Break through or break out, call it whatever it needs to be, there are plenty of NFL players looking to put their stamp on greatness in 2017.
Last year, quite a few players enjoyed break out campaigns.
They included CB A.J. Bouye of the Houston Texans, who was so good last year Jacksonville signed him to a lucrative five-year, $67.5 million free agent contract.
Others were Green Bay Packers LB Nick Perry (career high 11 sacks), Cleveland Browns and now Washington Redskins WR Terrelle Pryor (career high 1,007 yards, four TD) and Los Angeles Chargers CB Casey Hayward (career best seven INT and 20 pass defences).
With the new season nearly upon us, the internet is awash in bold predictions — some we’ve made even — and there is nothing we like better than forecasting which established players might shake off some rust to star or the odd rookie who will exceed expectations.
Here are 10 who could be in line for breakthrough seasons in 2017 (five from the NFC and five from the AFC).
10. DE Kony Ealy – New York Jets
It’s been a bit of long strange trip for former Carolina Panthers defensive end and Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy in 2017. After recording three sacks in Carolina’s disheartening 24-10 loss to Denver in SB 50, Ealy had a decent, but not great 2016 campaign for the 6-10 Cats. He should have made strides to be an elite pass-rusher after that superb performance, but after matching his 2015 sack total of five, he was dealt to New England this off-season for pretty much nothing. This past Saturday, the Pats released him and a day later, the Jets claimed him off waivers. The Jets, who could use his athletic gifts in their defensive scheme, currently have him third on the depth chart behind Leonard Williams and Lawrence Thomas. Ealy has more experience than both of them combined and if he can find the fit with the Jets he couldn’t with New England, he could break through in 2017.
9. TE Evan Engram – New York Giants
Former Ole Miss star Evan Engram is already slated as the Giants starting tight end, and alongside currently injured Odell Beckham he could be a break out star this year for New York. Engram, selected 23rd overall by the Giants in this year’s draft, was consistently good at Ole Miss and really elevated his play during the 2016 season. He had career highs in receptions (65), yards (926) and touchdowns (8). In a tight 48-43 loss to powerhouse Alabama early last season, Engram had a season-best 63-yard TD to give the Rebels an early lead and finished the game with a season-best nine catches and 138 yards receiving. So far in the pre-season, Engram is tied with Travis Rudolph in receptions with six and second in yards gained at 75 (39 yards recorded after the catch). He’ll be one to watch in the Big Apple.
8. RB Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings
With star running back Latavius Murray ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s a stretch to think middle second round pick Dalvin Cook could have much of an impact in Minnesota’s offensive backfield. Yet, he’s earned raves and has made strides to shedding the bad boy image at Florida State that saw his draft stock fall because of legal issues. Off field troubles aside in Tallahassee, Cook was a punishing runner for the Seminoles, racking up 1,765 rushing yards last year and 488 receiving yards, along with 20 total TDs. So far in Minnesota’s pre-season, he is the leading rusher with 70 yards on 17 carries and has impressed his coaches and teammates alike with his footwork and work ethic. If Murray falters, the top running back job in Minny is Cook’s to lose.
7. LB Tyus Bowser – Baltimore Ravens
We think that Bowser has the potential to be one of those middle round draft picks to have an impact at the NFL level. Taken 47th overall by the Ravens out of the University of Houston, the Tyler, TX born Bowser is expected to make an impact on a team that used the draft to beef up its defence. Already he’s shown to be adept at not just pass rushing, but edge work against the run and dropping back into coverage. Slotted in the depth chart second to second-year man Matthew Judon, Bowser has been solid this pre-season, recording eight tackles (second on the team). At Houston, Bowser had a great four-year career. He finished it off with a stellar senior season in 2016, despite playing in just eight games. He got in on 47 tackles and recorded 8.5 sacks, his highest total in those four campaigns.
6. SS Josh Jones – Green Bay Packers
In his last season as a junior with North Carolina State, strong safety Josh Jones was a tackling machine. He recorded a career and team high 109 tackles in 13 games, in addition to a sack, three interceptions and eight pass defences. So far with the Packers, who drafted him 61st overall this year, he has been as billed in the pre-season, getting in on 10 tackles. Slotted behind Morgan Burnett on the depth chart, Jones has taken some pointers and earned praise from Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. “As a rookie he reminds me a lot of myself,” Clinton-Dix said. “A guy that just wants to fly around make plays. You know he kind of gets his head stuck on making mistakes instead of just playing fast, which I did a lot, so I really see a lot of myself in him a lot as a rookie.” He should get a chance to show the Clinton-Dix and the team what he’s got.
5. QB Deshaun Watson – Houston Texans
As we all know, the world has turned upside down in Houston, with Tropical Storm Harvey still reeking havoc on the already flooded and battered city. All this turmoil has effectively canceled this weekend’s pre-season contest in advance of the regular season. However, it may give much hyped QB Watson a chance to rest and reset in order to battle for the no. 1 job this season. As of today, three-year veteran Tom Savage is first on the depth chart, with Clemson hero Watson nipping at his heels. The rookie, though, did himself no favors with a lackluster performance against New Orleans on Sunday, completing 11 of 21 passes for 116 yards and an interception. However, Savage hasn’t been spot on yet and in other games, Watson was 18-for-34 and 281 yards. He has also run for 44 yards and two touchdowns. It will be interesting to see just who grabs the reins because we think Watson can be great, given time.
4. LB Deion Jones – Atlanta Falcons
Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the defensive exploits of 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley and the overall effectiveness of the Falcons defence was the play of rookie linebacker Deion Jones. The second round pick (52nd overall) out of LSU led Atlanta in tackles with 108 (75 solo), had 11 passes defended (most among all NFL linebackers) and interceptions with three, including two pick-sixes. In his first post-season, Jones kept up his great play, making 20 tackles and defending three passes. His best game during the playoffs was in the Super Bowl, when he registered nine tackles, forced a fumble and defended a pass successfully. As the Falcons have been gearing up to start the defence of their NFC championship, Jones and the rest of the defensive unit have been fine-tuning during the pre-season, which has seen the Falcons go 0-3 (but we don’t put much stock in that). He’ll get his due this season.
3. TE Hunter Henry – Los Angeles Chargers
The shadow that shades Chargers’ second-year tight end Hunter Henry is immense. And it is cast by legend and eight time Pro Bowler Antonio Gates. However, Gates is now 36 and in the twilight of his Hall of Fame worthy career. Which means that 22-year-old Henry already has a foot in the door to replace him. In his rookie season in 2016, the former Arkansas Razorback caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns. Gates, who has lost a step, had his second lowest offensive output since his rookie season, catching 53 passes for 548 yards and seven touchdowns. As of Wednesday, Henry is still second on the depth chart to Gates, but we don’t think it will be long before he becomes Philip Rivers’ favorite tight end target.
2. WR Willie Snead – New Orleans Saints
With Brandin Cooks now catching passes from Tom Brady in New England, Willie Snead will definitely get more targets from passing yards leader Drew Brees. Now, he is second on the depth chart to free agent acquisition Ted Ginn Jr., but we don’t believe Snead will play second banana to the 11th-year journeyman for long. Snead, in his second full season last year out of Ball State, caught 72 passes for 895 yards and four touchdowns in New Orleans’ pass-happy offence. Snead was relatively consistent during the 2016 season for the Saints, recording at least one catch in all 15 games he played and enjoyed a career outing against Oakland on Sept. 11, catching nine of nine passes thrown his way for 172 yards and a touchdown. He’s a threat that Brees will exploit more in 2017.
1. QB Marcus Mariota – Tennessee Titans
It’s a good — and a bad — thing that the Titans re-signed veteran pivot Matt Cassel to a two-year deal in the off-season, where Marcus Mariota is concerned. There is no reason to believe that Cassel will assume no. 1 duties, but we believe that in the back of Mariota’s mind, he knows he can’t screw it up going into his third season. The 2015 second overall pick upped his game in 2015, missing just the last start of the season (where Cassel got some work). He three for career highs in completions (276), attempts (451), yards (3,426), touchdowns (26) and had just nine interceptions (10 in his rookie season). The Honolulu native also scampered for 349 yards rushing and two more touchdowns. In limited reps this pre-season, Mariota has completed 20 of 32 attempts for 269 yards and two TDs. It’s Mariota’s time to shine in the Music City.