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Shane Ray, Deion Jones among linebackers set to break out

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With the 2017 NFL season on the horizon, a number of talented guys are still playing under rookie contracts. Now is the time to make some future loot! With that in mind, NFL Network analysts Ike Taylor, Willie McGinest, LaDainian Tomlinson, David Carr and Nate Burleson scoured the positions they respectively manned during their playing days (CB, LB, RB, QB and WR) to identify youngsters poised for a breakout campaign.

Today's list: Willie McGinest's young linebackers to watch in 2017.

Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos

2017 projection: 65-plus tackles and 10 sacks.

Ray made eight starts in 2016, and with DeMarcus Ware retired, the third-year pro will get an opportunity to be a full-time starter on a top-five defense. Ray is one of the strongest and fastest guys on the team, and the Broncos' staff knows how to use him. He's going to get a lot of one-on-one situations opposite Von Miller, and Ray is up for the task. In college, Ray mainly relied on beating guys off the edge with straight speed. However, in his first two seasons as a pro, he's really worked on honing his skills and developing new moves to become a more well-rounded pass rusher.

(UPDATE: Broncos coach Vance Joseph announced Friday that Ray tore a ligament in his wrist and will be out six to eight weeks.)

Deion Jones, MLB, Atlanta Falcons

2017 projection: 100-plus tackles, three sacks and five-plus interceptions.

Jones was a major player in Dan Quinn's defense in Year 1, posting 108 tackles, 11 passes defensed, three interceptions (two returned for TDs) and one forced fumble. That's a helluva rookie season, and Jones is still just learning the position. Quinn keeps his linebackers active, asking a lot of them on the field. Jones is athletic, operates well in space and makes big plays. His numbers are going to improve in Year 2 because he knows the defense better understands his role more clearly.

Ryan Shazier/Bud Dupree, ILB/OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Shazier's 2017 projection: 115 tackles, five-plus sacks and 3-5 interceptions.
Dupree's 2017 projection: 60 tackles, nine-plus sacks and one interception.

Shazier is an explosive, every-down player for Pittsburgh's defense. He's versatile, athletic and will be used in a lot of different ways in 2017. With Bud Dupree healthy and rookie T.J. Watt in the mix, Shazier will have more opportunities to make big plays. Dupree, who missed half of 2016 with a groin injury, can cover and become an edge rusher with his hand in the dirt on third down. He plays the run well, but must stay healthy in order to reach his potential.

This linebacker group will take some of the pressure off a struggling secondary by harassing the quarterback and disrupting the run game -- like Carolina's linebackers did in 2014 and '15.

Kwon Alexander, MLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2017 projection: 150 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Alexander has been climbing the ladder and is really on the brink of establishing himself as one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. He's athletic and has a perfect combination of power and explosiveness. He's not the biggest linebacker (6-foot-1, 227 pounds), but is stout and heavy enough to be a force in the run game. Alexander also thrives in coverage and plays a major role in the Bucs' budding defense. He never comes off the field, giving him ample opportunity to make plays in Year 3.

C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens

2017 projection: 135 tackles, five sacks and four-plus interceptions.

Some might argue Mosley already broke out during his 133-tackle rookie season back in 2014, and they'd be right. The reason I put the Pro Bowler on this list is because I think he's about to take his game to an elite level, joining the likes of Carolina's Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, among others. Yes, his production has dropped slightly in each of the last two seasons, but that's partially due to the offense's lack of production placing more stress on the defense. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees does a good job of putting athletic guys in position to make plays, and Mosley is definitely one of those guys in this system. With the addition of several playmakers on both sides of the ball during the offseason, Mosley is poised to have a career campaign in Year 4.

Reuben Foster, OLB, San Francisco 49ers

2017 projection: 100 tackles, four passes defensed, three sacks and two interceptions.

San Francisco picked up a great talent late in the first round of this year's draft. This is a rookie who could make huge waves immediately. Foster has tremendous instincts and is coming into the league as one of the best open-field tacklers. If there's a prototype linebacker that a team should build around, he's it. Foster comes in with a lot of knowledge after being the quarterback of Nick Saban's defense at Alabama, and playing alongside veteran NaVorro Bowman will only make his transition to the pros easier. I won't be surprised if Foster seriously contends for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Follow Willie McGinest on Twitter @WillieMcGinest.

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