NFL

14 breakout stars who will take the NFL by storm

NFL players, Derrick Henry
Ethan Sears
Written by Ethan Sears

Each NFL season has its fair share of breakout stars — guys who become dynamos for their respective teams, and for fantasy football owners around the globe.

Maybe you were lucky enough to snag Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman in the 14th round of a fantasy draft two years ago. Maybe you lost the championship because you traded him after two weeks, thinking it surely couldn’t last.

Either way, Freeman is far from the only surprise superstar. DeMarco Murray (twice in three years), David Johnson, and countless others have claimed that mantle as well.

Here are 14 players who will join them this season. Some you know, while others are a bit more obscure.

Jamison Crowder, wide receiver, Washington Redskins

Crowder will be heavily involved in Washington’s offense this season as Kirk Cousins’ most familiar target now that Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are gone. When the Redskins gave him the ball in the past, he did good things with it, catching 68 percent of his targets and averaging 12.6 yards per reception. Making his value soar, 5.6 of those yards came after the catch. He led Washington in this stat according to Football Outsiders Almanac. With a larger role in the offense, a breakout is in the works for Crowder.

Mike Gillislee, running back, New England Patriots

Every time you ask yourself how the Patriots continually find these diamonds in the rough, remember that other teams continually let them go. Gillislee only had 101 carries last season, but he led the league with 5.7 yards per attempt and scored eight touchdowns. He ranked first among running backs in efficiency, as measured by DVOA, and success rate. The Buffalo Bills didn’t value Gillislee the way they should have. Now the Patriots will reap the reward.

Spencer Ware, running back, Kansas City Chiefs

With Jamaal Charles out of the picture in Kansas City, Ware enters the year as the unquestioned starter. He earned that job last season, putting up 921 yards in 14 games, mostly with Charles absent. Ware is the type of back whose numbers don’t blow you away. But he continually gets what’s needed. A perfect illustration of this can be seen in the simple fact that he ranked seventh in success rate last season. This year, he will ascend to stardom.

Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee Titans

Henry enters the year stuck behind DeMarco Murray on Tennessee’s depth chart. But in reality, it may not take much for him to become the starter. Murray held onto the job last season, but let’s face the facts: the Titans wouldn’t have spent a second round pick on Henry in 2016 if they didn’t intend to give him a legitimate shot at the job. Henry had a good rookie season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry in 110 attempts. Given that the Titans’ offensive line is the real catalyst for their rushing attack and Henry fit in just fine, Mike Mularkey will go with his upside over Murray at some point this year. When that happens, the former Heisman winner will make waves.

Wayne Gallman, running back, New York Giants

Gallman is the rare fourth round pick whose name you may know thanks to his role on Clemson’s national title team last season. He still needs to develop his game. He’s not a dominant inside runner and must adapt to the power runs Ben McAdoo likes. But as a sideline-to-sideline threat, he’s already awesome. Gallman seemingly never goes down on first contact — an important quality given the Giants’ offensive line deficiencies. He will finally add a rushing element to New York’s offense, which is something it hasn’t had in years.

Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints

Michael Thomas New Orleans Saints

In his rookie season, Thomas went for 92 receptions, 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. He ranked third among receivers in efficiency (as measured by DVOA), and he had an absurd 76-percent catch rate. That was as Drew Brees’ second option playing with an established No. 1 receiver in Brandin Cooks. With Cooks now plying his trade in New England, imagine what Thomas will do as a primary target.

Adam Thielen, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Like Thomas, Thielen quietly had a noteworthy 2016 campaign. This is simply the year that Thielen (and Thomas) will be recognized as stars by the national media. Thielen was sixth among receivers in efficiency last season (as measured by DVOA) and went for nearly 1,000 yards, blowing away his previous career high. He was a relatively anonymous player before 2016 — a marginal receiver on a team that doesn’t get a lot of attention. But if Thielen keeps improving, he’ll get national recognition sooner rather than later.

Reuben Foster, linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

Foster somehow fell to 31st in the draft thanks to injury and off-field issues. But if you watch the tape, it’s easy to see that the Niners committed a heist in drafting him that low. Foster has great speed — as good as any defender in the draft — and can move laterally with ease. He hits hard and can shoot the gaps in run defense. He finished first in run-stop percentage among the incoming class last season, per Pro Football Focus. He can also cover in man or zone. Foster isn’t a one-dimensional player or the type of guy who only fits in certain schemes. Frankly, he may end up being better than Solomon Thomas, whom the Niners took with the third overall pick.

O.J. Howard, tight end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Howard was the last piece of the puzzle when the Bucs revamped their receiving corps this offseason and may be the most consequential. Drafted 19th overall, Howard was the consensus top tight end in the draft. He has Rob Gronkowski-like physical ability — it’s impossible to find a player to match up with him in man coverage. Once Howard refines his route running — Nick Saban rarely used him downfield at Alabama — he’ll be an absolute menace.

Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston Texans

2017 NFL Draft, Deshaun Watson

Watson wasn’t the first quarterback taken in the NFL Draft, but he was the best in a relatively weak class of rookie quarterbacks. Perhaps more importantly, he walks into a good situation with a solid offensive line, talent at running back and the luxury of DeAndre Hopkins as his primary receiver. Watson may not win the starting job out of camp, but he will develop into the quarterback Houston needs. At some point he’ll play this year. Of that we’re certain. He won’t be an immediate superstar — Watson needs to improve in a lot of areas, most importantly going beyond his first read — but serviceable will be good enough to gain attention with the type of talent on that offense.

Preston Brown, linebacker, Buffalo Bills

Brown isn’t a name many people outside of Buffalo are familiar with, but they will be soon. The middle linebacker was rated highly by advanced stats last season. He ranked first among all defenders in defeats — a catch-all stat that tracks tackles for loss, turnovers and stops on third or fourth down — and finished third overall in run tackles for loss, per FOA. In coverage, he gave up a solid 6.1 adjusted yards per target. Better still, at the age of 25, there’s plenty of room for him to improve.

Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings

At 23 years old, Hunter is one of the most exciting players on this list because his breakout won’t be a one-year affair. Hunter will be a superstar for a long time. Last season — only his second in the league — Hunter was a top-35 edge rusher by Pro Football Focus grading. He had 12.5 sacks, eight hits and 19 hurries on less than 600 snaps (far less action than top starters around the league). Expect to see him rack up pressures even more this season. He could steal the show as the defensive star of the year.

Marshall Newhouse, right tackle, Oakland Raiders

There are only two reasons to have faith in Newhouse, a six-year veteran who has never been very good. The first is efficiency: Newhouse was eighth among tackles last season with 92.2 snaps per blown block according to FOA (albeit on only 461 snaps of playing time). That doesn’t mean he made every block well — PFF gave him a 56.4 grade on the season — but he didn’t mess up that often, which is half the battle. The second reason is the players surrounding him. Marginal players can be lifted up by great teammates, especially on the line. Newhouse will be surrounded by one of the best lines in football.

Logan Ryan, cornerback, Tennessee Titans

The Titans took a leap of faith signing Ryan to a three-year, $30 million deal in free agency. The reason it’s a leap of faith is they are moving him outside to be their No. 1 corner, and he was a slot specialist in New England. That leap will pay off. Ryan had two years of success with the Patriots and was a top-20 corner in football last season by PFF grading. He can handle a bigger role, and if he struggles, the Titans can always put him back in the slot where he thrived before. Consider Ryan to be the early favorite as this year’s surprise shutdown corner.

About the author

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears is the publisher of sports web site EthanSears.com and will graduate in 2017 from Rye High School in Westchester County, New York. He has loved sports from an early age and intends to have a long career in journalism.

Ethan interned at the New York Post in the summers of 2015 and 2016. He also writes for Giants Wire, USA Today's New York Giants blog. In addition to writing and editing his own website, Ethan is the sports editor for his school paper, Garnet and Black. You can follow him on Twitter @ethan_sears.