With the NFL season officially underway, it is inevitable that this year will see some new breakout players. In 2017 we saw the likes of Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Adam Thielen burst onto the scene with little notice. The question is… which players will claim their stardom during the 2018 season? The following list of players are strong candidates to take it to the next level during this season.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon was drafted 48th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017, where he had a pretty solid rookie season. Mixon rushed for 626 yards and 4 TD’s on 178 attempts (3.5 Yds/Att) and caught 30 passes for 287 yards (9.7 Yds/Rec) in a backfield where he shared snaps with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Though his numbers were not eye-popping, Mixon got almost no credit for his work as a rookie. The former University of Oklahoma running back was forgotten because of the overachieving seasons of fellow rookie running backs: Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. However, Mixon will not be left out of the conversation this year. With Jeremy Hill now in New England, Mixon will get the majority of the early down snaps, along with more goal line touches. Cincinnati also has a healthy receiving core again, with AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Eifert as the highlights, which will alleviate some of the pressure off of the Bengals’ running game. Yes, Mixon will surrender snaps during most passing downs to Giovani Bernard, but the highly talented 22 year old is in a perfect situation for a breakout year. I would not be surprised if the second year back eclipses 1200 total yards.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
A pleasant surprise in 2017, Cooper Kupp had a tremendous rookie season. The 69th pick in the draft totaled 869 yards and 5 TD’s on 62 catches (14.0 Yds/Rec) in one of the league's most explosive offenses. His rookie season in its own could be considered a breakout year, but the 25 year old wide receiver has only gotten better. The Rams did add speedster Brandin Cooks this past offseason, but this acquisition affects the amount of targets for fellow wide receiver Robert Woods more than Kupp. The former Eastern Washington University standout is the team’s number 1 slot receiver, and has created a strong connection with Quarterback Jared Goff. Kupp will see a large amount of targets this upcoming season, and should also get increased looks in the Red Zone. The matching of Kupp’s skill set and consistency with a high scoring offense creates potential for Kupp to exceed 1000 yards and 8 TD’s this season.
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Allen Robinson is now in his 5th NFL season, yet the former Pro-Bowler is still only 25 years old. In 2015 Allen Robinson amazed the football world with a stat line of 80 receptions for 1400 yards 14 touchdowns while playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. 22 at the time, Robinson was trending towards becoming one of the league's most dominant receiving threats. After a disappointing 2016 season where Robinson only tallied 883 yards and 6 touchdowns on 73 receptions, questions started to circle the Jaguar receiver. During week 1 of the 2017 season after only catching 1 ball, Robinson went down with a torn ACL in his left knee. Fast forward to now, Robinson resides in Chicago where he is fully healthy again. The 5th year receiver is in a new offense where he immediately becomes the Bears number 1 receiver. Mark Helfrich, the new offensive coordinator in Chicago, is tasked with taking over an offense that desperately needs to spark its passing game. Second year Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky showed flashes of potential in his rookie year, but lacked a true receiving threat to throw to. In addition to Robinson, the Bears also added Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. There is no doubt that Trubisky will be throwing the ball a lot more this year, which in turn creates a perfect scenario for Allen Robinson to bounce back. If Robinson can stay healthy, he could reach the once dominant pass-catcher he was.
Chris Hogan, WR, New England Patriots
Tom Brady. That’s the number one factor when looking at Hogan’s status this year. With Julian Edelman suspended, and the departures of Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis… Chris Hogan will get his shot. Brady is going to pass the ball a lot, and he is going to pass for a lot of yards. Period. Those yards have to go to someone, and not all of them can go to Gronk. Hogan had 439 yards and 5 TD’s last year on 34 receptions, but only appeared in 9 games (starting only 7). We saw a healthy Chris Hogan dominate from weeks 2-5 in 2017, where he racked up 22 receptions for 280 yards and 5 TD’s in that 4 week span. Hogan did not receive the same volume when he returned from injury later the year. The Chris Hogan we saw in those 4 weeks, however, will be the Chris Hogan we will see in 2018. If Hogan can remain healthy, he will most likely become Tom Brady’s second target during Edelman’s suspension (and remain in the top three even when Edelman returns). The volume of targets Hogan will see coming from the 5-time Super Bowl champion and multiple time MVP, mixed with the injury history of other receivers on the Patriots, could allow for a monster season from Hogan. Hogan could sneakily work his way into the top 10 in the NFL for receptions in 2018.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
When the Tennessee Titans drafted Corey Davis with the 5th overall pick in the 2017, many believed we would see a new dangerous duo of Marcus Mariota and Davis in the near future. The 2017 season did not bring that. After Davis only appeared in 11 games, and posted a subpar line of 375 yards with 0 TD’s, many were disappointed. The regular season was a failure to Davis, but he quickly turned it around in the postseason. In the Titans wildcard game vs. the Chiefs, Davis had 7 receptions for 35 yards and played a key role in the miraculous victory. His fame, however, came in the Titans defeat to the Patriots in the 2nd round. Davis scored both of the Titans touchdowns, adding 63 yards on 8 receptions. Though these are not crazy numbers, the rookie showed an immense amount of potential during this game in which he scored more TD’s than his previous 12 games combined. Things are finally clicking for the incredible athlete, and he has one of the highest ceilings in football. If Mariota and Davis can develop a chemistry as the year progresses, Davis could quickly become one the best wide receivers in the game. It won’t be hard for Davis to top his 2017 season, but I expect Davis to more than do that and break out this year.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
In 2014 there was serious debate about Andrew Luck being the best Quarterback in the NFL. The at the time 25 year old was in his 3rd NFL season and had just thrown for 4,761 yards and 40 TD’s while only giving up 16 interceptions. Luck also added 273 yards and 3 TD’s on the ground while leading the Colts to an 11-5 record. The future looked bright in Indianapolis with Luck leading the way. In the next 3 seasons, Luck managed to only play 22 games (0 in 2017), winning only 10 (2-5 in 2015, 8-7 in 2016). For the first time since late 2016, Andrew Luck is back. Two questions surround Luck… Can he stay healthy for a full 16 games? Will he return to the Andrew Luck we saw before his injuries? While Luck may not reach the same level statistically as he did in 2014, I believe Luck will regain respect around the league as a top tier Quarterback (if he stays healthy). What does this mean for the Colts? While Luck may find success throwing the ball and renew the playstyle in Indianapolis, the Colts have one of the bottom defenses in football and a young running back committee with little experience. Luck will regain his position as a top Quarterback in the NFL, but it will not be good enough for the Colts to make a push for the playoffs.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
George Kittle is not a player who is going to wow you at first sight, but the former 146th pick has great pass catching ability in a dynamic offense. Kittle quietly had an impressive rookie season, exceeding expectations by hauling in 43 passes for 515 yards and 2 TD’s. Historically, Tight Ends do not usually produce great numbers in their rookie seasons, but Kittle ended the season as the 49ers second leading receiver. What is most intriguing about Kittle is that 224 of his yards came in the final 5 games, with a different Quarterback than the first 11; Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo will be the 49ers Quarterback in 2018, and it was obvious throughout 2017’s last 5 weeks that he had formed a chemistry with Kittle (19 targets). Though he has only started a small sample size of games (7), Jimmy G has proven that he learned to utilize his tight ends from his time in New England. The recent loss of Jerick McKinnon for the season takes away a key pass option for Garoppolo, but also offers up more targets. The 49ers have Marquise Goodwin as a deep threat and Pierre Garcon as their number 1 pure receiver, but expect the second year tight end to get a lot looks -- especially in the Red Zone. Kittle is a fairly unknown player, but he is in line to become one of the top pass catching tight ends this season.
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
At 30 and 31 years old, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are often thought to be exiting their primes. Both players had down years in 2017 with Sanders catching just 47 of his 94 targets for 555 yards and 2 TD’s (12 games), and his teammate Thomas catching 83 of his 141 targets for 949 yards and 5 TD’s. It is easy to blame a receiver for a down year, but the Broncos experienced one of the worst Quarterback situations in the league in 2017. This past season was a year that Emmanuel Sanders did not reach 1000 yards for the first time since 2013, and first since 2011 for Demaryius Thomas! Thomas was the only player in the NFL to record 1000+ receiving yards in every season from 2012 to 2016, let that sink in. Both receivers get enough targets to be top receivers in the NFL… so was 2017 a fluke? The answer is yes, statistically Demaryius Thomas is one of the most consistent wideouts in the NFL, and Emmanuel Sanders was second in the NFL in 2016 with a drop percentage of a mind boggling 1.25%. So why will 2018 be different? Case Keenum is the new Quarterback in mile high stadium, and though Keenum is not known for being a stud or flashy QB, he is one of the most consistent pass throwers (as seen in his time with Minnesota in 2017). When you match a consistent Quarterback with consistent wide receivers, and throw in an improving run game and a solid line… you get offensive success. You will see both Sanders and Thomas return to their pre-2017 success in the 2018 season where I would not be surprised if the two combine for over 2200 yards and come close to 20 TD’s.
Geronimo Allison, WR, Green Bay Packers
To round this list up, we have a far less known player from the rest, who probably will not see an immediate impact. Geronimo Allison, undrafted in 2016, has been praised by Aaron Rodgers and others in the Packers organization. Allison is 24 years old and is bigger receiver at 6’3” 200 lbs. In 2016 Allison put up a line of 22 receptions for 202 yards and 2 TD’s. He followed that up in 2017 with 39 receptions for 253 yards but failed to find the endzone. With minimal exposure, Geronimo Allison is relatively unknown. He is currently No. 3 on the Packers wide receiver depth chart, but I do not expect that he will stay there for long. Jordy Nelson is gone from Green Bay, and Jimmy Graham is in, a move set-up perfectly for Allison to prove himself. Aaron Rodgers is healthy again and will no doubt pass for over 4,000 yards if he remains on the field. Whether or not you believe Jimmy Graham will renue himself as a Packer, he most likely will not lead the team in yards, but instead get Red Zone looks. Davante Adams is a touchdown machine (22 in the past two years), and will quickly become Rodgers number 1 target. But Adams and Graham cannot combine for the all of the 4,000+ potential yards, at most they will account for around 2,000. That leaves a lot of yards and targets up in the air in Green Bay. No. 2 receiver, Randall Cobb, has not had an 1,000 yard season since 2014, and probably will not again. Cobb is a solid slot receiver, but he is not the same player he was in his Pro-Bowl season. This is where Allison comes into play. He will muster mostly deep targets early in the season - providing big play potential - but as Rodger’s trust begins to rise in the young receiver the targets will rise as well. You may not see many Lambeau leaps from Allison as Graham and Adams will get most of the Red Zone looks, but he has a very high ceiling when it comes to yards. Allison could finish the year as Green Bay’s No. 2 receiver, and as a big play weapon moving forward. The idea of Geronimo Allison emerging as a breakout receiver could be far-fetched, but it is definitely not too far from out of the realm of possibility. Keep an eye out for his name.