Predicting Every Team's Breakout Player for 2018

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2018

Predicting Every Team's Breakout Player for 2018

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    Every first-year player has thoughts about his transition to the NFL. Top draft picks come into the league with high expectations right away. In reality, development may take a steady pace, leading to a standout third or fourth year. 

    Nonetheless, a competitive nature leads players to believe a new year will become their best season, though multiple variables can expedite or slow career ascension. Scheme fit, injuries and roster depth all play a factor. 

    In the previous year, we saw two rookies go to the New Orleans Saints and become prime-time players. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara earned Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors for their 2017 performances.

    Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard became an All-Pro in his second campaign. Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence had a good 2015 term but put together a 14-sack breakthrough in 2017.

    As we go into the early stages of the offseason, who's on the radar for a breakout year? Which rookies will contend for yearly awards? Are there veterans poised to show out in contract years?

    Let's cycle through every team with a projection on the player ready to take their career to a new level.

        

Arizona Cardinals: Robert Nkemdiche, Defensive Tackle

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    Injuries and healthy scratches have prevented defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche from leaving an early mark on his NFL career.

    Thus far, his most notable play came on a 21-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 16 of the previous season. He's played 17 games since entering the league as the No. 29 overall pick in the 2016 draft. 

    The new coaching staff plans to give Nkemdiche a fresh look. Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb commented on the positives he saw on film, per 98.7 FM Arizona Sports' Zach Alvira

    "In the little bit of film that I've observed and watched, he's obviously, at times, jumped off the tape," Holcomb said. "He's got some ability. That's something that when we get into Phase 1 and Phase 2, we're going to sit down and discuss some things and find out exactly what makes him tick." 

    During the past preseason, Nkemdiche flashed as a disruptor on the interior and looked well on his way to a strong sophomore campaign before a calf injury sidelined him for the first four games of the regular season. Another strong offseason with a healthy finish should put him back on track for a breakout year.

Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, Defensive End

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    Tight end Austin Hooper deserves an honorable mention here, but defensive end Takkarist McKinley will have a more profound impact as a pass-rusher off the edge.

    McKinley provided efficiency as a rotational pass-rusher in 2017. He logged 401 snaps but ranked second on the team in sacks with six. The UCLA product had one more tally in the category than Vic Beasley, who was coming off a 15.5-sack season.

    Adrian Clayborn's exit should create more opportunities for the second-year defensive end to reach the quarterback. Expect him to build on a good start to his NFL career. After the upcoming season, we may have to ask whether his upside supersedes Beasley as the fourth-year veteran returns to defensive end.

    McKinley could reach a double-digit sack total with his efficiency. The ability to improve as a run-defender will put him in the Pro Bowl conversation.

Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, Cornerback

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    Linebacker Matt Judon deserves an honorable mention, but he racked up eight sacks and started 12 games for a partial breakout last year.

    Cornerback Marlon Humphrey played nearly 55 percent of the team's snaps as a starter in five games during the previous season. That number should rise as the former first-rounder takes in more experience.

    Brandon Carr has been an NFL iron man. He hasn't missed a start in a decade of professional play. Keep in mind teams use nickel packages more than base alignments with spread offenses taking over the league. Both players should see significant time on the field. 

    Nonetheless, the Ravens picked Humphrey with a top-20 selection in 2017. He's the future in the secondary. The Alabama product saw fewer snaps in the slot than Carr last year; Baltimore will likely continue to use him on the boundary. 

    Humphrey listed second on the team in pass breakups with 11 to go along with two interceptions. With a slight bump in snaps, he'll see an increase in production.

Buffalo Bills: Shaq Lawson, Defensive End

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    Two years after coming into the league as the No. 19 overall pick, we're still waiting for defensive end Shaq Lawson to pay dividends on the Buffalo Bills defensive line. He's recorded six career sacks and fought through injuries in that span.

    In his junior year at Clemson, Lawson looked the part of a solid bookend pass-rusher for a team that needed a dominant defender to set the edge. Head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier can develop the third-year pro into an impact player, but it starts with him staying on the field. 

    The Bills didn't have one defender on the roster with more than four sacks during the previous term. Buffalo will have a decision to make on exercising Lawson's fifth-year option next offseason. The looming evaluation may serve as an extra incentive for a productive campaign.

Carolina Panthers: D.J. Moore, Wide Receiver

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    Quarterback Cam Newton will have two new catch-and-run options in the passing attack. Eighth-year veteran Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore join a wide receiving corps that needed playmakers who can rack up yards after the reception.

    Smith may have peaked between the 2013-15 seasons as a deep threat, but he's caught 56 passes in the last two years. Moore can stretch the defense at an early stage in his career. 

    Maryland's offense never ranked higher than 89th among 128 qualifying programs with Moore on the roster. Still, he led the team in receiving yards for two years and finished with 13.9 yards per reception through three seasons.

    In Carolina, he'll step into the No. 2 receiver role as a favorable option in the aerial attack. Tight end Greg Olsen goes into his age-33 season coming off an injury-riddled year.

    In a pro comparison, the Maryland product will probably fill Ted Ginn's old role with the Panthers—hopefully with fewer drops. The rookie should have ample opportunities to burn defenses downfield at around 15 yards per catch.

Chicago Bears: Leonard Floyd, Outside Linebacker

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    In his third season under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, it's finally Leonard Floyd's year to break out as a pass-rusher for the Chicago Bears.

    Since coming into the league as the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, Floyd has dealt with a myriad of injuries.

    He admitted that it took two months to recover from a concussion suffered at the end of his rookie campaign. In November, a collision with cornerback Kyle Fuller caused injury to his MCL and PCL, shortening his season to 10 games. 

    Assuming Floyd stays healthy, three's a charm for his impact on the second level of the defense. The Bears signed Aaron Lynch, but they drafted the Georgia product with an idea he'll develop into a solid pass-rusher. It's time for potential to turn into production.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon, Running Back

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    The Cincinnati Bengals focused on the trenches during the offseason. Offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price join the group as premium players set to start for the upcoming season.

    It's a positive for quarterback Andy Dalton, but the ground attack will also benefit from the acquisitions. Running back Joe Mixon quietly put together a decent 2017 campaign despite the subpar offensive line. He logged 913 yards from scrimmage as a dual-threat option in the backfield.

    Before Glenn's injury-riddled 2017 season, he took the field as a quality run-blocker on the perimeter. The Bengals should also have more success in the aerial attack with the upgrades in protection, which would open running lanes for the second-year tailback.

    In the previous season, Dalton targeted Mixon 34 times in the passing game, and he came up with 30 receptions for 287 yards. Expect that number to rise, especially if wideout John Ross fails to bounce back from a disappointing 2017.

Cleveland Browns: Caleb Brantley, Defensive Tackle

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    The front office shipped defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the New England Patriots amid a trading frenzy during the offseason. He's not going to leave the Cleveland Browns as a footnote, though. The 24-year-old contributed to the seventh-ranked run defense in yards allowed in 2017.

    How will the Browns address the position next to impressive second-year defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi?

    In 2017, the previous regime took a chance on defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who came out of Florida as a highly touted prospect, but then a misdemeanor battery charge plummeted his draft stock. He fell to the sixth round. 

    Two years ago, Brantley displayed the power and quickness to shoot gaps, blow up the run or pressure the quarterback. With a full offseason on tap, he's a prime candidate to fill the vacant 3-technique defensive tackle position.

Dallas Cowboys: Jourdan Lewis, Cornerback

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    Based on what the Dallas Cowboys' young cornerback group showed on the field in the previous year, Jourdan Lewis flashed the most as a breakout candidate for the upcoming season.

    As a boundary defender, Lewis mirrored receivers and didn't allow too many big plays or much cushion for yards after the catch. He may have surrendered some touchdowns along the way, but it's part of the learning process as a first-year player.

    The Michigan product played 746 snaps during the previous term, which converts to a little more than 71 percent of the team's defensive snaps.

    Fellow cornerback Chidobe Awuzie should also see improvement in his second campaign, but he saw the field far less than Lewis (309 snaps). The experience gives No. 27 the edge over the new No. 24 in the secondary as the premier player in the Cowboys' coverage.

    Lewis appeared in 15 contests and started seven in 2017. Assuming he locks down a starting position for Week 1, expect him to improve on 10 pass breakups and record multiple interceptions.

Denver Broncos: Devontae Booker, Running Back

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    The Denver Broncos released running back C.J. Anderson after his best season with the team. He rushed for 1,007 yards, though it took him five years to reach that mark.

    By default, running back Devontae Booker steps into the starting role, but the front office also selected Royce Freeman in the third round of the draft. The two will split carries, but the third-year tailback will likely see the field on all three downs due to his skill set as a pass protector. 

    There's a reason Denver felt comfortable with Booker as its lead tailback. In his rookie campaign, he saw significant snaps because Anderson's knee injury limited him to seven games. The Utah product finished that season with 877 yards from scrimmage. Over the past two years, he's also been a factor in the short passing game. 

    It's always wise to add depth, but Booker should run away with the starting job and toward the best season of his professional career.

Detroit Lions: Devon Kennard, Outside Linebacker

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    Devon Kennard started and ended his career as a decent second-level pass-rusher for the New York Giants. He recorded 9.5 sacks between those two terms. The fifth-year pro joins a revamped linebacker corps in Detroit under head coach Matt Patricia.

    The Lions ranked in the bottom half under the sacks category in the previous year, so there's a need for added pocket pressure. Detroit's coaching staff will find ways to maximize Kennard's skill set as a pass-rusher.

    As the Patriots defensive coordinator, Patricia found clever ways to generate a pass rush using non-household names such as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and hybrid defender Rob Ninkovich over the past couple of years.

    Expect a spike in Kennard's sack numbers and run stops as he poses a bigger threat attacking the line of scrimmage.

Green Bay Packers: Jaire Alexander, Cornerback

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    After allowing 30 touchdowns through the air, which ranked 29th in the league last year, the Green Bay Packers hired Mike Pettine to replace Dom Capers and drafted cornerbacks with their first two picks. Something had to change with poor results in that specific area.

    As for the roster assets acquired, cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson displayed the ability to force turnovers in college. 

    The former gets the nod as the breakout player due to his fluid movements in backpedal motion. Alexander also ran a 4.38 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, which suggests he has ideal speed to close on passing windows in coverage.

    As a sophomore at Louisville, Alexander snagged five interceptions then dealt with leg and hand injuries during his junior year. He's 5'11", 190 pounds, but his athleticism and ability to make plays on the football field will stand out in 2018.

Houston Texans: Zach Cunningham, Inside Linebacker

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    Coming out of Vanderbilt, Zach Cunningham's film showed a rangy linebacker who frequently found the football for a stop. He logged 125 tackles, 16 resulting in a loss, during his junior year before declaring for the 2017 NFL draft.

    At 6'3", 234 pounds, potential lack of play strength and missed tackles on the collegiate level listed as primary criticisms. As a rookie, his quickness and ability to diagnose plays served him well. He started at "Will" and "Mike" in the Houston Texans defense alongside Benardrick McKinley. 

    Cunningham didn't wither on the field banging against bigger bodies. He recorded 45 tackles and six pass breakups. Going into his second year with another offseason under his belt, expect him to follow short pass routes with more success in coverage, specifically inside the 20-yard line where he gave up costly receptions.

    Another year in a professional facility will also allow him to add more strength in order to fight through blockers and stop the run. Cunningham doesn't play at a premium position, but he's going to jump out as an all-around playmaker in the upcoming term.

Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, Safety

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    The Colts have multiple question marks in the secondary, but the coaching staff knows it can count on safety Malik Hooker to find the football when it's in the air.

    We didn't see his ball-hawking skills on full display during the previous term. He tore his ACL and missed nine games but finished with three interceptions and four pass breakups.

    Hooker doesn't have a timetable for his return. Assuming he's back on the field within the first quarter of the season, there's a good chance the 22-year-old gives us a flashback to his seven-interception year at Ohio State in 2016. In that year, he also recorded three pick-sixes. 

    It's premature to draw the comparison to former Ravens safety Ed Reed, but it's something to think about if Hooker adds several interceptions with touchdowns to his NFL resume.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tight End

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars made headlines when they decided not to re-sign wideout Allen Robinson and went with a plethora of No. 2-type pass-catchers at the position. 

    At tight end, though, the team added Niles Paul and Austin-Seferian Jenkins then released 13-year pro Marcedes Lewis.

    Seferian-Jenkins made changes to his life and re-emerged with the New York Jets as a much-improved asset in 2017. He recorded season-highs in receptions (50) and receiving yards (357).

    It's difficult to project which pass-catchers will stand out within a crowded wide receiver position, but quarterback Blake Bortles will have a 6'5", 262-pound tight end with reliable hands all over the field.

    Seferian-Jenkins' improved blocking won't show up in the box score, but he's going to set new career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns as a safe option in the aerial attack.

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback

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    The Kansas City Chiefs saw quarterback Patrick Mahomes start under center for one game. Apparently, the performance instilled confidence in his ability to lead a football team. He completed 22 of 35 pass attempts for 284 yards and threw an interception versus the Broncos in their regular-season finale.

    Beyond the statistics, he didn't look rattled and took his shots downfield. The Chiefs already had their speedy deep threat in wideout Tyreek Hill, and then they acquired Sammy Watkins, who's performed below expectations as a former No. 4 overall pick. Yet, when healthy, he's tough to cover one-on-one. Don't forget tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt in the backfield. 

    Kansas City loaded the roster with dynamic playmakers just in time to provide its potential franchise quarterback with the tools to succeed. Mahomes has the confidence in his arm and the weapons around him to transform the Chiefs offense into a powerhouse.

Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, Wide Receiver

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    Wideout Mike Williams started his rookie season on the physically unable to perform list due to a back injury. Upon his return, he saw limited snaps before dealing with an ailing knee down the stretch. 

    After an extended bout with the injury bug, the 6'3", 218-pound pass-catcher should stand out above the rest as a big-body target in the red zone.

    Quarterback Philip Rivers will have one wideout who can come down with receptions despite tight coverage. At Clemson, quarterback Deshaun Watson utilized Williams' stature and physicality to his advantage. The Chargers shouldn't have too much difficulty crossing the goal line passing inside the 20-yard line. 

    Among the second-year wideouts picked in the first round, Williams has the best quarterback, which puts him in an ideal position for a breakout year.

Los Angeles Rams: Michael Brockers, Defensive Lineman

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    Interior defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh joins Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald up front. Offensive lines can't double- and triple-team both players. Even with added protection, there's a danger in losing track of Michael Brockers.

    Brockers accumulated 19 sacks in six seasons. He doesn't have a high volume in the category year-to-year, but the 300-pounder could see a season-high playing alongside two premier players on the defensive line.

    Last year, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips allowed Brockers to play in space against the Cowboys in Week 4, and the experiment worked out in their favor, per Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Klein.

    "For [Phillips] to see me as a playmaker and to open it up and give me those opportunities, I appreciate it," Brockers said. "And I just want to show him that he didn't make the wrong decision and I can get the job done." 

    Brockers logged a sack and two pass breakups in that game. Going forward with Donald and Suh in the fold, we could see his game develop beyond an interior run-stopper under Phillips.

Miami Dolphins: Kenyan Drake, Running Back

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    For the first 10 years of his career, tailback Frank Gore averaged four yards per carry for the season. Over the past three, he's fallen short of the mark. At 35 years old, it's fair to expect a natural decline. We can also question the Colts' offensive line.

    Either way, Gore will cede carries to second-year running back Kenyan Drake, who's clearly on the rise. He led the league in rushing yards with 444 from Weeks 13 to 17. His breakout started at the end of the previous year, but he'll pick up where he left off.

    Gore's presence shouldn't put a huge cap on Drake's touchdown production. The 14th-year veteran has tapered off as a finisher near the goal line with seven scores on the ground in the last two years. Expect the Alabama product to handle early and late downs with frequent touches as a receiver out of the backfield.

Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook, Running Back

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    Through the first four weeks of the previous season, running back Dalvin Cook ranked second in rushing yards with 354 before a torn ACL derailed his rookie campaign.

    Now healthy, without Jerick McKinnon sharing touches in the backfield, Cook takes a fresh start with an upgrade at quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Minnesota still has some question marks concerning the offensive line, but the Florida State product also flashed exceptional hands as a receiver at the collegiate level. 

    Cousins will have someone who can handle the bulk of carries in the ground attack and a reliable target in the intermediate pass game as well. Despite Latavius Murray's presence in a complementary role, mark Cook down for 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage as a dual-threat option in Minnesota's backfield.

New England Patriots: Deatrich Wise, Defensive End

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    The Patriots don't need flashy names to get the job done. As a second-year defensive end, Deatrich Wise will push for the highest sack total on the team.

    New England signed Clayborn, but he's played slightly above 50 percent of the Falcons' total defensive snaps over the past two years. The 29-year-old joins a new team with differences in scheme, but Wise earned a spot in the rotation at the position with five sacks last year.

    The former fourth-rounder started his rookie campaign with two sacks in the first two weeks and finished with two in the last three contests. Despite the inconsistencies midway through the year, another offseason in the system should yield improvement as a pass-rusher.

    As a middle-round pick on a team that uses rotations based on matchups, Wise may not pop up in the box score every week, but he'll have a significant impact at a premium position.

New Orleans Saints: Marcus Williams, Safety

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    We all remember safety Marcus Williams, right? You know, the guy who missed the tackle on Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs, which led to the game-winning touchdown in the NFC divisional round. Well, he's going to use the Minnesota Miracle as fuel for a Pro Bowl season.

    As a rookie, Williams had a productive year. The Utah product finished the season as one of just three rookies with four interceptions or more. He also logged seven pass breakups. 

    Lattimore's stellar campaign overshadowed Williams, but the playmaking free safety will take another step in his sophomore year to establish himself as one of the best young talents at his position.

    The 21-year-old takes a mistake he made early in his career and turns it into a launching pad toward stardom.

New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, Running Back

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    This is the easiest projection on this list. Critics may question the Giants' offensive line group in opening pathways for running back Saquon Barkley, but the front office added veteran left tackle Nate Solder and selected guard Will Hernandez in the second round of April's draft.

    If Hernandez plays on the left, Barkley may have a strong side to target after the handoff. He has exceptional hands catching out of the backfield. The dynamic running back caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns through three seasons at Penn State. Oftentimes, an effective short passing attack supplements a subpar ground attack. 

    Lastly, the No. 2 overall pick doesn't have much competition for touches in the backfield.

    The team waived running back Paul Perkins. Jonathan Stewart goes into his age-31 season. His rush attempts and yards have declined every year since the 2015 campaign. It's safe to say the Giants didn't choose Barkley at No. 2 to take a backseat to former fourth-rounder Wayne Gallman. 

    The Penn State product should come close to 1,500 yards from scrimmage; only eight players reached that mark last season. In their first seasons, Hunt and Kamara listed among those names.

New York Jets: Clive Walford, Tight End

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    Clive Walford came out of Miami with high potential as a receiving tight end. He flashed some upside when he caught 28 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.

    Walford suffered a knee injury in an ATV accident during the 2016 offseason, and his production seemed to level off at his rookie numbers. He didn't show much improvement in his second year, and then he became an afterthought when the Oakland Raiders signed tight end Jared Cook last offseason.

    After playing just 130 snaps with the Raiders in the previous year, Walford can put a disappointing start to his career behind him with the New York Jets. Looking at the bright side, he caught six touchdown passes in Oakland and didn't struggle with constant focus drops. 

    Whether it's Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Darnold under center, the quarterback will have a reliable tight end in the aerial attack.

    In Cleveland, McCown helped tight end Gary Barnidge see a major production leap between the 2015-16 seasons. Walford has an opportunity to follow suit and outplay second-year pro Jordan Leggett for career-highs as a pass-catcher.

Oakland Raiders: Maurice Hurst, Defensive Tackle

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    Oakland has a former Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin on the edge. In order to help them wreak havoc on the pocket, the team brought in rookie defensive tackles P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst.

    Hall will take a significant step up in competition as an FCS product. Hurst made a name for himself at Michigan. Big Ten quarterbacks remember seeing the 6'2", 290-pounder penetrate through the interior gaps. He logged 32 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks through four collegiate seasons.

    Hurst fell to the fifth round because of a heart condition detected at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he hasn't missed a game due to the ailment.

    According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, an anonymous source called the Raiders "irresponsible" for drafting the former Wolverine, but he doesn't have restrictions on his offseason workouts.

    Hurst's track record shows he's a first-round prospect. The Raiders rolled the dice on his heart ailment, but defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has a proven interior pass-rusher and Day 1 starter who's set for a productive rookie season at a position of need.

Philadelphia Eagles: Sidney Jones, Cornerback

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    Cornerback Patrick Robinson put together a productive 2017 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the team in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (18), and then he signed a new deal with the Saints during the offseason. Fortunately, the Eagles have depth at the position.

    Rasul Douglas saw significant time on the field as a rookie, but the team drafted Sidney Jones in the second round of the same draft with plans for him to eventually lead the secondary. At his pro day, he suffered a torn Achilles that nearly kept him out an entire year. The Washington product only took 29 snaps in the season finale against the Cowboys. 

    Despite Douglas holding his own and cornerback Jalen Mills' solid play during the 2017-18 postseason, Jones should see ample snaps in his sophomore term.

    The Eagles selected him as the No. 43 overall pick with a known injury. It's an indicator that he's going to play a major role on the back end. His ball-tracking skills will allow him to force turnovers in coverage as a standout defender.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker

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    Sometimes, a contract nearing its expiration provides enough incentive for a breakout campaign. The Pittsburgh Steelers exercised Bud Dupree's fifth-year option, but the team can still release him after a subpar season and save cash, barring an injury.

    The Steelers probably expected more than 14.5 sacks in three seasons from the Kentucky product. A groin injury shortened his sophomore campaign to seven appearances, but an underwhelming third year caused general manager Kevin Colbert to pause before extending his contract.

    Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the defense hasn't been dependent on a highly productive season from Dupree. The team has ranked top-10 in sacks in each of the three previous years.

    Defensive coordinator Keith Butler's brilliance in dialing up pressure from various angles allows Dupree to see one-on-one matchups—opportunities he should take advantage of in 2018.

San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas, Defensive End

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    Don't use the term bust to describe Solomon Thomas' rookie season. Based solely on sack count, three is an underwhelming number for the No. 3 overall pick. It looks further behind the curve next to Browns pass-rusher Myles Garrett's seven in the category.

    However, Thomas knows he needs to adjust to the scheme and avoid overanalyzing his moments on the field, per San Jose Mercury reporter Cam Inman.

    "I overthink sometimes," Thomas said. "Just trying to adjust to this scheme. You know, I haven't really played on the edge much my whole career. So adjusting to that and to moving inside during games."

    Once Thomas hurdles the mental block, he'll have his hands on the quarterback frequently. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh also plans to use him at the "Leo" position to tap into his ability as a pass-rusher, per Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Barrows. 

    Thomas is primed for a productive year under a coaching staff looking to schematically bolster his sack opportunities.

Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin, Cornerback

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    Richard Sherman signed with the division rival 49ers, which opens up the lead cornerback spot. The team re-signed Byron Maxwell, who's familiar with the territory, but Shaquill Griffin had a better year as a rookie.

    Seattle lost a recognizable name in Sherman, but the front office picked up a viable starter in Griffin during the 2017 draft. 

    In 15 appearances and 11 starts, Griffin broke up 15 passes and ripped off an interception in coverage. He showed solid field awareness and played in the receiver's back pocket as a stingy cover defender on the boundary. 

    As a projected starter going into his second season, the Central Florida product will continue to see growth with more experience in a tough division. Quarterbacks Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo will certainly test him. He'll see a high number of targets, which gives him an opportunity to deflect more passes and force multiple turnovers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vinny Curry, Defensive End

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    Pass-rusher Vinny Curry didn't start a game or play more than 50 percent of the Eagles' total defensive snaps until his sixth year with the team. For the most part, he's been a rotation defender, though a breakout season came in 2014 with nine sacks.

    Curry will start anew with the Buccaneers, who completely revamped their defensive line. He'll stand alongside rookie Vita Vea, Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul across the front.

    McCoy and Pierre-Paul should command attention as consistent, proven pass-rushers. They combine for 107 sacks in their respective careers. At 347 pounds, Vea will demand extra help on the interior. Curry could see frequent one-on-one opportunities on the edge. He'll take advantage using speed and his relatively fresh legs.

    Curry could potentially push for team leader in sacks as offensive coordinators game-plan to stop his established teammates on the defensive line.  

Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, Wide Receiver

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    Wideout Corey Davis didn't score his first NFL touchdown until the Tennessee Titans' final game of the year—an AFC divisional-round loss to the Patriots. He scored twice in the contest.

    Davis came into the league recovering from ankle surgery. A hamstring injury sidelined him through a portion of last year's camp activities and cost him games during the regular season. In addition, the Titans offense didn't look sharp in 2017. Quarterback Marcus Mariota threw 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions in his worst season. 

    Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur's time spent with the Rams' top-scoring unit during the previous term bodes well for Davis and the Titans offense as a whole. 

    Mariota will have a No. 1 wideout in Davis who can outmuscle and win jump-ball battles against smaller defenders. Expect him to triple his previous 375 receiving yards total in 2018.

Washington Redskins: Jonathan Allen, Defensive End

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    The Washington Redskins addressed their defensive line with first-round picks out of Alabama in the last two years. Jonathan Allen and Da'Ron Payne will line up next to each other like their good ol' 2016 days as full-season starters in Tuscaloosa.

    Allen only played five games in 2017 before landing on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury. Despite the uncertainty on his return to the field, the second-year defensive end should see action at some point during the team's offseason program.  

    Washington ranked last against the ground attack in 2017; opponents dominated the Redskins defensive line. Allen returned to Alabama for his senior year to sharpen his skills as a run-stopper, and the extra time spent on campus should help him bolster the Redskins' front in the upcoming season.

    On the end, Allen has the quickness and technical skills to set an edge and pressure the quarterback. Watch out for him as a dynamic playmaker.