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USC’s Top NFL Performers of the Year

Which former USC Trojans lit up the league this year?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

USC is as storied of a program as there is in college football when it comes to sending players to the NFL. Over 500 players have been drafted into the league and a total of 12 have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There is always an abundance of former USC Trojans in the league at any moment in time. As the 2018 NFL regular season came to a close this past Sunday, let’s take a look back at some of the top Trojan performers in the league this year.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

  • Stats: 16 GP, 111 receptions, 1,426 receiving yards, seven touchdowns

JuJu Smith-Schuster absolutely carved up every single defense and cornerback that he faced this season. On the year, he increased his output of receiving yards by 509 from the previous season and also reeled in 53 more receptions. If the NFL had a Most Improved Player award, he would most definitely win it. Now, how exactly did he take such a big leap from year one to year two? It all had to do with greater opportunity and a stronger connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Last year, the former Trojan’s role wasn't completely clear. The question was whether he was supposed to be the number two wide receiver opposite of Antonio Brown, or the number three receiver on the team, who Roethlisberger wouldn’t need to rely on as much? After Martavis Bryant was traded in April of this past year, it was clear that the Steelers were looking for Smith-Schuster to have a bigger role in the offense. A bigger role leads to greater responsibility and he took this role in stride. The connection with Roethlisberger this year was nothing short of brilliant. The trust between the two was at an all time high, which led to some magnificent plays on the field. Two of these plays happened in weeks six and 14, where Smith-Schuster did some stuff you just don’t see very often. The one against the Bengals is up there for catch of the year.

Robert Woods

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

  • Stats: 16 GP, 86 receptions, 1,219 receiving yards, six touchdowns

What a year for Robert Woods. If Smith-Schuster was the NFL’s most improved player, then Woods was a very close second. This was the first year in his career where he topped 1,000 yards and 70 receptions. In just his second season with the Los Angeles Rams, Woods became quarterback Jared Goff’s favorite target on the field. When the Pro Bowl rosters were announced, I was absolutely shocked to see that Woods failed to make the team. I understand that there are many great wide receivers in the NFC but how can a receiver on a team that went 13-3 with these kind of stats not make it? This is something that still baffles me. Even though he didn't make it, just the fact that he was involved in the conversation is a testament to his stellar play this year. He was Mr. Consistent this year. In every game this besides week two and week 17, Woods had at least 60 yards receiving. He became just the fourth player in NFL history to record 14 straight games in a single season with at least that many yards receiving in each game. Oh and who are the other three receivers you may ask? Just the terrible receivers Antonio Brown, Andre Johnson and Marvin Harrison. I almost forgot to mention that Woods can also run a little bit:

Sam Darnold

NFL: Houston Texans at New York Jets Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

  • Stats: 13 GP, 2,865 passing yards, 18 total touchdowns, 57.7 completion percentage

Contrary to popular belief, Sam Darnold had a good first year at the helm of the New York Jets offense. Coming in with crazy expectations as the No. 3 overall pick from April’s draft, Darnold lived up to the billing with his solid play and ability to be a leader in the locker room. If we are just going by numbers, Darnold had a productive season. He threw for 17 touchdowns in 13 games. The record for passing touchdowns in a single season by a rookie quarterback is 27. He was 10 off the record and missed 3 games on the year. That’s pretty good if you ask me. Throughout the year, Darnold had plays that made Jets fans lick their lips when thinking about the future of the franchise. His big arm was as good as advertised. So was his ability to extend plays. Darnold was able to produce all these amazing plays while having arguably the worst running back and receiving corps in the entire National Football League. The leading rusher for the Jets was Isaiah Crowell, who rushed for 685 yards this year and has never broke 1,000 yards rushing in any season of his career. The leading receiver for the Jets was Robby Anderson, who had 752 yards receiving this year and who also has never broke 1,000 yards receiving in any season of his career. For Darnold to be able to produce without having great talent around him is a testament to just how good he was this year. Here are three of Darnold’s best plays on the year:

  • Play 1: The unbelievable arm

  • Play 2: The ability to extend plays

  • Play 3: The arm. Again.