While the NFL standings are an annual revolving door of teams, so too are the league’s breakout stars.
David Johnson took the NFL by storm as a rookie two years ago and hasn’t looked back. So too did fellow running back Devonta Freeman. Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin — undrafted in 2011 — has strung together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and his first Pro Bowl, seemingly out of thin air.
Before players become household names, I like to try and predict who will be the league’s next breakout star. I’ve certainly missed my fair share of breakout candidates in the past — Isaiah Pead and Montee Ball come to mind — but I’ve hit on some as well: Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr and Jordan Reed.
This year, no rookies are allowed on the list, and you will also notice a couple marquee names as well. For example, we know Amari Cooper is already a very good player. But he makes this list because I’m predicting he will take two steps forward and become an elite, All-Pro caliber receiver.
Without further delay, here are your 10 players I believe will become the breakout stars of the 2017 NFL season:
Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers: Henry burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, amassing nearly 500 yards and eight touchdowns. A big-bodied, fluid target for Philip Rivers, expect Henry’s production to increase as 37-year-old Antonio Gates sees fewer snaps.
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders: Cooper displayed the terrific run-after-the-catch ability that earned him the Biletnikoff Award at Alabama, totaling 83 catches and 1,153 yards in his sophomore season. But he also battled inconsistency as he failed to record a single 100-yard effort during Oakland’s final nine games. Now, with an elite offensive line protecting Derek Carr and an improved running game thanks to new Raider Marshawn Lynch, Cooper should enjoy his best season yet. After consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns, a 100-catch, 1,500-yard season is hardly out of the question. In other words, Cooper will assert himself as one of the top five receivers in pro football.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Brown followed up a 1,000-yard season in 2015 with a dud last season. Playing with a cyst on his spine, the Division II Pittsburg State product had his worst season as a pro. Now healthy, the dangerous 27-year-old Brown will be Carson Palmer’s No. 2 target behind Mr. Reliable, Larry Fitzgerald. Better yet, the Cards have 88 vacated targets to replace, mostly because of the departed Michael Floyd.
DeForest Buckner, DT, San Francisco 49ers: The seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft, Buckner’s tremendous speed and athleticism complement a robust, 6-foot-7, 300 lb. frame. After compiling 1,006 defensive snaps last season — second for all defensive linemen — Buckner will thrive under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s aggressive approach. Playing as a three-technique defensive tackle and not on the edge will only help.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: There is only one quarterback over the past two seasons that didn’t throw a single red-zone interception. It’s not Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Russell Wilson — it’s Mariota. Entering his third year, the enticing dual-threat star has a better command of his offense and more weapons at his disposal. Rookie Corey Davis was the fifth pick for a reason: He is a physically imposing weapon who will immediately fill a void. The same can be said about free agent acquisition Eric Decker. The 23-year-old Mariota compiled 28 total touchdowns last year (two rushing). An improved completion percentage and 35 touchdowns are both reasonable this year, as Mariota attempts to guide the Titans to their first playoff appearance since 2008.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Mariota isn’t the only rising star in the AFC South. Ramsey flashed brilliance as a rookie, proving he was both a lockdown cover man and a playmaking dynamo. As he better understands the tendencies of opposing quarterbacks and receivers, Ramsey — whose physical tools are astounding — can morph into an All-Pro caliber corner.
Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A lot is expected out of Spence in 2017. As a rookie, the second-round draft selection flashed brilliance, accumulating 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in large part to his explosive ability off the edge. Spence, 23, has boasted about a cleaner diet which he adopted over the offseason. To be sure, the former Eastern Kentucky standout — by way of Ohio State — has all of the tools to morph into a double-digit sack artist.
DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins: Plagued by back and hamstring issues his first two seasons, the former first-round pick out of Louisville is finally healthy. A monstrous target at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, the 24-year-old Parker is highly explosive and capable after the catch. Ryan Tannehill — whom the Dolphins front office has its own set of high hopes for — will lean heavily on him opposite Jarvis Landry, and anything less than a 1,000-yard, five-touchdown season would be a disappointment for the talented wideout.
Shaq Thompson, OLB, Carolina Panthers: Blessed with top-notch quickness and excellent instincts, the third-year linebacker has the tools to become an elite player. Thomas Davis is a year older and the Panthers want to be faster. Thompson, who compiled 56 tackles last year, is the answer. He can get to the quarterback, make plays in space and cover tight ends.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Still just 23 years old, Moncrief has become one of the premier red-zone targets in pro football, nabbing seven touchdowns in a mere nine games last season. A target monster in 2015, the former Ole Miss star saw the ball thrown his way 105 times. Last year however, Moncrief missed seven games while battling a shoulder issue and lost his explosiveness. He averaged just 2.5 yards after the catch, down from the 4.1 he managed as a rookie. Now in a contract year and having trimmed down, he becomes the ideal No. 2 receiver for Andrew Luck alongside T.Y. Hilton. If Indianapolis moves him around the formation more, that should aid his development as well.
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