NFL Offseason 2017: Who Are the Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position?
Most NFL free agents have found a new home, and the draft and OTAs are just around the corner. That gives us a chance to start looking ahead to the 2017 NFL season, which is still 20 weeks away.
While mainstays such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan figure to dominate the proceedings, a new crop of rising studs could join them. Some of these potential breakout players are recent high draft picks on the verge of coming-out parties, while others are youngsters who might turn into surprise stars.
For the fantasy football enthusiasts out there, all of them should be on your radar heading into the summer.
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins signal-caller Ryan Tannehill appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2016, as he posted a career-high passer rating of 93.5. But he threw only 19 touchdown passes before suffering a knee injury in Week 14 that cut his fifth pro season short.
Over his final eight games, Tannehill had a 100.1 passer rating and completed more than 69 percent of his passes, guiding Miami to a 7-1 record during that span. The sprained MCL and ACL that ended his 2016 campaign prematurely shouldn't slow him down in 2017, as Dolphins head coach Adam Gase recently told reporters Tannehill has no restrictions and is doing "everything he can do."
Tannehill has been overlooked for much of his career, and he hasn't had much support in terms of offensive playmakers. But with a rebuilt offensive line and a deep receiving corps, he could take a big step forward as a potential Pro Bowl quarterback in his age-29 season.
Honorable Mentions: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Running Back: Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell didn't quite clear 1,000 rushing yards in his third NFL season, but he wasn't far off. He racked up a career-high 952 yards on the ground, including two 110-plus-yard efforts in the final four weeks of the season. One of those—a 113-yard performance in a Week 14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals—came on just 10 carries.
ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported the Alabama State product received interest as a restricted free agent this offseason, but he's unlikely to sign an offer sheet elsewhere before the Friday deadline. Assuming he stays in Cleveland, he'll have more support than ever in 2017, as the Browns signed two free-agent offensive linemen (Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter) in March.
The Browns could be a lot better on offense in 2017, and Crowell should benefit from that in what should be a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign.
Honorable Mention: Mike Gillislee, Buffalo Bills (or possibly New England, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport)
Wide Receiver: Cameron Meredith, Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears quarterbacks posted the NFL's eighth-lowest combined passer rating last season, but Cameron Meredith still managed to reel in 68 percent of the passes thrown his way for the second consecutive year. He also caught fire late, snagging 28 passes for 372 yards in the final four weeks of the season.
No wide receiver caught more passes than Meredith did during that span.
That late surge suggests the undrafted free agent could explode in his third year, especially since Alshon Jeffery's departure will create a huge void in terms of targets.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta Falcons
Tight End: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Higbee was one of the most talented and athletic tight ends in the 2016 draft class, but the Western Kentucky product was fresh off a senior season in which he played only 487 snaps after switching from wide receiver, according to Pro Football Focus. Between that rawness and injuries, the 24-year-old played only 402 snaps while catching just 11 passes as a rookie.
He appears to be in line for a larger role in 2017, as general manager Les Snead told Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News that the Rams "expect big things" from Higbee in new head coach Sean McVay's multiple tight end offense. Higbee, who scored 12 touchdowns during his final two season with the Hilltoppers, has that type of potential.
The Rams offense should be better with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff entering his second season and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth joining the fray. As a result, the buzz surrounding Higbee at the combine might prove prescient.
Honorable Mention: Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
Offensive Tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens hoped to have found a cornerstone left tackle after using the No. 6 overall pick of the 2016 draft on Ronnie Stanley, but he didn't start his NFL career with a bang. The former Notre Dame All-American lacked consistency during the first three weeks of the season before suffering a foot injury which cost him four games.
Based on the way he finished the 2016 campaign, however, Stanley is likely to become a star next season. During the final four weeks of the year, Pro Football Focus graded the 23-year-old as the best offensive tackle in the NFL, as he gave up only three hurries and one sack over that span.
Look for the elite pass protector to pick up in 2017 where he left off.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions
Guard: A.J. Cann, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars right guard A.J Cann hasn't dazzled much during his first two professional seasons, but the 2015 third-round pick had two of his best games in Weeks 15 and 16 this past year.
According to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, the Jaguars are considering flipping Cann to the left side of the line in 2017. That's where he played while dominating the SEC at South Carolina in 2014, so such a switch could help lead to him having a breakout third season.
Honorable Mention: Alex Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Center: Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts
Pro Football Focus graded Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly as only the 19th-best center in the league last season, but 18th overall pick of the 2016 draft did improve immensely over the course of the year. The Alabama product gave up 10 pressures during the first five weeks of the season but only allowed five during the final five weeks, and his Week 15 performance against the Minnesota Vikings drew rave reviews.
Watch for the hard-nosed former unanimous All-American to become a Pro Bowler in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Mitch Morse, Kansas City Chiefs
Defensive End: Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers defensive end Kenny Clark is another 2016 first-round pick who didn't put up big numbers as a rookie but came on late. Clark failed to record a sack and notched just 13 tackles while playing primarily as Mike Daniels' backup last season, but he made a huge impact late in the regular season and in the playoffs for a surging Packers team.
During Green Bay's two postseason victories over the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, Clark pressured the opposing quarterback on six of his 29 pass-rushing snaps, according to PFF. That seems to bode well for his sophomore NFL campaign, as do the high expectations Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has for him.
"Kenny, if you just watch the progression of the season, his arrow was straight up," McCarthy said at the combine, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I thought he played extremely well the last six weeks. That's something we need to build off. I think he'll take that big jump as a second-year player. It starts in the weight room."
Honorable Mention: Dante Fowler, Jacksonville Jaguars
Defensive Tackle: David Irving, Dallas Cowboys
Perhaps in part due to character concerns, David Irving wasn't drafted in 2015, and the Kansas City Chiefs waived him that fall after signing him as an undrafted free agent. He served primarily as a depth guy for most of his first two years with the Dallas Cowboys, but it was hard to miss that 6'7", 273-pound frame as he gained more opportunities over the course of his second season.
Expect the Iowa State product to play even more in Year 3, mainly because he has the ability to dominate in spurts. In back-to-back December home games, for instance, Irving had three sacks and 14 quarterback pressures while also earning a strong PFF grade in run defense. The Cowboys would be smart to try to milk him for as many of those spurts as possible.
Honorable Mention: Javon Hargrave, Pittsburgh Steelers
Outside Linebacker: Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree is a former first-round pick who has just 8.5 sacks in two NFL seasons, but 4.5 of those sacks came in a four-game span at the conclusion of the 2016 regular season. The Kentucky product has also been working on his technique with pass-rushing guru Chuck Smith, who told CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco that he believes Dupree will be the Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.
As PennLive.com's Jacob Klinger recently pointed out, Dupree and double-team-drawing defensive end Stephon Tuitt have rarely been healthy at the same time. If that changes in 2017, Dupree could take advantage of a lack of attention and explode in his third season.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Jenkins, New York Jets
Inside Linebacker: Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans
Benardrick McKinney was one reason why the Houston Texans had the league's top-rated defense in 2016 despite being without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for much of the season, but the former second-round pick has yet to reach his potential as a versatile linebacker.
"I'm proud of him," Texans general manager Rick Smith told reporters in February. "This guy has wonderful physical attributes: size, speed, height. He's a tremendous football player. Great instincts, you saw him coming into himself. Very productive year, he's got another level to reach as well."
Only 17 inside linebackers earned higher PFF grades than McKinney did as a sophomore in Houston, where he excelled in coverage and run defense. Look for him to climb that list and make a run at the Pro Bowl in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Reggie Ragland, Buffalo Bills
Cornerback: Anthony Brown, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys lost both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency while signing veteran corner Nolan Carroll, which likely means Brown will be a full-time starter from the get-go in 2017. Cowboys fans should be OK with that, because the 2016 sixth-round pick picked up steam late in his rookie campaign.
After surrendering completions on nearly 88 percent of the passes thrown his way during the first half of the regular season, the 23-year-old Purdue product cut that rate down to 50 percent during the second half, per PFF.
It seems like a hot new corner emerges every year, such as A.J. Bouye in 2016 and Josh Norman the year before that. Don't be surprised if the coverage-savvy Brown becomes that guy in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Johnson, Houston Texans
Safety: Su'a Cravens, Washington Redskins
Su'a Cravens had some nice moments while lining up primarily as a linebacker in 2016, but the Washington Redskins are going to play him more at safety next season. The 2016 second-round pick is a do-everything defender who will have a chance to thrive in a much larger role next to deep safety D.J. Swearinger.
"Knowing Su'a, I don't think there's a lot of things he can't do, so I'm excited to see him back there," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said earlier in the offseason, according to Anthony Broome of 247Sports.com. "I think he's going to have a lot more range than people give him credit for right now."
Cravens was solid at linebacker as a rookie, and he won't turn 22 until July. Look for him to make a name for himself as a run defender, pass-rusher and even a cover guy in the Washington secondary next season.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans