NFL Breakout Players to Watch
Football is upon us at last. Every September — despite what may have transpired in the months between, from when the NFL champion hoists the Lombardi Trophy until the coin is flipped for the season opener — the excitement never wanes.
Head trauma, political statements, contract holdouts and premature retirements are all forgotten in the first week of the season, and it’s easy to see why: hope.
Every team enters Week 1 with the same hope. The game is so volatile and unpredictable that even false hope feels real before teams take the field.
That hope is fueled by draft picks, free-agent signings and players returning from injury, with fans hoping for a triumphant resurgence into relevancy. Or if you’re the Browns or Bills, a debut in such waters.
These are the players carrying that torch of hope for their teams and their fans into the 2018 season.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
No surprise here. The long-awaited return of the former No. 1 overall pick has been the biggest uncertainty in the league the past 24 months. Andrew Luck last threw a football in an NFL game nearly two years ago.
Since then, the Colts have been, for lack of a more politically correct term, a dumpster fire of a franchise. Save for the somewhat surprising breakout of Jacoby Brissett, the shortcomings in terms of talent have become even more evident without Luck. Despite a few solid skill players for Indianapolis, the defense and the offensive line provided little resistance, making the Colts a scheduled win for most of the league.
Luck is back, and some have big questions about if he is the same player. Talent never goes away, and Luck has more of that than maybe anyone else to break a huddle. He’s always been a premiere athlete, and he’s intelligent enough to not let his previous headstrong playing style resurface.
Prior to the shoulder injury, Luck was putting up another landmark season for a young quarterback, totaling 31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, with more than 4,000 yards at 7.8 yards per attempt, numbers that closely resemble Tom Brady’s 2017 MVP campaign. And Luck did this while being sacked 41 times.
The Colts have tried to improve up front, and if they have even a little bit, Luck should return the Colts to the top of the league in terms of offense.
Saquon Barkley, Running Back, New York Giants
The hype is real.
Saquon Barkley enters the NFL with more hype than even a few of the more heavily touted running backs in recent memory. See Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, to name a few.
Even looking past Barkley’s gaudy combine numbers — which include a 4.40 40-yard dash, 29 bench press reps, and ranks in the top 1-3 percentile in a slew of other speed and burst scores — the highlight machine at Penn St is a safe bet to break out in 2018 and find at least as much success as his predecessors.
Barkley's New York Giants offensive line is not close to what Elliott enjoyed running behind in his rookie campaign in Dallas, but with the additions of Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh, the Giants are improved, and they have tried to shore up that side of the ball.
Getting perhaps the best receiver in football (Odell Beckham Jr.) back on the field won’t hurt a bit, either. New head coach Pat Shurmur’s offense is running-back friendly, and though it might sound like sacrilege to say, the Giants have the makings of one of the top offenses in the league if Eli Manning is even a fraction of what he showed in his prime.
Myles Jack, Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
Myles Jack was one of the perceived steals of the 2016 draft, when the Jaguars snagged the projected first-rounder with the 36th overall pick. Questions about his health have been dismissed, but his first season made experts question where he fits in the stout Jacksonville defense.
In the 2017 season, Jack found his place as a tackling machine next to savvy veteran and team leader Telvin Smith. Jack racked up 90 tackles as a member of the team’s front seven and has eyes on triple digits this season. The emergence late in the season of Dante Fowler should continue and free up more chances for Jack to burst into opponents’ backfields.
Expect to see Jack up his sack totals and force a few balls on the ground, as the uber-athletic linebacker is poised to take a big leap for a defense that was already the most feared in the league.
Mitchell Trubisky, Quarterback, Chicago Bears
The Bears were more of a comedy troupe than a viable contending football team in 2017. However, Chicago had more than a few silver linings, the first and most notable being the pinpoint accuracy of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
He excels in throwing the ball downfield, ranking 11th in the NFL in deeps ball completion percentage in his rookie campaign. Enter speed on the outside in the form of free-agent pickups Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. Robinson spent two years making Blake Bortles look like an NFL quarterback prior to an ACL injury last season, and Gabriel's 4.4 speed will give Trubisky plenty of opportunity to air it out.
With a new offensive-minded head coach and weapons in the backfield, expect a Jared Goff-type leap from the former Tar Heel.
Derwin James, Safety, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were one of the surprises in 2017, and while the offensive output of Los Angeles’ three-headed monster of Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon received a lion’s share of the credit, the defense nearly carried the team into the postseason.
An abysmal start followed by a frenetic playoff push can be attributed to the output of the defensive front coupled with lockdown corner Casey Hayward. The only thing missing was putting a lid on the defense, and Derwin James is here to slam it shut.
James, a physical freak, will be licking his chops at the back of the defense. While Joey Boda and Melvin Ingram bring the heat and the corners shore up the underneath routes, James will be left to pounce. Used to feeding off the talent upfront, James is poised to slide in comfortably to the Chargers' scheme and push the defense to take its next step in 2018.
Rex Burkhead, Running Back, New England Patriots
Rex Burkhead’s only barrier to a stout first season in New England was the injury bug. One would figure the annual uncertainty of the touch distribution in the Patriots’ backfield could be a concern for Burkhead, coupled with the surprise early drafting of Sony Michel. But in New England, all that matters is what happens once you put on the pads, and Burkhead has shown that is when he shines.
In limited action in 2017, Burkhead found the end zone eight times, averaging 5.5 yards per touch and, perhaps most importantly for Bill Belichick, is a safe bet in pass protection. He also catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield.
Burkhead has the potential to amass close to 1,500 all-purpose yards with his versatility. Usage will be key here, but given how he’s performed in the past and his nose for the end zone, expect to see Burkhead in the backfield more often than not for the Patriots, especially in short-yardage and third-down scenarios.
Dante Pettis, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers
Rookie wideout Dante Pettis was the first weapon snagged in the 2018 draft for new 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Most project the Washington Husky to make an immediate impact on the special teams side of the ball with his blinding speed and agility.
His final season in the Pac-12 saw him wreak havoc on a conference that regularly features some of the fastest athletes in the country. That speed will serve him well at the next level, and now that San Francisco appears to have a franchise passer, Pettis should be able to channel that speed into a real offensive weapon.
The big key here is the revamped offensive line for the Niners and how they have appeared to build in the model of the Super Bowl-champion Eagles. Think Nelson Agholor with more upside. As a rookie, Pettis may take a few weeks to fold into the system, but that patience should pay off with late-season dividends.
Joe Mixon, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals
Personal feelings aside, Joe Mixon made it clear that he was the premier back on the Bengals toward the end of the 2017 season. The Bengals’ overall dysfunction on offense was the only thing holding him back in his rookie campaign.
Despite being on the field for less than half of the Bengals’ snaps, Mixon averaged nearly 13 carries per game with a pair of catches to go along with them. Near the bottom of the league in run production, the Bengals' lone bright spot came from Mixon’s output, and they should be relying more heavily on the second-year player this season.
A step forward for the offense as a whole would go a long way to increase his production, but regardless, he is one of the top two or three weapons that Cincinatti will use to control the game with a lack of otherwise explosive playmakers.
David Njoku, Tight End, Cleveland Browns
Most of the Browns hype (if you can call it that) revolves around their free-agent acquisitions going into this season. And while Jarvis Landry, Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb do deserve attention in terms of revamping the offense into a real NFL threat, David Njoku may benefit the most from the changes.
Mayfield is lurking, but in the meantime, this is Taylor’s team, and his limitations as a deep passer combined with his propensity to make safer throws suggest Njoku will be a top target. At 6-foot-4, 246 pounds, Njoku has a similar frame to Taylor’s former favorite target, Charles Clay.
Njoku’s athleticism gives him a bump up from Clay, and Njoku has shown the ability to haul in tough catches, bringing in 52.9 percent of contested catches in the 2017 season. With Landry added to the mix, the middle of the field will be ripe for the picking, and that is where Taylor’s eyes typically land.
Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys
All the talk about the Cowboys’ defense seems to center around pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence, and that is understandable. However, Charlton has flashed upside this preseason that could turn Dallas into Big D-line.
Reports suggest that Charlton has increased both his size and explosiveness, which rarely go hand-in-hand. The first-round talent that Dallas saw when the Cowboys selected him in the 2017 draft took a little bit of time to mature, but it appears the work ethic has been cranked up to 100.
Charlton should be salivating at his single-teams on the side of the line opposite Lawrence. If the first preseason game is any indication, a game that saw Charlton put forth the NFL's highest pass-rushing productivity rating of 22.5 (highest in the league with at least 10 attempts), he has made leaps over where he was at the end of last season.
In his college career at Michigan, his sack numbers went from 3.5 as a sophomore to 13.5 in his senior season. That development suggests a similar progression at this level.
Dante Fowler, Defensive End, Jacksonville Jaguars
Dante Fowler may be remembered as the physical embodiment of the Jacksonville franchise. A big-time, hometown pick out of the University of Florida, just a short ride from the northeast Florida Jags, Fowler tore his ACL in his first days as an NFL player, missing his entire first season in 2015.
In his absence, the baby Jags grew up, and after a stellar 2016 draft, Fowler was mostly forgotten. Jalen Ramsey is the face, and most definitely the voice of the Jags’ vaunted defense, and Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus are the big-money players on the D-line. However, it is time Fowler showed his true potential.
With virtually no pressure on him coming into 2018, he is ready to shine and give the Jaguars another defensive weapon for opponents to fear. He quietly doubled his sack total from 2016 last season and looks ready to make the leap into a double-digit sack threat this season, especially after picking up a pair of sacks in the team’s run to an AFC title game appearance.
Dalvin Cook, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings
The sexy breakout pick in 2017 proved he can really go get it at the NFL level before a brutal injury washed away a potential Rookie of the Year campaign for Dalvin Cook. A mainstay on the field from the onset, Cook saw more than 65 percent of snaps in his first four games, amassing an impressive 22.5 touches per game and 5 yards per touch.
He enters this season with a new franchise quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and the bolstered offensive attack means Cook should be in store for a massive season from an all-purpose yardage perspective. Heralded for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make tacklers miss in space, Cook is a perfect fit for the up-tempo offense the Vikings will look to bring to the table this season.
The explosiveness is back, and Cook will be looking to make up for lost time in an offense that has no excuses to be anything but great in 2018.
Chester Rogers, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts
Chester Rogers saw a promising 2017 derailed by a hamstring issue that saw him riding a bike more often than catching passes for the Colts. However, the No. 2 slot opposite speed demon T.Y. Hilton appears to be Rogers’ spot to lose coming into the new season.
The wild-card factor here is the returning Andrew Luck, finally healthy and ready to fire. If Luck and Rogers can sync up, this could be a big step forward for a Colts offense desperately in need of a weapon. Indy quarterbacks averaged an 83.6 quarterback rating when targeting Rogers in 2017, up a couple points from where they were otherwise, but his yards per target were down under 7, which is about average.
Luck should provide that added boost, and when you factor in that Rogers was No. 3 in the league in target separation (getting an average of 2.3 yards of space per), Luck should have a field day throwing balls his way.
Shaquem Griffin, Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
Do not underestimate this man. Whether he had one hand or both, the should-have-been Heisman contender for the only undefeated college football team in the country in 2017 brings his relentless work ethic and team leadership qualities to the NFL.
The perfect fit on a revamped Seahawks defense desperately in need of some fresh leadership, Shaquem Griffin brings that and plenty of production to go along with it. Listed at linebacker, some had Griffin as a tweener coming out of the University of Central Florida, but his tackling ability and nose for the football are unquestioned with 18 sacks, four forced fumbles and two picks in his last two years in school.
He ran a 4.38 40-yard dash, put up 20 reps on the bench and refused to accept the idea that he is somehow hindered by his physical makeup. Anyone with doubts on his ability to wrap up tackles or bat down balls at the line need only look at his game film. He gets after it, and he has all the tools to do it at this level.
In his preseason debut, he led the team in tackles. Go figure.
William Jackson, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals
While they have not been particularly successful with this strategy as a franchise, the Bengals appear to have another stud on the outside in William Jackson.
The speed to keep up with even the best burners in the league, Jackson did an excellent job of limiting production of opposing wideouts in his rookie season. He played every game, on the field for better than half the snaps, and in that time, he limited production to 26 receptions on 65 targets, with 10 passes defended, no touchdowns allowed and one interception.
Passers averaged just a 43.8 quarterback rating when throwing Jackson’s way. Jackson is not as widely known as Jalen Ramsey or Casey Hayward, but production wise, he is right there with them. Jackson Island may become the norm in 2018 with a year under his belt and hopefully some more support on that side of the ball.