Breakout Player Recap: Defensive Back

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville JaguarsAs the NFL continues being more pass oriented, defensive back breakouts will only become more common. While some may just judge a breakout off interceptions, recent advancements in stats/data indicate players can make the leap in other ways. This group of defensive backs had some who broke out in a big way, but also a few who took steps back in what were prime opportunities to emerge. What I wrote about the players entering 2017 can be found here.

Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars: Around this time last year, I wrote that recent corners who were considered the premier corners of their era burst onto the scene in year two. If Ramsey is that premier guy, then his second season certainly qualifies. With A.J. Bouye opposite him, Ramsey proved to be an elite cover corner who wasn’t afraid to play the run. The Jaguars ability to rush the passer helped, but Ramsey was successful in 2016  when the team struggled in that regard.

In the social media era, corners who can walk the walk and talk the talk are going to be extremely popular. Ramsey is one of them, and figures to be the face of the Jaguar defense for the foreseeable future.

Hit or miss: Hit

James Bradberry, Panthers: After an impressive rookie season, I felt Bradberry if he could take the next step would be a huge boost for the Panthers defense. Instead, he ended up regressing in coverage. Bradberry was again thrown at every 6 coverage snaps, but this year his yards allowed per coverage snap went up two-tenths of a yard. Aside from the truly elite corners, production can be inconsistent on a year to year basis. That being said I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradberry bounced back in 2018.

Hit or miss: Push

Karl Joseph, Raiders: Joseph was healthier in his second season, and showed improvement. However, I’ll have to call it a “push” as he didn’t take the type of leap I expected. Despite having coverage ability, Joseph rated a little below average among qualifying safeties in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap and coverage snaps/receptions allowed. Granted, the Raiders secondary had it’s fair share of issues last year, so a new coaching staff/healthier secondary could help Joseph have a big 2018.

Hit or miss: Push

Sean Davis, Steelers: Fully committed to safety, I felt Davis could have a nice year as he didn’t have to worry about lining up at various positions. Based on PFF grades, Davis was the lowest rated safety of 2017 While he had three interceptions, Davis was near the bottom ten at the position allowing a reception once every 12.3 coverage snaps. On the bright side, Davis’ run stop rate of 7.0 when lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage ranked 17th. Entering his third year, Davis is still young enough he could progress but that chance in a starting role might not come with the Steelers.

Hit or miss: Miss

Kevin Johnson, Texans: With A.J. Bouye leaving for Jacksonville, and plenty of pass rushing threats in front of him, I felt 2017 could be a big year for Johnson. That wasn’t the case as the Texans defense was decimated with injuries. When Johnson was in coverage, opponents threw his way to the tune of a 137.3 passer rating, and he allowed a reception once every 7.8 coverage snaps. A former first round pick, Johnson now entering his fourth year enters what could be a “make or break” year with the Texans.

Hit or miss: Miss

Kevin Byard, Titans: Entering last year, I wrote Byard looked like a potential star as a rookie, and a Pro Bowl appearance wouldn’t be far fetched. He managed to exceed those expectations by being named first team All-Pro and leading the league with eight interceptions. On top of that, Byard also continued his strong play when defending the run. As the Titans look to establish themselves as perennial AFC contenders, Byard figures to be a core player in their defense for years to come.

Hit or miss: Hit

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Breakout Player Recap: Linebacker

Leonard+Floyd+Denver+Broncos+v+Chicago+Bears+jy3F-r4bbZplThanks to different defensive schemes, linebacker breakouts can take place in various ways. In a 3-4 defense, many outside linebackers are actually edge rushers (think Von Miller or Khalil Mack types), but in a 4-3 defense, an outside linebacker is a player such as Telvin Smith.  My breakout player predictions were a mix of various positions, but the results weren’t what I hoped. What I wrote about the players leading into 2017 can be found here.

Leonard Floyd, Bears: While injuries hampered Floyd’s rookie season, the ability he showed had me thinking he could take the next step in 2017. Once again, his season was cut short as he was placed on injured with reserve with a right knee injury that required surgery. Before that, Floyd did show improvement in terms of efficiency as a pass rusher. Pro Football Focus had Floyd down for 36 total quarterback pressures, and his pass rush productivity ranked 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers.

With Pernell McPhee and Willie Young both departing this offseason, the Bears need Floyd’s pass rushing to shine more than ever. After a promising draft, and hiring of head coach Matt Nagy, some (myself included) thinks the Bears could be a darkhorse playoff contender in a tough NFC. Floyd emerging into a pass rushing force while playing a full season would certainly help.

Hit or miss: Push

Myles Jack, Jaguars: Last August I wrote that production from Jack would only strengthen the idea of the Jaguars defense making a leap in 2017. He delivered in that regard, especially when used in coverage. Jack ranked second among 4-3 outside linebackers by allowing a reception once every 12.3. coverage snaps, and for giving up just 0.73 yards per coverage snap.

Jack’s athleticism gives the”Sacksonville” defense flexibility as he can keep up with tight ends and even some wideouts in coverage. The Jaguars knocked the 2016 draft out of the park selecting Jack, Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue within the first three rounds. While Jack hasn’t received the accolades of those two, he’s a core piece of the defense and the team will try to ink him to an extension in the near future.

Hit or miss: Hit

Nick Vigil, Bengals: Vigil saw an expanded role as predicted, but struggled in 2017. While his coverage stats per PFF were middle of the pack for position qualifiers, he struggled in run defense. His run stop percentage of 3.9 checked in second to last among 4-3 outside linebackers. Vigil did flash when used as a pass rusher, so he could still have some untapped potential.

Hit or miss: Miss

Jordan Jenkins, Jets: While Jenkins leading up to last year focused on rushing the passer, his biggest contributions actually came as a run defender. Jenkins with 30 total quarterback pressures did increase his rookie output, but his 17 run stops ranked in the top third of 3-4 outside linebackers. Granted, that could be inflated as the Jets defense probably faced more rushing attempts at the end of games. The run defense contribution and pass rushing flashes make Jenkins a player to continue monitoring.

Hit or miss: Push

Jatavis Brown, Chargers: Brown’s athleticism in Gus Bradley’s scheme was really intriguing to me, but he didn’t take the leap I was expecting. Granted, there is a chance I underestimate the change of the Chargers going from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. Brown was actually used less as a pass rusher (22 pass rushing snaps compared to 45 last year), and saw his yards allowed per coverage snap go up around a tenth of a yard.

He still struggled in run defense, but Brown’s has the athleticism  and shown flashes that he could be a potential as a defensive chess piece. For that reason, I’ll remain intrigued by his development.

Hit or miss: Miss

 

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Breakout Player Recap: Defensive Linemen

626761420.0Defensive linemen breakouts is unique as it can be done in various ways. While rushing the passer is the main skill we’re accustomed to, some players can become premier run stoppers as well. This group ended up being an interesting bunch as there some clear hits, a big miss and some players that showed steady improvement but didn’t fully breakout. What I wrote about these players heading into 2017 can be found here.

Noah Spence, Buccaneers: As a rookie, Spence was one of the top rookies in terms of quarterback pressures generated. In 2017, Spence played in just six games after being put on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that plagued him since late in 2016. That could be part of the dip in production, as Spence generated just 12 total pressures in the snaps he played.

Per Pro Football Focus, his “Pass rushing productivity” which measures pressures on a per play basis had him in the bottom five of qualifying 4-3 ends. Spence’s talent level is still intriguing, so hopefully he’s healthy enough in 2018 to show what he’s capable of.

Hit or miss: Miss

Dante Fowler, Jaguars: While Fowler benefitted from Calais Campbell’s arrival, Yannick Ngakoue was the Jaguars breakout pass rusher in 2017. Despite that, Fowler was still productive as a situational pass rusher racking up 37 total pressures. Considering Pro Football Focus had Fowler recording a sack on just less than a quarter of his pressures, his sack total could decrease this upcoming year.

Even with his draft pedigree, this could be the last season for Fowler in Jacksonville as he enters his fourth year. The team declined his fifth year option, and with Ngakoue, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack up for new deals soon, it will be impossible to keep everyone. The raw pass rushing talent is there, so Fowler’s play and potential market this offseason is worth following.

Hit or miss: Push

A’Shawn Robinson, Lions: I mentioned that Robinson showed improvement as a pass rusher this past preseason, and it carried over. After just seven total pressures as a rookie, Robinson recorded 27 in his first full year as a starter. He improved defending the run as well, with his “run stop percentage” that’s calculated by PFF was above average among qualifying defensive tackles.

It wasn’t a full breakout, but the steps Robinson made were encouraging steps from his rookie year. The Lions defense could change schematically from last year, so Robinson’s role during training camp is something to monitor.

Hit or miss: Push

Chris Jones, Chiefs: The flashes that Jones showed as a rookie proved not to be a fluke in 2017. While his run stop percentage dropped, he was one of the better 3-4 ends in terms of rushing the passer. More of those pressures turned into sacks as well with Jones recording 6.5 and forcing four fumbles in the process. 2018 looks to be a year of transition for the Chiefs defense, but Jones figures to be a core part for the foreseeable future on that side of the ball.

Hit or miss: Hit

DeForest Buckner, 49ers: While a traditional stat like sacks would say Buckner regressed in 2017, that simply wasn’t the case. Buckner played around 140 less snaps than he did as a rookie, but his 52 total quarterback pressures ranked second among defensive tackles. Despite the snaps lost, that was four more hurries than Buckner recorded in his rookie year.

With Jimmy Garoppolo now at quarterback, the biggest questions for the 49ers now surround the defense. The team has plenty of young defensive talent, but Buckner’s ability to stop the run and get to quarterbacks might make him the most valuable. As the 49ers start winning, the accolades will start pouring in for Buckner if he sustains this level of play.

Hit or miss: Hit

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Breakout Player Recap: Tight End

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New England PatriotsDue to the emphasis on passing, tight end breakouts have become more common. However, some of those players are tight ends in name only. Some of these players can be matchup nightmares in the slot and are rarely used on the line to block. The results of my breakout picks in 2017 were hit and miss, but the league’s in good hands with the influx of talent that has emerged at the position. What I wrote about these tight ends leading up to this past season can be found here.

Hunter Henry, Chargers: After a rookie season where he really flashed as a receiver, Henry seemed likely to have an expanded role in year two. Even with Antonio Gates lingering, Henry’s saw an increased role seeing nine more targets despite missing two games. For the year, he finished with 45 catches 579 yards and four touchdowns (not surprisingly the percentage of catches that went for touchdowns went down). After parting with Gates, Henry was expected to see an even bigger role in 2018 but he tore his ACL in mini camp which ended his season.

The Chargers seem to have some awful injury luck, but Henry’s absence is one that could really be felt this upcoming season. Assuming a healthy recovery, look for Henry to take his game to new heights in 2019.

Hit or miss: Push

Jack Doyle, Colts: 2016 was the first year Doyle was really involved in the Colts passing game, but I expected bigger things from him in 2017. With Andrew Luck’s absence, I saw 100 plus targets as a possibility, and that’s exactly what happened. Doyle responded with 80 receptions, 690 yards and four touchdowns and made his first career Pro Bowl. The addition of Eric Ebron will cut into Doyle’s targets, but new head coach Frank Reich’s use of multiple tight ends means Doyle should still have a role.

Hit or miss: Hit

Austin Hooper, Falcons: While the Falcons offense was a bit of a mess in 2017, Hooper saw the uptick in production that many expected. For the year, Hooper more than doubled his reception and yardage totals from his rookie year with 49 and 526 respectively, and added three touchdowns. One thing to pay attention to this year, is if Hooper works on the drops that plagued him in 2017. Pro Football Focus had Hooper dropping 6 of his 55 catchable targets, with a drop percentage of 10.91. That figure ranked in the lower third of qualifying tight ends.

Hooper might never put up accolade worthy numbers with the Falcons’ array of weapons, but an increase in that regard would boost his total production.

Hit or miss: Push

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Breakout Player Recap: Wide Receiver

usa_today_9621239.0For a while, receiver was one position where I took pride in finding breakout players. The past two years (including 2017), that hasn’t been the case. On the surface, they should be easy to find. But as you’ll notice with my 2017 breakout picks, a season that starts with optimism can change quickly. What I wrote about these wideouts entering 2017 can be found here.

DeVante Parker, Dolphins: Parker is the player I assumed would be the biggest beneficiary of Jay Cutler joining the team. Like Cutler’s old target Alshon Jeffery, Parker has the ability to win vertically and I figured the opportunity to do that would be there with a quarterback who wasn’t shy. In his first three games, Parker was on the right track hauling in 18 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown, but after missing a few weeks due to injury, his production became inconsistent.

Parker finished the season with 57 catches for 670 yards and a touchdown. Despite missing games, he set a career high in targets, but only Antonio Brown played a higher percentage of snaps lined up against a top tier corner. Ryan Tannehill returns to the Dolphins this year, and with chances at receiver, it’s uncertain what role Parker will have at this time. The potential is shown often enough to tease fans and fantasy football players alike, it just might take a change of scenery to fully come together.

Hit or miss: Push

Willie Snead, Saints: With Brandin Cooks leaving in the offseason, I expected Snead and Michael Thomas to benefit from their increase in targets. Efficient in his first two years, I even threw out I wouldn’t be surprised if Snead had 1,000 yards and half a dozen touchdowns. Let’s just say that didn’t happen. Snead was suspended for the first three games of the year a week or so before the season started. After that, he was battling injuries and had to claw his way back up the depth chart.

As a result, Snead for the year hauled in eight passes for 92 yards and played less than 300 snaps in the regular season. A free agent this offseason, Snead signed a two year deal with the Ravens who on paper figure to have an improve receiving corps.

Hit or miss: Miss

Chris Hogan, Patriots: With Julian Edelman lost for the season, I was expecting Hogan to emerge as one of Tom Brady’s leading receivers. He missed seven games due to injury, but Hogan produced when he played hauling in 34 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns. That primarily came from a stretch of weeks two through five where Hogan had 280 yards and five touchdowns. It wasn’t until the Super Bowl that Hogan made a big impact for the Patriots as he hauled in six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown in that game.

This year is another promising one in terms of opportunity for Hogan. The Patriots traded Brandin Cooks, Edelman is missing the first four games due to suspension, and Danny Amendola left in free agency. The scheme and talent level are promising for a potential 2018 breakout. Ultimately it comes down to if Hogan’s health will be permitting.

Hit or miss: Push

Martavis Bryant, Steelers: With Antonio Brown drawing plenty of attention opposite him, I figured Bryant could be in for a monster year with off field distractions out of the way. Despite a personal best in games played, Bryant had a career low in yards per catch and touchdowns finishing with 50 receptions, 603 yards and three touchdowns. Much of the production I assumed for Bryant ended up going to JuJu Smith-Schuster whose 58/917/7 line is similar to what I would have figured Bryant produced.

During the draft, Bryant was traded to the Raiders for a third round pick. How many targets he sees with his new team is unknown, but odds are he’ll be used more as the vertical threat we became accustomed to.

Hit or miss: Miss

Cameron Meredith, Bears: The promise Meredith showed at the end of 2016 along with the departure of Alshon Jeffery really had me excited about what he was capable of in 2017. Unfortunately, a knee injury in preseason ended his year before it began. The Bears placed a low restricted free agency tender on Meredith and that allowed the Saints to come in and sign him.

If he is healthy, the fit could be very beneficial for both sides. Meredith could establish himself as the clear second option behind Michael Thomas while also reuniting with his receivers coach from 2016. He is a name that all fans (especially fantasy players) should monitor with camp upcoming.

Hit or miss: N/A

 

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Breakout Player Recap: Running Back

derrick-henryjohn-simon-462d3fb7abf0dbc6Due to an extremely talented draft class, 2017 wasn’t an ideal year for breakout running back candidates with NFL experience. Still with that considered, it wasn’t a great year for my breakout predictions at the position. There were some flashes from the various players, but unlike previous years nobody established themselves as a premier back. What I wrote about the players leading up to 2017 can be found here.

Isaiah Crowell, Browns: When I picked Crowell, I saw a back who was in a contract year, had flashed previously and was running behind an improve offensive line. I also figured that while his yardage from chunk plays was a bit fluky, the extra volume from the Browns holding some leads would help him in 2017. I mean, they couldn’t get any worse than 1-15 right?

Crowell saw eight more carries than he did in 2016, but his yards per attempt dropped by 0.7 yards. In this case, the breakaway percentage as measured by PFF (percentage of yards from runs of 15+) indeed dipped from 47.5 to 27.8. Crowell had over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage, but his two total touchdowns was well short of my initial prediction. This offseason, Crowell signed a three year deal with the Jets where he figures to have a role in their running back rotation.

Hit or miss: Miss

Ameer Abdullah, Lions: Health has always been an issue for Abdullah, and by his standards that wasn’t an issue in 2017. The 379 snaps he played was a career high, along with his 190 total touches. While it could be a mix of returning from the Lisfranc foot injury and the Lions run blocking struggles, Abdullah struggled with the touches he had running for 3.3 yards a carry.

While the Lions beefed up their offensive line this offseason, Abdullah’s role with the team is up in the air. The team selected Kerryon Johnson in the second round, and also added LeGarrette Blount while Theo Reddick will continue being the passing down back. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Abdullah could be an interesting trade option this preseason for a team that still believes in his skill set.

Hit or miss: Miss

Rex Burkhead, Patriots: I mentioned that while the Patriots backfield can be tough to determine, Burkhead’s versatile skillset would lead to him having the best year of his career. Despite missing six games, Burkhead had a career best 518 yards from scrimmage and also had eight touchdowns after scoring four in his first four seasons. This wasn’t a true “breakout” season, but it’s an indicator that bigger things are on the horizon in 2018.

Hit or miss: Push

Derrick Henry, Titans: While I didn’t expect Henry to get the majority of carries, I noted that DeMarco Murray being at the back-end of a running back’s prime and injury history could lead to more of a 50/50 split. That’s exactly what happened as Murray saw 184 carries to Henry’s 176, but Murray averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt (Henry averaged 4.2). Murray was released this offseason and retired within the past few weeks.

The game that showed the complete Henry experience was the Titans’ wild card win against the Chiefs. In that game he ran for 156 on 23 carries and got stronger as it went on. His blend of power and speed at his size is unique, but it’s unlikely he’ll finally be a feature back in 2018. The Titans signed Dion Lewis in 2018 and he projects to take some carries and be a big contributor on passing downs. As the Titans offense projects to have a more modern approach this upcoming year, Henry’s impact will be worth keeping an eye on.

Hit or miss: Push

 

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Breakout Player Recap: Quarterback

goff-wentzWith less than a week until training camps, there’s no better time to look back at who I projected to breakout during the 2017 season. This is always an enjoyable exercise as not only can it be fun to project, but there’s also opportunity to learn from players I might have missed on. This past year, I projected three quarterbacks to take their games to the next level. Two of them burst onto the scene and hope to show that 2017 wasn’t a fluke, while the other is almost at a career crossroads. What I wrote about these players leading up to 2017 can be found here.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: There was plenty of hype surrounding Winston and the Buccaneers this time last year, and needless to say they disappointed. Entering the year with playoff aspirations, the Buccaneers went 5-11 and 3-10 in games Winston started. There was growth for Winston in 2017 in some statistical categories. He had career bests in completion percentage, yards per attempt and cut down on interceptions. 2.5 percent of Winston’s passes were intercepted compared to 3.2 in 2016.

The turnover still added up, as he had 19 turnovers combining his 11 interceptions and eight lost fumbles. Some of the fumbles can be on Winston’s offensive line, but also his tendency to try and get something out of every play. Entering 2018, the biggest concern surrounding him is off the field decisions. Winston will miss the first three games of 2018 due to violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Entering year four of his rookie deal, the Buccaneers have to decide if they’re willing to commit big money to Winston. How they assess Winston’s choices on and off the field is likely going to be the deciding factor in if he’s worthy of a new deal.

Hit or miss: Push

Carson Wentz, Eagles: Entering 2017, I wrote that if Wentz’s offseason improvements showed in his play, the Eagles could make a playoff push. They ended up doing that and a whole lot more. After flashing as a rookie, Wentz was arguably the favorite for MVP honors before tearing his ACL. While additions like Alshon Jeffery helped open things up, the growth in one year by Wentz was very impressive. His yards per pass attempt went up 1.3 yards from his rookie year, and his 33 touchdown passes (which accounted for 7.5% of his throws) suggest he was on pace for one of the most prolific touchdown seasons in recent memory.

While hope was initially shattered when Wentz went down, credit goes to Nick Foles and head coach Doug Pederson. They adjusted their scheme once Wentz went down and rode it  to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. That could be a blessing in disguise for Wentz, as Foles’ play shows the Eagles don’t necessarily need to rush him through the recovery process. The way the roster is assembled, the Eagles have the look of a serious contender for the next few years. Wentz playing at this level while on a rookie deal only increases the likelihood.

Hit or miss: Hit

Jared Goff, Rams: I wrote that with a new coaching staff 2017 could be a “make or break” year for Goff. Despite him being a number one overall pick, the new group had nothing invested in him and could have gone in a different direction. It was clearly a “make” year for Goff as the team’s reaction has been to go all in while they have him on a rookie deal.  Goff led the Rams to their first playoff appearance since 2004, and made his first Pro Bowl in the process.

While Sean McVay’s scheme and improving the offensive line certainly helped, Goff deserves plenty of credit for his improvements. His completion percentage went up over seven points, yards per attempt went up almost three yards, and his interception rate went from 3.4 to 1.5%. With an array of weapons at his disposal and stars all over the defense, some are looking at this as a “make or break” year for Goff to lead the Rams to the Super Bowl. What a difference a year/modern coaching schemes makes.

Hit or miss: Hit

 

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