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NFL's Breakout Candidates at Every Position for 2013

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystJuly 16, 2013

NFL's Breakout Candidates at Every Position for 2013

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    Every year there are players at each position who make a significant jump in production from the year prior. While rookies are always an unknown, these breakout performers have at least a year of NFL experience under their belts before they burst onto the NFL scene and become household names.

    Typically, there are a couple players at each position who break out each year. Sometimes these players are on the cusp of greatness, while others come out of nowhere to take the league by storm.

    The players who come out of nowhere to become NFL stars are virtually impossible to predict, as are any of the specialists, like punters, kickers and returners, which is why they won’t be included on the following list.

    However, there is at least one player at each position we can peg as a legitimate breakout candidate in 2013. Some of the players on the list have been highly touted all offseason, while others are still operating in the NFL shadows.

QB Ryan Tannehill

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    Pegging a breakout quarterback is difficult because there were so many good rookie quarterbacks last year. As is usually the case, not many veterans can be expected to break out, so that leaves us with a small pool of potential candidates.

    However, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a great candidate to have a big season in 2013. Not only was Tannehill the third quarterback taken in a strong 2012 NFL draft class, he also had a solid rookie campaign.

    In total, Tannehill completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That’s not bad for a rookie by normal standards.

    Tannehill’s rookie season compares in some ways to that of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, except he didn’t have a receiver like Roddy White or a running back like then-28-year-old Michael Turner to bail him out.

    The Dolphins spent considerable resources to bring in free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, and it’s now up to Tannehill to make the most of the situation. If Tannehill joins the list of top quarterbacks, he’ll have an opportunity to save the jobs of the front office members who drafted him.

RB Lamar Miller

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    Running back Lamar Miller enters his second year in Miami, just like Tannehill, as the presumptive starter who should also take a giant leap forward. Last season, running back Reggie Bush was the top runner in Miami, but he’s now in Detroit, and Miller is an immensely talented running back who is the primary contender to start for the Dolphins in 2013.

    Miller is talented—much more talented than his 4.9 yards-per-carry average showed last year. Miller had just 51 carries for 250 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season in 2012, but he has very real breakout potential after training with running back Frank Gore during the offseason.

    Unlike some of the other breakout candidates, Miller has a clear path to carries in Miami. Talented players like Bernard Pierce and Ben Tate are stuck behind strong No. 1 running backs, while others—like Chris Ivory—may end up splitting carries. Miller should see the bulk of the rushing load, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t perform.

FB Marcel Reece

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    Fullback is a dying position in the NFL, and Raiders fullback Marcel Reece is one of the few who remain heavily involved in a team’s offense.

    Reece is already one of the most productive fullbacks in the NFL, so how can he be a breakout candidate?

    The Raiders don’t have a proven weapon at tight end, and new quarterback Matt Flynn is going to need a reliable player to catch passes on third down. It makes sense for the Raiders to keep Reece on the field as much as possible, which means using more two-back personnel sets.

    It’s entirely possible the Raiders may use two running backs and three wide receivers with no tight ends (20 personnel) instead of the popular personnel grouping that involves one running back and one tight end (11 personnel).

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Reece was targeted 57 times in 2012, 16 more times than any other fullback, but Oakland’s tight end last year—Brandon Myers—was targeted 101 times, and only three tight ends were targeted more. That’s a lot of targets to divvy up, and Reece is the most logical beneficiary.

    The Raiders also don’t have a lot of talent, but Reece is a matchup nightmare for linebackers. Figuring out how to keep Reece on the field more than 60 percent of the time and giving him more opportunities just makes sense.

    New offensive coordinator Greg Olson was profuse in his praise for Reece upon being hired by the Raiders. Olson praised Reece’s ability to run and lead block, as well as his skills as a receiver, via Steve Corkran of ibabuzz.com:

    He does have tremendous speed. He has very good hands. He has loose hips. He can run some of those option, choice routes that are matchup nightmares for defensive players.

    Option routes are often run by the tight end, and if Olson is serious about adjusting the offense to his players, giving Reece more opportunities only makes sense. More opportunities should translate to big-time production from Reece and a breakout year that makes him a household name.

WR Danny Amendola

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    The New England Patriots have lost or chosen not to re-sign a lot of offensive talent this offseason. In total, the Patriots have lost 301 of the 402 receptions they had last year (75 percent) and 3,414 of 4,844 yards (71 percent).

    To replace all that production, the Patriots are going to lean heavily on wide receiver Danny Amendola, who has missed 22 games in his four-year NFL career. Amendola will now draw the impossible task of trying to replace wide receiver Wes Welker and more in the Patriots offense.

    While Amendola will fail to replace all the production the Patriots have lost, you can bet on a highly productive season if only he can stay healthy. With Tom Brady throwing him the ball, Amendola should put up monster numbers.

    If you exclude games in Week 5 and 12 in which Amendola barely played, he was on pace for roughly 108 receptions for 1,038 yards last season. He should see a healthy increase across the board and be among the league leaders in receptions and yards.

TE Jake Ballard

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    At some point, the Patriots are going to have to lean on their No. 2 tight end. Rob Gronkowski is far from a lock to be or remain healthy in 2013, and there are additional question marks at wide receiver.

    The Patriots have seemingly stockpiled tight ends, so they are at least prepared for their need. Jake Ballard is penciled in as the team’s No. 2 tight end and should have a big year as part of the Patriots offense.

    Ballard had 38 receptions for 604 yards with the New York Giants in 2011, with four touchdowns in 11 games. Although Ballard isn’t considered a total replacement for tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was as much a wide receiver as he was a tight end, he is still quite capable.

    Amendola and Gronkowski will consistently draw coverage away from Ballard, or he will receive more targets because of injuries. In either case, Ballard should be expected to have a breakout year.

OL Jonathan Martin

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    It’s pretty tough for an offensive lineman to have a breakout year. Offensive linemen are either great right away or incrementally improve each year; you just don’t seem to see huge leaps.

    However, no team needs its left tackle to make a huge leap more than the Miami Dolphins. Jonathan Martin is going to be an unpopular choice to break out in 2013, but you might say a breakout is relative in this case.

    Typically speaking, a breakout is when a player becomes one of the best players at his position. In this case, we are merely talking about Martin making the leap from bad to above-average. This is still a breakout, even if Martin isn’t playing like Joe Thomas.

    Martin has plenty of ability, and a lot of his problems in 2012 appeared to be correctable. The team knows how much is riding on Martin, and it is undoubtedly going to give him extra attention during training camp.

    The hope is that Martin can make adjustments and have the type of breakout season the Dolphins need out of him. Don’t count Martin out headed into his second year.

4-3 DE Carlos Dunlap

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    The Cincinnati Bengals gave defensive end Carlos Dunlap a five-year, $40 million extension Monday, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The big contract comes despite the fact that Dunlap has yet to play a full season or record 10 sacks, but both could change in 2013.

    With a big contract come big expectations for Dunlap; he needs to produce big numbers off the edge, or the Bengals may look a little foolish for handing him $20 million over the next two seasons. The Bengals obviously feel comfortable that Dunlap’s play will justify the contract extension—as they should.

    At 6’6” and 280 pounds, Dunlap is a physical freak. Entering his fourth season and still just 24 years old, Dunlap should be able to destroy opposing offensive lines for years to come. The Bengals’ defensive front is loaded with talent, so opposing teams can’t even slide protection his way.

    Expect Dunlap to justify his contract in a big way with upwards of 12 sacks in 2013.

3-4 DE Kendall Reyes

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    For whatever reason, the 2012 San Diego Chargers took their time giving Kendall Reyes all the snaps at defensive end. Why it took so long is a mystery, because Reyes was clearly superior to Vaughn Martin as a player.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Reyes played just a shade over 50 percent of the snaps in 2012. That’s an absurdly low percentage of snaps for a rookie, and it’s highly unlikely the Chargers will be able to keep him off the field in 2013.

    Although all of his 5.5 sacks came in two games, with 3.5 against the New York Jets in a game that drastically skewed pass-rushing statistics, Reyes did bring down Peyton Manning twice in the other. Manning averaged just 1.3 sacks per game, so Reyes clearly was doing good work.

    Expect Reyes and Corey Liuget to form one of the best 3-4 defensive end combos in the league. The duo, along with the addition of pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, gives the Chargers some hope that their defense might be able to get after the quarterback in 2013.

DT Nick Fairley

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    Another player who played an absurdly low number of snaps in 2012 was defensive end Nick Fairley. Ndamukong Suh—who plays next to Fairly at defensive tackle in Detroit—played 399 more snaps last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    You could blame conditioning, because defensive tackles do need rest from time to time, but that doesn’t explain why he played 50 or more snaps five times and 30 or fewer snaps five times in 2013.

    The Lions may have finally realized they could only benefit by keeping Fairley on the field, as he didn’t play fewer than 60 percent of the snaps from Week 10 until he was injured in Week 14. Fairly also played 80 percent of the snaps against the pass-heavy Green Bay Packers and 79.3 percent of the snaps against the run-heavy Houston Texans in back-to-back weeks, indicating he’s not just a specialist.

    As far as production, Fairley was one of the best in the league when he was on the field. However, that production hasn’t translated into sacks, as he has just 6.5 sacks in 23 career games. But it’s just a matter of time before he’s pushing 10 sacks every season. Expect that to start in 2013.

3-4 OLB Junior Galette or Martez Wilson

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    I’m going to call this the either/or breakout season position. Either Junior Galette or Martez Wilson will break out at outside linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, but probably not both.

    Galette registered 5.0 sacks in 12 games as a 4-3 defensive end in 2012, while Wilson registered 3.0 sacks in 16 games at defensive end. With outside linebacker Victor Butler out with a torn ACL, one of Galette or Wilson will have to step up for the Saints.

    If the Saints thought both Galette and Wilson were poised for a breakout season, they probably would have never signed Butler. However, both are still young enough that a breakout seems possible, and Rob Ryan is known for letting a player or two pin their ears back to go after the quarterback on just about every play. It would make sense that, given ample opportunity, one of these two players will put up big numbers.

    The Saints defense was terrible in 2012, but Galette and Wilson were two of the bright spots. With more production, Galette and Wilson could become the kind of playmakers the Saints can build their defense around.

4-3 OLB Zach Brown

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    The job of the 4-3 outside linebacker isn’t a glamorous one unless you are Von Miller. Their job is to tackle and cover, and more often than not the bad plays overshadow the good plays.

    Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Zach Brown had a solid rookie campaign and is due for a breakout season in 2013. What that means statistically is tough to say. Traditionally, 100 tackles is a marker, and Brown narrowly missed that last season.

    Brown is also a good cover linebacker with great speed, and he had three interceptions and five passes defensed in 2012, returning two of the interceptions for touchdowns. Brown has already been piling up statistics, and all he really needs to do is get better against the run.

    National recognition can be a little harder to come by in Tennessee, but Brown can force the issue with a great season in 2013.

MLB Nick Roach

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    Middle linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense. The Oakland Raiders lacked a true middle linebacker and leader on defense last year, so they went out and nabbed Nick Roach from the Chicago Bears.

    Roach takes over a role that outside linebacker Philip Wheeler held last season after middle linebacker Rolando McClain was stripped of play-calling duties and pulled off the field on third downs. Wheeler was highly productive in 2012 and turned that into a lucrative contract with the Miami Dolphins.

    As the middle linebacker in Oakland, Roach will lead veterans like safety Charles Woodson, cornerback Tracy Porter and linebacker Kevin Burnett, along with rookies like linebacker Sio Moore and cornerback D.J. Hayden.

    The Raiders turned over nine of their starters on defense, and Roach will be a big part of making sure all the new players come together. A big year for Roach means a chance for the Raiders to win more than the four games they won in 2012.

CB Stephon Gilmore

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    Penalties hurt cornerback Stephon Gilmore during his rookie year in 2012, but the talent was undeniable. If Gilmore can eliminate penalties and develop consistency in Year 2, he has a chance to be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL.

    Among the highlights of Gilmore’s season were solid games against quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Overall, Gilmore’s worst games in coverage came early in the year, which may indicate that things were starting to click for the rookie late in the season.

    Gilmore didn’t allow a touchdown after Week 5, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but he also intercepted only one pass all season. If Gilmore is going to be an elite cornerback in the NFL, he’s going to have to take a few more chances and get his hands on more footballs.

    A breakout seems likely for Gilmore if he can improve in any or all of the aforementioned areas. All of the areas appear to be things that young cornerbacks would naturally be able to improve over time.

S Harrison Smith

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    Lost in the hubbub about running back Adrian Peterson’s great year and how he carried quarterback Christian Ponder and the Vikings to the playoffs was the play of rookie safety Harrison Smith.

    Smith was one of the best cover safeties in the league as a rookie, and he wasn’t horrible in run support. Smith actually had 104 total tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed in 2012. Smith also returned two of the interceptions for touchdowns, forced a fumble and had a sack.

    You could make a case that Smith had his breakout season as a rookie, but he’s not quite at the level of Eric Weddle and Jairus Byrd. Smith isn’t yet considered a star, but he’s well on his way.

    If Smith can replicate and build upon the season he had in 2012, he deserves to be talked about as one of the best safeties in the game. A breakout campaign for Smith would include all the plays he made in 2012, but also a bit more consistency.

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