The new NFL season brings with it the chance for some players to right a wrong. Be that bouncing back from a poor season, be it re-finding form in a new home, or simply coming back from an injury, the new season presents new opportunities for several players to make their mark in the NFL for all the right reasons.
These are the players you should keep an eye on this season.
Jason Verrett, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
A first round pick in 2014, Verrett is yet to play a full season for the Chargers. He’s missed 24 games in his three years, with a partial tear in his left ACL in Week 4 of 2016 putting him out last season.
However, when he has been on the field Verrett has been wonderful. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and is an aggressive, sure-footed corner with better ball skills than his five career interceptions would suggest.
He has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Antonio Brown and come away the victor. He made a mockery of Alshon Jeffery too when they faced off in 2015. So that’s one of the smallest and most agile receivers and one of the strongest and most physical that Verrett has gone up against in press-man coverage and won.
When he takes the field on Monday he will be facing off against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and if he can play all 16 games by the end of the season he will be talked about as one of the best corners in the NFL.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
After sitting out 2016 due to suspension, Bryant returns to a Steelers team with Super Bowl ambitions and an offense that has become magnificent. With Big Ben, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown it’s easy to think that the offense doesn’t need anyone else and couldn’t possibly be better. But with one safety providing extra coverage on Brown and the other giving support against Bell’s running, just who exactly is meant to stop the speedster that is Bryant on the other side of the field?
In his two seasons of NFL play, Bryant has caught 76 balls for 1,314 yards and 14 touchdowns. To put those 17.3 yards per reception in some context, Former Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith has 17.0 yards per reception, DeSean Jackson has 17.7… Bryant is very, very good at getting behind defenses and making them pay.
JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans
In Watt’s absence last year the Houston Texans defense played exceptionally well. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus helped generate some of the pass rush that was missing without #99 there.
Houston ended up ninth in DVOA, and fifth in passing defense DVOA, despite some suspect corner play thanks to the consistent rush. Well, now they can add Watt back to the mix and create some real havoc in the backfield.
Watt is returning from two surgeries to fix a herniated disk in his back, which is a nasty injury for a 295-lb monster like Watt. The assumption is that he is back to full health, and after watching his preseason work it’s hard to think that he isn’t.
Over the last three year he has played, Watt has racked up 48.5 sacks, 80 tackles for loss, and a ridiculous 147 QB hits. Adding that back into an elite defense is potentially ruinous for opposing offenses, and Watt has a chance to add a fourth defensive player of the year to his resume.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders
Lynch missed all of 2016 in retirement, but he decided to return so he could play with his hometown Oakland Raiders.
We all remember Lynch for his “Beast Mode” runs with the Seahawks, in particular his ‘quake run in the 2010 playoffs against New Orleans. However, that was a long time ago now.
Last time we saw Lynch he played just seven games in 2015, racking up 417 yards on 111 carries. That 3.8 yards per carry was his worst in Seattle, and the injuries undoubted made him turn toward retirement. But now he’s back, just what are we going to see from him?
In the preseason Lynch took just four carries, which isn’t close to enough to make a determination on if we’re getting classic Beast Mode or an old, worn-out Lynch who shouldn’t have come back into the league.
Raiders fans are expecting a monster in the backfield, who helps create an unstoppable offense, but I think the more likely scenario is that he is a little more plodding and reliant on his blocking than previously. Is that bad? Not necessarily, the Oakland offensive line is full of massive, aggressive monsters that can carve out a path for him. Lynch could easily end up with 1,200+ yards this season, but just without causing seismological chaos.
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
In 2014, Justin Houston put together one of the best pass rushing seasons we’ve ever seen. He came up just shy of the record as he posted 22 sacks, and then he sort of disappeared. More attention from blockers in 2015 and injuries throughout both ‘15 and ‘16 limited him to just 11.5 sacks in the last two years.
In his absence, Dee Ford took over the mantle of leading edge rusher and did very well. However, with Houston back, and a big game to kick off the season tonight, it will be interesting to see how opponents slide their protections. Will they respect Houston’s past performance of Ford’s recent form?
If Houston sees a lot of single blocks and no chips or backfield attention he could race back toward 20 sacks again, he's that athletic and impressive a player.
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