Cleveland Browns: Denzel Ward, cornerback
Ward is a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and perhaps the most notable among prospective breakout NFL stars on defense.
The Browns drew criticism for passing up Bradley Chubb to pair opposite Myles Garrett, but Ward has the tools to justify the fourth overall pick. He’s already with the first-team defense despite Cleveland signing three veteran cornerbacks in free agency.
We’ll find out quickly what Ward is capable of when the Browns take on Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon, running back
Neither Giovanni Bernard nor Jeremy Hill distinguished themselves to be Cincinnati’s feature back in years past. Quarterback Andy Dalton is solid but unspectacular, so the Bengals must stick with the ground game better this year.
Hill is gone, Mixon is the most talented runner the Bengals have, and already led the team in carries in 2017. He’s only going to get more work in Year 2.
Having surmounted the steep NFL learning curve, Mixon has dropped 12 pounds and will be ready to handle the full workload in far better shape this season behind an improved offensive line.
Baltimore Ravens: Hayden Hurst, tight end
A touchdown reception in the Hall of Fame Game was the highlight of a solid game-action debut for the Ravens’ first-round draft pick.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has often relied on tight ends during the best years of his career, namely Dennis Pitta. Hurst is an athletic pass-catcher and a willing blocker who should emerge as a security blanket quickly as Flacco looks to have a career renaissance.
Pittsburgh Steelers: James Washington, receiver
A second-round draft pick with good long speed, Washington figures to fill in as the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver after the team traded Martavis Bryant to Oakland.
Antonio Brown will attract plenty of attention as arguably the game’s best receiver and JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off a strong maiden pro campaign.
These circumstances ought to create plenty of chances for Washington to draw favorable matchups and emerge as a dangerous deep threat for strong-armed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Indianapolis Colts: Quenton Nelson, guard
Not the flashiest position to be sure, yet Nelson was hailed as one of the best offensive linemen to come out of college in recent years prior to the 2018 draft, where he was chosen sixth overall.
The Notre Dame product figures to be the cornerstone of a suspect position group that’s contributed to injury woes for quarterback Andrew Luck, who missed all of 2017. Nelson’s arrival, coinciding with Luck’s return, should help the Colts take a big step forward.
Houston Texans: Zach Cunningham, linebacker
The transition from extremely productive rookie to household name could well come to pass for Cunningham in 2018. Houston’s defense fell apart in the second half of last season, but Cunningham still played at a high level, racking up 90 combined tackles.
Cunningham is up to 240 pounds, up 11 from when he reported as a rookie, and should become even more adept at block shedding while still using his quickness to become a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker as part of a playoff-level defense, health permitting.
Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, receiver
A rocky rookie year saw Davis register only 375 yards receiving on 34 receptions. Not exactly the No. 1-caliber option the Titans expected, yet signal-caller Marcus Mariota mustered enough fourth-quarter magic to lift Tennessee to the playoffs.
Now Mariota should have his prospective top target in Davis ripe and ready to go for a breakout year. Davis has a big frame, plus ball skills and exceptional route-running to shine in the Titans offense that lacks another dynamic option in the receiving corps.
Jacksonville Jaguars: D.J. Chark, receiver
Maligned as quarterback Blake Bortles is — deservedly so — the Jaguars don’t have a ton of receiving talent around him. Chark lit up the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, hinting at his big-play potential.
A 6’3″ frame with tremendous athleticism makes Chark a target with a wide catch radius, which helps him stand out among Jacksonville’s wideouts. He should serve as a downfield playmaker for Bortles who could easily average 17 yards per reception after posting 20.5 yards per catch at LSU.
Buffalo Bills: Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker
Gifted quarterback Josh Allen isn’t ready to start yet and has accuracy problems that could plague his entire career, not just this season. That gives way to Edmunds, the Bills’ other first-round pick, to make the big splash now.
Edmunds had 213 tackles (33 for loss) and 10 sacks as a two-year starter at Virginia Tech. He still has room to refine his football technique, but is a rangy player with a nose for the ball, good coverage instincts and the production to suggest big things to come in Buffalo.
New York Jets: Marcus Maye, safety
Overshadowed by top draft choice Jamal Adams, Maye was strong in his first NFL season as well last year, making 79 combined tackles to go with two interceptions.
Both Adams and Maye are interchangeable at both safety positions, but the latter is embracing his role as a free safety.
Maye’s job will be easier with the addition of cornerback Trumaine Johnson to the defensive backfield. Look for the second-year stud’s interception total to at least double as he secures a Pro Bowl berth and helps the Jets hang tough in the AFC East.
Miami Dolphins: Mike Gesicki, tight end
Blocking is still a work in progress, but Gesicki is a lethal receiving threat playing for a coach in Adam Gase who took advantage of Julius Thomas’ athleticism in Denver, developing him into a two-time Pro Bowler.
Gesicki has as much or more upside compared to Thomas. The Penn State standout has been said to engage in daily posterizing of defenders in training camp, so quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be looking to take advantage of the youngster’s pass-catching talents.
New England Patriots: Cordarrelle Patterson, receiver
Although he’s been dynamic as a kickoff returner, Patterson has left much to be desired as an offensive playmaker.
A fresh start in New England with a legendary quarterback in Tom Brady throwing him the ball may be just what Patterson needs to realize his potential.
There are few players with Patterson’s size-speed combination. In the Patriots’ precision-based short passing game, he has the ability to take a short pass to the end zone, and help Brady attack defenses vertically as well.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback
Don’t expect to see much out of Mahomes during the preseason, but just wait until the real games roll around. Last year’s first-round pick has one of the strongest arms in the game and has a great offensive mind for a coach in Andy Reid.
Mahomes has one of the most intriguing cast of skill players at his disposal, too: an explosive receiving duo in Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, the NFL’s reigning rushing champion in Kareem Hunt and an elite tight end, Travis Kelce.
This may be his first year starting, but expect big things from Mahomes in 2018.
Denver Broncos: Bradley Chubb, linebacker
Considering former first-round draft choice Shane Ray narrowly avoided a fourth wrist surgery this offseason, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to project Chubb supplanting him as a starter.
With Von Miller on the opposite edge, Chubb should draw plenty of one-on-one matchups. He’s one of the best pass-rushing prospects to come out in recent years, and figures to be an immediate return on Denver’s investment of the fifth overall pick.
Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, safety
A nagging hamstring issue delayed James’ training camp debut, which is really the only reason why he wasn’t listed as a starter on the team’s first unofficial depth chart.
Make no mistake, though, James is as versatile a defensive back as there is. He can function as an undersized linebacker, excel as an in-box safety and mark his man in coverage.
The Chargers have one of the best rosters in football and got even better in the secondary by drafting James. He’ll be in the starting lineup by Week 1.
Oakland Raiders: Arden Key, defensive end
A first-round talent who slid to the third round, Key was one of several scrutinized offseason personnel decisions the Raiders made.
Khalil Mack is in the midst of a holdout, and the added reps are invaluable for Key. His advanced array of pass-rushing moves and raw athleticism may well earn him a starting role regardless of Mack’s status.
Look for Key to rack up something in the neighborhood of eight sacks to offset a suspect Oakland back seven.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook, running back
Cook was already on the cusp of a breakout rookie year before tearing his ACL in just his fourth game of the 2017 season. He’d gained 354 yards rushing and 90 yards on 11 receptions to that point.
The Vikings made it to the NFC Championship Game without him, so with an upgraded quarterback in Kirk Cousins for 2018, Cook figures to easily amass 1,000 yards rushing and be a factor in the passing game as well.
Detroit Lions: Frank Ragnow, guard
Like Nelson in Indianapolis, this isn’t the high-profile spot some might be expecting. Nevertheless, Ragnow is a versatile lineman who faced top-tier competition in the SEC and is the type of blue-collar player new coach Matt Patricia rewards.
The Lions have been abysmal running the football during signal-caller Matthew Stafford’s tenure under center. They finally have hope to help Stafford out more in that regard in 2018 with Ragnow installed as a starter in the trenches.
Green Bay Packers: Jaire Alexander, cornerback
Alexander is in line to be the starting slot corner for Green Bay. He’s picked off Aaron Rodgers multiple times in practice to help boost his confidence.
The Packers also drafted Josh Jackson to bolster their defensive backfield, but Alexander’s role should allow him to see plenty of action, and show off his outstanding change of direction to lock down the slot this season.
Chicago Bears: Anthony Miller, receiver
Taylor Gabriel is more of a slot weapon and is undersized, while Kevin White has made little to nothing happen in his NFL career. Other than newly arrived No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson, there isn’t much competition between Miller and a starring role.
The Memphis product averaged over 1,400 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns in his last two seasons of college. He’s a great route-runner, physical enough to beat press coverage and should be a go-to option for young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, defensive end
Limited to a situational role in 2017, Atlanta ought to turn McKinley loose as it tries to find a better pass rush.
Similar to how Miller will take pressure off Chubb in Denver, the Falcons have Vic Beasley to pair opposite McKinley, so the latter can use his freakish athleticism to explode off the edge and log double-digit sacks.
Carolina Panthers: D.J. Moore, receiver
It’s only the preseason, so getting too excited over an individual player’s statistics is often fool’s gold. More important is whether or not the player looks like he belongs in the NFL, and Moore certainly looked the part in his preseason debut.
Moore racked up 75 yards on four receptions against Buffalo, and looked like he not only belonged, but that he could easily play a big role in his first season and live up to his billing first-round pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronald Jones, running back
An early injury to first-round defensive tackle Vita Vea opens the door for Jones to be the likelier breakout candidate.
If the Bucs are to start strong with quarterback Jameis Winston suspended for three games, they must rely on the rushing attack, which is where Jones has a shot to carve out a starring role early.
Jones rushed for 19 touchdowns in 2017 at USC and flashed pass-catching ability with 14 receptions for 187 yards. He’s more explosive than Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims, so even if he lacks in pass protection, Jones should find work on early downs.
New Orleans Saints: Sheldon Rankins, defensive lineman
An under-the-radar player for someone who’s entering his third year as the former 12th overall pick in the draft, Rankins had injuries cut short his rookie campaign. Then he was moved all over the defensive line last season but did play in all 16 games.
Rankins should benefit from the addition of pass-rusher Marcus Davenport, who the Saints traded up to acquire in the first round, and thrive as a three-technique defensive tackle.
New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, running back
Barkley is bound to make an immediate impact, especially since the Giants also made the effort to shore up his blocking with left tackle Nate Solder coming aboard and guard Will Hernandez emerging as the team’s second-round draft pick.
This could be the start of something special in New York, as Barkley will give quarterback Eli Manning the best ball-carrier he’s ever had. Barkley had 54 receptions in 2017 at Penn State and ran for 18 touchdowns as well.
Dallas Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker
America’s Team is asking a lot of its first-round pick (No. 19 overall) to start from the jump after Vander Esch started only one season at Boise State. It seems like the 21-year-old will be up to the task, though, as he had a sensational year with the Broncos in racking up 141 tackles.
Vander Esch is the type of swift playmaker the Cowboys front seven needs. Injury-riddled fellow linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith won’t be saddled with as much responsibility, and Lee is an ideal mentor for Vander Esch as he tries to develop quickly as a rookie.
Washington Redskins: Josh Doctson, receiver
Injuries cost Doctson all but two games of his rookie year, and the 2016 first-round pick had only 35 catches on 78 targets last season.
But now Washington has a new quarterback in Alex Smith, who just led the NFL in passer rating in 2017. The fresh start with a new thrower in the same system should allow Doctson to flourish and post well over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time.
Philadelphia Eagles: Sidney Jones, cornerback
Competing at both outside and slot cornerback, Jones could be deployed all over the field for the defending Super Bowl champions, enhancing his chances to be one of the high-impact players on the Eagles’ defense.
Jones would’ve been a first-round pick in 2017 if not for an Achilles injury. He appeared in only one game last year but has all the makings of emerging as a second versatile star alongside Malcolm Jenkins in Philadelphia’s secondary.
Los Angeles Rams: John Johnson, safety
An argument can be made Johnson was a breakout stud last season, but Johnson is only beginning to realize his potential and now has a much better supporting cast around him in the secondary.
Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters form arguably the best cornerback duo in the league on paper. The tandem’s knack for locking down receivers in man coverage should allow Johnson to be aggressive in jumping routes and make an even greater impact as an in-box safety.
Arizona Cardinals: Budda Baker, safety
A second-round pick in last year’s draft, Baker maximized the opportunities he was given as a rookie, emerging as a first-team All-Pro special teamer and earning a Pro Bowl bid.
Baker is now in line for a larger role in the Cardinals defense, slated to be a slot cornerback who’s also fully capable of playing strong safety. There’s no question Baker can be decisive, get downhill and deliver a blow. He figures to be among the NFL’s leading tacklers at defensive back.
Seattle Seahawks: Rashaad Penny, running back
The rookie first-rounder faces real competition for touches with Chris Carson, who could be argued as a breakout candidate in his own right. However, the superior speed Penny brings to the field for his size should allow him to emerge as the feature back.
Penny ran for 2,248 yards at San Diego State last season. That type of production doesn’t happen by accident. His bulkier frame of 236 pounds, combined with acceleration and elusiveness, will help him gain yards after contact behind a suspect Seattle offensive line.
San Francisco 49ers: Dante Pettis, receiver
Since he returned nine punts for touchdowns at Washington in college, it’s very likely Pettis will make an impact on special teams. However, his receiving ability is nothing to scoff at.
Pettis is as good of a route-runner as there is from this year’s draft class. Head coach Kyle Shanahan deploys a complex offensive system, yet Pettis is already so advanced in that he can run a full route tree.
Given Shanahan’s schematic genius and the stabilized quarterback position thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo, there’s reason to believe Pettis can emerge as the legitimate No. 2 receiver opposite Marquise Goodwin.