Young NFL Players Destined for Breakout 2017 Seasons

All 20 of these young NFL players are prime breakout candidates in 2017.

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Every year in the NFL, we see young prospects take that next step in their development and emerge as stars. We saw it a season ago when players such as Derek Carr, David Johnson and Jay Ajayi proved to the rest of the league that they were for real. So who will the breakout stars of 2017 be? There are plenty of candidates out there, with many top young talents set to play larger roles for their respective teams. The following list pinpoints 20 players destined to earn the “breakout star” label this upcoming season.

Just to clarify, I don’t consider rookies as breakout candidates. All players on this list have at least one year in the NFL under their belts.

Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Draped in character red flags coming out of college, Noah Spence landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year as a second-round pick. It didn’t take long for him to show off the talent that had scouts talking about him as a potential Day 1 selection. As a rookie, Spence racked up 5.5 sacks while serving in a backup role. Although he figures to remain as the Buccaneers’ top pass-rushing option off the bench, he showed major improvement during training camp and the preseason. Look for him to make the most of every snap he gets, increasing his sack total and asserting himself as a dangerous threat off the edge.

Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
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Throughout his 2016 rookie season, Tyreek Hill flashed the talent to be a superstar. Now that Jeremy Maclin is gone, Hill has assumed the No. 1 receiver role with the Kansas City Chiefs. Based on what we’ve seen so far from the former fifth-round pick, this could be a huge campaign for the electric receiver/runner/returner. Even if the Chiefs do remove him from return duties, look for Hill to light it up this season as the team’s go-to weapon on offense.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
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Some might say that Marcus Mariota already had his breakout season a year ago. While you could probably make that argument, I’m of the mindset that he still has yet to get to the level of play that he’s capable of. With that said, I have complete confidence that he’ll get there in 2017. Mariota is surrounded by playmakers in this Tennessee Titans offense. Not only does he have a great rushing attack to keep the defense honest, but his receiving corps of Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis, Eric Decker and Delanie Walker is underrated. The former No. 2 overall pick will take advantage and lead the Titans to their first playoff appearance since 2008.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
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For years, the Detroit Lions have been without a star running back. They haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2013, when Reggie Bush barely hit the mark at 1,006 yards. Based on what we’ve seen from Ameer Abdullah, that could all change in 2017. The former second-round pick has dazzled when on the field in Detroit, but has struggled to stay healthy. Even with other running backs pushing for snaps, an injury-free Abdullah will assert himself as the featured back and steal the show in 2017.

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
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For two years now, we’ve watched Devante Parker underwhelm as a part of the Miami Dolphins passing game. He’s given us glimpses of the greatness he seemed to promise coming out of college. Now is the time for him to deliver, even if he still has to compete with Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills for targets. All of the reports out of training camp suggest he’s looked like a different player so far in 2017. Will we finally see him live up to his first-round draft status? I’d answer that question with a resounding “yes.”

Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
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Most fans would say that Joey Bosa already enjoyed a breakout season as a rookie. However, I’m one of those football folks who doesn’t believe that rookies can “break out.” They can have excellent rookie campaigns during which they flash legitimate playmaking abilities, but sophomore season is the time to back it up. Bosa will do exactly that for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017. Despite only playing in 12 games in 2016, the former Ohio State superstar racked up 10.5 sacks and was a dynamic presence off the edge. Look for more of the same from the explosive defensive end this season.

Jaylon Smith, OLB, Dallas Cowboys
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Leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, all of the hype was surrounding a certain Notre Dame linebacker by the name of Jaylon Smith. Then, in the final game of his college career, the star prospect suffered a devastating knee injury that many believed would end his hopes of ever playing in the NFL. Still, the Dallas Cowboys rolled the dice and drafted him in the second round. Despite missing his entire rookie season, Smith appears ready to get back on the field. My guess is he returns to form and emerges as one of the biggest draft steals in recent memory.

Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
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As a rookie, Jalen Ramsey had the look of a future shutdown cornerback. For the most part, he was as advertised, serving as a reliable asset for the Jacksonville Jaguars defense. Now, as he heads into his sophomore season, the Florida State product will need to take that next step in his development. The additions of A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell should make life a little easier for him. In the end, though, it’ll be his natural abilities and instincts in coverage that lead him to a breakout season in 2017.

DeForest Buckner, DT, San Francisco 49ers
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Playing a whopping 1,006 snaps as a rookie, DeForest Buckner gave the San Francisco 49ers a glimpse of what they could expect from their hyped first-round pick. In his first NFL campaign, he racked up 73 tackles and six sacks, proving to be one of the lone bright spots for a putrid 49ers defense. Now heading into Year 2, don’t hesitate to get your hopes up for a breakout season from Buckner. With Robert Saleh‘s aggressive 4-3 scheme implemented, all of the pieces are in place for him to be a star.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
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If 2016 was just a sample of what we can expect from Carson Wentz, the future is very bright for the Philadelphia Eagles. Sure, the rookie faded as the year went along. It was a struggle at times getting the offense moving, but he showed the physical and mental tools to warrant his draft status. His performance during the 2017 preseason only gave us more reason to believe good things are to come. Especially with more weapons around him (like Alshon JefferyTorrey Smith and Mack Hollins), expect this to be the year where Wentz quells any doubts about him being the No. 2 overall pick.

Eric Kendricks, ILB, Minnesota Vikings
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If you asked me, I’d say that Eric Kendricks already broke out. However, based on the opinion of general NFL fans, the Minnesota Vikings‘ starting middle linebacker isn’t really known as one of the league’s standouts. Instead, he’s relatively unknown and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. By the time the 2017 season is over, that won’t be the case. With his impeccable instincts and playmaking abilities, Kendricks has emerged as one of the stars of Minnesota’s defense. He’ll be a household name when all is said and done.

La'El Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys
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Another breakout candidate for the Cowboys. How surprising. On a team coming off a 13-3 campaign, there’s even more untapped potential waiting to help this franchise towards its goal of winning another Super Bowl. As if the Cowboys didn’t already have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with players such as Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and Travis Frederick, it looks like La’El Collins could be the latest star to emerge from the group. Slated to start at right tackle in 2017, look for him to dominate in his second season as a result of his superior strength, athleticism and technique.

Karl Joseph, SS, Oakland Raiders
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Even as a rookie, Karl Joseph looked the part for the Oakland Raiders in 2016. Coming off an ACL tear during his final year in college, he didn’t get much run during the preseason and wasn’t starting until Week 3. Once he did take over as the starting strong safety, things were still shaky. Joseph excelled as a run defender, but had some struggles in coverage. His sophomore campaign should see him take a big step forward, though. With an entire offseason to prepare and his health now intact, the 2016 first-round pick appears destined to stand out among this suspect Oakland secondary.

Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
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Yes, Antonio Gates is still a prominent part of the Chargers’ passing game. Contrary to passed seasons, though, it’s going to be a two-man show at tight end for this offense. After landing with Los Angeles last year as a second-round pick, Hunter Henry is ready to emerge as a weekly contributor. Actually, let’s take it one step further and say that Henry will be one of Philip Rivers‘ top targets in 2017. He’s got the athleticism, reliable hands and size to put opposing defenses through the shredder this season.

Shaquil Barrett, OLB, Denver Broncos
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For the last two seasons, Shaquil Barrett has been an underrated part of the Denver Broncos defense. All of the focus was understandably on edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Then Shane Ray was drafted, and everyone assumed he’d be next in line to make an impact. If you ask me, though, I’m confident it’ll be Barrett who emerges as a star with Ware enjoying retirement. He flashed as a rookie with 5.5 sacks, but took a step back in 2016 with only 1.5. However, by the time the 2017 season is in the books, Barrett will have convinced the rest of the NFL that he’s a worthy replacement across from Miller.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Miami Dolphins
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Laremy Tunsil spent his rookie season at guard, and showed well in that role. However, in 2017, he’s making the transition to his more natural position of left tackle after the departure of Branden Albert. If his first year in the league was any indication, his sophomore campaign with the Miami Dolphins is going to be phenomenal. Sure, he struggled a bit as a run blocker. At the same time, his impact as a pass protector was impressive for a first-year starter. Jay Cutler should consider himself lucky that he’s got a tremendous young blindside blocker in Tunsil to rely upon.

Blake Martinez, ILB, Green Bay Packers
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Realistically, Blake Martinez‘ rookie season with the Green Bay Packers was a mixed bag. Even though he made plenty of plays, his effectiveness against the run was a concern. However, if you watched his film at Stanford, you know he’s more than capable of clogging lanes at the NFL level. My guess is he’s still making the adjustment to the size and speed that’s common in this league. During his sophomore season, we should see that adjustment take effect, allowing his instincts to shine through even more for Martinez. The Packers need a new leader on defense, and their young inside linebacker seems like the perfect fit.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England Patriots
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Despite being buried on a deep depth chart as a rookie, Malcolm Mitchell found a way to stand out for the New England Patriots in 2016. While playing behind established options like Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, the Georgia product amassed 32 receptions for 401 yards and four touchdowns. However, it could be a different story in 2017. With Edelman out for the year, Mitchell should have opportunities to make plays alongside Brandin Cooks and Hogan. If he builds upon his promising first season in the league as I expect, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his rookie stats double in New England’s high-octane passing game.

Shaq Thompson, OLB, Carolina Panthers
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Since joining the Carolina Panthers in 2015, Shaq Thompson has played in the shadows of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. However, with Davis getting up there in age, it appears as though the Panthers plan on preserving him a bit in 2017. How do they do that? By getting Thompson more snaps, a luxury he more than earned in his first two years. As a matter of fact, the former first-round pick was a sensation in 2016, blowing away the coaching staff with his efficiency against the pass and run. With more snaps on his plate, look for Thompson to make his name known as a rising star.

Austin Hooper, TE, Atlanta Falcons
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One of the top tight end prospects in the 2016 draft class, Austin Hooper did his best to earn some respect around the league as a rookie. Unfortunately, playing alongside stars like Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Mohamed Sanu made finding targets difficult. By the time the season was over, he had amassed 25 catches for 336 yards and four touchdowns — including one during the Super Bowl. Now a more seasoned pass-catcher, I’m looking for Hooper to assert himself as one of Matt Ryan‘s go-to targets. If he plays up to his potential, it’ll be a huge year for the athletic tight end.