Ten NFL players set to make huge leaps in 2017

Is Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota poised to make a big leap in 2017? Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Each season, new NFL superstars emerge and launch their careers to the next level.

A couple of young quarterbacks now have all of the tools necessary to potentially achieve Pro Bowl status in 2017. At other positions, there are guys looking to pick up where they left off before unfortunate injuries interrupted promising seasons.

Who can revamp the Detroit Lions’ run game? Who will steal the spotlight in the Washington Redskins offense as quarterback Kirk Cousins’ favorite receiver?

We’re looking at these situations and more as we spotlight 10 NFL players set to make huge leaps in 2017.

Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans

Third-year quarterback Mariota is a lucky man. He headlines an offense chock full of incredible talent.

Wide receiver Eric Decker is the latest promising playmaker the Titans acquired for Mariota to target in the passing game. Decker can be a touchdown machine under ideal circumstances, having crossed the end zone 51 times since 2011.

Mariota also has new rookie first-round pick Corey Davis to hit up when Decker is in coverage. Additionally, both Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe are up-and-coming talents there for Mariota to spread the wealth around.

Tight end Delanie Walker is always a threat on offense too, as well as the running back tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, who run behind one of the game’s best offensive lines.

Mariota’s offense really couldn’t get more stacked. It should provide the keys for Mariota to take his career to the next level in 2017.

Keenan Allen, wide receiver, Los Angeles Chargers

Provided Allen hits the turf in full health and stays that way throughout 16 games, we predict he will have a huge campaign. We’ll scrap Allen’s 2016 one-game injury-plagued season into the trash and review some of his previous accomplishments.

In 2015, Allen was on his way to a breakout season and would have finished the year with 134 receptions and 1,450 yards had he kept on pace of his first eight games. His catch rate that year was incredible 90.6 percent. Sadly, the injury bug bit that season as well.

At a mere 25 years old, Allen should pick back up where he left off. If so, he’ll end up putting together a stat sheet that rivals the league’s most elite receivers. Allen is also playing out his final contract year with the Chargers. It will be a pivotal season that will determine what type of contract Allen is up for next.

Keeping healthy, of course, is the biggest key.

Myles Jack, linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars will be transitioning Jack into a three-down role in 2017. He will be taking over veteran Paul Posluszny’s duties as the starting middle linebacker, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Those duties also include defensive play-calling, which is something Posluszny has graciously been assisted him with.

“He has been nothing but help,” Jack said, per John Reid of The Florida Times-Union. “I greatly appreciate it because he doesn’t have to do it. I didn’t know how he was going to be. But Poz is such a professional. He was like OK, lets get it right. If this is what it takes to win, this is what we’re going to do.”

Talk about a tremendous responsibility for only a second-year player. Jack fell to the Jaguars in the second round in 2016. Other teams passed on him because of a knee injury he was dealing with.

The Jaguars exercised caution with Jack in his rookie season, during which he tallied just 22 combined tackles and half a sack. Those numbers are on course to drastically rise given Jack’s new role.

Jamison Crowder, wide receiver, Washington Redskins

Crowder, chosen by the Redskins in the fourth round in 2015, carved out quite a niche last season. Playing with a talented receiving corps that included former receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Crowder was still targeted 99 times by Kirk Cousins.

While Garcon and Jackson saw more targets, Crowder’s results in the end zone were far better. He scored seven touchdowns, whereas Jackson and Garcon hauled in seven combined.

With both of the above-mentioned receivers out of Crowder’s way, look for his numbers to climb even further this season. While Terrelle Pryor will certainly garner his fair share of targets, Crowder is set to explode.

The former Duke Blue Devil has averaged an impressive 71.65 percent catch rate since working with Cousins in 2015. He is a young receiver on track to make huge strides in 2017.

Jesse James, tight end, Pittsburgh Steelers

A dark horse fantasy star, James might become a household name this fall. According to DK Pittsburgh Sports, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger specifically worked with the third-year tight end during OTAs and minicamp. The focus was to get James more aggressive in red zone plays.

James saw his targets increase from 11 in 2015 to 60 in 2016. He played in all 16 games, tallying 338 yards and three touchdowns along the way. Now that tight end Ladarius Green is out of the picture, James should see an increased role.

We must consider James stands a lofty nine inches taller (6-foot-7) than wideout Antonio Brown. This makes him a gigantic target when Brown is dealing with double coverage down the field.

If he can generate some rapport with Big Ben, James should turn heads in 2017.

Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

Hill burst on to the scene with lightning speed in his rookie season. He was a fifth-round pick that tallied an impressive 1,836 yards. Most of Hill’s yardage (976) resulted from punt and kick returns. He also managed three total touchdowns on returns.

This makes us think back to 2015 and ponder the similar production Arizona Cardinals running back Davis Johnson pumped out in the return game. He earned a much larger role on offense last year as a result.

The same thing is now happening to Hill. He’ll migrate into the No. 1 or “Z” receiver slot formerly owned by wideout Jeremy Maclin.

“I mean, he works hard and he’s skilled,” Reid said of Hill per Blair Kerkhoff of The Kansas City Star. “Is he still learning? Yeah he is still learning. I’ll tell you that with the receivers because that’s what they do until they get defenses down. But, he will give you good production at that (Z) position.”

Big numbers should be on the horizon for Hill, taking his exceptional speed and quicknes into account.

Shane Ray, defensive end, Denver Broncos

Ray is NFL player due to profit because of a veteran’s departure. Former teammate DeMarcus Ware announced his retirement this offseason, paving the path for Ray to start opposite Von Miller this season.

Ray was drafted by the Broncos 23rd overall in 2015. He played in 14 games, tallying four sacks and 20 combined tackles. In 2016, Ray more than doubled his production, having managed eight sacks and 48 combined tackles. He also squeezed in two fumble recoveries, returning one for a touchdown.

Aside from the team expecting bigger things from Ray in 2017, he has his sights set on creating at least one sack per game, per ESPN’s Jeff Legwold.

Sure, why not? If Ray does, he would top the 13.5 sacks Miller produced in 2016. Quarterbacks, especially in the AFC West, you have been warned.

Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

Wentz put up a promising rookie campaign, especially considering the original plan was for him to sit on the bench all season.

He completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 3,782 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also tossed 14 picks, which means there is vast room for the second-season quarterback to improve in 2017. Wentz should make huge strides in his development now that the Eagles have added veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to the blend. It also doesn’t hurt that Nelson Agholor is lighting it up in practice once again.

Last year, the Eagles ranked 24th in passing. We would like to believe that the additions of Jeffery and Smith will help better this situation in 2017.

Based on what we see in the following video clip, it seems Wentz and Jeffery are already developing some amazing chemistry.

Smith has been responsible for some huge receptions in the past. To date, the Super Bowl champion has maintained an average of 17 yards per catch.

Wentz has his new toys. Let’s see how he plays with them this fall.

Maliek Collins, defensive tackle, Dallas Cowboys

Collins, who comes from the same draft class as quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, wants to be the guy turning heads this year.

“[My goal is to] be the best player I can be so that I always keep improving,” Collins said, via the team’s official website. “That’s how I set my goals. I don’t really do it statistically. Then you’re out there chasing stats. The goal is to improve every day. If I’m not improving every day then I’m doing something wrong.”

Collins, a third-round pick, received 14 starts last year. He finished the season with five sacks, 23 combined tackles, one forced fumble and one recovery. This was not too shabby considering Collins broke his foot last spring and missed a substantial amount of offseason practice time.

This time around, Collins should make a huge impact on Dallas’ defense based on the dedication and hard work he pours into the sport.

Ameer Abdullah, running back, Detroit Lions

Knock on wood that Abdullah will remain healthy all season long. If he does, he has tremendous upside to be one of the league’s biggest comeback stories in 2017.

Abdullah is about as fast as NFL running backs come. In just 18 attempts last year before his injury, he toted the ball at 5.6 yards per carry. We also should not forget that Abdullah drew comparison to the legendary Barry Sanders during a preseason game in his rookie year. A game in which Abdullah torched the New York Jets defense, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt.

Detroit’s run game ranked third-worst in the league in 2016. What better way to revive it than get the ball into the hands of the fastest running back on the team? Plus, nobody should be more motivated than Abdullah himself to prove that he isn’t a bust.

Yardbarker: NFL

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