By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz
The NFL’s deep player pool allows for the sudden shining seasons from mostly unknowns that fans rally behind. These are the players that throw preseason predictions out the window and miraculously force themselves into the limelight of professional football. Whether they’re young and unproven, looking to thwart an injury bug, or simply given a rare opportunity away from the pine, these are the players at each position that could turn heads in the coming 2017 season.
QB: Jameis Winston, TB
The former Florida State phenom posted solid numbers in his second season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tossing for 4090 yards and 28 TDs with a 60.8% completion rate in 2016, all of which saw boosts from his rookie campaign. The Bucs finished the season 9-7, narrowly missing out on the final Wild Card spot and resigning Winston to his couch for the postseason. However, after selecting the tight end O.J. Howard out of Alabama with the 19th overall selection in the NFL Draft and inking the speedy wideout DeSean Jackson to a multi-year deal, Famous Jameis gets to play with plenty of new toys in the Tampa Bay offense this season to get those figures out of the sea of average quarterbacks and into an upper echelon of stars. During training camp, Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said of Winston, “that guy is working around the clock on making his game better. We need him to sleep more, actually.” The former number one overall pick’s physical attributes and play-making abilities has flashed glimpses of extreme talent over his first two seasons, but 2017 could be the year for Jameis Winston to break out as a serious leader for a Buccaneers team that is looking to take over a susceptible division.
RB: Ameer Abdullah/Theo Riddick, DET
The Detroit Lions have not boasted a 1000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013, but that narrative could easily change this year with this duo in the backfield. Both Abdullah and Riddick have been burdened by their fair share of injuries– both young tailbacks sat out the Wild Card match-up against Seattle last season. Abdullah, though, is coming clean off foot surgery and entered the training camp ready for contact while Riddick is still rehabbing his wrist injuries from last season. If both backs can remain healthy, the combination of Abdullah’s shifty run style and Riddick’s receiving ability out of the backfield could shock defenses after Detroit ran the ball a mere 350 times last season, tying the league-fewest attempts, as both backs missed a combined 20 games. After picking up veteran lineman T.J. Lang, the Lions rushing attack looks to take a leap this year with an increased dosage of the Abdullah-Riddick duo.
WR: Jordan Matthews, BUF
In a controversial move this offseason, the Bills decided to part ways with Sammy Watkins after persisting injury problems and picked up Jordan Matthews to replace him. The consensus seems to be that Matthews, while potentially more stable, lacks the ceiling of Watkins, who produced over 1000 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games in 2015. However, downplaying the former Eagle leaves plenty of motivational room to surpass expectations. Matthews was the seventh wide receiver selected in the 2014 NFL Draft–Watkins was the first—and produced over 2600 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first three seasons in Philadelphia. Matthews has witnessed a new starter under center each year since being drafted, and that trend will continue as he begins receiving passes from Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. Despite all of the turnover at quarterback, Matthews’ steadiness sticks out, and the continuation of solid statistics could make the Bills themselves a surprise.
TE: David Njoku, CLE
The Browns traded up to select Njoku 29th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft after taking Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers earlier in the first round. The former Miami Hurricane looks to be much more than a third banana, though many are skeptical after clear issues with holding onto the football during training camp as well as the preseason. Njoku’s determination has not wavered, however, as he asserted, “I’ve just got to work that much harder in this practice this afternoon on holding on to it every catch.” The Browns are not looking to contend this season, but the few bright spots could come from players like Njoku who have long-term potential and skills to boot. Size and athleticism are not questions for the 6’4, 246 pounder, and if he’s able to utilize his frame fully, the defensive match-ups against him will become tricky.
OL: La’el Collins, DAL
Collins’ rocky entrance to the NFL led some to question his ability to perform on the field. The former LSU star threatened to sit out the 2015 season if he was selected after the third round of the NFL Draft. His stock fell due to a police questioning with Collins over the death of his ex-girlfriend, as he was a projected early first-round selection. However, after signing as an undrafted free agent, Collins proved his worth after securing a starting job at left guard and holding onto it throughout both his debut season and his sophomore showing. However, with longtime Cowboy right tackle Doug Free retiring, Collins will shift over to the edge with a brand new role and plenty to prove. Dallas’ potent and protective line allowed Ezekiel Elliot to lead the entire league in rushing during his rookie season that included amassing a fifth-ranked 6,027 yards. La’el Collins’ pure athleticism and build have helped him mightily during his pro football stint, and those same attributes may come bursting out in 2018.
DT: Javon Hargrave, PIT
The Steelers defense in 2016-17 was nothing to sneeze at; Pittsburgh allowed a 12th ranked 5482 yards and a fifth ranked 20 touchdowns by air, but they also let up 15 scores in the running game. Going into the year, Javon Hargrave out-battled Daniel McCullers for the starting spot on the defensive line, and he held down the fort admirably. Hargrave was in on 27 total tackles and recorded only two sacks, but as Heyward and Tuitt missed time due to injury, Hargrave stepped up in a big way in commanding the run defense. The third-round pick in 2016 will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself as a young Pittsburgh defense looks to get over the AFC Championship hump that tripped them last season.
DE/OLB: Julius Peppers, CAR
At 37-years old, Peppers’ decision to sign back with the team that drafted him second overall in 2002 may seem like a coy way of sliding into retirement on his own terms within the next couple of seasons, but he still has plenty left in the tank. Peppers spent the bulk of last season rotating in the Packer’s system as a 3-4 linebacker and amassed 7.5 sacks, putting him at fifth all-time with 143.5 for his career. Ron Rivera and the rest of the Panthers will certainly have to be careful with Peppers in terms of injuries, as they have been so far with his ailing hip, but as long as the 280-pounder can stay on the field, he’s poised to make much more noise than most of the implications over the nine-time Pro Bowler would suggest.
ILB: Todd Davis, DEN
The former Sacramento State Hornet slithered his way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and now finds himself in the forefront of a stout Bronco defense aside fellow linebacker Brandon Marshall. Davis started sparingly in 2015 but made his mark last season as he racked up 97 combined tackles and a forced fumble. As the Denver offense continues to fumble around the quarterback position, it will be up to Davis’ side of the football to remain the rock and heart of the team. With talent like Marshall, Von Miller, Shane Ray, and Shaq Barrett surrounding him, it would be easy to use the no-name linebacker who played Big Sky ball in college as the scapegoat, but Davis’ fundamentals and intensity make him a viable option and a sound choice as a starter.
DB: Ronald Darby, PHI
The Eagles’ motley secondary held its own in 2016—Philly allowed the 12th fewest yards in the league last season—but the organization went out and dealt Jordan Matthews in order to pick up the young man-to-man specialist Darby. The FSU phenom locked down the left side of the field in Buffalo and looks to continue the trend in Philadelphia. Darby’s wicked 4.38 40-yard dash speed help his coverage in the secondary and can retool a unit that struggled with aging and lag as the season progressed. Darby had no distaste for Sean McDermott’s zone coverage, but it’s clear that he will have a much more advanced role in the Eagles’ scheme. A new defense can be tough for a young cornerback to pick up, but Darby’s raw athleticism could help anchor a defense on a team vying for the playoffs. If he can do just that, Ronald Darby could be the next marquee name on the free agent market in the coming seasons.
By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz