At this point last year, it would have been hard to call Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott a star. But now, he’s one of the biggest superstars in the entire NFL.
There were others who went from players only known by die-hard fans to legit stars over the course of last season. Jordan Howard. Landon Collins. Jay Ajayi. Tyreek Hill. Michael Thomas. They went from fairly anonymous to being picked in the first few rounds of your fantasy drafts this summer.
These star-turns out of practically nowhere happen every season. By the end of the year, plenty of players who could walk through downtown of their NFL cities unbothered now will soon have some of the most popular-selling jerseys in the league. Three of our Shutdown Corner writers, Shalise Manza Young, Jordan Schultz and Frank Schwab, try to figure out which player on each team will emerge as a star by the end of the season:
NFC NORTH (Frank Schwab)
Chicago Bears: QB Mitch Trubisky
He won’t start the season, but he’ll finish the season as one of the most exciting young players in the NFL. We’ve already seen in the preseason what kind of skill he has. Chicago has been waiting for a quarterback like this for many, many years.
Detroit Lions: S Miles Killebrew
The Lions are still figuring out Killebrew’s role, but eventually he’ll get a shot to be a huge-hitting safety/linebacker in the middle of the field. Besides, the name “Miles Killebrew” is just perfect for a breakout defensive player.
Green Bay Packers: RB Ty Montgomery
While it will always be strange to see No. 88 lining up as a tailback, Mongtomery will make it cool. He played surprisingly well at running back when he had to fill in last season, and an offseason to actually learn the position will help a lot.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Adam Thielen
Thielen had a mini-breakout last season as an unknown who suddenly posted 967 yards. He’ll be much better known after he makes more of his signature big catches and goes over the 1,000-yard mark.
AFC NORTH (Jordan Schultz)
Baltimore Ravens: RB Danny Woodhead
Woodhead is on the perfect team to maximize his dynamic skill set. Baltimore not only wants to get him in space to catch passes, but also hopes to deploy him as a runner. With unimpressive Terrance West as his main competition in the backfield, Woodhead will see 10-plus touches a game. 2017 should be his most productive season yet.
Cincinnati Bengals: RB Joe Mixon
Mixon has been excellent in the preseason. The second-round pick has not only stayed out of trouble off the field, but he’s also flashed as both a receiver and runner for the Bengals. Jeremy Hill is purely a downhill runner, and Mixon is already better than Giovani Bernard. As a result, the Bengals won’t be able to keep the rookie back out of the lineup.
Cleveland Browns: QB DeShone Kizer
He could be the 21-year-old starting quarterback at Notre Dame. Instead, Kizer finds himself captaining one of the league’s moribund franchises. As intelligent and driven as he is talented, expect big things right away from the 6-foot-5, 221-pound rookie. Sure Kizer will make mistakes, but this season will also show that the Browns have finally found their quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Martavis Bryant
The 25-year-old Bryant finally gets to start Week 1. In just 21 games over the past three years due to suspensions, he has totaled 14 touchdowns on a deadly 17.3 yards per catch. Expect more of the same in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger has total trust in his 6-foot-5 receiver to make the play on any jump ball. With Antonio Brown drawing the top corner and the eye of both safeties, Bryant is in line for a stellar season.
AFC SOUTH (Jordan Schultz)
Houston Texans: RB D’Onta Foreman
Foreman was sensational for the Longhorns last year, compiling over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. The third-rounder lacks top flight speed, but accelerates well for a 233-pound back. He is extremely physical and is simply more talented than fellow reserve Alfred Blue. Whether you like Lamar Miller or not, Foreman is a nice change-of-pace guy for a Texans offense that will need to run the ball this season.
Indianapolis Colts: TE Jack Doyle
Gone is target monster Dwayne Allen. At 6-foot-6, 262 pounds, the towering Doyle is a red-zone magnet who will benefit from the added responsibility of being a three-down player. Doyle’s biggest possible derailment entering 2017 is whether or not Andrew Luck will be healthy.
Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Jalen Ramsey
Ramsey, the fifth pick in the 2016 draft, has the tools to become one of the league’s top flight corners. His length and range at 6-foot-1 – think Patrick Peterson – is a huge plus, but his instincts are what make him truly special. Ramsey, a Florida State product, totaled 14 passes defended and two interceptions as a rookie.
Tennessee Titans: RB Derrick Henry
Henry burst onto the scene as a rookie last year, amassing a terrific 4.5 yards per carry. The full package of power, quickness and just enough speed, expect even more this season from the former Heisman Trophy winner. DeMarco Murray remains the starter, but Henry will make the most of his touches.
NFC SOUTH (Shalise Manza Young, Frank Schwab)
Atlanta Falcons: LB Deion Jones
Jones wasn’t exactly a wallflower as a rookie in 2016 – he had three regular-season interceptions, two of which he took back for touchdowns, and had another pick in the divisional round against Seattle – but he’s poised to announce himself as one of the NFL’s great middle linebackers this season. Physically, he’s not the prototypical ‘backer, sized more like a safety, but he can play all three downs, making him valuable against multiple offensive sets.
Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey
Look, it’s an obvious pick, but we’re not fools – McCaffrey is special and NFL-ready. Folks have been talking about McCaffrey since training camp began, and we’ll still be talking about him in December and beyond. His juke of Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny in a preseason game was one of the best moves of the preseason.
New Orleans Saints: RB Alvin Kamara
Always note how much a team invests in a player. The Saints gave up a 2018 second-round pick to take Kamara in the third round this year, so that says a lot. Kamara has Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson ahead of him on the depth chart, but the Saints need to find a way to get him on the field. He’ll shine when he gets his shot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Cameron Brate
I thought about putting Jameis Winston here, because I think Winston is going to have a monster season. But I’ll go with Brate. O.J. Howard might be better known, as a first-round pick from Alabama, but Brate has good chemistry with Winston and he’ll be the Bucs tight end to have a big year.
AFC WEST (Frank Schwab)
Denver Broncos: OLB Shane Ray
The former first-round pick has waited his turn, and his big shot this season got setback due to a wrist injury. But Ray kind of quietly got eight sacks last season (when you line up opposite Von Miller, everything is overshadowed). This year, Ray will make his name known.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Kareem Hunt
If you play fantasy football, you already realize the potential here. The rookie drew rave reviews in the offseason, then the door opened for him to start when Spencer Ware suffered a knee injury. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if Hunt won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Oakland Raiders: S Karl Joseph
Last season, as a rookie, Joseph was still working back from a torn ACL suffered in 2015. And he still was pretty good. The 2016 first-round pick is an enforcer and now that he’s fully healthy, he will have plenty of highlights this season.
San Diego Chargers: TE Hunter Henry
Antonio Gates is the future Hall of Famer, and his next touchdown will set an NFL record for tight ends. But Henry will step into the spotlight by year’s end. Henry flashed immense talent as a rookie last season, and should be even better this year.
NFC WEST (Jordan Schultz)
Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp
Kupp, a rookie third-round draft choice out of FCS Eastern Washington, has an opportunity to do some serious damage. At 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, he runs really sound routes and flat out catches the football. Regardless of how Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods play, expect production from the 24-year-old Kupp.
Arizona Cardinals: WR John Brown
One way or the other, we will be talking about Brown by season’s end. If he can’t stay healthy, it will become the theme of his young career. I’m betting that the former Division II Pittsburg State standout does stay healthy though, and in turn rewards the Cardinals for their patience. Brown, 27, possesses lightning quickness and speed, something that Carson Palmer desperately needs to be effective. His play will open up the field for Larry Fitzgerald, as well as All-World running back David Johnson.
San Francisco 49ers: DT DeForest Buckner
Buckner is a mega talent whom we highlighted as a breakout star earlier this preseason. Blessed with tremendous quickness and athletic ability, the former seventh overall pick is primed and ready for a Pro Bowl caliber season. Remember, new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is known for his aggressive nature: Buckner will benefit greatly as he plays the three technique.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Chris Carson
Carson has been the talk of Seahawks camp. Seattle’s rookie seventh rounder out of Oklahoma State, Carson is a physically imposing runner at 5-foot-11, 218 pounds. He’s also shifty and can make people miss, runs with balance and can catch the football. With lingering injuries to Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise, as well as Eddie Lacy’s Jekyll and Hyde history, Carson has a chance to become the featured guy in Seattle’s crowded backfield if things break his way.
AFC EAST (Shalise Manza Young)
Buffalo Bills: DE Shaq Lawson
There might be few players in Buffalo happier to see the Bills switch from Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 under Leslie Frazier. Lawson missed over a third of his rookie season last year due to shoulder surgery, and wasn’t comfortable playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. Now he’s healthy and back in a familiar role.
Miami Dolphins: WR DeVante Parker
Parker had a solid season last year (56 catches, 744 yards, 4 touchdowns), his second with Miami. The Dolphins have good depth at receiver, with two-time Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills, but if their brief preseason appearances together are any indication, new quarterback Jay Cutler has taken a liking to Parker quickly.
New England Patriots: DE Trey Flowers
The 2015 fourth-round pick had all seven of his regular-season sacks last season over the final eight games, and then was nearly unblockable in Super Bowl LI, when he had 2.5 sacks. His fourth-quarter sack of Matt Ryan with just under four minutes to play and the Falcons in field-goal range was a key moment in New England’s comeback.
New York Jets: S Marcus Maye
Given his team’s lengthy list of needs, general manager Mike Maccagnan raised some eyebrows when he used the Jets’ first two picks this year on safeties. But Maye had an excellent training camp, drilling his new teammates and pulling in interceptions. He could be one of the lone bright spots for the Jets this year.
NFC EAST (Shalise Manza Young)
Dallas Cowboys: DT Maliek Collins
Collins quietly had a strong rookie season with five sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His battles with All-Pro guard Zack Martin during training camp were must-see, and the former third-round out of Nebraska won more than his share.
New York Giants: TE Evan Engram
He’s a little undersized, but Engram has speed, good fundamentals and is a willing blocker – exactly what the Giants have been needing at the position. Eli Manning has good options at receiver in Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Sheppard and Brandon Marshall, but a strong tight end can add a new dimension to an offense; just ask the Patriots or Chiefs.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Carson Wentz
The NFC East is back to being one of the tougher divisions in the NFL, and in order for the Eagles to hang tough with Dallas and New York, they’ll need Wentz to take the second-year step forward. Wentz has been with coach (and former NFL QB) Doug Pederson for more than a year, and has good pieces around him.
Washington Redskins: WR Jamison Crowder
He may be small (he’s listed at 5-foot-8), but Crowder is speedy, shifty and versatile. A fourth-round pick in 2015, Crowder’s ability and potential have Washington coach Jay Gruden gushing, and beyond his contributions on offense, Crowder is also one of the best punt returners in the NFL.
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