Each NFL team’s biggest breakout star so far

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There are breakout stars every year in the NFL, and this one is no exception. The season is nearly halfway done, and there has been no shortage of previously anonymous players to step up.

Though breakout star is a relative term — not every team has a Kareem Hunt — every franchise has at least one player who’s performed above and beyond preseason expectations. Even the Cleveland Browns.

Here is each team’s breakout star.

New England Patriots: Dion Lewis, running back

For a while, it seemed like the seven incredible games Dion Lewis played in 2015 prior to getting injured would be the pinnacle of his career. Lewis played just seven games last year as well and James White seemed to supplant him as New England’s preferred pass-catching back. That dynamic has stuck, however, Lewis is the Patriots’ best inside running threat this year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Though that’s on just 58 attempts, Lewis’ workload has been steadily increasing. After a season-high 15 carries against the Chargers last weekend, Lewis could be a consistent presence in New England’s backfield this season.

Buffalo Bills: Jordan Poyer, safety

The Bills picked up Poyer this offseason after he played just six games and struggled last year with the Browns. Thus far, he’s been nothing short of incredible. Poyer has 40 tackles on the year — a career-high — along with seven passes defensed, two sacks and two picks. Buffalo’s defense ranked second in pass defense DVOA over the middle of the field prior to Thursday’s game, thanks in large part to Poyer. He’s been a huge factor in the resurgence of the Bills’ defense.

Miami Dolphins: Cordrea Tankersley, cornerback

Tankersley won’t make the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but the third-round pick has certainly beaten expectations. Not only has Tankersley done a good job of keeping opponents from catching the ball, with a 55 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders. He’s also been one of the best corners in the league when it comes to tackling. Tankersley ranks 15th at the position, allowing just 0.5 yards after the catch per reception, according to FO. Despite some rookie mistakes, particularly against the Jets two weeks ago, Tankersley is well on his way to stardom.

New York Jets: Robby Anderson, wide receiver

Robby Anderson

Nary a week goes by without Anderson making an impact play for the Jets’ offense. With 15.6 yards per reception, he’s been the closest thing New York has to a deep threat. After 48 yards — and a touchdown — against the Bills, he has 483 on the year. He’s not a star yet, but when New York eventually pairs him with a decent quarterback, Anderson could be a franchise receiver for Gang Green.

Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt, defensive end

As a rookie, Watt already has 4.0 sacks and six quarterback hits in seven games. Guess it runs in the family. The Wisconsin product has had a palpable impact on the Steelers’ defense and we’re not even a season into his career. Pittsburgh was 25th in pressure rate last year. Through seven weeks this year, they were third. That’s not all due to Watt. However, his presence has clearly made a big difference.

Cincinnati Bengals: Carl Lawson, defensive end

Lawson has played just 45.6 percent of snaps, but he’s had a big impact as a pass rusher. The fourth-round pick has 4.5 sacks already. He also leads the Bengals with 10 quarterback hits to boot. There’s certainly still some development left for Lawson, especially in run defense. Moreover, he’ll have to eventually be a three-down player if he wants to be a real star. However, this is a pretty good start to Lawson’s career.

Baltimore Ravens: Alex Collins, running back

Lost in all of Baltimore’s offensive struggles: the Ravens have found their running back of the future. Collins is averaging a league-leading 6.0 yards per carry despite a sorely diminished offensive line missing its best player in Marshal Yanda. He leads all running backs in DVOA, ranking fourth in DYAR and eighth in success rate. He’s been strong after contact, frequently picking up extra yardage. Only seven times on 80 carries this year has Collins been taken down for a loss — a good sign he’s doing something right.

Cleveland Browns: Jason McCourty, cornerback

It’s tough to appreciate McCourty because doing so means watching the Browns. However, there’s no doubt that he’s been one of the best cornerbacks in all of football this year. McCourty’s 71 percent success rate ranks 14th at the position, per Football Outsiders. He’s also given up just 5.6 yards per pass, also according to FO. The two-year, $6 million contract he signed this offseason should go down as one of the best moves anyone made in March and a rare consensus win for the Browns’ front office. If he can stay healthy — McCourty has missed Cleveland’s last two games with injury — he should be in the Pro Bowl.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Myles Jack, linebacker

Coming into the year, we knew that Jacksonville’s free agent signees would power its defense to be one of the better units in the league. What we didn’t know was that Jack would be one of that unit’s best players. After a lackluster rookie season, it seemed like the UCLA product’s injury history would prevent him from living up to his potential. But seven games into this year, the 22-year-old has 39 tackles, including 2.0 sacks. Jack has been a menace in both run defense and coverage. The Jaguars rolled the dice in drafting Jack given his injury history, but their gamble has paid off.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, quarterback

Watson looked good coming out of Clemson, but nobody expected this. The rookie leads the league in touchdowns and touchdown percentage. He’s second in yards per pass attempt, fifth in DVOA, and sixth in DYAR. He went into Seattle(!) last week and put up 400 yards on the Legion of Boom. Even though his season ended with an ACL tear on Thursday, Watson made it clear that he’s a franchise-changing superstar.

Tennessee Titans: Derrick Henry, running back

Henry has yet to start a game, but at this point, it would be surprising if he didn’t overtake DeMarco Murray by the end of the season. The second-year player is averaging 4.4 yards per carry  and ranks eighth among running backs in DVOA. The fact that Murray is also playing well complicates Henry’s ascension to the starting job. However, the endgame has been made clear: Henry is the Titans’ running back of the future.

Indianapolis Colts: John Simon, defensive end

Simon has been an exceedingly rare bright spot for Indy’s defense this season. The former Texan has 3.0 sacks and 12 quarterback hits — double any of his teammates — for the Colts. Though he missed last week with an injury, Simon has been the best defensive player on this team by a huge margin. If he misses extended time, it would be a huge blow to Indianapolis.

Kansas City Chiefs: Kareem Hunt, running back

Along with Watson, Hunt has been the breakout star this season. The rookie running back from Toledo leads the league in rushing yards with 763 through the halfway mark. His 1,070 yards from scrimmage also lead football. Suffice it to say Hunt may be the best running back in the league right now. The Chiefs found a diamond in the rough.

Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Ingram, edge rusher

Ingram was a star last year, but he’s taken a leap. The 28-year old has already eclipsed his 2016 sack total in half the games with 8.5 this season. That ranks fourth in the league, as do his 15 quarterback hits. If he keeps playing like this, Ingram will make the All-Pro team for the first time in his career. With him on one side and Joey Bosa on the other, it is tough to stop the Chargers from getting to the quarterback.

Denver Broncos: Shaq Barrett, edge rusher

Denver’s vaunted defense has certainly seen a decline this year thanks to the departure of coordinator Wade Phillips. Barrett, however, may be the unit’s only player to have improved. The 25-year old has 3.0 sacks this season — double his total from 2016 — along with five quarterback hits. He’s no Von Miller, but Barrett has developed into a consistent threat as a pass rusher. That’s pretty impressive for someone who came into the league as an undrafted free agent.

Oakland Raiders: T.J. Carrie, cornerback

For all of Oakland’s secondary struggles, Carrie is having perhaps the best year of his career. He’s giving up just 5.8 yards per pass on 31 targets along with a 55 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders. Remember, this is someone who played less than a third of defensive snaps for the Raiders last year. Now, he’s playing nearly every down and excelling. Right now, he’s the best cornerback wearing silver and black.

New York Giants: Justin Pugh, right tackle

Pugh came into the year as the Giants’ starting left guard, but he moved to right tackle out of necessity when Bobby Hart got hurt. Turned out, it was for the best. Pugh has been the answer for the Giants at right tackle. His presence there is a big reason the line has been better in recent weeks. It would be pretty surprising to see the 27-year-old move back to guard anytime soon.

Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end

At the start of the season, Dallas’ pass rush was one of its biggest questions. Now, the Cowboys rank seventh in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders. Lawrence has been the biggest reason why. His 10.5 sacks lead the league, and his 16 quarterback hits rank third. He’s had at least one sack in every game with three forced fumbles to boot. Barring injury, Lawrence is a lock to make his first All-Pro team.

Washington Redskins: Bashaud Breeland, cornerback

Remember the first Redskins’ game of the year in 2016? It was against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night and Antonio Brown roasted Breeland time and time again. Breeland’s ineptitude — particularly in comparison with Josh Norman — was on full display. This year, things have turned around. He has a 58 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders, with just 6.4 yards allowed per pass. Quietly, that’s one of the biggest improvements any player in the league has had this season.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, quarterback

Wentz is the clubhouse leader for MVP right now. He’s tied with Watson for the league lead in touchdowns, already having eclipsed his mark from 2016. Wentz has also thrown just five picks with 7.33 adjusted net yards per attempt. That’s an improvement from 2016 by over two yards. The North Dakota State product was a polarizing prospect in 2016, but he’s left no doubt. There are simply not many quarterbacks capable of making some of the throws Wentz makes on a regular basis.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones, running back

With Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams ahead of him on the depth chart, Jones wasn’t even in the conversation at running back for the Packers at the beginning of the year. Two injuries later, it looks like the fifth-round pick will be at the top of that depth chart for a long time. Jones is putting up 5.6 yards per carry right now. Though he’s only gotten work in four games, it’s impossible to deny how good he’s looked. If Jones keeps this up, he’s on the fast track to stardom.

Chicago Bears: Akiem Hicks, defensive end

It is impossible to watch a Bears game without noticing Hicks. In eight games, he’s put up 7.0 sacks, equaling his total from 16 contests last season. He has 11 quarterback hits as well. Hicks has been a consistent presence in opposing backfields all year, going from an above-average defensive end to a legitimate star.

Minnesota Vikings: Adam Thielen, wide receiver

Thielen was quietly great towards the end of last season, finishing with 967 yards in 2016, but nobody noticed. This year, he’s been impossible to miss. The 27-year-old has 627 receiving yards — second in the NFL — on 48 receptions for Minnesota. Anyone who doubted what we saw from him late in 2016 has been proven utterly wrong as Thielen has helped anchor perhaps the best receiving duo in the NFL along with Stefon Diggs. Even with Case Keenum throwing the football, Thielen is putting up crazy-good numbers.

Detroit Lions: D.J. Hayden, cornerback

It’s hard to call Hayden a star, but there’s no doubt he’s made a demonstrable jump from last year. The former Raider is allowing just 5.1 yards per pass on a 65 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders. For context, Hayden had a 50 percent success rate in Oakland last season. There’s still time for that number to slip, and it likely will. But there’s no doubting Hayden’s overall improvement. Someone who was never all that reliable at any point in his career has resembled a lockdown corner for the past seven games, and that’s worth pointing out.

Atlanta Falcons: Tevin Coleman, running back

There’s a reason Falcons Twitter wants to take Steve Sarkisian’s head off for not involving Coleman more in the offense: he’s been really good. The 24-year-old is averaging a career-high 5.4 yards per carry in addition to being a serious weapon in the passing game. Right now, he’s outplaying Devonta Freeman and it isn’t because Freeman is struggling. Given that Coleman got 14 carries against the Jets last week (a season-high), we could see more of a split going forward. That would be the right move.

New Orleans Saints: Marshon Lattimore, cornerback

If the season ended today, Lattimore would earn this scribe’s vote for Defensive Rookie of the Year. We knew the Ohio State product was good coming out, but not this good. Lattimore is allowing just 5.6 yards per pass, according to Football Outsiders. More importantly, he and fellow corner Ken Crawley have been the catalysts in the Saints’ pass defense going from worst in the league in every metric imaginable to fourth in DVOA. There is no overstating how greatly Lattimore has improved the Saints’ prospects for competing in his rookie year alone.

Carolina Panthers: Daryl Worley, cornerback

Worley is the latest bit of evidence that former Panthers GM Dave Gettleman was absolutely right to let Josh Norman go. Worley has been one of the better corners in football this year with teammate James Bradberry not far behind. The 22-year old has a 58 percent success rate and is allowing a minuscule 4.4 yards per pass, according to Football Outsiders. Among corners with at least 25 targets, that ranks fourth in the league. The best part: Worley is just 22 years old. He could be very good for a very long time.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Brate, tight end

Here’s a stat nobody saw coming: Brate ranks second on the Bucs in both receptions and receiving yards, ahead of DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and O.J. Howard. That’s not a good thing for Tampa, nor does it reflect well on Jameis Winston. However, it is an impressive feat for Brate. When the season started, it felt like a matter of time until Brate lost his job to Howard, a first-round pick. However, the 26-year old has thoroughly outplayed his counterpart and become, for better or worse, one of the most important pieces of the Bucs’ offense.

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback

Anybody who saw this type of resurgence coming for Jared Goff is lying. The second-year quarterback has seen dramatic improvement over a truly abysmal rookie season. Goff, in as many games as he played last year, has 630 more passing yards, four more touchdowns, 4.30 more adjusted net yards per attempt, and three less interceptions. It’s pretty hard to improve more than that. Goff looks like the franchise star the Rams thought they were getting in trading up take him last year.

Seattle Seahawks: Paul Richardson, wide receiver

Paul Richardson

Richardson has just 22 receptions on the year, but he’s been every bit the impact receiver Seattle so desperately needed. He’s averaging 17.0 yards per reception — seventh in the league — and ranks fourth among wideouts in DVOA. Last week against Houston, Richardson surpassed his reception and yardage totals from last season. Now imagine what he’d be doing if the Seahawks’ offensive line allowed them to throw downfield consistently.

Arizona Cardinals: Chandler Jones, edge rusher

Fine, Jones doesn’t really qualify for this list. He made a Pro Bowl in 2015 and posted 11.0 sacks last season. But he’s in the midst of a career year that nobody saw coming. Only seven games into the season, Jones has eight sacks — on pace to surpass his career-high of 12.5 sooner rather than later — along with 14 quarterback hits, tied for fifth in the league. He’s been one of exceedingly few players during the Bill Belichick Era to get traded by the Patriots and keep performing.

San Francisco 49ers: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle

It’s only his second season, but Buckner has taken a leap. He has 14 quarterback hits and 19.0 total pressures on the year, per Football Outsiders. The only problem has been converting those into sacks, as he’s done so just 1.5 times. But that will come with more time. For now, it’s clear that Buckner will be a presence in the middle of the Niners’ defensive line for years to come.