NFL News & Analysis

Top 10 breakout players of the 2016 season

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 06: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Landon Collins #21 of the New York Giants celebrates an interception against the Philadelphia Eagles with his teammates on November 6, 2016 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants defeated the Eagles 28-23. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Which NFL players took their performance to the next level this season? Here we identify 10 breakout players who stood out the most in 2016.

1. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants

This time a year ago, it looked like the Giants had wasted a high second-round draft pick (that they traded up for) on Landon Collins. He appeared to be lost as a free safety within New York's defense, completely uncomfortable with the role that put him deep in space and away from the action. This season, Collins was moved closer to the line of scrimmage; since the change, he has been an all-action player as the Giants' strong safety, making the PFF All-Pro first team and compiling a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. Collins ended the season with five picks, four sacks, five pass breakups, over 100 solo tackles and eight more defensive stops than any other safety in a truly outstanding season.

2.  A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans

Coming into this season, Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye had played 856 snaps of mostly average defense in his NFL career, with a majority of those coming back in 2014. In 2016, however, injuries in Houston put him on the field for 790 snaps, during which he has been one of the league’s best cover corners. Bouye allowed just 54.5 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught this season for only 9.8 yards per reception; he picked off only one pass, but broke up 11 more, and surrendered a passer rating of 73.1 when targeted. In the playoffs (albeit aided by a rookie QB for an opponent), he was thrown at seven times and caught more passes himself (one) than he allowed (zero).

3. Matt Paradis, C, Denver Broncos

Last year, Broncos center Matt Paradis played the occasional good game, but there was little (or nothing, really) that suggested he would put together a 2016 campaign that vied with the best players at his position, but that’s exactly what happened. Paradis has been fantastic as a run blocker in 2016, and in pass protection, he surrendered just three sacks or hits (17 total pressures), while also earning a positive grade on the move when blocking for screens. Paradis is not only a true breakout player, but one of the league’s most-improved performers overall.

4. Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

Jay Ajayi’s rushing numbers weren’t great last season, but he ran well in limited snaps and looked like the best RB in Dolphins camp before finding himself bumped lower on the depth chart heading into the season. Over the first three weeks, he saw just 18 total carries before getting his opportunity to start in Week 5, and then truly breaking out against Pittsburgh the next game. He posted 204 rushing yards in that encounter before totaling 1,155 yards in his final 11 games (105 per game on average). He broke a league-leading 58 tackles on the ground and averaged a ridiculous 3.5 yards per carry after contact over the season. Though they capitulated once they got there, Ajayi was the reason Miami made it to the playoffs.

5. Marcus Cannon, RT, New England Patriots

Marcus Cannon had seen quite a lot of playing time for the Patriots over the past few seasons at both left and right tackle as injuries seemed to constantly hit the New England line. He had good games here and there, but overall, his play had been pretty ugly. Cannon averaged 29 total QB pressures surrendered over the three previous seasons, despite playing just 60 percent of the team’s total offensive snaps over that span. As a 2016 full-time starter at right tackle, however, he has surrendered only 27 pressures across nearly 300 more snaps than he has ever played in a season. Cannon's run blocking has been massively improved, and he finished the year as a PFF All-Pro second-teamer.

6. Nick Perry, EDGE, Green Bay Packers

Coming into 2016, Nick Perry had never played particularly poor over a season, but there was little to suggest that he could become an impact player for the Packers and justify his first-round draft status. This season, though, Perry racked up 11 sacks and 47 total QB pressures—despite missing significant time due to injury. He also recorded 37 defensive stops, good enough for ninth-most among all NFL edge defenders, despite playing fewer snaps than any of the players above him in that category (and many of those below him). Perry has looked excellent against the run and pass, and now looks every bit like a former first-round pick.

7. Cameron Brate, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cameron Brate emerged as a legitimate second target for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers this year to complement the play of No. 1 WR Mike Evans. Brate caught 57 passes from 78 targets (73.1 percent) on the season for 660 yards and eight touchdowns, dropping only two passes all year. The former undrafted free agent elevated his way into the starting lineup, having flashed potential a year ago, and was one of the league’s better receiving tight ends in 2016, ending the season as PFF’s No. 7 ranked TE, with a grade of 82.8 overall.

8. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns

His season definitely cooled off the longer it went on, but it’s worth reflecting on what Terrelle Pryor just achieved—the Browns wideout recorded 1,007 receiving yards on 77 catches as a converted QB. When I visited Browns camp this summer, Pryor was a curiosity, and I was impressed with how natural he looked as a receiver. Once the regular season got under way, though, he quickly became the team’s unquestioned No. 1 WR, and spent the year dealing with a revolving door at QB. Pryor has big potential and proved this season that he is a legitimate receiving threat at this level, something that seemed like pure wishful thinking before 2016.

9. Casey Hayward, CB, San Diego Chargers

Casey Hayward posted one of the top-graded rookie performances we have ever seen back in 2012 for the Packers, but between injuries and some vaguely-underwhelming play, he never quite got his chance to prove that he could be anything more than a slot corner for the Packers before they let him walk this past offseason. The Chargers picked Hayward up, gave him the chance to start on the outside, and before long, they had lost their top cover corner (Jason Verrett), and their new free-agent acquisition was the team’s No. 1 CB. Hayward responded by leading the league in interceptions, notching nine more pass breakups, surrendering only one touchdown catch all year and giving up a passer rating of just 53.4 when thrown at.

10. Akiem Hicks, DI, Chicago Bears

Akiem Hicks is already on his third NFL team in just five seasons, and has graded positively at every stop, though sometimes only really against the run. This season, though, was the first year he was seen as a true every-down player, and he responded by posting eight sacks, two batted passes, 50 total QB pressures and 37 defensive stops—numbers that match Carolina's Kawann Short almost identically and actually surpass Tampa Bay Pro-Bowler Gerald McCoy. Hicks has been impressive against the run and pass all season for Chicago.

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