Super Bowl LIV on Sunday will showcase some of the NFL’s elite players for the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs — and many of those players have shown great improvements throughout their careers.
In an effort to highlight those NFL players who have made big jumps from one season to the next, we asked our NFL Nation reporters to identify the player on each team who leveled up during the 2019 season.
That player could be someone who didn’t play much and became a solid starter, or a good player who broke through to become great.
Jordan Phillips, defensive tackle. The free agent’s stats speak for themselves — his 9.5 sacks in 2019 not only represent a five-year high but also make up 63% off his career total. While Buffalo decides whether to let the 6-foot-6, 340-pound Phillips walk this offseason, it’s clear he showcased solid production in a contract year with a first-round rookie in Ed Oliver competing at his position. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
DeVante Parker, wide receiver. We finally got the DeVante Parker breakout season in Year 5. Parker was a more confident, explosive and dominant receiver as he finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,202) one year after the worst season of his career in 2018 (309 receiving yards). He also played 16 games for the first time in his career. A change in diet, a commitment to taking better care of his body, a coaching staff change and the arrival of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick all played a significant influence for Parker, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension as a reward for his play. “I was perceived as a bust. Some of [the media] said it, too,” Parker said in December. “Things change now.” — Cameron Wolfe
J.C. Jackson, cornerback. The second-year player was second on the Patriots with five interceptions and 10 passes defended. After filling in admirably for injured starter Jason McCourty during the homestretch of the season, he has positioned himself well to be a permanent starter in 2020. Jackson made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and played well in his first season, but his play was a decisive step up in 2019. — Mike Reiss
Folorunso Fatukasi, defensive tackle. The 2018 sixth-round pick, who barely got on the field as a rookie, emerged as a key contributor in the Jets’ defensive line rotation. He made a smooth transition to coordinator Gregg Williams’ one-gap scheme, finishing with 12 tackles for loss — tied for third on the team. His productive season was solid, considering he played 35% of the defensive snaps. In some ways, he outperformed linemate Quinnen Williams, the third overall pick in 2019. — Rich Cimini
Lamar Jackson, quarterback. Did any player make a bigger leap from the previous season? Jackson went from being the 32nd-rated passer to the favorite for NFL Most Valuable Player. As a rookie in 2018, Jackson was a promising quarterback who beat teams primarily with his legs. He improved significantly in every facet of his game in 2019, leading the league with 36 touchdown passes and breaking Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for quarterbacks. — Jamison Hensley
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Auden Tate, wide receiver. Tate played in seven games in 2018, and he had just four catches that season. In 2019, he blossomed under coach Zac Taylor. The 2018 seventh-round draft pick had 40 catches for 575 yards and a touchdown and showed how valuable he can be moving forward. — Ben Baby
Nick Chubb, running back. The 2018 second-round pick was a good player as a rookie, rushing for 996 yards, but he became a Pro Bowler in his second season. Chubb finished second in the league in rushing with 1,494 yards while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Jim Brown is the only Browns running back to have rushed for more yards in a season. — Jake Trotter
Bud Dupree, outside linebacker. Playing out his fifth-year option, Dupree exceeded expectations. Starting every game, he more than doubled his sack total from 2018 and set a career high with 11.5. The 2015 first-round pick was inconsistent during his first four seasons, but with his standout season opposite of Pro Bowler T.J. Watt, Dupree is a likely franchise-tag candidate. Both coach Mike Tomlin and owner Art Rooney II say retaining Dupree is a top priority. Watt agreed, saying: “If anyone asks me that — it’s way above my pay grade — but if anybody asks me that, I’ll 100% advocate for Bud Dupree.” — Brooke Pryor
D.J. Reader, nose tackle. The 2016 fifth-round pick has been a solid player for the Texans, but he took a big step forward during his 15 games played in 2019. Reader finished the season ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 6 interior defender, and his excellent play — especially when teammate J.J. Watt was on injured reserve — drove up his price in free agency. If the Texans are not ready to commit to a long-term deal with Reader, they could use the franchise tag on him. — Sarah Barshop
Khari Willis, safety. Willis, whom the Colts moved up to select in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Michigan State, was supposed to be a backup behind starters Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker. Willis instead started nine of the 14 games he played in and eventually replaced Geathers in the starting lineup. Willis’ 620 snaps tied for the eighth most on the Colts’ defense. With Geathers headed for free agency, Willis is in line to become the permanent starter at safety along with Hooker. — Mike Wells
DJ Chark, Jr., wide receiver. He caught 14 passes for 174 yards as a rookie in 2018 and admitted in the offseason that he didn’t realize how hard he needed to work — and that he wasn’t even close to that level. With that understanding, Chark was the Jaguars’ most improved player in 2019: 73 catches for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s one of five players in Jaguars history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in a season. — Michael DiRocco
Logan Ryan, cornerback. Ryan once again was a force rushing the passer in sub packages as shown by his 4.5 sacks. However, he was around the football a lot more this season. He posted four interceptions in 2019 after going without an interception in two season with the Titans (2017-18). Ryan’s 18 pass breakups were more than double what he had last season. — Turron Davenport
Justin Simmons, safety. Defensive end Shelby Harris, poised to be an unrestricted free agent, was certainly a candidate here given his significant jump in his contract year, but Simmons went from being one of the Broncos’ best defenders in 2018 to playing at an All-Pro level in 2019. Simmons was a perfect fit both in coverage and along the line of scrimmage in coach Vic Fangio’s system. He played every snap on defense for the second consecutive season with career highs in passes defensed (15) as well as interceptions (four), and he was second on the team in tackles. Simmons is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but Broncos general manager John Elway has already told Simmons the team wants to re-sign him. The Broncos will have to make Simmons one of the league’s highest-paid safeties to keep him and are expected to do just that, unless there is some drastic change of heart in the coming weeks. — Jeff Legwold
Tanoh Kpassagnon, defensive end. The 2017 second-round pick was miscast and lost during his first two seasons with the Chiefs as an outside linebacker. But he benefited greatly by a move to defensive end in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 base system. Kpassagnon had four sacks during the regular season and two in the AFC Champonship Game. — Adam Teicher
Austin Ekeler, running back. The cat-quick running back benefited from Melvin Gordon‘s holdout at the start of the 2019 regular season, establishing himself as an impact player for the Chargers. Ekeler, who had 563 offensive snaps, finished with a career-high 1,550 scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns. — Eric D. Williams
Darren Waller, tight end. The physical tools were always there for the converted receiver. His personal demons in the form of substance abuse were what always got in his way. Until 2019. Waller has remained clean since Sept. 14, 2017, and he exploded on the scene in 2019 with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns (he had 18 catches for 178 yards and two TDs combined in his previous three seasons). Also, Waller’s 570 yards after the catch were the most among all tight ends in 2019. — Paul Gutierrez
Michael Gallup, wide receiver. He showed flashes as a rookie in 2018, but he made major leaps in his second season, finishing with 1,107 yards and six touchdowns on 66 catches. He and Amari Cooper became the first Cowboys receivers to post 1,000-yard seasons in the same season since Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn did it in 2006. Gallup made some Dez Bryant-like plays in 2019 but still needs to work on route running and making contested catches. With Gallup and Cooper, the Cowboys could have one of the NFL’s best receiver tandems to grow with quarterback Dak Prescott for years ago come. — Todd Archer
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Markus Golden, outside linebacker. He has done it before. The 2015 second-round pick had double-digit sacks in 2016 with the Arizona Cardinals. But the previous two seasons were a struggle for Golden because of a knee injury; he had 2.5 sacks combined during that span. Golden leveled up in 2019, though, getting back to where he had been prior to the injury. Golden had 10.0 sacks and was the Giants’ best defensive player this season. — Jordan Raanan
Dallas Goedert, tight end. The 2018 second-round pick nearly doubled his production from his rookie season, finishing with 58 catches for 607 yards to go with five touchdowns, and he did so while sharing the field with Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz. Goedert played his best ball down the stretch, including in a wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in which he caught seven balls on eight targets for 73 yards. The Eagles head into 2020 with a nasty 1-2 punch at tight end thanks to the emergence of Goedert. — Tim McManus
Ereck Flowers, guard. He was a disaster as a tackle, both with the New York Giants, who made him a first-round pick in 2015, and with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018. But he revived his career by playing well at left guard for the Redskins this past season. It’s not as if Flowers was great, but he was good — and better than anticipated considering he didn’t fully make the switch until the middle of training camp. Flowers’ size made him a big help in the Redskins’ power run game, and despite his occasional whiffs, he was a pleasant surprise for Washington. He’s a free agent, but the Redskins would like him back. In November, former Redskins offensive line and interim coach Bill Callahan said: “The thing that I love about him is he’s conscientious, he’s dependable, he’s a reliable guy, he loves football, got a passion for the game and he has a thirst for knowledge and getting better every day.” — John Keim
Allen Robinson, wide receiver. Robinson was still recovering from a torn ACL when the Bears signed him away from Jacksonville during the 2018 offseason. The 6-foot-2 receiver had a respectable first season in Chicago with 55 catches for 754 yards and four touchdowns, but the 2014 second-round pick took his game to another level in 2019. Robinson led Chicago with 98 receptions for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns. The Bears had one of the NFL’s worst offenses in 2019, and Robinson managed to deliver a Pro Bowl-caliber season. — Jeff Dickerson
Matthew Stafford, quarterback. After throwing for under 4,000 yards for the first time in a full season in his career in 2018, including tying a career worst in yards per attempt when he has played a full season as well (6.8), Stafford once again proved he is Detroit’s MVP. Before a back injury ended his 2019 season after eight games, he was playing at a Pro Bowl and fringe MVP level — on pace for 5,000 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (he had 2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions). While safety Tracy Walker, center Frank Ragnow and receiver Kenny Golladay could all merit inclusion, it is Stafford who took a jump in play once again, and when the Lions didn’t have him, they saw how bad it could get. — Michael Rothstein
Aaron Jones, running back. Most Packers fans wondered what Jones could do if Green Bay gave Jones the chance to be the outright No. 1 back after two years of splitting time almost evenly with Jamaal Williams. He delivered in a bigger way than perhaps anyone imagined, tying for the NFL team lead in touchdowns (with 19) and totaling 1,558 total yards from scrimmage. Jones went from being a player with much potential to a player whom opposing defenses had to plan against. — Rob Demovsky
Ifeadi Odenigbo, defensive end. The 2017 seventh-round pick by the Vikings was cut, had brief stints with Cleveland and Arizona, re-signed with Minnesota’s practice squad in 2018 and then finally made the Vikings’ 53-man roster last August. His feel-good story of perseverance was made even better as the Vikings found an ideal fit for Odenigbo as an edge rusher, where he totaled seven sacks, which ranked third behind Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Odenigbo made the most of the playing time he earned in his third season (34% of defensive snaps) and emerged as a trusted pass-rusher who could play a number of different roles in the D-line rotation. — Courtney Cronin
Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle. The 2015 fifth-round draft pick by the Falcons has been a good player, but he took another step in 2019. Jarrett joined the league’s elite at his position and was named to his first Pro Bowl. He was second on the team with 7.5 sacks while playing on the interior line and had a team-leading 12 tackles for loss (he had six sacks and eight TFLs in 2018). Jarrett’s first step is devastating and his motor never stops. That’s why the Falcons rewarded him with a four-year, $68 million extension in July 2019. — Vaughn McClure
D.J. Moore, wide receiver. The 2018 first-round pick went from 55 catches and 788 yards as a rookie to 87 catches for 1,175 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. That his jump in production came with undrafted Kyle Allen and third-round pick Will Grier at quarterback (since Week 2) made his successes all the more impressive considering their combined inexperience. — David Newton
Demario Davis, linebacker. The 31-year-old has actually been leveling up for the past three years, but he finally seems to be getting proper notice as a first-team All-Pro. Davis, who began his career with the Jets and Browns, could make a strong case as the Saints’ best free-agent signing since quarterback Drew Brees, both because of his athleticism as an every-down linebacker and his leadership. He had 111 tackles, four sacks, 12 pass defenses and an interception in 2019. “Demario Davis is one of the most overlooked players in the league from a media perspective,” said Greg Cosell, the executive producer and on-air analyst for ESPN’s NFL Matchup. “Teams that have to play the Saints know what he is, but I think he’s one of the best three-down linebackers in the league.” — Mike Triplett
Chris Godwin, wide receiver. In his first season as a full-time starter, Godwin finished with 1,333 receiving yards — third most in the NFL despite missing the final two games of the season because of a hamstring injury. His nine touchdowns were also tied for fourth among the league’s receivers. Godwin benefited from a move inside in coach Bruce Arians’ offense, the same role once occupied by Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Arians said the priority is “high” to re-sign Godwin to an extension: “He’s earned it.” — Jenna Laine
Joe Walker, linebacker. The 2016 seventh-round pick made significant strides in 2019 after being relied upon more this season than he has in his NFL career. Walker started 11 of 16 games this season, including the final 10. He had 58 tackles and a forced fumble while making strides in coverage. He was already an athletic linebacker in coordinator Vance Joseph’s system, but 2019 showed his on-field improvement. — Josh Weinfuss
Dante Fowler Jr., outside linebacker. The No. 3 pick in 2015, Fowler had yet to live up to his high draft selection — until the 2019 season. Playing on a one-year deal worth up to $12 million, Fowler proved his playmaking ability as he finished the season with a career-high 11.5 sacks, which ranked among the top 10 in the NFL. He surpassed his previous career best of eight sacks set in 2017. Fowler also forced two fumbles and had a fumble recovery. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent. — Lindsey Thiry
Fred Warner, linebacker. Warner was good as a rookie, but he was even better in Year 2, looking the part of a Pro Bowl-caliber player for a long time to come. Warner was one of three linebackers in the league with at least 90 tackles, four passes defended, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, elevating his game even further after fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a torn pectoral on Oct. 31. “He’s the quarterback [of the defense], and it all starts with him, and he does a phenomenal job,” coordinator Robert Saleh said. “Major improvement from a year ago, but it started last year.” — Nick Wagoner
Shaquill Griffin, cornerback. After an up-and-down 2018 season, Griffin changed his diet, hired a personal chef and dropped about 20 pounds in 2019. He also ditched what he called a “selfish” mentality that he needed to be Richard Sherman just because he was replacing him. The result was his best season yet. Griffin gave up fewer big plays — which marred his 2018 season — and upped his pass breakups from five to 13, which by Pro Football Focus’ count were tied for second most in the NFL. That helped Griffin make his first Pro Bowl as a replacement. — Brady Henderson