Nick Perry signed a one-year, $5-million prove-it deal with the Green Bay Packers in March 2016. He proved it — and he got paid.
Perry entered his fifth NFL season as a former first-round pick who was drafted to be a disruptive force on the edge, rushing the passer and holding the outside against the run. He did almost none of either in his first four seasons, battling injuries and ineffectiveness that resulted in more missed games (18) than total starts (16).
Then Perry exploded in 2016, transforming into a superb defender who racked up 11 sacks in 47 quarterback pressures in just 14 games. According to Pro Football Focus, he had 37 defensive stops, ninth-best among edge players, despite playing fewer snaps than all eight players above him. He was rewarded handsomely with a five-year, $60-million contract.
Which NFC North players are ready break out in 2017? Here is one player for each team.
Chicago Bears – Dion Sims, TE
Dion Sims quietly had a solid season in Miami last year. Career highs in receptions (26), targets (39) and touchdowns (four) earned the 26-year-old a three-year, $18-million deal in Chicago.
The former fourth-round pick is still behind Zach Miller on the depth chart and was signed before they drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round. However, given the Miller's injury history — he's missed a staggering 54 games due to injury in eight seasons — and Shaheen's jum from D2 to the NFL, it's likely Sims could move into the top spot at some point in 2017.
Detroit Lions – Jared Abbrederis, WR
Jared Abbrederis was a Packers' fifth-round pick in 2014 after an outstanding career at Wisconsin that began as an unknown walk-on from the Milwaukee suburbs and concluded as a two-time All-Big Ten receiver.
He appeared in just 15 games over three seasons, missing all of 2014 with a tore ACL suffered in training camp. The next three years included more injuries, cuts, promotions and just 10 total receptions for 119 yards and zero touchdowns.
Abbrederis signed a reserve/future contract with Detroit in January and is good position to make the roster at slot receiver, a spot vacated by Anquan Boldin.
“The guy’s a really good route runner, very, very good just in terms of his ability to find open areas,” head coach Jim Caldwell said in June. “He has good spatial awareness. You complement all those things that he can do from an offensive standpoint with his ability to play special teams as well. He’s really coming along and really doing well, so he’s just got to keep progressing.”
Green Bay Packers – Josh Jones, S
A month after the Packers selected North Carolina State safety Josh Jones in the second round, the hard-hitting rookie made a huge mistake during OTAs. He laid out receiver Jeff Janis. Not only is live contact not allowed in OTAs, it was a rookie hitting a veteran.
Though Jones got a sideline scolding from the staff — and likely a locker room tongue-lashing from veterans — a little piece of Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers had to love it — defensive tackle Mike Daniels sure did. Finally some heat from a defense that has been awful for much of the last decade.
It's hard for first- and second-day rookies to be breakout players, but Jones was not a household name in college and some projected him as a third-day pick. Capers has used him at both linebacker and safety during the offseason and he could finally be the game-changing playmaker the unit so badly needs.
Minnesota Vikings – Danielle Hunter, DE
Laquon Treadwell is the overwhelmingly popular pick here, though I'm hardly convinced the second-year pro — who couldn't run a route to save his life or earn a smidgen of praise from the staff last year — is ready to make a major impact for a group that features proven commodities Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Michael Floyd, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Danielle Hunter technically had his breakout season last year, going from six sacks as a rookie in 2015 to 12.5 last year. He's going to have another breakout season in 2017 and become a top-five pass-rusher.
"I think sometimes the first or second year, you still try to feel your way a little bit, and third year, you are a lot more comfortable,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “It is a big year for him, and I think, so far, he is progressing well.”