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We Pick The 20 Breakout Stars Of The 2016 NFL Season

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Tampa Bay is in fine hands with wide receiver Mike Evans (left) and quarterback Jameis Winston leading the way.
Tampa Bay is in fine hands with wide receiver Mike Evans (left) and quarterback Jameis Winston leading the way.

Football is a game of opportunity, and every season of the NFL reminds us of that. Take last season, for example: Who envisioned Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman amassing 14 touchdowns on over 1,600 total yards, while earning All-Pro honors? Better yet, who predicted Doug Baldwin ― an undrafted free agent in 2011 ― catching 14 touchdown passes for the Seahawks? And who can forget about the sensational rookie campaigns by running backs David Johnson and Thomas Rawls, of Arizona and Seattle respectively?

However, it is worth noting that this column has yielded some quality results in years past. Top sleeper predictions from last preseason included Derek Carr, Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, DeAndre Hopkins, Doug Martin and Tyler Eifert.

My top sleeper from a rather inaccurate 2014 was Jordan Reed.

2013 included Eddie Lacy, T.Y. Hilton, Jamaal Charles, Greg Olsen, Emmanuel Sanders and ― yikes ― Montee Ball! 

And 2012 was a stellar series of predictions, including Russell Wilson, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Doug Martin and ― oh no ― Isaiah Pead.

With that in mind, here are the top breakout candidates of 2016. For more NFL, click here to read my five bold predictions.

  • Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
    I warned of Lockett's remarkable ability <a href="https://twitter.com/Schultz_Report/status/635959070965436416" target="_blan
    Charlotte Observer via Getty Images
    I warned of Lockett's remarkable ability before last season, and he delivered, totaling 9 touchdowns, including one kick return and one punt return. Expect more from the second-year wideout this season. Lockett's shiftiness and excellent hands make him the ideal target for Russell Wilson, a quarterback whose creative ability outside of the pocket fits Lockett. A 75-catch, 1,100-yard season is very much in the realm of the possibility for the former third-round draft pick out of Kansas State.
  • John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
    Brown -- aptly nicknamed "Smokey" -- isn't just a burner. He's a terrific young receiver who runs good routes and catches jus
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Brown -- aptly nicknamed "Smokey" -- isn't just a burner. He's a terrific young receiver who runs good routes and catches just about everything. Expect Carson Palmer to lean on him more this season to be the 1A to Larry Fitzgerald's 1B -- yes, he's that good. The former D2 All-American at Pittsburg State could even be Palmer's top target in this, his third year as a pro. And an 80-catch, 1,300-yard season is not too audacious.
  • Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts
    Moncrief, a stud from Ole Miss, is a 4.4 guy who's flashed during his two years in the NFL but has yet to put his immense tal
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Moncrief, a stud from Ole Miss, is a 4.4 guy who's flashed during his two years in the NFL but has yet to put his immense talent all together. I see that changing in 2016, his third year as a pro and the expected breakout year for young receivers. Andrew Luck is going to bounce back in a major way, and Moncrief -- who goes 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds -- will benefit. Consider this: Moncrief had just one 5-catch game without Luck last year, but four with Luck.
  • Phillip Dorsett, WR, Indianapolis Colts
    Dorsett is a Miami Hurricane speed demon who flashed as a rookie last year, but lacked consistency and dealt with injury prob
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images
    Dorsett is a Miami Hurricane speed demon who flashed as a rookie last year, but lacked consistency and dealt with injury problems. If you buy into the Andrew Luck bounce back hype -- as I do -- then the combination of Moncrief and Dorsett is vital. Dorsett isn't completely unlike T.Y. Hilton -- he's a smaller receiver who can change the game on a dime. The former first-round draft pick should be able to create plenty of mismatches for Luck, and his ability to line up all over the field is another plus.
  • Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears
    Langford has a chance to be very special. And like fellow Michigan State product Le'Veon Bell, he is a highly versatile, big
    Dilip Vishwanat via Getty Images
    Langford has a chance to be very special. And like fellow Michigan State product Le'Veon Bell, he is a highly versatile, big back. In fact, Langford averaged more yards per carry as a collegian than Bell. The Bears will lean on Langford a lot -- we can't trust Ka'Deem Carey or Jordan Howard -- and if their shaky offensive line is even decent, a 1,000-yard season could be his floor instead of his ceiling.
  • Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
    White, like Langford, is a very talented second-year player capable of making electric plays. And unlike during his rookie ca
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    White, like Langford, is a very talented second-year player capable of making electric plays. And unlike during his rookie campaign, White is finally healthy. The former West Virginia standout is big, fast and strong -- just like Alshon Jeffrey -- and Jay Cutler loves to give his receivers chances down the field, particularly in the end zone.
  • Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    Evans had a phenomenal rookie year, only to endure a bit of a sophomore slump in 2015. The 6-foot-5 Texas A&amp;M star -- who
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Evans had a phenomenal rookie year, only to endure a bit of a sophomore slump in 2015. The 6-foot-5 Texas A&M star -- whom the Bucs took seventh overall in 2014 -- still nabbed 74 balls for over 1,200 yards, but he also led the league in dropped balls with 11. Moreover, his touchdowns went from 12 as a rookie to just 3 last year. However, with one full season working with Jameis Winston, and a healthy Vincent Jackson, expect Evans to bounce back in a big way. He is simply too talented and too motivated not to.
  • Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    Winston is&nbsp;just the <a href="http://www.sportstalkflorida.com/jameis-winston-nfls-youngest-to-4000-yards" target="_blank
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Winston is just the third rookie quarterback ever to pass for 4,000 yards, and the youngest ever as well. The good news is that there is ample room for improvement: According to The Ringer, "among quarterbacks with at least 20 red zone attempts, only four had a worse completion percentage than Winston’s 38.9." We should expect an improved season from red-zone monster Mike Evans in 2016, and Winston, with one year of pro football under his belt, will be better as well.
  • Robert Griffin III, QB, Cleveland Browns
    Griffin will be the Browns' 25th starting quarterback since 1999 -- the most in the NFL. As I <a href="https://www.huffpost.c
    Dylan Buell/Getty Images
    Griffin will be the Browns' 25th starting quarterback since 1999 -- the most in the NFL. As I wrote about last week and discussed on the NFL Network, his long ball is a strength, and the addition of Josh Gordon could prove to be all the difference.
  • Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
    Lacy has been called every name in the book: fat, lazy, slow. But after rededicating himself to his body, the former All-Pro
    Dylan Buell/Getty Images
    Lacy has been called every name in the book: fat, lazy, slow. But after rededicating himself to his body, the former All-Pro has lost a ton of weight and should be in line for a massive bounce back season. The Packers want to pound the ball and not be the one-dimensional disappointment of 2015. Lacy is a great screen back who -- when fit -- is capable of ripping off huge plays.
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
    Gordon was one of the most dominant running backs in college football history during his tenure at Wisconsin. He then turned
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Gordon was one of the most dominant running backs in college football history during his tenure at Wisconsin. He then turned in a total dud performance as a rookie on a bad San Diego team, shockingly failing to find the end zone while averaging a measly 3.5 yards per carry. But remember that the Chargers ranked 31st in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. This year, Gordon will be buoyed by the hiring of new OC Ken Whisenhunt, who loves to run the football. Gordon is simply too talented not to bust out in year two.
  • Lamar Miller, RB, Houston Texans
    Miller's dynamic, home-run ability sometimes overshadows his consistency, which is unfair. Over the past two seasons, the for
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Miller's dynamic, home-run ability sometimes overshadows his consistency, which is unfair. Over the past two seasons, the former Miami Hurricane has out-produced All-Pro Le'Veon Bell and outscored him by five touchdowns. Granted, Bell has missed time, but it shows just how good Miller was with the Dolphins. Texans coach Bill O'Brien loves to pound the ball, and Miller will be the prime beneficiary.
  • DeAndre Washington, RB, Oakland Raiders
    I still expect big things from Latavius Murray, but the Raiders have a gem in the 5-foot-8, 205-pound Washington. The rookie
    Norm Hall/Getty Images
    I still expect big things from Latavius Murray, but the Raiders have a gem in the 5-foot-8, 205-pound Washington. The rookie comes from the spread attack of Texas Tech -- he has shown the ability to catch the ball, which is a boon for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, and his bowling bowl running style differs from the much bigger Murray's. The Raiders will use him in the screen game to help Derek Carr, and he will get his fair share of carries as well, where his quick feet and toughness will make an impact.
  • Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
    The Virginia Tech product&nbsp;surprised a lot of people -- myself included -- by stringing together a productive first seaso
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    The Virginia Tech product surprised a lot of people -- myself included -- by stringing together a productive first season as an NFL starter. Taylor's a very good decision-maker -- he had just six picks all year -- and his legs allow him to escape trouble. He ran for 568 yards with four touchdowns last season, a good portion of which came on designed runs. Taylor's rapport with Sammy Watkins is undeniable, and an uptick in production this season seems likely.
  • Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
    Watkins is an athletic marvel oozing with talent -- he simply has not been healthy enough to display it. As previously mentio
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Watkins is an athletic marvel oozing with talent -- he simply has not been healthy enough to display it. As previously mentioned, though, his connection with Tyrod Taylor is special. Blessed with world-class speed and playmaking ability, the dynamic Watkins should produce a monstrous third season for the Bills. During the 11 games he played in full last year, Watkins amassed 960 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those measure out to All-Pro receiving numbers with a full 16 games.
  • Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants
    The diminutive Shepard -- whom I've <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/entry/5-bold-nfl-predictions-for-the-2016-season_n_57ac
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The diminutive Shepard -- whom I've written about as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate -- is the perfect sidekick to Odell Beckham, Jr. Like Tyler Lockett in Seattle, Shepard is a Big 12 disciple who, despite being undersized, plays much bigger thanks to his tremendous hands and ability to high-point the football. Eli Manning won't have a ton of time to throw this year, and Shepard -- who gets open in a hurry -- could realistically catch upward of 75 balls. The Giants need him too: Last season, Giant receivers not named Odell totaled 1,405 yards. Beckham, meanwhile, gained 1,450.
  • Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnatti Bengals
    Boyd was a one-man wrecking crew at Pitt for three years&nbsp;and the Bengals rewarded the speedster by selecting him in the
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images
    Boyd was a one-man wrecking crew at Pitt for three years and the Bengals rewarded the speedster by selecting him in the second round. Cincy acquired free agent Brendan LaFell to replace the departed Marvin Jones and Muhamed Sanu -- and their 152 combined targets -- but Boyd's stellar preseason has turned heads. He will see plenty of action and Andy Dalton will rely on him to make big plays inside the 20s, particularly with the question marks surrounding injured touchdown magnet Tyler Eifert.
  • Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
    Hyde is an ideal bell cow for Chip Kelly in San Francisco, in that he is a one-cut runner with just enough wiggle to find suc
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    Hyde is an ideal bell cow for Chip Kelly in San Francisco, in that he is a one-cut runner with just enough wiggle to find success. The popular misconception of Kelly is that he's some renegade head coach who only wants to throw. Not true. Kelly loves to establish the run to set up the pass, and Hyde -- an Ohio State product -- is a physical runner who can provide stability for whomever is under center for the 49ers. Consider this: "Per Pro Football Focus, he forced 32 forced missed tackles on 115 attempts last season, which was the league's best rate among backs with more than 50 carries."
  • Vance McDonald, TE, San Francisco 49ers
    I was going to use the Saints' Coby Fleener here, but McDonald is much more of an unknown. Chip Kelly loves to employ the tig
    USA Today Sports / Reuters
    I was going to use the Saints' Coby Fleener here, but McDonald is much more of an unknown. Chip Kelly loves to employ the tight end. McDonald is a former second-rounder with a ton of ability who has never been given an opportunity to be a pass-catcher. His athleticism and size -- McDonald runs 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds -- arguably make him San Francisco's best red zone target. Expect Kelly to embrace him.
  • Marvin Jones, WR, Detroit Lions
    While I'm very tempted to go with fellow Lion Ameer Abdullah, Jones is a big play guy whom Detroit signed away from the Benga
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    While I'm very tempted to go with fellow Lion Ameer Abdullah, Jones is a big play guy whom Detroit signed away from the Bengals to help supplant the loss of Calvin Johnson to retirement. So he's not Megatron, but who is? What Jones can do is turn small gains into huge plays, using his dynamic open field ability to make multiple guys miss. And he's the big play receiver for a QB who loves to air it out. Word is that he and Matthew Stafford are already on the same page as well, a great sign for the 26-year-old Jones in 2016.

Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpost.com or ask me questions about anything sports-related on Twitter at @Schultz_Report, and follow me on Instagram at @Schultz_Report. Also, check out my SiriusXM Radio show 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. ET on Bleacher Report channel 83.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified the team John Brown plays for. It is the Arizona Cardinals, not the San Francisco 49ers. This post also said that Jameis Winston is the third quarterback ever to pass for 4,000 yards. In fact, he is the third rookie quarterback to do it.

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