The development of young players is one of the more fascinating elements of professional football. Organizations know what to expect from many of their veteran players, but they’re also banking on their younger, more unproven talent to break through and produce.
Here’s a look at one breakout candidate for each of the NFL’s 32 teams.
Bears – Leonard Floyd, LB
An undersized tweener coming out of Georgia, Floyd’s transition to the NFL was always going to demand patience. The supremely athletic rush man, who used those gifts to rack up 11.5 sacks across his first two seasons, heads into Year 3 having filled out his frame and refined his technique. Now flanked by the best edge defender in football following Chicago’s blockbuster trade for Khalil Mack, Floyd should have his fair share of one-on-one matchups to exploit with his now-developed skill set.
Bengals – Joe Mixon, RB
Mixon was touted as an elite running back prospect leading up to the 2017 draft, drawing comparisons to Le’Veon Bell for his patient running style and three-down impact. His rookie campaign didn’t go as planned, but the former Oklahoma standout is now the unquestioned lead back in Cincinnati. He’ll be doing his work behind a much-improved offensive line and, as was the case with Bell in his breakout sophomore performance, appears to be in much better shape after dropping weight in the offseason. Unfair as it may be to draw parallels with the Steelers superstar, Mixon has the ability to be a similarly dominant playmaker in every phase of the offensive game.
Bills – Shaq Lawson, DE
Lawson’s career has gotten off to a less than ideal start. After missing all of training camp and the first six games of his rookie season due to a shoulder injury, he managed just six sacks in the 21 games that followed. There was some talk about Lawson being on the roster bubble at final cutdowns, so perhaps he’s still yet to make strides, but this breakout pick is a simple bet on talent. Finally healthy and now in his second year back as a base end, Lawson should begin to show some of the traits that made him a first-round pick.
Broncos – Garett Bolles, OT
The most impressive area of Bolles’ game at Utah, and what pushed him into the first round of last year’s draft, was his athleticism. Offensive linemen who move the way he does are few and far between. He also has the physical mindset necessary to excel at the position, but Bolles making good on his draft status always hinged upon his ability to develop more functional strength. After adding some size this past offseason, and benefiting from the technique improvements that should come with a full year of NFL coaching, Bolles should take another step toward being a foundational piece up front.
Browns – David Njoku, TE
Njoku is an athletic freak. He only showed glimpses of that as a rookie, but it’s rare to see tight ends break through in their first taste of NFL action. With a year of seasoning and better offensive talent around him, including at quarterback, now’s the time to tune in and see what Njoku can do. He’s going to be a nightmare for opposing linebackers and safeties to match up against, particularly in the red zone.
Buccaneers – Chris Godwin, WR
Godwin’s playmaking ability at all levels of the field was crystal clear coming out of Penn State. His athleticism and route-running ability help him create separation, while his strength and body control at the catch point allow him to play much bigger than his size. His lack of production as a rookie can be chalked up to the Buccaneers trying to get the most out of the DeSean Jackson signing. Don’t expect them to make the same mistake this year. Godwin should be the No. 2 opposite Mike Evans, with Jackson sliding into a field-stretcher role – and the Tampa Bay passing game will be better for it.
Colts – Malik Hooker, S
Hooker had already demonstrated his elite playmaking ability at the NFL level when an ACL injury ended his rookie season after just seven games. Now back to full strength ahead of his second year, the former Ohio State standout is ready to pick up where he left off. Hooker’s coverage ability – highlighted by rare instincts, range, and ball skills – evoked memories of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ed Reed in the lead-up to last year’s draft.
Cardinals – Robert Nkemdiche, DT
After being viewed as a risky pick back in the 2016 draft, falling to the latter portion of the first round despite his ability as a penetrating force up front, a pair of disappointing seasons already has Nkemdiche battling the “bust” label. But don’t write him off just yet. The enigmatic defensive lineman, who dealt with some nagging injuries early on in his pro career, gets a fresh start with a new coaching staff that will be intent on getting the most out of his talent. The shift to a one-gap defensive system under new head coach Steve Wilks should put Nkemdiche back in a more natural role where, as a three-technique defensive tackle, he can use his athleticism to get in the backfield.
Chargers – Mike Williams, WR
Williams is another highly touted sophomore looking to get his career on track after an injury impacted his rookie season. He suited up for 10 games in 2017, but it was always going to be difficult to earn a meaningful role after a back injury put him on the sidelines from his rookie minicamp until Week 5. There’s likely still work to be done before he can supplant Travis Benjamin or Tyrell Williams opposite No. 1 wideout Keenan Allen, but Williams should already be one of the Chargers’ top red-zone options.
Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes, QB
Mesmerized by his arm talent, the football world has probably been a little quick to anoint Mahomes as the next big thing at quarterback. There were some areas in his game that needed to be cleaned up coming out of Texas Tech last year, and with just one professional game under his belt, it’s fair to assume he’ll take some lumps early on. For all the struggles he may experience in his defacto rookie season under center, though, Mahomes’ big-play ability will make him a human highlight reel from the outset. His talent is just too special. He’s Kansas City’s breakout player because watching him throw it around the yard to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt will be an absolute treat.
Cowboys – Jaylon Smith, LB
Smith spent his first two NFL seasons working his way back from a devastating knee injury suffered during his final game at Notre Dame. A lengthy recovery forced him to sit out his entire rookie season, and although he suited up for all 16 games last year, starting in six, his effectiveness didn’t approach the level that once made him a potential top-five pick. Now, two-plus years removed from his injury, Smith is showing signs of getting it back. He was a defensive standout for the Cowboys in the preseason, and all indications are that he’s earned himself a lead role in the middle of that defense. After being no lock to play in the NFL after his injury, Smith’s comeback has been remarkable.
Dolphins – Xavien Howard, CB
Howard’s career didn’t get off to the best of starts, and things weren’t going so well early in his second season, either. But not everyone can be Marshon Lattimore or Jalen Ramsey. The talented former second-round pick began to come into his own in the second half of the 2017 campaign with a dominant stretch of play highlighted by back-to-back two-interception games in December – one of them coming against Tom Brady. Look for Howard to carry that momentum into his third season and emerge as the No. 1 corner the Dolphins have long been searching for.
Eagles – Derek Barnett, DE
Barnett was as productive as he needed to be as a rookie, racking up five sacks while serving as a rotational edge rusher for a loaded Eagles defensive front. More will be expected of the 2017 first-rounder heading into Year 2, and, based on the flashes he showed last season, you can bet he’s ready to answer the bell. Barnett is an explosive, technically sound edge rusher who, when given a more significant role, should be able to take advantage of the attention his Pro Bowl linemates draw.
Falcons – Austin Hooper, TE
For whatever reason, tight ends are notoriously slow starters upon arriving on the NFL scene. Hooper was no exception as a rookie, finishing the 2016 season with just 19 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns. His production took a small step forward as a sophomore (49-526-3), but still left something to be desired. As the Falcons seek ways to solve their puzzling red-zone woes, look for Steve Sarkisian, now in his second year as offensive coordinator, to make a point of getting Hooper more involved. He may not put up huge yardage totals with so many other offensive weapons in place, but the big-bodied tight end should help Atlanta put points on the board.
49ers – Trent Taylor, WR
At just 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Taylor will never fit the mold of a true No. 1 receiver. His size and skill set limits him to the slot, and thus puts a cap on his big-play ability, but he can still be an incredibly reliable target for his quarterback. And after demonstrating his quickness and route-running ability as a rookie, it seems he’s emerging as just that for Jimmy Garoppolo. Taylor will catch more passes than you might expect this season.
Giants – Sterling Shepard, WR
Shepard made an immediate impact as a rookie before injuries got in the way of what could’ve been a productive sophomore season. With the Giants’ stable of playmakers now back healthy, this should once again be one of the NFL’s more explosive offenses. And when coverage rolls to the side of Odell Beckham Jr., it’ll be Shepard who goes to work and takes advantage of some favorable matchups. The numbers likely won’t tell the whole story, as there might not be enough targets to go around, but this is the year Shepard should make a name for himself with big plays and consistent production.
Jaguars – Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE
The fantasy community has been waiting years for a Seferian-Jenkins breakout. Despite some impressive athletic gifts, including a frame that can give any defensive back nightmares, he was never able to make it work in stops with the Bucs and Jets. But he’s still just 25, and as the clear-cut No. 1 tight end in Jacksonville, all signs point to him having a major role in the offense. Seferian-Jenkins should be Blake Bortles’ go-to target in the red zone, and a lack of playmakers at receiver should open opportunities for him to contribute in other areas of the field.
Jets – Jamal Adams, S
Listing Adams as a breakout player in no way diminishes what he did as a rookie. The No. 6 overall pick was a solid addition to the Jets’ secondary, and his debut performance only drove home the idea that he’ll be a franchise cornerstone for years to come. His inclusion on this list, rather, is more of an indication of just how far his skill set could take him in a short period of time. As was the case for Landon Collins back in 2016, the game should begin to slow down for Adams this season. An increased comfort level should yield better results in coverage, and he’ll be a dominant presence coming downhill in run support.
Lions – Kenny Golladay, WR
Golladay was a fantasy football darling early in his rookie season, as the rave reviews of his practice work were followed up by a productive preseason and then a two-touchdown performance in Week 1. But he slowed down in the weeks that followed, and a hamstring injury forced him to miss five games in the middle of the year. Never able to truly emerge down the stretch, a season that started with a bang ended with a whimper. Fans and fantasy owners alike still have every reason to be excited about Golladay heading into Year 2, though, as he has all the makings of a No. 1 receiver and is locked into a top-three role in a Detroit offense that essentially uses three-receiver sets as its base package.
Packers – Geronimo Allison, WR
Davante Adams and Randall Cobb sit atop the receiver depth chart in Green Bay, but that’s far more than a two-deep spot with the way Aaron Rodgers likes to spread things out. And Cobb is trending down, anyway. Amid a search for a reliable No. 3, it’s been Geronimo Allison who’s emerged. We’ve seen Rodgers show a comfort with him in the past, and beating out the host of rookies brought in to compete should be taken as a positive sign for Allison’s continued development. There are plenty of targets up for grabs following Jordy Nelson’s departure.
Panthers – Christian McCaffrey, RB
McCaffrey’s contributions as a rookie were largely limited to the passing game. While that role highlighted his versatility, it was still a disappointing start for a running back drafted No. 8 overall. Understanding that he’s capable of much more, as was demonstrated throughout an incredible career at Stanford, the Panthers finally seem ready to make McCaffrey a true every-down back. He’s one of the few running backs who can do it all, and him making the most of that skill set next to Cam Newton is imperative for a Panthers offense looking to get back on track. McCaffrey is in for a monster year.
Patriots – Trent Brown, OT
Just when it seemed like the Patriots may have a major roster dilemma on their hands – needing to replace longtime left tackle Nate Solder after he joined the Giants in free agency – Bill Belichick and Co. found themselves a steal at one of the most important positions on the field. Brown battled weight and conditioning issues during his time with the 49ers, but his talent was never in question. The mammoth offensive tackle has shown an ability to dominate both as a pass-protector and run-blocker. Joining this ridiculously well-coached team will help Brown rise to the occasion, and getting it done on Tom Brady’s blindside will make his breakout all the more notable.
Redskins – Preston Smith, LB
Most players with two eight-sack seasons under their belt would be considered to have broken out already. Not Smith. The impact he’s made while tallying 20.5 sacks over his first three years in the NFL is only scratching the surface of what he’s capable of as a pass-rusher off the edge. Working alongside a stout three-man front of Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis should be what pushes his development over the top. Double-digit sacks is the floor for Smith in 2018.
Raiders – Gareon Conley, CB
Conley lost nearly all of his rookie season to a shin injury that surfaced over the summer and just never went away. For the short time he was on the field, however, he flashed the lockdown potential that made him a first-round pick in 2017. Conley has the athletic profile and coverage ability to match up with all different types of receivers, possessing not only the size and length to battle bigger targets on the boundary but also the quickness to move inside and man the slot. He has the makings of a No. 1 corner and should prove himself as a defensive centerpiece for the Raiders this season.
Rams – Cory Littleton, LB
For as many defensive spots as the Rams have locked down with superstar talent, there are also a few with question marks. The offseason trade of Alec Ogletree makes inside linebacker one such area of concern, but the Rams have a young, little-known player ready to step in. Littleton has been working as L.A.’s defensive play-caller throughout the offseason – a sign of the confidence the coaching staff has in him to run things from the middle. While expectations should be tempered early on, he could be a tackling machine behind a defensive line that features Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
Ravens – Tim Williams, LB
Buried on the depth chart as a rookie, Williams didn’t contribute much of anything after joining the Ravens as a third-round pick. Reports out of Ravens camp this summer seemed to indicate he was settling in, though, and he built on that development with a strong preseason getting after opposing quarterbacks. Williams should have the opportunity to carve out a role as a situational pass-rusher in Baltimore’s edge rotation, where the explosiveness that made him a star at Alabama will terrorize offensive lines.
Saints – Marcus Williams, S
Williams’ strong rookie season ended in heartbreak, as it was his missed tackle on Stefon Diggs that saw the Vikings pull off a late miracle against the Saints and advance to the NFC Championship Game. No player wants to be remembered that way, and if the preseason can be taken as any indication, the former second-round pick is well on his way to ensuring he’s not. Williams was deemed by many as a star of training camp, and that translated to his performance in exhibition action. New Orleans has a game-changer on the back end.
Seahawks – Tyler Lockett, WR
Long having demonstrated his athleticism and route-running ability, there’s never been a doubt about Lockett’s potential. It’s just yet to translate into any sort of consistent production. With Paul Richardson now in Washington and Jimmy Graham in Green Bay, this is the year for Lockett to put it all together. He’ll be relied upon in a big way early on, as Doug Baldwin is battling a knee injury. Coming through as the No. 1 option for Russell Wilson will be the catalyst for Lockett finding a role he’ll keep beyond Baldwin’s return.
Steelers – Javon Hargrave, DT
Hargrave isn’t your prototypical nose tackle. Sure, he has the strength and power to hold up the point of attack, but players aren’t typically able to do that and also move as well as he does. After posting just four sacks in his first two years, the stats indicate he’s not much of a pass-rush threat. Wrong. Don’t be surprised when Hargrave’s established ability to penetrate and create havoc in the backfield finally results in some more sacks. And when the Steelers are getting pass-rush production from the nose tackle spot, the defense is going to be a problem.
Texans – Zach Cunningham, LB
The knock on Cunningham coming out of Vanderbilt was his size. Attractive as sideline-to-sideline range may be, he was going to have to add to his frame to hold up as an every-down linebacker in the NFL. He’s made a point of doing just that. Some added bulk to go along with his athleticism and instincts should give the Texans a promising young inside linebacker tandem in Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney.
Titans – Corey Davis, WR
Davis’ rookie season was bound to be a struggle after a hamstring injury forced him to the sidelines for most of training camp and five games early in the season. But let’s not forget why he was a top-five pick last year: Davis has No. 1 wideout written all over him. The Titans have been lining him up at all receiver spots this offseason, and it shouldn’t be long before he emerges as Marcus Mariota’s favorite target. The two-touchdown performance Davis put together in the playoffs against the Patriots can be considered a mere glimpse of what he’s capable of at full strength.
Vikings – Laquon Treadwell, WR
Treadwell was no lock to remain in the Vikings’ long-term plans after a disastrous first two seasons. A mere 21 catches over that stretch gave Minnesota little to no return on its first-round investment, and Kendall Wright was brought in to compete for the No. 3 receiver job in camp. But there may yet be hope for the former Ole Miss star. Wright was released at final roster cutdowns, signaling confidence that Treadwell can be counted on. That role should be integral in a new-look offense that figures to make more use of three-receiver sets.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)