Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and spent 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
Though adjusting to the NFL is very difficult, players take a huge step from one year to the next all the time. Sometimes the “light goes on” or the “game slows down.” A coaching/scheme change can benefit a player quite a bit. Sometimes it’s just a case of health.
Here are five offensive players poised to take a big step forward in their career. Keep an eye out later in the week for defensive breakout candidates.
WR John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
Brown broke out to some degree in 2015, but things couldn’t have gone much worse for him last year. He clearly wasn’t himself while dealing with sickle cell traits and several injuries, then had a cyst removed from his spine in January.
By all accounts, Brown is back to being the explosive mover he was early in his career, and hopefully the medical issues are behind him. At his best, Brown has terrifying deep speed, but he also has a lot of potential as an underneath and intermediate option. His still-developing game is patterned more after Antonio Brown than someone like Ted Ginn.
And the Cardinals‘ passing game does offer some opportunity. Larry Fitzgerald remains a great player and David Johnson is an elite receiving back, but John Brown brings a different element. Carson Palmer is a highly capable thrower, Arizona’s offensive line should be better in 2017, and we know Bruce Arians loves dialing up shots deep downfield. Things are set up well for Brown.
WR Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bryant is a freak of nature who’s very much in the conversation with guys like Julio Jones about the most talented wide receiver on the planet right now. Making Bryant even more frightening, he’s added around 10 pounds of muscle to his already impressive long frame.
But it isn’t a lack of talent that’s slowed Bryant’s career. He must walk the line and pass his drug tests or none of this matters. Assuming he is able to do that this season, though, combined with the single coverage he’ll see with Antonio Brown on the opposite side, Bryant could simply explode.
Without Bryant in the mix last year, the Steelers‘ red-zone passing game sputtered. He’s appeared in just 21 games, but has scored 15 touchdowns in those contests. That ratio might actually go up in 2017.
TE Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
Hooper played just 405 snaps in 2016, but overall, Falcons tight ends logged a total of 1,376 snaps. Jacob Tamme is no longer with the team and Atlanta did little to reinforce the tight end position – primarily because Hooper was so impressive at a position where rookies historically struggle.
Jones and the running backs will be featured in the passing game, but Hooper could surpass the remaining Atlanta wide receivers on Matt Ryan‘s priority list. Ryan targeted tight ends a combined 83 times last year, resulting in 10 touchdowns. Hooper is going to get targets and is also a very capable blocker. There’s no reason for him to come off the field in 2017.
WR DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
Parker‘s NFL career is off to an inconsistent start, but he has also flashed while on the field – and right now, an awful lot of positive buzz about Parker is coming from those close to the team.
After seeing what Miami paid Kenny Stills, Parker should be highly motivated, as he’s a far better specimen. Parker possesses size, speed, body control, the ability to go up and get the football, and very long arms. He is one of the few wideouts in the NFL with true No. 1 receiver traits, although his foot issues are something to keep an eye on. Adam Gase is the perfect coach to help the 24-year-old realize that potential, as Gase did with Alshon Jeffery in Chicago.
Expect Gase’s offense to predominantly operate out of a three-wide-receiver set with Jarvis Landry in the slot and Parker and Stills on the perimeter. Landry will probably lead the team in targets and receptions, but don’t be surprised if Parker is the Dolphins’ most effective and dangerous wide receiver overall by midseason or so. It is all there for this young man.
OT Laremy Tunsil, Miami Dolphins
We can all recognize that the NFL has a shortage of offensive linemen, especially offensive tackles. Super prospects haven’t entered the league in the Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace mold of late – but Tunsil is in that category.
He didn’t slip to the middle of the first round on draft day because of questions about his talent. In his rookie season, playing out of position at guard as Ogden did during his rookie year, Tunsil progressively got better as the season went on. Now, Tunsil will go to left tackle, where he belongs.
It might not be long before he is among the elite left tackles in the NFL.
Honorable mention: Jay Ajayi, Martellus Bennett, Sam Bradford, Corey Coleman, Tevin Coleman, Jamison Crowder, Isaiah Crowell, Stefon Diggs, Jared Goff, Derrick Henry, Hunter Henry, Ryan Kelly, Taylor Lewan, Brandon Linder, Marcus Mariota, Cameron Meredith, Paul Perkins, Breshad Perriman, C.J. Prosise, Brandon Scherff, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)
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