Which NFL players have taken their game to the next level this season? Entering Week 9, we run through the league's top breakout players—with one rookie to round out the group—who have made a substantial leap in the 2016 season.
1. Taylor Lewan, LT, Tennessee Titans
Even with Taylor Lewan’s first poor game of the season coming against the most unlikely bearers of his kryptonite—the Jacksonville Jaguars—the Tennessee LT still ranks as PFF’s third-highest-graded offensive tackle, and has been a far better player than a year ago. Through the first half of the season, Lewan has yet to surrender a sack or a QB hit, and has two complete clean sheets when it comes to pass protection. He has never been a bad player, and was always perhaps a little underrated, but this season he has became the first-round player the Titans drafted back in 2014.
2. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
This was in the cards (pun intended) given what David Johnson showed last year as a rookie; still, Johnson has lived up to everybody’s expectations as one of the league’s best and most complete running backs. He is third in the league in rushing yards after eight weeks, has added a league-leading 407 receiving yards, and has broken 46 tackles, the most among all NFL RBs. Johnson is a big back, but has an incredible ability to cut quickly and on a dime, sending would-be tacklers sprawling to the floor. He has met expectations and become more of the focal point for an offense that was all about firing the ball downfield until this season.
3. Matt Paradis, C, Denver Broncos
At his best last season, Matt Paradis was an average starter at the center position for the Broncos. He struggled as a pass blocker, coughing up 29 total QB pressures, sixth-most in the league. This year he is on pace to allow just eight, and he currently sits atop the PFF rankings for the center position with an overall grade of 88.2. Paradis has fixed his pass protection problems from his previous starting season and has improved in the run game, building on an area of strength and becoming the best player on the Denver offensive line.
4. A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans
The last time A.J. Bouye saw significant time was in 2014, where he played 644 snaps for the Texans and was pretty average. That season, he allowed 61.2 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, and surrendered three touchdowns; QBs had a passer rating of 75.3 when throwing into Bouye's coverage, a figure that was only kept that low because he notched three picks. This season, Bouye has yet to intercept a pass, but even so, is yielding a lower passer rating of just 62.8, because he has yet to surrender a score, and is only allowing 52.5 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught. Even the ones that have been caught have gone for just 7.8 yards per reception.
5. Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Coming into this season, Morris Claiborne’s career had been remarkably consistent—unfortunately, it had been consistently bad. He had allowed more than 61.5 percent of passes thrown into his coverage to be caught for four straight seasons, and surrendered a passer rating on those throws of 94.0 or better in each season—100.0 or higher in three of the four. This season, he is allowing only 54.2 percent of passes to be caught—a 7 percent drop or more on any previous year—and is giving up a passer rating of just 64.1. Even the catches he has allowed have been less impactful; Claiborne is giving up just 8.2 yards per reception, down from a career average of 14.2, and has only allowed one touchdown so far. He has been a big reason the Dallas defense has exceeded expectations.
6. Danny Shelton, NT, Cleveland Browns
Last season, I expected Danny Shelton to hit the ground running and dominate. It didn’t quite happen that way, but this season, he is starting to get it and make a far bigger impact for the Browns. This year, he is second in the league among defensive tackles, with a run-stop percentage of 13.3 percent, trailing only Giants NT Damon Harrison, who has made that statistic his own in recent seasons. Shelton is a disruptive presence who can make majorly impact an offense and play in multiple positions across the defensive line. This could be the beginning of something big for a player that graded extremely well for PFF in college.
7. Justin Britt, C, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle’s offensive line is an unmitigated disaster, but one unconventional move the Seahawks have made that actually seems to be working out is putting Justin Britt at center. At both right tackle and then left guard over the past two years, Britt was one of the worst linemen in the entire league. The move to center, then, seemed like the last roll of the dice before he was cast away, but Britt has played well there and had a couple of excellent games. He has yet to allow a sack or QB hit, and surrendered just five QB pressures over the season, making center at least one O-line position the Seahawks seem to have covered. Now, just to fix the other four…
8. Zach Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills
Zach Brown is another player that hasn’t been bad in his career to date, but this season, has broken out into something else entirely. He has seen by far his highest percentage of defensive snaps played, up to 88.7 percent of Buffalo’s snaps from a career-high of 70.8 before this season, and he is grading well in every facet of the game PFF measures. Brown has already posted a career-high in defensive stops, and will soon exceed his career high in tackles. He has three sacks and seven total pressures from his work on the blitz, and has made some solid stops in coverage.
9. Lorenzo Alexander, OLB, Buffalo Bills
Another Buffalo Bill to break out, Lorenzo Alexander may be the most unlikely sack-leader after half the season as one could have imagined. Alexander has been an offensive lineman, a tight end, a defensive tackle, a stand-up inside linebacker, and special teamer in his NFL career. He already has more total pressures than he's had in any single season of his career, and has doubled his career-high in defensive stops after just half a season. His play may not quite match the gaudy sack totals—sacks comprise an unusually-high 40 percent of his total QB pressures—but he has been lightyears better than any previous season we have seen from him, and been a genuine impact player for the Bills.
10. Joey Bosa, OLB, San Diego Chargers
We had to wait a long time to see PFF’s No.1 college prospect take the NFL field, given the protracted contract mess in San Diego, and then injury delaying his debut even further, but rookie Joey Bosa has already broken out. In just four games (one of which was 27 snaps long on his debut), Bosa has already racked up 26 total pressures, which is an average of 6.5 per game. Those are J.J. Watt/Von Miller-type numbers, and he’s done it without sacrificing play against the run. Bosa has 10 defensive stops and strong grades against the run in three of his four games so far, and is PFF’s third-highest-graded edge defender entering Week 9, with a mark of 89.0.