In the NFL, a breakout season is both a curse and a gift. It’s easy enough to understand why a player suddenly going off for a truly great season is a good thing. It means more wins for their team, more job security for them, and maybe a few endorsement deals down the line. However, a breakout season also means that players are sometimes saddled with expectations that weren’t there before. Whereas they were previously able to fly somewhat under the radar, now they are expected to be a star. Most NFL players will tell you that they would beg to have that problem, but it can be a problem nonetheless.
For some breakout players, their first season in the spotlight may end up being their last. It’s not often that a bad player has a truly great season, but it’s not that uncommon for players who had a truly great season to simply never reach those same heights again. While it can be hard to separate those two so soon after the breakout season itself, there are sometimes key factors which separate the stars from the pretenders. Those factors helped us determine the 15 NFL breakout stars of 2016 who will prove to be one-year wonders.
15 Carlos Hyde
The 49ers had a season to forget in 2016, but Carlos Hyde at least kept the San Francisco football franchise relevant on the highlight reel. Hyde failed to break the 1,000-yard mark in his sophomore year but did rush for a respectable 988 yards to go with six touchdowns. There are reasons to believe that Hyde can do better - many expected him to do better in his rookie season - but Hyde does come with some downsides. Namely, he’s still a member of a team that doesn’t look like they’re on the verge of a Super Bowl run anytime soon. There are plenty of rumblings coming from San Francisco that Kyle Shanahan thinks rookie running back Joe Williams is a better fit for his scheme moving forward. As for Hyde, he’s a tough back whose best isn’t always brilliant.
14 David Irving
At a time when the Cowboys were begging for anyone to put pressure on the opposing quarterback, David Irving came along and destroyed the opposition. His breakout game came against the Green Bay Packers against whom Irving tallied three forced fumbles and a sack in only 19 snaps. From there, Irving was used sporadically as a defensive specialist whose imposing physical demeanor and particular skills allowed him to shine in specific schemes. While the Cowboys haven’t made that many big additions to their thin defensive line, David Irving’s suspension combined with his inability to turn in consistent performances greatly lowers the odds that he will be able to replicate the moderate success he enjoyed in future years. At best, Irving may continue to be a valuable second or third option.
13 Stefon Diggs
The Vikings are in a bit of a weird spot at the moment. They're clearly a step behind the Green Bay Packers in terms of division standings, but it’s not clear just how far behind the rest of the NFC they are. While most of the Vikings’ 2016 season was forgettable, a few bright spots suggested that they are close to contention. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was one of those bright spots. His 903 receiving yards and three touchdowns established him as a fascinating future option for Sam Bradford or whoever helms the Vikings. That future could be compromised by Diggs’ early injury problems, red zone effectiveness, the Vikings’ quarterback problems, and Diggs’ long ball reliance. It takes a special player to be a consistent deep ball threat, and Diggs doesn’t feel like that guy.
12 Terrelle Pryor
You have to love the Terrelle Pryor story. At the tail end of an incredibly successful college career at Ohio State, Pryor found himself involved in an autograph scandal that threatened to undo some of his accomplishments as well as his future prospects. The Oakland Raiders decided to take a chance on him but discovered that Pryor just wasn’t an NFL quarterback. However, the Cleveland Browns discovered that Pryor is apparently a great NFL receiver. Pryor’s gaudy 2016 stat line included 1,007 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Some are saying that this is only the beginning of Pryor’s receiving career, but we think it is the end. Pryor relies on his raw physical attribute and an element of surprise. Those attributes will only fade with time and teams now know they cannot afford to overlook Pryor.
11 Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas’s college career was good but not great. Thomas broke out during his second season at Ohio State by putting up a respectable 799 receiving yards stat line. He did a little worse the next year by only accumulating 781 receiving yards, but the Saints still felt he was worth a second-round pick. What they got for their investment was a season which saw Thomas go off for 1,137 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. How do you explain how Thomas almost matched his career college numbers in his rookie season? Well...you don’t. Thomas could just be one of those surprise stars, but we couldn’t help but notice how many of his best plays came from circus catches and broken coverage. We have a feeling Thomas those situations will be few and far between moving forward.
10 Landon Collins
Landon Collins’s rookie season was respectable, but far from great. Many felt that Collins was capable of making more game-changing plays than he ultimately did. In 2016, Collins kicked things up a notch by upping his stats across the board. Where Collins really shined, however, was in the interception category where Collins snagged five wayward balls and even took one for a touchdown. So, we should expect more from Collins moving forward, right? Wrong. Collins’s main problem is that he plays a position - strong safety - which demands a particular set of skills from players who want to be consistently great. Collins has some of those skills, but there’s little about him that just screams “shutdown.” Collins will likely end up being solid but not spectacular.
9 Tyreek Hill
On the surface, Tyreek Hill’s 2016 season wasn’t that great.His 593 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns were good, but a quick look at his receiving stat line doesn’t make you say “wow.” However, you have to consider that the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t exactly burning people with their aerial assault and that Hill added 267 rushing yards as well as some return touchdowns to his season totals. All told, he racked up 1,836 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns his rookie season. That’s the kind of amazing season that Hill will likely be unable to replicate any time in the near future. We’ve seen “do it all” specialists like Hill before, and they almost always end up defaulting to one aspect of the game. Hill might remain a decent returner, but we expect his overall numbers to drop.
8 Tyrell Williams
So far as year over year improvement goes, it’s hard to do better than Tyrell Williams. In 2015 Williams only managed to put up 90 receiving yards and a touchdown. He looked like the undrafted player he was. In 2016, Williams improved dramatically by going off for 1,059 yards, seven touchdowns, and 69 receptions. What can you attribute his turnaround to? Well, more opportunities for one thing, but some of it can also be traced to the fact that the Chargers upped their game in many respects in 2016. The problem is that Williams now enters 2017 as just part of a now healthy - and very deep - Chargers receiving core. Even if Williams manages to become the team’s number two receiver, there is no way he’s going to get as many looks as 2016, and he just doesn’t have the raw skill needed to put him over the top.
7 Yannick Ngakoue
If you were a Jaguars fans during the 2016 season, you learned to pronounce Yannick Ngakoue’s name really quick. Hey, learning names is easy when the announcers are saying ten times a game. Ngakoue’s rookie season saw him rack up 22 tackles, eight sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception from the defensive end position. Not Hall of Fame worthy stats, perhaps, but good enough to breathe a little life into the Jaguars' previously struggling defense. If there’s one aspect of Ngakoue’s game that is worrisome, it’s his tackling ability.
Defensive ends don’t have to be tackle monsters, but Ngakoue’s one-track, get to the quarterback mind suggests that he may become a boom or bust type prospect whose ability to turn in consistent seasons doesn’t mean may be compromised by his big play nature.
6 Danielle Hunter
Danielle Hunter’s rookie season with the Vikings was far from a bust, but Hunter’s six sacks and 33 tackles were good enough for Minnesota to believe that Hunter had the potential for a breakout year. In 2016, Hunter experienced that breakout year. In 2016, Hunter tallied up 12.5 sacks and 56 total tackles. It was the kind of season that made you wonder why Hunter wasn’t drafted higher. Well, Hunter’s slightly undervalued draft stock can be traced to the belief that Hunter is a Jason Pierre-Paul-type player who uses his freakish athleticism to overwhelm opponents as opposed to a well-rounded skillset. The difference is that Hunter isn’t quite as athletically gifted as Pierre-Paul and still doesn’t exhibit exciting intangible abilities. Hunter may remain a good player, but his incredible years will be few and far between.
5 Tevin Coleman
Tevin Coleman is another guy whose stat lines you have to look closely at in order to understand just how productive he was in 2016. Behind Devonta Freeman on the depth chart, Coleman still managed to accumulate 520 rushing yards, 421 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. Even better, Coleman averaged 6.3 yards per touch across all offensive plays. That’s a pretty shocking season. Don’t expect to see too many more for Coleman. Coleman is firmly positioned behind Freeman on the depth chart for the foreseeable future and most of his production can be traced back to the sheer number of offensive options the Falcons have. Coleman is going to have a target on his back moving forward that is going to limit how productive he can actually be.
4 Devante Parker
Devante Parker was certainly the most improved player on the Miami Dolphins’ roster in 2016. After a 2015 season which saw Parker fail to reach 500 receiving yards, Parker finally landed on radars everywhere by with his 744 receiving yard 2016 season. Like many of the players on this list, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding that season. While Parker certainly improved in 2016, so did Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry. Everyone benefited from the Dolphins’ heavier reliance on the passing game but Parker arguably benefited least from that shift in offensive focus.
Assuming that the Dolphins favor a more balanced offense moving forward it’s hard to have much faith in Parker’s stock as a future superstar. He’s a good player, but he’s not going to be a number one receiver in Miami or elsewhere.
3 Jay Ajayi
We’re not picking on the Dolphins here, but it’s hard to not talk about the meaning of significant 2016 performances without talking about Jay Ajayi. At Boise State, Ajayi enjoyed a typical Boise State career. That is to say that he put up astounding numbers that everyone said he wouldn’t be able to replicate in the NFL. The 2015 season seemingly proved those doubters right as Ajayi only rushed for 187 yards. In 2016, however, Ajayi exploded for 1,272 yards. In the age of fantasy football, it’s hard to not be excited about a kid that can put up those kinds of numbers. However, you have to understand that Ajayi’s 2016 season included three 200 yard games. That is not a statistic you can expect Ajayi to repeat in subsequent years. Highlight reel running backs like Ajayi just typically don’t last in the modern NFL.
2 Melvin Gordon
So we come to Melvin Gordon. As some of you may know, Melvin Gordon enjoyed a fantastic college career that was highlighted by his 2014 season which saw him put up 2,587 rushing yards. That’s not a typo. Gordon even had a 408 rushing yard game against Nebraska during that monumental season. Now, some said that Gordon was simply the product of the Wisconsin system which typically produces great running backs, but the Chargers couldn’t resist taking the chance on him. Gordon’s 2015 season wasn’t great, but he completely redeemed himself in 2016 with a 1,000+ total yard campaign that included 12 touchdowns.
Still, it’s hard to tell who the real Melvin Gordon is. Gordon relies on a pretty dynamic distribution of skills which L.A. may have to build around if they want Gordon to repeat his 2016 success.
1 Carson Wentz
At the start of the 2016 NFL season, Carson Wentz was on the minds of many who were discussing both rookie of the year candidates and NFL MVP candidates. As the season wore on, however, a different narrative emerged. Wentz didn’t exactly regress in his rookie season, but the Eagles’ struggles began to limit his ability to change the game. He ended up throwing for 3,782 yards and 16 touchdowns but was also responsible for 14 interceptions. It’s hard not to look at Wentz’s rookie numbers and factor in the sheer volume of passes he threw when trying to calculate his worth moving forward.
The Eagles relied on Wentz quite often during his rookie year, and he responded with both his best and worst qualities. We’re expecting that Wentz’s worst will appear more often as fatigue sets in.