Predicting One Surprise Starter for Every NFL Team
Surprise starters are a staple of the NFL. Russell Wilson is the most prominent recent name, taking the quarterback reins for the Seattle Seahawks at the end of last year's preseason over Matt Flynn.
From Jorvorskie Lane to D'Anthony Batiste, every team seems to have one or two each year. Some are pleasant surprises during the preseason, while others are pushed into starting roles because of injury.
Click through to find one potential surprise starter for each team heading into the 2013 season.
Surprise Starter: Tyrann Mathieu, FS
The Cardinals lost both starting safeties this offseason, both of the team's own volition.
Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes were cut despite being relatively productive. In their place stand Rashad Johnson and Yeremiah Bell, but don't sleep on rookie Tyrann Mathieu.
Neither Johnson nor Bell is inspiring as a starter, however. Both might be veterans, but Mathieu has the playmaking ability to crack the starting roster over one of those two.
Surprise Starter: Joe Hawley, C
There isn't much room for surprise on the Falcons roster. It is built to win now, and that leaves little room for error. But it will come as a surprise to some when Joe Hawley runs out to start at center for the Falcons.
Many thought Peter Konz was drafted as the center of the future back in 2012. Todd McClure was in the twilight of his career, so Konz spent last season at right guard.
McClure has since retired, leaving the center position wide open. But putting Konz there would leave the right guard position open, and the right tackle position isn't settled after Tyson Clabo's departure.
Surprise Starter: Courtney Upshaw, OLB
This shouldn't come as too big of a surprise, but Upshaw has the inside track to start over newly minted Raven Elvis Dumervil.
There's a reason the Ravens let Paul Kruger go to greener pastures, and it didn't necessarily involve adding Dumervil, who was under contract at the time.
It looked like they were comfortable with Courtney Upshaw stepping in and carrying the load before Dumervil became available. It should not be surprising if he is the starter over the smaller Dumervil in Week 1.
Surprise Starter: Robert Woods, WR
Stevie Johnson has long needed a running mate at wide receiver. The Bills finally got him one in the draft.
Conventional wisdom has second-year receiver T.J. Graham starting opposite Johnson, but he is far from the complete receiver Robert Woods already is coming into the NFL. Woods might be a rookie, but he should prove to be the best man for the No. 2 job throughout the preseason.
Surprise Starter: Domenik Hixon, WR
Brandon LaFell is entering his fourth season, and he was already the starter last year. But he was not all that effective, catching just 44 passes.
Domenik Hixon, meanwhile, was subtly great for the Giants when healthy and given an opportunity. He should come into camp and immediately compete for that No. 2 gig opposite Steve Smith.
Surprise Starter: Jon Bostic, LB
The Bears will miss Brian Urlacher after his retirement. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, but they may have found someone up to the task in the draft.
Jon Bostic will have to compete with veteran D.J. Williams for the starting gig, but he possesses the skill and upside to win the job.
Surprise Starter: Devon Still, DT
Domata Peko has manned the defensive tackle position next to Geno Atkins in recent years, but it is time for a changing of the guard.
The Bengals drafted two defensive tackles in 2012, landing Devon Still much later than anyone expected. A young player with loads of potential playing alongside the most dominant defensive tackle in the NFL could pay off in a big way for Cincinnati.
Surprise Starter: Leon McFadden, CB
The Browns do not have much to work with at cornerback after Joe Haden, but would they start a third-round cornerback instead of a more seasoned veteran?
Buster Skrine is no lock to start, however, and McFadden could very well play his way into a starting gig with a good preseason.
Surprise Starter: Joseph Randle, RB
Look up and down Dallas' roster and you will have a hard time picking a surprise starter. Joseph Randle has no shot to start unless DeMarco Murray sustains another injury.
By no means do we wish injury on anyone, but there is no denying Murray's injury woes.
Surprise Starter: Willis McGahee, RB
Many are penciling rookie Montee Ball in as the Week 1 starter for the Broncos, but not so fast.
Willis McGahee is still on the team, and he was pretty effective when healthy last season. Ronnie Hillman is also there, having added some weight this offseason to better his chances to get on the field.
Knowshon Moreno is on the roster as well, but he could very well get cut before the season begins.
Ball will not simply have the keys handed to him.
Surprise Starter: Ron Bartell, CB
It has been a rough few years for Ron Bartell, who has battled injuries and the Oakland Raiders malaise before landing in Detroit. He might just wind up starting if he can stay healthy.
Only a rookie and a second-year player stand in Bartell's way—Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, respectively. Bartell was coming into his own with the Rams a few seasons ago before injuring his neck in 2011.
His veteran savvy should give him a leg up on the youngsters, provided he doesn't get injured.
Green Bay Packers
Surprise Starter: DuJuan Harris, RB
Didn't the Packers just draft Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin?
True, Green Bay did finally address the running back position after years of dealing with spare parts, but that does not guarantee a starting gig for the newbies.
DuJuan Harris finished strong last season, and he should be given the opportunity to retain his starting gig while the rookies get up to speed. If he responds well in the preseason, it might be a while before Lacy or Franklin cracks the starting lineup.
Surprise Starter: D.J. Swearinger, S
It seemed like the Texans were getting a bargain when they landed Ed Reed this offseason, but as it turns out, you get what you pay for.
Reed recently had hip surgery, throwing his preseason into doubt. If he has any setbacks or if this surgery simply precipitates a quick decline, rookie D.J. Swearinger could be in for an early baptism by fire.
Surprise Starter: Josh Chapman, NT
The Colts signed Aubrayo Franklin, a proven nose tackle, but that doesn't mean he won't have a fight on his hands for the starting gig.
Josh Chapman might have been a first-round pick in the 2012 draft were it not for an injury. He is fully healthy now, and the big defensive tackle could win the starting gig with a great preseason.
Surprise Starter: Ace Sanders, WR
Justin Blackmon is suspended to start the season, so the starting gig opposite Cecil Shorts is up for grabs.
Veteran Jordan Shipley looks like he is in line to nab that role, but he doesn't have much upside. There isn't much other receiver talent in Jacksonville, which is where Ace Sanders comes in.
Kansas City Chiefs
Surprise Starter: Donnie Avery, WR
Two years ago, the Chiefs drafted Jon Baldwin in what seemed like a luxury move. They had just made the playoffs the previous year, so why not?
Well, it has not worked out very well for Baldwin and the Chiefs to date. So the team signed Donnie Avery, who was finally healthy and had a solid season starting opposite Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis last year.
It would not be surprising to see him reprise that role opposite Dwayne Bowe this year.
Surprise Starter: Lance Louis, OG
The Dolphins signed Lance Louis coming off a torn ACL to compete for a spot on the offensive line. It will be tough to make it all the way back, but if he is healthy heading into camp, he has an excellent chance to win the starting gig over John Jerry.
Surprise Starter: Jerome Simpson, WR
Jerome Simpson possesses great athletic ability, but he has yet to parlay that into success in the NFL.
The Vikings did sign Greg Jennings and draft Cordarrelle Patterson, but the latter does not have a guaranteed starting gig. There were plenty of question marks surrounding Patterson's football savvy and route-running ability, which could lead to Simpson's promotion in the short term.
New England Patriots
Surprise Starter: Marcus Forston, DT
Vince Wilfork is still a beast in the middle of the New England defensive line. Kyle Love was recently cut, leaving the door slightly ajar for the starting gig. Free-agent acquisition Tommy Kelly is the leader in the clubhouse, but he is a shell of his former dominant self at 32 years of age.
Marcus Forston hails from the same college as Wilfork (University of Miami), and he could wind up being quite good. Now in his second season, he will be given an opportunity to shine in the preseason.
New Orleans Saints
Surprise Starter: Junior Galette, OLB
The Saints are trying out Will Smith at outside linebacker. It's not going to end well.
Junior Galette, meanwhile, has been solid for New Orleans over the past couple of seasons. He is younger, better, cheaper and a nicer fit in the new scheme.
Why is New Orleans even running the Smith experiment?
New York Giants
Surprise Starter: Andre Brown, RB
Fantasy football owners are chomping at the bit to get David Wilson going, but he might not be the starter come Week 1.
Andre Brown did a fine job when called upon last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry while avoiding Tom Coughlin's doghouse. Wilson certainly has massive potential, but Brown is the safer player and thus the safer bet to start.
New York Jets
Surprise Starter: Geno Smith, QB
Depending on whom you talk to, this might not be much of a surprise, but the Jets are sticking with Mark Sanchez right now. He is getting paid a pretty penny, after all.
The way OTAs are going for him, however, it might be the beginning of the end for the embattled starter.
Granted, take early practices with a grain of salt—the Jets are learning a new offense after all, and that defense is still pretty good.
But perhaps the Jets will want to move on from Sanchez sooner than later.
Surprise Starter: Tyler Wilson, QB
Poor Matt Flynn.
A year ago, the former Packer inked a free-agent deal with the Seahawks as the presumptive starter. A few months later, he found himself holding a clipboard thanks to Russell Wilson, the 5'10" wunderkind rookie.
His misery ended this past offseason when the Seahawks dealt him to the Raiders, where he is the presumptive starter. There is only one problem: Another rookie named Wilson is gunning for his job.
Tyler Wilson was regarded by some to be the best quarterback prospect in this year's draft. The entire class fell in the draft, and the Raiders plucked him up in the fourth round.
Could we be seeing a glitch in the Matrix? It does seem like déjà vu all over again for Flynn.
Surprise Starter: Brandon Graham, OLB
Trent Cole and newly acquired Connor Barwin figure to have the inside track on starting gigs, but that shouldn't stop Brandon Graham from vying for one of those spots.
Graham was one of the more productive pass-rushers per opportunity last season. That marks him as more likely to rotate in on passing downs, but he has a pretty well-rounded game.
Cole and Barwin are no slouches, but Graham might not make it an easy choice for the Eagles.
Surprise Starter: Jonathan Dwyer, RB
The Steelers were left with a bit of a void at running back with the departure of Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey this offseason. It's the main reason they drafted Le'Veon Bell, who has been penciled in by many as the starter right out of the gate.
But Pittsburgh still has Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, both of whom started last season at different points. The Steelers do not seem like a team likely to trust a rookie to carry the load at running back, so Dwyer or Redman should get the first crack.
San Diego Chargers
Surprise Starter: Vincent Brown, WR
Vincent Brown is a forgotten man in San Diego.
He was a popular fantasy football sleeper heading into the 2012 preseason, but a broken ankle derailed him for the entire year. The emergence of Danario Alexander alongside veteran Malcom Floyd has the duo penciled in as the starters.
Not so fast.
Alexander has a history of major knee injuries. Hopefully, for his sake, he continues to stay healthy, but that is far from guaranteed for the four-year veteran. Floyd doesn't have much upside. And Robert Meachem is in the mix, but after only accruing 207 receiving yards last year, it seems unlikely that he'd vault into the starting lineup.
Brown, meanwhile, lurks in the middle of that depth chart like a chameleon tarantula of some sort.
San Francisco 49ers
Surprise Starter: Quinton Patton, WR
The 49ers were dealt a nasty blow when Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon during OTAs last week. He is easily their best receiver, leaving a void at the position that no other current San Francisco receiver can be expected to fill.
So who will get his starting job?
Newly acquired Anquan Boldin figures to be one of the starters, but competition for his running mate should be fierce. Second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins might be that man, but do not sleep on rookie Quinton Patton.
The Louisiana Tech product might be the most complete receiver left standing, and he could climb the depth charts quickly.
Surprise Starter: Luke Willson, TE
There isn't much room for a "surprise" starter in Seattle, barring injury. There has already been an injury, however, as the Seahawks lost tight end Anthony McCoy to an Achilles injury.
Zach Miller is still the presumptive starter, and his rapport with Russell Wilson seemed to improve late last year. But Luke Willson could intrude on that cushy starting gig for Miller.
Willson was a standout at Seattle's rookie minicamp, and he has some big-time upside at the position. If he has a good preseason, he will be hot on Miller's heels.
St. Louis Rams
Surprise Starter: Brian Quick, WR
The Rams took Brian Quick with their first second-round pick of the 2012 draft, but you wouldn't know it based on the playing time he received as a rookie.
In truth, Quick was a bit raw heading into the pros, and the proof was in the pudding of his developmental rookie year. He should see a dramatic increase in playing time this year.
With Tavon Austin and Jared Cook in town, it's easy to forget Quick is around. He should nab the starting gig opposite Chris Givens.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Surprise Starter: Johnthan Banks, CB
Eric Wright wasn't very good last season. In fact, it's been a pretty steady march downhill for the veteran cornerback since his solid rookie year, at least according to Pro Football Focus ratings (subscription required).
Why the Buccaneers gave him a five-year deal in 2012 is anybody's guess, but they were able to void a big chunk thanks to a four-game suspension last year. Now, he has rookie Johnthan Banks breathing down his neck.
Being that Wright isn't exactly Darrelle Revis, Banks has a decent shot at supplanting the six-year cornerback for the starting gig.
Surprise Starter: Taylor Thompson, TE
The Titans lost Jared Cook to free agency, but they seem to have brought in his replacement in Delanie Walker.
Taylor Thompson might have a say in who gets the starting gig, however. The second-year player does not have the drop issues Walker has displayed through his years in the NFL. He might just have more upside to boot.
Surprise Starter: Leonard Hankerson, WR
Pierre Garcon has the No. 1 receiver gig locked down, assuming he can stay healthy, but the same cannot be said about his teammate in the starting lineup. Josh Morgan is not exactly the best choice, and Santana Moss is getting ready to join the AARP. Aldrick Robinson showed flashes of potential last season, but he will have to prove he can do more than run nine routes if he wants to be a starter.
Meanwhile, Leonard Hankerson is quietly lurking in the weeds in this debate. The third-year player has plenty of upside, but he has a tendency to fight the ball dating back to his college years.
If he can be cured of the dropsies, he will be the most well-rounded receiver the Redskins have on the team.