The NFL, more than any other sport is a year to year league with teams rising and falling quickly. For all the constants, namely the Patriots and that Seattle's Defense will be stout, there are just as many surprise teams and players who emerge out of nowhere. While baseball has gone a long way toward parity, things tend to go in cycles and a team on the rise can take several years to finally come good. In the NHL, NBA and most of the major soccer leagues, good teams tend to stay good for a while, especially the teams that can stockpile the biggest superstars. In the NFL, a team can rise from the ashes of a bad season to go all the way to a Super Bowl and then the following year fade away once again.
It's part of what keeps us as fans so tuned in and why fantasy sports is so big with football. The chance to strike gold with an unknown or little regarded player is extremely high. In most other sports, pedigree can go a long way to seeing a player become established as a star. In football, a superstar is just a good training camp or an injury to a starter away from taking the stage and not giving it back.
As the 2016 rapidly approaches, there are several candidates for players who could be looking to have career years due to circumstance, skills and setup within a team. Some of these players are established vets who could reach new heights, while others are up and comings who are looking to make the leap. For the purposes of this list, rookie players were not considered, even if they look poised for big things.
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15 Terrelle Pryor
In many ways, Pryor is the anti-Tim Tebow in that he saw he couldn't make it as a QB and decided to switch positions to stay in the NFL. Granted, his abilities to play this position are still very much an unknown, but with his athletic ability and skills that he has shown in preseason, the transition could be smoother than many thought possible. Coupled with the very big hole the Cleveland Browns have in playmakers and Pryor could very quickly find himself a go to option for RGIII. His road to this point has been one filled with ups and more than a few disappointments, including being cut just before the season started last year, but Pryor seems primed and determined to stick and thrive this year.
14 Jadeveon Clowney
In a lot of ways, Clowney has been trying to outlive a single play from his college days his entire career so far. Everyone knows which one that is. As soon as he was drafted, the world expected Clowney to be blowing up running backs in the NFL in the exact same way. Instead, he's spent far too much time injured and at times looking disinterested and when compared to his teammate JJ Watt and also fellow 2014 draftee Khalil Mack, the word "bust" begins to come up. However, all that looks poised to change in 2016 as he's finally healthy and with the Texans seeming to go all in to take their division, a healthy Clowney playing with a 2 year chip on his shoulder could be just what the team needs to have a truly dominant season. All of the skills are there still and with no physical setbacks, the REAL Clowney may finally come to the forefront.
13 Golden Tate
Let's be clear right away: No one is replacing Megatron. A historic player who decided to call a career before the game could wear him down too much physically, the Lions will struggle to replace his production. Golden Tate, however, will do his best to step in to that void and truth be told, he's already got a solid track record behind him. After back to back 90 catch seasons, Tate should easily lead the Lions in catches and more importantly, could become Matt Stafford's go-to red zone option. Tate still has to prove he can be THE MAN and deal with now constant double teams, but when you are the alpha dog on a team that likes to throw, he certainly won't go hungry for looks.
12 Coby Fleener
Any player who gets to line up with Drew Brees can expect his numbers to go WAY up. Brees, as one of several hall of fame caliber QB's in the NFL today, knows how to spread the wealth and with the Saints still relying on their aerial game so much, Fleener should expect to see plenty of looks. As evidence, the Saints' starting tight end last season Ben Watson saw a career year of his own, catching nearly 75 passes and scoring 6 TD's for only the second time in his career. With long-time receiver Marques Colston no longer on the roster either, Fleener steps in to a lineup that will have plenty of opportunities for catches and a real chance to tie or even pass his own season high of 8 TD's. Such is the power of Brees.
11 Anthony Hitchens
SURPRISE! It's not Dak Prescott or Zeke Elliott that make this list. Besides both being rookies, they might not end up being the real key to the Cowboys having a successful season. In fact, both are EXPECTED to be good, perhaps even great right away and while their play will go a long way to helping Dallas turn things around, it's the defensive side of the team that needs to step up. Enter Anthony Hitchens, who in light of Rolando McClain's 10 game suspension, looks poised to be the starting MIKE linebacker. Hitchens played well as a rookie but struggled last season and 2016 seems to be make or break for his role going forward. With essentially a 10 game tryout to lead the defense along with Sean Lee, Hitchens will have to step up and guide a Cowboys defense that will no doubt have plenty of leads to protect. A very real shot at 100 tackles could be in store if Hitchens plays up to his potential and could render McClain as almost an afterthought when his suspension is over.
10 Frank Clark
It seems sort of redundant to say that anyone playing on the Seahawks could be poised to breakout since the entire defense has made a living the last few seasons being second to none. Still, Frank Clark is one of the newer faces who is ready to make a real impact. Replacing the departed Bruce Irvin, Clark should be able to lineup more comfortably in his position of choice at defensive end, rather than as a sub who was constantly shifted all over the line as a rookie. Essentially, he will be able to put all of his energy and focus in to doing one job well and on a team as supremely gifted already as Seattle's defense is, that is a truly scary thought. He is another player very capable of a double digit sack season.
9 Travis Benjamin
Travis Benjamin should very quickly see what an upgrade Philip Rivers is over the "Quarterbacks" he was catching passes from last season in Cleveland. Somehow, despite that truly uninspired group, he managed 68 catches and almost 1000 yards. Moving to the West Coast should do him a world of good. Especially when coupled with the healthy return of Keenan Allen who should give Benjamin plenty of opportunities to run deep as he draws attention across the field. Look for Rivers to throw deep more consistently this year and for Benjamin to race past career highs across the board using his big play speed. Escaping to San Diego for the sunshine and good QB play is always a wise move.
8 Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Jenkins has been a player many pegged to do big things so far in the NFL and has not lived up to the hype of yet. Likewise, some of his off-field behavior has shown he might still need a bit more maturity before he can truly be counted on to help lead the Bucs back to prominence. All of that being said, the talent is there. Much like others on this list, Jenkin's biggest hurdle has been injuries and with those looking firmly behind him, 2016 could be the season he puts it all together. Playing alongside a budding star QB and two tall, athletic wide receivers who can draw much of the attention from a defense, now is the time for Jenkins to seize his opportunity and show he is a playmaker to believe in.
7 Carlos Hyde
Oh what could have been for Carlos Hyde in 2015. He burst out of the gate, rushing for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Vikings in Week 1 and seemed well on his way. However, the recurring theme of the NFL reared its head again: injuries. They piled up quickly and Hyde was only able to play in parts of 7 games all of last season. Positioned as the lead back and probably main offensive weapon for a rebuilding 49ers team, Hyde should see as much of the ball as his body can handle. Combining with Chip Kelly's desire to have a multi-purpose running back, which Hyde certainly is, and 2016 could look to be an extension of what that opening game in 2015 teased.
6 Tyrod Taylor
Taylor was given the reins to the Bills offense in 2015 and showed why it was the right move by flashing two-way ability that reminded fans of Russell Wilson and Cam Netwon, though not on their level of consistency yet. Blessed with a true big play threat in Sammy Watkins, Taylor's biggest strength might be one that's easy to miss, his ability to minimize mistakes as he threw only 6 interceptions all of last season in almost 400 attempts. While the Bills may struggle in a division perpetually dominated by the Pats, the Bills may finally have a keeper at QB, one who can grow with the team and hope to lead them back to the postseason for the first time since last century.
5 Preston Smith
Preston Smith is yet another hybrid defensive player in the NFL. "Technically" a linebacker, he has shown his bread and butter might actually be in rushing the passer. As demonstrated especially over the last 4 weeks of the regular season and a good showing in the playoffs agains the Packers, Smith very quickly took to his role on the team. With a year under his belt, the sky could be the limit for a player who the Redskins very quickly are looking to lead their defense. Coupled with adding Josh Norman to help lock down some of the QB's throws, it could give Smith the extra few seconds to reach the backfield and wreck havoc. Don't be shocked if he tallies up double digit sacks in 2016 and perhaps gives fans an east coast answer to what a hybrid linebacker a la Khalil Mack can do for a team.
4 Anthony Barr
What has been the one thing holding Barr back from being a truly dominate player in the NFL so far? Surprise, surprise, injuries once again. In a solid rookie season, Barr showed all of the skills it takes to dominate in today's NFL as a hybrid linebacker, as he amassed both tackles and sacks. Last season though instead of building on his success, injuries cut his season short and kept him from being to continue his upward trajectory. Like so many others though, 2016 is a fresh start and with a clean bill of health, the sky is the limit for him. The Vikings will need every ounce of good play he can make with the recent tragic injury of their QB Teddy Bridgewater as the Vikings defense may find themselves needing to bail out an offense build almost solely around Adrian Peterson now. Barr should be up to that challenge.
3 David Johnson
The days of the bellcow running back seem to be rapidly ending in the pass happy NFL of 2016. Unless your name is Adrian Peterson, a good many teams prefer to rotate in several backs, keeping touches more or less balanced. However, in Arizona, David Johnson could be looking to buck this recent trend. Seeming to have Head Coach Bruce Arians' blessing to get as many touches as possible, Johnson has been flying off many charts in fantasy drafts as perhaps a Top 2 pick. It's hard not to see the hype as in limited action as a rookie last year, he tallied 13 total TD's and with a full workload, could make a real play for a 20 TD season on what should be an explosive offense.
2 Kony Ealy
Ealy played his heart out in the Super Bowl, amassing 3 sacks and an interception on only 23 snaps in the Panthers loss to the Broncos. Based off that game alone, the hype train had already left the station going in to 2016 but with the retirement of Jared Allen as well, now Kony should have as many snaps as he can handle. The Panthers in fact might be making more of an effort to pressure the passer directly by letting their top cover corner Josh Norman go which puts even more of a spotlight on Kony. If he can live up to that expectation, the Panthers will have an absolute beast on their hands, one who already knows how to come through on the biggest stages too.
1 Eli Manning
Including Eli Manning on this list seems strange at first. He is by far the most established player here and some would argue has already hit his peak by leading the Giants to 2 Super Bowls. However, regular season Eli can be wildly different from the clutch Eli Giants fans have come to love. His first 2 seasons with Ben McAdoo's offense have produced easily his best overall regular seasons of his career, as he's thrown for more TD's, yards and less interceptions while also upping his completion rate. Now, in year 3, with McAdoo now the head coach, Manning is in prime position to hit new heights. Weighing in heavily is that he'll finally have more weapons to utilize besides Odell Beckham. Rookie Sterling Shepard has been drawing comparisons to a young Victor Cruz and Cruz himself is on the comeback trail after years of injuries. Combined with a versatile backfield and Manning's ability to play every single game, all the pieces are in place for Eli to finally end the discussion about whether he is only elite in the playoffs.
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