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Saturday, August 19, 2017

10 NFL players ready to make the leap in 2017

Marcus Mariota Titans

Every season, a handful of NFL players who hadn’t quite lived up to their billing suddenly find their way and explode onto the scene. Some players also come from absolutely nowhere to astound — Victor Cruz in 2011 immediately comes to mind as an example. Others may follow a pattern of steady improvement until they reach their apex.

It’s hard to predict exactly which unknown players will come out of left field and surprise, but it is a bit easier to predict the players who should make a big leap as their career progresses.

With that fine line in mind, here’s a look at 10 players who are ready (and should) make the leap in 2017.

10. Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jameis Winston has been a true presence since arriving in Tampa from Florida State in 2015, but all things considered, he’s been relatively pedestrian over his first two seasons.

Despite being named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Winston has completed only 59.6 percent of his passes for 8,132 yards, 50 touchdowns and 33 interceptions in 32 games. And while the consecutive 4,000-plus yard seasons are impressive, the touchdown-to-interception ratio is not, continuing a pattern he established in college. Add in nine more fumbles and his turnover statistics become even more problematic.

The good news is that Winston is still a young quarterback who is now entering his third season in the Buccaneers’ offensive system. The Bucs have added some additional weapons for Winston, and 2017 should be the year he completely rounds his game into shape.

9. Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans

The talent is clear with Marcus Mariota, but after two seasons, he has not quite pieced it all together yet. And although he’s currently overcoming a broken fibula, there’s every reason to believe 2017 will be the year everything falls into place.

In fact, that’s becoming a rather popular opinion around the NFL.

One anonymous AFC coach recently told Bleacher Report that Mariota will not only have his best season in 2017, but will easily become a top-five quarterback in the league.

“By the time next season is over,” the coach said, “he’ll be viewed as a top-five quarterback. Maybe even top three or four.”

Mariota threw for an impressive 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions last season, though his fumbles were an issue. He also helped the team to its first winning season since 2011.

As noted above, the reasons for this optimism are well-documented. Mariota has flashed elite ability repeatedly, and so long as he returns healthy this season, there’s nothing standing in his way of making a big leap. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Titans used their first-round pick on wide receiver Corey Davis in an effort to get Mariota a go-to playmaker.

8. Kevin White, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears

Kevin White carried big expectations coming out of West Virginia in 2015, but a shin injury caused him to miss his entire rookie campaign and a fractured fibula kept him out for 12 games during his sophomore season.

Those big expectations loom even larger now as White enters his third NFL season.

Although he’s been limited to only four games due to injury, the former first-round pick must stay healthy and kick it up a notch if he wishes to remain in Chicago moving forward.

White realizes he has to produce in 2017, and believes he will. So do his teammates.

“He’s ready to go,” Bears wide receiver Joshua Bellamy told CBS Sports. “He’s healthy, he’s looking good, he’s running good.”

White is a special talent. He’s had two long years to prepare, and so long as he remains healthy, he will prove to the league why he was once drafted No. 7 overall.

7. Paul Perkins, Running Back, New York Giants

In his debut campaign, Paul Perkins rushed for 456 yards on 112 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and added an additional 162 yards through the air. At times, he looked like your everyday rookie. At other times, Perkins displayed a potential game-breaking quality that’s impossible to teach.

After releasing veteran running back Rashad Jennings, and despite drafting Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the fourth-round, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo felt comfortable enough to name him the team’s starter in 2017.

“Paul Perkins is going to be our starter out there on first and second down, and we’ve added some competition in the room in a variety of ways,” McAdoo said on WFAN in early May. “Shaun Draughn, Shane Vereen is coming back, we drafted Wayne Gallman, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the running back room shakes out.”

Perkins may not be in line to handle bell-cow duties, but he will be the Giants’ starter this coming season. And if the offensive line improves even slightly, he’s in store for a big statistical year.

6. Ameer Abdullah, Running Back, Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions sported one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL a season ago, and they’re not entirely sure what approach to take in 2017. More or less, it remains a work in progress.

But the solution to their problems may come in the form of 2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdullah.

Abdullah has shown flashes of brilliance over his first two seasons, averaging 4.2 yards per carry during his rookie campaign and 5.6 yards per carry in his injury-shortened sophomore year. And the good news is that he appears fully recovered from both a shoulder labrum injury and a foot injury.

If the Lions’ offensive line can show any improvement in 2017 and Abdullah can remain healthy, he’ll not only become the team’s primary back, but could establish himself as one of the most explosive in the game. He is that good and it’s time for him to make that leap.

See Nos. 5-1 on Page 2

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