As training camps get underway, we're finally getting back to some actual football! Every team has optimism and promise for the upcoming season. Many base those positive vibes on players taking the proverbial next step in their development, and I believe there are several young players who can open some eyes and fill up some stat sheets.
I tried to shy away from the obvious candidates, namely top 10 overall picks from the last three drafts. Guys like Myles Garrett, Corey Davis and Leonard Floyd are too obvious. Here are 10 young players I expect to break out in 2018.
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
You’re going to see a lot of Mahomes on these sorts of lists, and for good reason. The second-year quarterback takes over as the starter for Alex Smith with one of the more explosive offenses in the league.
We saw a glimpse of what could come in Week 17, when Mahomes got a spot start for Kansas City in place of Smith. The arm strength, the vision, the creativity and the poise were all on display. Even though the stat line wasn’t great (22-of-35, 284 yards, 1 INT), the first-round rookie from Texas Tech looked ready to take over the Chiefs offense blessed with some dynamic playmakers. I expect big things from Mahomes, who was handily my top QB in his draft class and has a real chance to be special once he establishes himself. He and RB Kareem Hunt together is going to be a lot of fun to watch.
2. Ahkello Witherspoon, CB, 49ers
In his rookie season, the lanky third-rounder from Colorado acquitted himself nicely at corner for the 49ers. His impressive footwork, honed as a youth soccer player, combined with his length and body control to make Witherspoon effective right away. Now that he’s got a year of experience under his belt and a veteran mentor in Richard Sherman to help him hone his craft, Witherspoon can emerge as a Pro Bowler in his second year.
Sherman’s presence is key. While I strongly believe Witherspoon will be a good No. 1 corner at some point, having the savvy and cocksure veteran around means Ahkello doesn’t have to be that guy in 2018. He gets to work with less pressure to be great. Often times that allows a young player to find that greatness much easier.
3. Will Fuller, WR, Texans
The speedy Fuller took a nice leap from his rookie season in 2016 to a more dynamic second year. Now the Texans’ former first-rounder from Notre Dame is poised for even bigger and better things in year three.
Fuller improved his route versatility in his first offseason, and his confidence in his iffy hands progressed nicely. Now the key is to develop more chemistry with Deshaun Watson at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins, arguably the best wideout in the game, lined up across from him on the other side. Fuller has an opportunity to lead the NFL in yards per catch and hit double digits in touchdown receptions in 2018.
4. Kevin Byard, S, Titans
Sure, he deservedly made the Pro Bowl last year, leading the league in interceptions with nine. Yet Byard’s consistently outstanding play apparently didn’t resonate with the national media. Deion Sanders had never heard of him and thought he was simply a fan.
Byard will make sure everyone knows him by the end of 2018. His range, his instincts and his football IQ have quickly made the 2016 third-rounder from Middle Tennessee one of the brightest young talents in the league, even if he does so in relative anonymity. Learn the name and start watching the game you’re paid to cover, Prime…
5. Tarik Cohen, RB, Bears
The league’s shortest positional player (he’s 5’6”…in cleats), Cohen showed that his lack of size can be an asset thanks to his exceptional quickness and acceleration. Chicago brought him along slowly as a runner in his rookie season. Now it appears new Bears coach Matt Nagy is ready to up the workload from 87 carries and 53 receptions.
Cohen is game for it. His supreme agility gets all the acclaim, but he’s quietly strong for his size too. He’s a nightmare to tackle and even harder to get a clean hit upon. A more creative offensive style and willingness to use Cohen as a co-No. 1 with talented Jordan Howard—if not surpassing him in usage—means big things are in store for the little man from North Carolina A&T in Chicago.
6. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Browns
He’s already one of the better run defenders in the NFL, though that tends to get lost with the winless Browns. Now in his third year, Ogbah can also show more productivity as a pass rusher. He bagged 4 sacks in 10 games last year after 5.5 in his rookie campaign.
With Myles Garrett attracting major attention on the other side, Ogbah is in a great position to benefit. And his style of play, with a bevy of power-oriented moves and violent hands, is perfect to take advantage. I like his potential to kick inside as a nickel rusher, too. The Browns have several candidates for this list (David Njoku, Duke Johnson, Larry Ogunjobi among them) but Ogbah is the most ready to make the leap to prominence.
7. George Kittle, TE, 49ers
Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft I did a detailed video breakdown on Kittle with Matt Waldman, talking up the Iowa tight end for all the little things he already did that most college TEs have to learn the hard way in the NFL. The polish to his game was instantly evident, especially once the 49ers committed to a real quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. The volume remained the same but the work Kittle performed and the coach’s trust in him grew.
That growth should continue in 2018 and mushroom into Kittle being a more featured weapon. San Francisco remains relatively thin at wideout, so there should be ample opportunity for Kittle to see 100 targets. He’ll catch at least 60 of them while also being an above-average blocker for his position and capable of lining up inline or flexed out.
8. William Jackson, CB, Bengals
Those who watch Cincinnati on a weekly basis will tell you the third-year corner is already there, but the national acclaim hasn’t yet come for Jackson. It will if he continues to play like he did last year, his first healthy NFL season.
Jackson fared as well as anyone in marking Antonio Brown, and his closing speed with the ball in the air is elite. Not Joe Flacco elite, but rather legitimately outstanding. Now that Pacman Jones is (mercifully) out of his way, Jackson has a golden opportunity to assert himself as a legit shutdown cornerback and earn Pro Bowl honors right away.
9. Josh Doctson, WR, Washington
It’s been somewhat frustrating to watch Doctson’s first two seasons. Washington’s first-round pick in 2016 lost almost all his rookie season due to an Achilles injury. While he showed some signs in his second season, catching 35 passes and taking over as the starting X receiver halfway though, he never really showed much chemistry with Kirk Cousins.
Now Alex Smith is in at quarterback and the Achilles has had another year to heal. That typically means good things for players in terms of getting back the burst and wiggle in the step, two things that stood out for Doctson at TCU. He’s got the natural ability to be a legit No. 1 receiver. Washington sorely needs someone to fill that role and Doctson will get every opportunity to make it happen. I think he will thrive in 2018. Don’t be surprised if he tops 1,000 yards and 8 TDs for a team too many are sleeping on right now.
10. Kenny Clark, DT, Packers
Clark doesn’t necessarily play a role which attracts a lot of attention in Green Bay’s defensive front, but the third-year UCLA product is very good at what he does. The Packers let him rush the passer more frequently in 2017, and if they unyoke him further he’s got a great chance to make last season’s 4.5 sacks seem paltry.
Clark is freakishly strong in the shoulders and chest, and that allows him to overpower blockers. His foot quickness and development of countermoves improved in his second season, giving him a more complete game. Green Bay sorely needs him to become an impact rusher up front. I believe their faith in Clark, their first rounder in 2016, will be rewarded.