Each season around the NFL, there are certainties the league faces. Some teams will disappoint after stellar performances the previous year. Other teams that no one saw coming will surprise the masses.
The same can be said for players who have not yet taken that next step in their careers. From a quarterback in Philadelphia who has captivated a city to a hard-hitting safety in Oakland, here is a look at one NFL player at each position set to break out big time in 2017.
Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Wentz had an up-and-down rookie season, putting up seven touchdowns compared to one interception in his first five starts. After that, the former No. 2 overall pick put up just nine touchdowns and 13 picks. The issue more than Wentz’s inexperience was a disastrous wide receiver group that included under-performers Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor, both of whom struggled big time.
Philadelphia set forth to fix these issues by signing veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The two should give Wentz consistent targets on the outside, ultimately leading to the quarterback improving leaps and bounds in 2017. Add in LeGarrette Blount on the ground, and it would not be a surprise to see Wentz turn in a Pro Bowl performance in 2017.
Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota Vikings
With Adrian Peterson now in New Orleans, the running back job in Minnesota is Cook’s to lose. That’s only magnified due to the injury concerns surrounding free agent signing Latavius Murray. Cook, a second-round pick out of Florida State, had top-20 upside heading into the draft. It’s still somewhat of a shock that he lasted until Day 2. After all, here’s a guy that put up nearly 5,400 total yards in three seasons with the Seminoles.
Minnesota will surely be relying on Cook to have a huge debut season, especially with the limitations Sam Bradford brings under center. Adding upgrades at both left tackle (Riley Reiff) and right tackle (Mike Remmers) should also help Cook in 2017. Look for a potential 1,500-plus total yards performance from the talented youngster.
Keith Smith, fullback, Dallas Cowboys
Despite Kyle Juszczyk signing a big-money contract with San Francisco, fullback is somewhat of a dying position in today’s NFL. Instead, teams are going with more two running back or two tight end formations. Not these Dallas Cowboys, who relied on Smith last season to open up holes for youngster Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Smith finished last season as the third highest-graded fullback in the NFL. That really is an amazing thing to look at, especially considering he was signed as an un-drafted free agent back in 2014 to compete for a backup linebacker spot. Now, with a full season on offense under his belt, we’re looking for even bigger things from Smith in 2017.
Jesse James, tight end, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh signed the injury-plagued Ladarius Green last offseason as a way to give Ben Roethlisberger a dependable target in the passing game. Green ultimately played in just six games before being released this past spring. Enter into the equation a player in James who acted as Big Ben’s safety valve. In just his second NFL season, this former mid-round pick caught 39 passes for 338 yards while hauling in 65 percent of the balls thrown in his direction.
Even with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant taking up large chunks of targets, the expectation here has to be that James will build on his performance from a season ago. It would not be an absolute shock if the 6-foot-7 tight end crossed the 70-catch plateau in 2017. That’s how much Big Ben loves to use his tight ends.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
With Brandin Cooks now in New England, this former Ohio State standout takes over as Drew Brees’ favorite target. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering just how dominant Thomas was a rookie in 2016. He caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. Not only that, he caught an absurd 76 percent of the 121 passes thrown in his direction.
Sure New Orleans will look for more balance on offense with Adrian Peterson. But there’s absolutely no reason to believe Thomas won’t see substantially more targets as a sophomore. It’s in this that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he saw the ball thrown to him 160-plus times. If so, Thomas should challenge for the top reception and yardage totals among NFL pass catchers.
La’el Collins, offensive tackle, Dallas Cowboys
Fresh off signing a rich new contract, this former un-drafted free agent will take over for the retired Doug Free as the Cowboys’ starting left tackle this season. Collins, 24, is an interesting story in that he would have been a first-round pick back in 2015 if it weren’t for an off-field issue far beyond his control.
As dominant and physically imposing as any young tackle in the game, look for Collins to anchor the right side of Dallas’ offensive line for the next decade. It should start with a Pro Bowl-caliber performance in 2017.
Forrest Lamp, guard, Los Angeles Chargers
Most experts expected Lamp to be a first-round pick in April’s draft. That’s why it was so darn surprising that he fell to the second round. A Western Kentucky alum, Lamp stands at 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds. He also has the potential to be dominant out of the gate.
“I thought his Alabama tape was the single most dominant offensive line performance I’ve seen against that front in five years,” NFL Media’s Mike Mayock said during the draft.
Lamp will likely start at right guard out of the gate and should play an absolute vital role in opening up holes for young running back Melvin Gordon.
Ryan Kelly, center, Indianapolis Colts
Kelly, a 2016 first-round pick of the Colts, started all 16 games as a rookie last season. He was by far the team’s top offensive lineman, which was made clear by the fact that he didn’t allow a single sack on the year.
We’re fully expecting Kelly to take that next step towards All-Pro status in 2017. It’s most definitely going to be needed with Andrew Luck coming off shoulder surgery.
DeForest Buckner, defensive end, San Francisco 49ers
A physical freak. Dominant at times. These are the terms that experts have used to describe what this former top-10 pick brings to the table. As a rookie last season, Buckner recorded 73 tackles and led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Based on what we’re hearing from 49ers camp, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Likely the central focus in what should be an elite-level 49ers front seven in 2017, it would not be an absolute shock if the 6-foot-7 291-pound Buckner put up double-digit sacks while earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
A’Shawn Robinson, defensive tackle, Detroit Lions
Speaking of dominant. Robinson’s tape from Alabama was eye-opening heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. That’s why it was so surprising he fell to the Lions in the middle of the second round. Concerns over inconstancy surely played a role here, and they were magnified during his rookie season.
With that said, there’s so much untapped potential here. Robinson is a freak of an athlete at 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds. He also has tremendous lower-body strength, which should lead to Robinson improving off an uneven rookie season.
Reuben Foster, linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
Foster was definitely a top-five talent heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. In fact, most experts had him as the second-best defensive player in the class behind Myles Garrett. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury led to him dropping to the end of the first round.
Now fully healthy, Foster has been a standout early in 49ers camp. Teaming up with NaVorro Bowman, the sky almost literally is the limit here. The Alabama product can lay the wood with the best of them and is considered one of the best sideline-to-sideline linebackers to enter the NFL in some time. Look for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for this young stud.
Shane Ray, EDGE, Denver Broncos
Ray may miss the beginning of the regular season to injury. It’s a harsh blow for the young EDGE rusher, especially after the Broncos were so high on him during the offseason following the retirement of DeMarcus Ware.
But make no mistake about it, Ray will make a name for himself before all is said and done in 2017. As a sophomore last season, the former first-round pick put up 48 tackles and eight sacks in a part-time role. Should he return early and with Von Miller dominating on the other side, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Ray turn in a Pro Bowl performance.
Vernon Hargreaves, cornerback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
To say that Hargreaves was the Buccaneers’ best defensive back last season would be an understatement. He started all 16 games as a rookie, recording 10 passes defended, an interception and one forced fumble.
More than that, he was active in the defensive backfield. No rookie was targeted more than the former first-round pick. This led to him yielding the most receiving yards. But it also gave him valuable experience. Now entering his second season, we’re expecting a big jump from the former Florida standout.
Karl Joseph, safety, Oakland Raiders
Thumper. That’s the best way to describe what Joseph brings to the table. He’s a downhill safety that is best utilized in the box. This was evident as a rookie last season, when Joseph averaged five tackles per game.
Now that the Raiders have seemingly improved their pass defense, they can utilize Joseph in this role more in 2017. If that comes to fruition, look for him to join elite company when it comes to strong safeties in the NFL.
Jake Elliott, kicker, Cincinnati Bengals
You don’t select a kicker in the fifth round unless you see him as a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Heck, one can say you don’t draft a kick at all unless he projects to be an elite-level player. Elliott is just that. He hit on 21-of-26 field goal attempts and all 58 PATs for Memphis last season.
Drew Kaser, punter, Los Angeles Chargers
As a rookie last season, Kaser ranked in the top-10 among punters with a 46.3 average. He also pinned opponents inside the 20 12 times and held returners to a total of 282 return yards. That’s exactly why the then San Diego Chargers selected him in the 2016 draft. Look for more of the same in 2017.