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 jumping from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Why Johnson is on the list
Johnson's debut season was an unqualified success. From the time he entered the starting lineup in Week 13 through the regular-season finale, no NFL player averaged more yards from scrimmage per game than the former Northern Iowa star's 131.7. Teaming with a reborn Chris Johnson, he transformed Arizona's backfield from a weakness to one of the strongest positions on the roster.
Even to the casual football fan, it's self-evident that Johnson has what it takes to beat out his more experienced counterpart for the starting job in a high-octane offense. He's on this list, however, because his ceiling is as high as that of any running back in the game.
Like a superhero acquiring his powers via exposure to a mutagenic compound, Johnson is a former wide receiver who retained all benefits of that position when he rocked up to nearly 230 pounds and moved to the backfield.
Among active starters boasting a three-down skill set, he ranks with Forte and Le'Veon Bell as the most natural route runners and pass catchers. Three games into Johnson's career, Bruce Arians already had him lining up out wide and in the slot as a runner/receiver hybrid. Arians was actually far more creative with Johnson as a moveable chess piece before the rookie was thrust into the workhorse role in November.
The Packers were one team that paid the price for underestimating Johnson's mismatch potential in the passing game. After hauling in three passes for a season-high 88 yards in Week 16, Johnson revealed that Green Bay started with a linebacker in coverage, adjusted to a safety and finally capitulated with a dime cornerback by the end of the game.
"He kind of reminds me of Marshall Faulk," Mathieu raved on the sideline. "But he's just bigger."
That size advantage allows Johnson to succeed as a well-rounded runner in addition to his sterling receiving ability. He's the rare back capable of outracing the game's fastest defensive backs in open spaces and powering through defensive linemen and linebackers in the trenches.
A freakish athlete, he launched an astonishing 41.5-inch vertical leap at the NFL Scouting Combine and recorded the fastest speed by a running back as a ball carrier in 2015, per Next Gen Stats.
The scariest thought for opposing defenses is that Johnson is just "scratching the surface" of his potential, as general manager Steve Keim pointed out in February.
"Just going back and looking at some of things David did on our tape just recently, from a skill set standpoint, it's scary," Keim said. "At 6-1, 226 pounds, a guy who can bend and make lateral cuts the way he does and have the ball skills and the matchup possibilities out of the backfield ... I think he could end up being one of the better all-around backs in the NFL when you look at being a complete player."
A week later, Arians raised eyebrows when he conceded that the dynamic 24-year-old has a chance to be "one of the all-time best" at his position.
Obstacles he'll face
As is the case with all transcendent football talents, Johnson's primary obstacle is avoiding career-altering injuries.
Outside of that all-encompassing caveat, though, there's little reason to believe Johnson won't capitalize on his vast potential. The issues that threatened to hound him last August and September -- ball security and a tendency to break runs to the outside -- were afterthoughts by the end of his rookie season.
Johnson does so many things so well, including kickoff returns, that Arians will have to exercise prudence in saddling up his multi-dimensional back as a workhorse.
Expectations for 2016
At the point of that mid-September forecast, the one concern Arians harbored was how Johnson would handle too much success too soon.
From the front office's perspective, that's no longer an issue. Beyond the obvious physical gifts, Keim has raved about Johnson as "great young man" who is already "highly thought of" in the organization.
Arians conceded earlier this offseason that the second-year back has "earned the right to be the bell cow" going forward.
What does that mean for Johnson's 2016 prospects?
Considering his near-peerless receiving ability, goal-line prowess and expected workload, it's not unreasonable to roll the dice on Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts. His ceiling this season is 2,000 yards from scrimmage and the league lead in touchdowns.
Beyond this season, the sky is the limit.
"You were the back I wanted because I thought you were better than Gurley," "All or Nothing" captured running backs coach Stump Mitchell assuring Johnson in their 2015 exit interview. "The Hall of Fame, you should have a bust when your ass is done playing. And hopefully, if you can stay healthy -- I mean I've coached some good backs -- ain't no question you're a Hall of Fame guy. None whatsoever."
-- Chris Wesseling
Byron Jones, FS, Dallas Cowboys
Sometimes the formula for a player bursting into the national consciousness is simple: talent + opportunity = Making the Leap.
Byron Jones certainly has the talent, as evidenced by his successful rookie season. The Cowboys tossed the kitchen sink at the defensive back in his first year, and Jones responded by immediately becoming the team's best secondary defender. In Year 2, Dallas plans to make Jones a permanent safety, which will give him the opportunity to become the ballhawk the Cowboys desperately need.
Why Jones is on the list
Even in a league boasting some of the best athletes in the world, Jones' athleticism leaps off the screen. It isn't merely in spandex at the NFL Scouting Combine that the 6-foot, 205-pound defensive back can display his natural ability. His game film shows consistent flashes of speed and leaping ability, which he uses to swat away passes.
During Jones' rookie campaign, the Cowboys asked him to be their do-it-all defender. He started seven games at safety and four at corner. He covered receivers in the slot, he defended on the outside of the formation. He took on tight ends, tackled running backs in space and played free safety, strong safety and even a hybrid linebacker role in certain formations. As NFL defenses scramble to find their own movable chess piece, Jones proved he can succeed in whatever matchup he's tossed into.
However, it's clear when watching him on NFL Game Pass that he's best suited at the free safety spot. From this deep location, Jones excels at reading and diagnosing plays -- both the run and the pass. Playing safety allows him to attack downhill, and he owns the speed to recover, even when he takes a false first step. That speed also ensures Dallas has a defender on the back end who can chase down plays from across the field when necessary.
Jones is solid in run support, especially from his safety spot, but where his skill really shines is in pass coverage: Pro Football Focus ranked him seventh among safeties in coverage in 2015. While not always clean technique-wise as a rookie, Jones wasn't afraid to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and he has the speed to stick with receivers running across the formation.
His physicality is immediately obvious. Unafraid to deliver a big hit when necessary, he tussled with many bigger pass catchers. As a hybrid player, Jones certainly will be asked to cover tight ends on many occasions in 2016. He got some solid foundation work in that area last year.
Over the course of 16 games, Jones faced the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson, Larry Donnell, Zach Ertz and Richard Rodgers, among others. While Gronk taught him a few things about the difficulty in defending superhero-sized tight ends, Jones did not back down, played physical and appeared to learn from his mistakes each time -- rarely duplicating an error.
Jones' size and versatility also make him an asset in red-zone coverage, where he can take on bigger tight ends, run with slot receivers on quick pass plays and thwart the size advantage of taller outside wideouts.
The Cowboys' smart decision to move Jones to safety full-time will free him to become a playmaker solely on the back end of the formation in 2016, while remaining a flexible chess piece who can cover up for weaknesses or injury in a pinch.
Obstacles he'll face
While Jones possesses the athleticism to become a ballhawk, he can improve his skills when the ball is in the air. He earned nine pass breakups as a rookie but didn't intercept one ball, something Jones found "pitiful."
"I didn't get any interceptions, which is pitiful for being out there that many plays," he told reporters in March. "That's something I've been working on in the offseason. I'm looking forward to going into this season kind of having an idea about what to expect."
Improved route recognition will aid Jones' ability to make those game-changing plays. Several times last season, he was a half-step slow in diagnosing a route, which negated chances to break up or intercept a pass.
The anticipated return of corner Orlando Scandrick from injury allows the Cowboys to move Jones to safety permanently, but if injuries strike, that plan could change. Some of Jones' biggest struggles as a rookie came from the corner spot. If he's asked to move around the defense as much as he did in 2015, it could end up curtailing his growth.
Expectations for 2016
The Cowboys badly need a ballhawk on the back end, something they've lacked for years. Dallas hasn't had a defensive player record more than six interceptions in a single season since 1985. The lack of interceptions last year was a team-wide problem for Dallas, as the Cowboys totaled just eight picks -- Jeff Heath led the way with a mere two.
Given Jones' move to safety on a full-time basis, we expect the defense to force more turnovers. While he might not morph into an Ed Reed-type playmaker in his second pro season, the interceptions will come as he gets more comfortable eyeing the quarterback and making quick breaks on the ball.
With his athleticism, speed and versatility, Jones will become the biggest playmaker for a Cowboys secondary in desperate need of game-changing performers.
-- Kevin Patra
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks built a championship organization under Pete Carroll and John Schneider on a foundation of players discarded, overlooked, undervalued and misjudged by the football cognoscenti. Seattle swiped these diamonds deemed imperfect by others to construct a dominant NFC power.
Through this prism, we view Tyler Lockett. Despite a prolific college career as a returner and receiver -- one that saw him set several Kansas State records -- the 5-foot-10, 182 pound Lockett slid to the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft while being knocked for his lack of prototypical size. As a rookie, Lockett quickly dashed those concerns, becoming a dynamic deep threat and earning first-team All-Pro honors as a kick returner.
Why Lockett is on the list
From the start of his rookie year, Lockett was one of the best kick and punt returners in the NFL. Literally. His first punt return of the regular season went for a touchdown.
Possessing superior vision and speed, he hits holes in open space, is shifty in tight quarters and quick enough to outflank onrushing tacklers. Lockett led the NFL with 1,231 total return yards last season and is the only rookie in the Super Bowl era to record six-plus receiving touchdowns, one-plus kick return for a TD and one-plus punt return for a TD.
We've seen dynamic rookie return men sparkle before, only to fall flat in other aspects of the pro game (cough -- Cordarrelle Patterson! -- cough). We have no such concerns for Lockett.
The pint-sized wideout entered the NFL as a sublime route runner. Lockett's quick feet allow him to make sharp, quick cuts to create loads of separation. He's almost Antonio Brown-esque in his route skills, as you can see from this video:
His comeback routes are so precise, as he gets so wide open that it often appears the defensive backfield blew coverage. There isn't a route on the tree Lockett can't run with precision. One slight dip on a deep pattern can turn around the corner, and Lockett's speed leaves defenders little chance to recover. The wideout also does a superb job stacking the defensive back once he gets a step, so the defender can't make a play on the ball.
Lockett's natural speed provides him cushion from getting knocked around at the line of scrimmage. Defenders know if they whiff, he's gone. He's also not a one-trick, deep-ball pony, like many other speedsters. Lockett possesses good understanding of the soft spots to sit versus zones and was fantastic coming back to the ball when Russell Wilson scrambled. That mind-meld with Wilson should only grow stronger.
While some will attempt to pigeon-hole Lockett as a slot receiver because of his size, that's a misnomer. Lockett lined up on the outside on 65.6 percent of his routes in 2015 and 63 percent of his 664 receiving yards came while he was lined up wide, per ESPN.
While Lockett didn't burst on the scene as quickly in the passing attack as he did as a returner (two goose eggs in the first six contests), his usage increased heavily down the stretch. The Seahawks deployed more designed screens, bunch formations and rub routes to get Lockett the ball in space. He became especially relied on when Thomas Rawls went down in Week 14, with Marshawn Lynch already injured.
When Seattle opened up the offense and placed control in Wilson's throwing arm, Lockett shined. Expect that role to increase in a more wide-open Seahawks offense in 2016.
Obstacles he'll face
Size always will be cited as an issue for Lockett. While he has strong hands at the point of catch and can hang on in traffic, he's not going to outjump DBs for the ball à la Dez Bryant, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. It's just not who he is. The Seahawks don't ask him to be that player, so the height concern, while worth mentioning, doesn't bother us.
Doug Baldwin told reporters this offseason that Lockett has been working on getting off the line of scrimmage better. Lockett often lined up off the scrimmage line in order to avoid being jammed, and his quick feet also allow him clean breaks. It might not have been a huge issue as a rookie, but with more defenders poised to slow him down by any means possible, having additional tricks up his sleeve -- especially against bigger corners -- is a must.
One big question surrounding the entire Seahawks offense entering 2016 will be how productive the passing attack is without the threat of Lynch and a power run game. If teams aren't stacking the box and instead throw extra coverage Lockett's way, will he still win with regularity?
Expectations for 2016
As such, expect Lockett's usage to shoot up. He played just over 61 percent of the Seahawks' offensive snaps as a rookie and was targeted only 69 times. Those numbers will both go way up. While Baldwin will remain WR1, Lockett will vault to a high-end WR2 with deep-play ability. Over the final five games of the 2015 regular season, Lockett compiled 23 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Extrapolate those stats over the course of the season and he'd be looking at 74 catches, 1,018 yards and 10 touchdown catches.
-- Kevin Patra
Jake Matthews, LT, Atlanta Falcons
Why Matthews is on the list
Offensive linemen get better -- just like quarterbacks, cornerbacks and everyone else.
Unless an offensive lineman selected with a top-15 pick comes in and has a near-flawless rookie season like Zack Martin (who earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors in 2014 after the Cowboys took him in the first round), they tend to get lost in the muck of positional analysis. It's rare that we can take the time to recognize tangible growth, but Matthews (the sixth overall pick in 2014) improved by leaps and bounds during his sophomore season in Atlanta, and that matters a great deal to the Falcons -- in coordinator Kyle Shanahan's complex running offense, an anchor at left tackle is invaluable. Matthews, along with a smarter scheme that limited lone-island blocking, was a big reason for the rapid emergence of Devonta Freeman (1,056 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns in 2015). Check out his nimble feet -- pulling around the left edge -- on this Freeman touchdown:
We predicted Matthews' rise in a breakdown of the 2014 offensive line class and recognized that many of his perceived flaws as a rookie could be pinned on nagging lower-body injuries that affected his drive, plant and, in some cases, confidence. A review of some of his biggest games from 2015 backed that up.
We have to admit that we were nervous. The hypothesis nearly collapsed in Week 1, when Matthews battled it out with beastly Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox. There were times when Cox had Matthews completely baffled, leaping backward and letting him tumble to the turf on whiffed cut blocks. Then, on another snap, Cox would rip Matthews yards up field, leave the tackle in his wake and sprint toward the quarterback. But what impressed us there, and in nearly every other game, was how composed and smart Matthews was otherwise. Perhaps he didn't match Cox on power, but some of his run fakes that led to big plays were flawless.
Obstacles he'll face
Coaches will divide mistakes into technical and mental errors, just like they'll separate plays that featured a lack of effort from ones where effort and over-excitement might have been part of the problem.
Matthews (24) is still young, which is why he has plenty to learn about the technical aspect of stopping pass rushers -- but his down moments were never for a lack of effort. He is not the typical mauler, and his hand placement/foot speed are far above what you might expect from a player coming out of college. Basically, Matthews, like any other offensive lineman in football, just needs to see a few more plays and put them in the mental bank. He doesn't take many snaps off and he's usually visible blocking downfield. He's never going to be as physically intimidating as, say, fellow 2014 classmate Greg Robinson, but he will figure out a way to negate his deficiencies more quickly.
A few times, we saw Matthews in a poor position to dig his feet in, which led to him getting bullrushed and giving up ground. We would expect to see those instances -- which came at a rate of maybe four or five per game -- cut down significantly in 2016, just as, according to Pro Football Focus, he cut his combined sacks/QB hits allowed total from 16 in 2014 to seven last year.
Expectations for 2016
This is how ascension typically works for offensive linemen when the all-star voting system is partially based off the opinions of fans. Matthews got himself back on the radar last year, and he can continue rolling in 2016 while playing on a much better offensive line. Atlanta added Alex Mack in the offseason and put itself in position to be a top-10 rushing team.
Assuming quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright and the offense improves with a younger No. 2 wide receiver in Mohamed Sanu, Matthews should finally be in the position to get the credit he deserves.
-- Conor Orr
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Atlanta Falcons
When Mohamed Sanu left the Bengalsto sign with the Falcons in March, his five-year, $32.5 million contract was widely panned as one of the worst moves of free agency. Why would Atlanta shell out nearly $7 million annually for a drop-prone, speed-challenged gadget receiver who disappointed as the fifth option in Cincinnati's aerial attack last season?
The answer lies in the projection of Sanu's unique skillset with a featured role in Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense.
Why Sanu is on the list
The answer is two-pronged, yet quite simple: Sanu is graduating from an offense in which he was an afterthought to one in which he will play second fiddle to All-Pro Julio Jones. More importantly, he proved during the first half of the 2014 season that he can excel as a focal point of the game plan.
While most of the attention on Sanu's 2014 performance concentrated on his second-half decline and league-leading 15 dropped passes, that ignores the impressive first-half game film in which he excelled as the No. 1 receiver while A.J. Green and Marvin Jones were sidelined with injuries. Sanu was Cincinnati's most valuable offensive threat over a five-game stretch, averaging 100 yards from scrimmage on nearly 10 targets per game from Week 5 to Week 9.
Play caller Hue Jackson began building game plans around Sanu's triple-threat skill set as a receiver, runner and passer. Formerly limited to routes underneath the coverage to take advantage of Green's ability to draw extra attention, Sanu started making plays downfield, winning one-on-one matchups, spinning out of tackles and converting third downs as Andy Dalton's go-to target.
Sanu's speed was questioned coming out of Rutgers, but he proved to have sufficient "football speed," with fluid cuts in and out of his breaks. By midseason, he was on pace for an astonishing 78 catches, 1,336 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. But then Green returned, rookie power runner Jeremy Hill was thrust into a workhorse role and Sanu vanished from the offense in the final two months of the season.
NFL Media analyst Nate Burleson, who served as a reliable second fiddle to the two most dominant receiving talents of the 21st century in Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson, firmly believes Sanu has what it takes to fill that role opposite Julio Jones.
"As a guy who made a living off of being a No. 2, I know how important that role is," Burleson said last month on NFL Network's "Total Access." "So for me, picking up a guy like Sanu ... There is no doubt in my mind that he is going to be one of the best No. 2s in this league. ... With a guy like Julio, and a bigger receiver backing him up at the No. 2 position, this means that this offense has a lot more versatility than it already has."
Obstacles he'll face
Sanu makes his money as a crafty, friendly target working inside the numbers. It's fair to wonder, though, if he lacks the athletic explosiveness and catch radius to stretch the field outside the numbers and vertically. Does he have the suddenness to consistently separate from man coverage on intermediate and deeper routes?
Much like Jarvis Landry in Miami, Sanu relies heavily upon manufactured touches. He's at his most effective on package plays -- such as end-arounds, slants, bubble screens and trick plays as the passer -- within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. In other words, it's the play caller as much as the quarterback who is responsible for putting the ball in his hands.
Expectations for 2016
The opportunity is certainly there for the taking. With chronic knee injuries turning Roddy Whiteinto a ghost of his former self, Ryan desperately turned to journeyman Leonard Hankerson as his second read in the aerial attack early last season. Rib and hamstring injuries sent him to the sideline and, ultimately, to the waiver wire, but at the quarter-season mark, Hankerson was on pace for 68 catches, 964 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ironically enough, it was Hankerson's absence that sprang a leak in Ryan's passing game. Without that second option capable of getting open, stretching the field and making plays after the catch, the Falcons' receiving corps lacked any semblance of playmaking ability beyond Jones' excellence.
A more versatile, more durable and more reliable weapon, Sanu should prove to be a major upgrade over Hankerson. With an increase in snaps and touches, he will form a symbiotic relationship this season with Ryan -- the two will help each other recapture an effectiveness that went missing in 2015. With a unique, multi-dimensional skill set that calls to mind former Steelers gadget player Antwaan Randle El, Sanu also will allow Shanahan to get more creative as a schemer and play caller.
I don't expect Sanu to duplicate his on-pace numbers from the first half of the 2014 season. I do believe he will emerge as an effective second fiddle to Jones, touching the ball at least 80 times as a receiver, runner and passer while accumulating 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
-- Chris Wesseling