NFL Players in Best Position to Break Out in 2018
Perhaps a free agent signed with a team that has a huge void at his position, a young player is primed to naturally progress or a veteran is ready to live up to expectations as a starter. Regardless of the reason, some players have a better pathway toward a potential breakout 2018 NFL campaign than others.
Among the factors considered for the following eight ideal breakout candidates, we'll take a look at roster turnover, changes to a player's offseason regimen and motivation in a contract year before potentially hitting the free-agent market.
There's also increased personal stake for 2016 first-rounders. Next offseason, teams will decide whether to exercise fifth-year options on their rookie deals. That additional term carries fully guaranteed compensation.
Will pressure prompt production? Who's primed for a standout season?
RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
In Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook's first NFL game against the New Orleans Saints, spectators at U.S. Bank Stadium saw his talent on full display as he rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries. Before tearing his ACL in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions, he ranked third among all ball-carriers in rushing yards with 354.
Instead of projecting what Cook could've done in a full season, let's focus on the road ahead. First, it's important for the Florida State product to fully recover. He's already set expectations for himself, per Pioneer Press reporter Chris Tomasson: "I'm going to have myself ready to go by Week 1. That's the goal."
As Cook recovers, the Vikings are tinkering with their offensive line combinations for optimal results. Mike Remmers has taken reps at right guard during OTAs. Assuming it's a permanent move, Rashod Hill could take over at right tackle where he started six games last year.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins comes over from the Washington Redskins in an offense that yielded 54 targets to running back Chris Thompson, who finished the year with 39 receptions for 510 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games. The 29-year-old signal-caller knows how to utilize receiving threats out of the backfield, which bodes well for Cook.
Running back Jerick McKinnon signed with the San Francisco 49ers, which leaves a prominent role alongside Latavius Murray open for Cook upon his return. The second-year ball-carrier should have the workload on the ground and the opportunities through to air to produce gaudy numbers.
WR DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker should finally live up to the hype from previous years. Last offseason, assistant coach Shawn Jefferson called the Louisville product "a monster" who will earn an invite "to the Monster Bowl after the Super Bowl."
Parker fell well short of those "monster" expectations with 57 receptions for 670 yards and a touchdown. Nonetheless, he played without quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who helped his progression during the 2016 campaign.
Tannehill has been cleared to resume football activities, which adds value to Parker as a receiver on the perimeter. The coaching staff has also made note of the 25-year-old's off-field strides, per Miami Herald reporter Barry Jackson.
"I know coach [Adam] Gase has already mentioned his maturity level improving, and that's been evident from the end of last season. I don't know if there [are] many guys that have spent more time in the building than him, whether it's getting his health right, in the training room, in the weight room, even watching film. To me, it's been a different guy this offseason. He understands the urgency and how important this year is.”
Wideout Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins in targets the past three seasons. The team's decision to trade him to the Cleveland Browns creates more opportunities for Parker despite Danny Amendola's arrival. The former New England Patriots receiver has only suited up for 16 contests twice in his nine-year career.
Parker is due for additional targets and more production with Tannehill back under center.
WR Ryan Grant, Indianapolis Colts
There's still skepticism about quarterback Andrew Luck's return, but the team doesn't seem concerned that its franchise signal-caller has yet to throw a pass with a normal-sized football.
According to Fox 59 reporter Mike Chappell, Luck plans to throw without restrictions late July, which gives him more than enough time to build on-field chemistry with a new receiver.
It's important for Grant because he views his relationship with Luck similar to Tupac and Dr. Dre, per Indianapolis Star reporter Zak Keefer. "For me, I don't know if you've seen the (Tupac biopic) 'All Eyez on Me,'" Grant offered Tuesday. "Before (Tupac) hooked up with Dr. Dre, no one really knew who he was. But when he got with Dre, he was booming. So I feel like that how's how I am like coming here to Indy."
Grant is coming off his best year with the Redskins, recording 45 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns. He played in an offense alongside established wideout Jamison Crowder. Head coach Jay Gruden made a push to feature wide receiver Josh Doctson midway through the previous campaign.
Grant joins a wide receiver corps that only features one consistent contributor in T.Y. Hilton. The starting position opposite the four-time Pro Bowler will be up for grabs during training camp, and the fifth-year pass-catcher has a head start in experience on the young group to win the job.
TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
David Njoku logged 32 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns with DeShone Kizer, a rookie quarterback, at the helm. For a first-year player at tight end, it's a solid start.
Now, with quarterback Tyrod Taylor likely serving as the one-year bridge for the Baker Mayfield era, Njoku will have a starting-caliber passer who likes to target tight ends and completes more than 60 percent of his throws.
During his time with the Buffalo Bills, Taylor frequently looked downfield to tight end Charles Clay, who led the team in targets (87) during the 2016 campaign and was tied for second (74) in 2017. In Cleveland, Taylor can turn to Njoku, a 6'4", 246-pound red-zone threat who scored three touchdowns in his first five games.
Opposing defenses will roll coverage to neutralize Josh Gordon and Landry as proven commodities in the aerial attack. As a result, Njoku should see plenty of one-on-one matchups downfield. As a tight end with reliable hands, he'll likely finish drives inside the 20-yard line and rack up yards all over the field.
DE Dion Jordan, Seattle Seahawks
Dion Jordan finished the previous season on a strong note with three sacks in the last three contests. Head coach Pete Carroll took note of the defensive end's production and offered some insight on his role for the upcoming season during a December press conference:
"I think he could be a legitimate factor. Should be a legitimate factor in the rush and in the run game. He’s a good pursuit guy too. He’s strong and big and all that. He just is really unproven. There’s not much to go on and so we’re having to piece it together with a few plays that we got, but he made some real positive overtures and he’s an exciting prospect of us."
Jordan served a one-year suspension in 2015 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and though he satisfied reinstatement conditions, the Dolphins waived him with a failed-physical designation in 2017. Ultimately, it took three years to return to the field, but he made the most of his opportunities in Seattle.
The Seahawks released defensive end Cliff Avril with a failed-physical designation in May. Expect rookie Rasheem Green and Jordan to soak up those snaps opposite Frank Clark on the defensive line. Seattle will likely push to see what it has in the No. 3 overall pick from 2013 draft.
Based on Carroll's comments and Jordan's production late last season, he's primed for a big year with a decent workload.
DE Shaq Lawson, Buffalo Bills
Last season, the Bills finished tied for 29th in sacks, and no one on their defense finished with more than four. Defensive end Shaq Lawson missed several contests down the stretch and the team's AFC Wild Card Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While watching his team late in the season, Lawson made a decision to change his habits off the field, per Chris Brown of the team's official website.
"I'm the lightest I've ever been. Right now, I'm like 263 and I used to play at 275. So I'm 12 pounds lighter and I've got 17 percent body fat. I'm faster and I just feel a lot more fluid with that weight off me. I want to keep dropping weight. My goal for the start of the season is to be at the most 260 with a 15 percent body fat percentage."
Lawson hopes the weight loss will help him reach the quarterback and stay healthy throughout the regular season. He's suited up for 21 out of 33 games, which includes Buffalo's playoff appearance, after joining the team as the No. 19 overall pick in the 2016 draft.
The Bills have a decision on Lawson's fifth-year option coming up next offseason, which serves as a motivator for a player looking to secure a fully guaranteed additional term with his respective team. As a clear-cut starter, the third-year defensive end should see a production spike if he stays on the field.
LB Lorenzo Mauldin, New York Jets
Similar to the Bills, the New York Jets struggled to generate a pass rush, finishing 28th in sacks last season. Demario Davis lined up at inside linebacker but led the team in the category with five. During the offseason, he signed with the New Orleans Saints, which puts pass-rushing pressure on Gang Green's edge-rushers.
Outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin hasn't shown much since logging four sacks during his rookie campaign (2015) in a rotational role. He missed the 2017 season with a back injury, but he's been pushing himself during OTAs against the reserves, per Connor Hughes of The Athletic.
"Mauldin rotated with his fellow linebackers. He looked quick and strong. While heavier than when the Jets first drafted him, he carried the weight well. Twice he burst inside to create pressure on rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. He believes he’s gained a step."
The Jets hope to see the prospect that turned heads at Louisville with 21 sacks in three seasons. New York doesn't have established options off the edge. Despite logging just 6.5 sacks in two seasons and missing an entire year, Mauldin should slide back into a role with a heavy workload.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon, San Francisco 49ers
Cornerback Richard Sherman grabbed headlines when he joined the 49ers after parting ways with the rival Seahawks. Skeptics wonder if the three-time All-Pro still has the ability to play at a high level after undergoing two Achilles surgeries, one for each, in the past year.
The addition of a prominent veteran and perennial Pro Bowler overshadowed Ahkello Witherspoon's potential jump from his rookie to sophomore years. The Colorado product looked the part of a starting boundary defender on the left side in nine starts during the previous campaign. He notched two interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Sherman (6'3", 195 lbs) and Witherspoon (6'2", 195 lbs) give the 49ers two cornerbacks who can close windows with their length in coverage. If the eighth-year veteran resembles the player from his Seahawks days, opposing quarterbacks will frequently test the second-year cornerback.
As a projected starter with more to prove on the professional level, Witherspoon should see plenty of targets early in the season anyway. It's an opportune time to set the tone on one side of the field.
And whether Sherman looks like a Pro Bowler on the opposite side, he'll help Witherspoon's development in the secondary as a mentor.