At around this time last summer, Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor looked like he was well on his way toward cementing his status as a bust. After two disappointing seasons, the 20th overall pick of the 2015 draft had fallen so far down Philly’s projected depth chart—behind free-agency additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, slot receiver Jordan Matthews, and perhaps even incoming rookie Mack Hollins—that some fans questioned whether or not the team should simply cut bait and move on.
But while Matthews sat out offseason practices with a knee injury, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, then-offensive-coordinator Frank Reich, and wide receivers coach Mike Groh decided to give Agholor—who’d mostly played outside to that point—a chance in the slot. The former USC pass catcher seized the opportunity and impressed coaches so much that Philly traded Matthews to the Bills in August. In his newly established role, Agholor put previous bouts with confidence behind him and broke out, catching 62 passes for 768 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s now firmly entrenched as a focal point of the team’s passing attack.
Agholor’s surprising about-face can serve as an example for a handful of other highly drafted pass catchers who head into 2018 looking to shake off slow career starts of their own. Whether it’s the steep learning curve going from the college game to the NFL or simply bad injury luck that’s held them back, here’s 11 receivers who have a shot at an Agholor-like breakout this season.
Josh Doctson, Redskins
Doctson missed most of his rookie year due to an Achilles injury, then followed that up with an up-and-down second season in which he flashed intriguing playmaking ability—and plenty of inconsistency—en route to 35 catches for 502 yards and six touchdowns. Now entering Year 3, a more experienced, confident, and calm Doctson has the chance to move past Jamison Crowder and newly signed free agent Paul Richardson to grab the no. 1 receiver role. Of course, his own play isn’t the only major variable toward a breakout year; Washington’s got a new quarterback, and developing chemistry with Alex Smith is of paramount importance. For Doctson, that means earning Smith’s trust on what’s been his forte: jump-ball plays.
“I think Josh will get more opportunities to make plays on 50-50 type balls, which is Josh’s strength,” Washington head coach Jay Gruden said last week.
The 6-foot-2, 206-pound Doctson has the requisite size and leaping ability to turn into that go-to guy in Washington’s passing game, and based on early reports out of OTAs, he’s showing newfound proficiency in a variety of routes. That’s a great start, but he still has to stay healthy and exhibit the consistency necessary to turn into Smith’s top target.
Mike Williams, Chargers
When the Chargers made Williams the seventh overall pick of last year’s draft, the hope was that the big, physical jump-ball specialist would quickly emerge as a frequent target for Philip Rivers opposite Keenan Allen. That never materialized: Williams suffered a herniated disk in his lower back in early June—forcing him to miss crucial development time in OTAs and training camp—and the former Clemson playmaker didn’t get back onto the field for L.A. until Week 6 of the regular season. He didn’t exactly hit the ground running, catching just 11 passes for 95 yards and zero touchdowns in 10 appearances.
Going into 2018, though, Williams looks perfectly positioned to put his injury-riddled rookie year behind him: With tight end Hunter Henry out for the year due to a torn ACL, Williams has the chance to step in front of receivers like Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin as Rivers’s no. 2 target (after Allen)—and per Bleacher Report, that’s exactly what the team expects him to do. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound pass catcher has to stay healthy (and it wasn’t promising that he suffered a mild hamstring strain in OTAs late last month), but with a full offseason spent refining his route-running, mastering the playbook, and most importantly, developing rapport with Rivers (who’s just the type of aggressive anticipation thrower that a big receiver like Williams needs, by the way), Williams has a clear path to a major role in the Chargers offense.
Corey Coleman, Browns
It’s strange to say, but the Browns pass-catching corps has suddenly become pretty crowded. Jarvis Landry figures to be the team’s top target over the middle of the field; Josh Gordon’s poised to turn back into a dangerous deep threat; and Antonio Callaway has the talent to make his way onto the field as a rookie—a combination that leaves Coleman’s role in the offense somewhat undefined. Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote recently that she believes if the right offer came around, the Browns would trade Coleman.
Thanks in part to a pair of broken hands over his first two seasons in the league, the former 15th overall pick enters Year 3 with just 56 catches and five touchdowns on his résumé, and his career seems to be going in the wrong direction: Instead of providing visions of a big-time playmaker in the making, the strongest impression from Coleman’s 2017 season might be his devastating Week 17 drop against the Steelers that basically sealed the team’s winless record.
It’s certainly not too late for Coleman to turn things around, and there’s no denying that Cleveland’s quarterback situation may have played a big part in a disappointing first two years. With veteran Tyrod Taylor—or talented rookie Baker Mayfield—under center, Coleman will have his best shot at a breakthrough.
John Ross, Bengals
The start of Ross’s career has been, let’s just say, less than ideal. The ninth overall pick of the 2017 draft missed the Bengals’ offseason program, most of training camp, and the team’s first two preseason games after having post-combine surgery on his right shoulder. He then hurt his knee in the final preseason matchup, causing him to miss the team’s Week 1 game. The distinct lack of reps Ross got in preseason manifested quickly, and he fumbled the ball the first time he touched it in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Texans. After appearing in just three games and registering zero catches, Cincinnati placed the former Washington star on injured reserve (with a shoulder injury that he admitted concealing from the team).
Ross has taken responsibility for his struggles as a rookie, and while several miscues did land him in head coach Marvin Lewis’s doghouse, it was injuries that caused him to essentially lose his first year. Now, per teammate A.J. Green, Ross is “healthy and explosive again,” which gives the second-year pro the chance to prove he was worth that top-10 pick. Ross is working with former Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh to improve his route running, now fully aware that there’s more to playing receiver in the NFL than 4.22-second 40-yard dash speed. Green’s still entrenched as the Bengals’ go-to guy, but Ross heads into 2018 with the chance to emerge, albeit a year late, not just as a dangerous deep threat, but as the team’s no. 2 receiver.
Zay Jones, Bills
Here’s where we get into the longer-shot breakout candidates.
After battling drops early last year, Jones—the 37th overall pick in the 2017 draft—looked like he had turned the corner when he caught six passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the Bills’ Week 9 game against the Jets. But he hurt his knee late in the game, missed the next week, and caught just 11 more passes all year.
Opposite Kelvin Benjamin, a healthy Jones could be projected as the Bills’ no. 2 receiver. But Jones’s status for this season remains murky: He started the offseason off with surgery to repair a labrum injury, then in March, was arrested on felony vandalism charges (later dropped) following a bizarre incident at an L.A. hotel in which he allegedly kicked a window and injured his foot. Finally, last week, it was reported that Jones had surgery on his knee, too—and while the team remains optimistic he’ll be ready for training camp, it casts doubt on Jones’s health going into Year 2. Add in the uncertainty around how much chemistry Jones will be able to develop with AJ McCarron or rookie Josh Allen due to Jones’s shortened offseason, and it’s just about impossible to know what to expect from the second-year pro in 2018.
Curtis Samuel, Panthers
Expectations were high when the Panthers made Samuel the 40th overall pick of the 2017 draft; the versatile former Buckeye brought with him the potential to make plays both from the backfield as a runner and downfield as a receiver. But the 5-foot-11, 195-pound dynamo was slow to work his way into the offense, and what looked like a Week 10 breakout performance (five catches for 45 yards) was cut short by a season-ending ankle injury that, depressingly, came on a dropped touchdown pass. He finished his rookie year with just 15 catches for 115 yards while adding four rushes for 64 yards.
Samuel still has the athleticism to turn into that dangerous dual-threat star, but his path toward a major role won’t be a cakewalk. The second-year pro now has to compete for snaps and targets with free-agent acquisition Torrey Smith and first-round draft pick D.J. Moore—plus beat out Damiere Byrd, who flashed late in the year, and newly signed Jarius Wright. Still, Samuel has reportedly showcased “excellent speed and precision” running routes at Panthers OTAs, and assuming he can get and stay fully healthy, will have another chance to live up to his draft billing.
Laquon Treadwell, Vikings
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t mince words when he was recently asked about the expectations for Treadwell in 2018: “Bill Parcells used to have the saying, ‘First year: benefit of the doubt; second year: show me something; third year: out.’ It’s really his time.”
With Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen firmly entrenched as the team’s top two wideouts, the realistic hope is that Treadwell can develop into a dependable no. 3 option for the team’s new quarterback, Kirk Cousins—but even that could be a challenge. Right now, Treadwell—who has caught just 21 passes for 215 yards thus far in his career—is working with the “ones” in OTAs, but he’s going to have to hold off newly signed veteran Kendall Wright for that role. The size and physical talent that helped make Treadwell a college star and the 23rd overall pick in 2016 is certainly still there, but unless he can start to play with more confidence, he may have a tough time shedding the bust label.
Kevin White, Bears
White’s career has been completely derailed by injuries thus far: The former seventh overall pick missed all of his rookie year with a broken leg, all but four games in 2016 with another broken leg, and all but one game last year with a broken shoulder blade. Now on the final year of his rookie contract after Chicago predictably turned down his fifth-year option, White has one last shot to stay on the field. He’s clearly in shape, and he’s been working out with Mitchell Trubisky in California this offseason to develop some much-needed chemistry with the second-year signal-caller. But his path to a major role in this team’s passing game looks daunting after the team added Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency then drafted Anthony Miller in the second round.
Phillip Dorsett, Patriots
With Brandin Cooks gone via trade and Danny Amendola now a Dolphin, there’s certainly a lot of potential production up for grabs in the New England offense. Chris Hogan’s the best bet to slide into Cooks’s old role as a field-stretching deep threat, and Julian Edelman is set to return from an ACL injury and take back his job as Tom Brady’s favorite target—which makes Dorsett’s odds for a breakout in 2018 feel long at best. It doesn’t help that he’ll have to fight for snaps with Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, and the recently signed Jordan Matthews, too.
Breshad Perriman, Ravens
Three years after being selected with the 26th pick of the 2015 draft, Perriman is the longest-tenured receiver on the Ravens roster. But that might not be a good thing. After signing Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead in free agency and drafting a pair of midround receivers in Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, Perriman feels like the odd man out in Baltimore’s receivers group, and he may head into training camp fighting for a roster spot with the likes of Chris Moore and DeVier Posey. Perriman not only has to worry about staying healthy this year after missing most of the past three to injury; he might have to put together an outstanding training camp just to make the Ravens’ final roster.
Devin Smith, Jets
Smith missed most of his first three years in the league due to injury. He tore his ACL late in his rookie year after the Jets took him with the 37th overall pick of the 2015 draft, missed all but four games in 2016, and then missed the entire 2017 season after tearing that same ACL again in offseason training. He isn’t expected to practice until the Jets take the field for training camp, and when he does, he’ll have a tough road to a roster spot in a receivers group that features Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Terrelle Pryor, ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hanson, Andre Roberts, and Charone Peake. Head coach Todd Bowles recently called Smith “a big unknown,” which is about the best anyone can say about him at this point.