One of the best things about a coming NFL season is trying to figure out which players are ready to take a big step forward.
Usually, it's players who seemed to figure it out in the second half of the previous season. They might have honed a technique or learned new moves or figured out the speed of the game, which means less thinking and more reacting.
I have listed 10 players below who I think are ready to take major steps forward in 2018.
The list features players entering their second or third seasons who all showed future Pro Bowl potential in 2017.
My list features two edge rushers, two corners, two safeties, one offensive tackle, one linebacker, a tight end and a receiver. I didn't include any quarterbacks, such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, because they are too obvious.
After a slow start, he came on strong in the second half to finish with six sacks, including five in the final seven games. He also had two in the playoffs, one in each game. That shows he figured out the nuances of being an NFL edge rusher. It's clear on tape how much more comfortable he was in the second half of the season. McKinley has the speed to be a dominant player, but he's also solid against the run. Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks in 2016, but McKinley will be the Falcons' best pass rusher in 2018 – and one of the best in the league.
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George Kittle, TE, 49ers
As a rookie, Kittle caught 43 passes for 515 yards (yards-per-catch average of 12.0) with two touchdowns. But he flashed star potential at times, including in Week 17 when he had four catches for 100 yards against the Rams, with one catch going for 44 yards. Kittle saw his snap counts dwindle a bit down the stretch for some reason in 2017, but I expect him to be the primary pass-catching tight end this season for the 49ers. My guess at his numbers: 64 catches, 770 yards and seven touchdowns.
You might remember him as being the player who had that horrible whiff on a tackle against Stefon Diggs in the NFC playoffs loss to the Vikings. While that play will hover over his career, a deeper look will show a player who can cover a lot of ground and has a chance to be one of those outstanding rangy players in the deep middle. He started 15 games as a rookie in 2017 and had four picks. In a secondary that includes Pro Bowl corner Marshon Lattimore, this could be the year that he starts to get the same acclaim. Williams is much more than a player who missed an important tackle.
Myles Jack, LB, Jaguars
As a rookie, Jack was a positionless player. He started at strong-side linebacker, but played inside in the Jaguars' nickel packages and played only a quarter of the team's snaps. Last season, he was moved to middle linebacker on a full-time basis and stayed on the field for 97 percent of the team's snaps. It took Jack a bit to adjust to playing in the middle, but as the season moved along he became much more comfortable. In the playoffs he was outstanding and gave a hint of what will come in 2018. Jack is fast, tough, can cover against the pass and improved his instincts as the season moved along. He had a tendency to overrun plays early in the season, but that changed in the postseason. He will be a dominant sideline-to-sideline player in 2018.
Dion Dawkins, T, Bills
With Cordy Glenn bothered by foot and ankle injuries most of last season, Dawkins started 11 games as a rookie at left tackle. Dawkins did a nice job in protection and was especially good in the run game, which led to the Bills trading Glenn to the Bengals in the spring. Dawkins' ability to move players off the ball helped LeSean McCoy run through big holes. Dawkins also improved in pass protection the more he played. He did have a few rough spots, but he has the look of a player who will be a longtime starter.
Shaquill Griffin, CB, Seahawks
Richard Sherman is gone, which means it's Griffin's time to take over as the top corner in Seattle. Griffin started 11 games as a rookie and did a really nice job in coverage. With another season under his belt, he will be even better as the team's top corner. He's a good tackler, as well, which is a must in Seattle's scheme for the corners. His brother, Shaquem, will get most of the attention after being drafted by the Seahawks last month, but Shaquill is the brother to watch on the field this season.
Adrian Colbert, S, 49ers
Colbert is a player that other coaches kept mentioning to me late last season as a potential big-time starter. He came on strong for the 49ers last season as a 2017 seventh-round pick. Colbert's big-hitting ability showed up in the run game – his nickname is "The Punisher" – but he also has the ability to play well in coverage. With Colbert's emergence after Jimmie Ward went down with an injury, the plan now is to give Ward some reps at corner this year. That speaks volumes about a seventh-round rookie. Keep an eye on this thumper out of the University of Miami.
Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers
Godwin had 34 catches for 525 yards and a touchdown last season, but he wasn't used as much as he will be this season. With Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson ahead of him, and the Bucs having two quality tight ends, Godwin won't have great receiving numbers, but he has a chance to get to 60 catches with seven or eight touchdowns. With Jackson getting older – and with a fat contract – Godwin could be positioned to take over opposite Evans in 2019. He will get many more targets this year than he did as a rookie, when he played fewer snaps than Adam Humphries as the team's third receiver.
Derek Barnett, DE, Eagles
With Vinny Curry now in Tampa, look for Barnett to get more reps than he did as a rookie in 2017. Barnett had five sacks last season, including two games with two sacks. He also had the fumble recovery late against the Patriots to lock up the Super Bowl victory. The Eagles signed Michael Bennett as a free agent, and he will likely start at end with Brandon Graham. But Bennett will kick inside on third down, which will give Barnett a lot of one-on-one situations on passing downs. Look for him to get to at least 10 sacks this season – and maybe a lot more.
William Jackson, CB, Bengals
The Bengals have spent a lot of draft collateral on corners over the years, and it looks like they've hit on another. Jackson missed his entire rookie season in 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle and then didn't open 2017 as a starter. But he started the final five games, and had two impressive outings against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown that opened a lot of eyes to just how good he could be. Look for Jackson's ability to lock down top receivers to be a big part of Cincinnati's defense this season. I can't wait to see him against Brown again. Their first meeting is Oct.14 at Cincinnati, and they'll meet again in Pittsburgh in Week 17.