NFL Players Poised to Break Out in the Season's 2nd Half
The NFL chews players up and spits them out on a weekly basis. The "What have you done for me lately?" league continually churns through even the most talented stars.
Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas was the NFL's iron man, having played 10,363 straight snaps before he tore a triceps ligament on Oct. 22. Thomas is a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest left tackles ever to play. He quickly realized how the NFL operates when forced out of the lineup.
"Here I am, confronting my career mortality, and no matter how you prepare yourself, it comes down to this: You're not that important," Thomas wrote for Sports Illustrated.
A funny thing happens when the top performers step away for whatever reason: The game goes on and others perform well. Opportunity is the NFL's most precious commodity, and there's always another player ready to step in and excel.
This season, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt and Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence have already been amazing. The following 10 players are primed to do the same during the second half of the 2017 campaign due to their talent and opportunity.
A number of players should provide bigger impacts during the second half of the 2017 season, but their upside may be limited due to their respective situations. These five in particular jumped to the forefront:
Wide receiver Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills: The FBS all-time leader in receptions has struggled to get open and catch the ball during the first half of his rookie campaign. However, the Bills need a wide receiver—any receiver—to become a consistent presence. Jones set career highs Sunday with three receptions for 32 yards against the Oakland Raiders.
Running back Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots: Burkhead has overcome his early-season rib injury, and he's been featured over the last two weekends with 18 offensive touches. For comparison, James White had 15 touches, while Mike Gillislee carried the ball 19 times during the same time frame.
Running back Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers: Eventually, Breida is going to take over as the San Francisco 49ers' lead back. He's a better fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense compared to Carlos Hyde. The rookie is more explosive and faster to run the outside zone. At worst, he'll continue in a rotational role as a change-of-pace back.
Wide receiver Dontrelle Inman, Chicago Bears: The Bears desperately need wide receiver help and traded for Inman last week. The veteran receiver posted an 810-yard campaign in 2016, but he fell down the Los Angeles Chargers' loaded depth chart. The Bears are a run-first offense, but Inman can help with Mitchell Trubisky's maturation.
Safety Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears: Jackson's coming-out party occurred two weeks ago when he returned a fumble and interception for touchdowns. What's being overlooked is how good he is against the pass. Since the start of October, the rookie has graded No. 1 overall in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
Baltimore Ravens RB Alex Collins
The Baltimore Ravens' Thursday night affair against the Miami Dolphins became a showcase contest for running back Alex Collins.
Collins carried the ball 18 times for 113 yards in the 40-0 victory. After his first 100-yard effort, the second-year ball-carrier ranks ninth leaguewide with 478 yards. He leads the league at 6.0 yards per carry despite playing behind the Ravens' depleted offensive line.
Collins' explosion is somewhat surprising considering the Seattle Seahawks released him during the final wave of preseason cuts. The 2016 fifth-round pick said he still isn't fully comfortable as the Ravens' lead back, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley.
"I feel like [the confidence is] definitely growing. It's just getting the feel for the team and getting the playbook and working with the quarterbacks and other running backs. They do a great job of just bringing me along and helping me learn a new scheme. I feel like when you know what you’re doing out there, you can play fast and confident."
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has steadily increased Collins' role in recent weeks. He had at least 10 carries in each of Baltimore's past four games and had a career-high 18 totes during Thursday's contest.
The Ravens' reliance on Collins should grow during the second half since quarterback Joe Flacco is currently in the league's concussion protocol and Baltimore's 32nd-ranked passing attack continues to flounder.
Indianapolis Colts RB Marlon Mack
Indianapolis Colts running back Frank Gore is an all-time great. He passed Barry Sanders on Sunday for the sixth-most rushes in NFL history, per Colts assistant director of communications Matt Conti.
But Indianapolis needs to utilize rookie Marlon Mack more.
Gore leads the team with 110 carries compared to Mack's 43. However, the first-year runner is averaging more yards per carry (4.3), has as many rushing touchdowns (two) and only nine fewer receiving yards (110 total).
"We've got to get him the ball more," head coach Chuck Pagano admitted two weeks ago, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. "It's on me. Yeah, and if it doesn't (add up), then blame the coach. I screwed that up. Everything runs right through this dude right here."
Mack has 23 touches since Pagano's remarks.
Indianapolis' 34-year-old back is a reliable and steady presence. The 21-year-old runner is a more volatile option, but he provides far more punch at this point in their respective careers.
The Colts lack playmakers, and Mack has the potential to be a dynamic presence in and out of the backfield.
Tennessee Titans WR Corey Davis
The Tennessee Titans are patiently awaiting Corey Davis' return to the lineup. This year's fifth overall pick adds a different dynamic to the Titans offense, but he's struggled to remain healthy.
Davis didn't participate in predraft workouts due to an ankle injury. This didn't stop the Titans from investing in his future even though he needed time to recover. After making his debut in Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders, the rookie suffered a strained hamstring the following week.
Thus, he has provided little to a scheme that needs his ability to create after the catch and stretch the field.
"I've improved a lot," Davis said, via the Tennessean's Jason Wolf. "I haven't been able to physically do everything that I want to, but mentally, I'm in the game, in the film room, just making sure I can stay on top of everything so when I get back I can hit the ground running."
Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker have been Marcus Mariota's top targets among his wide receivers, but both work better out of the slot. Davis can create mismatches outside the numbers, and he's expected back in the lineup Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, per Paul Kuharsky of paulkuharsky.com (via Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams).
"...He's been real diligent with his rehab, very attentive in meetings, and he's been a great teammate, so we've just ready to get him back, because I think he's a difference-maker," Decker said, via Wolf.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster burst onto the national stage in Week 8 with a 193-yard performance against the Detroit Lions during Sunday Night Football.
His standout play provided a precursor to a much bigger role.
The Steelers front office has a major decision to make prior to Tuesday's trade deadline: Should it move Martavis Bryant? The coaching staff chose to make Bryant inactive for Sunday's contest after the receiver publicly aired his grievances.
With Bryant out of the lineup, the rookie was firmly entrenched as Ben Roethlisberger's No. 2 option behind Antonio Brown on Sunday. Even if Pittsburgh doesn't move Bryant by Tuesday's deadline, Smith-Schuster may have already cemented his status moving forward.
When asked whether he was confident Bryant will help the team down the stretch, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin responded, "I'm not. We'll see," per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
The 20-year-old Smith-Schuster leads all rookies with 424 receiving yards. In fact, he has 167 more yards than all five wide receivers selected before him in April's draft.
"Hands down, got a lot of room to grow, for him to be 20 and play the way he plays is unbelievable," running back Le'Veon Bell said after Pittsburgh's victory over the Lions, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "He can block, catch the ball short, go balls, mentally in the game, best player ever under 21."
New Orleans Saints WR Willie Snead
The New Orleans Saints are 5-2 overall, lead the NFC South and should eventually receive a big boost from wide receiver Willie Snead once he's fully incorporated into the offense.
The NFL suspended Snead for the first three games due to a violation of its substance abuse policy. The wide receiver then dealt with a hamstring injury upon his return. As a result, his playing time has been severely limited, with only 25 snaps on the year, per Pro Football Reference.
Sean Payton's squad already features a strong wide receiver corps with Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon Coleman. Each has six or more receptions of 20 or more yards. Snead will need to develop a new niche among this group.
"I've got to prove my worth, and once those opportunities come, I have to take advantage," Snead said earlier this month, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.
Doing so shouldn't be too hard. The fourth-year veteran caught 141 passes for 1,879 yards during the previous two seasons, and Payton already stated the team will "rely on" him down the stretch, per the Times-Picayune's Josh Katzenstein.
Cleveland Browns OT Spencer Drango
Replacing a legend is never easy, and no one expects Spencer Drango to perform as well on the Cleveland Browns' blind side as Joe Thomas did for 10-plus seasons.
The second-year blocker simply mustn't be overwhelmed when facing some of the NFL's best pass-rushers. He performed well in his starting debut as the Browns' left tackle against the Minnesota Vikings' Everson Griffen, who is a premier edge defender.
Griffen did finish with a sack and five quarterback hits, but most of his production came late in the contest when the Vikings held a lead and the defensive line could pin its ears back with no concerns about stopping the run.
Otherwise, Drango held his own. Yes, he received help from tight ends and running back chips, but he looked natural at left tackle. The Baylor product started 48 games and earned All-America honors twice before Cleveland selected him in the fifth round of the 2016 draft.
His next four performances against the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers' talented pass-rushers will determine whether the Browns found Thomas' replacement or can't wait for him to return.
Jacksonville Jaguars DT Marcell Dareus
Marcell Dareus wore out his welcome with the Buffalo Bills a long time ago, and the organization finally made that official when it traded the two-time Pro Bowl defender to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday.
"I think it's best for both sides the way everything was landing or headed," former teammate Kyle Williams said, via New York Upstate's Matthew Fairburn. "I think it's good for him to have a change of scenery and I think to kind of move on from here."
The transaction should be great for Dareus.
The former third overall pick hasn't been a dominant player since he posted a career-high 10 sacks in 2014. He signed a six-year, $96.574 million contract the following September. On the surface, this appears to be a classic case of a talented player getting paid then entering cruise control.
Doug Marrone's departure as the Bills head coach also may have fueled the defensive lineman's decline. The two have been reunited in Jacksonville, which may be enough to ignite something within Dareus.
Plus, the 27-year-old defender will now be playing alongside the league's most talented defensive line. He won't be asked to be a star. Instead, he'll play Robin to Calais Campbell's Batman. More importantly, Dareus should help improve the Jaguars' 32nd-ranked run defense.
When motivated, Dareus is one of the league's best interior defenders. The trade couldn't have come at a better time to get the most out of him.
Philadelphia Eagles DE Derek Barnett
Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett has been close to getting numerous sacks, but he came up just short in most instances.
Barnett ranks fifth among rookies with 2.5 sacks. However, his consistent edge presence portends to far more productivity over the next eight contests. The Tennessee product created 22 total pressures so far, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Barnett said, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Dave Zangaro. "I feel like the game is slowing down for me now. I am just focusing on every play and not doing too much with my job. If I do my job and focus on my assignments, the plays will come to me. At first, a lot of the old heads told me I was doing well, to be patient, keep on working, it's gonna come. Now it is starting to come because I am doing the techniques they are teaching us and everything will fall into place."
The Eagles' talented defensive front provides an advantage since Barnett isn't asked to be the team's primary pass-rusher. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Vinny Curry can do plenty of damage.
Other rookies like Myles Garrett and Dietrich Wise have been more productive with fewer snaps this season, but they've developed into their respective defenses' best pass-rushers, which will send plenty of attention their way.
Barnett, meanwhile, can continue to develop, harass quarterbacks as part of a rotation and improve upon his first-half production.
San Francisco 49ers Linebacker Eric Reid
Position changes don't always work, but the right move can push an individual toward greatness.
The San Francisco 49ers used the 18th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft on LSU's Eric Reid. Reid spent four-plus seasons as a starting safety before first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh recently decided to move him to linebacker.
Expectations are high over the next eight contests.
"There's no doubt in my mind, if the league thinks he was a really good safety, just wait until you see his versatility and what he can do as a linebacker," Saleh said Thursday, per Joe Fann of the 49ers official site. "He's going to be unbelievable."
Reid made seven total tackles in his first two contests as a weak-side linebacker. The production has yet to meet his coordinator's forecast because this is a learning experience.
"It's a little different for me," the 25-year-old defender said after San Francisco's 40-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, per Niners Wire's Chris Biderman. "I've never played the position. I'm trying to embrace it and learn as I go."
Once Reid becomes comfortable, his natural skills and instincts should take over. That gives him the potential to be a successful conversion project like Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon.
Cincinnati Bengals CB William Jackson
Matchups against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown and Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton typically don't serve as opportunities to highlight a cornerback's play. Most defensive backs just try to slow those two ultra-talented pass-catchers.
However, the Cincinnati Bengals' William Jackson III used the past two weeks to show off his immense potential after opening the season as the team's fifth corner. According to Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, Jackson allowed one catch for only three yards while being targeted seven times.
The Bengals corner didn't shadow the aforementioned duo, but he performed at his best against Brown. Last year's first-round pick allowed only one reception when matched up against the NFL's leading receiver, per PFF.
Jackson works in a Bengals secondary rotation alongside Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Adam Jones. There's plenty of talent in this group, but Jackson is the most naturally gifted. He missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle, yet he's making up for it with outstanding play in his sophomore campaign.