Some NFL coaches believe that a player’s biggest jump should come between Years 1 and 2, as adjustments to speed, strength, system and playing professionally can take time. Some players take longer to fulfill their promise, too, so we are taking a look at talented players whom we expect to break out this season.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota
He beat Jameis Winston in Week 1 last season but then watched Winston have the better rookie season. Injuries derailed Mariota a bit, and yet he still had a handful of impressive games in Year 1. Expect more consistency with a run-buoyed offense that will showcase his wide-ranging skills. The Titans also expect better help and accountability at wide receiver. Mariota has looked great in the preseason and could take a big jump.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor
Pryor’s transition to receiver has looked very good in the preseason, and he has a chance to step up right away as a trusted option for Robert Griffin III in Hue Jackson’s stretch-the-field passing game. Pryor is an elite athlete and his football instincts have served him well as he tries to master playing wideout. Josh Gordon is out the first four games, and Corey Coleman has missed some time this preseason. That opens the door for Pryor to be a featured weapon and big-play option right away.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs
The season-ending injury to Teddy Bridgewater is a huge blow. Diggs and Bridgewater were building some fantastic chemistry this preseason and looked to be on the verge of something special after an up-and-down first season together. But don’t discount Diggs now. He still is the Vikings’ best wideout until Laquon Treadwell develops, and that could take time. Expect Diggs to be used creatively in an effort to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, whether it’s from Shaun Hill or Sam Bradford.
Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews
There has been some progress in Matthews’ game and he’s on the verge of becoming a top-10 left tackle in the league. He entered the NFL with the unfair expectations of being instant espresso, a reputation that comes with one of the most vaunted OL surnames in league’s annals. Although Matthews might not be an elite pass blocker, his run blocking was mostly top notch last season in helping spring Devonta Freeman forth for an excellent season. Expect an even bigger jump from Matthews in Year 3 and have it result in a Pro Bowl selection.
Seattle Seahawks center Justin Britt
Britt was a stunning choice in the second round a few years ago, with most teams figuring he’d land in the fifth- or sixth-round range. Although he started 16 games at right tackle as a rookie in 2014, the Seahawks had trouble finding his best home on the line — until the move to center this offseason. The progress has been strong after a poor 2015 season at left guard, and it appears they’ve found the right place for him. Britt is remarkably strong but limited in his lateral movement, so it makes sense he’d be covered up well at center. But he has the football smarts to handle the position, too, and could be a key for a unit that has to protect Russell Wilson and aid a run game that’s missing Marshawn Lynch this season.
New England Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown
The Patriots nearly traded out of the final pick in Round 1 of the 2015 draft but pulled back at the last minute. Why? The more they thought about it, the more they knew they couldn’t pass on Brown. It has turned out to be a savvy move, and Brown could reward them with a monster season in Year 2. He flashed terrific ability with a fairly low pitch count last season as a rookie but increased his reps and productivity down the stretch. Expect more of the same. He might not be ready for Vince Wilfork-esque stamina or strength, but Brown’s combination of power and quickness could result in a tremendous season. He doesn’t turn 23 until Super Bowl week.
Houston Texans linebacker John Simon
The comparisons to Rob Ninkovich are almost stunning. The high-motor, quick edge player has taken a while to develop, as Ninkovich did early in his career. But Simon could end up being a tremendous asset on a talented Texans defense after the Ravens, who drafted him, couldn’t develop him more quickly. We try not to lean on preseason production too much, but it’s hard not to notice Simon’s two pick-sixes that both displayed his instincts and athleticism. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can use Simons in a variety of ways, which should make him a quality chess piece.
Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith
Smith was impressive coming out of college with his combination of strength, run-sniffing ability and edge burst. After an encouraging rookie season that saw him transition to the Redskins’ 3-4 system, Smith appears poised for a fantastic second season. In the Redskins’ preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, Smith took over for stretches. He can rush from a three-point stance and drop from a two-point stance, attack the backfield and be a top-level disruptor opposite Ryan Kerrigan.
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Markus Golden
The Cardinals have talent on all three levels of their defense, and some believe that the addition of Chandler Jones to rush the passer in a contract season could put that unit over the top. But don’t overlook the emergence of Golden, a high-energy, smart edge player who has looked more fluid on his feet over time. Like Carson Palmer, Golden is coming off a tough NFC championship game. But that game was out of character for him and will serve as a learning experience for Golden, who should see plenty of single blocks to make plays at an eye-catching rate this season surrounded by such good talent all around him.
Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
All signs point to this season the best for the rangy safety after incremental improvements each of the past two seasons. Clinton-Dix, who doesn’t turn 24 until December, is now the centerpiece of the most talented secondary the Packers have had since Charles Woodson was still in town and could be on the verge of making more game-changing plays in the form of interceptions, fumbles and pass breakups. Clinton-Dix has added a little more strength and still has maintained his good athleticism.
Others of note: 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, Bears wide receiver Kevin White, Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Chargers linebacker Denzell Perryman, Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley, Chiefs center Mitch Morse, Cowboys S Byron Jones, Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker, Eagles DE Vinny Curry, Lions defensive end Devin Taylor, Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, Vikings LB Eric Kendricks.