PFW's 2018 AFC breakout players on offense

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Often overlooked in the offseason NFL discussion is the difference young players can make improving from one season to the next. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are two great examples of big-name breakout players who helped their teams to success last season, but you can’t forget about the lesser-named standouts such as Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue and Deion Jones who also elevated their games by leaps and bounds.

With those types of players in mind, here's a look at the 2018 NFC breakout players on defense as chosen by the contributors for the Pro Football Weekly Preview Magazine, which is available now on newsstands.

New England Patriots WR Malcolm Mitchell

This one is a bit shaky. Certainly anyone who remembers the second half of Super Bowl LI — the Falcons sure do — will recall his five catches (four of them for first downs) for 63 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Earning Tom Brady’s trust as a rookie is no easy thing to do. But Mitchell has developed an irritating propensity to be hurt, missing all of last season and reportedly slow this offseason to get back into the full swing (possible PUP list candidate?). But the door’s not closed yet, and Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension likely opens the window for a quarter-season tryout spot at receiver in his place. Mitchell is 25 years old, too, and might not have exceptional upside from what we saw in 2016. But if he’s good to go at the start of camp, we are in no way discounting a breakout for a player who has a different skill set than other Patriots receivers and carries a pretty small price tag.

Buffalo Bills OT Dion Dawkins

If you looked closely last season, you saw Dawkins acquitting himself pretty well in his 11 starts as a rookie. Stepping in for Cordy Glenn, Dawkins quietly put together a very impressive first showing — so much so that the Bills felt comfortable dealing Glenn away, even after the sudden retirement of center Eric Wood. Dawkins might be the only sure-fire returning starter up front for the Bills next season, but he should help lead the way for what’s expected to be a ground-heavy attack as Buffalo breaks in a new starting quarterback. Pass blocking is an area in which Dawkins can get better. Do just that and he could end up as one of the more promising young left tackles out there.

Miami Dolphins RB Kenyan Drake

The questions with Drake coming out of Alabama were never about talent; some said he was almost as gifted as any offensive-skill player they had down there for a few years. It was more about Drake’s health, plaguing him throughout college. But in a promising second season with the Dolphins, Drake emerged as their lead back following the trade of Jay Ajayi to Philly. Averaging 4.8 yards a carry and 7.5 yards on 32 catches, Drake showed a home-run ability the Dolphins hadn’t had at that position in some time. He had eight gains of 40 yards or more but must show a little more snap-to-snap consistency and prove he can carry the load, even with old dog Frank Gore joining the team. Perhaps adding five pounds to his frame, as he has this offseason, will help Drake with his durability.

New York Jets TE Jordan Leggett

Leggett is considered the frontrunner to win the Jets’ starting tight end job, but he has competition in replacing Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. Rookie Chris Herndon and Raiders retread Clive Walford also are in the mix, but Leggett has receiving skills the other two do not — especially as a possible red-zone threat at 6-foot-6, 256 pounds. (The Jets’ other tight ends have a total of seven career TDs combined.) At Clemson Leggett was featured as a great weapon down the seam, showing off sneaky-good athleticism and surprisingly good hands. Was he lazy at times there? Yeah. But he also entered the NFL with a reputation for showing up biggest in the biggest of games. The Jets could use a clutch performer at tight end. They haven’t had one score more than four TDs in a season since Dustin Keller in 2011. One big question: How much will new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates feature the tight ends in the passing game? We also wonder what a slightly cloudy QB situation might do to the stability there.

Pittsburgh Steelers TE Vance McDonald

Are we putting too much stock in one game? After arriving from the 49ers by trade two weeks before the opener, McDonald played less than a quarter of the team’s offensive snaps in the regular season, with Jesse James handling the heavy lifting at the position and earning Ben Roethliberger’s trust as a reliable checkdown option. Meanwhile, McDonald didn’t even catch a pass until Week 5 and scored only one TD. But in the playoff loss to the Jaguars he broke out with a stunning 10 catches for 112 yards on 16 (!) targets, five more passes than Antonio Brown had thrown his way that day. A sign of things to come for McDonald this season? Perhaps. The Steelers need to add some third-down juice with Martavis Bryant gone, and James might be viewed more as a second fiddle there. Health willing, McDonald is expected to have a role, but he has been set back by injuries in the past.

Baltimore Ravens WR Chris Moore

Most of the talk this offseason in Baltimore has been about the pass catchers the Ravens have added to the roster, as many as seven who could make the team. But there’s a chance a somewhat overlooked incumbent could end up being one of the team’s bigger playmakers. Chris Moore has flashed here and there in his first two seasons, and consistency was still an issue last we saw him in Week 17, catching a touchdown but also dropping a pass that led to a pick-6 in a shocking loss to the Bengals that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs. (Adding injury to insult, Moore then was knocked from the game with a concussion.) But the 6-1 Moore can scoot and has a skill set different from other Baltimore receivers. With Michael Crabtree likely receiving the lion’s share of defensive attention, receivers such as Moore, Willie Snead and John Brown all have a chance to put up sneaky production.

Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku

After playing less than 47 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last season, Njoku reportedly is in line for a more fulltime workload this season. Part of the problem in Njoku’s rookie year, head coach Hue Jackson said, was that Njoku wore down physically by season’s end after a promising start. In his first five games he caught three TDs, and over the first half of the season he had multiple catches in every game. But in the final four games, Njoku caught a mere four passes on 11 targets. Jackson expects Njoku to see a big jump in Year 2, even with the Browns likely to feature Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry — and perhaps even rookie Antonio Callaway — more often in the passing game. Where Njoku must be featured more is in the red zone. The Browns were far and away the most miserable team in red-zone productivity last season, and Njoku did not have a featured role down there (two catches, 8 yards, one TD on nine targets).

Cincinnati Bengals RB Joe Mixon

It was a surprisingly mute rookie season from Mixon, who reported to camp close to 240 pounds, struggled to separate himself early on, suffered from a concussion and an ankle injury and never flashed the big-play ability he did during a standout career at Oklahoma. Slimming down closer to the 220-pound range should help, as Mixon reportedly is bent on getting in better shape, and the Bengals are likely to feature him far more this season. His volume was low in the final four games of the season (51 rushes, seven receptions), but at least Mixon gave us a taste of what he can do with the ball, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 11.4 yards a catch. (Over his first 10 games, Mixon’s averages stood at 2.9 and 9.0, respectively.) With the Bengals adding offensive line help with left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Billy Price, the run game could be featured more often this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins

Jaguars tight ends have averaged six touchdowns collectively over the past three seasons, and the loss of Allen Robinson and others means that this offense is in need of a big-bodied pass catcher in the red zone. Would you believe, though, that Blake Bortles actually was one of the league’s best red-zone passers last season? He completed 32-of-60 passes down there for 18 TDs and zero interceptions and amazingly no QB in the NFL had more passing yards on plays inside the 10-yard line than Bortles’ 110. The problem is that Marcedes Lewis (four red-zone TDs), Allen Hurns (two), Jaelen Strong (one) and Robinson are gone. The good news is that Sefarian-Jenkins steps in, and he was effective down there for the Jets last season. He caught three TD passes in that part of the field and had two more that unfairly were called back on brutal officiating judgments. If Bortles and ASJ can develop chemistry on jump balls and post-ups, the Jaguars offense can carry over its effectiveness in 2018.

Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson

Was Watson’s seven-game splash last season, which included some historically great numbers to start his career, enough to be considered a breakout? We still say no, but the best clearly appears to be in front of this talented, poised, athletically blessed playmaker. The Texans simply were a different team with him on the field after they loosened the reins in Watson’s seven starts, marred only by a torn ACL following the thrilling loss to the Seahawks in Seattle. If he can come back to full health, there’s no telling what is in store — even with whatever growing pains might come along in Year 2. Bill O’Brien has said that the team doesn’t plan to scale back Watson’s running ability, which is a good thing, even though he has two torn ACLs over the past five years now.

Tennessee Titans WR Corey Davis

The No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft, Davis was held back last offseason by a hamstring issue — and it cropped up again early in the regular season. That limited Davis to 11 regular-season contests and he didn’t score a single TD in any of them. But Davis started to assert himself late in the year with a strong outing in Week 16 against the Rams (6-91-0 receiving) and a breakout game in the playoff loss to the Patriots (5-63 and his only two touchdowns of the season). He absolutely has the talent to be Marcus Mariota’s No. 1 option in the passing game, and a bounceback season for Mariota appears promising with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, RB Dion Lewis and some offensive line depth. Davis having a full offseason’s worth of development shouldn’t hurt, either. It would be shocking not to see him take a big step forward in 2018.

Indianapolis Colts RB Marlon Mack

Depending on how you define a breakout, Mack should be in line for more work. All signs do point to an RB-by-committee approach where Mack battles for work with veteran Robert Turbin (who reportedly has had a good offseason) and rookies Nyheim Hones and Jordan Wilkins. How it all shakes out remains to be seen. But Mack might be in the driver’s seat heading into camp to get the first crack at touches, and he showed enough burst in his limited rookie work — six of his 93 carries going for at least 20 yards — to earn that. An underrated element here might be the potential for improvement on the offensive line, where two rookies (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) could pave the way for better run blocking.

Los Angeles Chargers WR Mike Williams

The Chargers were in two-TE formations more than a third of the time last season, but with Antonio Gates gone (for now at least) and Hunter Henry out for the season, we expect them to use more three- and four-wide formations. That and better health should spell big things for Williams, the No. 7 overall pick last year. He was set back by a herniated disc suffered in minicamp and really never got on track as a rookie, catching two passes in a game only once in 10 games. But the stage is set for a much better second year, and Philip Rivers is going to need Williams’ 6-foot-4 frame to help in the red zone. Rivers targeted Gates and Henry on 42 percent of the red-zone throws last season, so Williams certainly will be expected to pick up some of that slack. And lest we forget that he was wildly productive for Clemson in 2016, catching 98 passes for 1,361 yards (13.9 average) with 11 TDs, so Williams should be able to handle volume between the 20-yard lines also, even with Keenan Allen the top weapon there.

Kansas City Chiefs WR Demarcus Robinson

The fourth-rounder played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie in 2016 and contributed modest production on offense (21-212-0 receiving) in Year 2. Will Robinson suddenly break out with huge numbers in Year 3? It’s honestly going to be difficult — even if QB Patrick Mahomes super-charges the offense to a degree — with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt clearly leading the pack for touches. But Robinson did see more volume toward the end of last season and might be able to carve out a middle-of-the-field and outside-the-numbers role with defenses’ attention likely elsewhere most of the time. If he has matured as a pro, Robinson has a chance to remain a notch above Chris Conley, who is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon from last season, on the totem pole.

Denver Broncos TE Jake Butt

Butt missed all of his rookie season following a torn ACL suffered in his final college game, but he enters Year 2 with a chance to earn the starting role. Head coach Vance Joseph said Butt will be "a great addition to our offense," and new QB Case Keenum admitted he had no idea Butt had suffered a knee injury after watching him run and catch passes in minicamp. There’s always the fear of a setback at some point, but Butt’s arrow clearly is pointing up as he gets set to make his NFL debut.

Oakland Raiders OT Kolton Miller

We’ve typically tried to shy away from picking rookies for this season, but with Jon Gruden’s Raiders we’re honestly forced to make an exception here. All the young starters on offense — Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Gabe Jackson to name a few — truly have broken out to varying degrees already. TE Derek Carrier? No, we really couldn’t go with him. WR Ryan Switzer? Yeah, you get the idea. So we’ll settle on Miller, who has a shot to step in as a Day 1 starting right tackle. He wasn’t our favorite prospect coming out this year, but Miller’s athleticism and mean streak do stand out on his tape.

Pro Football Weekly