Stars of the 2017 NFL season? 10 potential breakout players to watch

1:57 | College Football
Players to watch at the 2017 Senior Bowl
Wednesday January 25th, 2017

Thirty NFL teams have shifted their focus to preparing for the 2017 season. With that comes the internal search for players who could exceed their 2016 production and be important pieces of future playoff runs.

There is never any shortage of candidates for future "breakout" players at this point on the calendar. Here are 10 to file away for the fall:

1. Wendell Smallwood, RB, Eagles: The Eagles could cut both Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles and take a combined cap hit of just $1 million next season. Odds are, one of those two—probably Sproles—will be back. The other’s exit will open the door for Smallwood to increase his role in the offense.

The 2016 fifth-rounder was effective when he had opportunities this season, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 9.2 yards on his six receptions. In his three games with double-digit rushing attempts, he bumped that per-carry mark up to 4.5. Philadelphia is an obvious candidate to add a RB, either via free agency or the draft, but if that player is not a clear-cut No. 1 back, Smallwood’s going to see more touches.

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2. Kamalei Correa, LB, Ravens: Zachary Orr’s surprising retirement last week accelerates the timetable for Correa. C.J. Mosley figures to maintain his starting job at one of Baltimore’s ILB spots; Correa has to be penciled in for the other, where he would replace Orr, the team’s leading tackler in 2016. The Ravens won’t hand Correa that role—veteran Albert McClellan’s still around, and obviously the draft and free agency are still to come. The plan, though, was to eventually turn Correa into an impact player and his time may come sooner rather than later.

3. Cody Core, WR, Bengals: The Bengals may opt to retain impending free agent Brandon LaFell, who caught 64 passes this season and certainly won’t break the bank. Their alternative option is to draft another receiver or bump Core up the depth chart. Both might be good ideas.

Core didn’t crack the lineup until deep into the regular season, after A.J. Green fell with an injury. He produced once there, though: 17 catches for 200 yards over the final five weeks. At 6' 3" and 210 lbs., he fits the prototype as the type of outside receiver Cincinnati needs to take the heat off Green ... or exploit matchups when teams focus all their attention on the Bengals’ star. While LaFell was solid, he hardly scared opposing defenses. It might be time to see if Core can.

4. C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks: Pete Carroll recently said that he is concerned about Prosise’s long-term durability—he played in just six games as a rookie. However, what Prosise showed when he was in there could make him the ideal complement to Thomas Rawls in the Seattle backfield. Namely, Prosise flashed significant receiving chops (17 catches on 19 targets for 208 yards). Even if the Seahawks don’t trust him to handle eight or 10 carries a game, Prosise can be a 60-plus reception weapon if he can just stay in the lineup.

5. D.J. Reader, DT, Texans: Reader is the heir apparent to Vince Wilfork’s spot anchoring the Texans’ defensive line, and those are big shoes to fill, figuratively and literally. Reader saw time at multiple spots up front as a rookie, but the Texans are high on what he can do as a full-time nose tackle.

“He’s a really good young player that has a really good future," Houston coach Bill O’Brien said, via HoustonTexans.com, “as long as he continues to understand, ‘This is what it’s going to take for me to get to the level I want to get to as a player’ and [to] help us get to that level as a team.”

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6. Ken Crawley, CB, Saints: New Orleans signed Crawley as an undrafted free agent last summer, then wound up starting him five times. Crawley and another 2016 UDFA, De’Vante Harris, could be key to the 2017 plans with Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb (combined 19 starts) both on track to be unrestricted free agents. The 6-foot Crawley has the size and length to be a playmaker, albeit a work in progress. A sophomore leap could land him a permanent starting job.

7. Kevin White, WR, Bears: We’re still waiting for his moment to finally come. An exciting addition by the Bears in the top 10 of the ’15 draft, White has been unable to stay healthy. He missed all of his rookie season and another 12 games this past year, leaving his future murky at best. The thing is that White’s talent—at least what we saw of it at West Virginia and now briefly in Chicago—is undeniable.

Should Alshon Jeffery depart as a free agent, White would have a clear path to the No. 1 WR gig in Chicago’s offense. If he can’t find his footing in 2017, the Bears may look to move on. The only thing holding him back thus far, though, has been his health.

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8. Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins: One of the surprises in Miami’s offense this season was RB Damien Williams, who scored on approximately 10% of his touches (six of 58). He is about to be a restricted free agent, so the Dolphins could retain him at what should be a reasonable rate. But they may not need to with Drake waiting in the wings.

As a rookie in 2016, Drake averaged 5.4 yards per carry and also took a kickoff back 96 yards to the house. He’s explosive in the open field—the type of chip that would pair well with starting back Jay Ajayi, while also being able to limit Ajayi’s workload. Ajayi’s presence would keep Drake from being a 1,000-yard back next season, but still, a significant bump up from his 225 yards from scrimmage is in the cards.

9. Deon Simon, DT, Jets: The Jets took a hit last off-season when Damon Harrison signed with the Giants. They never quite replaced his impact up front, but Simon’s play late in the season offered them hope for 2017. To put it simply, Simon outplayed veteran Steve McLendon in the nose-tackle role—and McLendon actually wasn’t all that bad in his own right. Even though McLendon is under contract for two more seasons, Simon should take over as the first-teamer.

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10. Damiere Byrd, WR, Panthers: The Panthers did not get anywhere near the second-year leap they expected from Devin Funchess, but he still has the inside track to partner with Kelvin Benjamin atop Carolina’s receiver depth chart. What’s up in the air, as of now, is who handles that third job. It still could be Ted Ginn—he’s about to be a free agent.

Byrd is a wild card, either for that No. 3 or a No. 4 role. There is not much evidence to go on yet, as Byrd has just one career regular-season catch. But he had sub-4.3 speed at South Carolina, where he averaged 18.6 yards per reception. He could be a dangerous piece working out of the slot, while Benjamin, Funchess and TE Greg Olsen draw defense’s attention elsewhere. If Ginn leaves, Byrd’s stock could skyrocket in the preseason. 

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