Every NFL player will eventually have a career year, even if some are ultimately more impressive than others. There’s always going to be that one season where a player manages to achieve more than they ever have before. What’s so strange about these career years, however, is that they are almost impossible to predict. A player can come out of nowhere and put up a season that they can never possibly hope to match again, while a bonafide Hall of Famer seemingly at the top of their game can turn in a dud of a season that was supposed to be special.
It’s a tricky piece of business to be able to spot when a career year is on the way, but there are always a few players (some big names and others, perhaps, not) that enter every season that appears to be on the verge of something special. Whether they’re looking for revenge, are starting to figure things out, ended the previous season on a hot streak, or found themselves in a brand new situation that benefits their particular skills, these are the top 15 players set to have a career year in 2016.
15 Von Miller
If you look at Von Miller’s career stats, you’ll find that he had his best year in 2012 and has since spent his time producing fairly consistent numbers in every season that he wasn’t injured in. He’s been a steady superstar throughout his time on the Broncos and, while there is nothing about his last season from an on the field perspective that would indicate he is on the verge of something special, in this case, the implication that Von Miller is about to enter a career year has more to do with what is happening on the other side of the ball for the Broncos.
Von Miller has that killer instinct leadership mentality, and now that the Broncos are without Peyton Manning, you would be foolish to think that he isn’t ready to put the team on his shoulders and make the defense the story of the show via his best season to date.
14 Donte Moncrief
The less said about the Indianapolis Colts' 2015 season, the better. While their 8-8 record doesn’t look too awful on paper, the team’s supposedly high-powered offense failed to ever really get going, resulting in a series of painfully unexciting games that saw one of the most squads of explosive players in the league fail to get out of first gear most of the time. What happened? It’s hard to say. The one thing that you can be sure of, however, is that it won’t soon happen again as Andrew Luck and co. are going to come out with guns blazing in 2016. While T.Y. Hilton will benefit from that resurgence, it is the emerging Donte Moncrief that is primed to take advantage of his maturing skills and renewed team energy to turn in the kind of season that will leave opposing defenses spread thin and short on answers.
13 Le’Veon Bell
Injuries, suspensions, and underwhelming performances summed up the 2015 campaign of Le’Veon Bell who, until that point, had positioned himself to be one of the very best running backs in the NFL. You can’t make any excuses for Le’Veon’s off the field incidents in 2015, nor can you really feel good about the few moments of on-field brilliance he did display when he played a full game. Add a fairly serious injury on top of all that, and it might be hard to understand why someone would be optimistic about Bell’s chances at a major bounceback in 2016. So far as that goes, you can’t discount the fact that Bell should be healthy this year and is looking for redemption. More than anything, however, this is a contract year for Bell and a major performance this season would mean a huge contract for him the next. His suspension will hurt, but he’ll do great things with the field time he has.
12 Kirk Cousins
It’s tempting to write off Kirk Cousins' last season as something of a fluke. He stepped in to lead the Washington Redskins at a pretty tumultuous time and, despite having relatively little to work with, managed to turn in a very good season that saw him throw for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, and a 69.8% completion percentage. Those kind of numbers don’t happen often for guys as seemingly uninspiring as Kirk Cousins, and there usually isn’t much reason to believe that they will happen again. However, Cousins is a little different than your average one-year wonder. For one thing, he’s far more talented that even his biggest supporters usually give him credit for. He’s got a good arm, a lot of common sense, and a team that is starting to trust him. There’s no reason to believe that Cousins can’t do it again and perhaps even do it better.
11 Tyler Eifert
NFL fans, especially fantasy football fans, are seemingly always on the lookout for that next great tight end. There have been several false starts over the years as some young player will seemingly appear to be invincible for a season or so, then fall off the radar never to be heard again. Tyler Eifert was last year's tight-end sensation as he snagged an incredibly impressive 12 touchdowns for the Cincinnati Bengals and basically dominated the red zone every time that the Bengals stepped foot in it. His emergence may have been sudden, but it was far from a fluke as Eifert has the size, speed, and hands that typically separate elite tight ends from the rest of the pack. It’s debatable if 12 touchdowns can be accomplished again, but expect double digits in that category for Eifert in 2016 as well as the young star's first 1,000-yard season.
10 Brandin Cooks
Brandin Cooks may have endeared himself to Saints fans everywhere by putting up over 1,000-yards and nine touchdowns in 84 catches back in 2015. With Jimmy Graham out of town and Marques Colston seemingly on the downslope of his career, Cooks emerged as Drew Brees favorite target in an offense that may have lost a step or two over the years but is still capable of coming alive like no other unit in the NFL. Will Cooks regress now that he has the attention of nearly every defender in the league? It’s certainly possible, but what makes it seem unlikely is, oddly enough, how uncomfortable Cooks looked at times when getting into his rhythm in 2015. With those growing pains well behind him, the Brandon Cooks that hits the field in 2016 should be able to turn in a season that he may not be able to replicate again.
9 Jeremy Hill
If you’re an NFL running back that follows up a pretty great year with a pretty awful year, there are always going to be fans that start to use words like “fluke” and “bust” when they talk about you. However, it’s really hard to believe that is the case with Jeremy Hill. He’s far from the first running back (or NFL player for that matter) to suffer a sophomore slump, and you have to like the guy’s simple but explosive run style in an offense that is becoming increasingly more capable of spreading the field with a fairly intimidating passing game as an added bonus. Hill is going to start the season splitting carries with Giovani Bernard and battling against perceptions that he cannot be trusted, but he’s the right guy in the right system, and he should soon prove that he’s anything but a bust, especially as the season goes on.
8 Sammy Watkins
It’s hard to judge the career of Sammy Watkins up to this point. That’s not because the guy hasn’t been exceptional on the field (he has),but rather because the Buffalo Bills have failed to remain consistently competitive for the last couple of seasons, and it’s been difficult to say for sure whether he’s the real deal or just a really good athlete on a team that doesn’t have many better offensive options. The latter is certainly possible, but the one thing that you have to remember is that Sammy Watkins has been producing incredible numbers since he was in college and, so far as his personal performances have gone, it’s been years since he’s given fans any reason to think that he isn’t a well above-average player capable of truly great things. The Buffalo offense is starting to come together which should allow Watkins to shine brighter than ever.
7 Lamar Miller
Lamar Miller’s career history has been very interesting. Nobody has ever really called him a bad player, but his numbers would suggest that he is exactly that. It’s a strange situation, but the best explanation for it is that Lamar Miller has been cursed with the disappointing performances of a Miami Dolphins team that never really found a way to let him run wild or even be able to consistently get the carries he needs to go over the top. It was always an awkward situation for him that has since been remedied by his move from Miami to the Houston Texans. What’s different about Houston is that they have an offense that knows how to use a running back like Miller and they have an exceptional wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins that should help new quarterback Brock Osweiler open up the kind of lanes that Miller has never really seen before.
6 Muhammad Wilkerson
Muhammad Wilkerson is an absolute beast, plain and simple. He came in a little under the radar as a sleeper favorite in the 2011 NFL Draft, but it wasn’t long before he showed that he has the ability to disrupt an offensive backfield as well as anyone else in the league. In 2013, he really made a name for himself as a sack machine by racking up 10.5 sacks of them, but that’s nothing compared to his 2015 outing in which he nabbed 12 sacks on top of 69 total tackles (both career highs). So why should we believe that he’s on track to do even better this year? Well, a lot of that has to do with the changes on the Jets offense. Ideally, the addition of Matt Forte should allow the Jets to slow the game down a bit, meaning that Wilkerson won’t have to suffer late game fatigue or reduced stats due to meaningless late-game blowout efforts.
5 Cam Newton
It seems impossible that Cam Newton would be able to top his 2015 numbers considering that he performed well above the expectations of even his biggest supporters by putting up over 3,800 yards and 35 touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl appearance (despite the loss). Given his somewhat lackluster performance in that game, as well as the history of losing Super Bowl quarterbacks failing to bounce back, many are suggesting that Cam is going to fall pretty hard. What’s funny about that conclusion is that all practical evidence suggests otherwise. Last year, the Carolina offense found new life as everyone stepped up their game in order to help Newton go above and beyond his previous outings. This year, the team should also have the full services of Kelvin Benjamin who is far and away the most talented member of the receiving core. Cam is going to be better than ever.
4 Eddie Lacy
To say that Eddie Lacy regressed a bit in 2015 would be a severe understatement for the running back. Coming into the year, Lacy was seen as one of those rare running backs that could actually be called reliable. His straight ahead run style combined with the considerable skills of his quarterback and receiving core put him pretty high on top of many fantasy football draft sheets and raised the expectations of Packers fans considerably. Sadly, Lacy looked turned in the kind of season typically reserved for a mediocre backup. Lacy’s stats have actually regressed slightly ever since his rookie season, but the young running back has gone out of his way in the offseason to drop some weight as well as the otherworldly expectations that proceeded his previous season. This year, you should expect him to help that famous Green Bay offense be just a little better than ever.
3 Mark Ingram
You could say that the New Orleans Saints haven’t really had a great running back since Reggie Bush, but even that statement is kind of iffy. Bush was a great utility guy on a team that understood how to utilize him in their particular offense, but he wasn’t the kind of running back that you could really rely on to carry the load if it came down to it. That guy certainly hasn’t been Mark Ingram whose career numbers are best described as third-string. Last year, however, Ingram showed signs of life as he helped a Saints offense that had lost a step or two since the departure of Jimmy Graham discover that they could utilize a more traditional running game. Ingram is not nearly as bad as his career numbers would have you believe, and he should surprise a few people this season by turning in a top 10 performance.
2 Dez Bryant
If Dez Bryant had not suffered the injuries that he did last year, would he have been able to continue to one up himself yet again and lead the Cowboys to the playoffs at the very least? Given the number of other injuries and issues the Cowboys had to endure last year, the likely answer to that question is “no.” Still, that one bad season has some people speculating that Dez Bryant is due to slip a bit in 2016 and be able to look at his best years by looking back in the rear-view mirror. There’s quite a bit of evidence to support that conclusion, but the one thing you can’t overlook is Dez Bryant's killer instinct and will to be better than everyone else. Given the events of last year, it’s unlikely that he or any other member of the Cowboys are going to do anything but go all out.
1 Golden Tate
Golden Tate just never fit in on the Seahawks. While you can’t discount his personal performance when trying to figure out why that was, you also have to remember that he joined Seattle at about the time that they that committed to being a defensive and running team first. Tate didn’t do much with the looks he did get in that offensive system, but he wasn’t getting that many looks to begin with. When he joined the Lions, that all changed. Tate caught a shocking 99 balls in his first year on the Lions and 90 the next year. What’s especially impressive about that is Tate caught that many balls while Calvin Johnson remained options one and two on the offense. With Johnson out of the picture, Tate is primed to be the guy in Detroit and, as has been proven by his performance in games that Johnson missed, that’s going to mean a career year.