Every year there’s a couple of young NFL players who turn into studs. This comes from more work in the offseason, leading to better mental and physical shape. In this article I want to point out ten second- and third-year men and explain to you why they are primed to break out. Here they are:
The Vikings receiver started last season with two consecutive hundred-yard performances and another duo of back-to-back games with 13 catches, but he has also recorded his fair share of two- and three-catch stints. He has struggled with consistency and health throughout the start of his career, but he has star potential. Diggs reminds me a lot of another receiver wearing number 14 in Jarvis Landry. They are both around six feet and have a nice combination of physicality and shiftiness. Minnesota’s youngster has worked hard on being a more complete receiver, as he can line up in slot or outside and run any route. When he gets the ball in his hands he is dynamic after the catch. He has a way of making defenders miss and fight his way downfield. I believe if he stays healthy in his third campaign as a pro, he could be one of the top pass-catchers in the league. He has already shown what he’s capable of on some occasions, like in his monster game against the Packers, now it’s all about keeping him involved in the offense and letting some on his routes develop downfield, which they couldn’t a year ago due to the struggles in pass protection.
The former UConn defensive back had one of the biggest freakshows ever at the 2015 NFL Combine. Jones was a top performer in every single event he participated in, jumping out of the gym while breaking the world record for a standing broad jump. The Cowboys have always been attracted to outstanding athleticism and he fit a need, which led to a late first-round selection that year. He is kind of a hybrid because of his size and ability to cover one-on-one coming from his cornerback background, as well as lining up as a safety for Dallas. I’m a big fan of his game because he plays aggressive and hard all the time. Jones has the speed and recovery ability to play the single-high safety role, but I like him best as a unique match-up player. What I mean with that is his ability to cover multiple positions, such as matching up with Jordan Reed one week and then moving to the outside and cover Brandon Marshall the next, while engaging early on plays and staying onto the hip of his man. He’s so much more than a pure cover-guy though. His explosiveness shows up in run-support as he quickly diagnoses plays and fires downfield to get involved. Plus, he is an outstanding open-field tackler. I believe this guy will be the star in the Cowboys secondary for the future because of his versatility and the way he can impact games in various ways.
I had to include one quarterback on this list and while I think there’s a bunch of talented young signal-callers out there, the one I’m really keeping a close eye on is Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz. The former second-overall pick had a burning hot start to his rookie campaign, throwing seven touchdowns in his first four games before tossing his first pick in the last moments of their comeback attempt against the Lions. I really like the total package he offers. He puts some zip on the ball, possesses outstanding athleticism for the position, but tries to play the game from his shoulders up. I see him making a big jump in his sophomore season due to the support the Eagles have given him. Alshon Jeffery as a big-bodied target and Torrey Smith as a speedster on the outside help tremendously, as well as the bruising LeGarrette Blount to hand the ball off too. The offensive line should offer more stability as well with Lane Johnson for a full season (hopefully). Wentz can make every throw on the field and with those new weapons he will sling it around the field and be a bigger playmaker. I expect the Philly QB to develop into one of the bright young stars at the position and help keep his team in the playoff hunt.
I talked about Rankins in one of my recent articles, where I pointed out specific traits of second-year players, that will assure them to be productive in this league. With the Saints defensive tackle it’s all about upfield burst and quickness. I really liked him coming into the 2016 draft because he reminded me of the Rams’ Aaron Donald and while the All-Pro easily is a top ten overall player in the NFL right now, Rankins has yet to start a game and show what he’s capable of. In limited playing time a year ago (32% of their snaps) he recorded four sacks and showed me strong disruption potential. His hand usage and non-stop motor really stand out to me and give me high hopes. When Rankins returned to the Saints from injury as a rookie their run-defense improved immensely and you saw him create push up the middle as well as chasing quarterbacks around. In his first season as a starter I think he will become one of the more ferocious three-tech penetrators in the game and Nola needs him badly, as they have fielded some of the worst defenses in league over the last three seasons.
I was banging the table for Hooper to see more playing time last season because of what he showed in a low number of snaps. This year my appeals seem to be heard, because of how many reports about him have been coming out of training camp. I was big on the former Stanford tight-end coming into the 2016 draft because of his all-around skill-set. He was falsely labeled as a pure pass-catcher, as he is a willing run-blocker and he had to be in David Shaw’s run-heavy offensive scheme. Hooper might not be very shifty, but he has enough speed to stretch the seams and attack the deep middle. He wasn’t a very polished route-runner coming out of college, but that’s what NFL coaching is for and once he figures out the wrinkles to the position he will have more success as a receiver. I think he’s excellent with the ball in the air and will only get better at setting up his routes. Quarterback Matt Ryan gave credit to “Hoop’s” work ethic and “expects a lot” from him this upcoming season. The Falcons offense was historically great last season and while offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has left the organization, the majority of their pieces are returning, including a second-year tight-end ready to make a name for himself.
San Francisco has really invested heavily in their defensive line over the last three years, as they have drafted someone up front with their middle to early first round picks every season. While Arik Armstead has been rather average so far and we have yet to see rookie Solomon Thomas hit the field, I think Buckner will be a star down the road. I had him as my third-highest rated player in last year’s draft due to his combination of size, length and power. His technique wasn’t refined enough then and isn’t nearly where it needs to be at this point either, but you saw some eye-blinding flashes his rookie campaign. I think his biggest area of improvement will be his pad-level, taking full advantage of his incredible natural power. Even while playing tall, even at 6’7’’, he managed to bull-rush some offensive linemen into the lap of the QB and stack them up as a two-gap run-defender. The second component to his development into a dominant force up front will be working on his hand-placement. His effort is second to none, even while leading all interior defensive linemen in snaps played, and his potential is off the charts. I can’t wait to see what he can do in his sophomore year.
Coming into the draft last year, Nkemdiche was one of the most controversial prospects out there. With his raw physical tools he could have been in consideration for the first overall pick, but a lack of motor and off-the-field concerns led him to drop to the end of the first round. At Ole Miss he started as a defensive end, but moved inside due to his extraordinary power. At over 290 pounds he displays crazy athleticism and in college he showed flashes of absolute dominance. You saw him completely blow up plays by splitting gaps or just pushing his blocker into the ball-carrier. If you watch his game against Alabama two years ago you’d think he’s the next J.J. Watt, but then in other games he completely disappeared. I thought he arrived at the perfect spot with the Cardinals, as they have proven to be able to bring the best out of players with a troubled past, such as Tyrann Mathieu. Before last season head coach Bruce Arians said Nkemdiche looked like a monster in practice, but he only played 82 total defensive snaps over the course of the season due to ankle problems. With another full offseason on his plate and having recovered from his ankle sprains, the former Rebel is ready to turn into a force up front for Arizona. Especially with Calais Campbell gone, Nkemdiche will have a much larger role and line up in various spots for the Cards.
This guy to me is a no-brainer to make the list. In his sophomore campaign he only started half their games, while Kenny Stills was among the starting line-up every week. Stills is a pretty good deep threat, but he was immensely overpaid in the offseason and he doesn’t nearly have the kind of skill-set Parker has. While the four-year, 32 million dollar man will still be a good number three receiver, Parker is on the brink of becoming one of the very best number twos in the league. His ball-skills and catch-radius are ridiculous, as well as his ability to elevate over defenders and bring in jump-balls. He isn’t nearly the same all-around weapon teammate Jarvis Landry is at this point, but he is a special talent. I expect huge things from Parker, meaning 1100+ yards and (close to) double-digit touchdowns, if he manages to stay healthy, as he will be a big help in the red-zone. I’m not the only one with high hopes, as offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said he thinks the third-year receiver will have a ‘gigantic year’, praising his work ethic and professionalism. If he puts the effort into becoming a more consistent route-runner and being a more complete receiving target, the sky’s the limit for him.
What drove the Broncos to winning Super Bowl 50 was the duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware plus a pretty darn good secondary. Their championship defense is largely intact still, but after a injury-riddled 12th season Ware decided to hang ‘em up, leaving a legacy including 138.5 sacks. The prime candidate to replace some of Ware’s production is third-year man Shane Ray. Those two guys share the same characteristics to their game, which means an explosive get-off and speed around the corner. Ray isn’t the same kind of technician heading into his third season as a man who is number eight on the all-time sack list, but he has improved heavily in that department since leaving Missouri. In 2016 he recorded eight sacks and another 15 QB hurries while only playing 58% of their defensive snaps. Even Ware himself has pointed at the young man as a breakout-candidate for the Broncos and I expect double-digit sacks plus a significant impact on the team. Ray picked up boxing in the offseason to increase his strength and endurance, as well as learning the work habits Ware once passed down to teammate Von Miller. Those two should form one of the deadliest edge-rushing combos in the league.
(UPDATE: Ray is expected to miss six to eight weeks due to a torn ligament in his left wrist.)
I made my point pretty clear about how I thought the Raiders defense fared in 2016 and that I believe they have to get better for this team to have a shot at winning in the AFC. A key piece to that improvement will have to be second-year safety Karl Joseph. The former West Virginia standout missed all but four games of his senior year, but still was selected in the middle of last year’s draft. I had no problem with that. Joseph was one of my favorite players in that class, as he was a ball-magnet for the Mountaineers and played bigger than his size would indicate. In my opinion, he has the potential be a great all-around player due to his play recognition, toughness and aggressiveness. Coming back from a torn ACL he didn’t quite look the same his rookie season in the NFL, but he works on regaining the kind of range he displayed in college. Joseph will be a huge reason for the Raiders to improve their run defense as a box safety, but he showed me so much versatility on tape when I studied him one-and-a-half years ago, I believe he shouldn’t be limited to that role. Scouting reports questioned his straight-line speed, but I saw excellent sideline-to-sideline play from him and last season you saw him run down Jamaal Charles from behind on multiple occasions. His football IQ and character are off the charts and I root big-time for this guy.
Others breakout candidates:
Vernon Hargreaves III & Noah Spence
Tyler Lockett & Paul Richardson
Texans pass-catchers (Braxton Miller, Will Fuller and C.J. Fiedorowitz)