In the NFL, star players can emerge from anywhere. Entering the 2015 season, Josh Norman was largely unknown outside of Carolina. After an outstanding season, both for Norman and Carolina, he shot to the top of everyone’s rankings. He was proclaimed the best corner of 2015 and now nearly everyone regards him as one of the elite defensive backs in the NFL.
Stories like this are common in the NFL. Every season there are players that break out and establish themselves as elite players. Some of them were largely expected to do so; but others, like Josh Norman, were completely out of left field.
2016 features a nice crop of breakout candidates that many fans are entirely unaware of. Some of them will absolutely disappoint, but many will go on to become stars. Here are the top 15 NFLers flying under the radar who will make waves in 2016.
16 Matt Forte, RB – Jets
Matt Forte has been one of the NFL’s premier running backs since coming into the league in 2008. With that in mind, it's been incredibly strange to see him completely off everyone’s radar since leaving the Bears to sign with the Jets. It probably hasn’t helped given that he has missed a considerable portion of the preseason.
It is well known that players experience a drop off once they hit 30. That has been especially true for running backs. However, despite his age, Forte has been running well. Everything we’ve seen from him says he will be the exception to the rule.
Forte will be racking up yards this year and making plays like he always has. It won’t be long before fans remember what he can do. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him as one of the biggest contributors on the team en route to a playoff appearance.
15 Bradley Roby, CB – Broncos
Despite being a first round selection in 2014, Bradley Roby has not gotten much national media attention. It’s strange to see, especially considering that he went to a big school and got picked up by an elite team. At this stage, it appears everyone has forgotten about him.
The reason no one has heard about him is that he hasn’t managed to break into the Broncos' starting lineup. That isn’t an indictment of him as a player; rather a testament to how talented Denver’s defensive backfield has been. Nearly every corner in the league would struggle to unseat Aqib Talib or Chris Harris.
Roby has been playing well in limited action. He has all the potential you would expect from a former first round pick. Given how quickly things move in the NFL, he will certainly have his shot soon. When he does, you will be hearing a lot about him.
14 Adrian Amos, S - Bears
Perhaps the most satisfying thing in the NFL is when your team manages to get a star player at a position they badly need with a late round pick. They spend next to nothing and flip a weakness into a strength.
The Bears were one of the few teams who got to experience that last year. Their secondary had been a major issue for a long time, particularly the safety position. Their fan base got a wonderful surprise when Penn State’s Adrian Amos turned out to be a standout player.
The one word that comes to mind when watching him is “reliable.” He plays like a seasoned veteran; rarely making mistakes. That’s far and away the most important quality to have in a safety.
Due to his less than prestigious draft position, Amos has largely gone unnoticed outside of Chicago’s fan base. However, he will be a key piece on a playoff-hopeful team following a strong offseason.
13 Vinny Curry, DE – Eagles
Vinny Curry was hyped up as one of the most talented 4-3 pass rushers in the 2012 draft. Unfortunately, Chip Kelly took over the following year and instilled his 3-4 defense; one that Curry was an awkward fit for. He didn’t have the agility to play outside linebacker, nor did he have the size to play defensive end.
Most players who fail to fit a new scheme get cut or traded, but Curry was able to impress despite not really fitting the scheme. They ended up using him as a defensive end, but only in passing situations. He was never able to break into the starting lineup due to his size.
This year, things will be changing for Curry. The Eagles will be switching back to the 4-3 defense, led by Jim Schwartz. Eagles fans should be incredibly excited to see Curry back in his natural role and it could lead to double digit sacks for Curry.
12 Jabaal Sheard, DE – Patriots
Jabaal Sheard has been a highly talented pass rusher for the Browns for the last few years. His most notable season was his rookie year in 2011, in which he recorded 8.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. Though, the following two years were also impressive.
In 2014, he appeared to fall off a cliff. He saw a significant decline in play time and failed to make a noticeable impact on the stat sheet. It came at the worst time for him too, as it was his contract year. The Browns made the tough decision to let him go.
His down year allowed the Patriots to pick him up on a nice bargain contract. It paid off in dividends too, as Sheard proved that 2014 was just a fluke. Last season was his most productive since 2011, as he managed eight sacks, despite not having a major role in the defense. That changes in 2016 though. With the trade of Chandler Jones, New England is counting on Sheard to step up as the team’s top pass rusher.
11 Brandon Williams, NT – Ravens
Brandon Williams was the Ravens’ third round pick in the 2013 draft. Since then, he has established himself as a cornerstone of the team. He has stayed off the map because of his lack of statistical production. As a nose tackle, he won’t be churning out sacks or forced fumbles, but stat lines never tell the whole story.
He is one of the league’s best and most under-appreciated defensive linemen at the moment. He does an amazing job of taking pressure off the team’s other defensive stars. At the same time, he’s able to make things happen himself when he’s given the opportunity.
It’s hard to imagine that Williams will ever get the credit he properly deserves. He is a player that could spend his entire career under the radar. It sounds a little depressing, but at least he’ll get a contract next offseason that pays more in a season that what many people see in a lifetime.
10 P.J. Williams, CB - Saints
P.J. Williams has been going largely unnoticed ever since his DUI arrest prior to the 2015 NFL draft. It caused him to slip into the third round, despite being mocked as high as the late first round.
After being drafted, he showed great promise early on by demonstrating the natural talent that made him so highly coveted early on in the draft process. He has a stout, physical style that NFL teams have been coveting in recent years as an answer to the massive wideouts that have taken over the game.
Though before getting a chance to prove himself, he suffered an unfortunate hamstring injury that caused him to miss his entire rookie season. He has fully recovered now and looks to have picked up right where he left off last year. With the recent release of Keenan Lewis, Williams will be in the starting lineup and have every opportunity to make teams regret passing on him last year.
9 Quinten Rollins, CB – Packers
Quinton Rollins was the Packers second round pick in 2015. He lived up to his draft status with a solid rookie year. Per Pro Football Focus, Rollins had the fourth lowest QB Rating Against last season. He finished behind Josh Norman, Trumaine Johnson, and Darrelle Revis, which is impressive company to be listed among.
Of course, he saw very limited action in his first season. He played 323 defensive snaps, which was good for just under a third of the packers’ total defensive snaps. That is far too small of a sample size to be giving him any crowns, but it is a very good sign. With the departure of Casey Hayward, Rollins will be expected to step up and take over the starting job in 2016.
Rollins could quickly see himself becoming a household name if he builds off of his previous success.
8 Linval Joseph, DT – Vikings
Most people are aware of how good the Vikings defense is. However, their star players almost never get the national attention they deserve. Among them is Linval Joseph, one of the league's most talented defensive tackles.
At 6’4” and 330 pounds, he has the raw power needed to dominate interior lineman. But unlike other nose tackles, Joseph has surprising agility that he uses to his advantage. He can shoot the gap and cause opposing quarterbacks to quickly panic. There isn’t anything worse for a quarterback than pressure up the middle.
The Vikings currently have him locked up for three more years that will pay out an average of $6.5 million per year. For comparison, Fletcher Cox just signed a deal worth $17.1 million per year. Getting elite players on contracts below market value is incredibly important to building a Super Bowl contender. Despite an injury to Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota is in a great position right now.
7 Bashaud Breeland, CB – Redskins
Most NFL fans are aware of Bashaud Breeland and view him as a solid player. However, that doesn’t do him justice – not even close.
Breeland had one of the best rookie seasons of 2014 despite being a fourth round selection in one of the most talented draft classes in recent memory. Last year, he continued to build off that success and hone his game. Now, he sits as a borderline elite defensive back. He has the physical tools needed to take the next step, as well as worth ethic to spare.
Josh Norman is considered Washington’s clear number one cornerback, but Breeland will challenge him for that title. With the two of them in the lineup, Washington could easily have the best cornerback pairing in the NFL for 2016.
Breeland is set as one of the core contributors on a team on the rise. It won’t take long for him to establish himself as one of the league’s elite athletes.
6 Danielle Hunter, DE – Vikings
Danielle Hunter was one of the most physically gifted edge rushers of the 2015 draft class. He’s a monster of a man at 6’6” and 240 poiunds. That gives him nearly unlimited potential in the NFL, where having a physical advantage can make all the difference.
But he was repeatedly passed up by teams once the draft started, due to concerns over how well he would transition to the NFL. Having all the physical traits is important, but it isn’t everything.
The Vikings managed to scoop him up in the third round. They allowed him to ease into his role as a pass rusher, where he instantly got the hang of it. He managed an impressive 6 sacks in 2015, despite only playing about a third of Minnesota’s total defensive snaps.
In 2016, Hunter will be taking over the starting job and will be expected to take the next step. If it works out, he could easily become one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers.
5 Delanie Walker, TE – Titans
Delanie Walker has taken an unusual career path. He was picked up by the 49ers in the 2006 draft, the same one where they took Vernon Davis. Walker played the bulk of his career as his backup and was never able to standout. His best season in San Francisco came in 2012 at 28 years old, where he recorded 344 yards and 3 touchdowns.
However, things turned around quickly in 2013 when he signed with the Titans. He instantly earned the starting job and emerged as a star. Over the past three seasons, Walker has recorded 2,549 yards and 16 touchdowns, including breaking the 1,000-yard mark this past year. The tight end will enter 2016 as Mariota’s top receiving weapon.
The Titans have been the most forgettable team in recent memory. If Walker had put up these stat lines for any other team in the NFL, he would easily be regarded as one of the NFL’s elite tight ends.
3 Melvin Gordon, RB – Chargers
Leading up to the 2015 draft, the hype for Melvin Gordon was absolutely off the rails. Some predictions had him breaking Eric Dickerson’s 1983 rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards.
What ended up happening was quite a letdown. He recorded a modest 641 rushing yards over 14 games with an average yards per carry of just 3.5. This has caused Gordon to completely fall off of the map and he will enter 2016 as an afterthought.
It seems Gordon is prone to extremes. The predictions were a little absurd last year, but now everyone has seemingly written him off as a bust. This guy still has a ton of talent. Plenty of stars have had rough rookie years, as it happens often in every sport.
Gordon could be a very nice surprise for San Diego fans this year and they certainly could use that right about now.
2 Whitney Mercilus, DE – Texans
Whitney Mercilus was taken at the end of the first round in 2012 by the Texans. Ever since then, he has largely been forgotten about. He averaged 6 sacks a season over his first three years; not enough to be a bustm but also not enough to be considered a star. He’s been an average player and average players are not interesting to talk about.
However, in 2015, Mercilus blew up for an outstanding 12.5 sacks. It was probably the quietest double-digit sack season we’ve seen in recent memory; potentially due to J.J. Watt dominating the discussion whenever Houston’s defense is brought up.
Still, Mercilus was a force to be reckoned with last year as well. He deserved a lot of praise and got little attention. If he can repeat his 2015 production, or at least come close to matching it, he will be impossible to ignore.
1 Denzel Perryman, LB – Chargers
Denzel Perryman is one of the hardest hitting linebackers in the NFL right now. His presence was one of the few bright spots in San Diego last year. He is a true highlight reel player.
Though as flashy as he is, it’s far from the only thing he has going for him. He excels at beating offenses with his brain. He can diagnose plays and set himself up in the perfect position to stop it. It’s an ability that many of the more physical NFL linebackers lack.
The Chargers will need Perryman to step up and become a leader in his second year. The team has struggled significantly recently. Perryman taking the next step will be required if they want to break out of it. San Diego fans can rest easy though, as everything we’ve seen from him so far suggests he will be up to the task.