NFL players who could have breakout seasons in 2016

Brandin Cooks on the rise (0:54)

The SportsNation crew has confidence in Drew Brees, which is why Brandin Cooks has the potential for a great fantasy season as the No. 1 receiver for the Saints. (0:54)

From former first-round picks primed to take a leap forward to young players who have risen up the depth chart, NFL Nation reporters pick the players ready to break out in 2016.

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
AFC East | AFC North| AFC South | AFC West


Dallas Cowboys

Safety Byron Jones

Jones did a little bit of everything as a rookie, playing outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, dime back and free safety. Jones will focus only on free safety in his second season. He did not have a takeaway as a rookie, but the Cowboys believe his range will give them the ability to play him in center field to give help to the cornerbacks. He also has shown a willingness to tackle. If the Cowboys are going to improve defensively, they have to give up fewer big plays and come up with some interceptions from their secondary. Jones has all of the ability to become a Pro Bowl safety. That might be a tall task in his first full year at the position, but the talent is there. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants

Center Weston Richburg

The 2014 second-round pick's rookie year was spent at guard. He moved back to his natural position of center last season, where he flashed signs of being one of the league's top players at his position. Well, this is the season where Richburg becomes a dominant center. He's technically solid and much stronger than in years past. Don't be surprised to see him named to the Pro Bowl and possibly All-Pro team. -- Jordan Raanan

Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive end Vinny Curry

The former second-round pick out of Marshall has been used rather sparingly since being drafted by the Eagles in 2012, and he was stuck in a two-gapping system that didn't fit him for the past three seasons. Curry has still been productive despite those obstacles -- he posted 9.0 sacks in 2014. The Eagles saw the value and handed him a five-year, $47.5 million contract this offseason. Now in an aggressive 4-3 scheme that will maximize his quick get-off, Curry has a chance to bloom into one of the league's most productive pass-rushers. -- Tim McManus

Washington Redskins

Cornerback Bashaud Breeland

Running back Matt Jones is an easy pick to break out because he'll be the primary back for the first time, but Breeland is the one who looks like a future Pro Bowler. Breeland studies the game quite a bit and has improved his technique each season. He already has learned lessons from fellow corner Josh Norman in terms of stance and how to use his hands better. Breeland had a terrific training camp -- he was beaten, but he also made plays. He'll continue to ascend. -- John Keim


Chicago Bears

Wide receiver Kevin White

White is off to an impressive start in the preseason after missing all of last season with an injury. The Bears have not pumped the brakes on the hype surrounding White, whom the organization took No. 7 overall in last year's draft. White is expected to be the Bears' No. 2 receiver after Alshon Jeffery, but given Jeffery's history of injury issues, the West Virginia product could be forced to play an even bigger role. White is tall, fast and strong. The only problem is that he has yet to catch a pass in a regular-season game. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions

Cornerback Darius Slay

The fourth-year corner signed a $50.2 million extension before training camp started, in part because of the shutdown ability he showed the second half of last season. Now, he has a chance to put himself in a class of elite cornerbacks in the league. He's going to be Detroit's No. 1 corner this fall, and if the Lions are going to have success, he's going to have to shut down the middle of the field. He knows he needs to intercept more passes too, so expect him to take advantage of throws when they come his way. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers

Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis

The third-year receiver has built off the momentum that he established in the playoff loss at Arizona last year, when he came off the bench and caught four passes for 55 yards. Thanks to a strong showing in training camp combined with Jeff Janis' broken hand, Abbrederis continues to move up the Packers' depth chart. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

Wide receiver Stefon Diggs

Diggs led the Vikings in receiving as a rookie and was second among rookie wideouts in receiving yards. He'll shift over to flanker, where he won't line up at the line of scrimmage and could get more free releases on defensive backs. Diggs and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater have worked well together during training camp, and Bridgewater figures to be looking for Diggs early and often in 2016. -- Ben Goessling


Atlanta Falcons

Running back Tevin Coleman

The second-year back could be a breakout star for the Falcons even as the complement to Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman. The coaches love Coleman's big-play potential as a guy capable of taking it to the house with every touch. Coleman, who began last season as the starter, averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season. The Falcons also hope to utilize Coleman's explosive speed in the return game as a kickoff returner. He just needs to stay healthy and avoid fumbles. -- Vaughn McClure

Carolina Panthers

Wide receiver Devin Funchess

He is playing so well there is reason to believe he could outperform No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Receivers often don't come into their own until their second year. Funchess started to show his potential in the regular-season finale of his rookie year, catching seven passes for 120 yards. He's another big (6-foot-4) target for quarterback Cam Newton, and Funchess likely will draw a lot of single coverage with Benjamin and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen on the field. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks

The Saints' third-year wideout had 1,138 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches (eight of them over the final nine games), but I'm putting him here because he still hasn't made a Pro Bowl or become a household name. He doesn't turn 23 until next month. If you want to go a little further off the radar, fellow wide receiver Michael Thomas looks ready to burst on the scene too. The rookie from Ohio State has been the talk of training camp with one spectacular catch after another. -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive end Robert Ayers

Sure, a guy who had 9.5 sacks last season in New York and signed a lucrative contract this offseason should be a star, but Tampa Bay's recent track record with high-priced free agents, including one at his very position, hasn't been good. The Bucs signed Michael Johnson to a five-year deal worth $43 million and they cut him after just one season. In the case of Ayers, his impact was felt the very first snap of training camp, and it has made the whole defensive line better. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy might not see as many double-teams, which frees both of them up. Ayers also is really helping along rookie Noah Spence, who could have a breakout season as well. -- Jenna Laine


Arizona Cardinals

Outside linebacker Markus Golden

He may not the be the star of the Cardinals' pass-rushing corps -- that honor belongs to Chandler Jones -- but Golden, a second-year player out of Missouri, has the tools to become a star this year. He had four sacks and two forced fumbles last season, but his role will increase in 2016. With offensive lines expected to pay a lot of attention to Jones, the hype for Golden to have a huge season among the players in the locker room is growing. -- Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

Quarterback Jared Goff

The No. 1 overall pick is the obvious choice here, largely because the Rams so badly need him to be their breakout star. They gave up a ream of draft picks for the right to select Goff because they believe he can develop into their franchise quarterback. But it will take time. Goff not only must adapt to the speed of the NFL; he needs to grow accustomed to relaying plays and taking snaps from under center, after running a no-huddle offense primarily from the shotgun at Cal. -- Alden Gonzalez

San Francisco 49ers

Running back Carlos Hyde

Hyde looked poised for a breakout last season but injuries limited him to seven games. Now, Hyde is healthy and hoping to keep it that way so that he can fully blossom in Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense. Hyde's experience running out of the shotgun at Ohio State and functioning in zone-heavy run schemes make him an intriguing fit for Kelly's system. He has set two goals for himself: stay healthy and rush for 1,500 yards. If he does the first, the second could follow, and that would most certainly make him a breakout star. -- Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

Wide receiver Tyler Lockett

He caught 51 balls for 664 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. In Year 2, Lockett will be on the field more, and coach Pete Carroll has said that he's "in the middle" of all of the Seahawks' offensive plans. Lockett has shown the ability to play both outside and in the slot. He can test defenses vertically and should get plenty of looks on screens and other plays that allow him to gain yards after the catch. Look for Lockett to get consistent touches and be one of the key playmakers on the offense. -- Sheil Kapadia


Buffalo Bills

Cornerback Ronald Darby

Darby was far from a household name as a rookie last season, but he was among Pro Football Focus' top-ranked cornerbacks. He finished second to Kansas City's Marcus Peters for defensive rookie of the year voting, which can partly be explained by Peters' eight interceptions compared to Darby's two. But the numbers don't tell the entire story: Darby has shown the requisite ball skills, confidence and aggressiveness that star NFL cornerbacks possess. If he continues on his current path, he will be a star. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins

Wide receiver DeVante Parker

Parker flashed in the final six weeks of the season, registering 445 receiving yards over that span. The second-year wideout, however, has been an under-the-radar stud for the Dolphins in practices and training camp for more than a year. Parker has the size, athleticism and hands to become a dynamic playmaker. Can he stay healthy and put it all together this season? -- James Walker

New England Patriots

Defensive tackle Malcom Brown

The team's 2015 first-round pick quickly emerged as a starter in his rookie campaign. Brown has the combination of power and athleticism to be a factor against the run and also as a pass-rusher at times. He led all Patriots defensive tackles in snaps played last season (46.5 percent), and that number only figures to rise in the coming years. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets

Defensive tackle Leonard Williams

The sixth overall pick in 2015 was solid as a rookie, particularly against the run, but he will be more of a factor as a pass-rusher in 2016. He's stronger, quicker and more decisive than last year, so look for him to double his rookie sack total (3.0). -- Rich Cimini


Baltimore Ravens

Tight end Maxx Williams

The highest drafted tight end from a year ago, Williams is looking to carry over last year's strong finish into his second season. He set the Ravens' rookie tight end record with 32 catches for 268 yards receiving and one touchdown. The challenge for Williams is a crowded tight end group that includes Benjamin Watson, Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore. But Williams was having a very good camp before suffering an undisclosed injury. Williams will make an impact in the passing game if he can stay healthy. -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd

The rookie receiver already has shown flashes in the preseason. Boyd has stood out in a thin group of wideouts. He had a sliding over-the-shoulder catch that set up a touchdown in the first preseason game against the Vikings, and he converted a third down with a diving catch to set up a touchdown against the Lions in the second preseason game. That's not surprising, as the second-round pick did that often in college and could keep it going in the NFL. -- Katherine Terrell

Cleveland Browns

Wide receiver Corey Coleman

There isn't a lengthy list of options for a breakout player on the Browns' roster. Coleman, the team's first-round pick, has the best chance. He has shown talent, speed, good instincts and good hands in the time he has practiced. The fact he has been sidelined for a little more than a week with a hamstring strain highlights the one thing that could keep him from breaking out: staying healthy. -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt

Tuitt is poised for a major jump in his third season. He recorded 6.5 sacks in 14 games last season, and he pairs with veteran Cam Heyward to form one of the league's most formidable bookend duos in a 3-4 defense. Tuitt has speed and agility at 300 pounds, which allows him to rush the passer and stop the run with equal effectiveness. Linebacker Ryan Shazier already has found stardom, and Tuitt plans to join him. Wide receiver Sammie Coates is another candidate. He has the highest ceiling among Pittsburgh receivers not named Antonio Brown. -- Jeremy Fowler


Houston Texans

Running back Lamar Miller

Miller was underused in Miami, averaging just 196 carries per season in his final three years with the Dolphins. This season, playing for a team that will give him a bigger workload, he will hit his stride and become a Pro Bowler in Year 5 of his career. -- Sarah Barshop

Indianapolis Colts

Wide receiver Donte Moncrief

Moncrief had 733 receiving yards while catching passes from five different quarterbacks last season. Quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy, and Moncrief has the size and speed to be the quarterback's possession receiver similar to the way Reggie Wayne was during most of Luck's first three seasons. Moncrief might not lead the Colts in receiving yards, but it wouldn't be surprising if he leads the team in receptions. -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

Fowler, who missed all of his rookie season because of a knee injury, has been the most impressive defensive player in training camp. He beat offensive tackles Luke Joeckel, Jermey Parnell and Josh Wells with his quickness and spin moves off the edge, and he showed off a surprising amount of power by bull rushing Wells -- who outweighs him by 55 pounds -- back into the quarterback in one-on-one drills. The Jaguars haven't had a player record double-digit sacks since 2007, and Fowler can be a special pass-rusher. He could end that eight-year streak. -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

Quarterback Marcus Mariota

The No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft had a solid rookie year, but he missed four games and fumbled 10 times. Now he has two upgrades at receiver with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe. If the Titans' smashmouth run game is effective, Mariota's play-action opportunities will help lift him to another level. -- Paul Kuharsky


Denver Broncos

Running back C.J. Anderson

All of the elements are in place for Anderson to have his best season as a pro, to go from believing he is a potential 1,000-yard rusher who powers an offense to actually being that guy. The Broncos are intent on running the ball more because they have retooled the offensive line and even drafted a fullback. So while rookie Devontae Booker will get some carries, Anderson is in position to be the breakout star. He has worked as the team's No. 1 back through the offseason and arrived to training camp after an offseason in which he worked hard to be ready for this chance to eclipse his career high in carries (179) and rushing yards (849). -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive lineman Chris Jones

The rookie second-round pick might not wind up starting, but he could still have a big impact. Jones was impressive at training camp and in the preseason opener against the Seahawks, particularly as a pass-rusher. Jones showed a consistent ability to push the pocket, and he has a knack for getting a hand into the throwing lane and knocking down passes. -- Adam Teicher

Oakland Raiders

Middle linebacker Ben Heeney

How much faith did the Raiders show in the second-year player from Kansas? They released Curtis Lofton in March and then did not draft an inside linebacker until the sixth round in Cory James. Heeney, who had 38 tackles last season, will wear the green dot and is primed for a 100-tackle season in the middle of a fast, disruptive and renovated defense. -- Paul Gutierrez

San Diego Chargers

Wide receiver Tyrell Williams

Williams, who joined the Chargers a year ago as an undrafted rookie out of Western Oregon, has been impressive in training camp. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Williams possesses the top-end speed and short-area quickness of a smaller receiver, yet plays with the physicality and strong hands of a bigger target. Look for Williams to develop into a vertical threat for Philip Rivers. -- Eric D. Williams