The 2016 NFL Draft class is shaping up to be one that was very strong, particularly at the top. We saw players like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Michael Thomas take the league by storm, putting together tremendous rookie seasons.
But what will 2017 bring for the rest of the class? Plenty of promise and a high level of potential. There are budding stars all over the place, from the first round all the way down to the fifth.
Next season, look for these 10 players to break out and put together Pro Bowl-type seasons. They’re set up for success after most of them showed flashes of greatness as rookies.
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Sean Davis, FS, Steelers
Sean Davis took a little while to crack the starting lineup, but once he did, his presence was felt. In 16 games (eight starts), his versatility really popped off the tape. He had 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception and a fumble recovery, always finding himself around the ball.
His range and speed at free safety improved the play of everyone around him, elevating the entire defense in Pittsburgh. He’ll enter 2017 as the starter at free safety, giving him more first-team reps during offseason activities and training camp.
Davis, who played corner and safety in college, has the potential to be a great centerfield safety for the Steelers – something they’ve lacked for years.
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Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers
Philip Rivers loves tight ends in the Chargers’ offense. He had a great run with Antonio Gates, and now it’s time for Hunter Henry to take over. The 6-5 pass-catching tight end had 36 receptions in just 10 starts, eight of which went for touchdowns. He had a four-game stretch at one point last season where he caught 18 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, which is the sort of production you can expect in Year 2.
Henry cooled off a bit after that, but his ceiling is sky-high, and there’s no telling how good he’s going to be. He already tied for the most touchdowns by a tight end last season, and was tied for the ninth most in all of football.
And this was all while he was battling through a variety of injuries that hampered him a bit. Henry has unlimited potential and can really thrive in L.A.’s offense.
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Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Patriots
Is Malcolm Mitchell the Patriots’ next star receiver? He has good tools despite not being the tallest receiver, playing much bigger than his 5-11 height indicates. That’s because his catch radius is relatively large, showing he can elevate and make difficult catches by high-pointing the ball.
In New England’s offense that relies on underneath routes and yards after the catch, Mitchell has great speed, running a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine, one of the top times by a wideout. Tom Brady’s trust in him grew as the season went on, culminating in a six-reception, 70-yard game in Super Bowl LI – catching all but one pass that came his way.
Look for Mitchell to play the way he did at the end of the season when he had three 70-plus yard games and hauled in four touchdowns. Being healthier will also help his play.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants
Sterling Shepard had his moments in New York this past season, but just like Victor Cruz, he also went relatively unnoticed a few times. With Cruz out of the picture, Shepard will likely become the Giants’ full-time slot receiver, even more than he was as a rookie.
When he is in the slot, Shepard puts cornerbacks in a bind with his quickness and ability to win inside and along the boundary. He’s also a good red zone threat, catching eight touchdowns this past season.
Michael Thomas already broke out as a rookie, going over 1,100 yards, and Shepard will be the next – especially in New York’s pass-happy offense.
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Karl Joseph, S, Raiders
Karl Joseph had a nice rookie season after recovering from a knee injury his final season at West Virginia. He recorded 60 tackles, one interception and recovered a fumble, showing versatility as a deep center fielder and an in-the-box safety.
I’m not saying he’s Earl Thomas, but Joseph has that sort of ceiling as a roamer in the secondary. He has terrific range going from sideline to sideline, and when he does meet ball carriers, he lays the wood. That’s exactly what the Raiders need in their underwhelming secondary that lacks talent at corner.
Joseph, now that he’ll be fully healthy, is going to have a great sophomore season. Making a strong impact early on at safety is difficult in the NFL, but Joseph has the potential to go from good to great quickly, just like Landon Collins did.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Bears
Leonard Floyd had seven sacks as a rookie in just 12 games, showing a great deal of potential as a stud pass rusher. He has all the qualities you want in a 3-4 outside linebacker, and it’s the reason the Bears took him in the top 10 last year.
In his second season, Floyd is going to make the jump to a double-digit sack artist and emerge as a strong force for the Bears. He’s not going to have a Khalil Mack-type jump to 15 sacks in Year 2, but he should be a Pro Bowler and one of Chicago’s best defenders.
He’s still inconsistent and a bit raw, but with another offseason to hone his skills, Floyd is going to make a big jump in 2017.
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Tavon Young, CB, Ravens
Tavon Young isn’t a name many casual fans will recognize, but he’ll be more widely known next season. The 2016 fourth-round pick was arguably one of the best rookie corners in the league this season, ranking third in that regard by Pro Football Focus.
He’s only 5-foot-9, but he plays much bigger than he looks. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed in 2016, and that was only in 11 games as the starter. The Ravens may move him inside as a full-time slot corner, utilizing his quickness against smaller receivers. That’ll only help his play.
With Jalen Ramsey already a star in the NFL, Young will be the next cornerback to break out – despite being a much different player than the physically imposing Ramsey.
Paul Perkins, RB, Giants
The Giants are paving the way for Paul Perkins to be their starter in 2017. They released Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen isn’t an every-down back. That leaves Perkins, who saw increased playing time towards the end of the season, as the only viable starter on the roster.
And as long as the Giants don’t spend a premium draft pick on a running back or bring in someone like Latavius Murray, Adrian Peterson or Eddie Lacy, Perkins will probably get 20 carries a game. If that happens, he’s going to show why the Giants thought so highly of him, and why they felt comfortable letting go of Jennings.
He’s not the biggest back, but his short-area quickness and light-foot running style make him tough to bring down in a crowd. He had 456 yards as a rookie, but that number will at least double in 2017.
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Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins
Josh Doctson played just two games this season before he was shut down for the year due to an Achilles injury. He was one of the most physically gifted receivers in the draft and showed great potential leading up to his rookie year.
Next season, if he remains healthy, he’ll have a Michael Thomas-type impact and become a stud. With DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon both in danger of leaving, Doctson will quickly be elevated from backup to starter. That’s a good thing because he has the size and makeup of a No. 1 receiver.
The Redskins love to throw the ball, too, so he’s going to get plenty of looks on offense. Don’t be surprised to see him become the best receiver from the 2016 class.
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Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles
Carson Wentz’s rookie year was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. He started hot, regressed in the middle of the season before putting together a solid outing in Week 17. His sophomore season will be significantly better, and he’ll become the star we thought he’d be after the first four weeks of the season.
The Eagles are going to do their best to surround him with talent at wide receiver. His playmakers – if you can call them that – failed him this season with dropped passes and the inability to make easy plays. Look for the front office to bring in at least one free agent wide receiver, potentially Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson, in addition to drafting one.
Not to mention, a full offseason as the starter instead of the third-stringer will help his development greatly. Wentz has all the tools, he just needs to be more consistent.