The Unheralded Building Block for Every NFL Team's Future

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 3, 2018

The Unheralded Building Block for Every NFL Team's Future

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    Assembling a successful NFL team requires building blocks of all shapes and sizes.

    Some are blockbuster free agents who earned a massive payday. Some are highly touted prospects who became first-round picks. And some are players who get overlooked for a number of reasons, but they later grow into key contributors.

    The latter group could be forgotten on a losing roster, like Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku. Others finally dodged the draft-bust label, such as Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes. Then there are those who ascended after a roster move gave them an opportunity, like Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake.

    Every team has a key building block who doesn't generate much attention but is critical for long-term success regardless. Here's a closer look at those players as the offseason begins for 20 teams.

Arizona Cardinals: S Budda Baker

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    Prior to the 2017 draft, safety Budda Baker garnered attention due to how quickly he erased running lanes and disrupted plays in the backfield.

    Baker had the second-highest tackling efficiency of all Pac-12 safeties when defending the run, according to Pro Football Focus, and he continued to flash that ability during his first NFL season. The second-round pick ranked fourth on the team with 74 tackles, which is especially impressive considering he played only 48.4 percent of the Cardinals' defensive snaps.

    Baker blends instincts with raw speed to hover around the ball, which is how he forced two fumbles and recorded a sack in his limited playing time. The 21-year-old shines in coverage as well, where he finished with at least one pass defensed in six of his last eight games.

    As he keeps developing, Baker will add more athleticism to an Arizona Cardinals secondary that already has plenty of it between cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Completing passes against that unit will be even more difficult in the years to come.

Atlanta Falcons: DT Grady Jarrett

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    Blowing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI had to haunt the Atlanta Falcons throughout the offseason, but defensive tackle Grady Jarrett likely quelled some of those nightmare-filled days.

    Jarrett camped out in the backfield throughout the Super Bowl, finishing with three sacks and five tackles. The 24-year-old followed that up with a career-high four sacks during the 2017 regular season. Jarrett has also continued to be a run-stuffing force, ranking fourth among all interior linemen with 55 tackles.

    He logged plenty of standout games in 2017, though the best came during a Week 15 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Under the Monday night spotlight, Jarrett finished with five pressures and a sack on 33 pass-rush snaps, per PFF.

    The Falcons soon need to reward Jarrett, as his rookie contract is set to expire at the end of the 2018 season. They'll do so after getting multiple years of high-end production out of the 2015 fifth-round pick.

Baltimore Ravens: RB Alex Collins

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    Alex Collins is more magician than running back, as he's frequently able to turn nothing into something.

    The Baltimore Ravens running back consistently weaves around tackle attempts with his nimble Irish dancing feet or just plows through them. His tackle-breaking ways helped him gain 581 yards from scrimmage over a six-game midseason stretch, all while reaching the 20-carry plateau just once.

    Collins runs with power and a special sense of how to maneuver through small spaces. That led to games when most of his yards come after contact, most notably a Week 13 win over the Detroit Lions. Collins finished that game with 75 rushing yards even though he averaged just 0.6 yards before contact per attempt, according to PFF. He still averaged five yards per carry that day.

    The true hallmark of an offense-changing running back is one who can rise above subpar offensive line play and still churn out positive yardage. Collins is that sort of runner. The waiver-wire pickup can turn into a found gem for a team that has historically thrived with a stout defense and a punishing rushing offense.

Buffalo Bills: S Jordan Poyer

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    At the age of 26, Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer is having by far his best NFL season.

    The Philadelphia Eagles originally selected him with a seventh-round pick in 2013, but they released him in October of his rookie year. After he earned playing time with the Cleveland Browns in 2016, a lacerated kidney cut his season short. Now, Poyer is healthy and thriving.

    The 26-year-old's five interceptions in 2017—including picks in three straight games to end the regular season—were more than double than what he tallied in his previous four seasons combined. He's tied for third among safeties in interceptions, and his 13 passes defensed blow past his previous single-season career high of four. 

    Poyer recorded four double-digit tackle games, too, and he finished the regular season with 95 tackles overall. This is all coming from a safety who signed a surprisingly affordable four-year, $13 million contract with Buffalo in March.

    If his growth continues, Poyer will keep providing the Bills with high-end play for low-end pay, which makes him a salary-cap dream.

Carolina Panthers: WR Devin Funchess

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    Devin Funchess was a tweener in the NFL heading into the 2017 season. At 6'4" and 225 pounds, he wasn't large enough to be a tight end, but he didn't move well enough to be placed among the modern-day bulked-up wide receivers, either.

    Funchess was stuck in the middle until the Carolina Panthers traded away the similarly built Kelvin Benjamin and then leaned on him to be their primary large-bodied presence. The 23-year-old responded with five touchdown catches and three games with 80-plus receiving yards since the trade, even while fighting through a shoulder issue for much of that time.

    He's the ideal complement to running back Christian McCaffrey, who gobbles up targets and churns out yardage after the catch on short throws. Funchess, meanwhile, is the looming red-zone threat once the Panthers' run-oriented offense gets there. He's snatched 17 career touchdown catches on just 117 receptions in three years.

    The 2015 second-round pick showed he can excel in a larger role and use his size to be a physical force. That role and his effectiveness should continue to grow over time.

Chicago Bears: RB Tarik Cohen

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    Tarik Cohen is both a running back and an entertainer, as he breaks rules with his creativity and speed.

    A prime example came during the Chicago Bears' Week 13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Cohen fielded a punt inside his own 40-yard line that seemed destined to be a standard minimal gain. He then ran backward and turned his back to the play, which is a fundamental mistake for any punt returner.

    With the play flowing in the other direction, Cohen then blasted off for a 61-yard touchdown.

    Cohen frequently used his nitro boosters to reel off home run plays, including a 70-yard catch in Week 7. His opportunities were limited while he played behind Jordan Howard, but Cohen still produced 723 yards from scrimmage on only 140 touches. Add his return ability into the mix, and the 22-year-old rookie ranked ninth league-wide with 1,583 all-purpose yards.

    Though he's undersized at 5'6" and 181 pounds, Cohen is still capable of giving the Bears an intimidating tandem at running back. 

Cincinnati Bengals: CB William Jackson III

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    The Cincinnati Bengals didn't get a single regular-season snap out of their first-round pick in 2016 after cornerback William Jackson III tore a pectoral muscle. So heading into his second year, questions lingered about how Jackson would perform against the league's top wide receivers.

    Those questions quickly disappeared, as Jackson has easily justified the 24th overall pick the Bengals used on him.

    The 25-year-old recorded 14 passes defensed while playing 60.8 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps. He's shown the confidence to be left alone in coverage on the outside and still win those battles. When he was the "primary coverage defender" against the Steelers' Antonio Brown, the Packers' Davante Adams, the Colts' T.Y. Hilton and the Jaguars' Marqise Lee, that quartet combined for only two receptions and 42 yards on seven targets, according to PFF noted.

    The Bengals have plenty of issues to address in the 2018 offseason. But with Jackson in place, a shutdown corner isn't one of them.

Cleveland Browns: TE David Njoku

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    Back in high school, Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku was a high jump champion while weighing 220 pounds. Clearing a nearly seven-foot high bar at that weight isn't remotely normal.

    But nothing about Njoku has ever been normal, starting with his large family filled with high achievers both physically and mentally. At 246 pounds he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds and, even more impressively, recorded a vertical jump of 37.5 inches.

    His ability to weave through traffic and pile up yards after the catch made him a special talent at his size in college and the latest elite tight end prospect to come from the University of Miami. He averaged 16.6 yards per reception for the Hurricanes, with eight touchdown catches in 2016.

    The transition at tight end is typically slow and difficult for even top prospects in the NFL. There's a lot to learn quickly, especially with blocking duties often minimized at the college level. So Njoku's production was slow as a rookie, but he still produced 386 receiving yards and four touchdowns, all on only 60 targets.

    Eventually the Browns will stumble into a winning season because of all their high draft picks. And Njoku is among a talented group of young pass-catchers who can lead that charge.

Dallas Cowboys: WR Ryan Switzer

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    The Dallas Cowboys desperately need to find some source of explosiveness among their wide receivers.

    For a time, that field-stretching sizzle was supplied by Dez Bryant. But he just played a full season and finished with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards. He's logged 16-game seasons three other times in his career, and all three ended with 1,200-plus yards.

    Tight end Jason Witten will turn 36 years old in the offseason, and wide receiver Terrence Williams finished his year with just one 70-plus-yard game.

    Further down the depth chart, there's a seldom-used rookie who could make Cole Beasley expendable and might be ready to take off in his second season and beyond.

    Ryan Switzer has shined as a returner during his first NFL season, with the seventh-most kick-return yards (600). He slithered his way through tiny holes before sprinting to an 83-yard punt-return touchdown against the Washington Redskins in Week 13.

    Switzer used that same shiftiness to erupt for 1,112 receiving yards and six touchdowns during his final year at North Carolina. The Cowboys need to find a more prominent role for Switzer on offense in 2018, because his speed can be a mismatch-creating nightmare.

Denver Broncos: LB Shaquil Barrett

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    Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller is capable of taking over a game on his own. We've seen that plenty during his six double-digit-sack seasons.

    But even the league's premier pass-rushers still need help and support. For a while it looked like Shane Ray could be the Luigi to Miller's Mario, giving the Broncos a truly terrifying front seven. Then Ray recorded just one sack in 2017 before his season ended early due to a wrist injury.

    Now Shaquil Barrett has surged ahead as the best candidate to be locked in as Miller's wingman.

    The fourth-year pro stood out often in 2017, including back in Week 1, when he finished with a sack and five hurries, per PFF. And again in Week 12, when Barrett notched a sack and three hurries.

    He's a restricted free agent who should be re-signed by the Broncos at a reasonable cost. Letting a 25-year-old edge defender walk after he just showed promise in an increased role is generally frowned upon.

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay

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    Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay makes diving, sprawling and fingertip catches look like the most leisurely parts of his afternoon.

    We saw that on Thanksgiving Day with his outstretched 41-yard sideline grab against the Minnesota Vikings. And we saw it earlier in the season when Golladay's two touchdown catches in Week 1 included being on the other end of a 45-yard heave.

    His overall production was low, but a midseason hamstring injury cost Golladay five games. He also sometimes suffered from a lack of opportunity as the Lions' No. 3 receiver. So with all that factored in, his 477 receiving yards made for a fine rookie season, especially when so many of those yards came in massive chunks.

    Golladay may have finished with only 28 catches, but that's all he needed to record five 40-plus-yard gains through the air.

Green Bay Packers: RB Jamaal Williams

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    The Green Bay Packers rushing attack was the cure for insomnia throughout much of 2017. They just couldn't find anyone capable of consistently pushing the pile forward and earning those precious extra yards.

    But there is still promise in the running back who come closest to being an answer.

    Rookie Jamaal Williams was the Packers' third try at finding a starting running back in 2017, after Ty Montgomery suffered an injury and Aaron Jones fizzled out. He responded by being a dynamic presence and can make an impact as both a runner and pass-catcher.

    He's averaged 93.3 yards from scrimmage since Week 10, an eight-game stretch highlighted by four outings with 100-plus total yards. Two long touchdown catches that covered 54 and 30 yards also stood out.

    The Packers' search for clarity at running back in 2018 should start with Williams. It'll likely end with him, too.

Houston Texans: LB Zach Cunningham

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    The Houston Texans believe 2017 second-round pick Zach Cunningham can be their future at inside linebacker. He's spent a season validating that belief and improving with each game.

    Cunningham is a tenacious thumper who ended his final season at Vanderbilt with 125 tackles, with 16.5 for a loss. He had the fourth-highest run-stop percentage among FBS inside linebackers, per PFF.

    That relentless sideline-to-sideline play continued in the NFL. Cunningham logged 90 tackles over just 13 starts, and he surged to close out the season. Between Weeks 14 and 16, he piled up 14 run stops, again per PFF.

    The Brian Cushing era should be finally reaching its conclusion. He's an oft-injured soon-to-be 31-year-old and will account for a $8.84 million cap hit in 2018. Cunningham is an upgrade, and long term he can develop into a key cog for a strong defense.

Indianapolis Colts: CB Rashaan Melvin

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    It's been a long journey to starter status for Indianapolis Colts cornerback Rashaan Melvin. After going undrafted in 2013, he pinballed around to five different teams, including two separate and short stints with the Miami Dolphins.

    He became the classic example of why the road to undrafted success can take perseverance. Melvin was finally given an opportunity by the Colts and broke out during his age-28 season. He ended the year with three interceptions, and through Week 14 he had a passer rating allowed of just 60.3, per PFF.

    Melvin is now a pending free agent, and re-signing him should be a priority for the Colts. He can be one of the two pillars in Indianapolis' secondary alongside safety Malik Hooker, who had three interceptions over only seven games before his rookie season ended early due to an injury.

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Keelan Cole

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    Keelan Cole has quickly become the sparkling undrafted gem of 2017. The rookie Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver has frequently been seen sprinting away from everyone for yet another massive chunk gain.

    The 24-year-old posted 70-plus-yard receptions in back-to-back weeks. That was part of a three-game stretch when Cole totaled 393 receiving yards on 16 catches for a whopping average of 24.6 yards per grab.

    The Jaguars have a chance to be deep at wide receiver in 2018 if Allen Robinson re-signs and comes back from his ACL tear. They could also get a full season out of Allen Hurns, who has missed six games in 2017 with an ankle injury. But Cole should still be able to carve out a nice role for himself, possibly as the No. 3 wideout.

Kansas City Chiefs: DT Chris Jones

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    The Kansas City Chiefs needed some youthful energy injected into their pass rush, with outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston beginning to age. Hali just turned 34, and Houston is getting set to celebrate his 29th birthday late in January.

    Defensive end Chris Jones, their second-round pick in 2016, has quickly justified that high draft position with a leap in his second year. Jones has given the Chiefs an intimidating edge setter and is effective against both the run and pass, finishing 2017 with 32 tackles and seven passes defensed.

    The 23-year-old more than doubled his rookie-year sack total, going from 2.0 in 2016 to 6.5 in 2017. He put a bold exclamation mark on his season with three pressures and a strip-sack for his fourth forced fumble of the year in Week 17, all on just 27 snaps, per PFF.

Los Angeles Chargers: WR Tyrell Williams

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    Tyrell Williams didn't match his 2016 production or come through with a third-year breakout in 2017. But he's still a core wide receiver for the Los Angeles Chargers, and it would be stunning if he wasn't tendered by the team as a restricted free agent.

    Letting a 6'4", 205-pound 25-year-old walk simply isn't smart, especially after Williams' 1,059 yards in 2016. He combines both size and speed in an athletically gifted package and finished 2017 with a 16.9 yard-per-catch average.

    In an offense that had fellow wide receiver Keenan Allen thrown 159 balls, Williams did well to finish with two 100-plus-yard receiving games on only 43 catches.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp

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    Cooper Kupp has been everyone's favorite breakout candidate since he lit up Senior Bowl week. But even then it felt like the slot receiver couldn't possibly produce on par with the building buzz around him.

    In his rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams, Kupp has easily cleared that high bar.

    He's shifty and creates separation with ease. That's how he led all rookie receivers in receptions with 62. Kupp recorded six games with five-plus catches, and his precise route-running made him a reliable red-zone target too.

    The 24-year-old finished his rookie year with five touchdown receptions, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff had a passer rating of 109.3 when targeting him in the red zone through Week 15, per PFF.

Miami Dolphins: RB Kenyan Drake

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    The Miami Dolphins' decision to trade running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles was a little puzzling at first. He was the soul of their offense during a 2016 season that ended with the team's first playoff appearance in eight years. Ajayi finished fourth in the league with 1,272 rushing yards.

    Then Kenyan Drake quickly showed us why the Dolphins believed in their running back depth and why Ajayi was expendable.

    The 2016 third-round pick started the final six games of the season, piling up 641 yards from scrimmage. He also averaged 4.6 yards per carry during that stretch and showed his versatility with 20 catches.

    Set to turn 24 in late January and with only 166 career carries, Drake hasn't endured much pounding at the NFL level. As an every-down back already, that should make him a driving force in Miami's offense for many years.

Minnesota Vikings: CB Trae Waynes

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    For a while it looked like Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes was heading toward first-round bust territory. It's not exactly an encouraging sign when an 11th overall pick starts just one game as a rookie.

    But then in 2017, Waynes started more games than his first two seasons combined. He finally built trust with the Vikings coaching staff and could be relied on in single coverage, which is where Waynes found himself often; he responded with 11 passes defensed and two interceptions.

    He capped off a breakout season by allowing a passer rating in coverage of just 60.4 in Week 17, per PFF, and has given the Vikings a quality shutdown cornerback tandem alongside Xavier Rhodes. The emergence of Waynes helped to catapult the Vikings pass defense to the top of the league, and they likely won't be leaving that perch for a long time. Minnesota finished the 2017 regular season with the second-best secondary, allowing 192.4 passing yards per game.

New England Patriots: S Duron Harmon

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    Safety Duron Harmon seems to play in the shadows of New England Patriots cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler. Gilmore is in the first year of a lucrative contract that will pay him $40 million in guaranteed money, and Butler is about to either be franchise-tagged or bust the bank in similar fashion as a free agent in March.

    Harmon, meanwhile, re-signed with the Patriots in 2017 but will be paid only $6.5 million in guaranteed cash over four years. The Patriots are getting a whole lot for very little, as Harmon has developed a knack for coming through in clutch moments.

    The 6'1", 205-pound 2013 third-round pick just finished his age-26 season, recording a single-season-high four interceptions. Remarkably, three of them came in the final two minutes of games the Patriots won.

    That sounds like a fluke at first, but there's a longer history of Harmon stepping up when the Patriots need him most. Including the playoffs, he's logged 13 career interceptions, and 10 have come in the fourth quarter, as Doug Kyed of NESN noted.

New Orleans Saints: CB Ken Crawley

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    Ken Crawley has gone from an undrafted afterthought to a critical piece in the New Orleans Saints' resurrected defense.

    The Saints secondary made a leap in 2017, going from allowing a league-worst 273.8 passing yards per game in 2016 to 224.8 (15th). Cornerback Marshon Lattimore drove that turnaround and is a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. But Crawley, his position partner on the other side, played a significant role too.

    Crawley is in just his second NFL season and is a key figure in the Saints' defensive youth movement. His 17 passes defensed ranked tied for 13th, and Crawley's season was dotted with standout performances. In a Week 4 win over the Miami Dolphins, he finished with a passer rating in coverage of 22.9 on eight targets, per PFF.

    Not too bad at all for a cornerback who was inactive for the first two weeks.

New York Giants: DT Dalvin Tomlinson

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    in 2017 the New York Giants offered up plenty of reasons to stare in the distance for a long time. Providing excitement and hope wasn't really their thing during a season when wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. played just four games, the head coach was fired and cornerback Eli Apple had to be suspended for his disruptive behavior.

    But hidden among all that turmoil was the rise of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson.

    The rookie second-round pick became a consistent run-stuffer, tallying 50 tackles while also leading all first-year interior defenders with 24 run stops, per PFF. That comes after a standout collegiate career when the 23-year-old showed skill as a pass-rusher too, ending his time at Alabama with three sacks in 2016 after just one over his previous three seasons.

    Tomlinson can grow into a dual-threat defender and a young star to build around as the Giants try to avoid further embarrassment in 2018.

New York Jets: S Marcus Maye

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    The New York Jets' decision to select safeties with each of their first two picks in the 2017 draft was confusing at first, especially for a team with plenty of needs elsewhere. As the season went on, though, that decision started to make a whole lot of sense.

    Jamal Adams received most of the attention as the sixth overall pick, but Marcus Maye made an immediate impact too, with two interceptions and 79 tackles during his rookie year.

    The former Florida Gator's 45.1 cover snaps per reception ranked ninth among qualifying safeties entering Week 17, per PFF. He displays football intelligence to diagnose plays before the snap and then reacts quickly to blow them up in the backfield.

    Those instincts will make him a movable chess piece and a difficult defender to scheme against.

Oakland Raiders: RB Jalen Richard

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    Jalen Richard was knocked down on the Oakland Raiders' running back depth chart when they signed Marshawn Lynch. But that didn't stop him from producing chunk plays, even on limited touches.

    His workload predictably plummeted with Lynch inserted as the new workhorse. During his rookie year in 2016, Richard finished with 112 touches, but the 24-year-old had just 83 times in 2017. However, Richard still showed off his explosive ability, with five 20-plus-yard plays and a per-carry average of 4.9 yards. Ball security remains an issue, though, as Richard fumbled eight times and lost three.

    Lynch is still under contract in 2018. But he's always been retired once, and at 31 years old, he could walk away again just as quickly. If he does, Richard has shown he can handle a larger load and do it while streaking into the secondary often.

Philadelphia Eagles: CB Jalen Mills

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    Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills had a large, glowing target on his back early in the 2017 season. He was an inexperienced corner pushed to the top of the depth chart by both offseason departures and an injury to Ronald Darby. Opposing offensive coordinators wanted to exposed what they thought was a weak link.

    During a Week 3 win over the New York Giants, he was targeted 21 times, which was the most targets a cornerback has faced in a single game in 10 years, per PFF. That volume led to 119 yards and two touchdowns allowed, but amid the chaos there was still an encouraging early sign: The Giants gained an average of only 7.9 yards on the 15 receptions given up by Mills.

    He didn't allow large chunk gains, which was also the case in Week 1 against the Washington Redskins, when Mills gave up 10.8 yards per reception. That success in difficult early circumstances launched a season of steady growth for Mills, which ended with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.

Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Artie Burns

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    Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns struggled at times with penalties during the 2017 regular season. The 12 flags he drew put him among the leaders at his position.

    That's a product of the second-year corner still learning at the next level, but Burns balanced those mistakes with quality coverage and instincts to defend 13 passes.

    The high points of his season came on Christmas Day against the Houston Texans, when Burns was tasked with blanketing speed merchant Will Fuller V. Burns responded with his best outing of the season. He went the entire afternoon without allowing a reception and picked off a pass in the end zone when the game was still close.

    Burns has developed a little slower than what the Steelers wanted after he was a first-round pick in 2016. But his physical and mental tools have made him an anchor in their fifth-ranked secondary that allowed 201.1 passing yards per game in 2017.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Trent Taylor

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    Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo gets all the attention as the cornerstone for the San Francisco 49ers' rebuild. He deserves every bit of it after winning all five of his starts to end the season while averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt.

    Plenty of love is also showered on Reuben Foster, the rookie linebacker who finished with 72 tackles even though he missed six games due to injury. But often the speed of a rebuild is accelerated by nailing mid-round picks and finding Day 3 gems, such as 177th overall pick Trent Taylor.

    Taylor is a shifty receiver who became a target vacuum at Louisiana Tech. He ended his college career with 1,803 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. He'll need time to show that explosiveness in the NFL, but 430 yards on 43 receptions was a fine start, especially considering Taylor saw action on only 44.7 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps.

Seattle Seahawks: CB Shaquill Griffin

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    The Seattle Seahawks saw a glimpse of what a future without cornerback Richard Sherman could be like if the soon-to-be 30-year-old isn't re-signed when his contract expires following the 2018 season. And that future isn't as bleak as they may have thought, thanks to the play of Shaquill Griffin.

    The 2017 third-round pick became the Seahawks' top cornerback in Week 11 after Sherman's season ended due to a torn Achilles. Griffin responded with five passes defensed over that stretch (he recorded 15 overall) and an interception in the season finale.

    At 6'0" and 198 pounds, Griffin has the size the Seahawks look for in their cornerbacks, and he can win physical battles in press coverage. His aggressiveness led to seven pass breakups on third down through Week 15, per PFF, and he's a tenacious and willing tackler. Griffin logged seven games with five-plus tackles.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Peyton Barber

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers backfield was a place where hope went to die in 2017.

    It was easy to dream on Doug Martin making a triumphant return from his suspension. But then Martin averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. His baffling six-year career now has two 1,400-plus-yard rushing seasons scattered among four with less than 500 yards.

    Jacquizz Rodgers wasn't able to do much either, and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Mercifully, Peyton Barber gave the Buccaneers' rushing offense a heartbeat and hope going forward.

    A second-year running back who went undrafted in 2016, Barber piled up 418 yards from scrimmage over just the final five games of 2017. The highlight of his season came in Week 13, when he went off for 102 rushing yards against the Green Bay Packers and added 41 yards as a receiver. Then in Week 14 against the Detroit Lions, Barber showed how easily he can dart away from would-be tacklers, with 50 of his 58 rushing yards coming after contact, per PFF.

    The Buccaneers will likely release Martin, because that's what usually happens to fading running backs heading into their age-29 season who are set to make $6.75 million. They'll surely add to their backfield either through free agency or the draft, but Barber enters the offseason as the favorite to start in 2018, and he has the talent to hold onto that job.

Tennessee Titans: S Kevin Byard

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    Kevin Byard went from being a Day 2 draft pick in 2016 who started just seven games to one of the league's premier ball-hawking safeties.

    His game-changing plays helped to push the Tennessee Titans into the playoffs. Byard finished tied for the league lead with eight interceptions and reached that number in spectacular fashion. He recorded three multiple-interception games in 2017, highlighted by his three picks in Week 7. He finished just two shy of tying the single-season high for combined interceptions and pass breakups since PFF started charting data.

    Yet Byard was still left off the Pro Bowl roster, which shows how much of an afterthought he is despite his interception-snatching brilliance. Perhaps another strong showing in a playoff upset win will change that.

Washington Redskins: WR Josh Doctson

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    2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson was already flirting with the bust label simply because he couldn't stay on the field. The 25-year-old missed all but two games in his rookie year due to an Achilles injury that wouldn't go away, and he was then sidelined for much of the 2017 preseason while dealing with hamstring issues.

    As a result, Doctson began 2017 buried on the Redskins' wide receiver depth chart, and recorded just four receptions over his first five games. But as the season wore on, we finally saw why Doctson was valued so highly in his draft year.

    At 6'2" and 206 pounds, he has both the size and athleticism to win contested catches downfield. That led to receptions for 38, 42 and 52 yards on his way to 502 yards in total, all on just 35 catches and 78 targets. Doctson is also a reliable red-zone target and led the Redskins with six receiving touchdowns.