With this year’s free agent pool beginning to dry up, teams around the league are starting to shift their focus toward the NFL draft, which is just over a month away. This is the point in the offseason where we can begin to look ahead to the upcoming season, and project which players will be asked to do more for their respective teams, given the way free agency has played out thus far.
Every season there are players who may have struggled to contribute while on the field or even had trouble getting on the field at all in one season, but follow that up with career years when given the opportunity. One standout example from the 2016 season was Houston Texans CB A.J. Bouye, who graded out as the third-best cornerback in the league in 2016 (90.9) while playing over 80 percent of the snaps, while the previous season he saw just over 22 percent of the snaps with a grade of 67.3.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at five players who could see a significant jump in both playing time and performance in 2017 given the current rosters at the moment:
1. La’el Collins, G, Dallas Cowboys
One of the biggest stories of the 2015 NFL Draft was when LSU’s Collins, who was once projected as a first-round pick, was not selected at all. There was an ongoing off-the-field investigation happening that involved Collins (he was not considered a suspect of any crime but did speak to police), and that ultimately prevented NFL teams from investing a pick the talented offensive lineman.
Once he was cleared of any wrongdoing, the Dallas Cowboys signed Collins as an undrafted free agent just five days after the conclusion of the draft. In Dallas, Collins was joining arguably the most talented offensive line group in the league, and would play just 186 snaps as a backup in 2016.
With starting guard Ronald Leary joining the Denver Broncos as a free agent and the sudden retirement of right tackle Doug Free, the Cowboys now have two major holes to fill up front. Luckily for them, Collins is more than an adequate replacement at left guard, playing between two All-Pros in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
Wasn't just one play for La'el. Here he is launching Brandon Mebane into the next county pic.twitter.com/d0ZJcnt67z
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 3, 2015
2. Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins
Doctson was the top-graded college wide receiver in terms of cumulative receiving grade in 2015 during his final season at TCU. He was drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but played only 31 regular-season snaps before an Achilles injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
In 2015, Doctson was arguably the most dangerous receiver in college football, as he led the nation with 4.08 yards per route run. He will likely be utilized in the same way in Washington under new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.
The Redskins lost both Pierre Garcon (85.8 grade in 2016) and DeSean Jackson (77.0) in free agency, but were able to soften the blow by signing Terrelle Pryor (78.6). In one of the most pass-happy offenses in the league (only five quarterbacks had more pass attempts than Kirk Cousins in 2016), Doctson will be heavily relied-on in 2017.
3. Shane Ray, Edge, Denver Broncos
Ray struggled to find his place in the Denver defense as a rookie in 2015, where he played just 33.8 percent of the snaps, registering only four quarterback sacks. His snap count rose to 58.1 percent in 2016, and his pass-rushing grade drastically improved with it (78.9 – 23rd-ranked among edge defenders), registering 10 sacks on the season.
With the announcement of DeMarcus Ware’s retirement, Ray will have even more opportunities rushing the passer as the outside linebacker position across from Von Miller and should continue to develop on one of the best defensive units in the league.
4. Paul Perkins, RB, New York Giants
Perkins was drafted in the fifth round of last year’s draft, but was essentially a nonfactor early in the season, as he didn’t play more than 15 snaps in any game Weeks 1-8. From Week 9 on, however, Perkins didn’t player fewer than 20 snaps in any game.
With the addition of free agent Brandon Marshall, the New York Giants have arguably the most talented trio of wide receivers in the league in Marshall, Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Since so much defensive attention will be focused on the playmakers outside, the Giants should able to improve their dreadful running-game ranks (29th in yards per game, 30th in yards per carry and dead last in rushing touchdowns) in 2017.
Perkins jumped Rashad Jennings in the depth chart by the end of the 2016 season, ultimately leading to Jennings’ release. While the Giants are likely to add another running back at some point in the draft, there is little doubt that Perkins will at the very least open the season as the starter and have every opportunity to build on his rookie season.
5. Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
It’s hard to believe that White is entering his third season in the NFL, considering how little he’s been on the field. The former top-10 pick missed his entire rookie season after having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin, and then appeared in just four games in 2016 before suffering a fractured left fibula, consequently ending his season.
In an ideal world, the Chicago Bears would have teamed up White with Alshon Jeffery to form one of the most dangerous wide receiver duos in the league. With White struggling to stay healthy and Jeffery having his own injury concerns and off-the-field issues, that plan never came to fruition.
With Jeffery now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears need White to be that No. 1 receiver they drafted him to be in 2015 more than ever. Talent has never been a question for White, so as long as he enters camp healthy this year, he should be able to develop chemistry with new quarterback Mike Glennon and contribute in a big way for an offense that desperately needs playmakers.