In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
Professional Football Jadeveon Clowney is a far different beast than South Carolina Highlight Reel Jadeveon Clowney. But he remains a beast -- he just needs to stay on the field for everyone to realize it.
The sports media hype machine built up Clowney in 2013, then tore him down during a 2013 Heisman campaign that wasn't. Injuries destroyed his rookie season in Houston in 2014, culminating in microfracture surgery. Durability was again a big problem in 2015, yet he quietly piled up impressive tape over 13 games. Clowney already has proven he's an above-average NFL starter. This season, he's set up to be so much more.
Why Clowney is on the list
Players don't get drafted No. 1 overall -- or appear on prime-time shows -- for their run defense. That's why Clowney's emergence last season as a world-class run stopper was slept on by the masses. Clowney doesn't shed blockers; he tosses them.
Clowney's snaps on NFL Game Pass reveal he had a much bigger impact than box scores showed. The 6-foot-5, 266-pounder flashes uncommon strength and aggression to push blockers backward. He sets the edge like a man 25 pounds heavier. He pursues the ball from a play's back side with a zeal usually reserved for guys who get the "hard hat" or "lunch pail" cliché treatment from announcers. (The ultimate sign of grittiness: You wore a hard hat while carrying a lunch pail.)
When asked to occupy two blockers, Clowney can hold opponents at bay like he's Vince Wilfork. Don't even try to send a tight end his way: He will embarrass the worst of them and regularly beat the best -- just ask Rob Gronkowski. His Week 14 showcase against New England was instructive. He also displayed the quickness to get around a double team on the way to two sacks of Tom Brady.
ProFootballFocus' numbers support his underrated campaign, ranking him second among 3-4 outside linebackers (behind only Khalil Mack) as a run defender. He finished sixth in "stop percentage," a sign that Clowney was making stuffs near or behind the line of scrimmage.
Perhaps Clowney's biggest problem, aside from injuries, is one of false advertising. He was billed as a pure pass rusher who would terrorize quarterbacks and take pressure off J.J. Watt. Instead, Clowney has looked like James Harrison just before his prime. Teams now fear running left at Watt or right at Clowney. He's too disruptive to be denied as a run stopper, but not yet polished enough to finish plays by getting to the quarterback.
Even Clowney's position feels misleading. His outside linebacker listing ignores how often he has his hand in the ground as a 4-3 defensive end. He even occasionally lines up as a defensive tackle and looks comfortable rushing from the inside, too quick and powerful for opposing guards. The trick has been staying on the field to show off that power.
Obstacles he'll face
Clowney signed his rookie contract on June 6, 2014 and underwent sports hernia surgery exactly six days later. A near-biblical plague of maladies followed. Clowney missed time as a rookie because of a concussion, a torn meniscus and ultimately the right knee injury that required microfracture surgery and sent him to IR with just four NFL games under his belt. He showed surprising explosiveness early after returning to the field last season, then subsequently missed time with ankle and back injuries. He missed the Texans' playoff loss with a Lisfranc sprain in his foot.
"When he's been on the field, he's been pretty disruptive, pretty impactful," Texans general manager Rick Smith said earlier this offseason, per the Houston Chronicle. "It's just that he has suffered some injuries, which you would hope is that he's already had as many as he needs to have, right?"
Translation: I didn't make a bad pick. I've had bad luck. (That partly ignores the nagging injuries that Clowney had during his final season in college.)
Clowney isn't kicking off "Making the Leap" because we think he's due for better luck. There are positive signs he's adjusted his approach. Once "frustrated" with his ability to fight through injuries, Texans coaches have lauded Clowney's professionalism more recently. Clowney enjoyed his first healthy offseason, getting necessary practice time to improve his technique with a "determined" attitude, according to Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel.
Clowney's injury history remains a red flag, but we chose to focus on the flip side. Clowney was a quality starter and played 13 games with very little practice time. Now he just needs to work on those pass-rush moves.
Expectations for 2016
The explosive first step is there. The power is there. When Clowney rushes the passer, even veteran tackles often are jolted backward. That's why Clowney recorded 22 hurries in only 300 pass-rush snaps, according to PFF. Clowney needs to fine-tune those pass-rush moves to disengage from blockers and finish plays, something that showed up while he totaled 4.5 sacks in a six-game span from late October to mid-December.
That's what the hot-takesmen of the world miss about Clowney. The film shows that he gets after it. He's the rare player whose athleticism pops off the screen, making opponents looking slow and silly in comparison. Perhaps Professional Football Clowney isn't so different after all.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills
The NFL is a sink-or-swim league.
At a position notoriously rough on rookies, Darby displayed the tenacity and mental aptitude not only to play in a Rex Ryan defense that demands a lot from cornerbacks, but to become one of the NFL's upper-echelon defensive backs in short order.
Why Darby is on the list
The 5-foot-11 corner started Week 1 and flourished from the get-go, holding Colts speedster T.Y. Hilton to 23 yards on two catches and picking off an underthrown pass in the opener. The following week, Tom Brady targeted the rookie nine times in coverage versus Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, per Pro Football Focus. The Patriots' dominant duo took Darby for just three catches and 48 yards.
The early success against three very diverse targets (a receiver with speed, a tight end with size and a precise route runner) displays the attributes that make Darby an enticing prospect and potential lock-down corner in Ryan's system.
Darby owns a special feel for route recognition, an innate skill for defensive backs. I watched his film on NFL Game Pass; often, he will react to the route before the receiver. He is a hammerhead shark on the field, plowing through receivers. He possesses the strength, speed, quick hips, lateral agility and physicality to succeed in one-on-one matchups. At 193 pounds, he's a violent hitter -- willing to stick his nose in against the run, something that can't be said of all rookie corners -- and a sure tackler.
Darby's rookie stats match up to his impressive game film. In his first season, the corner allowed a passer rating of 67.0 in coverage and gave up just three touchdowns, per NFL Media Research. The 67.0 passer rating allowed ranked 19th-best in the NFL among cornerbacks targeted 40-plus times in 2015.
And oh, did quarterbacks target the rookie. Darby was thrown at 107 times, fifth-most in the NFL, but he allowed a completion percentage of just 50.5.
Playing on the left side of Ryan's defense, Darby didn't always match up against the opponent's top receiver. Yet, when he did, he won plenty.
The quartet of plays illustrates Darby's full skill set. He jumps on a route, makes a sure open-field tackle, utilizes the sideline to push the play out of bounds and bats away an underthrown ball in the end zone.
Obstacles he'll face
Though he possesses the speed to run with receivers, Darby sometimes struggled with deep routes, allowing a reception of 20 or more yards in six games, per PFF. Darby specifically struggled with deep, in-breaking routes -- somewhat a byproduct of the system. Negating big plays is a must if he's to truly make a leap in Year 2.
While judging corners merely on interceptions is faulty, compiling more than the two picks he had last season -- one on an underthrown pass and another on a quarterback-receiver miscommunication -- will boost Darby's profile. There were several plays last season in which he beat the receiver to the spot but failed to make a game-changing pick.
Bump-and-run man coverage is a Ryan staple. But when asked this offseason what he needs to work on more, Darby noted his off coverage: "[During workouts] I wanted to work on my 'off' a lot more, because we aren't off as much, but that's something I want to be comfortable in, as well." We won't argue.
Given that he plays in a Ryan defense, the question of whether or not Darby is capable of handling the Darrelle Revis role and traveling with an opponent's top receiver will surely come up. The presence of Stephon Gilmore (for at least one more year) on the opposite side doesn't necessitate Darby moving around the formation. But if injury strikes, it will be interesting to see if Ryan trusts his young DB to take on No. 1 targets head-to-head for an entire game.
Expectations for 2016
As a rookie, Darby ranked just outside the top corners in the NFL. In Year 2, he'll nudge his name further into the national conversation.
Darby was the bright spot on a disappointing Bills defense in 2015. Imagine what he might do if Buffalo generates an actual pass rush in 2016.
I expect quarterbacks to start looking elsewhere to throw the ball, negating some of Darby's chances to make plays. His passes defensed totals (he had 21 in 2015, fifth-most in the NFL) could take a dip, but his impact will take a leap. Darby should be touted as one of the next up-and-comers at corner and could earn his first Pro Bowl nod. He and Gilmore also will push for the honor of top corner tandem in the NFL by the year's end.
-- Kevin Patra
Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns
When Hue Jackson took over in January as Cleveland's head coach, his immediate challenge was clear: transforming the fortunes of a talent-poor offense that has floated through the league without an identity since 1999. Sporting one of the NFL's most unproven gaggles of skill players, the Browns are hardly fodder for Making the Leap -- right?
Wrong, because of what we already know about Jackson and his ability to flip the switch on young running backs.
Why Johnson is on the list
The Browns didn't have much to smile about last season, but Johnson's handiwork was a treat that fell under the radar. The former Miami star didn't see a heavy load as a runner, but he had 61 receptions, making him just the eighth back in league history to record 60-plus catches as a rookie. While much of that production came in games where the Browns were mired in garbage time, Johnson's physical gifts can't be denied.
At 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Johnson overcame summertime concussion and hamstring issues to emerge as Cleveland's most tantalizing threat. Browns run-game coordinator Kirby Wilson recently called the second-year back an "ultimate weapon for us," saying: "Duke has a lot of those qualities that a lot of great running backs have, in terms of being a receiver."
Last year's tape proves Wilson's point, with Johnson flashing 4.54 speed, outstanding lateral movement and good vision as a pass catcher. Playing with three different Cleveland quarterbacks, Johnson made plays no matter who was under center -- and in any type of weather. Check him out in snowy December against the playoff-bound Steelers:
Johnson is on the small end of the spectrum for a potential feature back, but he hit the NFL at the same height and weight as early-period Frank Gore. Former Browns general manager Ray Farmer compared Johnson to Giovani Bernard and Brian Westbrook, while NFL Media's Bucky Brooks drew a pre-draft parallel to LeSean McCoy. The Bernard typecasting is especially apt, considering Jackson set Gio free in Cincy as a change-of-pace weapon alongside Jeremy Hill.
All the attention on Johnson's pass-catching prowess overshadows his skills as a runner. As Miami's career leader in rushing yards, Johnson posted a whopping 1,652 yards as a senior, along with 26 rushing touchdowns over three seasons. He saw just 104 totes as a rookie, but it's hard to ignore how Johnson plowed through Seattle's nasty defense in a late-season loss. This 39-yard blast up the gut was capped by a stiff arm on Pro-Bowler Earl Thomas:
"I think he's going to have a great year," Jackson told The Plain Dealer in May. "Duke has suddenness and quickness and he can go catch the ball with anybody. He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost."
Obstacles he'll face
The obvious obstacle for Johnson is the team he plays for.
Cleveland has rotated through quarterbacks and struggled to build a balanced attack for a decade-plus. Nothing has changed on paper, with the enigmatic Robert Griffin III ticketed as the presumptive leader in the clubhouse to start Week 1. It's entirely possible that Josh McCown, Austin Davis or even rookie Cody Kessler could make starts this season, which won't help Johnson's development.
The Browns are a team in tremendous flux. No roster is more fluid. If rookie wideout Corey Coleman fails to take off, defenses will be free to key on Johnson week after week. If, though, Jackson can coax solid play under center and get the most out of his young roster, Johnson -- and his numbers -- will benefit tremendously in Year 2.
Expectations for 2016
Instead of finding himself on the bubble under a new regime, Johnson has already won over Jackson, who acknowledged that the second-year pro reminds him of Bernard and could play a similar role in 2016. Jackson also sees plenty of hope in backfield-mate Isaiah Crowell, saying the two "are as good as I've seen in a while," adding "their talent is extreme."
Draping Browns skill players with this kind of praise feels like lip service, but Jackson backed it up by ignoring the running back position in the draft. Outside of adding former Bengals back Terrell Watson, nobody else was brought aboard, leaving Jackson to tell reporters: "It says that I'm very happy with the guys that are here."
Cleveland's offense is flush with holes and unanswered questions, but Johnson caught 61 balls as a first-year pro mired on a chaotic team. Eighty receptions is entirely possible, along with a bigger role on the ground. His 379 rushing yards could double for a Browns club likely to finish in the top 10 in rushing attempts -- just like Jackson's Bengals did a season ago.
-- Marc Sessler
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
Why Mariota is on the list
Marcus Mariota's first NFL pass, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener last year, encompassed, well, the worst of the Vince Young era in Tennessee. It was a wobbly, staccato mess of poor footwork and first-blitz fear that resulted in intended target Bishop Sankey getting blown up by a defender.
Two passes later? A fireball over the middle to Delanie Walker between two defenders. And the very next play? A quick flick to Kendall Wright for a 52-yard touchdown. The latter throw was perfectly emblematic of Mariota's cool. After a rocky start to his debut drive, he quickly noticed the mismatch between his speedy wideout and Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. He pitched a strike mid-stride and converted his first touchdown in the NFL without so much as a fist-bump.
Mariota can battle like a veteran and already has off-the-charts poise. That is what we don't discuss enough about the 22-year-old signal caller. Sure, he is brilliant. He is mobile. He comes from a next-gen offense in college that opens the door for many possibilities at the NFL level. But mostly, he is an old quarterback soul in a young man's body.
When Mariota came out of college, the chatter from scouts and general managers all had a similar theme: If you want to win more games in your first season, draft Jameis Winston first overall. If you want to win more games over the next decade, draft Marcus Mariota. After watching nearly every one of his snaps from Year 1, we tend to agree.
Add in some interesting Mariota tidbits, compiled by the folks over at the Titans' official website, and his prospects become all the more enticing:
» He became the first player since Walter Payton (in 1983) to score touchdowns of 40-plus yards passing, running and receiving in the same season.
» He is the only player in NFL history to throw for more than 250 yards and three touchdowns in a game while also running for 100-plus yards.
» He tied Peyton Manning for most games (four) by a rookie with three-plus touchdown passes.
That's why Mariota is a prime candidate to make the leap in 2016.
Obstacles he'll face
Mariota's durability is certainly an issue. If the Titans are moving in the direction offensively that we think they are -- a hybrid of the systems employed last year by the Panthers, Chiefs, Eagles and Seahawks -- Mariota will find himself in the line of fire more often. That is, unless he can perfect the Alex Smith/Russell Wilson school of smartly emphasizing -- but not counting on -- quarterback mobility.
Not exactly an ideal proposition for a rail-thin, 6-foot-4 body, even if Mariota reportedly added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason to get in the 225-pound range.
Some of this will be negated by a coaching staff that is now well-aware of what might happen if risks are taken. Mariota was kept in a game after spraining his MCL early in the 2015 season. Then there was the matter of having him start off a game under center against the Carolina Panthers, a team that boasts one of the best defensive lines in football. And then there was the matter of having him run zone read in clear blitz situations behind the weaker of his two offensive tackles on a divoted, slippery field in Jacksonville during a Thursday night game.
There were all the typical rookie mistakes. He shoved certain passes into double coverage. He was slow getting out of the huddle at times, once getting flagged for delay of game inside the Titans' 5-yard line.
For each one of his setbacks, Mariota has a wonderful rebuttal -- and he's smart enough to hang around the NFL for a long time to come.
Expectations for 2016
If we projected Mariota's rookie stats out to a complete 2016, we would end up with roughly 3,757 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That is encouraging, no matter how anyone looks at it -- those numbers would be on par, in some respects, with Russell Wilson's early returns in Seattle. The next step is driving that comparison even further.
The Titans are not built to win as many games as the Seahawks in 2016, but we would like to see Mariota's fourth-quarter comebacks total (two) double this year. We would like to see his quarterback rating rise and his turnovers decrease. We would like to see him spread the ball around more. (Delanie Walker had almost twice as many targets as the next pass catcher on the roster last year.) The Titans should be less of a jumbled mess this year and hopefully will not fire a second straight coach in the middle of a season, further railroading Mariota's chance of having a consistent offense.
If it sounds like we're placing lofty expectations on Mariota's shoulders, it's because we believe he can handle them. There's no reason he cannot be a top-12 quarterback in 2016.
-- Conor Orr
Lamar Miller, RB, Houston Texans
Fast-forward to the present day. The fifth-year back is rich and locked in as Houston's replacement for Arian Foster. With Miller free from the shackles of former Dolphins coordinator Bill Lazor's maddening offense and playing for a head coach who loves to pound the rock, we predict he'll raise his game to All-Pro heights in Houston.
Why Miller is on the list
This is actually the second time Miller has cracked our Making The Leap list. Back in 2013, Chris Wesseling wrote of Miller's potential to provide an upgrade over Reggie Bush in Miami. Miller did just that, but he never seemed to fully gain the trust or respect of his coaching staff. He averaged just 15 touches per game his final season with the Dolphins, yet still managed nearly 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns.
Miller will find himself with a workload more commensurate with his production in a Texans offense that should continue to lean on the rushing game, even with the addition of quarterback Brock Osweiler. The Texans ranked first and fifth in the league in rushing attempts in O'Brien's first two seasons in Houston. Barring injury, Miller will get the lion's share of carries in a backfield not heavy on depth. (Back off, Alfred Blue superfans.)
So what else is working in Miller's favor, besides an increased workload and better coaching? Well, Miller also has become a better, more complete player over his first four pro seasons. The 25-year-old still has quick feet, blazing speed and home-run ability, but he showed substantial improvement as a blocker and as a receiver out of the backfield. Analytics site ProFootballFocus.com ranked Miller as the third-best pass-blocking running back in the game last season, and he set career highs in receptions (47), receiving yards (397), yards per catch (8.4) and receiving touchdowns (two) in 2015.
The Texans signed a player who appears to have just entered his prime. That's how you win in free agency.
Obstacles he'll face
Though we don't expect it, it's certainly possible the Texans alter their offense after signing Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal. In terms of receivers, Osweiler has a superstar in DeAndre Hopkins and a compelling rookie in first-round pick Will Fuller, so the Texans might look to add more balance to their attack. Then again, we have no real evidence that Osweiler is capable of carrying an offense after his mixed-bag cameo as the Broncos' starter last season.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Miller is the wear and tear of an NFL season. Adrian Peterson, last year's leading rusher, finished 2015 with 357 touches -- 116 more than Miller in his final season in Miami. The Dolphins kept Miller's legs fresh with limited usage, but of course, that creates the question of whether Miller can handle a bigger role. Miami obviously didn't think so, and perhaps the Dolphins know something the Texans don't.
Expectations for 2016
There's a reason Miller will go in the first round in fantasy leagues this summer: The arrow is pointing up for him to have the best season of his career. Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle wrote that Miller is "slated for a versatile role as an inside and outside running presence who figures to be a healthy part of the passing game." That all checks out for us, and Miller has the natural ability to turn that opportunity into stud production.
Miller had to escape from Miami to find out where his ceiling is. Don't be surprised if that ceiling is high enough to make Miller a premier back by season's end.
-- Dan Hanzus
Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett, WRs, Indianapolis Colts
Why Moncrief and Dorsett are on the list
Moncrief boasts the physical tools of a No. 1 receiver, measuring 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds with 4.40 speed, a 40-inch vertical and an 11-foot broad jump. He slid to 90th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft due to concerns that he was raw as a route runner and body catcher while playing with underwhelming quarterbacks at Ole Miss.
Although he struggled to earn Luck's trust as a rookie, Moncrief was well on his way to a breakout campaign through October of his second season. Had he not lost his starting quarterback in Week 9, just after running into the shutdown secondaries of Carolina and Denver, his "leap" would have already occurred.
We saw flashes of Cordarrelle Patterson in Moncrief's rookie game film, as a dynamic tackle breaker limited to go routes, slants, crossers, bubble screens and end-arounds. His second season was far more promising, as he bypassed veteran Andre Johnson in the Colts' pecking order while picking up the full route tree.
Moncrief is a do-everything wide receiver with strong run-after-catch ability and DeAndre Hopkins-like physicality and acrobatics near the sideline and in the end zone. What impressed me most on NFL Game Pass, though, were the reliable hands he showed while hauling in passes from a quintet of scattershot Colts quarterbacks.
It didn't take long for the University of Miami star to endear himself to coaches, however. When NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport visited Colts camp last August, he came away with the lasting impression that the entire organization was excited to be adding a superstar. Beyond the obvious speed and playmaking ability in space, the Colts raved about Dorsett's hands, attitude, instincts and football aptitude.
Given that he was drawing comparisons to DeSean Jackson, it was natural to believe Dorsett would be an instant-impact player for an offense that seemed poised to take the league by storm.
Obstacles they'll face
Dorsett simply wasn't ready for a major role entering his first NFL season. He exhibited a case of the yips in the season opener, muffing a pair of punts to go with a fair catch near his own 5-yard line. Though he was an offensive focal point in Week 2, he simply couldn't get on the same page with Luck, who misconnected on a handful of deep throws in Dorsett's direction.
As then-offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton pointed out in 2014, Hamilton's offense put young Colts receivers at a slight disadvantage compared to other rookies, because they had to learn the X, Z, slot and the inside (F) spot in the offense, rather than concentrating on one position. With Dorsett struggling to master the offense, his targets dwindled until he went down with a late-October fractured fibula that sidelined him for the next six weeks. Between the early-season hiccups and the midseason injury, the Colts' first-round pick didn't show signs of paying off until he was featured in the Week 17 game plan.
The obstacles are more concrete for Moncrief, who missed the offseason program while recovering from toe surgery. As long as he's fully healthy entering training camp late this month, he's locked into the No. 2 receiver role.
If he's going to leapfrog Hilton as Luck's go-to target, though, the Colts will have to pull him off of special teams duty. As of late last season, he was still playing the "gunner" role on punts.
Expectations for 2016
When I began this project, I had relatively equal expectations for both receivers. After watching the 2015 game film, though, it's evident that Moncrief is the NFL's premier breakout candidate at the position, while Dorsett is ticketed for the third receiver role.
That's not to say Dorsett won't add playmaking juice to Luck's aerial attack. By the end of last season, new coordinator Rob Chudzinski was fashioning a Brandin Cooks-like role for Dorsett, featuring jet sweeps, bubble screens, quick slants and even a backfield appearance to go with the early-season shot plays downfield.
While Dorsett is the wild card in Indianapolis' offense, Moncrief has already earned Luck's trust, learned to find open spots in zone defenses, reeled in a series of catches with a high degree of difficulty and emerged as the team's best offensive player for stretches of the 2015 season. His outlook is especially promising after he demonstrated an impressive efficiency that belied his quarterbacks' struggles in 2015.
Moncrief should be a lock for his first 1,000-yard campaign, taking advantage of the single coverage provided by Hilton's downfield prowess in an offense that is poised to return to its lofty 2014 heights.
-- Chris Wesseling
DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
Why Parker is on the list
Parker doesn't need to be open to make big plays. Even better: Tannehill knows it. Coasting down the stretch of another depressing Dolphins campaign, Tannehill looked determined to test-drive Parker late in 2015. The rookie responded by racking up 445 yards -- at a robust clip of 20.2 yards per reception -- in Miami's final six games. Quite encouraging, especially considering how Parker's first NFL season had transpired up to that point.
As late as Thanksgiving, Parker looked destined for a lost rookie campaign. Taken No. 14 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Parker struggled to shake the foot injury that limited him to six games in his senior season at Louisville. He barely practiced until a week before the regular season, and then he had a tough time moving up a crowded depth chart. Parker's year only turned around when the Dolphins had no other choice. If not for Rishard Matthews' Week 12 injury, Parker wouldn't be on this list.
The production to follow was hard to ignore. Parker had five plays over 30 yards in an offense that had failed to stretch the field all year. (Makes you wonder why the Dolphins wasted snaps on Greg Jennings for so long.) The incredible instincts and ball skills Parker had displayed in college suddenly reappeared on the NFL gridiron. His best value came from tracking deep balls, with his deceptive speed and long strides swallowing up defenders. Parker uses his 6-foot-3 frame to wall off cornerbacks and high-point the ball. His performance in Week 17 against the Patriots (five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown) helped ensure New England would not have home-field advantage in the AFC title game, possibly costing Miami's rivals another Super Bowl.
The NFL Game Pass film shows Parker is more than a simple deep threat. His ability on in-breaking routes matches up with Tannehill's strength as a passer. Despite his lanky frame, Parker does some of his best work fighting for the ball in tight quarters.
It's remarkable that Parker made such an impact when he was clearly still so raw. (More on that below.) But the final three games of the season showed Parker finding holes in zone coverage and executing timing routes. He doesn't look like the most deceptive or strongest runner, but he broke seven tackles in limited chances. In short: He's not just an athlete.
You could argue that Parker was unlucky last year, despite his strong finishing kick. We charted his 59 targets, and 12 of them were absolutely uncatchable. Parker generally did a great job pulling down contested catches, a trait that should only help more in the red zone.
Parker won't have to wait until December to make an impact this season. Matthews left town in free agency and the starting job is all Parker's now. Parker predictably got the "sky is the limit" offseason puff piece in response. We stubbornly believe Tannehill is set up to improve this year because of the pieces around him, including Parker. Part of that Tannequation -- a vastly improved offensive line and the removal of a lackluster offensive coaching staff -- should only help Parker, too.
Obstacles he'll face
The highlight-reel plays were great. But can Parker adjust when defenses jam him at the line of scrimmage?
The low point of Parker's late-season jaunt through defensive backfields came during a grim Week 14 prime-time game against the Giants. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara took residence in Parker's kitchen all night, and the rookie rarely had a counter move to get free. Parker recorded low scores on Matt Harmon's "Reception Perception" in part because of his struggles to get off press coverage. That's a problem if he keeps lining up as Miami's "X" receiver.
Parker's route running sometimes looked sloppy or lazy, especially when he wasn't the primary receiver on the play. More than once, he failed to help out Tannehill in scramble situations.
The bright side: Parker was learning the pro game on Sundays after a lost offseason and a regular season marred by injury and erratic practice time. His best three games were his last three. While he might never be a sudden receiver who gets separation every snap, his ball skills can make up for it.
Expectations for 2016
Every football dork has a "type" of receiver he loves to watch. I'll admit that Parker isn't my type. He's not yet a crisp route runner who can win every down and line up all over the field. There is a risk of falling in love with Parker's highlight reel while ignoring the development he needs. And yet, I can't see him failing to top 1,000 yards in his second season, like a poor man's DeAndre Hopkins. There will be quiet weeks that frustrate fantasy owners, but Parker should score enough big outings to make the leap.
In this era of "traits" and endless access to game film, a receiver's ability to catch the ball can get overlooked. Parker has an 80-inch wingspan with suction cups for hands. Even when he's not open, Parker sees the ball and catches the ball. He can figure out the rest along the way.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
Denzel Perryman, LB, San Diego Chargers
There are plenty of reasons why you don't know Denzel Perryman. He wasn't a permanent starter last year until Week 11 and played on a forgettable edition of one of football's most forgotten franchises, the San Diego Chargers. He lines up as a thumping 3-4 inside linebacker, a position almost as out of step with modern NFL trends as a wingback.
If Perryman proved anything last year, it's that he's going to make you pay attention anyway.
Why Perryman is on the list
That was the collective reaction of 63,000 Chargers fans to Denzel Perryman's highlight-reel tackle, an MMA-style lift-and-destroy that planted Browns running back Isaiah Crowell into the turf. This play from Week 4, which announced Perryman's arrival, was instructive for so many that followed.
His heat-seeking hits can take your breath away, just like the runners he smothers. Perryman explodes through his opponents, often removing the earth before sending their cleats airborne.
The quality of the hits make him popular with fans, but the quantity of Perryman's run stops forced him into "Making the Leap." Perryman had a team-high 51 tackles with two sacks in his final seven games, ranking second in run defense among inside linebackers during that span, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison ranked higher in "stop percentage," proof that Perryman forced negative plays.
The key to Perriman's game: A unique combination of patience, smarts and suddenness. The 23-year-old linebacker rarely takes a wrong step, processing the information in front of him until he decodes the right gap to shoot. The speed in which Perryman converts a decision into action makes him special. He's like a quarterback with a quick release, gaining an extra half-second on his opponents.
NFL prominence wasn't supposed to happen so quickly for Perryman. Drafted No. 48 overall out of Miami, Perryman began last season behind Manti Te'o and Donald Butler, who hada seven-year, $51.8 million contract. After an early tear as a special teamer, Perryman was too good to be denied. Big-money Butler was benched, then released in the offseason.
Now Perryman and Te'o form a promising duo on the field, and are "nearly inseparable" off it. Perryman is the muscle to back up Te'o's heady finesse game. Perryman doesn't have the notoriety of Te'o or Butler's old, big contract, but he's the one most likely to be leading this defense for years to come.
Obstacles he'll face
"Run-down specialist" is either a back-handed compliment or a flat-out insult in today's NFL. When teams are throwing on third-and-1, what is a run down anyhow?
Perryman needs to improve as a pass defender, where he was average as a rookie. He played more passing-down snaps as the season wore on. In the team's final two weeks, Perryman acquitted himself well in pass coverage, while playing 87 percent of the team's snaps. He's never going to be Luke Kuechly in coverage, but he didn't give up many big plays. To take the next step into the upper echelon of linebackers, Perryman will need to limit the passes completed his way. Elite run defenders earn respect. Linebackers who make an impact in the passing game earn money.
It also won't help Perryman's profile that he plays in San Diego. The Chargers are no longer prime-time game favorites and they haven't ranked as a top-10 scoring defense since 2010. There is an outside chance that changes this year. While the Bolts don't have more talent than the Seahawks, Perryman leads an intriguing blend of young defenders including Joey Bosa, Jason Verrett, Melvin Ingram, Corey Liuget and Casey Hayward. If this group comes together, Perryman's star should only rise with it.
Perryman is a throwback, a player we can imagine fitting in as a 1980s Giants linebacker or with the early-2000s Patriots group. In a league where versatility is prized, there is still room for someone who does one thing exceptionally well. By the end of Perryman's second season, more folks should recognize him as one of the best run-stopping linebackers in football.
A Pro Bowl berth might have to wait another year, but Perryman could rank among the league's leading tacklers starting now. There are many more running backs to de-cleat, and many more gasps to inspire.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
Clive Walford, TE, Oakland Raiders
Why Walford is on the list
Walford's rookie outing was a tale of two seasons.
Oakland's newbie tight end operated as a roving phantom over his first eight games, seeing just 12 targets and only teasing fans with the raw athleticism that made him a third-round pick in 2015. His second half was a revelation, though, with 39 targets -- giving him a total of 51 on the season -- coming after Week 9.
While the slow start prevented a monster stat line, Walford eclipsed veteran Mychal Rivera in the lineup by mid-November and gave young quarterback Derek Carr an exciting new option through the air. On tape, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder displays a consistent ability to break off coverage and provide Carr an open window to shoot for. This catch-and-weave against Denver's Super Bowl-winning secondary in Week 5 was a hint of what would come:
Big plays were few and far between out of the gate, but Walford finished the year with five grabs of 20-plus yards, while often using his big frame to plow for extra real estate. Teams angling to neutralize Walford with linebackers and slow-to-the-draw safeties often paid the price, as San Diego learned in Week 7:
Walford's 4.79 speed and 35-inch vertical leap came in handy as he turned into a middle-of-the-field threat for Carr, who came to trust the rookie's hands. After muffing just two of 58 targets during his senior year at Miami, Walford finished his first NFL season without a registered drop. Not afraid to tangle with defenders, the rookie popped off the screen in a December outing against Kansas City, slicing up the Chiefs for gains of 16, 15 and 13 yards. Take a look:
Obstacles he'll face
By all accounts, Walford has a chance to write his own story in Year 2. His 28 catches for 329 yards and three scores mirror the rookie production of some of the game's finest tight ends. Rob Gronkowski put up just 546 yards as a rookie (though he did notch 10 TDs), while Tony Gonzalez (368) and Jimmy Graham (356) were underwhelming out of the gate.
Barring the unexpected, Walford has a clear path to the starting job. While Rivera looms as a likely partner on two-tight-end sets, Lee Smith, Gabe Holmes, Colton Underwood and Ryan O'Malley aren't about to overshadow Walford. In terms of racking up big numbers, his biggest obstacle is wideout Amari Cooper, set to serve as Oakland's premier weapon for years to come. Veteran wideout Michael Crabtree shouldn't be ignored, either, as a presence who could pull from Walford's production.
Expectations for 2016
Walford hit Oakland at the ideal time.
With a promising young quarterback in place, the Raiders offense appears ready to make the leap -- pulling Walford along for the ride. Assuming he holds down the starting spot (if not, please set this article on fire), Walford's second half to last season provides a road map for what to expect in 2016. It's safe to suggest that he'll double his catch total and yardage, but can he jump into the stratosphere like some of the game's top tight ends have done in Year 2 of their careers?
-- Marc Sessler
Leonard Williams, DT, New York Jets
This is the same team that took Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino, Blair Thomas over Emmitt Smith and Vernon Gholston over Joe Flacco. But give credit where credit is due: When a gift fell into Gang Green's lap two drafts ago, the organization didn't let the mistakes of its past undermine its future.
Williams was an instant contributor as a rookie and is primed to become a true breakout star under Todd Bowles in 2016.
Why Williams is on the list
To understand Williams' impact as a rookie, you have to look beyond numbers. Williams amassed just three sacks in his first season and didn't get credited with a full sack of his own until Week 13 against the Giants. But "The Big Cat" was a disruptive force when on the field. He led the Jets with 32 quarterback hits and was a major reason why they allowed just a single rushing touchdown in their base defense all season, according to analytics site ProFootballFocus.com.
He recorded 811 defensive snaps, second on the team to Muhammad Wilkerson and third among all defensive tackles. Williams did all this at just 21 years old -- he was the youngest Jet on the roster. When Williams wasn't on the field, the Jets got worse. Per ESPN Stats & Information, New York allowed 4.8 yards per play when Williams was on the field compared to 5.9 yards when he was not.
Williams is a specimen. Don't even think of asking a poor running back to pick him up in pass protection ...
And while we wouldn't usually showcase a big gainer by the opposition in an exercise like this, it's hugely impressive to watch a 6-foot-5, 302-pound lineman save a touchdown by making a tackle 33 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Five teams passed on this guy.
Obstacles he'll face
About that sack total.
The Jets didn't draft Williams thinking his ceiling would be as a stout run defender and effective pocket pusher. The team needs impact players who can put the quarterback on the turf, and Williams must take the next step as a pass rusher.
"I got to the quarterback a lot last year, but they were just hits; those aren't the stats I'm looking for," Williams said last month, via ESPN.com. "I want to get sacks. Those little seconds matter, getting to the quarterback."
The Jets removed Williams from the lineup during third-down passing situations for a stretch in 2015, a clear sign Bowles saw that as a deficiency in the rookie's game. To that point, Williams focused his offseason training on making improvements in those passing situations.
There are some questions on New York's talented defensive line. Nose tackle Damon Harrison -- one of the best run defenders in football -- signed with the Giants in free agency. A suspension will keep Sheldon Richardson out of the lineup in Week 1for the second consecutive year. Wilkerson -- perhaps the Jets' best player -- is coming back from a broken leg and is currently embroiled in an ugly contract dispute that's been overshadowed by the Ryan Fitzpatrick saga on the other side of the ball.
Expectations for 2016
New York Post beat man Brian Costello wrote during minicamp that Williams played fast, looked more sure of himself and "was dominant at times" during practice. Jets defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, an old-school guy not known for hyperbole, told reporters that Williams has taken his game to "another level."
"He's physically capable of being one of the better defensive linemen in the league," Johnson said, via NJ.com.
Williams has the tools, mind-set and coaches to become the Jets' version of Richard Seymour for the next decade. It's "those little seconds" that matter, and we expect The Big Cat to make them up in 2016.
-- Dan Hanzus