As much as we've discussed the disappointments of the Indianapolis Colts' 2013 transactions, the reality is that many of the disappointments from last season have high potential for the team long-term. With increased experience under the Colts coaches and more comfort in and around the locker room, some of those disappointments may surprise people in 2014.
While not all of these players are locks or even necessarily likely to break out as great players in 2014, each of them certainly have potential and very real reasons why they could break out. We've discussed the negatives of each of these players throughout the season and to start the offseason, but today we're looking at the positive side.
So, to start your Monday off on an optimistic note, here are five players to watch for potential breakout seasons in 2014.
Now, I'm not the biggest fan of Trent Richardson. I thought the trade was a mistake from the beginning, and I think it's going to go down as one of the biggest mistakes in GM Ryan Grigson's career.
That being said, nobody can look at this Colts team without acknowledging Richardson's pure physical talent. Richardson is a big, strong back with solid top speed who can break tackles like nobody's business. While he didn't touch Donald Brown's league-leading elusive rating from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a formula based on tackles broken and yards after contact, Richardson did finish 10th out of 49 backs.
Richardson will also benefit from a full offseason with the team. The 2014 Colts won't have the excuse of an ill-prepared Richardson to lean on as a reason for his struggles.
With the support of teammates and a place in Grigson's plan for the team, Richardson will certainly continue to have an opportunity to play a prominent role in the Colts offense. The only question is whether or not giving him that role will bear fruit or harm the offense, as it did in 2013. For fans' sakes, let's hope it's the former.
Former Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner had an impact last season, but one that was dampened by injury and a slow adjustment into the speed of the NFL game. As a pass-rusher, Werner simply didn't have any go-to moves that he perfected well enough to make a consistent impact. Werner was decent in run defense, but he was drafted to be a pass-rushing alternative to Robert Mathis.
The upside to Werner is that he wasn't supposed to excel in his first season. Werner wasn't one of the more pro-ready players in the draft and has only been playing organized football for five years (two years in high school and three in college). A slow rookie season isn't the red flag it would be among other players.
Werner does have some pass-rushing skills and should progress in that area with a full, healthy offseason. I still don't think Werner will ever be a premiere pass-rusher, but in the Colts' scheme he can be a secondary pass-rush weapon with the ability to set the edge against the run as well, something he showed in his rookie year.
While Hugh Thornton was rushed into a starting position at left guard that he wasn't prepared for in 2013, the former Illinois lineman should get a full offseason of preparation for the starting right guard spot in 2014. Thornton struggled mightily last year, finishing the season with Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) second-worst offensive grade for Indianapolis.
Thornton was especially putrid in pass protection, where he allowed seven sacks and 16 hits, more than any other Colt.
But Thornton did flash some potential as a rookie, especially when asked to get out and move in run blocking. Thornton has quick feet and is able to do much more than somebody like Mike McGlynn in terms of pulling and getting to the second level.
Colts Authority's Ben Gundy has been impressed with his consistent effort throughout the season, and the young guard did improve as the season went along:
As always, Thornton’s best characteristic was his activity level. Effort is tough to coach, and whatever technique shortcomings Thornton may have, his coaches will never have to push him to work harder.
While Thornton's final game against New England was putrid, he flashed enough talent to give him another chance at a starting position come September.
LaVon Brazill is the oft-forgotten receiver in the Colts' trio of young, unproven talent (Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen and Brazill), but he's one that may have the best chance of making an impact with the first team.
Brazill has made his mark on the team as a third or fourth receiver on an injury-depleted squad over the last two years, catching 11 passes for 186 yards in 2012 before catching 12 for 161 yards in 2013 (three touchdowns in the two seasons).
But the optimism for Brazill comes from his 2013 postseason play. Brazill caught six passes for 127 yards in two playoff games, including two impressive touchdown receptions against New England. Brazill was arguably the Colts' second-best receiver (after T.Y. Hilton) down the stretch and has the speed to be a downfield threat and consistent enough hands to be useful as a possession receiver.
Fun fact, Brazill and Whalen actually tied with the team's best best drop rate for receivers in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While Rogers has more potential and Whalen is a touch more polished as a route-runner, Brazill has that happy medium of athletic talent and NFL experience to be a key weapon alongside Reggie Wayne and Hilton if the Colts don't go after another receiver in the offseason.
Now, Ricky Jean Francois may not be "breaking out" in the traditional sense, as he's already played well enough in his career to pick up a $22 million contract last season.
But Jean Francois does need to pick up his game in Indianapolis if he is going to live up to that contract, and he showed that he has the talent to do that during 2013. Francois showed an occasional ability to penetrate in run defense and shut down plays before they developed, a big factor in him finishing 17th in PFF's run stop percentage (subscription required) out of 45 3-4 defensive ends in 2013.
If Jean Francois is going to continue to be what he's been—that is, a run-stopper with little offered in the pass-rush department—then he has to be more consistent with his run defense. If he can stay healthy in 2014 (missed six games in 2013) and have a couple more high-impact games, his exorbitant contract may not look so bad after all.