Breakout or fakeout: Which surprise NFL stars will keep rolling in 2019?
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theScore's football editors pick players with at least one year of NFL experience whose production took a major leap in 2018 and give their verdict on whether they can carry their momentum into the 2019 season.

QB - Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

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2018 stats: 5,097 passing yards; 50 TDs; 12 INTs; 113.8 passer rating

Mahomes kicked down the door to the NFL and decimated nearly every defense he faced in his first season as a starter. The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the ultra-exclusive 50-touchdown/5,000-yard club on his way to becoming the youngest MVP since Dan Marino in 1984. As QB company goes, it doesn't get much better.

This isn't the first time a young passer's taken the league by storm, of course. But Mahomes played with such poise and confidence that it's almost impossible to imagine a Robert Griffin III-like fall from grace, especially on Andy Reid's watch. While the no-look-pass wizard may never put up the mind-boggling numbers he did last season, he's the best bet to be the face of the NFL for the next decade. - Browne

Verdict: BREAKOUT

RB - Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

2018 stats: 1,098 rushing yards; 867 receiving yards; 13 total TDs

Under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, McCaffrey turned in a season that should have earned him Pro Bowl honors. The running back easily topped his rookie numbers and finished the year averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per reception. He set a Carolina Panthers franchise record for total scrimmage yards in a single season.

After all that, it's hard to envision the Panthers reining in his usage. McCaffrey recorded the most receptions by a running back in NFL history (107) and became only the third player in league history to produce more than 1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches in a season. With pass-catching backs in vogue and no competition for touches in the Carolina backfield, there's conceivably even more in store for McCaffrey. - McClymont

Verdict: BREAKOUT

WR - Tyler Lockett, Seahawks

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2018 stats: 965 receiving yards, 57 catches, 10 TDs

Lockett teased game-breaking potential during his first three seasons in the NFL, but he struggled with consistency. That weakness was nowhere to be seen in 2018. Even with Doug Baldwin playing through multiple injuries, defenses couldn't handle Lockett downfield. The receiver's average of 16.9 yards per catch was sixth-best in the league, and his chemistry with Russell Wilson was so good that the two combined for a perfect passer rating.

But Lockett's more than just a straight-line burner who excels on deep passes (on passes of over 20 yards, Lockett and Wilson combined to go an NFL-best 18-of-23 for 663 yards and seven touchdowns). Despite his 5-foot-10, 182-pound frame, Lockett was by far the league's best receiver at contested catches, signaling that his game has fully developed. With Baldwin turning 31 at the start of the 2019 season, Lockett could be Seattle's go-to guy. - Browne

Verdict: BREAKOUT

OL - Ryan Ramczyk, Saints

2018 stats: 15 starts, 3 penalties, 4 sacks allowed, 0 false starts

Ramczyk helped solidify one of the NFL's top offensive lines in 2018. The second-team All-Pro is hailed for his run-blocking abilities and, as part of a starting unit, helped limit Drew Brees to an NFL-low nine sacks through the first 10 weeks of the season. Though he suffered a shoulder injury later in the year, he remained one of the O-line's leaders in offensive snaps taken.

There's little reason to believe the 24-year-old's immaculate play was a mirage. The right tackle certainly gets a boost from his exceptional linemates, but he's proven worthy of the 31st pick in the 2017 draft. With only running back Mark Ingram a possible departee in the offseason, offensive continuity should support Ramczyk's growth. - McClymont

Verdict: BREAKOUT

TE - Eric Ebron, Colts

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2018 stats: 66 catches, 750 receiving yards, 13 receiving TDs

Ebron found new life in Indy and earned his first career Pro Bowl berth after a disappointing four-year stint with the Detroit Lions. The tight end became Andrew Luck's primary red-zone target, finally showing the talent that made him a first-round pick in 2014; only Antonio Brown caught more touchdowns. However, maintaining his star status is far from assured.

The veteran almost tripled his career high in touchdowns, yet stats like yards per reception and catch rate were in either in line with - or lagged behind - his best years in Detroit. Ebron's production was arguably driven by getting 24 more targets than he's ever received in one season. With Jack Doyle set to return after missing 10 games and the Colts sure to add at least one receiver, Ebron might not get the opportunities to replicate his success. - Browne

Verdict: FAKEOUT

DT - Chris Jones, Chiefs

2018 stats: 15.5 sacks, 19 TFL, 40 tackles, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles

It's difficult to ask Jones for a repeat performance after he finished third in the league in sacks with 15.5 and set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games. He even returned an interception for a touchdown.

Jones was the bright spot on a Chiefs defense that finished second-last in the league. The unit is in for major changes after Kansas City fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, hired Steve Spagnuolo, and plucked defensive line coach Brendan Daly from the Patriots. No defensive tackle besides Aaron Donald should be expected to consistently produce 10-plus sack seasons, and if Jones averages even half of what he accomplished in 2018, his coaches won't complain. - McClymont

Verdict: FAKEOUT

EDGE - Danielle Hunter, Vikings

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2018 stats: 14.5 sacks, 72 total tackles

If you were to create the perfect pass-rusher in a laboratory, the result would look a lot like Hunter. At 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, the defensive end was touted as an athletic freak when he joined the league as its youngest player in 2015. Three seasons later, his potential has become reality. He inked a five-year, $72-million extension that now looks like a bargain before racking up 14.5 sacks in 2018.

However, we've seen this from him before; he had 12.5 sacks in 2016 before dropping to seven in 2017. And, as happened in 2016, his QB hits lag behind other top sack-getters. While Hunter tied for third in sacks in 2016 and tied for fourth in 2018, he finished 25th and 29th, respectively, in QB hits. The Jamaican-born 24-year-old might've ascended into the elite tier of pass-rushers, but it'll take consecutive standout years to convince us the leap is permanent. - Browne

Verdict: FAKEOUT

LB - Jaylon Smith, Cowboys

2018 stats: 121 total tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

In his second season, Smith appeared to have fully recovered from the devastating 2016 knee injury that threatened his professional career. Smith played a full complement of games in 2018 and was the Dallas Cowboys' second-leading tackler. The speed and sideline-to-sideline range that made him such a coveted prospect seem to have returned.

There's no longer reason to question whether Smith is still hampered by his injury. The partnership at linebacker between him and Leighton Vander Esch created speculation Dallas could part with longtime Cowboy Sean Lee this offseason, as the pair of 23-year-olds now lead the defense. - McClymont

Verdict: BREAKOUT

CB - Xavien Howard, Dolphins

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2018 stats: 7 INTs, 12 passes defensed, 35 total tackles (12 games)

Howard wasn't a household name, but he forced his way into the upper echelon of corners despite lacking a strong supporting cast. Quarterbacks were routinely punished for challenging the 25-year-old, who tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions in 12 games ahead of a contract year in 2019. Howard likely won't play out his deal; however, it's not certain the Dolphins will be the team to pay him.

The former second-rounder wants to be the NFL's highest-paid cornerback (that's currently Josh Norman at $15 million annually). Working against him is a meniscus injury that robbed him of four games - his third knee-related ailment in three years. Moreover, interceptions aren't a reliable year-to-year stat (no leader has repeated the feat in the last decade), and Howard might have good-but-not-great cover skills (Pro Football Focus graded him as the 19th-best coverage corner). - Browne

Verdict: FAKEOUT

S - Eddie Jackson, Bears

2018 stats: 6 INTs, 15 passes defensed, 51 total tackles, 2 TDs

Jackson was named a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in just his second season, impressing with his consistency and ball-hawking. Evoking memories of his junior year at Alabama when he transitioned to safety and broke out with six interceptions, he recorded six picks again in 2018 with the Chicago Bears and returned two of those for touchdowns.

Chicago's secondary could look different in 2019; Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos are set to hit free agency and defensive mastermind Vic Fangio departed for Denver. No matter how much changes around him, though, Jackson's proven that he's adept at getting his hands on the ball. And with Khalil Mack's presence up front, Jackson and the rest of the Bears' defensive backs should continue to see plenty of playmaking opportunities. - McClymont

Verdict: BREAKOUT

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Breakout or fakeout: Which surprise NFL stars will keep rolling in 2019?
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