10 Second-Year NFL Players Primed for Breakout Seasons in 2013
Things don't always click right away for NFL rookies.
Sure, we've seen plenty of players have instant success in an NFL that is increasingly incorporating college football principles into its schemes and game plans, but the increased speed of the game can still create a learning curve.
Thankfully, most draft picks have a grace period of a year or two to get their bearings before coaches and general managers start impatiently checking their watches as they wait for these players to come around.
There are a number of circumstances that could result in last year's rookies becoming this year's breakout candidates. Perhaps a starter left the team, opening up an opportunity for an increased workload. Maybe a new coach introduces a scheme that is a better fit for a specific player's talents. Sometimes, a player starts slow but finishes strong and sets up a scenario where his solid play could carry over.
Some of these 2012 rookies played well and others struggled, but either way, these are some potential breakout players to keep your eye on as the 2013 season approaches.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills
Stephon Gilmore ran with some of the best receivers last year.
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With Darrelle Revis out of the AFC East, the mantle for the division's top cornerback is up for grabs. Jets CB Antonio Cromartie currently holds claim to that (completely arbitrary and utterly meaningless) title, but Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore could make a run for Cromartie with a strong sophomore campaign.
Gilmore had a solid rookie campaign, but not nearly enough credit is given for what he accomplished. He had just one interception but logged 16 pass deflections, which ranked him among the top 10 cornerbacks in the NFL.
Cian Fahey of Pre Snap Reads points out just how underrated Gilmore's rookie season was:
Because of their contrasting levels of notoriety on the national stage, it won’t be a popular move to compare Stephon Gilmore to the Seattle Seahawks’ star cornerback, Richard Sherman. However, not only do Gilmore and Sherman share very similar styles on the field, the quality of Gilmore’s game from his rookie season is enough to separate him from the cluster of cornerbacks who have so far fallen short of Revis and Sherman’s top cornerback tier.
Gilmore will be given the ability to play to his strengths in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme, and the exotic pressure packages will only enhance Gilmore's ability to make plays on the ball.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
Alshon Jeffery had a strong training camp and preseason leading into his rookie year. He caught a touchdown in his first NFL game against the Colts and showed a lot of promise in 2012.
He ranked third in receptions, second in receiving yards and was tied for first in receiving touchdowns among rookies through Week 5, but he injured his hand on his second career touchdown catch and missed the next four games. He came back in Week 10, but he suffered a knee injury against the 49ers and had surgery the next day. He came back yet again in Week 14 and finished out the season on a strong note with a four-catch performance against the Lions in Week 16.
If he can stay healthy, he could make a big impact for the Bears next season. New head coach Marc Trestman already indicated that Jeffery could be a starter, and with the offense likely putting an increased focus on the passing game, that all adds up to a leap from year one to year two for Jeffery.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
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The Miami Dolphins really hope this is the case.
After all, they spent the majority of the offseason and almost the entirety of their 2013 cap space surrounding second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with all the weapons they could find and afford.
He now has a legitimate deep threat in wide receiver Mike Wallace, a proven tight end over the middle in Dustin Keller, another veteran receiver in Brandon Gibson, and his favorite target back from 2012: wide receiver Brian Hartline.
There is some concern, however. Tannehill didn't light up the stat sheet, with 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 58.3 completion percentage, 6.8 yards per pass attempt and a 76.1 passer rating all ranking within the bottom half of starting quarterbacks last season. It wasn't all bad, though, and there were two streaks of four games in which Tannehill did not throw a single interception.
Beyond the stat sheet, though, Tannehill showed the arm, athleticism and mental aptitude to lead an NFL offense. He showed tons of poise as a rookie, particularly when under pressure, and he laid the foundation for a solid second season even with some rough spots.
He flashed the ability to be a consistent quarterback. If he can sustain those flashes, he could be one of the brightest stars of the 2013 season.
Brandon Boykin, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
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Brandon Boykin built a reputation as an explosive athlete and a ball hawk with the Georgia Bulldogs. Not only did he intercept nine career passes—three in each of his final three years—but he added five touchdowns on special teams (four on kick returns, one punt return).
With the hype on those two specific areas of his game, one could say Boykin didn't get off to a great start in the NFL. He put up a doughnut in the interception column, and although he had the third-highest total kickoff returns in the league, he averaged just 23 yards per kick return, the fourth-lowest average among qualifying returners.
There were some positive signs, though. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he allowed completions on 54 percent of throws into his coverage, the best mark among Eagles defensive backs on a team that allowed a pedestrian 60.2 completion percentage overall.
Boykin allowed three touchdowns, but he broke up six passes and was rarely caught out of position. Among a star-studded group that included cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, he often looked the least lost.
He may be looked at as the nickel cornerback behind free-agent signees Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, but that would still make him a starter in today's NFL—specifically in the NFC East, where spread offenses are becoming more prevalent with each passing year.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans
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Whitney Mercilus ranked second among rookies in sacks last year with six, but he didn't get the recognition from either the media or even from his coaching staff. He was only used sparingly as a backup to Conner Barwin, who left the Texans for the Eagles as a free agent this offseason.
In the attacking 3-4 scheme run by Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the front seven's job is to be disruptive and get into the backfield. With defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith setting the edges, linebackers Mercilus and Brooks Reed will have plenty of open space with which to work and should have no problem creating pressure or getting tackles for loss.
With four capable pass-rushers and a steady rotation of gap-plugging nose tackles, the Texans defense figures to get right back to terrorizing quarterbacks as it did in 2012 when it logged 44 sacks as a team.
The Texans defense has been one of the best in the league for a couple of years as a result of its pass rush. Mercilus figures to be a key cog in its pressure scheme in 2013 and beyond.
Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Michael Floyd didn't have the rookie season of first-round wide receivers like Atlanta's Julio Jones or Cincinnati's A.J. Green, but considering the awful quarterback situation in Arizona last year, he should earn a medal of valor for finishing among the top 10 rookies in receptions and receiving yards.
The Cardinals are hoping that situation is remedied with the addition of head coach Bruce Arians and the signing of quarterback Carson Palmer in free agency.
Floyd ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash in the 2012 combine, but he is not known as an elite downfield threat. He may have some value in that role, but his true value is his size.
At 6'3" and 225 pounds, Floyd can cause matchup problems no matter where he lines up. Palmer hasn't struggled on throws outside the numbers of late, and that will be valuable in utilizing that frame to its fullest potential.
Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns
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Take a big-armed quarterback. Add a deep threat. Introduce a vertical offense.
What do you have? Big plays all over the field for the Cleveland Browns.
Of course, much of the notion of Josh Gordon breaking out at wide receiver is tied to Brandon Weeden's ability to play well at quarterback, but Gordon provides a perfect building block for the Browns' new-look offense. Make no mistake: The Browns want to go downfield early and often.
It's hard to replicate Vincent Jackson, who runs a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at 6'5" and 241 pounds, but Gordon's 6'3", 225-pound frame and 4.52-second 40 time is a reasonable facsimile. Jackson emerged in his first and second year with Norv Turner, and Gordon could have similar early success in the system.
Gordon led the team in targets last year with 95, and if the Browns continue to look his way in 2013, it could mean big things for their offense.
Akiem Hicks, DT, New Orleans Saints
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Akiem Hicks was largely seen as a reach in the third round of the 2012 draft. He only played sparingly in his rookie season (14 games, 383 snaps out of a possible 1,159, according to Pro Football Focus [subscription required]) and didn't log a single sack.
Things have changed rather quickly in New Orleans, though, and with a 3-4 scheme on its way, the Saints could be looking to fill two 5-technique defensive end spots. At 6'5" and 318 pounds, Hicks might be the man for the job. He has been working out there this offseason already, according to Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune.
Brodrick Bunkley and Cameron Jordan figure to be the starting ends, while third-round pick John Jenkins should man the nose tackle spot, but Hicks could certainly add value to their defensive line rotation, moving around as needed.
Kendall Reyes, DT, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers drafted Kendall Reyes to be a defensive end in their 3-4 scheme. They have completely turned over their coaching staff, but with John Pagano promoted to defensive coordinator, the 3-4 will still be the alignment of choice.
That means Reyes can continue to build on his strong finish to the 2012 season. In Week 16 against the Jets, Reyes logged 3.5 sacks of quarterback Greg McElroy in what was a huge day for the Chargers front seven as a whole (seven sacks).
On the season, Reyes finished second among 3-4 defensive ends in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing productivity with 21 hurries, seven hits and five total sacks (half-sacks counted as full sacks).
Reyes had some trouble at times against the run, but the run was the least of San Diego's problems, as they allowed just 3.8 yards per carry on defense.
With Reyes, Corey Liuget and Cam Thomas, the Chargers have a solid starting trio of defensive linemen. If Reyes continues to build off his strong 2012, he could be the breakout candidate of the group.
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants
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The Giants backfield has changed dramatically in recent years, and with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both gone, the opportunity is ripe for a young back to take the reins.
Enter David Wilson, who averaged over five yards per carry but had just 71 carries total while working in relief for Bradshaw. Wilson earned the majority of his workload in the final six games of the season, when several foot and knee injuries hampered Bradshaw down the stretch. In that time, Wilson totaled 43 carries for 247 yards (5.7 YPA) and three rushing touchdowns.
He added another two touchdowns in that span: one receiving and one on a kickoff return.
Wilson built a great deal of momentum at the end of the 2012 season, even though he didn't have many opportunities at the beginning. Now that the path is clear, there's no reason Wilson can't become a top back in 2013.