The Texans' Whitney Mercilus should make a considerable improvement this season.
Every year, a new star is born in the NFL. Sometimes they're the most unlikely candidates; other times, that player has all the talent in the world and is just a perfect opportunity away from a breakout season.
Throughout this slideshow, we'll highlight a potential breakout player from each position.
Forming the criteria for such a list is tricky considering there is no official definition for a "breakout player." Nor is there any perfect way to determine whether a player has already broken out.
In this case, no player on this list has made it on any Pro Bowl or All-Pro rosters. Only one player on the list has been named Rookie of the Year, but he obviously has yet to live up to expectations and officially establish himself at his position.
Essentially, each player who made this list did so because they are expected to make a significant leap in their production and overall contribution to their team, regardless of what they did in previous years. I tried to limit it to guys who will either make a tremendous improvement or have already begun to establish themselves among the best at their position.
So let’s get to the list.
Some believe Sam Bradford has proven too fragile to make the leap to elite status, while others surmise the young quarterback trembles under the first sign of a compromised pocket.
Though both issues are a genuine concern, Bradford is still a highly intelligent signal-caller with pinpoint accuracy and an ability to consistently minimize his turnovers.
But the St. Louis Rams have been arming Bradford with exciting young playmakers to help his development, such as first-round pick Tavon Austin, college teammate Stedman Bailey, running back Zac Stacy and dependable red-zone target Jared Cook.
With those and the addition of Jake Long to upgrade the pass protection, Bradford's chances of reaching his potential have never looked better.
Expect No. 8 to catapult his name into the top-10 QB discussion by the time his 2013 campaign is complete.
Alfred Morris and Doug Martin took center stage in the rookie running back discussions last year. But the most physically gifted of them all was reduced to grinding away for lackluster stats within an offensive system egregiously devoid of any creativity.
Trent Richardson is the type of hard-nosed runner who can set the tone for an offense. Anyone who believes either Morris or Martin will have a better career than Richardson is not looking beyond the numbers. Richardson fought for nearly every yard with a tenacity and skill set reminiscent of a young Marshawn Lynch.
Considering this summer will be Richardson's first training camp as a professional, he should enter the 2013 season better prepared to dominate. Another intriguing element should be new offensive coordinator Norv Turner calling the plays. His history of orchestrating potent offenses should bode well for this future franchise running back.
It would not surprise me a bit if Richardson finished in the top five in both rushing yards and touchdowns, ahead of fellow sophomores Morris and Martin.
Tyler Eifert was the most dynamic offensive weapon coming out of this year's draft. He is a smoothly gifted athlete with incredible body control and strong hands capable of bringing down nearly every contested ball.
Despite the yearly improvement for incumbent No. 1 tight end Jermaine Gresham, I'm expecting big things early and often for the former "golden-domer."
The Bengals' early plan for Eifert seems to be to use him all over the field in a role similar to what he had while at Notre Dame.
By midseason, Eifert should be a reliable outlet for QB Andy Dalton in the short-to-intermediate range, and he'll have an even greater effect in the red zone. It wouldn't surprise me to see him finish second on the team in receiving yards behind star wide receiver A.J. Green.
Keep in mind that Eifert was the most consistent weapon on a Notre Dame offense that went all the way to the national championship.
Jonathan Baldwin has gotten off to a rather rough start in the first two years of his career. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said, prior to the 2011 draft, that Baldwin had earned his reputation as just another diva. He also fought a teammate during his rookie season, and that led to a wrist injury and missed time.
To date, Baldwin has accumulated fewer than 600 yards receiving in 26 NFL games. These are clearly not the numbers you want from a first-round draft pick. However, Baldwin is not entirely to blame for his early struggles.
The Kansas City Chiefs were a dysfunctional organization long before he entered into the equation, and not having an adequate quarterback doesn't help.
Now under the guidance of Andy Reid and with Alex Smith upgrading the quarterback position, Kansas City should be a much friendlier environment for receivers. With those factors and Baldwin's massive 6'4", 228-pound frame, he shouldn't have any trouble capitalizing on his potential.
2013 should be a breakout year for Baldwin as he gains experience and learns what it means to be a professional. Expect him to approach the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards and finally show why he was the No. 26 overall pick in 2011.
Riley Reiff is an exciting second-year offensive tackle who projects as a much more physical prospect than fellow 2012 draftee Matt Kalil. Kalil was drafted third overall to the Minnesota Vikings specifically for his superior pass protection.
And it seems we'll finally be able to compare them evenly, as Reiff is expected to make the move from right to left tackle for the 2013 season. This opportunity should be all he needs to establish himself as one of the better bookends in this league.
In his first year, Reiff saw action primarily at right tackle, but he did see some time on the left side. For the most part, he's shown great promise with his play and physicality, and he appears poised for a breakout season protecting the Lions' franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
Last year, David DeCastro injured his MCL and ACL in the preseason and thus missed the majority of his rookie year. Before the injury, he was widely considered the best rookie guard prospect heading into last season.
He is extremely athletic for a guard and has a proven track record for being tenacious, tough and technically sound. DeCastro should be able to return completely and establish himself as a premier lineman in the NFL.
Come December, people will be talking about DeCastro as the next dominant interior lineman. A Pro Bowl opportunity is a real possibility by season's end.
This is my biggest dark horse of all the names in this slideshow. A.Q. Shipley came to Baltimore via trade and will have to scratch and claw his way past second-year pro Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft.
Shipley is a 2009 seventh-round draft pick who bounced around the league on practice squads and was released several times before finally getting a chance in Indianapolis.
Now, that same guy who couldn't stick on an NFL roster is suddenly getting a great opportunity to fight for a starting center spot for the defending world champs.
Shipley is an extremely cerebral player who was rumored to have scored a 40 on the Wonderlic test back at the scouting combine. Though the test may not be the best measure for football instincts, it still gives important insight into the processing power of a particular player.
I expect Shipley to demonstrate the ability to make all the proper adjustments and help get everyone on the same page with protection schemes, which should give him an early edge over default starter Gino Gradkowski, who came into the league as a guard.
If given the opportunity, Shipley could potentially establish himself as one of the better centers in the NFL.
When the New Orleans Saints drafted Cam Jordan in the first round of the 2011 draft to play defensive end on their 4-3 scheme, I was disappointed, knowing that he was never going to be the pass-rusher teams look for off the edge in that front.
Jordan realized my concerns, doing very little in terms of of rushing the passer, though he did manage to establish himself as formidable opponent against the run.
Now that New Orleans has made the switch to 3-4, Jordan can move back inside to where he played while at Cal.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jordan had the third-highest grade among 4-3 defensive ends against the run last season. He's ideally suited as a two-gap end in a 3-4 system and therefore should be able to wreak havoc against opponents' running attacks on the way to establishing himself as one of the league's better interior linemen.
If you're on the lookout for a physically gifted freak with enormous talent that has yet to fully blossom, you might want to check out Da'Quan Bowers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers must think highly of their 2011 second-round selection, because they allowed free agent Michael Bennett to sign elsewhere without putting up much of a fight.
I agree with the decision, considering it now gives Bowers all the opportunity in the world to make some serious waves in 2013. This should definitely be a breakout season; look for him to tally 10 sacks or more while leading his team in QB takedowns.
Mike Martin is an underrated athlete who has great instincts for making plays in the opponent's backfield. He's coming off a successful rookie campaign and therefore should see an increased load heading into next year.
If the Tennessee Titans want to win more games in 2013, they should help themselves out by playing Martin as much as possible. He plays with a ton of fire and passion, and that shows up in his statistics. He managed three sacks and 36 tackles (21 solo) despite not starting a single game last year.
He is one of the best interior pass-rushers in the league and a growing force to be reckoned with. This is one guy who can make a strong case for his first Pro Bowl in only his second season in the NFL. That is, of course, if he's able to get more opportunities to start.
The Philadelphia Eagles struggled as a team in 2012, as did Mychal Kendricks. Though he managed to establish himself as starter in his rookie season, Kendricks still struggled at times with his lack of length and size. This will probably be a problem throughout his career, but he still happens to be one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the NFL.
Kendricks is a natural playmaker with incredible speed and explosiveness. He's also an effective blitzer and sideline-to-sideline player.
The Eagles are making the switch, partially, to a 3-4 defense, which is nothing new for Kendricks. He played in this scheme at Cal, where he was honored as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
I considered other second-year middle linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, but they've arguably already established themselves. I think Kendricks will join their ranks as the one of the best young linebackers in the game.
Koa Misi is a steadily improving linebacker who does everything well. One of his big strengths is his ability to take on blocks and hold ground at the point of attack. Though Misi has been a good linebacker for a few years now, I think he's poised for a huge year after Miami made some serious upgrades on defense.
The rest of the front seven, in particular, should take plenty of attention away from Misi. First-rounder Dion Jordan projects to enhance the threat of the Dolphins' D-line, and veteran additions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler will allow Misi more freedom to make plays and increase his impact on defense.
One of my favorite players from the 2012 draft was Whitney Mercilus. Last year, as a rookie, he played as a backup behind Connor Barwin and still tallied six sacks; this year, Barwin is out, and the starting position is all his.
I expect big things from Mercilus, who is one of the more skilled young pass-rushers in the NFL. With teams focusing most of their energy on blocking J.J. Watt, it should free up Mercilus for some favorable matchups in pass-rushing situations.
Mercilus is also the type of guy who needs at least a year to understand what he's doing to fully excel. That "slow learner" status is why many skeptics viewed his college stats and pegged him as a one-year wonder.
No. 59 should be able to generate double-digit sacks for Houston this year while earning national attention as one of the better pass-rushers in the nation.
Though in many ways Casey Hayward has already established himself after an exceptional rookie year, he still has not solidified himself a starting spot on that defense yet and is slated behind both Sam Shields and Tramon Williams on the depth chart (per Ourlads' NFL Scouting Service).
Before long, his play should demand a starting spot for the Packers, as he takes the next step to become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Hayward could have been a Pro Bowler last year, but he was passed over by Patrick Peterson despite finishing the season with six interceptions. 2013 should be the year he receives those formal accolades and finally gets the respect he deserves.
Kenny Phillips is a very talented safety who has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. But the bottom line is, when he was on the field, the New York Giants were a better team.
In the offseason, Philadelphia acquired one of the better coverage safeties in the NFL, and Phillips is a sure tackler who isn't afraid to stick his head into a pile. The Eagles are looking to rebuild a secondary that completely underperformed the last two seasons, and their new safety should offer plenty of assistance in that regard.
Phillips is primed and ready for a breakout season, and should he stay on the field for the entire season, he will make a push toward participating in his very first Pro Bowl.