Welcome to a Tampa Bay Times tradition, and this is a milestone year for it. This is the 10th annual list of athletes to watch in the new year. You won't see famous names such as LeBron or Serena or Cam. This list is reserved for young athletes who are in line to have breakout years. In the past, we listed athletes who were fairly unknown at the time but have names you sure recognize now, such as Tim Tebow, Steven Stamkos and Lindsey Vonn. With that in mind, here are the choices for athletes to watch in 2016.
Trying to predict what will happen in the NFL draft nearly four months from now is like trying to predict what the weather will be like that day. It's all a guess. But we know about where the Bucs will pick in the first round. We know what they need. And we have a decent guess which players might be available. Having said all this, Alexander, a cornerback from Clemson, might make a nice pick for Tampa Bay if the redshirt sophomore from Immokalee decides to enter the draft. He's only 5 feet 10, but he's a lock-down corner who was named an Associated Press third-team All-American in 2015.
This is an Olympic year, and every Olympics produces a household name or two. The best bet for that at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games is American gymnast Simone Biles. She turns 19 in March, but already she is one of the most decorated gymnasts in U.S. history. She has won the past three world all-around world championships, and the three-time national all-around champion is expected to be the favorite in the all-around and in several individual events in Brazil.
Luke Del Rio
He is the likely 2016 starting quarterback for a Gators team that could really use a starting quarterback after Treon Harris' rough go of it after taking over for the now-transferring Will Grier. Del Rio, the son of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, will be a redshirt junior after transferring from Oregon State. He will fit in well with coach Jim McElwain's pro-style offense. Del Rio might be only a short-term solution at QB, but he's likely the Gators' best hope for 2016.
He's only 17, and he is sitting out this high school basketball season with a torn ACL. But many believe the 6-foot-10 power forward could jump to the NBA right now. He has to play at least one year of college ball before he can enter the NBA draft, and he announced he will play for Coach K at Duke next season. A year from now, he should be in the midst of an All-America season for the Blue Devils. Several services already are projecting him to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
He is a dynamic boxer who could help revive the heavyweight scene that has been dominated by the classy but boring Klitschkos over the past decade. A gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics, the British-born Joshua is 15-0 as a pro after surviving a tough test last month against Dillian Whyte. He likely will fight Wladimir Klitschko next, and a win in that bout could get him a championship showdown against current champ and countryman Tyson Fury. That's a bout that could sell out London's Wembley Arena and give us the first must-see heavyweight fight in years.
Those who follow the PGA Tour closely are familiar with Koepka, but this could be the year he blows up on tour. Born in Wellington, Koepka was a three-time All-American at Florida State. He turned pro in 2012, and in 2015 he started to make his mark. He won for the first time on tour, taking the Phoenix Open. He had 14 top-25 finishes and eight top 10s. And he was outstanding in the majors, including tying for 18th at the U.S. Open, tying for 10th at the British Open and tying for fifth at the PGA Championship.
If all goes as expected, Matthews will be the first overall pick in the NHL draft this year. Born in San Francisco, Matthews was raised in Arizona. His hockey training came with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and now the 6-foot-2, 195-pound center is playing professionally in Switzerland for a team coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford. At 18, he is considered the class of the Swiss league and should be in the NHL in October.
Serena Williams continues to dominate women's tennis, but who can break through and eventually take over after she is done? A good bet might be Muguruza, whose ranking quietly has risen to No. 3 in the world. The 22-year-old from Spain has had a steady rise, beating Serena at the 2014 French Open and reaching the 2015 Wimbledon final, where she lost to — guess who — Serena. This could be the year Muguruza wins a major.
Over the 10 years of this list, we have listed plenty of rising Rays, including Matt Garza, Wade Davis, Matt Moore and Wil Myers. This year's list includes a Rays player who might be a bigger star than any we've listed before. Snell is the latest in a line of promising pitchers that the Rays organization has produced. The 23-year-old left-hander was the 2015 minor league player of the year, joining past winners such as Dwight Gooden, Frank Thomas and Mike Trout. Snell led the minors last season in ERA and batting-average against, and he is expected to be a mainstay in the Rays' rotation for years to come. That could start in 2016.
Last season, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was all the talk when it came to major-league prospects, and Bryant delivered on his potential by being the runaway National League rookie of the year winner. This year's version of Bryant is Seager, a shortstop for the Dodgers. He came up late last season and even started for the Dodgers in the playoffs. He can hit for power and average, and he is only 21.