Very few players in the NFL develop into superstars right out of the gate. Some players never even play well enough to become starters, while others slowly mature into household names. With the average life expectancy in the NFL at three-and-a-half years, it’s hard to tell who will last in the league and who won’t.
Yet that doesn’t mean a well-informed fan doesn’t know who some of the up-and-comers are on a year-to-year basis. Advanced analytics, game film and league insiders have helped expand the knowledge base of NFL observers. People who are interested in the game no longer have to rely on their local newspaper or broadcast television.
They can empower themselves and draw their own conclusions. With the help of advanced analytics and game film, I broke down 10 under-the-radar players who could become big names during training camp in 2013.
Let’s take a look.
In an effort to relieve All-Pro running back Steven Jackson, the St. Louis Rams drafted two running backs in last year's draft. They selected Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead in the second round and Abilene Christian's Daryl Richardson in the seventh round.
Prior to the 2012 season, Pead was the favorite to spell Jackson because of his draft status. But Richardson wasn't going to go down without a fight. During the preseason, he made the most of every opportunity. He rushed for 126 yards on 31 carries and scored one touchdown.
Moreover, he showed the coaching staff that his knowledge of the playbook was extensive. Head coach Jeff Fisher had no choice but to name him the No. 2 back going into the season. Richardson didn't disappoint. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 98 attempts and broke off four 20-plus-yard runs.
His outstanding play from a year ago makes him a breakout candidate in 2013. He's currently entrenched as the Rams' starting running back, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has complete trust in the second-year player. Even when Richardson would screw up as a rookie, Schottenheimer would throw him back into the fire.
Don't let his small frame fool you. The 196-pound bruiser can make tacklers miss and pick up plenty of yards after contact. Expect Richardson to further distance himself from the rest of St. Louis running back corps during training camp.
Fans and media members alike love to shower wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz with all of the praise in the Giants' aerial assault. However, there's a second-year wideout who proved toward the end of the 2012 season that he is ready to shoulder some of the load in New York.
After a slow start to his career, Rueben Randle took his play to a whole new level against the Ravens and the Eagles. In Weeks 16 and 17, he combined for 101 yards receiving, caught five passes on eight targets and scored two touchdowns.
Both of his touchdowns during that two-week span came against the Eagles. He beat strong safety Colt Anderson from three yards out on the first drive of the game. On the very next possession, Eli Manning delivered a 38-yard strike down the left sideline. Randle made the catch and torched Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the process.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride praised Randle all throughout OTAs. According to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, Gilbride called Randle "the bell cow" of the wide receiving corps and made it clear that he would see extended playing time come fall.
He may not be a well-known name yet, but Randle will be after he dominates the competition during the preseason.
After a surprisingly superior season in 2011, tight end Jake Ballard spent all of the 2012 season on injured reserve. While playing in the Super Bowl with the New York Giants, Ballard suffered a torn ACL toward the end of the game.
The Giants waived Ballard on June 11, 2012. They were hoping to waive him and stash him on injured reserve, but things didn't go as planned for New York. The Patriots swooped in and claimed him off of waivers, and they placed him on the PUP list after they claimed him. New England never activated him from the PUP, which meant his season came to an end on November 29, 2012.
This, in turn, has given him plenty of time to recover from a bothersome left knee—and it couldn't have come at a better time. With Aaron Hernandez in federal prison, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be counting on Ballard to step up in 2013.
One shouldn't expect the 25-year-old undrafted free agent to put up Hernandez-esque numbers, but he could see plenty of snaps as an in-line tight end. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald says the Patriots have high hopes for the fourth-year tight end.
If he proves his knee is 100 percent, Ballard should have no problem contributing to New England's offense on a weekly basis. Let's not forget, he was the 11th-best pass-catching tight end in 2011 based on Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) grading system.
The most notable big-name cornerbacks seemingly get all of the buzz. Even though Richard Sherman, Charles Tillman and Antoine Winfield warrant the hype, there are plenty of under-the-radar players who have similar skill sets but get no play.
One of those guys is Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen. Allen is a fourth-round pick out of The Citadel who played extremely well last year in limited snaps. Despite the fact Allen only logged 563 snaps in 2012, he turned some heads because he made every snap count.
At the end of the 2012 season, opposing quarterbacks finished with a 68.5 quarterback rating when throwing his way. Additionally, opposing quarterbacks had a tough time completing passes on Allen. He only surrendered 45 completions on 77 targets. His longest reception allowed was a 31-yarder against Anquan Boldin of the Baltimore Ravens. (Advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus, subscription required.)
Allen's strong coverage numbers put him on the map last season, but that's simply not good enough. He's looking to have a breakout campaign in 2013. For the first time in his career, he will open the season as Pittsburgh's starting left cornerback.
Moreover, Allen will look to become the first Steelers cornerback to earn a Pro Bowl selection since Rod Woodson. Woodson earned a trip to Hawaii after an outstanding statistical season in 1996. The third-year corner knows the task won't be easy, but he is confident in his ability.
Allen told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I think I've shown an ability to make plays in the defensive system."
When left guard John Greco was drafted in the third round out of Toledo in 2008, St. Louis had high hopes for the 320-pound road grader. Sadly, Greco was never able to stay healthy during his tenure with the Rams. He had wrist problems early in his career, and then he fell out of favor with former head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Prior to the 2011 season, the Rams traded him to the Browns for a conditional seventh-round pick. Greco didn't see a lot of playing time in 2011, but he exploded onto the scene in 2012. He started 10 games at left guard and appeared in 13 games total.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him out as the seventh-best run-blocking guard in the league. When Cleveland rushed the ball between the left guard and the center, it averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Numbers like that are not easy to come by, so it's simple to see why he's already entrenched as a starter heading into training camp. If Greco can hone his skill set and become a more consistent pass-blocker, he could easily mature into one of the finest offensive linemen in the NFL.
In 2012, the NFC South fielded plenty of top-notch pass-rushers. The Panthers had two star-studded defensive ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The Falcons had four-time Pro Bowl selection John Abraham, and the Buccaneers had Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers.
So, who was the Saints' pass-rushing threat? Most would say defensive end Will Smith, but that would be the wrong answer, unfortunately. If one takes the time to analyze the New Orleans defense on a per-snap basis, the answer is a no-brainer.
Defensive end Junior Galette didn't see the field a whole lot, but when he did, he performed time and time again. Even though Galette only played 33.9 percent of the time, he registered 30 quarterback pressures. Five of those 30 pressures were quarterback sacks, six were quarterback hits and 19 were quarterback hurries. (Advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus, subscription required.)
In Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense, Galette will rush from both outside linebacker positions, but it would be wise to expect him to start on the strong side. He was originally penciled in as the Saints' weak-side edge-rusher; however, that all changed when Victor Butler went down with a torn ACL.
Galette's size and speed off of the edge will turn a few heads during training camp. Furthermore, he has the potential to flirt with double-digit sack numbers in 2013.
Ever since the Dallas Cowboys drafted linebacker Bruce Carter out of North Carolina in 2011, the organization has had high hopes for him. 2011 was a year Carter had no problem forgetting, considering he only made an appearance in six games. In 2012, head coach Jason Garrett publicly voiced his expectations for the second-round pick.
The message was well-received. Carter piled up 70 total tackles and 30 defensive stops—not to mention he was a force against the run for the first 11 games of the season. He ended up missing the final five games of the season when the Cowboys placed him on injured reserve with a bum elbow. (Advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus, subscription required.)
This season will be a fresh start for the third-year backer. Monte Kiffin took over as the team's defensive coordinator when Jerry Jones handed Rob Ryan his walking papers at the end of 2012. Kiffin will deploy a 4-3 defense, and Carter is slated to start at weak-side linebacker.
Carter will benefit from the move because it will give him a chance to display his outstanding range. Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com believes the Cowboys' new defense will make Carter a "star."
Ultimately, only time will tell. But as of right now, it appears as if Carter is headed in the right direction.
The Miami Dolphins had one of the best safeties in the league last year, and few people knew it. Despite having one of the most sound statistical seasons in recent memory, Reshad Jones didn't even have a chance at making the NFL's All-Pro squad. He was overlooked by anyone and everyone.
In addition to leading the Dolphins in interceptions, Jones tallied 95 total tackles, nine pass deflections and two forced fumbles. In coverage, his numbers were even more impressive. Opposing quarterbacks posted a quarterback rating of 38 when they threw into his coverage area, while completing 48.7 percent of their passes. (Advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus, subscription required.)
The only quarterback to beat Jones deep for a touchdown was Tennessee Titans quarterback Matthew Hasselbeck. Aside from his strong coverage skills, the fourth-year pro out of Georgia was phenomenal against the run. Only T.J. Ward, Eric Weddle and Quintin Mikell finished the season with higher marks.
In 2013, Jones needs to show that he is more than just a one-year wonder. He needs to prove that his absurd performances are here to stay. Doing this will help him gain the recognition he deserves—not to mention help him reap financial benefits based on the fact that he is in the final year of his rookie deal.
Since Jurrell Casey was drafted in 2011, he has been flying under the radar. He made a name for himself in his rookie year as he rotated between both defensive tackle spots. He was unstoppable against the run. Of his 40 solo tackles, 35 of them were considered defensive stops (via PFF, subscription required).
The following year proved to be more of the same. His subpar pass-rushing statistics stayed the same, and his run-stuffing ability got better as the season went on. His six tackles for loss were the sixth-best mark on Tennessee's defense.
His stout play against the run has opened a few eyes around the league, yet there are still plenty of people who don't know about Casey. An uptick in production for the third straight season should finally help him gain the attention he has earned since his rookie season.
Casey will enter training camp as the Titans' starting right defensive tackle.
Immediately upon taking over in New York, general manager John Idzik had a lot of house-cleaning to do, thanks in large part to Mike Tannenbaum. In addition to dumping aging veterans, Idzik made it a point to revamp a few key areas on both sides of the ball.
He reshuffled the defensive secondary by trading Darrelle Revis and drafting Dee Milliner. He also reshuffled the quarterback position when he drafted Geno Smith in the second round of this year's draft. Lastly, he mixed things up at the running back position when he traded for New Orleans Saints RB Chris Ivory.
Ivory will replace Shonn Greene after the organization let Greene walk in free agency. As training camp rolls around, it will prove to be Idzik's best move from this past offseason. The 222-pound back is a violent runner who breaks tackles and punishes defenders.
He will be the Jets' best offensive weapon in 2013. Expect him to see around 20 carries a game all throughout the season. If he can stay healthy, Ivory could experience a rapid rise to superstardom.