Seven breakout candidates for 2017 NFL season

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. (Chris Szagola/AP)

It’s still early in pre-season, but we can’t help but get giddy knowing the NFL regular season kicks off in less than a month. And with a new campaign comes a new group of players who can take the league by storm.

We all assume the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Julio Jones will have big years, but here are some players on the verge of big things who should be on your radar this season.

Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots

The Patriots stocked up in free agency with the acquisitions of Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, but Gillislee may be the most important of them all. New England is loaded at the running back position with Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis and Super Bowl LI hero James White. What makes Gillislee different, though, is while the aforementioned three are traditionally third-down backs who make catches out of the backfield, he’s a power runner who loves to rush up the middle, similar to former Patriot LeGarrette Blount. Also, a couple of seasons behind LeSean McCoy in Buffalo may have taught him how to be more elusive.

Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys had the best run defence in the league last season. Now imagine how it would have been if Smith was healthy as a rookie. A projected top-five pick in 2016 who slid to the second round due to major knee issues, Smith has apparently been making strides in training camp.

A six-foot-three, 229-pound linebacker with speed like a safety, Smith could cause havoc in the NFC East. Teaming a healthy Smith alongside veteran Sean Lee will make it virtually impossible for backs to run the ball up the middle successfully.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

As a rookie, Wentz led the Eagles to only their second 3-0 start since 2004, which included a 34–3 blowout of the Pittsburgh Steelers. What makes it so interesting is he had virtually no dangerous weapons to support him.

This off-season, Philly loaded up on offence to give Wentz some help, bringing in wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, then adding Blount in the backfield. Hopefully, his new teammates will help cure the inconsistency in Wentz’s game that No. 11 dealt with in the latter stage of his first NFL season. Early signs this pre-season point in that direction.

Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons

Arguably the Falcons’ MVP of Super Bowl LI, Jarrett showed signs of pass-rushing brilliance, finishing with three sacks (tying the Super Bowl single-game record).

Two of those sacks were bull rushes, which seemed to be Jarrett’s bread and butter all year.

Atlanta’s defensive line took a few hits this off-season, losing veterans Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux. But they counteracted those losses by adding Dontari Poe in free agency.

Also, the Birds’ coaching staff got a major upgrade, hiring former all-pro pass rusher Bryant Young as their new defensive line coach.

Ty Montgomery, RB, Green Bay Packers

Montgomery can be seen as the wild card of this list. Starting last season at receiver, he was thrown into the running back position due to multiple injuries in the Packers’ backfield. Montgomery’s 457 yards and three touchdowns aren’t exactly Pro Bowl worthy stats, but the Stanford alum now has a full off-season of half-back practice under his belt.

The Packers also showed faith in Montgomery by not drafting a running back until the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Heck, he’s the only RB on the Packers depth chart who isn’t a rookie.

It could be a smooth start of the season for Montgomery, seeing how the Packers face only one top-10 run defence in their first five games (vs. Seahawks, Week 4).

Markus Golden, OLB, Arizona Cardinals

Golden had 12.5 sacks last year, yet wasn’t even voted to the Pro Bowl. The Cardinals defensive line may have lost some leadership in Calais Campbell, but might have the most athletic front seven in the NFC.

Golden will once again team up with Chandler jones and Robert Nkemdiche, and given how much head coach Bruce Arians favours rushing over dropping back, don’t be surprised if Golden’s name is once again near the top of the sack list.

Eli Apple, CB, New York Giants

The Giants have slowly created one of the most underrated secondarys in football. Apple had a decent rookie year with 51 combined tackles and an interception. He may not be the biggest corner on the field, but has tremendous ability and has bulked up a bit as well, per ESPN’s Jordan Rannan.

What’s more, he has Janoris Jenkins opposite him and DPOY candidate Landon Collins behind him. Quarterbacks are going to be forced to throw Apple’s way, or towards two all-pro defensive backs.