Every so often, the NFL goes through a transformation. It’s a time when the old guard splinters with young talent to form a tremendous on-field product. While the 2016 campaign might not have led to this, we can fully expect the upcoming 2017 season to be a bit different.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers continue to dominate under center, but there are a few other young quarterbacks set to take the mantle as the game’s top passers. At running back, the days of Adrian Peterson dominating are over. He’s been replaced by two running backs, one in the desert and the other in Big D, that are set to take over the NFL.
Defensively, a certain NFC East safety proved his worth as a true playmaker. Meanwhile, a pass rusher in Atlanta is set to take the south by storm.
These are among the 10 NFL players that are taking over the league.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
Barring punishment from the NFL due to his alleged domestic violence incident, Elliott should be an absolute dynamo as a sophomore in 2017. Here’s a dude that put up nearly 2,000 total yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie last season.
Even more so than fellow youngsters, Elliott’s debut season was absolutely remarkable. Remember, he did it with a rookie in Dak Prescott tossing the rock through the air. It’s not like Elliott had Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady to rely on. Defenses were certainly stacking the box against him.
With the best offensive line in football to work behind and what has increasingly become a reliable passing game, it’s going to be hard for defenses to centrally focus on Elliott this upcoming season.
If that’s the case, he’s going to top what we saw during what ultimately became an All-Pro freshman season. Really, the sky is the absolute limit here. A total of 2,000 rushing yards with 500 yards through the air would not be a major shock in 2017.
Landon Collins, safety, New York Giants
Want to talk about ball-hawking skills? As a sophomore last season, this former second-round pick filled out the stat sheet in a big way. In addition to recording 125 tackles, Collins put up 13 passes defended, five interceptions, four sacks and a touchdown en route to earning All Pro honors. That’s Earl Thomas type of stuff right there.
It’s interesting just how much he excelled at the NFL level after scouts knocked Collins down a tad due to his perceived lack of coverage ability heading into the 2015 draft. He pretty much proved everyone outside of the Giants themselves wrong.
With that said, Collins did fly under the radar a tad due to the presence of the Cowboys back east. Should the Giants find a way to top their division rivals in 2017, Collins will be one of the primary reasons why.
With Janoris Jenkins doing his thing on the outside, Collins should be able to continue freelancing in the secondary. If that’s the case, we expect him to continue his ascension among the best pure play-making defensive players in the entire NFL. And finally, he will receive his just due nationally.
Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We can talk about his mistakes until we’re blue in the face. Yes, Winston has a problem throwing late and to the outside. His decision-making process still leaves a lot to be desired. These are known issues. They are also problems pretty much every young quarterback has.
The issue here is that Winston was a two-year starter at Florida State and the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. No one expected these issues to follow him to his second season in Tampa Bay.
Now that this is settled, let’s focus on why Winston will take over the NFL as a third-year player in 2017. He’s thrown for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons, averaging 25 touchdown passes per year during that span. Last season saw Winston lead his Buccaneers to a surprising 9-7 mark and the splits tell us a story of a guy that’s ready to lead from example under center.
In wins: 65.7 completion, 2,298 yards, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions (99.5 rating).
In losses: 55.9 completion, 1,792, 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions (72.7 rating).
To say that the Bucs have relied a ton on Winston would be an understatement. The good news here is that they added two elite-level pass-catching options in the form of free agent receiver DeSean Jackson and first-round pick O.J. Howard.
While Jackson will be tasked with stretching the field opposite Mike Evans, Howard should become an immediate red-zone threat. This will enable Winston to focus less on forcing the ball to Evans, which has been an issue in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.
Look for 4,000-plus passing yards with 30-plus touchdowns and a downtick in interceptions from Winston as he takes that next step to elite status for what should be a contending Buccaneers squad.
Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ramsey’s self-confidence as a rookie was only matched by his performance on the field. Sure the Florida State product is about as cocky as it gets, but he definitely backs it up with elite-level play. In his first NFL season, the former top-five pick recorded 65 tackles, 14 passes defended, two interceptions and a touchdown.
It was definitely a Pro Bowl-caliber performance en route to helping a young Jaguars defense improve leaps and bounds from the previous season.
Now entering his second season, Ramsey will have a lot more help in the defensive backfield. That comes in the form of high-priced free agent signing A.J. Bouye, who should help Jacksonville boast one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL.
In no way does this means that Bouye will be the corner going up against the opponent’s top receiver. That’s surely still going to be Ramsey. What it does is give the youngster another elite-level cover guy on the outside. It also allows former Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson to roam over the top as a true single-high guy.
All of this will equate to Ramsey performing at a much higher clip in one-on-one coverage. Add in a full offseason in defensive coordinator Todd Wash’s system, and it would not be a surprise if Ramsey earned All-Pro honors in 2017. He might very well be the second coming of Richard Sherman. Think about that for a second before discarding his rookie season as a fluke.
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
With Jeremy Maclin now on the Baltimore Ravens, Hill will take over as Alex Smith’s favorite wide receiver. It was a surprising move by the Chiefs earlier in the summer, but Hill proved himself more than capable of taking on a more defined role after putting up a tremendous rookie campaign.
Here’s a guy that recorded 61 receptions for 593 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also added 267 rushing yards and three scores while putting up nearly 1,000 special teams yards.
Some will question whether the 5-foot-10 Hill can be a true No. 1 receiver. That’s more than a legitimate concern. Rarely do player of his frame step into this role seamlessly. But Hill’s 74 percent catch rate as a rookie proves he can shoulder the load there.
While the presence of Smith under center might have a negative impact on Hill’s ability to take over the NFL, it’s what the Chiefs did in the 2017 draft that has us thinking long term. Just imagine this speedster catching passes from rookie first-round pick Pat Mahomes. That’s simply a dynamic we have not seen around the NFL in some time. If not in 2017, look for the Mahomes to Hill connection to take flight the following season.
How the receiver performs in a less-than-stellar situation this upcoming campaign will tell us a lot about what type of talent we’re talking about here. We’re expecting big things.
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings
In a part-time role as a pass-rush specialist last season, Hunter recorded 12.5 sacks despite not starting a single game for the Vikings. For the youngster, the 2016 campaign was filled high highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play.
Danielle Hunter's game evolved so much over 2nd half of last season. Long arm technique gets Free on skates pic.twitter.com/ILgGmK9Xaz
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) July 5, 2017
Just 22 years old, this former Tennessee standout promises to up his game to the next level for an extremely talented defense in Minnesota. He has the initial burst, he’s too strong for the more athletic tackles and way too quick for those whose games are defined by bullish blocking. It’s most definitely a nice combination to have in an NFL where EDGE rushers are more important than at any point before.
Hunter’s emergence into star status will surely be aided by the presence of Everson Griffen and Brian Robison with him on the Vikings’ defensive line. Simply put, opposing offenses won’t be able to throw double teams in his direction. This could very well lead to a 20-plus sack performance in 2017.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
Now that Brandin Cooks is on the defending champion New England Patriots, look for this second-year player from Ohio State to up his game even more for Drew Brees and company. As a rookie last season, Thomas put up 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. He also caught an awe-inspiring 76 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. These are absolutely absurd numbers for a player in Thomas who was just months removed from playing college ball.
We know how this whole thing works in New Orleans. Coming off his fifth career 5,000-yard passing season, Brees makes everyone around him better. He did it with Cooks. Prior to that, both Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson put up big numbers in the Bayou before eventually sizzling out after leaving New Orleans.
The difference here is that Thomas actually has the talent to do things on his own. His elite-level route-running skills were on full display as a rookie last season. And at 6-foot-3, Thomas has the size to continue being a tremendous possession receiver. We most definitely would not be surprised if he challenged for the league lead in receptions to go with 15-plus touchdowns this upcoming season. That’s how good Thomas is.
Vic Beasley, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons
An argument could be made that Beasley is already in full-scale takeover mode. As a second-year player last season, the former top-10 pick recorded a league high 15.5 sacks to go with an absurd six forced fumbles. It was enough for Beasley to earn All Pro honors.
But his impact on the Falcons is much more than just simple stats. Last season saw him take on the fourth-most double teams in the entire NFL. This will only help rookie first-round pick Takkarist McKinley live up to his own lofty expectations in 2017.
And with an elite shutdown corner in Desmond Trufant in the back end of the defense, it could help this unit improve leaps and bounds from a season ago. If that happens, Beasley will get the praise he’s already definitely worth.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans
The most important thing Mariota must do entering his third year in the NFL is to stay healthy. The former Heisman winner has seen each of his first two seasons in the league cut short to injury. That simply can’t happen if the Titans want to make the playoffs after a surprising nine-win 2016 campaign.
When on the field, Super Mario has proven himself worthy of being considered a franchise-caliber signal caller. Last season saw him put up over 3,800 total yards with 28 total touchdowns and just nine interceptions. It was also the second consecutive season to start his career that Mariota completed 61-plus percent of his passes.
Tennessee has pretty much everything possible set up for Mariota to take that next step in 2017. In addition to an elite running game with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, he boasts a top-end offensive line led by left tackle Taylor Lewan.
The Titans also added receiver Corey Davis with the fifth pick in this year’s draft and signed former 1,000-yard receiver Eric Decker as a veteran option in the passing game.
There’s no reason to believe the Titans can’t win the AFC South in 2017. And if Mariota continues his progression under center, he will be the primary reason why.
David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals
A former third-round pick from Northern Iowa, it’s simply amazing what Johnson has done in his short two-year career. A workout warrior in every possible way, he’s coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him tally an NFL-best 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. Johnson, 25, averaged 4.2 yards per rush and caught an astounding 80 passes for 879 yards through the air.
It was Johnson’s first season as Arizona’s full-time starter after head coach Bruce Arians decided against handing him this role as a rookie in 2016. The issue for Arians was Johnson’s blocking and inability to hang on to the ball. Now that both of those problems have been corrected, he’s going to be a bell cow in the desert.
Not only does Johnson have high expectations for himself in 2017, he’s focused on helping Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald earn their first Super Bowl title in what could be each player’s final season. While that might be too lofty of a goal for a team that struggled last season, Johnson himself is primed for yet another tremendous season.
If so, he’ll prove himself to be among the most-dominating backs in the game with Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. Should it happen within the construct of a better performance by the Cardinals, the NFL will surely take note.