Potential Breakout NFL Stars Nobody Is Talking About
Look at last season for a second. It can easily be stated that not many people expected Alfred Morris to finish among the top rushers in the NFL or both Bobby Wagner and Casey Hayward to contend for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
First-year starters at the quarterback position represented 25 percent of those under center when the playoffs rolled around.
Such is the nature of the NFL, and 2013 promises to be no different.
There will be certain stars who break out big time. They'll catch the football world by surprise and show everyone why their team valued them in the first place.
Here is a list of 13 potential breakout stars heading into the 2013 season.
Derek Wolfe, Defensive End, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos caught a lot of people off guard when they selected defensive lineman Derek Wolfe early in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. There were other "sexier" options available at the time, but vice president John Elway knew what he was doing.
Wolfe ended up starting out of the gate as a rookie and made his presence known immediately. He recorded six sacks and started all 16 games.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wolfe ranked ninth among all 4-3 defensive ends against the run.
That's the type of production that is worthy of a second-round pick.
The Cincinnati product now looks to build off his strong rookie campaign and take his game to the next level. He is slated to start at left defensive end opposite Robert Ayers.
T.Y. Hilton, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts made a point of getting talented skill position players to team up with Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL draft.
After selecting tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the second and third rounds, respectively, general manager Ryan Grigson yielded a mid-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers in order to trade up in the third round and select wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.
The Florida International product wasn't on the radar of casual draft fans, but he did catch the eye of the scouting community during offseason workouts. This enabled him to be selected on Day 2.
Hilton didn't disappoint.
He recorded 50 receptions for nearly 900 yards and averaged 17.2 yards per catch as a rookie in 2012. Hilton also added seven touchdowns, which ranked him first on the club.
Hilton is now fully entrenched as the starter opposite Reggie Wayne entering the 2013 season. An increase from the 5.9 targets per game he saw last season can be expected (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
Using simple math, there is no reason why Hilton can't flirt with 1,200 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns.
That makes him a potential breakout candidate.
Cecil Shorts, Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
Cecil Shorts is yet another young wide receiver who impressed a great deal last season. Despite being forced to catch passes from Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert, the former fourth-round pick racked up nearly 1,000 receiving yards and led the Jaguars with seven touchdown receptions.
This came on the heels of Shorts failing to impress during his rookie season. He recorded just two receptions in 10 games back in 2012.
Considering that Shorts ran a limited route tree at Mount Union, a rather large learning curve had to be expected. These route-running issues appear to be fully behind Shorts now.
As Jacksonville's unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver, I fully expect Shorts to break the 1,000-yard plateau in his third NFL season.
He will, however, need to fix issues as they relate to dropped passes. Shorts let nine of the 101 targets he received last season slip through his hands (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
Once he is able to learn how to consistently catch the ball, the sky is the limit.
Zach Brown, Linebacker, Tennessee Titans
It was readily apparent that the Tennessee Titans were prepared to take on a bit of a project when they made linebacker Zach Brown a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Despite ridiculous sideline-to-sideline speed, Brown lacked the field awareness and anticipatory skills to be a quality starter early during his rookie campaign.
He did, however, come on really strong towards the latter part of the 2012 season.
Brown recorded two interceptions in a Week 17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars and averaged over five tackles per outing in his final eight games. In addition, he provided 4.5 sacks during that span.
With an entire offseason under his belt, you can expect Brown to enter this upcoming season fully prepared to dominate along the middle of Tennessee's defense.
He is currently slated to start on the weak side with Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers filling out the linebacker corps. Now that's a mighty fine young trio right there.
Expect big things from him in 2013.
Giovani Bernard, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals
Probably my favorite all-around running back in the 2013 NFL draft, Giovani Bernard finds himself in a perfect situation with Cincinnati.
He will compete with incumbent BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the starting gig in training camp. Without getting into too much detail as to why I am not a huge fan of Green-Ellis, let's take a little bit of a look at what he doesn't bring to the table.
Green-Ellis averaged less than four yards per rush last season. Dating back to mid-November 2011, he is averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per attempt (via Pro Football Reference).
That's not exactly what you'd call getting it done.
Bernard, on the other hand, was dominant in two seasons at North Carolina. He put up in excess of 3,000 total yards and 33 touchdowns, two of which were punt returns, during that span.
When drawing a conclusion about whether a prospect can act as a three-down running back in the NFL, it is important to look at all facets of the game.
In addition to dominating ACC defenses on the ground, Bernard caught 92 balls over two seasons at Chapel Hill. This indicates that he'll help quarterback Andy Dalton a great deal through the air. Bernard also comes in as one of the better pass-protecting running backs in the draft.
I can easily envision a scenario where Bernard beats out Green-Ellis in training camp and sees an average of 20 touches per game. If that happens, we could be looking at Doug Martin-like production here.
Josh Gordon, Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland surprised a lot of people last summer by exhausting a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on former Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon.
As many of you already know, most prospects who decide to enter the supplemental draft are facing off-field issues.
Gordon was no different.
He was dismissed from Baylor's football team prior to the 2011 season and made the decision to chance being a rare player selected in the supplemental draft (via NFL.com).
All things considered, it's highly unlikely that Gordon would have been available with Cleveland's second-round pick in April's draft—the selection it gave up to get him last summer.
After all, how many receivers from this draft class can you conceivably see topping the 800-yard plateau like Gordon did last year?
Gordon is now considered the Browns true No. 1 wide receiver entering his sophomore season and should improve a great deal statistically. He was able to go through his first full offseason as an NFL player, which is going to be huge entering 2013.
Due to a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, Gordon has been suspended for the first two games of the upcoming season. While this will hamper his production slightly, look for something to the tune of 60-to-70 receptions for over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Cortez Allen, Cornerback, Pittsburgh Steelers
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cortez Allen ranked No. 14 among all NFL cornerbacks in coverage this past season. That's simply insane considering that the former fourth-round pick started only three games.
Fast forward a year and it looks like Allen has worked his way into a starting gig for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was their best all-around defensive back as a sophomore in 2012 and will improve with another offseason of work.
According to Pittsburgh's official website, Allen is slated to be the starting left cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. Moving forward, he projects to take over for Taylor as the team's No. 1 corner.
That's a mighty high climb for a young player from The Citadel, which is not exactly a college football powerhouse.
Lamar Miller, Running Back, Miami Dolphins
NFL draft experts are still in shock that running back Lamar Miller fell to the Miami Dolphins in the fourth round last year. He had long been considered one of the best prospects at that position and a likely early second-day pick.
Miller's dramatic fall in the draft helped Miami a great deal.
By the end of his rookie season, Miller had overtaken Daniel Thomas as Miami's primary backup to Reggie Bush. He averaged seven rush attempts and 35 yards in his final three games. While not great in terms of statistics, Miller showed enough for Miami to be able to let Bush walk in free agency.
Miller is now fully entrenched in as Miami's starting running back. Its additions of blocking types such as Evan Rodriguez and Dion Sims will definitely help Miller live up to rather lofty expectations.
Extrapolated over the course of a 16-game schedule with just 15 rush attempts per outing, Miller could easily be looking at 1,200 rushing yards and six or seven touchdowns.
Demario Davis, Linebacker, New York Jets
Demario Davis was more than ready to start as a rookie last season. He displayed flashes of brilliance from the inside linebacker position and projects to be a Pro Bowl performer moving forward.
He recorded 23 tackles in just three starts as a spot player in 2012.
That role will change this upcoming season. Davis is already slated to start at left inside linebacker next to David Harris in the Jets' 3-4 defensive scheme. He couldn't ask for a better tutor to teach him the nuances of playing inside in the NFL.
While Davis did fly under the radar last season, especially with fellow rookies Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly acquiring most of the media attention, he might very well be one of the biggest steals from the 2012 draft class.
Expect big things in 2013.
Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals
The NFL is an interesting monster. Arizona exhausted a first-round pick in the 2012 draft on Michael Floyd. It was attempting to find a solid complementary wide receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald.
Little did the Cardinals know that the answer might have already been on the roster.
Andre Roberts, a third-round pick in 2010, has seen all of his major receiving numbers steadily climb in each of his first three seasons in the desert. He topped out with 759 receiving yards and five touchdowns this past season.
Interestingly enough, Roberts recorded more receptions for more yards and with more touchdowns than Floyd last season. He is now slated to start over the more "popular" young receiver, and for good reason.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Roberts yielded the highest catch percentage of any Cardinals receiver in 2012. Give him more targets, and he will likely break the 1,000-yard plateau.
Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears
Our very own Matt Miller received lot of criticism from readers by indicating that Alshon Jeffery was his top wide receiver in the 2012 NFL draft.
Despite injuries, Jeffery seemed to prove Bleacher Report's lead dog right.
The South Carolina product recorded 24 receptions for 367 yards and three scores in 10 games (six starts) as a rookie.
He also displayed the athletic ability that made a lot of experts fall in love with him prior to the 2012 draft. Jeffery will not struggle getting off the line against press coverage and has the size as well as the strength to dominate smaller defensive backs on the outside.
You can expect an increased role for Jeffery in Marc Trestman's new offensive scheme. The targets will be there for Jeffery to shine opposite Brandon Marshall, and I fully expect him to do so.
Chicago's decision to trade up in the second round for Jeffery doesn't look too shabby now. Finally, general manager Phil Emery seems to have produced an in-house receiver with an exceptional future.
Tyrone Crawford, Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys
Defensive end Tyrone Crawford played well as a rookie in 2012. While it won't show up in his state line, the Boise State product was one of the Cowboys' best defensive linemen.
He was stout against the run, which enabled Dallas to get pressure from oncoming pass-rushers from the outside.
Crawford's role will likely change in the Cowboys' new defensive scheme, but you can fully expect new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to utilize him in the best possible manner. That could even mean splitting time with Anthony Spencer opposite DeMarcus Ware.
Rueben Randle, Wide Receiver, New York Giants
At 6'3", 210 pounds, Rueben Randle is a mismatch waiting to happen on the outside. He can go up and get the ball with a best of them and doesn't struggle using his frame to fend off defensive backs.
This is what made Randle such a stud at LSU. It's also one of the primary reasons that the Giants spent a second-round pick on him.
Randle only started one game last season, but he did record 19 receptions and score three touchdowns. He'll be asked to take on an added role in 2013 as the Giants' No. 3 wide receiver after Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
This indicates that Randle should average much more than the two targets he saw per game last year. Moving forward, Randle projects to be a longtime starter for New York. Both Cruz and Nicks are set to become free agents in the not-so-distant future, and the Giants are unlikely to be able to retain both of them.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.
Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.
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