You know the big names from the 2013 NFL draft that are primed for breakout years—guys like the electric wide receiver Tavon Austin, who is taking his talents to the St. Louis Rams after lighting up the world of college football.
Ezekiel Ansah is supposed to be the answer (get it?) for the Detroit Lions in terms of pass rush after routinely terrorizing quarterbacks throughout the college realm.
But there are some serious rookie breakout candidates you may not have heard of just yet, or you don't take them seriously, but you better be prepared for when the time comes.
Whether you're a fantasy football nut or just a fan in general, these rookies are flying under the radar but have all the potential in the world to breakout next season.
Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
Let's start off small and work our way up. Ok, a 315-pound offensive lineman isn't small, but you get the idea—he's small in the sense he won't be making the sexy plays.
Rather, he'll be battling in the trenches making all the difference for Drew Brees and the Saints.
Armstead is a rare physical specimen, a workout warrior if you will. He ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine and has a wing span of 34" to combine with his quick feet.
The outstanding athlete has all but locked up the starting left tackle job protecting Brees' blindside, according to sportsnola.com, a position held a year ago by the departed Jermon Bushrod. Armstead doesn't have a lot of work to do considering his competition is oft-injured Charles Brown and mega-bust Jason Smith.
Still, Armstead won't be doing it on his own. We've seen Brees' ultra-quick release make even mediocre offensive lineman look great. Typically, the Saints then let the lineman walk, which is what happened with Bushrod.
Expect Armstead to garner a lot of attention throughout the season as he combines his elite athleticism with Brees' quick release to effectively keep the high-flying aerial attack in the clouds.
T.J. McDonald, S, St. Louis Rams
Kenny Vaccaro of the New Orleans Saints was the biggest name at the safety position in this year's draft, but not far behind him was Matt Elam, who now has the task of replacing Ed Reed with the Baltimore Ravens.
Then there's USC product T.J. McDonald.
McDonald has a bad rep. In part, this is because of those who came before him. Taylor Mays was also an extremely physical, big-hitting safety for the Trojans before going to the NFL, getting exposed in coverage and traded for a late-round pick a few years later.
Mays' career has fizzled out, but McDonald's is already headed in the right direction.
Here's the thing about McDonald. He has to beat out an aging veteran in Matt Giordano for the starting gig, which is not going to be all that difficult. Expect defensive coordinator Tim Walton to play to McDonald's strengths, meaning he'll be used to stuff the run—and that's about it.
You're going to hear a lot about McDonald next season, in part because expectations are so low. He's surrounded by a borderline elite cornerback duo in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, which will free him up even more to do what he does best.
He'll also make waves for the physicality he brings to St. Louis. He knows it, too:
T.J. McDonald: "I'm physical. I come with bad intentions."— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) April 27, 2013
McDonald may be one dimensional at this point, but it may not be as big of an issue as you think.
E.J. Maunel, QB, Buffalo Bills
Alright, we're cheating a bit here with a first-round pick, but let's not pretend like anyone has high expectations for Manuel in Buffalo.
Hence why he'll surprise.
The world of the NFL was shaken to its core when Manuel, not Geno Smith, was the first quarterback off the board in this year's draft. Not only that, most were shocked Manuel was even taken in the first round.
Manuel has never been knocked for a lack of talent. At Florida State in 2012 he accounted for over 3,700 total yards and 27 touchdowns. In four years his quarterback rating never dropped below 124, although he only attempted over 300 passes twice.
The knock on Manuel has been his mechanics and inconsistency. Still, Manuel split minicamp reps evenly with veteran Kevin Kolb and the team says the "opportunity is there" for him to win the starting job.
Heck, Bills coach Doug Marrone says Manuel is the most impressive rookie quarterback he's seen:
Marrone: "From my standpoint ... EJ Manuel has done better (as a rookie) than any of the other organizations I've been a part of"— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) May 31, 2013
Which rookie will break out?
We wouldn't expect Marrone to say anything else, but you should expect Manuel to have a major impact during his rookie season.
Manuel is stuck in a good situation. He's got an electric running back behind him in C.J. Spiller who put up over 1,700 total yards last year and a reliable No. 1 receiver in Stevie Johnson who has put up three straight 1,000-yard seasons. The offensive line is a concern, but it's something that Manuel can help to mitigate.
The Florida State product himself mixes a nice blend of passing and running ability that can make it difficult for defenses to prepare for the Buffalo attack.
Manuel has shocked us once already just by being drafted in the first round. Prepare to be shocked again if Manuel is given the chance to put his versatile offensive skill set to good use next season.
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