Predicting the Most Improved NFL Player at Every Position for 2013
Everyone has a bad day, right?
Whether it's a case of the Mondays, waking up on the wrong side of the bed or someone doing something foul to one's corn flakes, some days just make us want to crawl back into bed and get a head start on the next day.
How about a bad year?
For NFL players, a bad year can be the end of a career. Two bad years in a row could mean millions of dollars down the drain and the end of a lifetime full of dreams. For NFL players coming off of a bad 2012, it's important to keep the proverbial nose to the rhetorical grindstone and make sure that 2013 is a step in the right direction.
This list is full of players who had years that either could've been better or were downright dreadful. Not every player was terrible in 2012, but each could stand to improve dramatically in the coming season. To that point, special teamers have been left off the list because their performances from year to year can be impossible to predict.
Some players will flourish in new systems and locations. Others have help arriving that should make their lives easier. Still others are just too talented to stay down for long.
If I've missed any players you believe are due for a bounce-back in 2013, leave your choices in the comments below.
Quarterback: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is a perfect example of a player who didn't exactly have a rough year last season but could be in for a big boost in performance.
While he led his team to the playoffs just a few months after they made him the No. 1 overall pick, he struggled under now-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians' scheme and threw too many interceptions (18) to be comfortable with moving forward.
Yet, Luck is going into next year with his college offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, joining the Colts as his new play-caller, and he could be in for the polar opposite of a sophomore slump. He could easily end up as a legitimate MVP candidate.
Runner-Up: Ryan Tannehill (QB Miami Dolphins)
Running Back: Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders flirted with the zone-blocking scheme last season, and running back Darren McFadden looked lost for much of the year. He averaged under 60 rushing yards per game and had just two touchdowns on the ground.
It didn't help that the linemen were terrible fits, nor that the passing game didn't do a great job at keeping the defenders out of the box. Still, those are minor excuses for McFadden, who is already excited for the return to traditional power running.
Runner-Up: Mikel Leshoure (RB Detroit Lions)
Wide Receiver: Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith sealed a pretty decent year when he, you know, won a Super Bowl. Still, Smith's 855 yards and eight touchdowns were nothing to write home about for a supposed No. 1 receiver.
But Smith made strides in 2012 as both a route-runner and an all-around receiving threat last season—strides that should continue into his third season. He's uber-athletic, and the Ravens are betting a lot on his emergence. Odds are big on a breakout season, as quarterback Joe Flacco will be all but forced to utilize Smith as his initial read on almost every passing play.
Runner-Up: Alshon Jeffery (WR Chicago Bears)
Tight End: Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams
Whatever one's personal thoughts might be on St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, take a long hard look at Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and realize that Bradford is head, shoulders, torso and thighs above the passer that new Rams tight end Jared Cook has had to deal with for the past couple of seasons.
Now, in St. Louis, Cook will be part of an offense that actually desires to pass the ball with regularity and has invested in the personnel to do so. He'll be a walking mismatch for the Rams offense and will get looks early and often from Bradford, who has never had as dependable a tight end with so much athleticism.
Runner-Up: Jermaine Gresham (TE Cincinnati Bengals)
Fullback: James Casey, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles fullback/tight end James Casey has been a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the Houston Texans over the years, but his role never developed into as much of a factor as he or the Texans seemed to desire.
Now with the Eagles and head coach Chip Kelly, Casey can be used to his full potential as a multi-tool who will line up in a number of positions in no-huddle situations and give defenses fits.
Runner-Up: Charles Clay (FB/H-back/TE Miami Dolphins)
Offensive Lineman: Gabe Carimi, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Chicago Bears gave up on offensive tackle Gabe Carimi too soon. Facing pressure from fans to better protect Jay Cutler, the Bears never gave Carimi much more than a season of actual playing time and only one legitimate offseason (due to the previous year's lockout) to better himself. Their loss will be a gain for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In Tampa, Carimi will reunite with his college position coach and be given a chance to win the right tackle position outright.
Runner-Up: Jake Long (OT St. Louis Rams)
Defensive Tackle: Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
The narrative around Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe is a familiar one: a lineman no one has heard of blows up the combine with a ridiculous 40-yard dash time, gets overdrafted and doesn't play well.
Only, that last part didn't really happen. People who try to pretend Poe didn't play well in 2013 usually use stats and forget to mention that interior linemen don't have to accumulate a lot of stats to impact a game.
The truth is, Poe made tremendous leaps and bounds in his rookie season and is in for a huge leap again in his second year. The more the Chiefs use him as a single-gap-penetrating havoc-creator, the more damage he will do in the AFC West.
Runner-Up: Tyson Alualu (DT/DE Jacksonville Jaguars)
Defensive End: Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
There aren't many players who have had as troubled a start to their NFL career as Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.
Remember, this kid was not only a 5-star recruit to Southern California; he was the top defensive end in the nation. Then, various incidents at USC and lackluster development dropped him to the fourth round on draft day. In 2011, the problems continued, as Griffen was arrested twice in three days.
Now, it seems Griffen is growing up. He's also maturing as a player, becoming a valuable part of the Vikings' defensive line rotation and connecting with the quarterback when given the opportunity. He essentially doubled his 2011 stat output in the 2012 season, even though he has still only started one game in his career.
As the Vikings continue to build out that rotation, Griffen will see more of those opportunities come his way in 2013.
Runner-Up: Mario Williams (DE Buffalo Bills)
Outside Linebacker: Zach Brown, Tennessee Titans
It wasn't too long ago that I would've put San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram in this slot, but a torn ACL will delay his chances at an improved season. So, Tennessee Titans linebacker Zach Brown gets the nod here, as he continues to put his elite athleticism through an NFL trial by fire.
Before being drafted, Brown dealt with lots of justified criticism about his ability to take on blocks and withstand the physical rigors of NFL play. Now that he's in the league, Brown has shown he's willing to grow as a player. He proved his well-roundedness in 2012, tallying 5.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
New Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has reportedly ushered in an attitude adjustment for a defense that last year allowed 471 points. With another step forward in 2013 and an improved overall defense surrounding him, Brown will start making a lot of his former critics look pretty foolish.
Runner-Up: Brooks Reed (OLB Houston Texans)
Inside Linebacker: Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions
In 2012, Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch missed 19 tackles, via Pro Football Focus (paid link). That total is bigger in one season than the missed tackles of his previous two seasons combined.
A big part of the problem was that the Lions defense asked Tulloch to be a much bigger part of the passing defense than years past. They needed him to be in absence of competent defensive backs.
Moving forward, Tulloch should be able to get back to his roots as a hard-hitting middle linebacker. At 28, he still has more than enough athleticism for the position and has a great defensive line in front of him to keep blockers occupied. Last season should reveal itself as an aberration in an otherwise fine career.
Runner-Up: Dan Connor (ILB New York Giants)
Cornerback: Cortland Finnegan, St. Louis Rams
Speaking of aberrations, St. Louis Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan came to his new home in 2012 and promptly fizzled out, playing far behind his normal level of play.
However, much of that was due to an offense that couldn't sustain drives—and thus, kept Finnegan on the field—and also a defense that couldn't keep the run game down.
At times, Finnegan was more of an extra safety in run support than a cornerback. As the Rams front seven (and the offense) continues to improve, he should have more freedom to roam in pass coverage and strike terror into the hearts of NFC West quarterbacks.
Runner-Up: Josh Norman (CB Carolina Panthers)
Safety: Nate Allen, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles thrust safety Nate Allen into the starting lineup far too early in his career, placing him out there with little help around him.
While he had an up-and-down first couple of years to his career, 2012 was mostly down, as opponents picked on him early and often. The Eagles were mostly a laughing stock en route to the fourth overall pick rather than the playoffs.
Heading into this season with head coach Chip Kelly at the helm and new defensive coordinator Billy Davis, Allen will get the chance to do what he does best: play in the middle of the field. With his ball skills and athleticism, look for Allen to take a huge step forward in 2013 and beyond.
Runner-Up: Chris Conte (FS Chicago Bears)
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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