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10 NFL players ready to make the leap in 2017

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 5/20/2017 Dan Benton

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Every season, a handful of NFL players who hadn’t quite lived up to their billing suddenly find their way and explode onto the scene. Some players also come from absolutely nowhere to astound — Victor Cruz in 2011 immediately comes to mind as an example. Others may follow a pattern of steady improvement until they reach their apex.

It’s hard to predict exactly which unknown players will come out of left field and surprise, but it is a bit easier to predict the players who should make a big leap as their career progresses.

With that fine line in mind, here’s a look at 10 players who are ready (and should) make the leap in 2017.

10. Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jameis Winston has been a true presence since arriving in Tampa from Florida State in 2015, but all things considered, he’s been relatively pedestrian over his first two seasons.

Despite being named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Winston has completed only 59.6 percent of his passes for 8,132 yards, 50 touchdowns and 33 interceptions in 32 games. And while the consecutive 4,000-plus yard seasons are impressive, the touchdown-to-interception ratio is not, continuing a pattern he established in college. Add in nine more fumbles and his turnover statistics become even more problematic.

The good news is that Winston is still a young quarterback who is now entering his third season in the Buccaneers’ offensive system. The Bucs have added some additional weapons for Winston, and 2017 should be the year he completely rounds his game into shape.

9. Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans

Nov 27, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. © Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports Nov 27, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

The talent is clear with Marcus Mariota, but after two seasons, he has not quite pieced it all together yet. And although he’s currently overcoming a broken fibula, there’s every reason to believe 2017 will be the year everything falls into place.

In fact, that’s becoming a rather popular opinion around the NFL.

One anonymous AFC coach recently told Bleacher Report that Mariota will not only have his best season in 2017, but will easily become a top-five quarterback in the league.

“By the time next season is over,” the coach said, “he’ll be viewed as a top-five quarterback. Maybe even top three or four.”

Mariota threw for an impressive 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions last season, though his fumbles were an issue. He also helped the team to its first winning season since 2011.

As noted above, the reasons for this optimism are well-documented. Mariota has flashed elite ability repeatedly, and so long as he returns healthy this season, there’s nothing standing in his way of making a big leap. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Titans used their first-round pick on wide receiver Corey Davis in an effort to get Mariota a go-to playmaker.

8. Kevin White, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears

The Bears expect wide receiver Kevin White to be out for an extended period of time. © Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports The Bears expect wide receiver Kevin White to be out for an extended period of time.

Kevin White carried big expectations coming out of West Virginia in 2015, but a shin injury caused him to miss his entire rookie campaign and a fractured fibula kept him out for 12 games during his sophomore season.

Those big expectations loom even larger now as White enters his third NFL season.

Although he’s been limited to only four games due to injury, the former first-round pick must stay healthy and kick it up a notch if he wishes to remain in Chicago moving forward.

White realizes he has to produce in 2017, and believes he will. So do his teammates.

“He’s ready to go,” Bears wide receiver Joshua Bellamy told CBS Sports. “He’s healthy, he’s looking good, he’s running good.”

White is a special talent. He’s had two long years to prepare, and so long as he remains healthy, he will prove to the league why he was once drafted No. 7 overall.

7. Paul Perkins, Running Back, New York Giants

New York Giants running back Paul Perkins (28) is taking on an increased role in the backfield. © Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports New York Giants running back Paul Perkins (28) is taking on an increased role in the backfield.

In his debut campaign, Paul Perkins rushed for 456 yards on 112 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and added an additional 162 yards through the air. At times, he looked like your everyday rookie. At other times, Perkins displayed a potential game-breaking quality that’s impossible to teach.

After releasing veteran running back Rashad Jennings, and despite drafting Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the fourth-round, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo felt comfortable enough to name Perkins the team’s starter in 2017.

“Paul Perkins is going to be our starter out there on first and second down, and we’ve added some competition in the room in a variety of ways,” McAdoo said on WFAN in early May. “Shaun Draughn, Shane Vereen is coming back, we drafted Wayne Gallman, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the running back room shakes out.”

Perkins may not be in line to handle bell-cow duties, but he will be the Giants’ starter this coming season. And if the offensive line improves even slightly, he’s in line for a big statistical year.

6. Ameer Abdullah, Running Back, Detroit Lions

© Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions sported one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL a season ago, and they’re not entirely sure what approach to take in 2017. More or less, it remains a work in progress.

But the solution to their problems may come in the form of 2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdullah.

Abdullah has shown flashes of brilliance over his first two seasons, averaging 4.2 yards per carry during his rookie campaign and 5.6 yards per carry in his injury-shortened sophomore year. And the good news is that he appears fully recovered from both a shoulder labrum injury and a foot injury.

If the Lions’ offensive line can show any improvement in 2017 and Abdullah can remain healthy, he’ll not only become the team’s primary back, but could establish himself as one of the most explosive in the game. He is that good and it’s time for him to make that leap.

5. James Bradberry, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

© Jack Dempsey/AP Photo

If you’re not familiar with James Bradberry’s name, odds are you soon will be.

Wearing Josh Norman’s old No. 24 for the Panthers, the 2016 second-round pick out of Samford appears poised to take the same sort of career trajectory.

Bradberry showed marked improvement from Week 1 to Week 17 last season, finishing the year with 59 tackles (47 solo), three stuffs, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He was also the top-ranked rookie cornerback courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Those PFF honors are as legitimate as it comes. His interception numbers may not leap off the board, but that’s primarily becomes teams learned early on not to throw in his direction.

Bradberry may not be a household name outside of Carolina right now, but soon the rest of the NFL world will know what those in Charlotte do: this kid is a superstar in the making.

4. Danielle Hunter, Edge, Minnesota Vikings

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) is sacked in the end zone for a safety by Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter (99) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. © Mike McCarn/AP Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) is sacked in the end zone for a safety by Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter (99) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.

Earlier this year, a story was written on Danielle Hunter and the headline read “The quiet storm waiting to wreak havoc on the rest of the NFL.”

That headline will likely be proven to be spot on.

Anyone who has watched Hunter over his first two NFL seasons can see the potential. And although he’s already amassed 18.5 career sacks and four games in which he recorded 1.5 or more sacks, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for this up-and-comer.

“He’s not just an athlete out there playing football. He wants to be good, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there,” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said in December. “He was willing to come here and just be clay, and let me [help mold] him.”

When you’re extremely athletic, driven to be great and willingly coachable, the sky is the limit. And Hunter is all of those things. So if you think he was good in Year 2, wait until you see him in Year 3 when his role increases.

3. Byron Jones, Safety, Dallas Cowboys

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (82) runs from Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) after catching a pass during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King) © AP Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (82) runs from Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) after catching a pass during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Safety Byron Jones was a popular candidate to breakout during the 2016 regular season, but that didn’t quite happen. Although he did show some improvement from his rookie year, he came nowhere close to the ceiling many had expected of him.

Perhaps it was too much too soon for those type of expectations, but that doesn’t mean Jones is incapable of being the player many anticipate.

The Cowboys thought enough of Jones to let veteran Barry Church, a team captain, leave via free agency. And by all early accounts, Jones has a firm lock on the starting position at free safety.

The former first-round pick has entered the offseason knowing he’s got to drastically improve his game if he wants to live up to Dallas’ investment in him. He’ll also have to do it with a new cast of characters as the Cowboys have conducted quite an overhaul to their secondary.

Ultimately, 2017 could be the year Jones finally makes that leap to the next level.

2. Deon Simon, Defensive Tackle, New York Jets

© Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

After losing Damon Harrison to the New York Giants, the Jets faced quite an uphill battle in replacing him. And while Steve McLendon played well at nose tackle for much of last season, it was Deon Simon’s late-season play that truly offered the team a ray of hope.

The 2015 seventh-round pick has showed steady progress over his first two seasons and really flashed over the last few games a year ago. The coaching staff appears to be relatively high on Simon, and he could be in line to take over as the team’s starter.

If Simon has put in the necessary work this offseason and comes in and performs well throughout training camp, there’s no doubt he’ll be given the opportunity of a lifetime. And if he plays as well as he did down the stretch in 2016, the Jets may no longer be reeling from their loss of Harrison.

1. Kenyan Drake, Running Back, Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) carries the ball as Cincinnati Bengals' Clayton Fejedelem pursues during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in Cincinnati. © Gary Landers/AP Photo Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) carries the ball as Cincinnati Bengals' Clayton Fejedelem pursues during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in Cincinnati.

There were some — not many, but some — who believed Kenyan Drake had the skills to become the best running back drafted in 2016. And while that has not come to fruition after one season — and may never come come true thanks to Ezekiel Elliott — it doesn’t mean Drake can’t explode onto the scene and carve out a name for himself.

The challenge for Drake is that he will have to make a name for himself as a reserve. Fellow Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi had a breakout year of his own a season ago, rushing for over 1,250 yards with eight touchdowns. But Drake flashed at times himself, and in today’s NFL, a multi-back balance is essentially required.

There will be the added competition of Damien Williams, who scored six touchdowns in 2016 and is a receiving threat out of the backfield, but Drake’s explosiveness in the open field makes him a unique asset. The former Alabama running back scored three times last season — twice as a rusher and once on a kick return. There’s no team in the NFL that wouldn’t want to utilize that sort of game-changing ability, so Miami will find a way to get him his touches.

Will Drake be a 1,000-yard running back in 2017? Probably not, but he’s certainly poised to make the next leap in his progression and establish himself as a truly electric option for the Dolphins.

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