By Frank Cooney, founder The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com
Every season players emerge from the shadows of anonymity, or something less than stardom, and play so well they demand to be considered among the best in the league.
Sometimes there was some precursor to this coming out, and other times it is a total surprise. That first group unleashes the “I-told-you-so” reaction and the latter is, really, one of the things that makes watching NFL games fun — surprise stars.
Reporters who cover each NFL team were asked to predict a breakout player for 2014 so they will be on the record here to validate an “I-told-you-so” if their selections are as prescient as they hope.
Some of these names are already somewhat known — Arizona wide receiver Michael Floyd, Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta and Minnesota returner/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. So their odds of becoming a breakout player should be better.
In fact, as a rookie last season, Patterson bolted to a record 109-yard kickoff return and was an All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selection as a returner. But the call by the Vikings’ TSX reporter is that Patterson will have a breakout year as a wide receiver. Not much of a reach.
Here is a look at the players selected by TSX writers on each team as candidates to be a Breakout Player in 2014:
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Michael Floyd. Floyd was better in 2013, his second year, than he was as a rookie. Judging by his performance in the offseason, 2014 should be even better. Floyd has always caught the ball well. Last year, he proved he could play through injury, and he improved catching the ball in traffic. He should be a big target in the red zone.
–Breakout player: Running back Devonta Freeman. At 5-foot-8, 206 pounds, Freeman was selected by the Falcons in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the draft. He became the first Florida State running back since Warrick Dunn to rush for over 1,000 yards when he logged 1,016 yards on 173 carries in 2013. With Steven Jackson showing signs of slowing down, after a strong offseason Freeman appears first in line to take over.
“Devonta has very good quickness,” coach Mike Smith said. “He’s got very good strength. He’s one of our stronger players, pound for pound. He’s a guy that has great vision and great quickness. He’s picking up the pass protections and that’s probably the biggest transition that a running back has to go through in the NFL. He has to have a good feel for pass protections and it’s very complicated with all of the different looks that they are going to be presented in the regular season.”
–Breakout player: Tight end Dennis Pitta. Primed for a big season, Pitta is healthy again after missing time last year with a fractured, dislocated right hip. He signed a five-year $32 million contract in March to stay with the Ravens. Pitta appears tailor-made for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s tight-end friendly offense.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin flashed some excitement last season as a deep threat as he caught three touchdown passes on deep balls, using his dynamic speed to get behind the defense. Injuries slowed him at several points during the year, though, and he finished with just 17 catches for 283 yards.
With a year in the system, Goodwin could become a key player in the passing game. Defenses will be concerned with rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, and receiver Robert Woods deserves attention on underneath routes, so Goodwin could find himself in some favorable matchups on the outside. To succeed, he needs to stay healthy, and be more consistent as a pass-catcher.
–Breakout player: Tight end Ed Dickson. Dickson “broke out” once before, but that was in Baltimore. Unfortunately for Dickson, his 54 catches and five touchdowns in 2011 were surrounded by three other subpar seasons. Given a fresh start in Carolina, Dickson could have a major role in 2014. The Panthers want to increase the number of plays they run out of a two-tight end set, and they see Dickson as an intriguing complement to fellow tight end Greg Olsen.
–Breakout player: Linebacker Jonathan Bostic. The second-year linebacker has Shea McClellin for competition on the strong side, and because of his speed and last year’s starting experience at linebacker, he could be the odds-on favorite to be a nickel package starter alongside Lance Briggs.
Last year, Bostic seemed so fast he overran plays and didn’t understand the nuances of the defensive scheme from the middle linebacker spot. His speed-size combination may make him a better fit on the outside; actually he might be a better Will than Sam backer, but isn’t taking Lance Briggs’ spot yet. Coaches have been working with him more on breaking down and getting the tackle, and on recognizing his lane of responsibility. Also, play from the outside is less complicated. Without veteran James Anderson in the mix, Bostic should get more of a shot at regular playing time and develop quickly.
–Breakout player: Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. The outside linebacker could have been listed here at this time last season but a season-ending shoulder injury in the final preseason game derailed a promising year.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Lamur can fly around the field and plays an ideal weak-side spot in this system. The Bengals plan to unleash him on defenders and will create hellacious matchup problems on third down standing next to Vontaze Burfict.
–Breakout player: Safety Donte Whitner. Whitner is entering his ninth season and he has been to the Pro Bowl three times, so why would he be considered a breakout player? Because the Browns have never had an impact player like him.
Whitner has already proven he is a strong leader. He can change a game by a bone-jarring hit or an interception, as he proved during his three seasons with the 49ers. Whitner has extra motivation to succeed because he went to Glenville High School in Cleveland.
–Breakout player: Defensive end/tackle Tyrone Crawford is the player everyone on the Cowboys expects big things from in 2014. The former 2012 second-round pick was supposed to break out last year but suffered a torn Achilles on the first day of training camp. He went about his rehab aggressively and purposefully. Look for him to be a disruptive force as a pass rusher.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Although he replaces Eric Decker in the Broncos’ lineup, Sanders is not a template copy of Decker, and brings more quickness and elusiveness to the role than Decker, who was a classic big target. Sanders could eventually slide into the slot in the distant future, and in the short term could be a slot option if Wes Welker’s concussion issues return; he had two in the 2013 season.
Sanders had incremental improvement in production and efficiency during his four years with the Steelers, but was always the No. 2 or No. 3 wide receiver option in an offense that strove for balance. In the Broncos’ pass-intensive attack, being the second or third choice could still net him 80 receptions, over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
–Breakout player: Tight end Eric Ebron. The Lions have plenty of breakout candidates like defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay, who are both entering their second season, but rookie tight end Eric Ebron will be the most consistent of the three. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Ebron gives the Lions’ offense a dimension it hasn’t had since Matthew Stafford has been quarterback, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will try to use him similarly to how the Saints use Jimmy Graham because that’s where he spent the past seven seasons.
Ebron’s speed and precise route running will automatically push him ahead of 2013 rookie standout Joseph Fauria, and he should line up primarily as the No. 3 receiver in the slot while Brandon Pettigrew stays in line. Stafford will spread the ball around, but there’s a good chance Ebron finishes the year as the Lions’ second or third most-productive pass catcher.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–Breakout player: Cornerback Casey Hayward. One of the best developments in an offseason that lacked sizzle for the Packers was having Hayward on the field for the entire spring program. He was sabotaged by a recurring hamstring injury that cost him all but three games last season.
A veritable playmaker his debut season in 2012, when he led all rookies that season with six interceptions, Hayward closed this offseason in rousing fashion. He had a leaping interception in the end zone during a red-zone segment on the first day of minicamp June 17, prompting teammates and coaches to rave about the nickel back who looks poised to break through again after what amounted to a lost season in 2013.
“Casey has made plays all spring,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Every time ‘Case’ is one the field, you can feel his presence. He’s a very competitive, very instinctive exceptional athlete. Ball skills, you could put him on offense.”
–Breakout player: Tight end Garrett Graham. Signed a new contract after catching 49 passes for 545 yards and five touchdowns, despite missing three games because of an injury. With Owen Daniels gone, Graham will get a lot more chances, especially in the red zone, under new coach Bill O’Brien, who loves to utilize tight ends.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. After a down year with the New York Giants in 2013, Nicks signed a one-year deal with the Colts in the offseason. With Andrew Luck throwing him passes, he has a chance to have a huge year for Indianapolis.
–Breakout player: Quarterback Chad Henne. Henne knows his days in Jacksonville are limited, but he also knows the Jaguars don’t want to bring in Blake Bortles until they are convinced he’s ready. The experiment didn’t work with Blaine Gabbert and he was eventually dealt away. And the Jaguars have strengthened the two units that most directly affect Henne – the offensive line and the receivers. Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee will upgrade the receivers’ unit while a healthy Luke Joeckel and the addition of Zane Beadles makes the offensive line much more dependable than what Henne had in front of him in 2013.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
–Breakout player: Tight end Demetrius Harris. A year ago, Harris was a basketball player trying to return to the football field for the first time since his high-school career. As he completed the Chiefs’ offseason practices, Harris worked into a position where he could become the next man from the hoops world to establish himself as a productive NFL tight end.
–Breakout player: Linebacker Jelani Jenkins. The 2013 fourth-round pick from Florida, has an intriguing tool set that makes you think he’ll be an impact player very soon. Jenkins (17 tackles in 2013) is an active player and a sure tackler. He shows good sideline-to-sideline speed and solid instincts. He began to make a name last season on special teams and later as a linebacker in the nickel package. He’s a reserve, but look for Jenkins to be a leading special teams player and someone who earns a spot in a defensive package. He’s a good candidate to become a playmaker.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Yeah, he was an All-Pro as a rookie. But that was as a kickoff returner. Look for him to break out as a receiver this season. One of the more head-scratching aspects of last season’s collapse was the coaching staff’s inability or lapse in judgment when it came to getting Patterson more involved in the offense. By the time that happened, the season was lost and the coaching staff’s fate sealed.
Patterson has a year’s worth of experience and is now working under Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner’s work with Josh Gordon in Cleveland last season has Patterson 100 percent on board with whatever Turner says. Also, unlike last season, when the Vikings flip-flopped through three starting quarterbacks, Patterson should benefit from what’s expected to be more stability at quarterback.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
–Breakout player: Outside linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins came on strong late last season with a breakout performance in the playoffs against the Colts in which he had a sack, interception and showed impressive range in coverage. The second-year, second-round pick will move into the starting lineup this fall, bringing the athleticism and versatility to the outside linebacker spot to shine both in coverage and as a pass rusher. He has the potential to be an impact playmaker.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
–Breakout player: Running back Khiry Robinson. The Saints believe Robinson, an unheralded and undrafted second-year player from West Texas A&M, can have a major impact on their running game after showing some flashes as a rookie last season.
The 6-foot, 220-pounder earned a roster spot in training camp and played sparingly behind veterans Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. But the coaching staff saw enough to give him some playing time.
Robinson responded by rushing for 224 yards and a 4.1 average on 54 carries in the regular season and added 102 yards and a 4.9 average in two postseason games, which convinced the Saints they could trade Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles and create some much-needed cap space.
NEW YORK GIANTS
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Odell Beckhan, Jr.. Although he was limited during the spring because of a hamstring injury, Beckham figures to become a frequent target of quarterback Eli Manning in the Giants’ passing game. The Giants have been lining up their receivers all over the place, so Beckham, who could also compete at punt returner, is expected to line up both on the inside and the outside for the offense.
NEW YORK JETS
–Breakout player: Free safety Calvin Pryor. Even if Pryor doesn’t win Defensive Rookie of the Year, a la his new teammate Sheldon Richardson, expect him to become an immediate anchor in the secondary just like Richardson did along the defensive line last season. Pryor brings nastiness and big-play skills to an area that has been deficient for several seasons.
–Breakout player: Linebacker Khalil Mack. The No. 5 pick in the draft, Mack has turned heads with his explosive play as well as his work ethic. Anything less than double-digit sacks will be a surprise, with the feeling being he could be a first-year standout along the lines of Von Miller or Clay Matthews.
Fantasy football reality check: Given quarterback Matt Schaub’s fondness for throwing to tight ends and Mychal Rivera’s ability to get open, the second-year player out of Tennessee could be a trusted red zone receiver. Rivera won’t be a classic tight end in tha the’ll be split wide, put in motion and put in positions to get open, catch passes and score.
–Breakout player: Tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz came on in the second half of his rookie season, finishing with 36 receptions and four touchdowns. He should make a big jump in his second season, and the Eagles think he has the potential to be their version of Jimmy Graham.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Wheaton was limited to six receptions as a rookie because he was hampered by finger injuries that required two surgeries. But that didn’t stop the Steelers from letting Emmanuel Sanders leave in free agency. They are counting on Wheaton to take his spot opposite Antonio Brown. Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, had a strong spring and is poised for a more productive sophomore season. He should see plenty of single coverage because opposing defenses will concentrate their efforts on Brown.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Breakout player: Wide receiver Tavon Austin. He struggled at times during his rookie season getting up to speed and comfortable with the level of play in the NFL. There were several drops early. Despite that, Austin showed his ability to make big plays as a receiver and punt returner, and had a few long plays called back by penalty. Then, he missed the final three games with an ankle injury. After a good offseason, Austin appears primed to take big strides in his second season and show he can make yards after the catch.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
–Breakout player: Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram. Ingram surprised many by returning last season after suffering a serious knee injury in the offseason. He quickly showed why he was a first-round pick in 2012, playing with a burst and energy off the edge which seemed to be contagious to the defensive unit. Ingram could blossom this year, especially if veteran Dwight Freeney returns to form to take attention from blockers away from Ingram.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
–Breakout player: Defensive tackle Tank Carradine. The 49ers used a second-round pick on Carradine in 2013, but he was unable to get into a game after suffering a setback in his recovery from an ACL tear suffered in college. The talented defensive lineman had offseason surgery to remove scar tissue in his injured knee and has had a very good offseason by all accounts.
Viewed as a potential first-round talent prior to his injury, Carradine is in a great spot going forward. He has talented veterans Justin Smith and Ray McDonald as mentors and limited responsibilities to worry about in a reserve role. And with line coach Jim Tomsula pulling the strings — he’s viewed as one of the league’s best defensive line coaches — Carradine is a prime breakout candidate on one of the league’s best defensive fronts.
–Breakout player: Running back Christine Michael. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell created a little of a stir when he said at a Town Hall meeting with the fans that the team might go with a running-back-by-committee approach this season. He later clarified that he was referring to how players were being used in practice. Still, there seems little doubt that the Seahawks would like to get the ball a lot more this season to second-year tailback Christine Michael, the team’s first pick in 2013 in the second round out of Texas A&M.
Michael got carries in mop-up duty of just three games last season. But he is being groomed to be the eventual successor to Marshawn Lynch, and depending on his progress in training camp with pass blocking and knowledge of the playbook, could get regular carries throughout the season. First, though, he has to beat out third-year player Robert Turbin for the backup tailback spot.
TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS
–Breakout player: Cornerback Johnthan Banks. The Bucs’ second-round pick in 2013 is a perfect fit for Smith’s defense. He is long and has excellent ball skills. In the Tampa 2, Banks will be an effective zone player and by facing the quarterback, he will have a better chance at breaking on the ball and getting interceptions, which would seem to be his strength. Pro-Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner is on the other side, meaning Banks will get lots of chances.
–Breakout player: Wide receiver Justin Hunter. Last year, the Titans traded up to draft Hunter in the second round, believing he had first-round talent and could become the type of stretch-the-field deep threat that Kenny Britt and Tyrone Calico before him were supposed to be. Hunter had his moments, catching four touchdowns among his 18 receptions. Now, Tennessee is expecting more from him in year two, as he is solidly among the team’s top three receivers with Kendall Wright and veteran Nate Washington, and should get plenty of opportunity not only to catch the ball downfield, but showcase his speeds for yards after the catch as well.
–Breakout player: Tight end Jordan Reed. A third-round pick in the 2013 draft, Reed only started four games and played in just nine as a rookie. And yet, the former Florida standout still set records for a Redskins rookie tight end with 45 catches for 499 yards easily topping the marks by Pro Bowl performers Jerry Smith, Stephen Alexander and Chris Cooley.
Now, Reed is healthy again and the Redskins have added Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, who will demand extra defenders as will holdover star wideout Pierre Garcon. So look for Reed to wreak havoc in the middle of opposing defenses.
–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.