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Meet the NFL's class of 2018: Players who graduated to stardom


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Meet the NFL's class of 2018: Players who graduated to stardom

Stardom is a tricky thing in the NFL. Careers are short. Injury lurks perpetually one play away. The players' faces are largely hidden by their protective equipment.

Yet every season, the league manages to produce a new batch of stars -- players who began the year hopeful for success and stardom and whose season launched them into stardom.

It is those players we honor with the traditional playing of "Pomp and Circumstance" and our annual list of those who graduated to stardom in 2018.



In his first season as a starter, Patrick Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. Jamie Squire/Getty Images



Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Who he was in August: A second-year quarterback who'd played just one game as a rookie while sitting behind a very productive Alex Smith and watching a high-scoring Chiefs offense from the sideline. Mahomes became the starter a year ago, when the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington on the belief that Mahomes was ready to take over and take the offense even higher.

The numbers: Incomprehensible. At age 23, Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards and became only the third player in NFL history to throw 50 or more touchdown passes in a season. He led the league in touchdown passes (obviously), QBR and air yards per attempt and the Chiefs came within one agonizing overtime loss of reaching the Super Bowl.

Who he is now: The MVP of the Pro Bowl, but probably also of the entire league. Defying any and all predictions of normal, young-QB growing pains, Mahomes was utterly dazzling from start to finish and took almost no time to become one of the biggest stars in the entire league, regardless of age.


Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams

Who he was in August: A third-year quarterback and 2016 No. 1 overall pick who'd flopped as a rookie but shown real promise in his second year following the Rams' change of coaches. Goff was seen by many as a product of the system: a quarterback whose head coach was calling plays for him at the line and whose running back was the team's best offensive player.

The numbers: Goff surpassed his 2017 passing-yards total of 3,804 with 4,688 in 2018. He threw 32 touchdown passes, giving him a total of 60 over the past two seasons, against just 12 interceptions. His completion percentage rose from 54.6 in his rookie year to 62.1 last season to 64.9 this season.

Who he is now: One of two starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl this Sunday in Atlanta. The Rams might still want to be a run-first team around Todd Gurley (and, somehow, C.J. Anderson), but Gurley's injury issues this season mean there were times Goff had to assert himself and take charge. Nowhere more importantly than New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game, Goff proved he is a quarterback who can lead a team.


Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

Who he was in August: The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, sure, but also a rookie backup quarterback for a team that had gone 1-31 over the previous two seasons and insisted it had no desire to play him as a rookie.

The numbers: After taking over for an injured Tyrod Taylor in Week 3 and leading the Browns to their first victory since 2016, Mayfield passed for 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while the Browns finished the season 7-8-1. The 27 touchdown passes are a single-season record for a rookie.

Who he is now: Part of a two-man race with Saquon Barkley for Offensive Rookie of the Year and, perhaps more important, the face of hope for Cleveland football fans who haven't had much of that in a very long time.


Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Who he was in August: The No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft. A superstar all-around talent who carried the hopes of a Giants fan base that has waited years for a reliable running game. Barkley came out of Penn State with as much hype as any player in the draft. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman fell in love right away and never veered from his plan to take Barkley at No. 2.

The numbers: Barkley led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage, including 1,307 rushing yards and 91 catches for another 721 receiving yards. He scored 15 total touchdowns and, particularly with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in and out of the lineup due to injury, showed he is indeed the kind of player who can carry a team if need be.

Who he is now: There are defenders who played the Giants this season who came away believing Barkley is already the best running back in the league. Finishing ahead of guys like Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in scrimmage yards backs that up. On and off the field, Barkley proved to be everything the Giants hoped he would be and more.





Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Who he was in August: A second-year running back who'd rushed for just 435 yards as a rookie while making his mark with 80 catches and 651 receiving yards. Carolina insisted he could be an every-down back, but some were skeptical.

The numbers: McCaffrey was the Panthers' offense. He caught 107 passes for 867 yards and six touchdowns, and just in case anyone was still skeptical, rushed for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns.

Who he is now: A player around whom the Panthers can build and design their offense. With quarterback Cam Newton struggling with shoulder issues, it might be even more important for the 2017 first-round pick to continue his dual-threat dominance in 2019.


JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Who he was in August: The No. 2 receiver on the Steelers, behind the great Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster was coming off a promising rookie season in which he caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, but was still only 21 years old.

The numbers: Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 111 catches and 1,426 receiving yards, catching another seven touchdowns and thriving in an offense that still allowed Brown to catch 104 passes.

Who he is now: Maybe the Steelers' No. 1 receiver, if Brown gets what appears to be his wish and is traded out of Pittsburgh this offseason. A lot of great receiver talent has made its way through Pittsburgh's developmental pipeline in recent years, and Smith-Schuster looks like the latest star.


George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

Who he was in August: A second-year tight end who'd played a minimal role in the San Francisco offense in 2017 and didn't look like he'd be a big factor this season either, with guys such as Marquise Goodwin and Jerick McKinnon in line to be top options for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

The numbers: Kittle caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns, becoming a favored target for 49ers backup quarterbacks after Garoppolo's season-ending knee injury in Week 3.

Who he is now: One of the top tight ends in the league and surely a big part of the plans for 2019. The Niners fell apart due to injuries, with McKinnon tearing his ACL in camp and Goodwin struggling with health all season. Even if everyone is back healthy, Kittle has stamped himself as a go-to option.


Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Who he was in August: The second-round draft pick of a team whose fan base was grumbling a bit because it hadn't addressed linebacker in the first round with Roquan Smith. Leonard was a bit of an unknown coming from South Carolina State.

The numbers: A league-leading 163 tackles (and 27 more in the postseason), seven sacks and two interceptions. Leonard helped jump-start a Colts defense from which little was expected this season. The Colts went 10-6 and reached the second round of the playoffs.

Who he is now: A first-team All-Pro selection (along with guard Quenton Nelson, whom the Colts did pick in the first round) and the centerpiece of a Colts defense from which much will be expected in 2019.


Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings

Who he was in August: A fourth-year Vikings defensive end who'd had a 12.5-sack season in 2016 but didn't follow it up with another dazzler in 2017. Hunter signed a contract extension last offseason with the Vikings, who bet on his potential at age 23.

The numbers: Hunter finished 2018 with 14.5 sacks, making the $14.4 million per year the Vikings are paying him look like a steal.

Who he is now: One of the league's premier pass-rushers at age 24 and one of the cornerstones of a Vikings defense that will hope to lead the team's recovery from its disappointing 2018.


Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

Who he was in August: The top overall pick in the 2017 draft, Garrett missed five games because of injury as a rookie and finished that season with seven sacks. He looked great when he played, but the team and its fans wanted more.

The numbers: Garrett had 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018, helping lead the Browns' turnaround from the defensive side of the ball. Perhaps more important, he played in all 16 games.

Who he is now: Having the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years should help you find building blocks, and what Mayfield is on offense, Garrett has a chance to be on defense as the Browns believe a major turnaround awaits them in 2019.


Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Who he was in August: A third-year pro who'd flashed potential in 2017 in his first season as a starting Dolphins cornerback.

The numbers: Howard played in just 12 games but was a bright spot in a disappointing Dolphins season. He tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.

Who he is now: Along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, part of a young core in the Miami secondary for incoming coach Brian Flores. The Dolphins have some issues to address up front on defense, but there's young hope on the back end.


Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

Who he was in August: The 17th overall pick in the draft, generally regarded as a player who should have gone much earlier and was a bit of a lucky break for the Chargers.

The numbers: 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions as the do-everything safety the Chargers believed he could be when they sent in the pick.

Who he is now: One of the young stars of the league and a building-block player for a Chargers team that is determined to keep its Super Bowl window open while it still has Philip Rivers at quarterback.


These are players who haven't quite graduated to stardom yet, but might need only a few more credits to get there.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: For a good chunk of the season, the story in Pittsburgh was about Conner playing well enough to make the Steelers forget about Le'Veon Bell. A fully healthy season and more of the same could vault him onto the big list next year.

Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' patience with their former second-round pick through his injury recovery paid off, as Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch gave the Cowboys one of the best LB corps in the league.

Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts: It's tough for a guard to crack a "stardom" list, but the No. 6 overall pick in the draft rode some viral videos of nasty blocking to some level of fame in his All-Pro rookie season. He also tied for the best pass block win rate among guards (88 percent).

Michael Dickson, P, Seattle Seahawks: Ditto what we said for Nelson, since Dickson is a punter, but watch a Seahawks game and you see the difference he makes. If punters can ever be stars, Dickson will be first in line.

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears: The jury might still be out among Bears fans as to whether Trubisky is the guy to take them all the way, but he flashed enough in his first season with Matt Nagy to foster hope.

Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs' defensive tackle came up with 15.5 sacks in 2018, which used to be a whopper of a number for a defensive tackle until Aaron Donald came along.


Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks: As the Seahawks transition to a new era on defense, Clark is one of the anchors on the defensive line and certainly a star of the free-agent market this offseason.

Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City Chiefs: Another pass-rusher due to get paid, Ford might be known for lining up offside in the AFC title game but posted a well-timed 13-sack season as he heads into free agency.

Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets: The Jets' second-year safety made his first Pro Bowl in a season that saw him make 115 tackles and emerge as the young leader Todd Bowles believed he would quickly become.

Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts: The former first-rounder was a flop in Detroit, but his first season in Indy resulted in 13 touchdown catches. Another like that and he'll live up to his draft position.

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