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Every year in the NFL, we see breakout stars. And they come in all shapes and sizes with different backstories. Here, we're going to begin a breakout mini-series with young "rebound" selections who fell into the shadows of the football-watching world either due to injury or simple disappointment. 

To qualify for this article, a player had to be entering either his second or third year in the NFL

Let's get to it.

Injury rebounds

Christian Gonzalez hurt his labrum in early October and was subsequently placed in season-ending injured reserve. Then a multitude of enormous franchise-altering developments took place with the Patriots, so it's relatively easy to forgot how good the first-round pick from Oregon was in his first four NFL games

The man-coverage specialist had three pass breakups, an interception, didn't allow a touchdown in his coverage area, and missed just one tackle on 209 total snaps. A freak athletically with super-smooth hips and brilliant route-recognition skill, Gonzalez was born to play in New England's defense (yes, even after the Bill Belichick era).

At nearly 6-foot-2 and a few pounds under 200 with threshold-meeting 32-inch arms, Gonzalez ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash with a 41.5-inch vertical and a broad jump in the 95th percentile at the position. He has the athletic makeup of a premier perimeter cornerback. With plenty of time to rehab the injury, I fully expect Gonzalez to insert himself into the conversation as one of the league's best, young, sticky coverage defenders in 2024. 

Christian Watson
GB • WR • #9
REC YDs422
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Man, that hamstring injury would not leave Christian Watson alone in 2023. It limited him to less than 41% of Green Bay's offensive snaps. Fascinatingly, this thread on Twitter/X highlighted the work and research the Packers third-year pro did this offseason to potentially combat the nagging element of his hamstring issue. 

To summarize, Watson found he had "20% asymmetry in the hamstring muscle between his right and left legs, which meant his left hamstring was 20% stronger than his right one." Because of that, his weaker right hamstring simply couldn't keep up with the explosive capabilities in his stronger left hamstring, which led to him missing 11 games over the past two seasons. 

He's now worked to close that gap to possibly under 10% asymmetry. And if both of Watson's legs will cooperate in 2024, look out. Packers quarterback Jordan Love had elite-level production in the final eight games of 2023: 70.2% completion rate, 7.71 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns and... one interception. 

Plus, in Watson's absence, plenty of other young specimens at receiver and tight end performed well, meaning Watson can't be the focal point of defensive game plans this season. 

Nolan Smith tore his pectoral muscle during his final season at Georgia. Then, as a rookie, he suffered a shoulder injury with the Eagles. Those likely related ailments probably hindered his development on what was an absolutely loaded defensive front in Philadelphia. 

Younger than both 2024 first-round edge rushers Laiatu Latu and Jared Verse, opportunity awaits Smith with the Eagles. While the team essentially flipped Haason Reddick for Bryce Huff, Smith's deceptive point-of-attack power and block-shedding mastery -- when healthy -- should get him on the field on early downs to start his second season in the NFL. 

But it's not as though he's incapable of generating pressure on the quarterback. This is the former No. 1 overall recruit in the nation who had a 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, vertical, and broad jump all at the 95th percentile or higher at the edge position at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Now, seemingly fully healed, I expect Smith to play much closer to how he did at Georgia in 2022 when he had a pressure-creation rate of 18.6%.

Andrew Booth Jr. was one of those players repeatedly mocked in the first round during the 2022 draft cycle who ultimately wasn't selected until the second round, and draft analysts had a sneaking suspicion it was due to medical concerns. Then as a rookie, he had knee surgery in late November. 

The Vikings, of course, trudged along at the cornerback spot, and Booth played just a little over 13% of the Vikings defensive snaps in 2023. Because of his incredibly slow, injury-filled start to his post-Clemson life, it's a cinch to forget about Booth. 

But he flashed glimmers of the highly fluid, supreme athlete he was with the Tigers in that tiny sample size of action in his second professional season. While he only knocked away one pass on 99 coverage snaps, Booth allowed four catches on eight targets for 30 yards and no touchdowns -- good for a passer rating of 59.4.

Early-disappointment rebounds 

Tyree Wilson's rookie season can be split into two, distinct parts. 

After a mere nine pressures in his first 12 games -- on 187 pass-rushing opportunities -- Wilson emerged from the Week 13 bye a completely different player. From Week 14 through the remainder of the regular season, he pressured the quarterback 15 times on 121 pass-rushing snaps across five games. 

While no one could possibly argue Wilson's towering, athletic prowess -- he's taller and longer than Myles Garrett at a nearly identical weight -- it was plainly obvious on film at Texas Tech he had a problem tapping into his burst off the snap, thereby putting him at a disadvantage once he moved on to the NFL. 

It all started to come together down the stretch under Antonio Pierce's watch, and Wilson won't have to be "the guy" on the Raiders front thanks to superstar Maxx Crosby and up-and-comer Malcolm Koonce. But the physical gifts are too immense for Wilson to not take a step forward in 2024. 

Cam Smith was my CB1 in the 2023 class. His disappointing rookie campaign in Miami was a shock to me. Now, with a fresh set of eyes on him at defensive coordinator -- going from Vic Fangio to Anthony Weaver -- Smith has a new lease on his football life. 

At South Carolina, Smith was a magnet to the football, with six interceptions and 18 pass breakups on a mere 94 targets across four seasons. Heck, he barely played as a rookie, just 22 total snaps on defense. 

Now, with Xavien Howard gone, Smith can step into a more sizable role on the perimeter, even with the addition of Kendall Fuller. Smith is taller than 6-foot and weighs 180 pounds with upper-level athleticism and a feisty attitude at the line and throughout the receiver's route. He possesses the instincts, movement skill, and, critically, natural ball skills to make a sizable leap in his second season in Miami Gardens.