Highlighting the NFL's Future Stars and Breakout Players
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor
From draft picks to developing young players, every NFL team goes into each season with players who have the potential to break out as stars.
Which players actually do often depends on whose skill sets translate quickest to the pro game, who plays with a chip on their shoulder and who are the right fit for their teams and systems.
From rookies like Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso and Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy to emerging standouts like St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, there has been no shortage of breakout players looking like future stars through the first seven weeks of the 2013 NFL season.
In the following slideshow, we take a closer look at 15 players who are showing this year why they could be NFL standouts for years to come.
In the interest of focusing on candidates who are still on the rise, players were only considered if they are in their first three NFL seasons and have not yet been named to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team or won an Offensive or Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
A raw prospect coming out of North Carolina in the 2011 NFL draft, St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn showed promise in his first two NFL seasons. This season, however, Quinn is looking like the player the Rams envisioned when they selected him with the No. 14 overall pick.
After notching 15.5 total sacks in his first two seasons, Quinn already has seven through seven games in 2013 and has set career highs this season with 13 total tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
He has been a three-down force as both a pass-rusher and edge run-defender. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rates Quinn as its top 4-3 defensive end this season, giving him an overall grade of 27.1, a full 12 points better than any other player at his position.
An explosive athlete with good strength and great length, Quinn can beat blockers into the backfield with both his burst and with his hands. He is finally putting it all together in his third year and quickly emerging as one of the league’s most un-blockable defensive players.
Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Chandler Jones looked like a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate for the first half of his 2012 season, recording six sacks in his first eight games.
But after suffering an ankle injury versus the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, he didn't look the same for the rest of his rookie campaign.
Near the halfway point of his sophomore season, however, he looks even better than he did early on as a rookie. An explosive athlete who can beat opponents with his quickness, length and power, Jones has been a mainstay on the Patriots defense, making plays as both a pass-rusher and run-defender.
Jones has 6.5 sacks, 9.5 total tackles for loss and 38 total tackles through just seven games. He has been the Patriots’ primary pass-rusher and is showing great stamina, consistently making plays at the line of scrimmage or in the opponent's backfield while having played all but five snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Jones must prove this season that he can keep his production going for a full year, but so long as he can stay healthy, he has a good chance to keep getting better and emerge as one of the NFL’s elite defensive ends.
Sheldon Richardson, DE/DT, New York Jets
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport
Arguably, no NFL rookie has played better this season than New York Jets interior defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
The No. 13 overall pick in this year's draft, Richardson’s combination of explosive quickness, size and power has immediately translated into his becoming one of the NFL’s most disruptive defensive linemen.
Initial concerns about how well Richardson would adjust to a 3-4 defense have quickly been quelled, as he has proved to be a dominant, run-stopping, 5-technique defensive end while penetrating into the backfield to make plays against both the run and as a pass-rusher.
With 35 total tackles, Richardson has the most tackles of any defensive tackle or nose tackle in the NFL, and is tied with Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich for the second most of any defensive lineman in the league (behind only Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones). He also has 2.5 sacks and 6.5 total tackles for loss, but because of the position he plays, he also makes many plays that the box score does not show.
Richardson has quickly become an every-down player (he missed only five snaps against the New England Patriots in Week 7, according to Pro Football Focus [subscription required]), and is consistently disruptive, whether he is penetrating the line or occupying blockers. His activity level is very high for a defensive lineman, and he makes both a large number of plays and a small number of mistakes.
Just seven weeks into his NFL career, it appears the Jets may have another star on their defensive line opposite Muhammad Wilkerson.
Fletcher Cox, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Fletcher Cox has had to play in new defensive schemes in each of his first two NFL seasons, but the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman has adjusted well.
After a solid rookie season playing as a 3-technique defensive tackle in Philadelphia’s 4-3/Wide 9 defense in 2012, Cox is looking like a star on the horizon as a 5-technique defensive end in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense this season.
Specifically, Cox has excelled in his new role thanks to his explosion as a pass-rusher. While he has only recorded two sacks this season, he ranks fourth among all 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL with 30 total pressures (two sacks, seven quarterback hits, 21 quarterback hurries), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He has also held his own as a run-stopper. He continues to show more strength and physicality as he progresses, and though he has only 16 total tackles this season, he has done a good job of holding gaps and freeing up lanes for Eagles linebackers to make plays.
Despite being asked to learn a new defense from one year to the next, he has demonstrated the ability to adjust and continues to take advantage of his skill set. If he is able to settle into his role as a 5-technique defensive end in Philadelphia and continue to develop, the 2012 draft’s No. 12 overall selection has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best at his position for many years to come.
Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs
Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
Drafted one spot before Fletcher Cox, second-year Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe is also emerging as a star in his sophomore season.
A player drafted No. 11 overall, more because of his rare combination of size and athleticism than for his play at the University of Memphis, his disappointing play in his rookie season left many thinking he would be another workout warrior turned bust in the NFL.
But like the Chiefs as a whole, Poe’s play experienced a vast turnaround in 2013.
Listed at 6’3” and 346 pounds with explosive athleticism, Poe has ideal measurables for a nose tackle, and he is taking advantage of them this season. He has been able to consistently dominate opponents with his burst and power, and as a result, he has already recorded 25 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and three pass deflections this season.
Poe isn’t just making plays himself; he's making the players around him better. He can occupy multiple blockers at once with his size and strength, but when he does break through blockers on his own, he can wreak havoc.
Poe isn’t the only breakout defensive star on the Chiefs this season: Justin Houston is arguably the NFL’s best outside linebacker this year, while rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, whom the Chiefs claimed off waivers before the start of the season, has emerged quickly with 11 passes defensed in his last four games alone.
Arguably, no player has been more important in the Chiefs’ defensive resurgence than Poe. The Chiefs lead the NFL in points allowed per game (11.6 points), and a big reason for that has been Poe’s ability to control the middle of the line of scrimmage as both an interior pass-rusher and run-stopper.
Kiko Alonso, ILB, Buffalo Bills
Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
The Buffalo Bills entered the 2013 NFL draft needing to upgrade at linebacker. They may have left the draft with one of the league’s next great middle linebackers in former Oregon standout Kiko Alonso, the No. 46 overall selection.
Alonso has become an immediate star and a leader of the Buffalo defense. He has played every defensive snap of the Bills’ first seven games, according to Pro Football Focus, and with a green dot on his helmet, he immediately took on play-calling responsibilities for the defense.
He has been a difference-maker in defending both the run and the pass. He has 70 total tackles this season, the third-most of any player in the NFL, and his four interceptions are tied for the league’s most. Whether attacking the line of scrimmage as a run-defender or dropping into space as a tackler or in pass coverage, Alonso is consistently around the football and in position to make plays.
The rookie linebacker has made his share of mistakes, but the good plays he's made far outweigh his miscues. If he continues to be a productive, every-down player throughout the season, he has a good chance to follow in the footsteps of Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who won the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award last season.
Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
The 2013 season has been an absolute nightmare thus far for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but there have been some strong individual performers on their defense, including Lavonte David.
Following up an impressive rookie season with a good start to his sophomore year, David has emerged as arguably the NFL’s best young weak-side linebacker.
A sound athlete, instinctive player and downhill tackler, David can do it all as an outside linebacker. He is at his best flocking to the ball as a run-defender, but he has shown he can also make an impact as a blitzing pass-rusher and dropping back into pass coverage.
Through six games this season, David already has 48 total tackles, four sacks, 10 total tackles for loss and five passes defensed, including one interception. He has been all over the field making plays for the Tampa Bay defense, and as a result has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s best 4-3 outside linebacker to this point in the 2013 season.
If the Buccaneers can upgrade their quarterback and coaching situations, they have the defensive talent to make a turnaround similar to that of the Kansas City Chiefs this season. David should be one of the stars of that defensive effort for many years to come.
Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
The San Francisco 49ers' transition from an AP All-Pro to a rookie at the free-safety position has been remarkably seamless. With as well as that rookie, first-round pick Eric Reid, has played thus far, it appears that there could be All-Pro selections in his future as well.
Reid has provided not only stability at the free-safety spot, but also has flashed Dashon Goldson's playmaking ability on the back end.
While he is not quite yet as impactful of a run-defender as Goldson, Reid is a big hitter. In coverage, he is already an upgrade over his predecessor. A very good athlete with great ball skills, Reid does an exceptional job of playing center fielder in the secondary and at making plays on the football in the air.
Reid has already intercepted three passes this season, including one against Arizona that he returned 53 yards to set up a 49ers field goal. An active defender, Reid has played the vast majority of San Francisco’s defensive snaps while recording 31 tackles in seven games.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Even though he recorded just one rushing attempt in two games due to a concussion, Eddie Lacy has already made it clear in his three full games back that he is the best runner in this year's rookie class and a potential star back for the Green Bay Packers.
A physical, between-the-tackles runner with great moves for his size (5’11”, 230 pounds), Lacy has run the ball 83 times for 352 yards, an average of 4.2 yards per carry and the most rushing yards among rookie running backs this season. He has also scored two touchdowns.
The Green Bay Packers haven’t had a productive feature back in years, but it looks like they finally got one when they selected Lacy late in the second round of the 2013 draft. He plays a position where star careers are typically short, but he is quickly emerging as one of the league’s most difficult-to-stop runners.
If the Packers have one of the NFL’s best feature backs over the next few seasons—which Lacy looks like he very well could be—they came away with a steal at the No. 61 overall selection.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
While Eddie Lacy has been the best runner among the rookie class this season, another star offensive playmaker is emerging in his rookie season.
Both a dynamic outside-inside runner and a skilled receiver out of the backfield, Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals has added another dimension this season to an already-explosive offense.
Bernard’s numbers through seven games—497 yards and four touchdowns on 92 touches—may not blow anyone away, but he has been used only situationally by the Bengals this season. In limited action, he has made a number of big plays that have shown his potential to be a very dynamic weapon for Cincinnati's offense for many years to come.
He has great quickness and can make defenders miss, and his tremendous acceleration allows him to get to the perimeter and into the open field. While the Bengals use BenJarvus Green-Ellis for most of their inside running, Bernard has also shown the ability to run between the tackles.
As Bernard’s role continues to expand (and it should), he has the potential to be one of the NFL’s most productive running/receiving threats. He should eventually surpass Green-Ellis on the depth chart and start putting up big numbers and plays with more consistency.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller ranked Alshon Jeffery as the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2012 draft class. Jeffery was only the seventh receiver off the board in that draft, but in his second NFL season, the No. 45 overall pick is making a strong case for proving Miller right.
Aside from the top speed NFL scouts covet in an outside receiver, Jeffery has it all. A physical, tough receiver who snatches the ball out of the air at its highest point, he has great size (6’3”, 216 pounds) and uses it well. He also has soft hands and is a precise route-runner.
Jeffery had an underwhelming rookie season, but this season he has stolen the thunder of star receiver Brandon Marshall on the Bears offense. He has a team-leading 561 yards on 33 receptions—12 of which have gone for 20 yards or more—and two touchdowns.
The next four weeks will be a real test of Jeffery’s progress, as quarterback Jay Cutler will be out with a torn groin muscle. That said, Jeffery will quickly become one of the NFL’s star receivers if he continues to make big plays.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Blackmon has played in only three games this season, but he already has 384 receiving yards and a touchdown on 25 receptions, all the while playing with one of the NFL’s worst quarterback situations and opposite another standout receiver in Cecil Shorts.
The Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t done much well this season, but the second-year Blackmon has played up to his No. 5-overall-selection status since returning to the field from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
An athletic wideout with size (6’1”, 210 pounds), speed, agility and route-running ability, Blackmon is both a deep threat and a strong short-to-intermediate target. Even with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne playing quarterback for the Jaguars, Blackmon nonetheless is getting open enough to make plays and forcing opposing defenses to prepare for him.
Considering Blackmon’s success with Gabbert and Henne passing him the ball—he also had 64 receptions for 865 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie—he has the potential to truly break out if the Jaguars can pair with him a better quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater? Marcus Mariota?) in 2014.
The most likely person to stop Blackmon is himself, as his suspension this year was not his only off-field issue in recent years.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
The trend of college basketball players becoming NFL tight ends is not going anywhere as long as it is a trend that continues to produce stars at the position. Following in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham as the next hoopster-turned-star-tight-end is Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns.
Cameron, who started his collegiate athletics career on the BYU basketball team, played three years of football at USC but caught only 16 passes over that span and entered the NFL as a very raw prospect. But after two quiet seasons, the 2011 fourth-round pick is finally breaking out and playing up to his potential in his third year.
Even on an offense that has seen its starting quarterback go from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and back to Weeden this season, Cameron has been one of the NFL’s most productive receiving tight ends in 2013. He has caught 45 passes for 515 yards and six touchdowns.
He is a terrific athlete with prototypical size (6’5”, 245 pounds), great leaping ability and strong hands. He can line up both inside and outside and make plays as a receiver, while he has also been a solid blocker this season.
With his football skills finally coming to light, Cameron has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best tight ends for many years to come, especially if he remains a focal point of a Browns offense that could upgrade at the quarterback position in 2014.
Read More: Here is a closer look at Cameron’s skill set, written after he caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown versus the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Jordan Cameron isn’t the only former basketball player breaking out this season as a star NFL tight end. Another has been one-time Portland State forward Julius Thomas, also a 2011 fourth-round pick, who has harnessed his athletic potential into real NFL playmaking ability after two years of development.
Thomas has emerged as one of many playmakers on the Denver Broncos’ prolific offense this season. Having caught only one pass for five yards in his first two NFL seasons combined, he has already caught 36 passes for 422 yards this season and is tied with teammate Wes Welker for the league lead with eight receiving touchdowns.
Like Cameron, Thomas fits the prototype for a modern NFL tight end with his great size (6’5”, 250 pounds), quickness and downfield speed. He has terrific leaping ability and the timing to catch the football at its highest point. While some of his success can certainly be attributed to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Thomas has shown the skill set to be a threat in any offense, both on deep balls and in the red zone.
If Thomas is going to be a star tight end for years to come, however, he must significantly improve his blocking. He has mightily struggled to handle the power of NFL defenders and grades out as the league’s third-worst run-blocking tight end this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Terrelle Pryor, QB, Oakland Raiders
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
There hasn’t been a new starting quarterback this season to find the immediate success that Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson did last year (though as Colin Kaepernick showed us in the second half of last season, there’s still time for a quarterback to emerge this year).
One quarterback who has at least shown star potential, however, is Terrelle Pryor of the Oakland Raiders.
Is Pryor a franchise quarterback? His play so far this season has made such prospects a possibility, as I broke down for Bleacher Report on Oct. 11. That said, he's got a long way to go in the maturation process, as his three-interception game versus the Kansas City Chiefs in his most recent start displayed.
If Pryor can continue to progress in terms of accuracy, decision making and pocket presence, he could be the star quarterback the Raiders have lacked since Rich Gannon won the NFL MVP in 2002. An explosive athlete with a rocket arm, he has the ability to make big plays outside the pocket, both as a runner and scrambling thrower, and he has shown significant improvement this season as a pocket passer.
Rookies Geno Smith and EJ Manuel have also shown star-quarterback potential at times this season, but Pryor has been the most impressive new signal-caller overall, and he has the highest ceiling of that trio, if only because of his athleticism, arm strength and size (6’4”, 233 pounds).
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.