One player on every NFL team ready to make the leap in 2018
It may be hard to believe, but training camps are just around the corner, and that means meaningful football isn’t far off. It also means that previously injured players, under-performers and sophomores have another opportunity to prove they belong in the hard-hitting NFL.
Here’s a look at 32 players — one from each team — who are ready to make the leap entering the 2018 season.
Arizona Cardinals – Budda Baker, S
With the departure of Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals have an obvious void to fill in their secondary. Enter second-year safety Budda Baker, who is expected to take on a much larger defensive role for Steve Wilks. In an aggressive system (Wilks blitzed on 44 percent of the defensive snaps in Carolina), Baker should find himself in a position to excel as a sophomore and potentially even improve upon his already impressive 84.5 Pro Football Focus grade from a season ago.
Atlanta Falcons – Takk McKinley, DE
Takk McKinley got off to a sluggish start during his rookie season and that carried through the first half of the year. In fact, it wasn’t until the team’s final seven regular season games that McKinley finally start to come on, recording five of his six sacks during that span. Then, in the playoffs, McKinley kept that momentum going by recording two sacks, one in each game. With a year now under his belt and some confidence carrying over, McKinley is poised to show the NFL world why he was taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Baltimore Ravens – Matt Judon, LB
A 2016 fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State, expectations weren’t very high for Judon entering the NFL. However, he proved as a rookie he was capable of playing at the next level and then took an impressive step forward in 2017 when he recorded 60 tackles, eight sacks and 10 stuffs. Now with two years under his belt and having solidified his place on Baltimore’s defense, Judon is ready to not only make a leap forward, but potentially cement his name among some of the NFL’s best defenders in 2018.
Buffalo Bills – Dion Dawkins, OT
Cordy Glenn had been a long-time starter for the Bills, but after foot and ankle injuries limited him in 2017, the team opted to trade him away this offseason. That decision was made easier by the play of Dion Dawkins a season ago, who started 11 games in place of Glenn and scored a 74.5 Pro Football Focus grade. Entering his sophomore season, Dawkins will have the luxury of knowing he’s projected as the long-term starter, which will likely take some pressure off and allow him to just play and improve.
Carolina Panthers – Shaq Thompson, LB
Shaq Thompson has shown improvement in each of his first three years, but the 2015 first-round pick still hasn’t come close to the sort of production the Panthers initially expected. If he continues at his current pace and trajectory, Thompson could be on tap for a career year, and Thomas Davis’ four-game suspension should only help to facilitate that. And if Thompson plays well enough that he takes Davis’ job come Week 5, he could finally cement himself as a Pro Bowler.
Chicago Bears – Leonard Floyd, LB
The ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Leonard Floyd has not quite developed into the generational pass rusher many expected. Rather, he’s dealt with a wide variety of injuries, including a concussion that took two months to recover from during his rookie campaign. Meanwhile, a season ago, he was limited to just 10 games due to a knee injury. In 22 career games, Floyd has registered just 11.5 sacks, but going into his third season with Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator, a healthy Floyd is ready to make his mark in the NFL.
Cincinnati Bengals – John Ross, WR
This space could have been reserved for running back Joe Mixon, who looked quite impressive at times during his rookie season, but John Ross’ potential is hard to match. The ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Ross failed to haul in a single catch during his rookie season, which was limited to just three games due to injury and mismanagement. Now, heading into his sophomore season, Ross is looking for redemption and has spent much of the offseason working with former Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Expectations are that Ross will play a much more substantial role and prove to the league why he warranted a top 10 pick.
Cleveland Browns – David Njoku, TE
David Njoku was highly-touted coming out of Miami, but the 2017 first-round pick didn’t exactly live up to the billing for the no-win Browns. Njoku hauled in just 32 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns, while earning a lowly 69.0 Pro Football Focus grade. Entering his second season, the remarkably athletic Njoku should benefit from the arrivals of Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, as well as the consistent presence of Josh Gordon.
Dallas Cowboys – Xavier Woods, S
Not the WWE superstar, Xavier Woods split time at safety and slot corner during his rookie season. He recorded 43 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception, while earning a 78.8 Pro Football Focus grade. With Byron Jones now moving to cornerback, Woods, whom the Cowboys refused to include in any potential Earl Thomas trade, will likely see an increased role in 2018. His unique combination of coverage and run-stopping ability will undoubtedly serve the sophomore well in a very challenging NFC East.
Denver Broncos – Devontae Booker, RB
After releasing C.J. Anderson, the Broncos selected Royce Freeman in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite that, the biggest beneficiary of Anderson’s departure may turn out to be Devontae Booker, who will enter his third season with Denver and the first in which he can battle for the starting job. A 2016 fourth-round pick, Booker has gained a modest 911 yards in 29 career games, but has proven additional value with his improved blocking and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Even if he splits carries with Freeman, Booker could turn into the next 1,000-yard Broncos running back.
Detroit Lions – Devon Kennard, LB
With the Giants, Devon Kennard was a spot-starting linebacker who never seemed to find a niche. He could rush the passer when called upon, but his talents seemed mismanaged in New York. Now with the Lions, who will look to revamp their pass rush under head coach Matt Patricia, Kennard is likely to have his strengths utilized. And although he’s have less control over the defense than he did with the Patriots, the always-clever Patricia will undoubtedly find ways to boost Kennard’s sack numbers in 2018.
Green Bay Packers – Kevin King, CB
A shoulder injury limited Kevin King to just nine games (five starts) during his rookie campaign, and he failed to record a single interception. It wasn’t the kind of NFL introduction he would have liked, but there’s no denying King’s unique blend of size and speed. He’s a clear athletic talent capable of establishing himself as one of the league’s toughest corners, and if he he can find health in 2018, there’s no reason to believe King won’t lead a group of young Packers defensive backs.
Houston Texans – Zach Cunningham, LB
Zach Cunningham had an up-and-down rookie season, ultimately finishing with 90 tackles, six stuffs, six passes defensed and 1.5 sacks. He played at both “Will” and “Mike” during the season, and despite some questions about durability coming out of college, Cunningham held up quite well. Now with a year of experience under his belt and time in the NFL’s strength and conditioning program, Cunningham should pack on a bit of muscle and add the final missing piece to his physical resume. Expect a much more dangerous Cunningham in 2018.