Each NFL team’s breakout player for 2018
New England Patriots — James White, RB
White has become vital to the New England passing game, even as Sony Michel gets a good amount of the actual carries when healthy. White still gets his fair share and takes advantage — his 303 rush yards and four touchdowns on the ground are nothing to scoff at. He’s really established himself as a receiver, catching six touchdowns to go with 567 receiving yards. He actually leads the team in targets, as Tom Brady looked to him frequently with Julian Edelman sidelined, making him a vital part of the Patriot attack.
New Orleans Saints — Sheldon Rankins, DT
Rankins was considered one of the top pass rushers in his class when the Saints selected him 12th overall in the 2016 draft. In his first two seasons, he didn’t really live up to expectations, with just six total sacks in his first two campaigns. His third looks to be much more in line with that New Orleans was expecting. He has seven sacks, already topping his previous high, as well as 12 QB hits and 10 tackles for a loss. He looks to finally be progressing into a steady, reliable starter.
New York Giants — Saquon Barkley, RB
It’s been a very ugly year on the whole for the Giants, but Barkley has been everything they could have hoped for and then some. He’s a massive threat out of the backfield in both rushing and receiving. He’s averaging 4.8 yards per carry as the Giants lean heavily on him, and his 581 receiving yards aren’t far behind his rushing total. He has 12 total touchdowns as well, and is well past 1,400 all-purpose yards. At least the Giants have him as a clear building block to use as their centerpiece.
New York Jets — Darron Lee, LB
Drafted with his expectations in the first round of the 2016 draft, Lee’s first two NFL seasons were marred by inconsistency and became the subject of criticism. He’s taken a big step forward in his third year, becoming a very solid coverage linebacker for a struggling Jets team. 2018 has seen Lee pick off his first three passes, and he even has a defensive touchdown to his name. It took a while, but he looks to be rounding into form and becoming what the Jets were hoping for.
Oakland Raiders — Jalen Richard, RB
Richard has been thrust into a pretty big role in the Oakland offense after Marshawn Lynch went down with an injury. The third-year back is utilized sparingly in the ground game, with veteran Doug Martin getting the bulk of carries in Lynch’s absence, but has become a key cog out of the backfield in terms of the passing game. Though he has yet to find the end zone, he has 447 receiving yards, and only tight end Jared Cook has been targeted more this season.
Philadelphia Eagles — Jordan Hicks, LB
Hicks appeared headed for stardom before an Achilles injury cost him the bulk of 2017 and kept him from participating in Philadelphia’s memorable playoff run. He’s making up for lost time in 2018, though he’s been slowed by a calf injury lately. Though he’s not quite back to picking off passes, the fourth-year linebacker has 85 total tackles and looks set to blow past his career-best. He’s also getting into the backfield more, with six QB hits and five tackles for a loss. He’s a slightly different player than he was pre-injury, but perhaps a more important one.
Pittsburgh Steelers — James Conner, RB
The instability surrounding the Le’Veon Bell situation could have easily spiraled out of control and thrown Pittsburgh’s season into turmoil. Thanks to Conner, nothing of the sort has happened. Thrust into the lead back role, Conner has five 100-yard games to his name and has also been a major contributor to the passing game. He has ten rushing touchdowns, is well on his way to 1,000 yards, and will probably surpass 1,500 total yards.
San Francisco 49ers — Matt Breida, RB
Jerick McKinnon’s preseason injury hasn’t quite hurt the 49ers as much as they may have feared thanks largely to Breida’s emergence as a starting-quality NFL back. He’s another player who looks like he has a real chance of making it to the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time, with 738 through 11 games. He may fall a bit short, but the fact that he’s going to come close on a Niners team going nowhere is definitely a statement that he’s a pretty good NFL running back. As an added bonus, he seems to shine despite battling injuries.
Seattle Seahawks — Jarran Reed, DT
Reed’s credentials as a run-stopping defensive tackle were never really in doubt, but something shifted in 2018 and he’s turned into a very good pass-rusher as well. Take the five sacks as evidence — two more than he had in his first two NFL seasons combined. He continues to pierce the backfield, too, with 11 quarterback hits, also topping his previous best. That development has ensured that the Seahawks’ defense hasn’t taken a huge step back this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — O.J. Howard, TE
Only in his second NFL season, Howard was progressing into the upper echelon of the NFL’s receiving tight ends until suffering season-ending injuries. He showed a whole lot of promise in his rookie year and improved upon it, with 565 receiving yards and five touchdowns. The former is already the best mark of his career, while the latter was easily on pace to surpass his six from last season. Howard looks like every bit the weapon the Bucs thought he was when they drafted him.
Tennessee Titans — Corey Davis, WR
The fifth overall pick in 2017 had, by all accounts, an underwhelming rookie year. He was held to just 375 yards and didn’t score a touchdown while battling injuries. Things have changed. Davis is now comfortably Tennessee’s leading receiver with 702 yards, and he’s scored the first three touchdowns of his NFL career. That number is still low, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it will go up. The fear last year was that Davis would be a bust. That does not appear to be the case anymore.
Washington Redskins — Matthew Ioannidis, DT
Ioannidis’s emergence in the Washington pass rush is a big reason why they’ve been one of the NFC’s most pleasant surprises. A former fifth-round pick, the third-year pro has emerged onto the scene with 7.5 sacks in 11 games so far in 2018, along with 11 quarterback hits. He’s very rapidly developed into a leading pass rusher out of nowhere and is showing no sign of slowing down. As long as he keeps it up, a double-digit sack season will happen for him this year.