minnesota Viking Harrison Smith have stood right near the top of most safety power rankings.

Father Time has begun to start a changing of the guard, bringing in a wealth of young stars such as Jamal Adams (New York Jets), Eddie Jackson (Chicago Bears) and Kevin Byard (Tennessee Titans) as the next in line for consideration as the league’s elite. John Johnson III is on a similar trajectory as the field.

With even further improvement, we could be talking about an ascension to become one of the premier players at his position before seasons end. 

RT Rob Havenstein

Los Angeles Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein has been a very solid, yet unheralded performer over the last two seasons. In fact, he has graded amongst the league’s best at his position during that time. Still there have not been much accolades for Havenstein’s level of play, still searching for his first Pro Bowl nod.

This could be the year. With new starters at right guard and center, Havenstein will be looked at (along with left tackle Andrew Whitworth) to provide necessary leadership as the new starters get acclimated to their roles on the offense. Expectations remain high for the Rams offense that averaged 32.9 points per game on their way to a Super Bowl appearance.

Havenstein is what you would expect from a Wisconsin offensive lineman. He is a phenomenal technician who understands the importance of leverage in the run game. Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how good Havenstein is in the pass game. He uses his outstanding size to present defensive lineman from winning the edge, or counter back inside. He uses his full surface area to form a wall.

As Whitworth nears the end of his standout career, Havenstein has the opportunity to assert himself as the Rams best offensive lineman moving forward. 

Arizona Cardinals 

S Budda Baker

Budda Baker has gone remarkably unnoticed in his two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, even despite making a pro bowl his rookie year as a special teams performer. He has quietly become one of the best nickel defenders in the NFL, along with some quality play in a traditional safety role.

The absence of notoriety is mostly due to his inability to make game changing plays, still waiting to record his first career interception. The presence as a run defender is clearly there. He is fresh off of a 102 Tackle season, that included 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Baker has a ton of “Honey Badger” qualities to his game. He is a player who always manages to be around the football. With the presence of D.J. Swearinger another safety spot, look for Baker to get more opportunities in deep coverage.

If he is able to be put in more advantageous situations, and is able to capitalize, look for Baker to make huge strides amongst the hierarchy of the NFL safety group. 

WR Christian Kirk

There is an infusion of wide receiver talent for the Arizona Cardinals to combine with an all time great in Larry Fitzgerald. A lot was expected of rookie draft selections Andy Isabella (UMass) and Hakeem Butler (Iowa State) after hearing their names called during the 2019 NFL Draft.

Unfortunately, Hakeem Butler has been lost for the 2019 season with a broken hand, though it looks more like the classic IR stash. That puts even more pressure on second year pro Christian Kirk to carry the torch for the wide receiver position that is soon going to have to transition to life after Fitzgerald. After being selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Christian Kirk flashed some nice ability from the slot as a rookie.

The Cardinals are going to need Kirk to flourish as the safety blanket as rookie quarterback Kyler Murray takes over as the starting quarterback. Expect Kirk’s rookie year numbers (43 receptions, 590 yards and 3 touchdowns) to skyrocket in his second season as potentially the number one target. 

Seattle Seahawks

RB Chris Carson 

Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson came out of nowhere in 2018, quickly becoming one of the most productive runners in the NFL after recording the first 1,000 yard season of his career.

A talented running back, durability has been the main concern of Carson’s development heading back to his Oklahoma State days. He took advantage of every opportunity in 2018, while keeping 2018 NFL Draft first round pick Rashaad Penny more of a spectator than producer in year one. There is no reason to believe that Carson doesn’t profile as the lead ball carrier again barring injury.

At 5’11” and 222 pounds, Carson is a great blend of size and speed that can create headaches for any opposing defenses. With some additional volume and added responsibility as a pass receiver, Carson could be set to take the next step in his development. If healthy, a 1,500+ season should not be out of the question in the Seahawks run heavy offensive attack. 

WR Tyler Lockett

Let’s just start with this… When Russell Wilson threw the ball in the direction of wide receiver Tyler Lockett, they recorded a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Let that sink in for a second.

On 70 targets, Lockett recorded 57 receptions for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those types of numbers is just ludicrous. They literally could not have done any better when throwing the ball in Lockett’s general direction. That should lead to a huge emphasis for a much higher volume of targets for Lockett this season. If the trends continue, we could be looking at one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

Lockett is a weapon who makes things happen with the ball in his hands. He is due for an official breakout season to fulfill his ascension. Additionally, Lockett also sits as one of the best punt returners in the game on top of his talent at the wide receiver position.

Give Lockett the football and watch the man prosper. 

San Francisco 49ers

LB Fred Warner 

The San Francisco 49ers were very active in free agency this off-season, signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander to a 4 year, $54 million deal. Alexander represents a nice piece inside to partner with second year pro Fred Warner.

Originally coming out of BYU playing more of an overhang position, Warner flashed some big time potential transitioning inside in the 49ers 3-4 defensive alignment. A gifted athlete, Warner was surprising solid in run support, recording 124 tackles during his rookie season.

With the addition of Kwon Alexander, Warner should be afforded the ability to fly somewhat under the radar. With the attention on Alexander, we can hope that this means more opportunities for Warner to let loose on the weak side. With this opportunity Warner should have more chances to create turnovers and tackles for loss.

By seasons end, it might be hard to determine who is the best off ball linebacker on the San Francisco 49ers. Look for Fred Warner to assert himself amongst the best across the NFL landscape. 

WR Dante Pettis 

When Dante Pettis was on the field in 2018, it was easy to see the reasons so many NFL evaluators were so excited about the former Washington Huskies prospects at the next level. His route running and ability to attack leverage is top notch.

His ability to get in and out of breaks creates instant separation that Jimmy Garoppolo should be able to take advantage of early and often in 2019. The 49ers are starving for a true number one receiver, and you should expect Pettis to fill that void this season.

With whispers of bad drops during training camp, some have cooled on the expectations for Pettis. I’m not worried about those types of issues until the lights really come on during live action.

Expect a potential 1,000 yard season to create a nice tandem with All Pro tight end George Kittle. If this breakout does happen, the 49ers could be a very formidable offense that could cause defenses headaches with their infusion of talent and scheme.