The next generation of NFL stars is starting to take shape. Several young players have shown signs that they’re on the verge of a breakout. They might not all be household names yet, but they will be soon enough.
A.J. Bouye might not have the instant name recognition of cornerbacks who hog the spotlight such as Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, but he could be in that company soon.
Pro Football Focus, via All 22, ranked Bouye the top cornerback in the NFL through the first seven weeks of the season.
Undrafted in 2013, Bouye in 2016 has helped the Texans weather the loss of cornerback Kevin Johnson, who is on injured reserve with a broken foot.
Bouye leads the team with nine pass breakups and had been allowing only 52.5 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught before missing last week’s game at Jacksonville with an ankle injury. Bouye returned to practice Wednesday and is on track to play Monday night when the Texans face the Raiders in Mexico City. He’ll get a chance to make a name for himself covering Amari Cooper.
The words “undrafted” and “Harvard” rarely are used in the same sentence in conversations about star NFL players.
Cameron Brate could change that.
The Buccaneers’ tight end has 35 catches in his third NFL season. His five touchdowns are tied for the most in the league among tight ends, according to ESPN.com. He’s had one in each of the last three games.
Brate had seven receptions for 84 yards, both career highs, in Sunday’s 36-10 win over the Bears. He caught all seven passes thrown his way a week after catching five of his six targets in Week 9 against the Falcons.
The Bucs released Austin Seferian-Jenkins in September after he was arrested for DUI. It wasn’t Jenkins’ first incident with the team, and perhaps his leash was short because the team knew what it had in Brate.
Did a Chip Kelly-coached team actually do something right?
It looks like the 49ers made a good decision drafting defensive end DeForest Buckner with the seventh overall pick, even if it doesn’t benefit the team in the standings this season.
The 49ers (1-8) gave the Cardinals a tougher game than expected in Sunday’s 23-20 loss at Arizona.
The Cardinals led 20-10 and were on the verge of breaking the game open early in the third quarter with the ball at the 49ers’ 7-yard line. But Buckner sacked Carson Palmer, and on the next play teammate Eli Harold sacked Palmer and forced a fumble. Buckner recovered the fumble and the 49ers eventually kicked a field goal to pull to within 20-13.
Buckner also had a tackle for loss in the game.
Buckner has three sacks and two fumble recoveries in his rookie season. Fellow top-10 picks Carson Wentz and Ezekiel Elliott already have broken out, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Buckner was heard from sooner rather than later.
Markus Golden opened the season with a six-game sack streak. He had a sack in each of the Cardinals’ first four games and two in Week 5.
The second-year player hasn’t had a sack since then, but he has 11 quarterback hurries and he’s forced two fumbles this season.
The Cardinals are tied for eighth in the league with 24 sacks. Chandler Jones leads the team with seven, and Golden forms the other half of that sack tandem with his six sacks. Jones is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Golden could get there one of these years.
Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill has been a player to watch throughout his rookie season. He caught his first NFL pass for a touchdown, sparking the Chiefs’ comeback from a 24-3 deficit in their 33-27 Week 1 overtime win over the Chargers
From there, Hill’s receptions increased to two in Week 2, three in Week 3 and five in Week 4. He hit a plateau at that point, but with Jeremy Maclin out on Sunday Hill led the Chiefs with 10 receptions for 89 yards in their 20-17 comeback win over the Panthers.
The Chiefs drafted Hill in the fifth round. Those 10 catches vaulted him into the team reception lead among wide receivers with 32. When Maclin returns, Hill will make it hard for opponents to double cover him.
Lions defensive end Kerry Hyder is tied for eighth in the NFL with seven sacks, so he already is having a breakout season of sorts.
But he’s about to break out onto the national stage as more and more people find out who he is.
Two of Hyder’s sacks came in the Lions’ 22-16 overtime upset of the Vikings at Minnesota in Week 9. Now the Lions (5-4) are tied with the Vikings atop the NFC North.
Hyder went undrafted in 2014 and appeared in just one game before catching on with the Lions this season. He had been a defensive tackle, but according to ESPN.com he lost 30 pounds this offseason and the Lions coaching staff asked him to move to defensive end.
So far, the move has worked out pretty well.
This is a lost season for the 0-10 Browns. But if Cody Kessler can lead them to a win over the Steelers Sunday, he won’t be getting benched in the foreseeable future.
Don’t think it can happen? The Steelers (4-5) have lost four in a row and will be without Cam Heyward for the rest of the season.
Kessler’s completion percentage of 66.9 ties him with Kirk Cousins for seventh in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 4.
Kessler had completed 11 of 18 passes in Week 10 at Baltimore and was pulled in favor of Josh McCown after the Ravens pulled ahead 13-7 in the third quarter. McCown threw two interceptions and the Browns lost 28-7.
A rookie drafted in the third round, Kessler has an opportunity to exploit the Steelers’ 28th-ranked passing defense Sunday in the Dawg Pound. Also remaining on the Browns’ schedule are the Chargers, ranked 26th against the pass, and the Giants (22nd).
The Browns passed up on the chance to draft Carson Wentz by trading away the No. 2 pick, but Kessler has a shot at becoming the team’s franchise quarterback.
C.J. Prosise, rookie drafted in the third round, led the Seahawks with 66 rushing yards in Sunday night’s 31-24 win at New England. His 17 carries were more than his combined carries this season heading into that game.
That doesn’t mean Prosise will have the Seattle backfield all to himself. Thomas Rawls is expected back on Sunday after missing seven games with a leg injury. Most NFL offenses have room for two running backs to thrive, however, and Prosise could turn into the Seahawks’ third-down back. He caught seven passes Sunday and Rawls has never caught more than three passes in a game.
Tajae Sharpe looked like a fifth-round steal in Week 1, catching seven passes for 76 yards in a 25-16 loss to the Vikings.
But the rookie’s output steadily declined after that. He caught four passes in the next game, three in the next and two in the one after that. He bottomed out with no catches in Week 6. Since then, Sharpe has caught 12 passes in four games. In Sunday’s 47-25 win over the Packers, he made his first career touchdown catch and recorded his highest yardage total since Week 1 with 68 yards on three catches.
Sharpe was penalized for pretending to sleep after his touchdown, but he’s a draft sleeper who could ride Marcus Mariota’s rising tide to stardom.
A rookie chosen in the fifth round, Wendell Smallwood ran for 70 yards on 13 carries in the Eagles’ 24-15 home win over the Falcons Sunday.
It wasn’t a career high for Smallwood. He ran for 79 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers in Week 3. But 14 of his 17 carries in that game came after the Eagles had taken a 20-3 lead in the third quarter.
There was no garbage time Sunday. After the Eagles took a 21-15 lead with 6:49 left in the game and held the Falcons, Smallwood carried the ball five times for 17 yards. He helped set up Caleb Sturgis’ clinching field goal with two minutes left.
Smallwood has a touchdown this season on a kickoff return and he’s averaging 31.6 yards on seven returns.
The backfield in Philadelphia is crowded, but Darren Sproles is 33 and Ryan Mathews is injury-prone. Smallwood represents the future.