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Breakout star candidates for each NFL team in 2018

NFL star in the making, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

New stars are born in the NFL every single year. Some of them emerge out of relative obscurity, while others are expected to shine.

We’re going to take a spin around the entire NFL to predict which players from each team will emerge as breakout stars. Some of them you’ll certainly recognize, especially if you followed the recent draft. Others might be a bit more unfamiliar to your eyes. In due course, we expect all of them to become household names, however.

These are the breakout candidates for each NFL team in 2018.

Arizona Cardinals: Chad Williams, wide receiver

The Cardinals brought in Brice Butler in free agency and drafted Christian Kirk in the second round this year. But the receiver to watch this upcoming season is last year’s third-round pick out of Grambling State. Last year he barely saw the field on offense, reeling in just three passes for 31 yards. But on his way out, former Cardinals receiver John Brown said Williams “will be a number 1 pretty quick.” Based on what he did in college, and what others have said about his progress, he should shine as a featured part of Arizona’s offense in 2018.

Atlanta Falcons: Isaiah Oliver, cornerback

The Falcons landed a really great bargain when Oliver was still available at the tail end of the second round during the draft. A natural ball hawk, he’s a big-bodied cornerback who possesses tremendous length, athleticism and instincts. During his junior season at Colorado, he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors with 27 tackles, two interceptions, and 13 pass breakups. Given the pressure that Atlanta’s front four provides, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to get his hands on the football this season as a rookie.

Baltimore Ravens: Mark Andrews, tight end

This is just a personal preference, but I think Andrews will have a more immediate impact on Baltimore’s offense than first-round pick Hayden Hurst. Andrews has a knack for finding open spaces in the middle of the field, and Joe Flacco loves to distribute the ball to his tight ends. Andrews was easily Baker Mayfield’s favorite target at Oklahoma, and he’ll quickly become a heavily targeted option for Flacco in Baltimore.

Buffalo Bills: Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker

The Bills were giddy to see this talented linebacker out of Virginia Tech fall into the middle of Round 1. They didn’t hesitate to trade up to No. 16 overall for him and will immediately insert him into the starting lineup as a rookie. At the age of 19, Edmunds still has so much untapped potential, which is why so many scouts raved about him during the pre-draft process. Edmunds has been favorably compared to Brian Urlacher, and he’ll be a force from Day 1 in the middle of Buffalo’s defense.

Carolina Panthers: D.J. Moore, wide receiver

This year’s crop of rookie receivers wasn’t exactly loaded with instant-impact guys, but of them all Moore is my pick to become an instant star. His ability to take short passes a long way will immediately make him one of Cam Newton’s favorite targets. He’s a scrappy receiver who is faster than people expect, and he set receiving records at Maryland last year, despite dealing with a terrible situation at the quarterback position.

Chicago Bears: Roquan Smith, linebacker

As high as some folks were on Tremaine Edmunds, the linebacker everyone needs to keep their eye on as the NFL’s next big thing is Smith. He’s made out of the same mold as Patrick Willis and is probably faster in pads than Willis was. Smith is incredibly instinctive and smart. He sees plays unfold before they happen and attacks with fury, oftentimes breaking them up before they ever have a chance to develop. Better yet, the Bears have a defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio who’ll maximize his effectiveness from Day 1.

Cincinnati Bengals: John Ross, wide receiver

The Bengals blundered big time using the No. 9 overall pick last year on Ross, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still become a viable weapon in their offense. A star during his college days at Washington, he possesses insane quickness and record-setting speed. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his rookie season, and he ended up in Marvin Lewis’ doghouse after fumbling away one of his rare opportunities to shine. Ross has been working with former Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who recently said, ““If he’s working with me, bet your house on him,” per the team’s website. This is likely a make-or-break season for the second-year receiver, who has the talent to become lethal.

Cleveland Browns: Emmanuel Ogbah, defensive end

Many people were pretty upset that the Browns chose to select cornerback Denzel Ward instead of pass rusher Bradley Chubb. But Cleveland’s reasoning was pretty simple. Both players were graded evenly, and given the fact that the Browns already have Myles Garrett and Ogbah, a cornerback was deemed the most necessary to sport a complete defense. With solid cover corners, pass rushers have a better chance to get to the quarterback. Ogbah, still just 24, is very talented. He should hit double-digit sack totals for the first time in his career this year.

Dallas Cowboys: Rico Gathers, tight end

Rico Gathers is in tune with the 1980s music scene.

One of the more underrated storylines stemming from Jason Witten’s surprising retirement is the fact that Gathers now has a huge opportunity to become the team’s top playmaking tight end. Though, he didn’t catch a single pass during the regular season, as a concussion derailed his campaign. But this former basketball star has all the athletic tools to become a dynamic player for Dallas, as he showed during the preseason (watch this).

Denver Broncos: Bradley Chubb, defensive end

We honestly feel pretty bad that opposing offensive lines have to face both Von Miller and Chubb for the foreseeable future. The former Wolfpack star was by far the top pass rusher in this year’s draft class, and now he’ll be playing opposite the best pass rusher in the league every Sunday. Honestly, it will be a huge disappointment if Chubb doesn’t rack up double-digit sack totals in his rookie campaign. Given everything we’ve seen from him in college, that’s not likely to happen, though. He’ll be an instant-impact player for Denver’s defense in 2018.

Detroit Lions: Kenny Golladay, wide receiver

The Lions uncovered quite a gem in this third-round pick from a year ago. Golladay had a strong first season with Detroit, catching 28 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns (plus this incredible preseason haul). He is a deep threat who should only get better with one more season under his belt. And now that the Lions have a rushing threat in Kerryon Johnson, Matthew Stafford should have better opportunities to beat defenses over the top on play action.

Green Bay Packers: Jaire Alexander, cornerback

There are many people who cover the draft for a living who thought Alexander was the best cover corner in this year’s draft class. The Packers landed great value when he was still available at No. 18 overall, and they ended up with an extra first-round pick after previously trading down, too. Alexander should work his way into the starting lineup immediately and has the skills to become an instant star for the Packers. He’s quick and has natural ball-hawking tendencies that will serve him well as a pro.

Houston Texans: Zach Cunningham, linebacker

As a rookie out of Vanderbilt in 2017, Cunningham had a very solid campaign for Houston. He appeared in all 16 games and earned 13 starts, showing a wide range of skills that will only get better with more snaps. He’ll be the starting inside linebacker next to Bernardrick McKinney this upcoming season, and the Texans are very high on his potential to continue improving. If guys like J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus stay healthy this year, then Cunningham’s ability to fly to the ball will only be highlighted all the more.

Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, free safety

Indianapolis Colts rookie safety Malik Hooker

Before suffering a season-ending injury last year, Hooker was well on his way to becoming a star for the Colts. One of the most naturally gifted deep safeties to come into the NFL in some time, he had three interceptions in seven games. Assuming he stays healthy in 2018, Hooker should continue ascending. And if he’s doing his thing on the back end of Indy’s defense, then the entire unit will benefit.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Marqise Lee, wide receiver

The Jaguars placed quite a bit of trust in Lee when they cut Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns loose this offseason. To this point in his career, Lee has showed some really solid potential (like this) but has never really broken through as a star. He caught 119 passes for 1,553 yards and six touchdowns in his last two seasons. Now that he’s moved up into a staring role, we expect those numbers to swell in 2018.

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback

The Chiefs are banking on Mahomes to become an instant star. They are banking on it so much that they traded away one of the best players on their team this past offseason in Alex Smith. No pressure, kid. But that faith seems to be well placed. Mahomes was outstanding in his lone start last season, and his ability to stretch the field vertically will give the Chiefs’ offense an entirely new look. Helping out with that, Kansas City spent a fortune to bring in Sammy Watkins, who, combined with Tyreek Hill, will give opposing defenses nightmares.

Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, wide receiver

Williams suffered through a pretty miserable rookie campaign after being selected No. 7 overall last year by Los Angeles. A back injury suffered early in the offseason kept him out of action early in the season, and then he had a knee injury late. Given those issues, he never got going, catching just 11 passes for 95 yards. But this is a young man who has loads of athletic potential and who was a beast at Clemson. He’ll have a new chance to prove he was worth the high pick, and we expect him to make the Chargers proud.

Los Angeles Rams: Micah Kiser, linebacker

The Rams got an unbelievable steal landing Kiser in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. This young man was a tackling, playmaking machine at Virginia the past three seasons running, and he finished his collegiate career with 408 tackles, 33.5 for a loss, 19 sacks, an interception and eight forced fumbles. He comes into a situation with the Rams now where he has a real chance to play early and often in the middle, as the team traded away last year’s starter, Alec Ogletree, earlier in the offseason. Don’t count this kid out.

Miami Dolphins: DeVante Parker, wide receiver

The Dolphins have been waiting for Parker to break out ever since using the No. 14 overall pick to draft him out of Louisville back in 2015. He’s been banged up at various times over the course of his first three years in the NFL, however, and has never come close to reaching his full potential. But there have been some sparks (like this). Miami seems to feel he’s ready to make the jump after picking up Parker’s fifth-year option. If he does break through with a big season, then Miami’s entire offense will benefit — nobody more so than quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook, running back

Like Malik Hooker, Cook was well on his way to becoming a star for Minnesota before a season-ending ACL injury put a quick halt to his first NFL campaign. The devastating injury occurred in Cook’s fourth game of the season, which was a huge temporary blow to the team as a whole. The second-round pick was a man on fire before that, however, having racked up 444 yards and two touchdowns. If he’s healthy this season, the Vikings’ offense should be straight fire with new quarterback Kirk Cousins running the show.

New England Patriots: Braxton Berrios, wide receiver

The Patriots saw Danny Amendola bolt for Miami in free agency, and many figured this was bad news for Tom Brady and Co. In a totally shocking development (he said as sarcastically as possible), New England found a guy who should be able to immediately replace Amendola, and they found him in the sixth round. One of the smartest picks of the entire draft, selecting Berrios there was just a coup that should pay some big-time dividends in 2018.

New Orleans Saints: Marcus Davenport, defensive end

After spending a king’s ransom to move up from No. 27 to No. 14 overall for Davenport, the Saints have to be crossing their fingers that he was actually worth it. In terms of potential, this small-school stud absolutely has the goods to become a star in the NFL. But he didn’t exactly dominate in Conference USA play, so it’s going to be fascinating to see if the Saints can coax greatness out of him. If anyone is going to break out and become a star in New Orleans this year, however, it’s going to be this young man.

New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, running back

On principle, I wasn’t a fan of the Giants selecting Barkley over USC quarterback Sam Darnold. Quarterbacks are so much more valuable in the long run than running backs. But that doesn’t mean Barkley isn’t going to be a stud for Big Blue in 2018. He’s going to add an incredibly explosive element to New York’s offense as a running back and receiver as a rookie, and in the years to come. Every coach would love to have a player like this on their team, and one of them would have gone to extreme lengths to land Barkley.

New York Jets: Chad Hansen, wide receiver

The Jets have a logjam going on at the receiver position. One player who didn’t do much as a rookie last year but should have a really good chance to shine in 2018 is Hansen, who was selected in the fourth round out of Cal. Mike Clay of ESPN noted back in March that Jets coaches weren’t talking up ArDarius Stewart so much but were high on Hansen, even though he only caught nine passes last season. Blessed with a nice combination of size and speed, he is a player to keep an eye on this summer.

Oakland Raiders: Gareon Conley, cornerback

The Raiders are close to finalizing a deal with Gareon Conley

The Raiders didn’t get much out of Conley in his rookie season after taking a gamble on him in the first round last year. He only played in two games all season due to injuries and came up with seven tackles. But this young man was drafted in Round 1 for a reason. Now that he’s healthy and ready to focus on football again after some legal issues bogged him down, we expect him to excel.

Philadelphia Eagles: Mack Hollins, wide receiver

As a rookie in 2017, this North Carolina product didn’t do much for the Super Bowl champs. But now that Torrey Smith is gone, we fully expect that to change when the 2018 season rolls around. This young man has explosive potential (we saw that in Week 1) and also has the added benefit of having his college coach, Gunter Brewer, on Philly’s staff coaching the receivers. Don’t be surprised if Hollins ends up becoming a primary weapon for Carson Wentz during his sophomore season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: James Washington, wide receiver

The Steelers traded away one of their top receivers, Martavis Bryant, to the Oakland Raiders. But then they picked up a guy in Washington who could be even more effective, and they landed him at the end of the second round, to boot. Last year’s Biletnikoff winner, he is incredibly explosive and averaged an insane 19.79 yards per reception at Texas Tech. Don’t be surprised if it’s Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Washington on three-wide sets for Pittsburgh from the start of the season. He’s that good.

San Francisco 49ers: Dante Pettis, wide receiver

Kyle Shanahan didn’t convince John Lynch to trade up for Pettis just because he’s the best punt returner in college football history. This is a receiver who can do things in the passing game that fit Shanahan’s offense to a T. He can line up at every position with skill, and his open-field abilities are insane (watch this). If Pettis can pick up the playbook quickly, we fully expect him to be a dynamic weapon for Jimmy Garoppolo from Day 1.

Seattle Seahawks: Rasheem Green, defensive end

One of the more underrated pass rushers in his class, Green is a player we said deserved more respect before the draft. He is a lot like recently departed defensive end Michael Bennett in the way he can play inside or out, depending on scheme. In 2017 as a junior for the Trojans, Green racked up 10 sacks and 12.5 tackles behind the line, and he’s still pretty raw in terms of technique. Given Seattle’s lack of defensive line depth this year, he should have a chance to play early and often.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronald Jones, running back

Ronald Jones II

Perhaps no team needed help at running back quite so much as the Bucs did entering the 2018 NFL Draft. They ended up marrying that need with a tremendously talented player in Round 2 when they selected the former USC running back. Jones is a smaller back who’s been compared to Jamaal Charles. Assuming his health holds up, he will immediately provide a necessary spark for Tampa Bay’s running game as both a consistent runner in between the tackles and a home run threat every time he touches the ball.

Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, wide receiver

A nagging hamstring injury hampered Davis’ rookie season with Tennessee in 2017. He appeared in just nine games but did show some promise when healthy, catching 34 passes for 375 yards. Blessed with a big frame and soft hands, Davis came into the NFL with extremely high expectations. Assuming he can stay healthy, this No. 5 overall pick from a year ago should emerge as one of Marcus Mariota’s go-to receivers in 2018.

Washington Redskins: Derrius Guice, running back

Whenever Alex Smith has found success in the NFL, he’s been bolstered by a strong rushing attack. Washington, needing to upgrade at the running back position, may have landed one of the biggest steals in the draft when Guice was still available late in the second round. A physical, dynamic runner with power and speed, Guice slid in the draft due to some concerns about his character — concerns Washington says were unfounded. He’ll have a huge chip on his shoulder and could easily be the top rookie running back in 2018 if he stays healthy.