As a fan of the NFL, there’s nothing quite like watching a player improve from year to year. In some cases, improvement can mean when a good player makes the leap and becomes great. In other cases, they can be seen when a forgotten player turns into a solid part of his team.
Regardless off groupings, every NFL team has at least one player who’s taken big steps in the right direction from 2016 to 2017.
Naturally, that includes surprising teams like the Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, and Jacksonville Jaguars. You can’t go from mediocre to good without having some players improve. But that also includes teams like the New York Giants, who have suffered through disastrous 2017 seasons.
The reasons are different and some selections are far easier than others. But these are the most improved players from every NFL team in 2017.
New England Patriots: Danny Amendola, wide receiver
Amendola had become something of a forgotten man in the New England offense. In 2016, he caught only 23 passes for 243 yards. But the injury to Julian Edelman has opened the door for Amendola, who’s gone through it nicely. Through 10 team games (nine of his own), Amendola has hauled in 43 receptions for 440 yards. Those stats don’t mirror what Edelman put up, but Amendola is on pace for a career year. His presence has greatly aided one of the league’s best offenses and has helped the Pats to their 8-2 record.
Chicago Bears: Adrian Amos, safety, Chicago Bears
While Chicago sits at only 3-7, this has been an improved team in 2017. One of the reasons has been its defense. That unit has been aided by Amos. A big play from Amos almost single-handedly swayed the Bears’ win against the Baltimore Ravens. He’s also been involved in four stuffs and 50 tackles. Amos has not only been Chicago’s most improved player. He’s also been one of the best safeties in the entire league all year.
Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith, quarterback
Smith has actually completed only two more passes in 2017 than he had at this point of the 2016 season. Despite that, he’s thrown for 377 more yards. He also has eight more touchdowns, one fewer interception, and his passer rating is nearly 18 points higher. When Smith first played under coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011, he went from potential bust to game manager. In the subsequent years, he turned himself into probably the league’s best game manager. But in 2017, he’s graduated from game manager to star.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end
While the Cowboys have generally regressed from 2016 to 2017, we can’t say that about Lawrence. Entering the year, Lawrence had played in 32 games and recorded nine sacks. In 2017, he’s played in 10 games and dropped opposing quarterbacks a league leading 11.5 times. The high sack total is especially relevant when we remember that the Dallas run defense is one of the worst in the league at yards allowed per carry. Lawrence’s sacks keep opponent’s off schedule, limiting the attempted runs against his team.
Cleveland Browns: Christian Kirksey, linebacker
It’s not that Kirksey was bad in 2016. In fact, 148 tackles is pretty darn good. But in 2017, he’s become a much more complete defender. Kirksey is on a similar tackle pace. But he’s also already equaled his career high in sacks, and has surpassed it in both forced fumbles and passes defended. The 0-10 Browns clearly have a lot of holes to fix. But in Kirksey, they have an improving linebacker that should be an integral part of the team’s rebuilding project.
Arizona Cardinals: Jaron Brown, wide receiver
Brown has always been a big-play threat. But despite playing on a team with a less than ideal quarterback situation, he’s emerged into a more complete receiver in 2017. Brown has already set career highs in receptions (24), yards (349), and touchdowns (2). Additionally, a whopping 19 of those receptions have been for first downs, also setting a career high. He’s done all of this while maintaining an impressive 14.5 yards per reception. Imagine what he could do on a team with a stable quarterback.
Indianapolis Colts: Rashaan Melvin, cornerback
Melvin has bounced around for much of his career. But in 2017, he’s recorded two interceptions and defended 12 passes, which are both career highs. But as is so often the case with corners, the other’s guys stats are the most important. Working mostly against Melvin, Pittsburgh Steelers superstar Antonio Brown caught only three passes for 47 yards against the Colts. Not many people keep him in check like that. In 2017, Melvin has gone from career journeyman to top-tier corner.
Carolina Panthers: Devin Funchess, wide receiver
There are two things to look at here to really spotlight Funchess’ improvement. One is what he’s done all year. Funchess has already set career highs in receptions and yards while equaling his career-high touchdown total. The other is what he’s done since Kelvin Benjamin was traded. It’s only been two games. But in those games, Funchess has caught 10 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns. The Panthers needed Funchess to improve this year. They certainly needed him to improve after the Benjamin trade. He’s answered the bell.
Baltimore Ravens: Alex Collins, running back
We saw decent flashes of Collins as a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks. But as a second-year man in Baltimore, he’s really upped his game. Collins is averaging five yards a carry for the Ravens. That gives the team something that both Buck Allen and Terrance West don’t, which is the threat of a big play in the running game. It’s important to remember that when Collins signed with Baltimore, he signed with the practice squad. Now, he’s the leading rusher on a playoff contender.
Washington Redskins: Vernon Davis, tight end
Davis had something of a rejuvenation year in 2016. But in 2017, Davis is showing us a version of himself that we haven’t seen since he caught 52 balls for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Davis isn’t going to come near that touchdown total. But he’s on pace to catch 53 passes for 843 yards. Washington receivers have really struggled to fill the voids left by Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. But Davis has represented a consistent option for Kirk Cousins in the Redskins’ passing attack.
Los Angeles Chargers: Trevor Williams, cornerback
Williams has perfectly complemented his team’s pass rush. The Chargers get to quarterbacks and force them to get rid of the ball early. As a result, their defensive backs can be more aggressive, which has led to 10 passes defended and two picks for Williams. He’s also chipped in with 41 combined tackles. It’s important to remember that in 2016, Williams was an undrafted free agent. He worked his way into 12 starts in five appearances that year, and he has continued to elevate his game in Year 2.
Green Bay Packers: Blake Martinez, linebacker
Martinez made an impact as a rookie, recording 69 tackles for the Packers in 2016. But in 2017, he’s gone to a different level. Martinez has 84 tackles. And these tackles aren’t a matter of chasing guys down after a missed assignment. In fact, Martinez has seven tackles for a loss in 2017. That’s as many as any two of his Green Bay teammates. With the injury to Aaron Rodgers, it’s been a tough year for the Packers. But Martinez has emerged as a fixture on the defense.
Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end
We certainly couldn’t have called Clowney a bust before this year. But heading into 2017, it was fair to say that the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 had fallen short of expectations. That’s changed this year. He has an impressive eight sacks, which betters the career high he set in 2016 by two. Moreover, he’s become more dominant as the season has gone on. Five of those sacks have come in his last four games. Clowney has turned into the player we all knew he could be.
San Francisco 49ers: Dontae Johnson, cornerback
The 1-9 49ers have had very few bright spots, but one has been the play of Johnson. Drafted in 2014, Johnson spent much of his first three seasons in San Francisco struggling to get on the field. If there’s one drawback with Johnson, it’s that he struggles to come up with interceptions. Johnson hasn’t picked a pass off since his rookie year. But he’s started all 10 games for the 49ers in 2017, defended five passes, and been in on 48 tackles. With free agency looming a the end of the season, Johnson has picked a great time to emerge.
Miami Dolphins: Kenyan Drake, running back
To be fair, this is something of a default selection here. The Dolphins have had very little go right in 2017, especially when compared to 2016’s playoff campaign. But we can’t ignore that Drake has improved. He has already topped 2016’s totals in rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards. There’s still a long way to go for Drake to emerge as a true featured back. But in his second NFL season, Drake has taken steps in the right direction.
Atlanta Falcons: Austin Hooper, tight end
Regression has been the general theme of the Falcons’ 2017 season, especially on offense. With that said, it’s undeniable that Hooper has come along nicely. After catching 19 passes for 271 yards as a rookie, Hooper has hauled in 33 passes for 370 yards in his second season. Among Atlanta players, only Julio Jones and Mohammed Sanu have caught more passes for more yards. Additionally, Hooper’s three touchdown receptions trail only Sanu for the team lead.
Cincinnati Bengals: Nick Vigil, linebacker
The Bengals are on the fringes of the AFC playoff race. Really, the only reason that Cincinnati has been that good has been the defense. Vigil has been a primary reason why the defense has remained effective. He’s been in on 78 tackles and five tackles for a loss, which both lead the team. Vigil also recorded a sack and an interception. That’s the sign of someone who makes his way around the field and provides a sizable impact in every portion of the game.
Seattle Seahawks: Paul Richardson, wide receiver
Richardson was a second-round pick in 2014 and for three years, he didn’t do much. From 2014-2016, Richardson caught 51 passes for 599 yards with two touchdowns. In 2017, he’s caught, Richardson has caught 31 passes for 514 yards with five scores. More impressive is that he’s averaging 16.6 yards per catch. Seattle doesn’t have much of a running game, so it needs the deep ball. Richardson’s jump in production has been just what the doctor ordered for his team.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey, cornerback
The Jags are a team with many improvements. But we just can’t look beyond Ramsey. In 2016, he was a talented but raw rookie playing a relatively unfamiliar position. In 2017, Ramsey has been arguably the NFL’s best corner. It’s not just a matter of getting under the skin of A.J. Green, although frustrating that kind of talent certainly works in Ramsey’s favor. Ramsey is just an ultra aggressive corner. The physical play combined with his raw talents essentially takes away whatever receiver he’s lined up against.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, quarterback
Like Ramsey, Wentz was a promising rookie in 2016. Also like Ramsey, he’s made a leap far more massive than expected. In terms of total yardage, Wentz is at a similar place now (2,430) to where he was after 10 games in 2016 (2,339). But 2017’s totals have come in 38 fewer attempts and 35 fewer completions. The most striking difference is that Wentz has 25 touchdowns against five interceptions. At this point in 2016, he had 11 touchdowns and seven picks. This is why Wentz is neck-and-neck with Tom Brady for the NFL’s MVP.
Denver Broncos: Justin Simmons, safety
While the Broncos have crashed hard in 2017, they really can’t ask for more from Simmons. He’s shown himself to be a perfectly capable safety against the pass, intercepting a pass and defending four. But Simmons has also shown up strong when it’s been time to defend the run, or even blitz. He has been in on 56 tackles (second on the team), has a sack (against Tom Brady), and three tackles for a loss. Whatever direction Denver goes in after the 2017 season, Simmons should be a part of the plan.
Detroit Lions: Anthony Zettel: defensive end
By and large, the Lions’ season has gone to form. One notable exception to that has been Zettel. He has consistently pressured opposing quarterback and recorded a team-high six sacks. But he’s also been in on 25 tackles, so Zettel isn’t exactly a one-trick pony when it comes to playing defense. If Detroit can find a way to bring back Ezekiel Ansah in 2018, it will have one of the NFL’s most frightening defensive end duos.
Buffalo Bills: Micah Hyde, safety
The move from Green Bay to Buffalo has been a good one for Hyde. He has eight defended passes and with five interceptions, is already at a career high and more than halfway to his career total of eight entering the season. As a safety, Hyde is also an integral part of the Bills’ run defense and his 38 tackles have done his team well in that regard. Buffalo’s personnel decisions in 2017 have left a lot to be desired. But adding Hyde was clearly a good move for this defense.
New Orleans Saints: Kenny Vaccaro, safety
In all honesty, this can go to essentially any Saints’ defender who saw significant playing time in 2016 and 2017. The difference in the two defenses has been night and day. But Vaccaro gets our spotlight. He has 39 tackles and four for a loss. But Vaccaro’s team-leading three interceptions really get him here. When New Orleans won in 2009, the backbone of the defense was forcing turnovers. This unit is probably the best that this team has seen since that magical year. Vaccaro has been the backbone.
Oakland Raiders: Jared Cook, tight end
Similar to the Falcons, the Raiders’ offense has fallen short of what it did in 2016. But the tight end production has been massive. The difference is that Cook was not in Oakland last year. Still, we can draw a comparison. He has 535 receiving yards, which compares quite nicely to the 535 he had in Green Bay in 2016. Additionally, the 535 receiving yards not only lead the Raiders in 2017, but they’re more than any Oakland receiver other than Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree had through the entire 2016 season.
Minnesota Vikings: Case Keenum, quarterback
The options are plentiful in Minnesota, but Keenum is just impossible to ignore. A season ago, Keenum was nothing more than a poor man’s game manager. Keenum hasn’t been a good game manager in 2017. No, he’s just been good. Period. Keenum has completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 7.31 yards per attempt. His passer rating is more than 17 points ahead of last year’s total. Keenum isn’t going to be mistaken for an MVP candidate. But his team has been winning, and he’s been an integral part of it all.
Tennessee Titans: Kevin Byard, safety
Byard has become a full-time starter in 2017 and it’s showed in the results. After failing to intercept a single pass in his rookie year, Byard’s six picks in Year 2 lead not just his team, but the entire NFL. In total, he’s defended 13 passes. Beyond that, Byard has also been in on 53 tackles including three for a loss. That’s the precise kind of leap that the Titans were looking for in Year 2. It’s also that kind of play that’s helped keep Tennessee in the middle of the playoff mix, despite uneven play from the offense.
New York Giants: Orleans Darkwa, running back
While New York’s disastrous season gives this something of a default feel, Darkwa’s improvement has been a genuine bright light for this team. Over his first three seasons, Darkwa had all of 287 rushing yards. In 2017, he has 489. From 2014-2016, Darkwa caught 10 passes for 91 yards. In Year 4, he’s caught 14 for 84. Darkwa has become a more consistent part of the offense in 2017. Given this team’s struggle to run in recent years (even in good years), the development of a running back is good to see.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Vince Williams, linebacker
Since last winning the Super Bowl in 2008, the Steelers have undergone something of an identity shift. Once a team that won with overpowering defense, Pittsburgh began to win shootouts. The 2017 season has been a shift back to the prior way of doing things. That shift has been aided by Williams. He’s been a constant presence in opposing backfields, which has led to six sacks. Only Cameron Hayward has more on the team. Williams has been a driving force of the team’s improved defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Demar Dotson, right tackle
The offense has been a massive disappointment in Tampa. Part of what makes the disappointment so great is that while he was healthy, Jameis Winston couldn’t get anything significant going with Mike Evans or DeSean Jackson despite the improved play of Dotson. Dotson has given his quarterbacks clean looks on their right side and to be honest, they just haven’t delivered. But even if those around him haven’t performed well, Dotson is one of the few players on his team to actually exceed expectations.
New York Jets: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, tight end
Seferian-Jenkins has had his off-field issues in his career, but the talent has always been apparent. In 2017, the talent has outshined those other issues. Seferian-Jenkins has 39 receptions, which is already a career high (by far). He’s also on pace to easily exceed his career high in receiving yards. Seferian-Jenkins has added three touchdowns (and no matter what the NFL says, it should be four). He’s done all of this despite playing in an offense with minimal talent around him.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback
Goff’s stats are much better in 2017 than 2016. But in truth, this isn’t really about stats as much as it is the good old-fashioned eye test. Certainly, one year isn’t enough to call anyone a bust. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick did very little in 2016 to provide much reason for optimism going forward. But in 2017, he’s looked like a franchise quarterback. Goff still has improvements to make. But if you’re a Rams fan, you have good reasons to be optimistic about the future, as well as the present.