Quarterbacks: Jameis Winston (TB), Teddy Bridgewater (MIN)
The two most squeaky clean quarterback prospects I’ve watched and evaluated in the past four NFL drafts were Winston and Bridgewater. I’m a big believer that players don’t really change as pros. Typically, strengths stay strengths and weaknesses stay weaknesses.
Both Winston and Bridgewater were tremendous pocket passers in college, calm within the shell of their offensive linemen, accurate to all levels of the field and proficient scanning through progressions to find secondary and tertiary targets.
Bridgewater has been labeled as an ultra-conservative, check-down happy, routinely inaccurate game-manager, which, to me, is an unfair reputation that’s arose mainly due to his lack of consistent fantasy scoring.
Yes, the former first-round pick has thrown just 28 touchdowns in 29 career games — and has 21 career interceptions — but if you watch his film, you see the same quarterback he was at Louisville. Confident, accurate and a deft pocket-mover with some scrambling ability.
He’s completed nearly 65% of his passes in the NFL at a respectable 7.2 yards-per-attempt average... and the team around him in 2016 should be better than it was even a year ago.
Tough, reliable veteran offensive linemen Andre Smith and Alex Boone were added in free agency and a draft favorite of mine, Laquon Treadwell, was selected in Round 1 to bring a much-needed sturdy possession target to a previously pedestrian receiving group.
By the end of Year 3, I expect Bridgewater to universally be considered a Top 10 quarterback.
I haven’t watched many quarterbacks as assertive in the pocket as Winston, and he was definitely ahead of all rookies not named Andrew Luck in that department.
He averaged 7.56 yards per attempt and threw for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions on 535 attempts in 2015.
Winston is a prototypical NFL quarterback — he’s a big pocket passer with a huge arm, and doesn’t struggle with accuracy nor allow picks to impact him. Like Bridgewater, he’s a sneaky good runner too.
With known down-field passing enthusiast Dirk Koetter at the helm, last year’s No. 1 overall pick is operating more of a vertical offense than the majority of the NFL, so his completion percentage won’t lead the league. However, with Mike Evans entering his third season and the Buccaneers’ widespread continuity, Winston will flourish in his sophomore campaign.
Running Backs: Jerick McKinnon (MIN), Ameer Abdullah (DET)
Make no mistake about it -- Adrian Peterson will still be the guy for the Vikings this season. However, I won’t be stunned if, at 31 and already past the 2,500 career touches mark, the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher sees his workload scaled back a bit, especially as the season wears on.
At that juncture, McKinnon can start to take center stage in that awesome new stadium. The guy is a sensational athlete. At the 2014 combine, at 5’9” and 209 pounds, he ran 4.41 in the 40-yard dash, jumped 40.5 inches straight up, had a 4.12 short-shuttle drill and an electric 6.83 time in the three-cone.
He received a paltry 52 carries last season but averaged 5.2 yards per pop and scored two touchdowns. Threw the air, McKinnon was a infrequently used but productive threat. He snagged 21 passes for 173 yards, which equates to 8.24 yards per reception, a higher figure than (higher-volume) backs Doug Martin, Devonta Freeman and Darren Sproles.
It’ll be difficult for Vikings coaches to slowly distance themselves from Peterson as the unequivocal focal point of the offense in every game, but with an improved passing game and a fresh, talented runner behind him, he shouldn’t see 25+ touches in every contest.
As a rookie, McKinnon received 10+ carries in six games. In those outings, he toted the rock 93 times and accumulated 469 yards (5.04 yards per). With Peterson back in 2015, McKinnon was never given 10 attempts in one game. That will change this season. And he’ll shine.
Another plus athlete -- who’s even springier than McKinnon -- Abdullah is primed to become a household name this year with the Lions.
Behind an adequate-at-best offensive line as a rookie, the former Nebraska star mustered 4.2 yards per carry and 780 yards from scrimmage on 168 touches.
The Lions drafted left tackle Taylor Decker, arguably the most impressive run-game mauler in the 2016 class, in Round 1 and added utility man Joe Dahl in the fifth round. Also, Laken Tomlinson is entering his second season and Larry Warford is an entrenched dancing bear going into Year 4. Even third-rounder Graham Glasgow, who was a warrior for the Michigan Wolverines in college, could eventually play at one of the interior positions.
That was a long-winded way to insinuate Detroit’s offensive front will be better in 2016, which bodes well for the super-elusive Abdullah.
Theo Riddick is essentially a slot receiver now, and Joique Bell is gone... Abdullah is the Lions’ top dog.
Expect a 1,000+ total yard performance loaded with highlight-reel jukes in the open field.
Wide Receivers: Donte Moncrief (IND), Mike Evans (TB), Devin Funchess (CAR), Brandin Cooks, (NO)
This group is LOADED.
For as much as young wide receivers have already taken over the league — Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry and John Brown to name a few — there are still an abundance of pass-catchers under the age of 25 who are going to emerge as legitimate superstars this season.
(By the way, the 2014 WR Draft Class will eventually be considered the best ever. I have no doubt about that. You probably think the same.)
Moncrief was one of the overlooked-but-studly prospects from that outrageous 2014 class. To be succinct here: he has all the tools to be a 75-catch, 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown receiver in the NFL.
At 6’2” and 220 pounds with an aggressive nature while the ball is in the air, Moncrief can win in jump-ball situations, but his greatest gifts are the pure speed and athleticism he possesses — the former Ole Miss star ran an official 4.40 in the 40-yard dash as well as a three-cone time of 7.02. He’s dynamic after the catch.
Very quietly, Moncrief reeled in six touchdowns a season ago, and in the eight career games in which he’s seen at least eight targets, he’s amassed 48 receptions for 632 yards (13.1 yards per) with four scores. T.Y. Hilton is the well-known target in Indianapolis, but the Colts would be smart to feature Moncrief a lot more in 2016... and I think they will.
We all kinda-sorta know about Evans. Beyond being integral in Johnny Manziel becoming a first-round pick, the mammoth 6’4” receiver scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie on a bad Buccaneers team. He battled frequent drops in his second season — per SportingCharts.com, Evans “led” the NFL with 11 of them.
I don’t think that’ll continue — just a hunch, really. I mean, he has 9 5/8” hands. Not exactly OBJ huge, but close. Evans epitomizes the term “matchup nightmare,” and with an improving Winston at quarterback, the former Texas A&M All-American will see over 150 targets en route to a monster third season with the Buccaneers.
Funchess isn’t as physically imposing as Evans, which is fine... most wide receivers aren’t. What the Panthers second-year wideout brings to the field is a similar-to-Evans 6’4” frame and an insanely large catch radius.
As a 21-year-old rookie, in his last 12 games — nine regular season, three playoffs — Funchess racked up 51 catches, 456 yards and six touchdowns.
Sure, everyone is eagerly anticipating the return of the even more gargantuan Kelvin Benjamin, and rightfully so.
Just don’t forget about the other part of what I expect will be called the “Twin Towers” — or something more clever — by the mid-way point of the 2016 season. Don’t believe me? All good. Just read this from ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton or this from Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. If you don’t feel like clicking, both Newton and Person have raved about Funchess’ training-camp performance.
This is for you, #TeamSmallReceiver. Yes, I tend to prefer bigger, “power forward” wideouts who excel in traffic and on jump balls. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the lightning bug speedsters. After all Antonio Brown and Beckham Jr. are both under 6’0”.
What makes me the most confident about Cooks’ breakout 2016 is his age. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve noticed I like to send out #AgeTweets on occasion, typically on players’ birthdays.
Cooks just turned 23 yesterday. Yeah, seriously. He’s younger than rookies Sterling Shepard.
He’s that young and has already accrued two pro seasons — though his first year was cut short due to injury — therefore, Cooks should be just about fully acclimated to everything defensive backs and defensive coordinators can throw at him, and he still has plenty of productive years ahead of him.
I mean, this blur of a receiver had seven catches for 77 yards and a score in his first NFL game, while he was still 20. Most receivers are entering their junior year in college at that age.
[Age rant over.]
Cooks also is a sub 4.40 pass-catcher and, um, Drew Brees is his quarterback.
Lastly, Cooks ended the 2015 season an an tear. In his final seven, he amassed 39 receptions, 535 yards and five touchdowns. Like Moncrief, he quietly — and I mean almost silently — had nine receiving touchdowns last year.
Tight End: Charles Clay (BUF)
When you think breakout players, second- or-third-year players typically come to mind. Not with the tight end position in 2016. The 27-year-old Clay, who’s entering his sixth pro season, will become the No. 2 target for the Bills this season.
Back in May, Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News reported — with the headline “expect more production from Clay” — Rex Ryan and Co. have prioritized making the veteran tight end a more substantial part of the passing attack in 2016. With Tyrod Taylor making a concerted effort to improve down the middle of the field, the nimble H-back tight end hybrid is in an ideal environment to truly break out this season.
Also, the presence of primarily blocking tight ends Chris Gragg and Jim Dray should alleviate some of in-the-trenches duties Clay had last season. At nearly 6’3”, 245-pound with 33-inch arms and 7.07 three-cone agility, it’s easy to see why the Bills and offensive coordinator Greg Roman wanted Clay so badly last offseason.