For the 2015 NFL season, Bills QB Tyrod Taylor earned PFF's Breakout Player of the Year award for his incredible rise from backup to top-seven signal caller. Likewise, Giants C Weston Richburg, Saints CB Delvin Breaux, and Bengals TE Tyler Eifert also made strong pushes for the honor.
Taking a deep dive into the PFF database, we can now look at trends in grades, stats, and snap counts to identify which players could be primed for a breakout season in 2016. Here are 10 players who may very well be the “next big thing.”
1. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Texans
In the 719 snaps Clowney has managed in his first two seasons, he’s been one of the top run defenders in the NFL off the edge. Unfortunately for the Texans, they didn’t draft him first overall to stuff the run. His five sacks a season ago may not sound like much, but considering they came on only 324 pass-rushing snaps (less than half of J.J. Watt’s total from last year), it’s not too shabby. That number, along with his 25 other combined hits and hurries, represents a drastic increase in effectiveness from his brief rookie campaign. If he can continue that trajectory with an increased workload, Clowney should be a force in year three.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Really going out on a limb here with back-to-back No. 1 picks, but it seems fairly clear that Winston is headed for stardom. If you take away his 2015 Week 1 disaster, Winston earned the sixth-highest grade of any rookie quarterback in PFF's 10 years of grading, and the best since 2012. The most encouraging sign is that he’s already fearless when pushing the ball downfield. The former Seminole had a 42.2 adjusted completion percentage on throws 20+ yards downfield, the 11th-best figure in the NFL last season.
3. J.C. Tretter, C, Packers
After two No. 1 picks, why not a backup center who was a fourth rounder three years ago and has 513 career snaps to his name? The Packers utilized Tretter as a utility lineman in 2015, filling in at both tackle and center, but when he did get a five-week stretch as the starting center, his grades really stood out. Over that span, he was the fifth-highest graded center in the league with only two hurries to his credit. Combine that with his preseason grade, where he trailed only Dallas C Travis Frederick among starters, and we could be looking at a top-10 center in the former Cornell lineman.
4. Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons
If you’ve followed PFF’s draft coverage since the inception of our college grading, you should be familiar with this name. We thought the Falcons got a first-round type talent all the way in the fifth-round back in 2015, and his grading thus far has done nothing to dissuade us from that opinion. Jarrett only saw the field for 268 snaps a year ago, but still managed the 31st-highest graded of any interior defender. Jarrett’s 12.4 run-stop percentage was better than the likes of Vikings DT Linval Joseph and Ravens NT Brandon Williams last season.
5. Marvin Jones, WR, Lions
From a grading perspective, Jones already broke out way back in 2013, but his raw stats still qualify him here, as he’s yet to crack 900 yards in a season. During Jones' last two healthy seasons, he’s averaged 1.72 yards per route run—but only has only run 444 routes per season. If we translate that yards per route to the 646 routes that Golden Tate ran a season ago for the Lions, the result is 1,111 yards. It’s obviously not as simple as that, but a larger role in a higher-volume passing offense only means more production from Jones.
6. David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
The only thing that held Johnson back from a rookie season similar to Todd Gurley’s, it would seem, is opportunity. The first-year back didn’t take over the Cardinals' leading role until Week 13, and then from Weeks 14–17, Johnson was the highest-graded running back in the NFL by some margin. Over that span, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry with 3.1 coming after contact. If he can even sniff those numbers as a sophomore, it will be a win for Arizona.
7. Denzel Perryman, LB, Chargers
Perryman is yet another second-year player who came on strong when given a starting role late in his rookie season. It wasn’t until Week 11 that the Chargers decided that the Donald Butler era was over in San Diego and allowed their second-round pick to wreak havoc on opposing running backs. Perryman would finish with an absurd 18.3 run-stop percentage, the highest among inside linebackers by four percentage points (Butler’s was 4.7, for comparison). His production should only get better with more experience and a better defensive line to keep him clean.
8. Ross Cockrell, CB, Steelers
On one hand, it’s concerning that the Steelers' coaching staff didn’t think highly enough of Cockrell to start him over Antwon Blake last year, but Pittsburgh fans saw firsthand with James Harrison how hard it can be to break the status quo in the Steel City. In the 502 coverage snaps that Cockrell saw the field a season ago he was superb, however. His nine pass breakups and 63.5 completion percentage allowed were both tops among Steelers corners.
9. Vinny Curry, DE, Eagles
Pigeonholed as an interior lineman in the Eagles 3-4 scheme, Curry was undersized, and as such, too much of a liability against the run to see any snaps outside of designated passing situations. Now playing defensive end in Jim Schwartz’ 4-3, Curry’s run issues are alleviated, and he’ll see far more than his career-high 433 snaps from a season ago. Curry’s 11.2 pass-rushing productivity trailed only Bengals DT Geno Atkins, Texans DE J.J. Watt, and Rams DT Aaron Donald last year among interior players.
10. Eric Fisher, T, Chiefs
For general manager John Dorsey’s sake, Fisher better break out in 2016, and do so in a big way. If Fisher was an undrafted free agent, he would have had a hard time staying on the Chiefs' roster after a dreadful first two seasons. But he certainly isn’t an UDFA, and after he showed significant signs of improvement last year, the Chiefs rewarded him with the fourth-most lucrative tackle contract in the NFL on a per-year basis. The good news is that he’s looked every bit deserving of that deal this preseason. He was the highest-graded tackle among those that ran solely with the first team offenses, and only allowed two pressures on 72 pass-blocking snaps.