Before every NFL season, NFL fans and experts alike spend hours and hours researching players who they believe will break out the following year. Speculation and predictions fuel the sports world, and that is even true of the offseason.
And with preseason in full swing, we finally get a chance to see our favorite players for the first time in a few months. And while the stars of teams don’t often play much in the preseason, players trying to make a name for themselves do.
And in a league like the NFL, making a name for yourself can be quite hard. There are dozens of players on a team and you have to stand above them all to not only start for your team, but also get noticed.
We all know players like Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Cam Newton and more, but all of these guys were once rookies fighting for a starting spot and working hard to achieve some respect on their names.
In this article, we'll look at 15 different NFL players who we believe will have breakout years in 2016 and, by the end of the year, a lot more people will be aware of these players. Some of them are complete nobodies, while others have a bit of fame, but either way, here are 15 players whose star will definitely shine brighter at the end of 2016 than it does now.
15 Marvin Jones
With Calvin Johnson surprisingly retiring out of nowhere this offseason, the Detroit Lions' pass catching unit took a huge hit. In losing him, they've lost the best player in franchise history other than Barry Sanders and one of the best players on the planet. There are now a ton of targets to go around and we think lots of them will go to Marvin Jones. Jones was a career backup in Cincinnati (despite showing flashes of brilliance throughout his career there) and this is the first time he will be relied on as a true number one or number two option. We believe that he will thrive under the pressure and with the gun slinging Matt Stafford throwing him the ball, 1000+ yards next season isn’t out of the question, which would help to elevate him to star status.
14 Weston Richburg
As a rookie, Weston Richburg struggled greatly for the New York Giants as a Left Guard. While he was a second round pick in 2014 and started most of the games for the team, he didn’t play as well as many expected him to. But last year, after the team moved him to Center, things began to change. Not only did he achieve a ton more success snapping the ball, he was actually ranked as the third best Center in the league by PFF in 2015. There is a good chance he will be even better this year and hopefully be part of an offensive line that wasn’t very good outside of him. Don’t be surprised if this guy gets a Pro Bowl invite next year, which is pretty damn impressive for a guy who has only played the position professionally for one year.
13 Kony Ealy
Players that end a season well are often the talk of the offseason as their best performances are prevalent in the minds of fans. And few players had a better ending to 2015 than Kony Ealy. In the Super Bowl against the Broncos, Ealy had an MVP-like performance as he had three sacks and even picked off Peyton Manning, while also forcing a fumble and recovering another. During the regular season, he often backed up Jared Allen but with Allen now retired, look for Ealy to start and dominate. He is only 24 years old and is playing on one of the best defenses in the league, with an explosive offense to boot. Don’t be shocked to see Ealy record double digit sacks and be one of the best defensive ends in the league.
12 Vance McDonald
Whoever is pegged as the top pass catcher in a Chip Kelly-run offense often gets a ton of looks. And while Torrey Smith is the number one receiver on the club, he has not been a consistent option throughout his NFL career and cannot be relied on as a team’s primary pass catcher, as he's more of a deep threat. So with an unimpressive list of WRs on staff, look for their tight ends to produce and get noticed. While history doesn’t always dictate future performance, don’t be shocked if Vance McDonald has a great year. While he only caught 30 balls last year, that was actually good for third on this horrible offense. In addition to being young and full of potential, McDonald is also in a contract year and is looking to get paid.
11 Coby Fleener
Coby Fleener has always had all the talent in the world, but was in a constant battle for snaps on the Colts with Dwayne Allen. After signing with the New Orleans Saints, Fleener will finally get the chance to show what he can do as the full-time starter. And the team that he signed with doesn’t hurt either. The New Orleans Saints love their tight ends and use them a lot. Last year it was Ben Watson and the years before that, it was Jimmy Graham. Also, Marques Colston is out of the mix, so they need a big target in the red zone. All of this seems to be pointing towards a great season for Fleener that could turn him into a star.
10 C.J. Mosley
While this guy is already known in some circles as a star, he really doesn’t get the recognition some feel he deserves by the rest of the NFL. Mosley has taken over the role Ray Lewis had in Baltimore and has done a great job. He can do it all on the field from tackle, to cover, to rush the passer and more. He made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year and that helped his name, but not enough fans recognize that Mosley is one of the best at this position. I truly believe he is the second most complete linebacker in the league behind Luke Kuechly and I believe, after a stellar 2016 season, he will become a true household name. He will continue to get better as he is only 24 years old and isn’t even close to being in his athletic prime yet.
9 Carlos Hyde
Coming out of Ohio State in 2014, Carlos Hyde had a ton of hype around him and some lofty expectations. However, he was pretty far back on the depth chart in his rookie year, though some injuries eventually moved him to second on the depth chart behind Frank Gore. But in 2015, with Frank Gore gone in free agency, Hyde was seen as the next big thing in San Fran. He began the season in a great way by having a monster game in week one and was looking to be living up to those expectations before an injury derailed him. Now that he's 100% healthy, and with no backups nipping at his heels, look for Hyde to have a true breakout season this year on a team that will heavily rely on the run.
8 Melvin Gordon
Melvin Gordon was about as good in college as a running back can be. He had speed, vision, power and patience unlike many, which led him to almost winning the Heisman and racking up unreal numbers in his senior season. Unfortunately, his first season in the NFL was a mess. Not only did he not record a touchdown, but he barely played and didn’t get a chance to show what he could do. Pair that with a horrific offensive line and Gordon was a massive disappointment. But Gordon is too talented to fade away like that. With Keenan Allen back at 100%, it will take some pressure off the running game and allow more space for Gordon to work with, and when he’s in space, magic happens.
7 Ladarius Green
This guy has been tabbed as a future star at the tight end position for the last four years. The only problem was that he was stuck behind sure-fire future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates in San Diego. When he played, he was great, but he wasn’t going to start over Gates and also dealt with some injury issues. However, Green is now a Steeler, so this might be when he finally breaks out and becomes a household name. With Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell suspended, Green is looking like the second receiving option on a team that loves to throw the ball. Don’t be shocked to see him in the Pro Bowl this year, as his 6’6" frame will make him an easy target for Big Ben.
6 Jason Verrett
The San Diego Chargers are basically a garbage dumpster fire of a team heading into this 2016 season. But if there is one thing chargers fans should be happy about for this upcoming season, it is Jason Verrett. Verrett is entering his third year as a Chargers cornerback and I believe this is when he becomes a household name. He was consistently ranked as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last year, despite being on a pretty bad defense. Verrett is still extremely young and will only get better, which is a scary thought for the wide receivers that are lining up next to him. Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper and Jeremy Maclin better get ready to play this guy twice a year for the foreseeable future.
5 Dorial Green-Beckham
While Tennessee was one of the worst teams out there last year, one bright spot was Dorial Green-Beckham. He didn’t play a lot or put up Pro Bowl numbers, but the young wide receiver proved he can play ball. He is a giant target who isn’t afraid to play in the trenches. Now that he's been moved to the Philadelphia Eagles, this is likely already the last chance for the big receiver and we expect him to take it. While the Eagles can't boast the same caliber of running game as the Titans, they have much better options at the wide receiver position, meaning DGB might have more room to get open.
He had a rep for a bad attitude in college, but that is seemingly behind him and he is ready to focus solely on football and helping his team win. I see him possibly catching 7+ TDs next year and can see him being one of the most dangerous red zone options in the NFL.
4 Duke Johnson
Young running backs are always at the forefront of most lists about breakout players, because few players see the ball as much as the RB (other than the QB). And of all the young backs in the league who don’t get much praise, few are better than Duke Johnson. Last year, Johnson split carries with the now-departed Isaiah Crowell, who has never shown himself to be more than a decent red zone option. Look for Johnson to get the lion’s share of carries for the team, as the far more talented player. Even when he split carries last year, the rookie outperformed Crowell, especially in the passing game. Johnson racked up almost 1,000 total yards last year, with over half of them coming through the air. His 61 catches ranked third on the club and we believe his numbers will continue to improve this year.
3 Preston Smith
There is no player who I think can make a bigger jump in name recognition this year than Preston Smith. Last year, Smith was a second round pick who started all 16 games at linebacker for the Washington Redskins, and helped them to the playoffs. The 6’5", 270 pound freak athlete recorded 8 sacks last year, which led all rookies. And the improvement of the Redskins in the DB department (with Josh Norman) will only help the young Smith to get even better and put up even better numbers in what could be a Pro Bowl season.
In the Redskins hope to remain competitive this year, they will need Preston Smith to be as good, or better, than he was last year and we can expect him to do it.
2 David Johnson
There is perhaps no better example of a player really coming into his own in the last few games of a season and getting people’s attention going into the next year. Through the last few games of 2015, David Johnson showed people he is a force to be reckoned with in both the passing and the running game. And while his name is decently well known, I feel he will hit a whole different level this upcoming season. He will become known as a top five, maybe even top 3, running back and will go out to prove to the naysayers that last season wasn’t a fluke. Plus, Chris Johnson and him won’t be splitting carries this time around, which spells danger for opposing defenses as Johnson is the better player.
1 Tyrann Mathieu
While Mathieu is rated as one of the best DBs in the NFL, his name still isn’t as well known as the Richard Sherman’s and Darrelle Revis’ of the world. But by the end of the season , not only do I think his name will be as well-known as theirs, I think he will also surpass them both in ability on the field (if he hasn’t already). In fact, I am going to predict he is seen as a top three defender in the NFL next year, with only JJ Watt and Aaron Donald at the same level as him. He is an athletic freak and can play any defensive back position at a top five level. Pair him with star cornerback Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals have an extremely deadly defensive duo.
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