There were certainly a host of high-profile names to emerge from the 2016 NFL Draft, and during the regular season we got to see many of them in action. As usual before the season started, projections ran wild on which ones would succeed, which ones would fail, and which ones would merely be good value for the round they were drafted in. It's fair to say that we got our fair share of surprises as a result, and some of the consensus predictions were right on the money. With that said, it was only one season, and all of the rookies from 2016 could stand to improve, or regress in the upcoming 2017 campaign.
Some of these players are stuck in less ideal situations than others, but all estimations are fair game when it comes to NFL players, regardless of their circumstances. There's no question that everyone this list has raw talent to at least some degree, but their style of play may be hindered or elevated by the NFL style of play, depending on who it is. Either way, these are some intriguing names to pay attention to as they enter their second season of NFL play.
Ranked below are eight NFL rookies from last season who will take the next step in the 2017 season, and seven who will regress.
15 15. NEXT STEP: Deion Jones
Though the Falcons ended up choking away the Super Bowl, they can hang their hat ion the fact that they have some excellent young players on both sides of the ball. Jones had an outstanding rookie season, that just got better with time. He showed himself to be a force in both playing the run, and in pass coverage, giving Atlanta a true leader at middle linebacker, and a signal caller on the defense for years to come. He'll only improve next season, along with a young corps of defenders that should start to insert themselves in the conversation for a top-ten overall unit. Jones had a lot of responsibility as a rookie, and lived up to just about all of it. He'll have his breakout year in 2017, if all goes according to plan.
14 14. REGRESS: Jordan Howard
There's no doubt that Howard had an extremely impressive rookie season at running back, especially for a fifth round pick, but expectations should be tempered next season. The Bears are an absolute mess on the offensive side of the ball right now, and will be without Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery next season. This leaves a severe lack of skill players to take the heat off of Howard, in a season where defenses will be game planning specifically for him. He came out of nowhere last season, and took advantage of his inconspicuous nature, which led to some excellent productivity. But with defenses keying in on him in 2017, it's likely that he will take a step back, especially since the Bears offense will be rebuilding almost from scratch when it comes down to it.
13 13. NEXT STEP: Devontae Booker
The Broncos may not have found their answer at quarterback quite yet, and that only means a bigger workload for Booker, as he looks to take over the featured running back slot in Denver's offense. As a rookie, Booker had a nice season, even though there was some confusion as to where he exactly fit in with the rest of the backfield. In 2017, there should be no question that Booker will receive more carries, and as a result, have a breakout season. Denver's offense may be light on quarterback right now, but it has a bevy of other skill players that will aid to Booker's development. With him going forward as a confirmed starter, he should elevate his game even further, and become one of the best young running backs in the league.
12 12. REGRESS: Derrick Henry
Going into the 2016 season, many thought that Henry would eventually lift the starting running back job from DeMarco Murray, but that's not what ended up happening. As it turned out, Murray has a bounce-back season, and that leaves a question as to where Henry fits in with the Titans offense for the long term. While he did showcase some flashes of brilliance, he always displayed some mediocre tendencies that will need to be fixed if he wants to one day own the backfield in Tennessee, or for any other team. Barring an injury to Murray next season, we should be seeing more of the same from Henry; an up-and-down performance that will leave the same questions unanswered, and kick the can down the road regarding his future as a starting running back.
11 11. NEXT STEP: Ezekiel Elliott
There's really little else to say about Elliott's rookie campaign than what has been repeated at length. He's a fantastic young running back, who should be a start in the league for years to come. The numbers he produced were simply astounding, and behind the force of Dallas' offensive line, there's no reason to believe that he won't be able to duplicate, or even surpass, such a performance in 2017. A skill set like Elliott's only comes along once in a great while, and the Cowboys will continue to be a run-first team as long as he's in their backfield. It's a tall order, but Elliott is likely to post some similar jaw-dropping stats next year, and continue to make his case for being the best running back in football. The only reason he isn't ranked higher is because he's already hovering around what most would consider peak production.
10 10. REGRESS: Michael Thomas
Many people thought Thomas would showcase some skills during his rookie year, but there were few who believed that he would turn himself into arguably Drew Brees' favorite receiving target. That may have been what happened, but since he slid under the radar for most of the regular season, Thomas is due for a bit of down turn in production for 2017, when defenses will be more aware of his presence. That and the fact that Drew Brees isn't getting any younger, and could suffer from a drop off any season from now due to his age. Thomas will be a good player for a long time, but his production, especially his touchdown receptions, should be slightly less during 2017.
9 9. NEXT STEP: Sterling Shepard
Shepard has a tremendous advantage playing next to an elite receiver like Odell Beckham. This frees up space for him in the slot, and he's already shown to be a sure-handed threat all over the field. With Victor Cruz gone from the receiving corps, Shepard will become the certified number two in the position group, and should rack up a 1,000 yard season due to defenses constantly trying to contain Beckham. With the two of them combined, the Giants should have an elite passing attack, especially since their running game is so weak. They'll be throwing the ball a lot, and Shephard stands to gain the most from the attention to the passing game. He should be able to turn some heads next season.
8 8. REGRESS: Dak Prescott
Given all the weapons he had to work with on offense, it's no surprise that Prescott would have had an astounding rookie season. There's no debating that he did, the throws he made, and his statistics at large prove this. However, theres also reason to believe that he will take a step back in 2017. The times when he struggled this year was when he faced a formidable pass rush, and it was pretty consistent. With a formula now in place to combat his skill set, along with a whole year of tape to review, opposing defenses should be able to alter their gameplans accordingly. Prescott probably won't have a terrible season, but he'll also show that the Cowboys are a run-first team, and that his game is mostly dependent on Dez Bryant, Elliott and the offensive line.
7 7. NEXT STEP: Vernon Hargreaves
To some, Hargreaves was the best cornerback selected in the 2016 draft, and he had a respectable rookie season with the Buccaneers. He did struggle at times, but with a quality defense around him, he should be able to take the next step into being a great cover corner in 2017. The Bucs can lay claim to a great front seven, which means they'll be getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks that will force some throws, to allow for some Hargreaves interceptions on the back end. If they're able to do this consistently, Hargreaves will transform into one of the best corners in the league. He has great closing speed, and will be able to use that to his advantage. He should be able to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of his position with a quality season next year.
6 6. REGRESS: Tyreek Hill
During the latter half of the season, Hill was a human highlight reel, breaking off big runs, and showcasing his versatility on seemingly a weekly basis. He can move all over the field, and make plays from just about any position, including his skills as a punt returner. But the extent of his potential seems to be a bit overrated. He's a dynamic player, but more of a gadget-type player than anything else. It's unlikely that he'll ever notch a 1,000 yard receiving, or rushing season, despite the fact that he's made plays split out wide, and in the backfield. He may have great athleticism, but his overall game doesn't possess the nuances that allow for an elite player at any position. He'll help the Chiefs win some games, and make some more exciting plays, but won't be a go-t0, number one receiver.
5 5. NEXT STEP: Jalen Ramsey
Considered by many to be the best player in the secondary taken in the 2016 draft, Ramsey can play multiple positions, and will excel at all of them. He had a solid rookie season for the Jaguars, but his game will take the next step in 2017, as he proves he's one of the best defensive players in the league. Jacksonville was still very much rebuilding during 2016, and going forward, Ramsey figures to be not only a leader on the defense, but also one of the most dynamic players on the team. He'll have a breakout season next year, and should be moved around the defense to various positions to get the most out of skill set. Used correctly, he could be a complete force in the secondary, and morph into one of the best defensive players in the league.
4 4. REGRESS: Joey Bosa
It was a whirlwind of an offseason for Bosa last year, and was a holdout of most of training camp, until he finally signed his rookie contract. Then, he suffered an injury which forced him to miss the first four games of the season. Once he got on the field, he showed why he was taken third overall, notching over 10 sacks in the 2016 campaign. The problem going forward? Though they had stretched of quality play last year, the Chargers defensive is still a work in progress. Offensive lines will double team Bosa without a thought, and there's little left on the defensive line able to pick up the slack. Bosa will make some plays, there's no doubt about that, but the extent of production may not equal that of last season's. This year, he's the marked man on the Chargers defense, and they'll have to gameplan well in order for Bosa to get to the quarterback with regularity.
3 3. NEXT STEP: Leonard Floyd
One of the most overlooked rookie performances of last season was that of Floyd, who was one of the lone bright spots for a pitiful Bears team. He was a great pass rusher as an outside linebacker, and only figures to improve next year. Chicago actually has some nice pieces in their front seven, including nose tackle Eddie Goldman, and fellow linebackers Pernell McPhee and Danny Trevathan. With quality players like that surrounding him, Floyd's production will continue to flourish, and make his mark as one of the best pass rushers in the league. Out of all defensive players next season going into their second year, Floyd may emerge as one of the elite players in the league, and be atop the 2016 draft class.
2 2. REGRESS: Laquon Treadwell
Considering the Vikings don't possess the most fearsome receiving corps, the fact that Treadwell could barely even get on the field for a regular season game should be extremely worrisome. He was considered by many to be the best wide receiver available in the 2016 draft, and there was essentially zero sign from him all season long. This all points to him being a massive bust, even though there's certainly still time for him to showcase some ability to produce. Treadwell's long speed came into question before he was even drafted, and that seems to be one of the main things that is holding him back right now. If he indeed busts out, and doesn't see much playing time in Minnesota this season, it would be one of the most high-profile wide receiver busts in recent memory. There's still time to turn it around, but it will be an uphill battle for Treadwell going forward.
1 1. NEXT STEP: Carson Wentz
Not many rookie quarterbacks in the history of the league had as many odds stacked against them as Wentz did during his rookie year in 2016. A second overall pick, he was only named the starting quarterback a week before the season started, due to the Eagles dealing Sam Bradford to the Vikings. Additionally, he had little in the way of quality skill players to work with, as the Eagles suffered from one of the worst receiving lineups in the league. To make matters worse, he lost his best offensive lineman in Lane Johnson to a 12-game suspension, and featured running back Ryan Mathews was constantly injured. Despite all of this, Wentz was able to show why many believe he was the best quarterback available in the 2016 draft. With a concerted effort on the part of the Eagles front office to acquire him personnel help at receiver and running back, Wentz should put together a franchise quarterback-esque season in 2017, and be one of the most improved players in the league.
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