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Friday, June 23, 2017

10 NFL players ready to make the leap in 2017

5. James Bradberry, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

If you’re not familiar with James Bradberry’s name, odds are you soon will be.

Wearing Josh Norman’s old No. 24 for the Panthers, the 2016 second-round pick out of Samford appears poised to take the same sort of career trajectory.

Bradberry showed marked improvement from Week 1 to Week 17 last season, finishing the year with 59 tackles (47 solo), three stuffs, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He was also the top-ranked rookie cornerback courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Those PFF honors are as legitimate as it comes. His interception numbers may not leap off the board, but that’s primarily becomes teams learned early on not to throw in his direction.

Bradberry may not be a household name outside of Carolina right now, but soon the rest of the NFL world will know what those in Charlotte do: this kid is a superstar in the making.

4. Danielle Hunter, Edge, Minnesota Vikings

Earlier this year, a story was written on Danielle Hunter and the headline read “The quiet storm waiting to wreak havoc on the rest of the NFL.”

That headline will likely be proven to be spot on.

Anyone who has watched Hunter over his first two NFL seasons can see the potential. And although he’s already amassed 18.5 career sacks and four games in which he recorded 1.5 or more sacks, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for this up-and-comer.

“He’s not just an athlete out there playing football. He wants to be good, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there,” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said in December. “He was willing to come here and just be clay, and let me [help mold] him.”

When you’re extremely athletic, driven to be great and willingly coachable, the sky is the limit. And Hunter is all of those things. So if you think he was good in Year 2, wait until you see him in Year 3 when his role increases.

3. Byron Jones, Safety, Dallas Cowboys

Safety Byron Jones was a popular candidate to breakout during the 2016 regular season, but that didn’t quite happen. Although he did show some improvement from his rookie year, he came nowhere close to the ceiling many had expected of him.

Perhaps it was too much too soon for those type of expectations, but that doesn’t mean Jones is incapable of being the player many anticipate.

The Cowboys thought enough of Jones to let veteran Barry Church, a team captain, leave via free agency. And by all early accounts, Jones has a firm lock on the starting position at free safety.

The former first-round pick has entered the offseason knowing he’s got to drastically improve his game if he wants to live up to Dallas’ investment in him. He’ll also have to do it with a new cast of characters as the Cowboys have conducted quite an overhaul to their secondary.

Ultimately, 2017 could be the year Jones finally makes that leap to the next level.

2. Deon Simon, Defensive Tackle, New York Jets

After losing Damon Harrison to the New York Giants, the Jets faced quite an uphill battle in replacing him. And while Steve McLendon played well at nose tackle for much of last season, it was Deon Simon’s late-season play that truly offered the team a ray of hope.

The 2015 seventh-round pick has showed steady progress over his first two seasons and really flashed over the last few games a year ago. The coaching staff appears to be relatively high on Simon, and he could be in line to take over as the team’s starter.

If Simon has put in the necessary work this offseason and comes in and performs well throughout training camp, there’s no doubt he’ll be given the opportunity of a lifetime. And if he plays as well as he did down the stretch in 2016, the Jets may no longer be reeling from their loss of Harrison.

1. Kenyan Drake, Running Back, Miami Dolphins

There were some — not many, but some — who believed Kenyan Drake had the skills to become the best running back drafted in 2016. And while that has not come to fruition after one season — and may never come come true thanks to Ezekiel Elliott — it doesn’t mean Drake can’t explode onto the scene and carve out a name for himself.

The challenge for Drake is that he will have to make a name for himself as a reserve. Fellow Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi had a breakout year of his own a season ago, rushing for over 1,250 yards with eight touchdowns. But Drake flashed at times himself, and in today’s NFL, a multi-back balance is essentially required.

There will be the added competition of Damien Williams, who scored six touchdowns in 2016 and is a receiving threat out of the backfield, but Drake’s explosiveness in the open field makes him a unique asset. The former Alabama running back scored three times last season — twice as a rusher and once on a kick return. There’s no team in the NFL that wouldn’t want to utilize that sort of game-changing ability, so Miami will find a way to get him his touches.

Will Drake be a 1,000-yard running back in 2017? Probably not, but he’s certainly poised to make the next leap in his progression and establish himself as a truly electric option for the Dolphins.

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