NFL 2018: Predicting breakout stars for all 32 teams

Looking at all 32 teams and trying to guess who on each roster is poised for a breakout year can be a fun exercise. It could also prove to be a little futile. While some players seem to be surefire stars in the making — yes, you’ll find Myles Garrett and Saquon Barkley on this list — it’s a bit harder to find diamonds in the rough further down the depth chart.

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

But here’s our best guesses, as selected by writers Shalise Manza Young and Jason Owens. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

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AFC East

Buffalo Bills – WR Corey Coleman

Coleman, a 2016 first-round pick, asked the Browns to trade him if he wasn’t going to get more playing time, an exchange that was caught by “Hard Knocks” cameras. Cleveland granted his request, and the Bills, who are exceedingly thin at receiver, brought him to Buffalo for a fresh start. The 5-foot-11 speedster missed seven games last season with a hand injury.

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Miami Dolphins – DE Charles Harris

Miami’s first-round pick in 2017, Harris said he was in “a dark place” his rookie year, and had just two sacks. But the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Missouri product has re-centered himself mentally, returning to prayer, and has drawn praise from teammates — veteran pass-rusher Cameron Wake said Harris had the best offseason of any Dolphins player.

New England Patriots – LB Ja’Whaun Bentley

A fifth-round draft pick this year, Bentley was been a pleasant surprise in Patriots’ training camp and preseason games; while many fifth-rounders are simply hoping to make the 53-man roster, Bentley was quickly pushing for a starting role. He’s already been calling plays in the huddle and teammates and coaches alike have noted his work ethic and ability to communicate.

New York Jets – S Jamal Adams

There was a lot of buzz about Adams during the preseason. He had a solid rookie season, but the big-talking Adams — “We have eight guys on [the] All-BS talking team,” coach Todd Bowles said during camp, “but he can back it up. … We love having him talk” — is poised to take a step forward. He’s more confident and said he’s seeing the field better and wants to be a playmaker for the Jets’ young defense.


NFC East

Dallas Cowboys – WR Michael Gallup

The Cowboys waited until the third round of the draft to address their receiver woes with Gallup, giving him a golden opportunity to make an immediate impact. Somebody has to catch passes from Dak Prescott. A balanced receiver with solid size and speed, Gallup could end up being a top target in Dallas

New York Giants – RB Saquon Barkley

Ok, this one’s a gimme. But only fools pass on open layups, and Barkley is as close as there gets to a sure bet to make an immediate impact. With his jaw-dropping athleticism and freakish skills as a pass-catcher, Barkley should jump immediately into the elite tier of NFL backs.

Philadelphia Eagles – CB Sidney Jones

Jones is a testament to how well the Eagles are run. Philly spent a second-round pick on Jones in 2017 knowing he wouldn’t play with a ruptured Achilles tendon and still won the Super Bowl. Now the corner with shutdown upside is healthy and ready to make a difference in the Eagles’ secondary.

Washington Redskins – DE Jonathan Allen

Allen dropped to the middle of the first round of the 2017 draft because of shoulder issues and showed flashes of being the steal many thought he was before a foot injury cut his rookie campaign short after five games. With former Alabama teammate Da’Ron Payne joining him on the line and Ryan Kerrigan attacking from the edge, Washington could have the makings of a disruptive pass rush.


AFC North

Baltimore Ravens – DE Matt Judon

Judon is starting his third season, after making the leap from Division II Grand Valley State, where he led the country in sacks in 2015, with 21. Playing in all 16 games (12 starts) last season, Judon had eight sacks and 19 quarterback hits, both second on the team to Terrell Suggs, who will turn 36 during the season. Coaches and teammates alike have noted Judon’s work ethic.

Cincinnati Bengals – DT Andrew Billings

Billings was drafted in 2016, but this is essentially his second season: he missed all of his rookie year to a torn meniscus. Billings played 15 games last season, starting seven, and should be poised to take a big step forward this year. Playing next to perennial Pro Bowler Geno Atkins, who will draw much of the attention from opposing offensive lines, can only help.

Cleveland Browns – DE Myles Garrett

Garrett obviously doesn’t qualify as a lesser-known guy — he was the No. 1 pick in the draft last year. But an ankle sprain just days before the regular-season opener led to him missing the first four games. Garrett totaled seven sacks in 11 games, and could become one of the league’s premier pass-rushers this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers – CB Artie Burns

A questionable first-round pick to some in 2016, Burns started all 16 games last season, but seemingly took a significant step forward this preseason. Media at Steelers’ training camp said the matchups between Burns and All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown weren’t nearly the mismatches they used to be. Joe Haden and an ascending Burns could be quite the formidable cornerback pair.


NFC North

Money Mitch: The Chicago Bears are all in with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky – will the investment pay off? (AP)
Money Mitch: The Chicago Bears are all in with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky – will the investment pay off? (AP)
Chicago Bears – QB Mitchell Trubisky

The Bears are all-in on the No. 2 pick from last year, and the way Trubisky ended last season is likely why they cut bait with Mike Glennon so quickly. Over Chicago’s final five games, Trubisky completed 67.1 percent of 152 pass attempts for 1,058 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions (all three picks came in Detroit) as the Bears were 2-3. In his first seven starts, Trubisky completed just 52.8 percent of his passes (178 attempts) for 1,135 yards, four touchdowns and four picks. Trubisky might not be an MVP candidate in Year 2, but he certainly gives hope for the future.

Detroit Lions – LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin

Reeves-Maybin was hampered by a shoulder injury as a rookie last year, and played under his ideal weight because he couldn’t do much lifting. But an offseason spent in the weight room and eating every three hours has him back up to his pre-draft weight of 230 pounds. That’s still a little light for new head coach Matt Patricia’s liking, but the vision and instincts scouts saw when Reeves-Maybin was at Tennessee are needed for a defense that was near the bottom of the league last year in two key stats: third down and red zone.

Green Bay Packers – RB Jamaal Williams

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who isn’t big on gushing about guys on his own roster, says Williams is poised for “a big year”, and that works for us. The 2017 fourth-round pick had 818 yards from scrimmage as a rookie on 153 carries and 25 catches, and may have done enough to make Green Bay’s running-back-by-committee into more of a one-man show.

Minnesota Vikings – WR Stefon Diggs

The Vikings and Diggs agreed to a five-year, $72 million contract last month — and he hasn’t even recorded a 1,000-yard season or made a Pro Bowl yet. That kind of money practically demands that changes, quickly.

AFC South

Houston Texans – QB Deshaun Watson

It feels like we were just starting get a sense of what Watson can do when he was lost for the season with a torn ACL during practice, as he was preparing for his seventh start. In his sixth start, in Seattle, Watson went toe-to-toe with Russell Wilson in one of the most difficult stadiums for a visiting quarterback to play. Hopefully we’ll see that tantalizing potential and more this fall.

Indianapolis Colts – RB Marlon Mack

Yes, the NFL loves passing. But the Colts are going to need two things for Andrew Luck’s comeback to go well: a solid offensive line and a reliable running back. Mack, a fourth-round pick last year, seemingly has the makings of the three-down back necessary for most offenses: with limited touches in 14 games, he had 93 caries for 358 yards and three touchdowns, plus 21 catches for 225 yards and another score; 10 of those 21 receptions were for first downs.

Jacksonville Jaguars – TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Seferian-Jenkins has been in the league longer than the other guys on this list — this will be his fifth season, with his third team — but he still hasn’t turned 26 years old. He’s gotten help for his off-field issues, which will certainly help. And a season-ending injury to receiver Marqise Lee means the Jaguars and Blake Bortles need to find other options. Seferian-Jenkins can step in to help pick up the load.

Tennessee Titans – RB Dion Lewis

Lewis isn’t totally an under-the-radar player, having gotten over 200 touches with the Patriots last year. But the diminutive running back – he’s generously listed at 5-foot-8 – gives the Titans a dynamic option out of the backfield. Lewis recorded 1,110 yards from scrimmage in 2017, on 180 carries and 32 catches. His new offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, was with the Rams and Todd Gurley last year, so he knows how to use pass-catching backs.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – OLB Takk McKinley

His preseason was affected by offseason shoulder surgery, but the Falcons have hopes that McKinley will be their latest defensive player to take a huge step forward in his second season. In a reserve role last year, the first-round pick from UCLA had six sacks and 10 quarterback hits. With Adrian Clayborn, who was Atlanta’s leading pass-rusher last year, now in New England, there’s a void to be filled.

Ready for his star turn? Linebacker Shaq Thompson could have a big year for the Panthers. (AP)
Ready for his star turn? Linebacker Shaq Thompson could have a big year for the Panthers. (AP)
Carolina Panthers – LB Shaq Thompson

When you play on a linebacker unit with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, it’s easy to get overlooked. But Davis, the 14-year veteran, will be suspended for the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension, opening the door for Thompson to shine. He’s had a great year off the field — getting engaged, anticipating the birth of his second child — and teammates say Thompson is ready for a star turn on the field too.

New Orleans Saints – DT David Onyemata

A native of Nigeria who had never seen American football before going to college in Manitoba, Canada in 2011, and in a short amount of time developed enough to be a fourth-round pick in 2016 and a likely full-time starter this season. Listed at 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, Onyemata spent part of the offseason working on his technique, continuing his rapid ascent.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – TE O.J. Howard

Howard was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick last year, and had a solid rookie season: 26 catches for 432 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games. But the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Alabama product provides a huge target in the red zone, where Tampa Bay could use some help.

AFC West

Denver Broncos – OLB Bradley Chubb

What a steal for the Broncos. The No. 5 pick in the draft has the complete package of size, speed and violence to be a tremendous pass rusher in the NFL. And he gets to line up opposite Von Miller, limiting chances for opposing offenses to double team him.

Kansas City Chiefs – QB Patrick Mahomes

No young quarterback is in a better position to succeed this year than Mahomes, who inherits a loaded arsenal of dynamic offensive playmakers including Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. And, that arm. Oh man, that arm.

Los Angeles Chargers – WR Mike Williams

The No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft is a prototypical NFL receiver. Injuries limited him during his rookie year, but at 6-4 with 4.49 speed in the 40-yard dash, he has the makings to be a very difficult cover and the kind of target to thrive with a gunslinger like Philip Rivers.

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Oakland Raiders – CB Gareon Conley

The Raiders drafted Conley out of Ohio State in the first round in 2017 to be a shutdown cornerback. A shin injury cut his rookie campaign short after just two games. He’ll get his shot this season to show off his coverage skills and make an immediate impact in the Raiders’ secondary.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals – DT Robert Nkemdiche

Nkemdiche entered the NFL in 2016 with some red flags, and hasn’t yet rewarded the Cardinals for making him the 29th pick that year. He’s played in just 17 career games with no starts and 12 total tackles. If he can’t become a big part of the defensive line in his third year, he’s officially a bust.

Los Angeles Rams – OLB Samson Ebukam

Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, who combined for 13.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits last year, are no longer with the Rams, so there’s a need for edge rushers. Ebukam had a limited role as a rookie last year, but he set his mind on a starting role early in the offseason, and it looks like he’ll start the season there. But Ebukam will have to produce to keep it.

San Francisco 49ers – QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Yeah, he’s arguably the most-talked-about seven-game starter in recent NFL history, and is paid like a playoff-winning veteran. But all of that means one thing: Garoppolo has to get results. Clearly, it’s not possible for Garoppolo to remain undefeated (he’s 7-0 in two starts with New England and five with the Niners), but for a franchise that’s been listing for the last few years, he needs to set San Francisco on the winning path.

Seattle Seahawks – TE Nick Vannett

Vannett has been called “Baby Gronk” as a comparison to Patriots’ star Rob Gronkowski, and while on paper that’s apt — the Ohio State product is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, quite similar to the veteran he’s studied — so far the 2016 third-rounder’s production hasn’t been anywhere near Gronkowski’s. Seattle was pretty dismal in the red zone last season, so the opportunity is certainly there for Vannett to have a Gronk-sized impact, especially with Jimmy Graham off to Green Bay.