With the NFL Preseason imminently approaching, fans should begin to get excited to see their favorite teams and players get back on the field. While the preseason can’t help us predict everything that will happen in the actual season, it often serves as a fairly accurate sneak peek of what is to come.
With an exciting offseason behind us, there are many familiar faces in new places that will look to continue their success in a different uniform. Additionally, there is a plethora of intriguing rookie prospects that will try to prove themselves this preseason. NFL players can break out at any point in their careers, and whether they will emerge in their first, second, or tenth year in the league can be determined by their preseason performance.
Many of the NFL stars of today began their careers impressing in training camp and preseason games. The preseason is often a time for football fans to discover the NFL stars of tomorrow. Last season, breakout stars like Thomas Rawls and Doug Martin showed their worth during the preseason and translated that success into the regular season.
Who will excel this year? What semi-proven players can solidify their value this year? The preseason can begin to answer these questions. Every team has their own respective breakout players every season, and many of them begin to show their promise during the preseason.
32. Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, RB
After posting over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns (And even an extra return touchdown) in his rookie season, hype is understandably revolving around DJ. As polished as Johnson looked in the second half of last year, it is a mystery to all of us as to how head coach, Bruce Arians will use the talented second year back.
With Chris Johnson posting some impressive numbers last year and Andre Ellington even getting into the mix a little bit, Johnson’s position as a bell cow back is highly questionable. The preseason should give us a glimpse of how the carries could be distributed in Phoenix, and whether David Johnson’s rookie campaign was authentic, or just a fluke.
31. Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones, OLB
Deion Jones could make some noise this season. The talented linebacker out of LSU was Atlanta’s 2nd round pick in this past year’s draft, and he is already pushing for a starting position. Jones finished the Falcons’ offseason program practicing with the first-team defense and figures to be a three-down starter by seasons end.
Jones could give a big boost to this Atlanta defense and special teams with his rare combination of speed (4.38 40-yard dash!!), elusiveness, and size. Look out for him in the preseason to get a preview of what is to come in September.
30. Baltimore Ravens: Terrance West, RB
If there is one player that has received high praise from Ravens training camp this offseason, it is West. This is especially interesting because West has never been an efficient back in his two years in the league.
His career YPC of 3.9 is certainly an uninspiring statistic and last season in 8 games with the Ravens, West averaged just 8 touches per game. However, recent reports are suggesting that West could start over Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, and rookie Kenneth Dixon. This is definitely an intriguing situation to monitor, and the preseason could give us all some insight as to what the heck is going on in Baltimore’s backfield.
29. Buffalo Bills: Adolphus Washington, DT
Outside of some pretty hardcore Bills fans, Adolphus Washington is not a very well known name in the NFL… yet. Washington was an integral part of Ohio State’s defense in his last three years in the program as he accumulated 133 total tackles and 21.5 tackles for a loss.
Bills GM Doug Whaley is sold on Washington as a week 1 starter in this Bills defense, but skepticism surrounding his ability to handle gaps and his assertiveness makes the situation quite murky. Look out for #92 on the field in Bills preseason games. With an injured Kyle Williams, Adolphus could get some serious work this preseason. Only time will tell if his collegiate success will translate to the big leagues.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
It’s difficult to not be unsure about a stud wide receiver coming off of an ACL tear, and Kelvin Benjamin is no exception. Benjamin was part of the 2014 rookie WR crop that included studs like Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Jarvis Landry, and he performed at a similar level to all of those receivers.
The issue is that we didn’t see any of Benjamin in the Panthers’ 2015-16 super bowl run, and nobody has any idea of what to expect. Cam Newton spread the ball around quite generously last season, involving pass catchers like Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, and Corey Brown consistently. Will Kelvin Benjamin find his way back into this offense after such a major injury? The preseason could give us all an idea.
27. Chicago Bears: Kevin White, WR
The second straight massive, talented receiver who was injured for all of last year and has the letters K,E,V,I, and N in their first name has officially made this list. Kevin White was the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and expectations were lofty for the rookie out of West Virginia before he injured his leg in last year’s offseason.
White had a breakout senior campaign at West Virginia, catching 109 balls (3rd in the country) for 1,447 yards (6th in the country) and 10 touchdowns in 13 games. The tall, speedy receiver will look to carve out a role in a Bears offense that once featured two top ten WR’s in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. With Marshall long gone, our first preview of post-injury White should come early in preseason games.
26. Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Boyd, WR
With a lot less competition at the WR position this year in Cincinnati, Tyler Boyd has a wonderful opportunity to contribute in his first year in the league. The 6’1″ rook out of Pitt has received acclaim for his energy and athleticism from head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton throughout training camp and will look to produce from the slot this season.
With Tyler Eifert injured, and Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu elsewhere, Boyd’s only serious threats for targets this year are star WR A.J. Green, pass-catching back Giovani Bernard, and newly acquired WR Brandon LaFell, but he should get his share of looks throughout the season. Look out for Boyd this preseason to get a glimpse at what he can do against NFL-caliber competition.
25. Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon, WR
One of the more attention grasping headlines of this offseason was Josh Gordon’s reinstatement to play this season. High expectations now surround Josh Gordon after his unbelievable 1,646 yard, 9 touchdown sophomore season in Cleveland 3 years ago. Gordon has only played 5 games since that 2013 season, and his ability to return to top form is undoubtedly in question.
He now rejoins a roster that features talented rookie Corey Coleman, quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor, annually average Andrew Hawkins, pass-catching back Duke Johnson, and last year’s biggest breakout tight end, Gary Barnidge. There is no dearth of competition for targets in Cleveland, and with Robert Griffin III slated to be the starter, there is no guarantee that Gordon will be half as good as he was in 2013. Despite Gordon’s 4-game suspension to start the regular season, he will still be able to play in the preseason. Browns fans should watch this preseason to see if there is chance that they can get their star receiver back.
24. Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Ezekiel Elliott is officially the most hyped up rookie RB in recent memory after being selected 4th overall in this year’s draft by a team whose greatest strength is their offensive line. I understand the excitement around Elliott. He is set to be the lead back behind an offensive line that helped a generally disappointing Darren McFadden rush for nearly 1,100 yards, and he is likely way more talented, but he is still a rookie.
Often times first round studs like Elliott fail to be great in the pros. A great example of this is aforementioned Darren McFadden. He too was the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft and was expected to be the next big thing. Instead, Darren McFadden had a frustrating career and he never emerged as a consistent, star running back. The same could happen to Elliott, as unlikely as it may seem today. Of course Elliott could still be the league’s next great ball carrier as well. This preseason should help give us an idea of what route Zeke will take in his NFL career.
23. Denver Broncos: Paxton Lynch, QB
The Denver Broncos’ quarterback situation is pretty as of now. The battle for the starting position is currently between Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian. That pretty much sums up the strength of the position in Denver.
First round pick Paxton Lynch could emerge as the starter this season, and the preseason could give us an estimate on the likelihood of that outcome. Lynch should be able to play most if not all of the second half of preseason games this year, and he will be put to the test. After a spectacular junior season at Memphis in which Lynch managed to put up 28 touchdowns and just 4 picks, he certainly seems to have the talent to shine in the NFL.
22. Detroit Lions: Zach Zenner, RB
Zach Zenner may not be a player on many people’s radars, but he has the talent to succeed in this league. Zenner was given an opportunity to show what he was made of last preseason and instantly became one of the preseason’s biggest stars after rushing for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 35 carries. The regular season was less impressive for Zenner, as he was overshadowed by fellow rookie Ameer Abdullah, Joique Bell, and Theo Riddick.
With Joique Bell gone, Zenner could take his place as a bruising goal line back this year. Zenner should have a big role this preseason for the Lions, and if he can improve on what he did last year, he could emerge as a solid running back in Detroit’s committee.
21. Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy, RB
Fans would’ve gotten their first look at notoriously overweight RB Eddie Lacy last Sunday at the Hall of Fame Game, but ultimately the game was cancelled due to poor field conditions. Regardless, pay attention to Lacy when he does finally get an opportunity to play. He did greatly disappoint fans last season, but Lacy could have a serious bounce-back year this season.
Lacy has shed over 20 pounds this offseason and has looked as good as ever in training camp. The 26 year old is in a contract year and should be able to return to his 2014 form, when he racked up over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns. The preseason should give us a good indication if he is truly ready to do so.
20. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, OLB
The Texans are really hoping they didn’t make a mistake by drafting Jadeveon Clowney with the 1st overall pick in 2014. The injury-prone linebacker has played only 17 of his first 32 games and has failed to impress greatly in most of the games that he has played in. He has lost weight and gained muscle this offseason according to multiple reports, and could be in for a monster year.
If Clowney can finally begin to dominate this preseason, the Texans can feel more comfortable about him breaking out this season. Questions about Clowney’s health and work ethic have plagued him for his entire career, but he may finally be ready to play like a number 1 overall draft pick.
19. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB
Andrew Luck was one of the biggest disappointments in football last season. After exploding for over 4,700 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 16 INTs two years ago, Luck was underwhelming in the 7 games that he played in before coming down with an abdomen injury. Can the former number 1 overall pick get things together this season after recovering from last year?
Luck is clearly immensely talented, but 2015 simply was not his year. It will be interesting to see if Luck can show that he has improved on last season this preseason. He could too be in for a bounce back year in Indy.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dante Fowler Jr., DE
Dante Fowler Jr. was one of the most exciting draft prospects of 2015, but unfortunately, he got hit with the injury bug in his first ever practice. A year and a torn ACL later, and the former 3rd overall pick looks primed to follow up on his impressive junior season at Florida.
Fowler has been dominant in this year’s training camp, and will be the starter in Jacksonville this upcoming season. This preseason should give us an idea of whether his dominance can translate into real game action. Look out for #56 on the Jags this preseason, he could be a contender for rookie of the year.
17. Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles, RB
Jamaal Charles is without a doubt one of the most talented and dominant football players that we’ve seen in the past decade. A versatile, quick running back, Charles has been an NFL star for years. The issue with Charles is that he is going on 30 years old, and has a rich injury history. Coming off of another ACL tear will be challenging for Charles, but if anyone can come back strong, it is Charles.
We may not see a ton of Charles this preseason, but it will be important to monitor what we do see from the 4-time pro bowler. He could return to top form, or he could ultimately break down. The preseason could give us a better idea of what will happen.
16. Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, QB
After being selected first overall in this past year’s draft, Jared Goff has a lot of weight on his shoulders. He is currently projected to be the backup to Case Keenum when the season begins, but the week one starter will ultimately be the quarterback who performs better in the preseason. Both quarterbacks should get plenty of playing time this preseason, but Rams fans would definitely prefer to see what they’ve gotten in their first overall selection.
Goff is an exciting prospect with a great arm and an accurate deep ball. The Rams most likely won’t contend for a playoff spot this year, so starting Keenum over Goff doesn’t seem very logical. Goff may not be an instant star in the league, but look at the improvement we saw in Derek Carr from his rookie year as a starter to last year. Hopefully, Goff will outperform Keenum this preseason and snatch the starting spot from him.
15. Miami Dolphins: Arian Foster, RB
For much of the offseason, the talented, but injury-prone Arian Foster was an unrestricted free agent. In mid July, Arian finally found a home. Foster signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins after they were publicly unsure about the capability of their 5th round draft pick of last year, Jay Ajayi.
Foster is about 2 weeks away from the 30 year old milestone and has dealt with serious hamstring, groin, and achilles injuries in the past. While it seems unlikely that Foster will return to being a 3 down back that receives 300 or so touches, he could be a legitimate asset to Miami’s backfield. Reports in training camp suggest that Foster is his old self, but preseason action should really determine that.
14. Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell, WR
Many considered Laquon Treadwell to be the most talented receiver in this past year’s draft, despite only being taken as the 4th receiver off the board. Treadwell may not have elite speed, but he has phenomenal ball skills and great size for a WR. The Vikings may have gotten a steal at number 23, but it will be interesting to see how well they incorporate Treadwell into their run-oriented offense.
Treadwell has been listed as the third WR on the Vikes’ depth chart, and many people within the Vikings organization believe that his position on the depth chart will remain the same throughout the regular season. However, if Treadwell can prove himself this preseason, that could all change. He certainly has the tools to succeed in this league, and could add a nice weapon to the Vikings’ rather underwhelming passing attack.
13. New England Patriots: Dion Lewis, RB
After tearing his ACL in the middle of a breakout season, Dion Lewis’ career may be in jeopardy. He is still projected to be the starter for New England, but coming back strong from an ACL tear is easier said than done. The Patriots will likely be careful with how many touches Lewis receives during the preseason and regular season, but we should all pay attention to how he performs during the former.
If Lewis can show that he still has the same explosiveness that propelled him to an outstanding half-season last year, Patriots fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Lewis was a very important part of the Pats’ offense last year when he did play, as the Patriots did not lose a single game that he played in.
12. New Orleans Saints: Coby Fleener, TE
Coby Fleener has a new home in a TE-friendly city. Many fans are excited to see a potential breakout season from Fleener, who has shown his talent and athleticism in previous years with the Colts. He now has no competition for targets at the tight end position (Dwayne Allen capped his potential in Indy) and could succeed in an offense that made Jimmy Graham the best in the business at one time, and even helped Benjamin Watson have a breakout campaign last year.
Fleener has never had to handle a very large role in a passing attack, but this year he will be put to the test in New Orleans. Look out for Fleener this preseason to see if he fits right in, or if the hype is unreasonable.
11. New York Giants: Eli Apple, CB
Eli Apple was impressive enough in just two years at Ohio State for the Giants to draft him 10th overall in the 2016 Draft. Apple finished his two year collegiate career with 17 passes defended and 4 interceptions and he should be able to translate his success at Ohio State to the NFL. However, The Giants are starting to develop a very solid secondary, acquiring Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Leon Hall, and Janoris Jenkins over the past two offseasons.
The question is not Apple’s talent, it’s whether he’ll be able to contribute this season despite being buried beneath an impressive CB depth chart. He should get a good amount of preseason reps, and will look to live up to his draft position during the regular season.
10. New York Jets: Darron Lee, ILB
Darron Lee is the second straight rookie out of Ohio State on this list that may struggle to have a role in a New York defense this season. The Jets’ 2016 first round pick may only get limited action in sub packages this season.
Lee is a special talent with great athleticism, and quick feet. He is a bit small for the linebacker position, but Lee could still be a star in this league. Lee is currently behind Erin Henderson on the Jets’ depth chart, but if he can prove himself this preseason, he could carve himself a greater role.
9. Oakland Raiders: Sean Smith, CB
One of the biggest offseason acquisitions for the Raiders, Sean Smith could really help the Raiders have one of the stronger secondaries in the NFL. The star cornerback signed with Oakland in March after a solid 3 year run in Kansas City. The Raiders defense looks to be revamped this season after using their first 3 draft picks on some promising defensive players and making many offseason acquisitions on that side of the ball.
Smith should start opposite of David Amerson and will look to contribute immediately. This preseason should help us figure out how well Sean Smith fits into Ken Norton Jr.’s defense and if the Raiders truly struck gold by inking Smith to a 4-year deal this offseason.
8. Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, QB
Carson Wentz has a similar level of pressure to succeed as Jared Goff does after being selected one slot after him by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2016 Draft. While Wentz is currently 3rd on the depth chart behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, he is expected to be fully ready to play by the time the season starts.
Wentz will get most of the preseason reps in the 2nd half of games, and should be an exciting prospect to keep an eye out for when watching Eagles preseason games. Wentz doesn’t have to step up and be a starter right away, but Eagles fans would definitely like to see him play in some real game action as soon as possible.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: Sammie Coates, WR
I do have a bit of an obsession with Sammie Coates this year from a fantasy perspective, and he might just permanently replace suspended Martavis Bryant by season’s end. The 2015 3rd rounder out of Auburn didn’t do a whole lot in his rookie season, but has made great strides this offseason according to multiple reports from Steelers camp. Coates has a great body type for a red zone receiver and his speed and acceleration make him a great deep threat as well.
Coates can really make an impact this season for the Steelers, and should be able to overtake Markus Wheaton on the depth chart as the number 2 in Pittsburgh. Look for him to make an impact this preseason for a preview of what is to come.
6. San Diego Chargers: Joey Bosa, DE
Joey Bosa was selected 3rd overall in this past year’s draft by the Chargers. The Bolts are hoping that Bosa can add a boost to their lackluster defense. After receiving Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year honors in 2015, Bosa was considered one of the top defensive players in the entire 2016 Draft Class.
Bosa is still in contract negotiations with the Chargers, and there are some concerns that he won’t play a single game in the upcoming season. Bosa’s career is off to a rocky start, and he hasn’t even played a single game yet. Hopefully, the rookie defensive end can sort things out with his team. Chargers fans are eager to watch this guy play during the preseason.
5. San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, RB
The football was very excited about Carlos Hyde after week 1 last year. Hyde posted an incredible stat line of 26 carries for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first game last year. Unfortunately for Hyde, that week was the height of his success last year.
Hyde only played 6 more games that year, and averaged over 4 YPC in just one of them. Can Hyde finally begin to consistently succeed in a new Chip Kelly offensive system? Hyde has the talent to succeed, but has never been in the greatest of situations to do so. Will this year finally be the year for Hyde? This preseason could have answers for football fans.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett, WR
Few players have been praised as much as Lockett has been this offseason. The speedy WR and returner had a very solid rookie season last year, posting a 51-664-6 stat line, and getting involved more and more as the season went on. The question is how much Lockett will be utilized this year, with a breakout season from Doug Baldwin last year, and a generally run-heavy offense.
Will the Seahawks begin to pass the ball more with Marshawn Lynch retired? This preseason could be a good indication of what kind of role the talented 5’10” receiver will have.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB
Vernon Hargreaves III has the chance to be the best corner in the 2016 Draft Class. Before being selected 11th overall by Tampa Bay, Hargreaves had an outstanding 3 year career at Florida. During that span, Hargreaves compiled 121 total tackles to go along with 10 interceptions and 27 passes defended.
Hargreaves’ impressive collegiate career and solid training camp should allow him to be a week 1 starter for the Bucs. This preseason could determine just how good the 5’10” DB is, and whether he is the game changing corner that he is expected to be. Look out for #28 on the Bucs. He might just be the league’s next great cornerback.
2. Tennessee Titans: DeMarco Murray, RB
Just two years removed from a First Team All-Pro season, DeMarco Murray fell off pretty hard last year after joining the Eagles last offseason. The talented 2 time Pro Bowler could be in line for a bounce back year for the Titans. Clearly Chip Kelly’s east-west system was not a fit for Murray’s traditional north-south play style, but he will have a chance to reenter that system in Tennessee.
Murray’s workload may not be what it was in 2014, with a promising rookie running back in Derrick Henry creeping up on him in the depth chart, but he can still make an impact at age 28. Murray should still have enough gas in the tank to put together a solid season, but this preseason can help determine whether or not that is a possibility.
1. Washington Redskins: Josh Norman, CB
Josh Norman was one of football’s biggest breakout stars last year. He emerged from being an average starting cornerback in 2014, to being one of the league’s best in 2015. Norman was a centerpiece of the Carolina Panthers’ defense that brought them all the way to the Super Bowl last year.
Norman left all of that behind when he decided to sign with the Washington Redskins instead of staying in Carolina. Was Norman just a beneficiary of Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme in Carolina, or is he a difference maker on any team? This preseason could give us an idea of whether Norman can shine in a different home.
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