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.”

We see NFL players take huge steps from one year to the next all the time. Sometimes the “light goes on” or the “game slows down” for these young men. Often a coaching/scheme change can benefit a player quite a bit. Sometimes it’s just a case of health. Nonetheless, adjusting to the NFL is very difficult.

Here are five defensive players who are poised to take a big step forward in their career this season:

Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings


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Hunter only played 600 snaps last year despite appearing in all 16 games, while fellow defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen played significantly more. That probably won’t continue after Hunter recorded a ridiculous 12.5 sacks in limited action.

The 22-year-old is exceptionally talented. He has a slender, but strong, body with great flexibility and explosion. Coming out of LSU, Hunter was considered a raw prospect who leaned too much on his immense tools rather than hand usage and other fundamentals of the position. That is changing rapidly and he is on the cusp of greatness entering his third season.

Hunter ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at 252 pounds at the NFL combine and his Pro Day, and broad jumped 10 feet, 10 inches with a 36 1/2-inch vertical. Yes, the tools are very much there. It might not be long before he’s routinely ranked amongst the league’s best edge players.

Chris Jones, DE, Kansas City Chiefs


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Jones fell to the second round in last year’s draft because there were questions about his motor coming out of Mississippi State.

But there were never any questions about Jones’ talents, as he has terrific size (6-6, 308 pounds) with long arms and a powerful frame.

He’s fast for a big man and changes directions well in space. Jones also shows exceptional overall power and first-step quickness. Jones played very well in his rookie season under Andy Reid, and with better and more consistent pad level than in college. He’s exactly what teams are looking for nowadays as an interior pass-rusher and disruptor.

Sheldon Rankins, DT, New Orleans Saints


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The Saints used the 12th pick in 2016 on Rankins, a move many applauded.

New Orleans couldn’t activate Rankins until November of his rookie season due to a leg injury. But when Rankins finally saw the field, he made an impact on a defense that was – and still is – in need of difference-makers. With a lack of true edge rushers and Nick Fairley’s unfortunate health situation, much will be demanded from Rankins and Cameron Jordan this year.

That will result in added blocking attention on the pair. So maybe the numbers won’t come in abundance for Rankins in his second season, but this is a powerful and explosive leverage player who’s an ideal 3-technique defensive end, with the power to handle the nose at times.

Instead of playing 28 percent of the Saints’ snaps, as he did in his rookie year, Rankins absolutely needs to play close to 100 percent. Everything he does is powerful, violent, and explosive.

Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers


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Spence has star potential, and could provide the Buccaneers with an edge presence they haven’t had since Simeon Rice.

Clearly Spence was a first-round talent, but he fell to the 39th pick because of off-field concerns. Spence is explosive, gets off the ball really well, and doesn’t stay blocked. As a rookie, he showed only flashes of his potential, recording 5.5 sacks in 572 snaps.

His supporting cast in Tampa Bay’s front seven is very strong. Robert Ayers should act as an excellent role model and the combination of Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker will demand an awful lot of attention from opposing blocking schemes. Spence seems to have matured, got his life in order, and is ready to explode on the gridiron.

Robert Quinn, LB, Rams


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*While not a true breakout candidate, Quinn is poised for a major bounce-back season.

Quinn played eight games in 2015 before having back surgery and has only appeared in 17 games over the past two seasons, notching nine sacks.

But this is a super-talented edge player who had 19 sacks in 2013. With Wade Phillips now the Rams‘ defensive coordinator, expect Quinn to take over the role Von Miller played so well in Denver. Quinn might be a sliver behind Miller in terms of ability, but that gap isn’t nearly as wide as you might think.

With the amount of attention he receives and the damage Aaron Donald does on the interior, there isn’t a better bounce-back defensive candidate in the entire league than Quinn.

Quinn broke out long ago, but he’s in line for a monster 2017 season.

Honorable Mention: Eli Apple, DeForest Buckner, Artie Burns, Frank Clark, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jalen Collins, Marcell Dareus, Trey Flowers, Markus Golden, Akiem Hicks, David Irving, Myles Jack, Grady Jarrett, Byron Jones, Karl Joseph, Yannick Ngakoue, Shane Ray, Xavier Rhodes, Jaylon Smith, Shaq Thompson, Stephon Tuitt

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