Stevan Ridley broke out in a big way in 2012. Who will follow in his footsteps this year?
Everyone loves a breakout. Okay, maybe the unfortunate, acne-ridden high school student who can’t get a date doesn’t love breakouts, but in the sports world it’s all good. The question is, how are “breakout” players defined?
A true breakout player essentially needs to establish a new base-line level of performance. Safe to say Tom Brady can’t break out at this point, unless he launches a string of 6,000 yard seasons. As far as the New England Patriots are concerned, just about every player besides Brady and the rest of the established Pro Bowl candidates has statistical room to post breakout seasons. So let’s eliminate the players with an all-star designation already under their belt.
Most players also break out during the earlier stages of their career. Stevan Ridley, for example, broke out last season—his second in the league—with 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. Typically this is because they enter their physical prime and their talent takes over. It also helps to have a year or two of NFL experience so they can focus on production rather than assimilation.
For the players who take a bit longer to break out, the biggest reason is usually opportunity. Any time a players is given the opportunity for more playing time than in previous seasons, they have an excellent chance of posting a career year.
In other cases a player may be asked to do different things than in years past, like changing positions and learning a new technique to better utilize their skill set. Sometimes having more talent around them allows a player to focus strictly on their own strengths rather than try to carry too big a load.
Of course health plays a major role as well. While all the above scenarios are fairly easy to recognize ahead of time, injuries or a lack thereof are impossible to predict. Sometimes all a player needs is a full season of good health to show what they can do.
The Patriots have a host of players who meet one, and in some cases several, of these criteria. Does that mean all of them are due for breakout seasons? Of course not, but it does mean the odds are in their favor.
After weighing all these factors, here are the six New England Patriots most likely to break out in 2013.
Hernandez is somewhat a unique case because he’s already highly regarded in NFL circles. He’s also already injured and his Week 1 status is in jeopardy after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
So why is he a prime breakout candidate?
For starters he’ll likely be asked to shoulder—no pun intended—a heavier load than ever before. The Patriots’ most prolific weapon and best tight end, Rob Gronkowski, is in even worse shape than Hernandez.
According to ESPN, Hernandez is expected to be ready to begin the regular season, but Gronk is in very real danger of missing Week 1, if not more, thanks to another impending forearm surgery (per the Boston Herald). If Gronk can’t go, that would make Hernandez the only projected starter who has ever caught a pass from Tom Brady.
As new additions Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson acclimate to New England’s system and develop chemistry with Brady, Hernandez will be light years ahead in those areas. Expect him to lead the team in targets, at least early in the season.
Hernandez has also never played a full season in his NFL career. He appeared in just 10 games last season after suiting up for 14 in each of his first two years. As he begins to approach his physical prime over the next few years—he’ll be just 23 on opening day—his health will be the biggest determining factor in his success.
With Gronk on the mend and everyone else playing catch up, 2013 could be the perfect storm for Hernandez if he stays healthy. Assuming a full slate of games, look for him to post his first 1,000-yard season and cement himself among the elite tight ends in the NFL.
Like Hernandez, Jones dealt with injuries in 2012. Last year’s first-round pick still posted six sacks in 14 games (13 starts).
Unlike last season, Jones won’t be adjusting to life in the pro ranks. He’ll head into training camp already knowing what’s expected of him and with a better understanding of how to manage the rigors of an NFL season.
Having that year of experience under his belt makes all the difference in the world. By now he knows the playbook and understands his responsibilities. Now instead of learning as he goes, he can slow things down mentally and let the game come to him.
When players do that, their natural talent usually takes over. For that reason, many of the premier pass rushers in today’s NFL made huge strides in the second seasons. J.J. Watt, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams are just a few examples of players who broke the double-digit sack barrier in year two.
With his talent and Vince Wilfork playing alongside him, Jones is poised to add his name to that list in 2013. In fact, Christian Fauria went on record as saying he would be a "murderous" defensive end in year two.
During the intro we mentioned greater opportunity as a major factor when assessing breakout players and Vereen fits that mould like a glove.
When fan favorite Danny Woodhead bolted for the San Diego Chargers and Jeff Demps ran back to track before being traded, it opened a whole world of possibilities for Vereen. If the season started today one would have to assume Vereen would be second on the depth chart behind Ridley.
More than that, he would be the primary change of pace option and backfield receiver for one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Woodhead occupied that role for most of the last three seasons and Vereen should slide right in this year.
It’s a role he’s quite accustomed to.
While playing at California, he was the primary backup to Jahvid Best and the change of pace back in 2008 and 2009. During those two seasons he totaled 2,132 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. He caught 52 passes and averaged 5.1 yards per carry according to sports-reference.com.
Vereen’s already shown signs of bringing that same ability to the Patriots.
During last year’s Divisional playoff round, he torched the Houston Texans for 124 total yards and three touchdowns on 12 touches (five receptions). With the role all to himself in 2013, that could be a precursor of more good things to come.
Amendola is perhaps the most obvious breakout candidate on the Patriots’ roster. Coming from St. Louis where he never stayed healthy and never had a 1,000-yard season he doesn’t necessarily need to play any better, he just needs to play more and the numbers will take care of themselves.
He has the label of an injury-prone player but that might not be entirely fair. He was incredibly durable in college, playing in 49 games over four years and if you look at his injuries in the NFL they are flukier than his detractors would have you believe.
Last season he landed on his shoulder awkwardly and his clavicle dislocated, jutting inward and nearly severing his trachea and aorta. According to the Los Angeles Times, NFL executives don’t ever remember another player suffering the same injury.
In 2011 he dislocated his elbow catching a pass and was eventually placed on injured reserve.
Amendola may be brittle, but these aren’t chronic, recurring injuries.
If he can avoid the same bad luck that plagued him with the Rams he should have no problem setting career highs across the board as Tom Brady’s go-to wide receiver.
Common perception is that Amendola was brought in to replace Wes Welker. That’s true to an extent but he plays on the outside more than Welker.
Welker’s true replacement may in fact be Edelman.
Like Welker, he plays almost exclusively in the slot and he has the most similar skill set to the former Patriot of anyone currently on the roster.
Edelman’s battled injury woes of his own, but if healthy he has an outstanding chance of putting together a career year in 2013. He has experience in the Patriots’ system so while Amendola and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are adjusting to life with Brady, Edelman will already be fully integrated.
He had offseason surgery on the same foot that he injured in 2012, so health is obviously a concern, but given his familiarity with the offense he has an excellent chance to be the team’s primary weapon in the slot. He won’t match Welker’s numbers but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him haul in 60-70 passes in that role.
He’s proven he can produce when given the opportunity. In 2009 when Welker left the game against Houston with a torn ACL, Edelman stepped right in and racked up 10 catches for 103 yards in his stead.
With Amendola on board he won’t do that every week, but as was mentioned earlier, Amendola has a history of unfortunate injuries so Edelman could just be one unlucky break away from a starting role.
Even as a third wideout his quick, explosive style of play is tailor made for New England’s intermediate passing attack.
If Amendola is the most obvious player featured here, Sudfeld is certainly the most obscure.
Not to keep harping on Gronkowski’s injury, but losing the best weapon on the team obviously leaves a hole to fill. At 6’7”, 255 pounds, Sudfeld certainly has the size to fill it.
Signed as an undrafted rookie, Sudfeld burst onto the scene with Nevada in 2012, totaling 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns.
He likely won’t play much between the 20-yard lines, but he could be an absolute force in the red zone. With Gronk’s immediate future in doubt the Patriots need somebody who can make tough catches in traffic and get open in the end zone. Sudfeld is so big that he’s pretty much open no matter what.
He’s also incredibly athletic and quite nimble with a ball in his hands. Watch the play featured at the top of this slide and see if it reminds you of anybody.
(Hint: If he doesn’t, then click here.)
I’m not saying the kid will be All-Pro. In fact he may not even make the final roster, but given the current state of things in New England, he’ll have every opportunity to earn a spot. If he does, watch out.