Ahead the new NFL season, we pick out six of the biggest emerging talents set to take the league by storm in 2017…
Most of them already impressed in 2016, but another stellar campaign could see them catapulted into the NFL elite.
Just who is set to make that leap?
Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
The speed-to-power, flexible edge rusher managed to register 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles on a 5-11 team last year, but a shift in scheme and a year’s worth of NFL experience under his belt should see the sixth overall pick from the 2016 NFL Draft become even more dominant.
New defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, has bought his 4-3 under defence to Los Angeles, which is fantastic news for Bosa. It means he can pin his ears back and attack the quarterback as a defensive end, rather than being an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Though it may see his production decrease in terms of sacks, the number of pressures he registers will increase. You can expect the pocket-pushing defensive tackles, Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane to register clean-up sacks as quarterbacks attempt to step up in the pocket to avoid Bosa screaming off the edge.
Moreover, offensive lines can ill afford to give Bosa too much attention, as he is rushing opposite Melvin Ingram. Ingram will be another vicious defensive end whose eight sacks last year saw him extended in the offseason.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston threw the second-most interceptions in the NFL last year. He also tied for the eighth-most touchdowns. It is that up-and-down nature of his game, littered with spectacular moments and dreadful ones in equal measure, which Tampa Bay are trying to coach out of him. He needs to be less inaccurate and error-ridden. By nature, though, he is a gunslinger with a powerful arm: a quarterback who is always looking to push the ball downfield.
Tampa Bay have surrounded the first pick of the 2015 NFL Draft with talent. The rapid, contested-catch-winning Mike Evans is Winston’s No 1 receiver, while the best pure-speed receiver in the league, DeSean Jackson, was added in free agency. The combination of the two will create huge dilemmas for defences. Cameron Brate materialised into a genuine threat last year with a joint league-high eight receiving touchdowns and another tight end, OJ Howard, was picked up in the first round of the draft.
Despite these weapons, Winston is the ’emerging player’ on this list who could backfire, but the NFC South has the Atlanta Falcons coming off a devastating Super Bowl collapse, the Carolina Panthers regressing and the New Orleans Saints’ defence still underwhelming. It is time for Winston to get it done.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
Part of the reasoning for Mariota being taken behind Winston as the No 2 pick of the 2015 Draft was doubts over his ability to translate from the no-huddle, spread offense of Oregon to the pro-style NFL. Entering his third-year in the league, he has made the jump seamlessly. He has proven himself to be comfortable in the pocket, manipulating defenders with his eyes and throwing with anticipation and accuracy. His excellent decision making and defensive diagnosis is best illustrated by his zero career redzone interceptions.
Mariota also brings an added dimension with his breakaway athleticism, protected, as he is, by one of the top three offensive lines in the NFL. That means he can also lean on a physical running game; DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry are a bruising tandem perfectly suited to running behind pulling lineman and getting north-south. Through the air, Corey Davis, their first-round selection in the draft, is a true No 1 wide receiver when healthy, Delanie Walker is a trusty tight end and Rishard Matthews had a 1000-yard 2016, becoming Mariota’s favourite wideout.
Tennessee was primed for a wildcard spot before Mariota suffered a broken leg in their Week 17, 38-17 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. If he can stay healthy for a full season – a fair question considering he missed time in his rookie year too – the quarterback can lead this Titans team to the AFC South division title and end their eight-year playoff drought.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
When Tony Romo went down in the 2016 preseason, Cowboys fans felt their season was doomed. Draft experts poorly rated backup Prescott out of college, but boy did he prove them wrong, guiding them to the NFC Divisional Round where they were just a field goal away from making the NFC Championship Game.
Jason Garrett intelligently protected Prescott with a scheme aimed at accentuating the talents that the quarterback exhibited at Mississippi State. Yet, this was by no means a basic offense. Prescott changed things at the line of scrimmage very early into the 2016 season and successfully diagnosed blitzes. He also displayed the pocket presence required to be an NFL quarterback, calmly eyeing downfield in the face of a pass rush.
Playing behind the best offensive line in the league helps Prescott, but this year he will likely be without his strong running game for six games after Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris will be nowhere near as productive as Zeke even with read-option heavily sprinkled in. That puts a lot more stress on the aerial attack but, with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten and preseason standout tight end Rico Gathers, the passing game is hardly in ill-health.
Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
The second Los Angeles Charger on this list is a player who was somewhat in the shadow of the hall of fame, age-defying tight end Antonio Gates in 2016. Yet, as a rookie, Henry tied for the lead in tight end touchdowns with eight, from second on the depth chart. 2017 is the season he will become the premier option in Anthony Lynn’s offense, improving upon last year’s 36 receptions and 478 receiving yards.
Henry’s importance is amplified when one considers the Chargers’ terrible luck with injuries. The former second-round pick is the type of weapon who Philip Rivers can get the ball out to quickly – his size and wide catching radius making him a go-up-and-get-it target, providing a much-needed redzone target, as 2017 big-bodied first-rounder Mike Williams’ back issues continue. Finally, Henry is a nasty run blocker who utilises a wide base and leverage excellently. This suits Lynn’s potent running game nicely.
Terelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins
Why did the Cleveland Browns not re-sign Terrelle Pryor? Either their front office’s analytics concluded he was not worth the one year, $8million contract, or Pryor chose to go elsewhere on the open market. Either way, Washington will not care. They got a steal.
Losing Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson in free agency to the San Francisco 49ers, Washington was in desperate need of a prototypical No 1 receiver and, not only have they managed that in Pryor, they’ve also required a downfield burner. The 6’4”, 228 lb Pryor ran a 4.42 second 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL Combine and he finished third in the league in targets of over 20 yards or more. He fits the bill.
Just look at the film last year. Pryor made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver look easy, flashing polished route running and incredible hands. He hauled in 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns from a glut of less-than-mediocre Cleveland quarterbacks. With the more capable Kirk Cousins throwing him the football – and in a more talented offense featuring Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson and Jordan Reed – Pryor’s play this season is set to earn him a bigger contract in 2018.
Watch the first game of the new NFL season as reigning Super Bowl champions New England Patriots host Kansas City Chiefs in Thursday Night Football, live on Sky Sports Action from 12.30am.
New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs
September 8, 2017, 12:30am
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