With each passing day of the summer, we inch ever closer to the start of the 2017 NFL season. Most of the rosters are set with their new acquisitions at this point, and we can start to get a sense (or at least be able to make a prediction) of how the big names are going to perform this year.
There's no denying that individual player performances are difficult to estimate in the NFL. Between injuries, a new coaching staff around them, and new systems in play, most any player is liable to see a drop-off during any given year. Conversely, there will be players who exceed the expectations, proving their doubters wrong on their way to a massively productive season.
There's an abundance of NFL players who could fall into either category for the upcoming campaign. They each stand a chance to flourish, but the possibility of failure also remains a distinct reality. As usual, this season will provide plenty of surprises, and some players are going to be the key subjects this time around. Let's take a look at which ones this applies to.
Ranked below are 8 NFL players who will have a better 2017 season than people think, and 7 who will underperform, and have a bad one.
15 Mike Gillislee (Better)
He'll be taking over for LeGarrette Blount as the bruiser running back for the Patriots, and that likely means a high touchdown total for the upcoming season. Gillislee had som difficulties that caused the Bills to sour on him, but there's no denying the fact that he's been productive whenever he was on the field, and has a nose for the end zone.
Many have seem to have written Gillislee off for this season, but he could see serious production in such a defined and proven offense like New England's. This is the season that Gillislee could break into the spotlight as one of the league's most productive runners from a touchdown perspective. He won't play every down, but he'll be in the backfield when it counts.
14 Alex Smith (BAD)
The Smith era in Kansas City is slowly fading away, with the team's 1st round draft selection of Patrick Mahomes, who is undoubtedly going to get a chance to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback. Smith has always been risk-averse, but this could be the season that we see his numbers really start to decline, as the Chiefs have another player waiting in the wings to take his spot.
It's true that Smith doesn't throw many interceptions, but he also doesn't throw many touchdown passes. With a Chiefs receiving corps that is sorely lacking in talent after releasing Jeremy Maclin, there's not much that Smith can work with, and that will show itself during the season. This will be the last season that Smith is the Chiefs starting quarterback.
13 DeVante Parker (Better)
Hidden behind Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry on the Dolphins' receiving corps, Parker is the one that defenses are least likely to pay attention to. That's going to be a mistake, as he's primed for a breakout season, in his third NFL year. Parker improved upon his rookie campaign last season, and will likely further his production this year. It should be his first 1,000-yard receiving season in the pros, and certainly not the last.
While there are questions about how many targets he's going to get seated next to Stills and Landry, with the 87 he received last year, he should crack the 100-target mark this year, which gives him plenty of opportunity to make some noise. Ryan Tannehill may not be the best quarterback around, but with a ton of quality skill players around him, Parker will be able to take advantage of one-on-one coverage this year, and have a breakout season.
12 Martellus Bennett (BAD)
The Packers rarely do anything noteworthy in free agency, so signing a player like Bennett was certainly a surprise from them this offseason. It seems like a good signing on paper, but Bennett isn't the same player that he was a few years ago, and he doesn't fit with the Packers' MO.
Green Bay has a plethora of really good receivers in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, and Aaron Rodgers likes to throw the ball to the outside of the field. They aren't an offense that's known for utilizing tight ends as receivers, and that doesn't jive well with Bennett's skill set. It has a chance to be effective, but more than likely, Bennett will have one of his worst seasons since 2012, and it will be a one-year pit stop in Green Bay for him.
11 Mike Glennon (Better)
Given that he's been the backup to Jameis Winston for the past two seasons, people do forget that Glennon had a decent season as a rookie in 2013. He wasn't outstanding, but the 3rd-round pick showed that he could play competently as an NFL quarterback. Now, he can lay claim to the starting job for the Bears, a team who seems to be in rebuild mode at the moment, but that doesn't mean that it's a lost cause for Glennon in 2017.
He has a good young running back in Jordan Howard to take the pressure off when he needs it, and some intriguing receivers to throw to. Cameron Meredith showed flashes last season, former 9th-overall pick Kevin White could break out this year, and Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz, and Kendall Wright are all veteran receivers who still have some gas left in the tank. Glennon won't be amazing, but he's definitely capable of keeping the starting job past this season for the Bears, especially if 2nd-overall pick Mitch Trubisky struggles in practice.
10 John Brown (BAD)
Brown has been a bit of an enigma so far during his NFL career. At his best, he's one of the best deep threat receivers in the game today, but at his worst, he's a streaky player who has a knack for getting hurt at the wrong time. He did seem to fall out of favor last season with Bruce Arians and the Cardinals, posting career-lows in nearly every statistical category.
There's speculation that J.J. Nelson may be on his way up the Cardinals receiving depth chart. If that's the case, then Brown may be on his way out of Arizona by year's end. Either way, he's not likely to post extraordinary numbers this year, especially not with Carson Palmer throwing him the ball this late in his career.
9 Kenny Britt (Better)
Coming off of his best NFL season last year, Britt is now headed to Cleveland, which may sound like hell for a wide receiver. Even though they have no established starting quarterback, they also have no established receiving targets, which means that Britt is likely to get the lion's share of the targets, much like Terrelle Pryor did last season, when it became clear that he was the best receiver on the team.
Whether its Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer or Cody Kessler throwing him the ball, Britt should stand a good chance to have a repeat 1,000 yard season. Someone needs to get the targets, and his only real competition is 2nd-year player Corey Coleman, who was hurt for the majority of his rookie season.
8 Doug Martin (BAD)
It appears that Martin is exiting the prime of his career, and is barely hanging on to the starting running back job in Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, he's dealt with injuries for a majority of his career, and if he suffers another major one this season, Martin will be on thin ice. It's just not likely that a player in his position will return to prominence after missing so much time.
Everyone knows that Martin is a really good runner when he is on the field, but he's going to have a short leash this season. The Bucs don't have a surefire replacement for him, but they have enough depth to get by for a year if Martin shows that he just can't do it anymore. As it stands, this is the year that Martin regresses to the point of a bench player for the rest of his career.
7 Derrick Henry (Better)
The Titans were smart to work Henry into the backfield incrementally last season, giving DeMarco Murray the bulk of the carries for the season. This year we should be seeing more of Henry, and why he was taken by Tennessee in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft. Murray should still get the slight majority of the touches, but Henry should work himself into a defined role in the offense.
He'll also have the advantage of running behind a stellar offensive line that has a real chance to be the best in the league this year. With all of these factors combined, Henry may be looking at a break out season, and if not, at least take a step forward to having one in 2018. Consider him to be one of the most under-the-radar talents in the league right now.
6 Mohamed Sanu (BAD)
Sanu was brought in by the Falcons to add receiver depth for Matt Ryan last year, but instead it was other players on the offense that flourished the most. Taylor Gabriel proved himself to be a legitimate deep threat, Julio Jones commanded the receiving corps with his elite player, and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman formed an elite 1-2 punch out of the backfield.
In short, there are still questions as to where Sanu fits in the offense. He may not get the chance to live up to his four-year contract, and if he doesn't improve, this could be his last year in Atlanta. With the other weapons that have emerged around the Falcons' offense, it's unlikely that Sanu is able to break out in the 2017 season. His production may even decrease.
5 Isaiah Crowell (Better)
Despite popular belief, Crowell is actually one of the most underrated running backs in the league right now. Even though he plays for the Browns, his production has still been very good, and they should have an improved offensive line in 2017. Going into a contract year, there's reason to believe that Crowell will have his best season yet, and establish himself as one of the best running backs in the league.
He should break 200 carries for Cleveland this year, which should finally put him above the 1,000 yard mark. He's improved as a receiver out of the backfield as well, which only betters his value. No question that Crowell should turn some heads this year, and have his best season yet. He's the best player on the Browns' offense right now.
4 Jared Goff (BAD)
As a 1st-overall pick in 2016, Goff had a troubling rookie season that saw him as one of the biggest disappointments in the league. He couldn't beat out two mediocre quarterbacks on the Rams' roster, and when he did see game action, he struggled, to put it lightly. Now Goff is going to be counted upon to lead the offense, and there's little reason to believe that he can.
While it's never a good idea to put too much stock into a rookie season, it's hard to ignore both the statistical and observational deficiencies in Goff's game. It would be back for a mid-round pick, but for a quarterback who went 1st-overall, it's a downright failure. Unless he can somehow up his game several notches in a single year, it's going to be an ugly year in L.A. for Goff and the Rams.
3 Willie Snead (Better)
Snead has been one of Drew Brees' favorite targets for the last few seasons, and that's only going increase with Brandin Cooks gone to the Patriots. Snead is set up to the number two receiver on the Saints' roster behind Michael Thomas, and he should finally breech the 1,000 yards mark in 2017. New Orleans always has a deadly passing attack (as would any offense with Brees at the helm), and that isn't going to change this year.
There's a real opportunity here for Snead to establish himself as one of the best receivers in the league. He's not going to draw the kind of coverage that Thomas will, and he'll get plenty of opportunity as a result. He's one of the most overlooked players in football right now, and in 2017 he should have his best season yet.
2 Kirk Cousins (BAD)
It's well-established at this point that Cousins is not happy in Washington, and that he'll likely be on his way out after the season is over. That circumstance casts a shadow over his 2017 season before he even steps on the field, and his play is going to be effected as a result. If a quarterback isn't mentally ready to go, then his play will follow suit. Cousins is a likely candidate for regression this year.
To make matters worse for him, he lost his 2 best targets in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to free agency. Cousins has never thrown to any other X and Y receivers for a full season, and he'll have to acclimate to the likes of Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson, who are both a significant step down until proven otherwise. Cousins will take a step back this season, and then sign with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, becoming their franchise quarterback instead.
1 Blake Bortles (Better)
Bortles knows that he's playing for his career at this point. He's showed flashes of brilliance, but he's been too inconsistent to warrant a big payday from the Jaguars. He has everything to gain and everything to lose simultaneously during the upcoming season. The only thing left to do is step up, cut down on the head-scratching mistakes, and prove why he was selected to be Jacksonville's long-term franchise quarterback.
He certainly has the help necessary to do that. He's been throwing to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns for several years now, and has a stable of good backfield players, which should be anchored by 4th-overall pick Leonard Fournette this season. No question about it, the only thing stopping Bortles from being a good NFL quarterback is himself, and he's going to need to prove his doubters wrong this season.
More likely however, he'll continue to struggle in all the wrong places this year. He'll show just enough ability to warrant consideration, but the Jags would be wise to decline.