Top 10 breakout players of the 2016 season

Which players took their performance to the next level this season? Senior Analyst Sam Monson identifies 10 breakout stars.

| 5 months ago
Giants S Landon Collins

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Top 10 breakout players of the 2016 season

Which NFL players took their performance to the next level this season? Here we identify 10 breakout players who stood out the most in 2016.

1. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants

This time a year ago, it looked like the Giants had wasted a high second-round draft pick (that they traded up for) on Landon Collins. He appeared to be lost as a free safety within New York’s defense, completely uncomfortable with the role that put him deep in space and away from the action. This season, Collins was moved closer to the line of scrimmage; since the change, he has been an all-action player as the Giants’ strong safety, making the PFF All-Pro first team and compiling a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. Collins ended the season with five picks, four sacks, five pass breakups, over 100 solo tackles and eight more defensive stops than any other safety in a truly outstanding season.

2.  A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans

Coming into this season, Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye had played 856 snaps of mostly average defense in his NFL career, with a majority of those coming back in 2014. In 2016, however, injuries in Houston put him on the field for 790 snaps, during which he has been one of the league’s best cover corners. Bouye allowed just 54.5 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught this season for only 9.8 yards per reception; he picked off only one pass, but broke up 11 more, and surrendered a passer rating of 73.1 when targeted. In the playoffs (albeit aided by a rookie QB for an opponent), he was thrown at seven times and caught more passes himself (one) than he allowed (zero).

3. Matt Paradis, C, Denver Broncos

Last year, Broncos center Matt Paradis played the occasional good game, but there was little (or nothing, really) that suggested he would put together a 2016 campaign that vied with the best players at his position, but that’s exactly what happened. Paradis has been fantastic as a run blocker in 2016, and in pass protection, he surrendered just three sacks or hits (17 total pressures), while also earning a positive grade on the move when blocking for screens. Paradis is not only a true breakout player, but one of the league’s most-improved performers overall.

4. Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

Jay Ajayi’s rushing numbers weren’t great last season, but he ran well in limited snaps and looked like the best RB in Dolphins camp before finding himself bumped lower on the depth chart heading into the season. Over the first three weeks, he saw just 18 total carries before getting his opportunity to start in Week 5, and then truly breaking out against Pittsburgh the next game. He posted 204 rushing yards in that encounter before totaling 1,155 yards in his final 11 games (105 per game on average). He broke a league-leading 58 tackles on the ground and averaged a ridiculous 3.5 yards per carry after contact over the season. Though they capitulated once they got there, Ajayi was the reason Miami made it to the playoffs.

5. Marcus Cannon, RT, New England Patriots

Marcus Cannon had seen quite a lot of playing time for the Patriots over the past few seasons at both left and right tackle as injuries seemed to constantly hit the New England line. He had good games here and there, but overall, his play had been pretty ugly. Cannon averaged 29 total QB pressures surrendered over the three previous seasons, despite playing just 60 percent of the team’s total offensive snaps over that span. As a 2016 full-time starter at right tackle, however, he has surrendered only 27 pressures across nearly 300 more snaps than he has ever played in a season. Cannon’s run blocking has been massively improved, and he finished the year as a PFF All-Pro second-teamer.

6. Nick Perry, EDGE, Green Bay Packers

Coming into 2016, Nick Perry had never played particularly poor over a season, but there was little to suggest that he could become an impact player for the Packers and justify his first-round draft status. This season, though, Perry racked up 11 sacks and 47 total QB pressures—despite missing significant time due to injury. He also recorded 37 defensive stops, good enough for ninth-most among all NFL edge defenders, despite playing fewer snaps than any of the players above him in that category (and many of those below him). Perry has looked excellent against the run and pass, and now looks every bit like a former first-round pick.

7. Cameron Brate, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cameron Brate emerged as a legitimate second target for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers this year to complement the play of No. 1 WR Mike Evans. Brate caught 57 passes from 78 targets (73.1 percent) on the season for 660 yards and eight touchdowns, dropping only two passes all year. The former undrafted free agent elevated his way into the starting lineup, having flashed potential a year ago, and was one of the league’s better receiving tight ends in 2016, ending the season as PFF’s No. 7 ranked TE, with a grade of 82.8 overall.

8. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns

His season definitely cooled off the longer it went on, but it’s worth reflecting on what Terrelle Pryor just achieved—the Browns wideout recorded 1,007 receiving yards on 77 catches as a converted QB. When I visited Browns camp this summer, Pryor was a curiosity, and I was impressed with how natural he looked as a receiver. Once the regular season got under way, though, he quickly became the team’s unquestioned No. 1 WR, and spent the year dealing with a revolving door at QB. Pryor has big potential and proved this season that he is a legitimate receiving threat at this level, something that seemed like pure wishful thinking before 2016.

9. Casey Hayward, CB, San Diego Chargers

Casey Hayward posted one of the top-graded rookie performances we have ever seen back in 2012 for the Packers, but between injuries and some vaguely-underwhelming play, he never quite got his chance to prove that he could be anything more than a slot corner for the Packers before they let him walk this past offseason. The Chargers picked Hayward up, gave him the chance to start on the outside, and before long, they had lost their top cover corner (Jason Verrett), and their new free-agent acquisition was the team’s No. 1 CB. Hayward responded by leading the league in interceptions, notching nine more pass breakups, surrendering only one touchdown catch all year and giving up a passer rating of just 53.4 when thrown at.

10. Akiem Hicks, DI, Chicago Bears

Akiem Hicks is already on his third NFL team in just five seasons, and has graded positively at every stop, though sometimes only really against the run. This season, though, was the first year he was seen as a true every-down player, and he responded by posting eight sacks, two batted passes, 50 total QB pressures and 37 defensive stops—numbers that match Carolina’s Kawann Short almost identically and actually surpass Tampa Bay Pro-Bowler Gerald McCoy. Hicks has been impressive against the run and pass all season for Chicago.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • paulsuh89

    No Frank Clark? dang. Shead?

  • crosseyedlemon

    With all the injuries the Bears had this season there was a good chance someone would get the opportunity to have a break out season. Of course Kevin White is the guy they really wanted to see breakout….but that may never happen.

    • Tim Edell

      Next year is a make or break season for White and Fuller.

      • crosseyedlemon

        I agree Tim and a few of the coaches will likely be on the hot seat as well.

      • Malachi

        assuming k white even is a bear in 2017 that is

  • Freddyfree

    Morris Claiborne from Dallas probably makes the list if he didn’t get injured after 12 games.

  • Citizen Zero

    Wish Hicks could have stayed in New England.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I guess he couldn’t convince anyone he was Irish.

  • Bill Hansen

    How is Danielle Hunter not on this list? drafted 3rd round last yr, was good in limited action, this year still didn’t start but had 12.5 sacks and played well against the run. If that isn’t the definition of Breakout Player I don’t know what is

    • Shoutout to all the guest

      he didnt even start and had 12 sacks? you sure he didnt fill for like an injured player at all

      • Bill Hansen

        I’m sure I watch every min of every game. He comes in as a sub for both DE’s. He gets a good amount of snaps but never yr he will take over for Brian Robinson n I expect at least 15!

        • Shoutout to all the guest

          that dude is a beast

          • Bill Hansen

            He really is, his potential is sky high he is only 22 i believe . Plus it doesn’t hurt that he has Everson Griffen on the other side commanding a double team a lot leaving him one on one. he is too fast and too strong to contain one on one

    • Kevin

      Well he basically played a starters amount of snaps. He was 3rd on the team among edge defenders with over 400 snaps against the pass. For example he has more snaps against the pass than Nick Perry and Tamba Hali. He wasn’t the ‘starter’ but he was in every package on obvious passing downs. According to PFF Hunter was the 30th graded edge defender.

      • Bill Hansen

        as i mentioned above i stated he gets a lot of snaps but it doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t a starter. the fact that he was 3rd on the team shows he was a back up but 2017 he will be a starter and i expect 15 plus sacks!

        • Kevin

          You’re highly overrating the term starter. It’s common for a ‘backup’ to play more snaps than a starter. Over the 2nd half of the year Robison played barely 60 snaps more than Hunter. If a team were to come out in a empty backfield Hunter would have been called a starter for that game.

          The only Edge Defender to make the list was Nick Perry who played 625 snaps(409 Pass / 198 run) and had a run def grade of 77.8 and a pass rush grade of 85.1. Hunters total snaps of 603(413 pass / 178 run) resulted in a grade of 75.5 run and 81.7 pass. So like I said I’m sure he was a consideration but just didn’t quite make it since Perry had the better year and ranked 6th on this list.

          BTW Hunters overall grade of 80.6 was just behind Griffen’s 81.3 and superior to Robison’s 46.1.

          • Bill Hansen

            I’m glad you are putting your pff subscription to use with all your numbers….but your numbers prove one thing. ….he played less snaps then their starters. I also stated several times he gets plenty of snaps but again it still doesn’t change the fact he comes off the bench. The point being is wad a breakout star this yr. And when he officially starts next yr his numbers n overall game will only get better. Not really sure why your so hung up my Not even a starter comment I have to imagine you have better things to argue about but if not I just feel bad for u

          • Kevin

            Not sure why you feel this is an attempt at an argument. If you can’t have a sensible discussion about football I believe you maybe the one with the problem. Anyway there is no reason to take a jab at me because I don’t fully agree with you. Seems a bit childish, doesn’t it? As I said, for a backup he played a lot of snaps. It doesn’t make sense to get caught up on who played the first snap of the game. As the numbers show he played more snaps than some starters in this league. Yes he is technically a backup, I obviously agree with that since it’s a fact. But who played the first snap means absolutely nothing. Every player in the league would rather play the last snap over the first and Hunter was constantly finishing out games.

            His numbers could improve with more snaps or they could fall off a bit as the snaps rise and he tires. It happens quite a bit, especially with pass rushers. Some players struggle when they are on the field for more snaps and have to set the edge more often instead of pinning their ears back and going after the QB a majority of the time. Guess we will just have to wait and see how he does.

            I believe Robison still has one more year left on his contract but Hunter will most likely still take over the all coveted starting role.

          • Bill Hansen

            you’re right i apologize i shouldn’t call it an argument nor should i take shots at you. Let’s agree to disagree. My feeling is with Hunter, as young as he and as freakish athlete that he is i see more production with more snaps but like you said lets see what happens. Robinson has one more year but Hunter will start and Robinson will sub in or play more DT

          • Kevin

            Honestly, I vaguely remember this conversation. I appreciate your mature response though and I can definitely agree to disagree. Have a good day.

  • Steven Small

    So… no Vic Beasley???

  • societydmg

    To leave Vic Beasley off of the PFF all pro list is understandable, if you believe the stats say there are edge rushers who had more consistent impact, however, to leave him off of this list is laughable. Vic Beasley is the definition of a “breakout player” and this is embarrassing.

  • bret

    If #8 overall pick last year considered a bust, to NFL sacks leader this year not on this list? With respect to every other single player, Beasley is clearly the big snub here

    • Nelson Cobb

      Anybody who said he was a bust after 1 year is a complete idiot. Anybody who says any rookie who isn’t a super star immediately is a bust, is a complete idiot. Ridiculous how people expect 21-22 year old kids basically, just coming into the NFL, to be on the level of guys like Von Miller, Aaron Rodgers, Le’Veon Bell and Julio right away, or they consider them busts. Bunch of complete idiots!!

  • dlund6cutler

    Akiem Hicks did a great job this season especially for someone with a 2 year/ 10 million dollar deal.

  • The Observer

    Terrelle Pryor’s achievement was underplayed by PFF. Although PFF mentioned the “revolving door QB” that hurt Pryor’s numbers, he also dealt with an offensive line devastated by injuries, and a poor defense. The poor defense kept CLE’s offensive snaps low hurting Pryor and the Browns were always playing from behind making it easier for the opponents to cover pass plays. CLE QBs were under more pressure and suffered more sacks (67) than any other team by a wide margin–LA Rams 2nd at 49. Put all this together, CLE will improve and Pryor will know the cornerbacks better and Pryor will have a huge 2017. I hope it is with CLE.

    The Browns have the most CAP and will spend it this year on FA, shoring up the O-line and defense. The Browns have 5 of the first 65 picks and look for defensive studs to be taken. In 2017, Pryor could compete for Top 3 receiving yards.

    • Chiryder55

      Cornerbacks will also know him better.

      CLE has the cap space, but who wants to join that team that habitually loses. Also, are they willing to spend. They’ve thrown big chunks at free agents in the past and they haven’t panned out. The reason they have the cap space is because those big contracts went off the books. They collected draft picks for a reason. That’s the route they will go.

      • The Observer

        Re UR, “who wants to join that team” …. money talks. It’s why Malik Jackson went from the Super Bowl winning Broncos to the Jags.

        Re UR, “Cornerbacks will also know him better.” … The top cornerbacks are at or close to their ceiling as they have honed their craft for years in college and the pros. Terrelle Pryor’s 2016 NFL season was like a freshman year in college. He never played WR before. He is nowhere close to his ceiling so I would say he will do better against the cornerbacks than the cornerbacks will do better against him in 2017 versus 2016.

        • Chiryder55

          Money talks? Did you not read the rest of what I wrote? They tried that…it failed. They moved in favor of stocking up draft picks.

          You’re saying every corner has hit their ceiling already… even before they’re even drafted? What?! I bet the safeties too, huh? Or the schemes…or the coordinators…Or the rest of the defense that could keep him from even getting the ball. Please.

          • The Observer

            I get it. UR angry, bitter, unable to reason. Money does talk, like it or not. Who’s “they”? The old regime? Who cares about “them”? This is a new front office, only one year old.

            UR brain must be limited. Nearly all veteran cornerbacks have been playing as a defensive back since college, some since high school. They have reached or are close to reaching their ceiling. OTH, Terrelle Pryor is nowhere near his ceiling in talent and abilities since wide receiver is new to him, last year being his first.

            Common sense and logic dictate that Pryor will be better in future years against defensive backs because he will improve his craft more relative to the veteran cornerbacks since Pryor has a higher ceiling than what he showed in 2016 whereas cornerbacks are at (Sherman, Patterson e.g.) their ceiling or close to it (Malcom Butler, e.g.) Concept is the same for rookie cornerbacks since even the rookie corners have played defensive back for years.

            If you can’t grasp that, go take an anger management class.

          • Chiryder55

            Sooo…you think the new management spent its first couple years on the job cleaning out the old over priced contracts only to make new ones. Yea, like overplaying players ever consistently gets a team to a SB much less a winning team.

            I’m just going to ignore that other idiotic mess. Youre gambling on Pryor improving on a position he just learned last year. He couldn’t even succeed at a position he played all his life — QB. But you bet he’ll be able to beat corners that haven’t even been drafted yet. Get outta here. No wonder Cleveland sucks…they have stupid fans.

          • The Observer

            RE ur, “.you think the new management spent its first couple years on the job…” One (1) year is how long the new FO has been in place.

            I get it. UR angry, bitter, unable to reason. Can’t socialize. Unable to communicate like an adult without being combative and reasonable. Recently divorced? Declared bankruptcy? Maybe you just got kicked out of your freshman year in college due to poor grades. Drugs? The bottle? By the way, what does “overplaying players” mean??? UR an extremely bitter, angry, confused person filled with hate. You don’t have young children in the house, do you? If so, get help.

          • Chiryder55

            So you want the new management to do the same thing as the old.

          • Chiryder55

            Better yet…this new management (I was thinking of ownership when I said a couple years given how many times they’ve switched out GM’s since they came in) is based on the “Moneyball” approach. Don’t believe me your Chief Strategic officer was hired straight from MLB and they made a movie about him called what? MONEYBALL. Analytical and strategic NOT based on throwing money at the highest players out. Again this is why they got rid of high money players (or let players go who want a lot of money) in favor of draft picks. You have no clue what you’re talking about.

          • The Observer

            Re ur, ” Again this is why they got rid of high money players (or let players go who want a lot of money) in favor of draft picks.” …

            Again, and again, you show such an extreme lack of knowledge. a) ALL teams use analytics. Stop acting like a young child and talk like using intelligence and facts is somehow not wise or fail to understand ALL teams use analytics, not just CLE. b) they let players go who were not WORTH the money, like Gipson. c) yes in favor of draft picks because Ray Farmer destroyed the team through insane FA signings and especially through the worst drafting in NFL history. The new front office was forced to trade down and acquire picks to reboot the franchise.

          • Chiryder55

            Dude look up MONEYBALL. That’s your fact. Every team uses analytics but not every teams hires a guy from MLB with a famed and elaborate strategy to do it.

            There’s my fact. Buddy where’s yours? Stop talking out your azz. Where’s any proof to what you say? Otherwise we’re done.

          • The Observer

            Re UR “Dude look up MONEYBALL.” …

            Dude, analytics was around LONG before Moneyball. Paul Brown was the first in pro ball to use analytics back in the 50s and 60s . Football fans with very low IQs have a hard time grasping that analytics is simply the use of statistics to help reinforce decision making and pro foot ball has been doing this since the days of Paul Brown and Tom Landry also used it quite a bit and it has just grown since the days of Brown and Landry, LONG before Moneyball.

          • Chiryder55

            Who’s talking about before MONEYBALL? When you hired a MONEYBALL expert?

            Are you allergic to facts?!

  • TorreyAnderson

    Adam Thielen?