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All-32 Series: AFC East’s Breakout Players for the 2018 Season

Written By- Team Blitz

Buffalo Bills

Shaq Lawson (DE)

Shaq Lawson was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 16th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. While at Clemson, Lawson showed off unique playmaking ability as an edge rusher with the Tigers. He accumulated 20 sacks at Clemson over his three year career in college and had 12.5 sacks in his final year there. This prompted then Bills’ head coach Rex Ryan to select him as an outside linebacker in his 3–4 defense. Lawson needed surgery on his shoulder before the 2017 season, and in his rookie year was relegated to just 10 games and 1 start. Through his first two years in the league, Lawson has only played in 21 games and has 6 sacks.

This season could be the year Lawson finally breaks out of his shell for the Buffalo Bills. For one thing, Lawson will be playing left end which much more effectively suits his pass rushing style. The Bills also obtained defensive players Tremaine Edmunds and Harrison Phillips in the 2018 draft. Both player will immediately boost the team’s pass and run defenses. If Jerry Hughes can stay healthy, he should be good enough to force opposing teams to use their running backs to chip him on passing downs. This would leave Shaq Lawson to be one-on-one with opposing right tackles. Lawson has a nice speed rush, and he uses his hands well. If he has a good offseason, I would not be shocked to see Lawson end the season with double digit sacks for the Buffalo Bills.

-Jake Leicht

Miami Dolphins

Raekwon McMillan (MLB)

The Miami Dolphins selected Raekwon McMillan with the 54th pick of the 2017 draft. At Ohio State, he had 275 tackles, including 18 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. McMillan was a team leader on an Ohio State defensive team that was one of the best in the country. The Dolphins picked him in the second round of the 2017 draft with the expectation that he would be their middle linebacker for the foreseeable future. During the 2016 season the Dolphins were ranked as the 30th best defense against the run in the league, and drafting McMillan was one way that the Dolphins were going to fix that. He injured his knee in the first preseason game of the 2017 season, causing him to miss his entire rookie season.

His torn ACL recovered nicely, and he is expected to be the starting middle linebacker for the Dolphins this season. During the draft process in 2017, Mel Kiper Jr. had McMillan as one of the top run stuffers in the draft at the linebacker position. In 2017, the Dolphins again ranked 30th in defense against the run for the second straight season. If McMillian can stay healthy, that will change in 2018. McMillan has the potential to be one of the top tacklers in the league because of the way Matt Burke runs his 4–3 defense. He is certainly a big time breakout candidate for the Dolphins this upcoming season.

-Jake Leicht

New England Patriots

J.C. Jackson (CB)

New England makes a living on “role players,” often trading away their stars in their contract years in order to get a greater return for their value. They almost never hand out lucrative contracts, and would rather build the team by drafting middle-round rotational players than going all in on all-world athletes. Each year, the Patriots are big players in the supplemental portion of free agency directly following the draft, as they seem to manage to find a diamond in the rough year in and year out. Just last year, the big bad Bill Belichick signed seventeen undrafted free agent prospects, including the coveted and versatile Harvey Langi and quick slot receiver Austin Carr. The 2017 season saw three of the seventeen make the final roster (Jacob Hollister, Adam Butler, and Harvey Langi), with Jonathan Jones coming in 2016. Their 2015 haul was the most impressive in recent years, as they found two starters and a special teams ace in center David Andrews, Corner Justin Coleman (traded to Seahawks), and defensive back Brandon King. It is the 2018 UDFA that has me intrigued, however. The Patriots have already managed to sign ten prospects following the 2018 NFL Draft, and J.C. Jackson leads the list.

If you didn’t notice before, three of those undrafted free agents were defensive backs, and the corner out of Maryland fits that mold. JC Jackson fits a need for the Patriots, as losing Malcolm Butler put a hole in their defensive backfield. Jackson is a physical corner with quality size, standing at 5’10” and weighing 201 pounds, with the athletic ability to play in bump and run coverage and disrupt in press. He is effective in man coverage, a scheme the Patriots heavily utilize. Posting a 4.46 second forty-yard dash at the Combine, Jackson surprised a lot of individual who were concerned with his deep speed. Jackson struggles against quick twitch receivers, as he doesn’t possess the natural movement ability or short area acceleration to match routes. Having only played through two seasons, Jackson is still developing and has the potential to eventually become a starter in the NFL. Although he isn’t a surefire answer to the defensive issues we all saw in Super Bowl 52, he has the ability to compete for a spot across from Stephon Gilmore. Expect J.C. Jackson to make a splash in camp, as he competes with Eric Rowe for a spot in the starting rotation.

-Jason Feiner

New York Jets

Robby Anderson (WR)

After a season that saw Robby Anderson go from the bottom of the depth chart to putting up 63 receptions for 941 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016, he should already be considered a “breakout” player. However, 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold should have a major impact on Anderson’s 2018 stat line. The Jets wideout was being thrown to by journeyman QB Josh McCown and underachiever Bryce Petty last season. Though McCown outdid many skeptics expectations last year, his arm talent is just not on the level of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold.

Darnold’s biggest knock is his decision making and abundance of turnovers. In his two year collegiate career with USC he turned the ball over 35 total times, but he still scored 57 touchdowns through the air over that same span. He has a playmaker mentality and will always try to extend the play. It may not be the best thing for the New York Jets’ win percentage, but it’ll surely have a positive effect on the 3rd year wide receiver and possibly help insert Robby Anderson into the conversation as a top 20 wideout this upcoming season.

-Jack Bourgeois

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