Every year in the NFL a small number of players break out and far exceed their previous levels of play, but predicting these breakout players is never easy. In recent seasons, Justin Forsett, Tyrann Mathieu and Khalil Mack have all had breakout years but under vastly differing circumstances.
Whereas the promise of elite level play was there from the start for Mathieu and Mack, Forsett was a journeyman who few would have predicted to put up big numbers. Players sometimes just surprise everyone and suddenly become a star, but largely, there is evidence and warning beforehand.
So, based on their talent, previous play and the team situations they find themselves in, here are three players who are primed for a breakout season in 2016:
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Donte Moncrief WR, Indianapolis Colts
The third-year pro out of Ole Miss was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft by the Colts and has improved year on year so far during his time in Indy.
444 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season was a solid return for a third receiver and although his snaps and numbers went up last season (733 yards and 6 touchdowns) Moncrief was still splitting targets and snaps with multiple other receivers.
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Now, without Reggie Wayne or Andre Johnson keeping him from being the team's number two receiver, he is set to have a career year.
Moncrief will get more targets and should start every game this season. With a lot of attention likely on TY Hilton, he won't get double teamed which will allow him the opportunity to post big numbers. Don't be surprised to see two 1,000 yard receivers on this team in 2016.
His stellar 2015 season also came with an injured Andrew Luck and an ageing Matt Hasselbeck who wasn't operating the full passing playbook, so this season with a healthy Luck should only benefit the 22-year-old.
Two seasons under his belt along with his undoubted physical talent give Moncrief a great chance of becoming a pro bowl level receiver this year.
David Johnson RB, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson had a mini break out at the end of last season as injuries to Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington thrust him into the starting lineup and he did not disappoint.
In his five starts, he posted over 650 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns which brought his season total to 12 touchdowns and 1,038 yards from scrimmage.
The rookie out of Northern Iowa operated at 4.6 yards per carry and announced himself as a true every down, dual threat back. Now entering his second season, Johnson is likely to find himself atop the Cardinals depth chart at running back and get a lot more opportunities to show what he can do.
Behind an improved offensive line, he has a very real chance at the NFL rushing title and will be a big problem for teams in the passing game.
His ability to catch balls out of the backfield makes him a dangerous player in the passing game, especially as Arizona already has three outstanding receivers who will attract most of the attention and allow Johnson to get open often.
The 24-year-old could have a real breakout year and make the leap to elite status in 2016.
Preston Smith DE, Washington Redskins
Smith led all rookies with nine sacks in 2015 and made a real impact against the pass and the run. His three sacks against the Eagles was a flash of the dominant ability he possesses and 2016 should see him produce double-digit sack numbers.
The second-year pro out of Mississippi State has Ryan Kerrigan on his defense as well and this will only help him excel as lineman cannot focus all their attention on him.
An improving player on an improving team, Smith has yet to reach his potential as a pass rusher and could become a dominant force for years to come with his impressive physical stature and athleticism.
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