Predicting the Biggest Breakout Players for 2nd Half of the NFL Season
It happens every year in the National Football League.
Many players take steps forward as a season progresses. Some are small. Others are massive leaps that thrust players into stardom.
Last year, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked lost—like franchise had wasted the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
But Goff has exploded in Year 2 under new head coach Sean McVay, throwing for 2,030 yards and 13 touchdowns while leading the team to a 6-2 record.
Over his first two seasons in the NFL, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving had 4.5 sacks. In four games since returning from suspension in 2017, Irving has already exceeded that output with six.
However, some surges don't start in September. Sometimes a player takes a while to get his sea legs at the NFL level. Others still emerge when an injury or a change in situation opens a window of opportunity.
Whatever the reason, just as in the first half of the 2017 season, the second will feature some young players who will take the league by storm.
Here are the leading candidates.
Paxton Lynch, QB, Denver Broncos
You had to know this list would include at least one quarterback. After all, in the NFL, they make the world go round.
The problem is singling one out. Goff and Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller Carson Wentz have most assuredly broken out. Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans has too, although an ACL tear cut short his rookie season.
New San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo showed flashes as a starter in New England. But he isn't starting yet for the Niners, and his supporting cast is sorely lacking. The latter holds true for Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears as well.
That leaves second-year pro Paxton Lynch of the Denver Broncos.
Like Garoppolo, Lynch isn't starting yet. But that could change soon. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported on NFL GameDay Morning that the 2016 first-round pick could start for the Broncos as soon as his injured shoulder will allow him.
You know, because Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler are, um, not good.
Of course, there's no guarantee Lynch will be either. In two starts last year, he threw for 327 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His passer rating as a rookie was south of 80. And before getting hurt in the preseason, Lynch was unable to wrest the starting job from Siemian.
But if the Broncos fall Sunday against the Patriots at Mile High (a likely event), they will fall to 3-6. At that point, the team might as well see if Lynch can realize the potential that led general manager John Elway to trade back up into Round 1 to acquire him at No. 26 overall.
Lynch has a big right arm and a talented pair of receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to lean on. And the Broncos have one of the NFL's better defenses to help keep them in games.
He's no sure thing, but if a quarterback's going to blow up in the second half of 2017, Lynch is the best bet.
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
With Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, the question isn't talent. In his NFL debut, he got to New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown twice—including on his first play as a professional. Garrett has at least one sack in every regular-season game in which he's played.
The problem is that he didn't make his debut until Week 5, and he's played in just three games. First, he suffered an ankle injury in training camp. Then he self-reported a concussion.
Garrett should be back in action with the Browns' return from their bye in Week 10, and Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson told Pat McManamon of ESPN that the scary thing for opposing quarterbacks is Garrett's just scratching the surface of what he can do:
"You can see him starting to truly get back to where he was before -- the speed, the quickness, the hand placement and the movement in his body. He is doing some good things, and he just has to continue to get better. I think we all know there is a whole [other] level for him in there. I think he will keep pushing and keep working at it."
The Browns haven't had much luck in the first round in recent years. OK, the Browns haven't had any luck in the first round in recent years.
But indications are Garrett's the real deal—an elite talent who was worthy of his draft slot.
And if the 21-year-old can just stay on the field, Kamerion Wimbley's team rookie sack record of 11 from 2006 is within reach—missed time and all.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers made one of the more surprising deals of the Oct. 31 trade deadline, shipping top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills for two picks in the 2018 draft.
It's a move that thrusts Devin Funchess into the spotlight, whether or not he's ready for it.
If Week 9 was any indication, Funchess is up to the task. In his first game as the Panthers' No. 1 receiver, he piled up five catches for a season-high 86 yards in a 20-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium.
"That's what he can do," Newton said. "He can give you those yards after catch. He's very savvy, and he's just grown into that role and that's what you love to see. I feel as if there are some things he can learn from, things that I can learn from being that he's now at a more (prominent) position. And we're only going to get better."
Funchess has the size to be a No. 1 receiver—the team lists the converted tight end at 6'4" and 225 pounds. And while he isn't to run past anyone in a straight line, Funchess demonstrated more than a little run-after-catch ability against the Falcons, turning a short pass into a gain of 33 yards.
RAC-king up the YAC, so to speak.
The Panthers aren't the most pass-heavy team in the NFL (tied for 20th in passing attempts per game), and tight end Greg Olsen will (hopefully) be back in a few weeks.
But that will give Funchess time to further earn Newton's trust, and a 1,000-yard season is now within the realm of possibility.
Reuben Foster, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
For most of the predraft process last spring, Reuben Foster was considered the top inside linebacker prospect in the 2017 class. But concerns about his surgically repaired shoulder caused him drop to the back end of the first round (No. 31 overall).
That shoulder wasn't what derailed the first half of Foster's rookie season, though.
In the season opener against the Panthers, Foster managed 11 snaps before going down with a high-ankle sprain, per Chris Biderman of Niners Wire. He made it back onto the field in Week 7 against the Dallas Cowboys, only to be forced from that game with injured ribs.
In last week's 20-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, however, Foster finally made it through an entire NFL game—and showed just what he's capable of.
Foster was easily the team's best defensive player against the Redbirds, piling up 13 solo tackles and a tackle for loss. As Matt Barrows reported for the Sacramento Bee, Foster’s performance impressed safety Eric Reid, who is one of the longest-tenured players on a very young 49ers defense.
"He leaves it all on the field," Reid said. "He's fighting through some injuries himself. Not so much injuries, but he's banged up too. To have him out there—we need him."
It's been a depressing start to the first season of the new regime in San Francisco, and odds are things aren't going to get markedly better for the 49ers soon. The offense is horrible, and the defense is spending a ton of time on the field.
All that time between the lines is going to mean loads of tackle opportunities for Foster, whom general manager John Lynch thought enough of to part ways with veteran NaVorro Bowman in October.
If Foster can put the injuries behind him, he could flirt with 100 total tackles—in spite of the time he missed.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins
Apparently, there's a sign hanging on the wall in Adam Gase's office that says, "My way or the highway."
A few days before the trade deadline, the Miami Dolphins head coach told reporters, "... I'm done compromising with anybody. I'll do what I think is best, and those that want to come on board, great. Those that don't, we'll get rid of them."
He started by shipping starting tailback Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That surprising move left a big hole in Miami's running game—and more than a little uncertainty about who was going to fill it.
If Sunday night's 27-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium was any indication, the Dolphins are going to use a committee attack. Both Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake received a near-identical workload, with Drake out-touching Williams 15 to 13.
Williams found the end zone on one of his six catches, but Drake was the far more effective of the two on the ground, carrying the ball nine times for 69 yards.
Gase told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald both backs bring something to the table:
"Damien has impressed me from the get-go. I was told when I got here that when the lights come on Sunday, he's one of those guys you want with you. He has done nothing but make plays for us.
"Kenyan, we really feel fits the mold we're looking for in that backfield. With those two guys, I like the fact that they're able to catch the ball, run good routes, run the ball both inside and outside. They're physical. We like their skill sets."
The 6'1", 211-pound Drake was never the featured back at Alabama. And barring an injury to someone, he probably won't be a 20-plus touch player with the Dolphins.
But touchdown or no, he outplayed Williams against the Raiders.
And don't think Gase didn't notice.
Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Some may consider the defensive players listed here to be low-hanging fruit where potential breakouts are concerned. After all, Myles Garrett, Reuben Foster and Jamal Adams were all arguably the top prospects at their positions entering the 2017 draft. At No. 6 overall, Adams joins Garrett as top-10 picks.
But there's no debating the rubber hasn't met the road yet with Adams—just like with Garrett and Foster.
It hasn't been due to injury. And it hasn't been for lack of confidence.
Last month, Adams told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that he had big plans for his rookie season:
"I'm going to change the position. When you go out there on the field, you don't try to stay the same. You try to make something happen. You try to do something different. When Odell (Beckham Jr.) made the one-handed catch, he changed the culture, right? He changed what receivers do now. Everybody's catching with one hand, right? Because of him. Even though people were making one-handed catches, he did something that people had never seen before. So just give it time, brother. That's all."
To say that the results haven't lived up to that bravado is an understatement. Adams has yet to amass more than six solo tackles in a game or intercept a pass. He isn't being avoided in coverage. He's being targeted—regularly and successfully.
But lately, there have been signs of a rebound. Adams recorded his second sack of the season in Week 7 against the Dolphins, and he's improved against the pass in recent weeks.
This is admittedly something of a speculative call. But Adams is an immensely talented young defensive back. He's going to get better.
And in doing so, he just might justify those boasts.
Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins
When the Washington Redskins signed Terrelle Pryor Sr. in March, the plan was simple: Pryor, fresh off a 1,000-yard season in Cleveland, would help soften the loss of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency by slotting in as the new No. 1 receiver.
Um…yeah. About that plan.
Pryor has been a non-factor for the Redskins, with just 20 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown so far this season. Over the past three games, with his snaps scaled back, Pryor has just four catches for 31 yards, including a Week 8 goose egg.
With Pryor falling out of favor, more playing time has opened up for Doctson, who was Washington's first-round draft pick in 2016. To date, that hasn't translated to a ton of production—Doctson has 11 grabs for 189 yards and three scores on the season.
However, last week, he showed flashes of what he's capable of, with three catches for a season-high 59 yards—including a 38-yarder where he extended fully to make a diving grab on the game's deciding drive.
Head coach Jay Gruden hailed the catch (and the building trust between Doctson and quarterback Kirk Cousins) while speaking to ESPN.com's John Keim.
"To give him those opportunities and see him make those plays," Gruden said, "is just going to add to the confidence level of not only Josh, but to Kirk throwing to him."
After missing almost all of his rookie year with an Achilles injury, Doctson is showing flashes of the game-breaking talent that led Washington to burn a high pick on him.
And if the Redskins have any hope of making the playoffs, they're going to need a big second half from him.
Blake Martinez, ILB, Green Bay Packers
The 2017 season is shaping up as a lost one in Titletown.
Without Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers have lost three games in a row. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy after they were spanked by the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football.
But beleaguered Packers fans in search of silver linings need look no further than the middle of the Green Bay defense, where second-year linebacker Blake Martinez has quietly gotten a head start on a second-half breakout.
In four straight games (and five of his last seven), Martinez has piled up 10 or more combined tackles. He already has more stops in eight games this season than he did in his rookie year (13 games).
In fact, among NFC linebackers, only Zach Brown of the Washington Redskins has more tackles this season than Martinez (74 combined).
Martinez told Mike Spofford of the Packers' official website that he feels he has room to improve.
"On every single play, I'm my most harsh critic," he said. "Maybe I got a tackle on a play, but maybe I could have got him a yard back. Those little things or my footwork on this play could have been that much better."
Some will make the (valid) point that Martinez has already broken out, so he can't do so in the second half. But you can also make the counterpoint that Martinez has toiled in relative obscurity until now. Defensive players not named Clay Matthews don’t get a ton of run where the Packers are concerned.
That will change as Green Bay supporters try to find something positive to latch onto in this dumpster fire of a season.
And Martinez may well lead the entire NFL in tackles in 2017 given how badly the Green Bay offense is struggling.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
Yes, Corey Davis is the sixth first-rounder in this article. It stands to reason that higher-round picks have better chances at breaking out…unless Cleveland drafted them.
And there was even a Browns player who made it here.
Like Garrett (and a number of the others), the predominant reason Davis hasn't broken out is easy to pinpoint. He's been hurt. The fifth overall pick in April's draft missed the majority of the first half of 2017 with a pulled hamstring.
Davis was back in the lineup against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, however, catching two passes for 28 yards in 39 snaps, per Jimmy Morris of SB Nation's Music City Miracles.
Head coach Mike Mularkey told ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe that he expects Davis' return to open up a struggling Tennessee offense.
"I hope it will affect some coverages with him out there. Maybe it helps Delanie [Walker] as well. It should help," Mularkey said. "He's got to produce out there and show that he is that threat we think he can be."
Veteran receiver Rishard Matthews agreed.
"He's a guy that can make plays when he gets the ball in his hands, and he can also stretch the field," Matthews said. "So, I hope when he comes back, we're able to get a little bit more creative with the passing game."
That's why the Titans drafted Davis where they did. Not to draw coverage away but to stretch the field and win one-on-one battles. To add a dimension to an offense that didn't exist last year and hasn't existed to this point in 2017.
If the Titans are going to make the playoffs this season, they need that big-play ability from the youngster, and in Matthews, Walker and Eric Decker, the team has the complementary receivers to keep opponents from keying in on him.
If quarterback Marcus Mariota can get him the ball, the big plays will be there.
Ronald Darby, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles head into their bye week as the NFL's hottest team at 8-1. They've been playing well in just about every facet of the game.
If Philly had a weakness over the first half of the season, it's been its 25th-ranked pass defense.
But help is on the way.
As Les Bowen reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, head coach Doug Pederson indicated that cornerback Ronald Darby is on track to play in Week 11 for the first time since dislocating his ankle in the season opener against Washington:
"Last week, he really got more reps in practice. Even though it was 'limited,' it was almost 'full.' He's another one that will be around [this week], work on his treatment and his rehab, and we'll see where we’re at when we get back, we'll evaluate it some more, but he's in a really good spot to possibly come back and help us here in the next week or so."
If Darby is healthy and at (or even near) 100 percent, the impact of his return can't be overstated. The 23-year-old showed flashes of true lockdown ability in his two seasons in Buffalo. The Eagles didn't trade for Darby to add depth in the secondary.
They did so to make Darby their No. 1 corner.
Had he been playing in the first half of the season, Darby would have been the foundation of a secondary that not much was expected from in 2017. Now, however, the Eagles are the talk of the league. If Darby begins to show his stuff, people are going to notice.
And you can't truly break out unless someone is watching.