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15 NFL youngsters poised to break out in 2018

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

It’s not easy to come into the NFL and make an instant impact. Many players struggle early, only to come on like a runaway freight train in their second or third seasons as professionals.

We’ll be taking a look at players who haven’t exactly hit the ground running early in their careers but who have the potential to become stars in 2018. Among this group is a brand new starting quarterback, a tight end who didn’t even play a single down last season and a second-year cornerback who now has a future Hall of Famer as his tutor.

These 15 young players should have huge impacts for their respective teams during the upcoming NFL season.

Curtis Samuel, receiver, Carolina Panthers

After spending a second-round pick on Samuel last year, the Panthers didn’t see much of a return on their investment. He caught just 15 passes for 115 yards, adding another 64 yards on four carries. An ankle injury that required surgery cut his season short, and he generally struggled to make an impact before that on an offense that sputtered at times throughout the year.

Looking ahead to 2018, however, gives us reason to believe he’ll have a bigger role. Christian McCaffrey is the undisputed No. 1 running back. With him lined up behind Newton exclusively, Samuel is now the team’s best option in the slot. Kelvin Benjamin is gone, and Torrey Smith, while dangerous deep down the field, is not a volume receiver.

Furthermore, now that Norv Turner is running the offense the team’s outside receivers will open up more opportunities underneath where Samuel should shine going up against linebackers and safeties. A matchup nightmare, this former running back has world-class speed and some shifty moves in the open field. If he’s utilized properly the Ohio State product should shine.

Adam Shaheen, tight end, Chicago Bears

Bears tight end Adam Shaheen

Last year as a rookie out of Ashland, Shaheen was minimally utilized by John Fox’s offense. He caught just 12 passes for 127 yards in the team’s ultra conservative scheme. However, he also hauled in three touchdowns, which shows what type of impact he can have going forward.

Now that Matt Nagy is running the show, Shaheen should absolutely blossom. He’ll be Chicago’s Travis Kelce, essentially, in the same scheme that has turned Kelce into a star for Kansas City.

On top of that, Shaheen has the added benefit this year of additional weapons — Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel — to stress coverage. Burton is more of an open-field threat than Shaheen. But the second-year tight end should be a nightmare in the red zone, where his big body will stand out like a beacon for quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback, San Francisco 49ers

A starter for nine games last year as a rookie out of Colorado, Witherspoon has the look of a dominant cover man. He showed up very well for the 49ers in the second half of the season, finishing with 32 tackles, two interceptions, seven pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

Assuming Richard Sherman is able to start from the first day of the season, Witherspoon will be starting opposite the future Hall of Famer in a secondary that has the potential to become terrifying. Sherman is the perfect tutor for Witherspoon, as the two players are essentially the same size and excel at the same things. Throw in a defensive front that features one of the league’s best young cores and San Francisco is looking like a formidable team on both sides of the ball in 2018.

Rico Gathers, tight end, Dallas Cowboys

Though he didn’t play a single snap during the regular season last year as a rookie out of Baylor, Gathers has Dallas fans excited about the future. He showed up big during the preseason last summer, hauling in seven passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns (including this very impressive snag).

Jason Witten has signed on for at least one more year, but Gathers should find his way into the lineup regularly this year nevertheless.

The former basketball star has big dreams, and he recently shared them in an Instagram post, vowing to be “the next best tight end in this league.” He certainly has the potential to be an explosive addition to what figures to be a very entertaining offense in Dallas this year.

Wayne Gallman, running back, New York Giants

Giants running back Wayne Gallman

The Giants haven’t had a strong running game for quite some time now, but last year as a rookie out of Clemson Gallman gave them a spark. Though he started just one game, he had a very strong impact for New York late in the season and finished with 669 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.61 yards per touch.

New York has brought in veteran running back Jonathan Stewart. But if we’re being honest it’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to shoulder the load. More than likely, Stewart (who averaged well below four yards per carry the past two seasons) will be supplanted by Gallman either before the season begins, or shortly afterward. Given his ability to make big plays both in the running and passing game, and given the influence of new head coach Pat Shurmur, we fully expect Gallman to have a breakout campaign in 2018.

Quincy Wilson, cornerback, Indianapolis Colts

Given the team’s defensive struggles, it really was hard to understand why Wilson was a healthy scratch for most of his rookie season.

Coming out of Florida, he was seen as a potential steal in the second round but barely made it onto the field until becoming a starter in Week 12. Once he finally got his shot, he shined, tallying 22 tackles, seven pass break-ups and capping off his rookie campaign with a 33-yard interception during the final weekend of the season.

A big cornerback, at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, Wilson is a physically imposing player who boasts a ton of upside. With him and safety Malik Hooker patrolling the back end of Indy’s defense, the Colts have some pieces to build around for the future.

Dede Westbrook, receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are rolling out an entirely new offense in 2018 now that Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are gone. Donte Moncrief and Marqise Lee are likely going to be starters, but there’s no reason to discount Westbrook from challenging either of them for a starting role. At the least, he’ll be in play for plenty of action as the third receiver.

Based on what he was able to do in limited action as a rookie in 2017 — he was out nine games with a core muscle injury — Westbrook should shine with a full offseason under his belt. Appearing in seven games and earning five starts, he caught 27 passes for 339 yards and one touchdown. Then in the playoffs he caught seven passes for 85 yards, coming alive in a big way during the team’s big win over Buffalo.

Patrick Mahomes II, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

Either Mahomes will break out in a big way, or Andy Reid will have some egg on his face. It’s all on the second-year passer now that Alex Smith has been traded to Washington, and there is a ton of pressure on his shoulders to perform at a high level. Especially considering how much the team paid receiver Sammy Watkins to come on board (details here) and be his ace in the hole.

Mahomes did a great job last year, both in the preseason last summer and in the only game he started during the season. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 674 yards, averaging 7.57 yards per attempt, while throwing four touchdowns and one interception in those appearances.

It’s clear this kid has the requisite talent to make Reid and Co. look darn good. And given the level of talent surrounding him at every skill position on offense, it’s clear the Chiefs are going to feature an explosive offense that can beat defenses in every conceivable way.

Takkarist McKinley, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons

Falcons pass rusher Takkarist McKinley

As a rotational player during his rookie campaign, McKinley got off to a slow start but started coming along nicely in the second half. He finished the season with 20 tackles and six sacks, showing the signature burst off the edge that helped him get drafted 26th overall out of UCLA. He also added two sacks in the playoffs and figures to be a much bigger factor for Atlanta in 2018.

With Adrian Clayborn having signed in New England, McKinley has a clear path in front of him to become a full-time starter for the Falcons this season. He’s coming off minor shoulder surgery but is expected to be a full go for OTAs and training camp. With him and Vic Beasley attacking opposing passers, the Falcons should feature one of the more dangerous pass-defending defenses in the league.

Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota Vikings

When Cook went down with a torn ACL in his rookie season, it was a huge blow to him, the Vikings and fantasy owners everywhere who were rightfully excited about his potential. Appearing in just four games, he piled up 444 yards and four touchdowns, showing the ability to break off big gains both on the ground and through the air.

Assuming Cook is able to stay healthy, he should have a monster 2018 season. He’ll be more heavily utilized this year than he was in 2017 now that Jerick McKinnon is with San Francisco. Furthermore, the Vikings believe they have upgraded at the quarterback position, having brought in Kirk Cousins via free agency. And if he is able to elevate the passing game then Cook will go wild taking advantage of running lanes on the ground and exposing linebackers in the passing game.

Mike Williams, wide receiver, Los Angeles Chargers

After being selected No. 7 overall out of Clemson last season, Williams suffered a back injury that cost him six games. When he did make it into the lineup he was limited, having missed the entire preseason and training camp. As such, the rookie receiver managed to catch just 11 passes for 95 yards and no touchdowns.

Looking ahead to 2018, Williams still has his work cut out to prove he’s worth his draft slot. He’ll have to beat out Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin for the right to start opposite Keenan Allen. But assuming he stays healthy this summer that’s a goal he has the talent to meet. And assuming he does meet that challenge, he and Allen make for quite the duo on the outside for Philip Rivers, who is one of the best at attacking opposing defenses.

Shaquil Griffin, cornerback, Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are going younger and cheaper now on defense, having broken up the Legion of Boom in a big way this offseason. One of the reasons the Seahawks had at least a little bit of confidence about letting Sherman hit the open market is that they have high hopes for Griffin, the twin brother of this year’s NFL draft sensation, Shaquem Griffin.

Griffin has given Seattle reason for optimism, though. As a rookie out of UCF last year he earned 11 starts and performed admirably, tallying 58 tackles, one interception and 15 pass break-ups. He’ll be a starter right out of the gates for the Seahawks in 2018, more than likely, and will have to continue developing on the fly to help replace one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Josh Doctson, receiver, Washington Redskins

Washington receiver Josh Doctson

Alex Smith might be the best thing that has ever happened to Doctson. He’s more accurate than Kirk Cousins and anticipates what defenses do better than the former Washington starter does. The whole accuracy thing is key, because Doctson needs the ball to come to him in stride to make the most of his talents.

Last season after Terrelle Pryor was benched, Doctson finally emerged as a difference maker for Washington. He missed almost all of his rookie season due to injuries and was barely a factor early in 2017. But about the midway point last year through the end of the season, he started to look like the guy the team thought it had drafted 22nd overall in 2016.

He ended up hauling in 35 passes for 502 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers should skyrocket in 2018, especially now that Doctson is one of the team’s best options at receiver.

Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers

The Packers have two young running backs they utilized last year, and both should be a part of the offense in 2018. But despite the fact that Jamaal Williams took over as the starter down the stretch last year, it’s clear that Jones has more potential to become a dynamic starter going forward.

Jones averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year, rushing for 448 yards and four touchdowns on just 81 carries. Williams is a better receiver, or at least he got more opportunities to shine in this capacity during the 2017 season. However, if Mike McCarthy is smart he’ll have Jones toting the rock regularly, with Williams being the third-down back. If that happens, then we fully expect Jones to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground and finally give the Packers the reliable running game they’ve been missing for a few years now.

Haason Reddick, linebacker, Arizona Cardinals

One of the big risers during the pre-draft process last year, Reddick ended up getting selected 13th overall by Arizona and entered his rookie season with huge expectations. Unfortunately, his first NFL campaign was marked by inconsistent play and a lack of cohesion, as he was forced to switch positions out of necessity when outside linebacker Markus Golden was lost for the season due to injury.

Reddick appeared in all 16 games for the Cardinals but managed just three starts. He finished with 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, indicating he certainly can become an impact player at the professional level. Assuming the Cardinals are able to lock him into a role that takes advantage of his ability to excel in space, he should thrive in his sophomore campaign.