The nature of the NFL is cruel but predictable — players enter and exit with frequency, and time to make your mark is limited. Those who take advantage of those opportunities that come around every year can expect fame, fortune, and respect. Squander it and there might not be another opportunity down the line. Here are 15 players who looked poised to make the most of their opportunity this year.
Preston Smith - OLB - Washington Redskins
Smith started only two games last year, but still registered eight sacks in his rookie campaign. With Trent Murphy moving to defensive end, Smith will become Washington’s top pass rusher next season and if his production rate carries over, he’s going to be one of the best quarterback chasers in the NFL.
Quinten Rollins - CB - Green Bay Packers
The Packers let Casey Heyward walk in free agency, meaning that a starting cornerback job — likely on the inside — is Rollins’ this year. The former college basketball player, who played only one year of college football, showed incredible tenacity and instinct that makes him look like a future All-Pro.
D.J. Humphries - RT - Arizona Cardinals
Humphries didn’t play a down last season. Now he’s slated to start on the offensive line of a Super Bowl contender. No pressure, right? The Cardinals seem supremely confident that a year on the bench has Humphries — one of the top talents of the 2015 Draft — ready to go.
Cameron Artis-Payne - RB - Carolina Panthers
A staple of this list — Artis-Payne is again pointed for a breakout in 2016. This time, we’re serious. Artis-Payne is waiting for a chance, and given the Panthers’ depth chart, he should see more than 113 snaps this year.
Vance McDonald - TE - San Francisco 49ers
Someone has to catch the ball on the 49ers, and given the team’s dearth of wide receiver options outside of the less-than-reliable Torrey Smith, McDonald could well end up the top receiving option in 2016. If Blaine Gabbert wins the starting job (as he should) McDonald’s stock rises significantly — the TE and QB showed strong chemistry last year.
Malcolm Brown - DT - New England Patriots
Dominique Easley is gone, and his snaps at DT are probably going to go to Brown, who could be on the field for 75 percent of snaps next year. The Patriots rave about the 22 year old’s intelligence and claim that he’s the leader of the defensive line, despite only a year of experience. This is going to be a guy the rest of the NFL learns to hate in 2016.
Marvin Jones - WR - Detroit Lions
Calvin Johnson retired and Golden Tate is going to be looking at double-teams most of the year. This is where Marvin Jones comes into play. The deep threat, who signed as a free agent from Cincinnati, has 134 career catches. He could amass as much as 75 percent of that career number in this year alone.
Jadeveon Clowney - DE - Houston Texans
Let’s talk about busts. The former No. 1 overall pick isn’t putting up huge numbers for Houston, but those who watch him know that he’s no bust. He’s a double-and-triple team destroying wrecking ball. Now that he’s finally healthy, this is the year that the numbers catch up with the impact we see on the All-22.
Todd Davis - LB - Denver Broncos
Middle linebacker Danny Trevathan is now in Chicago, and the Broncos didn’t feel the need to sign anyone to replace the team’s leading tackler. Instead, Davis, an undrafted player out of Sacramento State, has been used mostly as a special teamer in his first two years with the Broncos, but he should see his snaps played percentage go from 11 to 75 this year.
Danielle Hunter - DE - Minnesota Vikings
The second-half of Hunter’s 2015 season was a revelation. Something clicked. His Week 15 performance against the Bears, in particular, was dominant. If he can carry that level of play into 2016, he has a chance to be the best player on one of the best defenses in the NFL.
DeVante Parker - WR - Miami Dolphins
Parker surged at the end of last season, registering 42 targets in his final six games, racking up 445 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Parker’s size and speed will make him a favorite of Ryan Tannehill, who in a make-or-break year under a pass-friendly new scheme, is going to to be slinging all season.
Jeff Heuerman - TE - Denver Broncos
The Ohio State product tore his ACL before last season started, but is now challenging for the Broncos starting tight end job. Given the Broncos issues at quarterback, he could become a quick and steady safety valve for Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch.
Alejandro Villanueva - LT - Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers signed the starting left tackle of the Super Bowl champions, but the news out of camp is that Ryan Harris isn’t necessarily going to start at arguably the most important position on the field. That job will probably go to the former Army wide receiver, who converted to tackle and packed on 100 pounds to his 6-foot-9 frame to do it. Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan and won the Bronze Star for Valor — blocking Big Ben’s blindside is nothing.
Shawn Williams - S - Cincinnati Bengals
A spot starter last year, registering 32 tackles with two interceptions, the Bengals made Williams the No. 1 strong safety ahead of 2016, letting Reggie Nelson leave in free agency and giving Williams a four-year contract extension. Williams will need to extrapolate his flashes into 16 games in 2016.
Quinton Dunbar - CB - Washington Redskins
The former Florida wide receiver converted to defensive back at the NFL level, but still saw a tremendous 257 snaps last year. Following his first full offseason as a cornerback, he could well become Washington’s starting nickel back in 2016.