Predicting NFL's 2014 All-Breakout Team
"Breakout" can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.
To a nervous teenager or a prison guard, it may not be the best of news.
To a football coach who is looking for an emerging performer, it’s certainly welcomed.
With that in mind, we have assembled an all-breakout team in regard to the 2014 NFL season. We have chosen 11 players on both offense and defense, in essence assembling a starting lineup. Given the times in the league, we’ll open with three wide receivers and opt for a 4-3 defensive unit on the other side of the ball.
The idea here is to steer away from players who have received postseason accolades in the past. And naturally, this group will have its share of second-year pros.
To make things interesting, we have also sprinkled in a rookie here or there who could make an immediate splash.
As usual, lists like this are subjective. However, we hope we have made some good choices.
And as someone very notable once wrote following his own breakout moment, “Hope is a good thing...Maybe the best of things.”
Quarterback: Geno Smith, New York Jets
During the Rex Ryan era, New York Jets quarterbacks and turnovers have gone together like peas and carrots (or even Forrest and Jenny).
This past season, rookie signal-caller Geno Smith committed 25 of the team’s 29 turnovers (21 interceptions and four lost fumbles). Add in the fact that one-time Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez coughed up the football at least 23 times in three of his first four seasons with the club, and that’s the kind of consistency that no team is looking for.
But look for things to be different for Smith in 2014, who will be the starter. So far, Jane McManus of ESPNNewYork.com tells us that the only issue when it comes to the Jets’ quarterback “competition” between the second-year pro and veteran free-agent pickup Michael Vick is the wording.
More importantly for Smith, new weapons such as former Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and veteran wide receivers Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford should help immediately. Add rookie pass-catchers such as tight end Jace Amaro and wideouts Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans, and the second-year quarterback may double those 12 touchdown passes he threw in 2013.
Running Back: Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Unfortunately, the final images of the 2013 Denver Broncos include four turnovers, a snap over quarterback Peyton Manning’s head and the highest-scoring team in a season in league history totaling eight points in the Super Bowl.
The image of John Fox’s team in 2014 will be slightly different, mainly because many of the players who were part of last year’s AFC champions are now elsewhere. One of those performers is running back Knowshon Moreno, who led the team in rushing this past season but is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.
Second-year pro Montee Ball will now be the focus of the running game. After a rough start in 2013 (losing two fumbles in the first three games), he finished with 559 yards rushing and four scores.
Let’s not forget that the Denver offense controlled the football for more than 35 minutes in its first two playoff games in January. Ball is perfectly suited for such a game plan, as long as he hangs onto his namesake.
Wide Receiver: Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans
In some instances, we are going out on a limb.
Such is the case with Tennessee Titans’ second-year wideout Justin Hunter. The former Tennessee Volunteer was a second-round pick in 2013, so there’s certainly cause for optimism.
Although he didn’t total a lot of receptions, the big-play wideout averaged an impressive 19.7 yards per grab on his 18 catches. He also totaled four scores. However, he was targeted 42 times in the 14 games he played, and in six of his outings, he didn’t total a reception.
Still, there are some new offensive sheriffs in town via head coach Ken Whisenhunt and coordinator Jason Michael. They hope to keep quarterback Jake Locker upright in 2014. And given Whisenhunt’s penchant for running the ball, Hunter could be quite the target for Locker when it comes to the play-action pass.
Wide Receiver: Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys
For a change, let’s write something positive about the Dallas Cowboys.
That means focusing on the offensive side of the ball when it comes to Jason Garrett’s club.
While there has been plenty of talk when it comes to extending the contract of wide receiver Dez Bryant, and rightfully so, the Cowboys’ other starting wideout this upcoming season is worth a mention as well.
Bryant led the club with 93 receptions in 2013, and he and veteran tight end Jason Witten (73 receptions) combined for 21 touchdown grabs this past season (13 by Bryant). But third on that list of scoring catches was then-rookie Terrance Williams, who totaled 44 receptions for 736 yards (16.7 average) and five touchdowns during his debut campaign.
Look for those numbers to climb significantly with another year of seasoning by the first of the team’s two third-round picks from a year ago.
Wide Receiver: Rueben Randle, New York Giants
Lost in the fact that New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning led the NFL with 27 interceptions in 2013 was the fact that he completed some passes to his own teammates.
And while Victor Cruz once again led the team with 73 catches for 998 yards, one of his teammates danced into the end zone more often than the salsa specialist.
Wide receiver Rueben Randle, who totaled just 19 catches (three for scores) during his rookie campaign in 2012, more than doubled that reception total (41) and led the Giants with a half-dozen touchdown grabs this past season.
Randle finished fourth on the team in catches in 2013 but given his penchant for finding the end zone, figures to see many more passes his way this fall. This will come despite the addition of rookie wideout Odell Beckham Jr., the team’s first-round pick in May.
In other words, Manning may be trying to Rueben more often in 2014.
Tight End: Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
The tight end legacy with the San Diego Chargers is pretty impressive.
It has been quite a while since we have seen the likes of Pro Football Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow. Then again, Chargers fans have been enjoying the play of Antonio Gates for more than a decade now. The former undrafted free agent and eight-time Pro Bowler has totaled 719 receptions—87 for scores—in 11 seasons.
But veteran quarterback Philip Rivers turned to another sizable target on occasion in 2013. Tight end Ladarius Green totaled just 17 receptions, but those catches went for 376 yards (22.1 average) and three scores. It represented progress from his rookie year, when he played in only four games and caught just four passes.
While Gates still led the Chargers with 77 catches this past season and remains a solid performer, don’t be surprised if Rivers manages to find Green a lot more often in 2014.
Tackle: Demar Dotson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Take a look back at the starting offensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 of the 2013 season.
From left to right were tackle Donald Penn, guard Gabe Carimi, center Jeremy Zuttah, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Demar Dotson.
Penn is now with the Oakland Raiders, Carimi with the Atlanta Falcons, Zuttah with the Baltimore Ravens and Joseph with the St. Louis Rams.
The Buccaneers still have Dotson here (FYI, work with me on the sound).
That’s a good thing as the former is coming off a strong 2013 performance. The 6’9”, 315-pound performer has started a combined 31 games the past two seasons. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him 13th among NFL tackles last year.
There’s been a lot of focus on whom the Buccaneers have signed in 2014, but one of those players who actually remain from the last few years may be worth watching.
Guard: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have done a lot early in the draft to improve the offensive line in recent years.
Left tackle Tyron Smith was a first-round pick in 2011 and a Pro Bowler in 2013. Just over a year ago, the team added center Travis Frederick with the 31st overall pick, and he started all 16 games as a rookie.
Now the Jerry-of-all-trades and the Cowboys have added another piece up front, selecting University of Notre Dame blocker Zack Martin in the first round last month. Mike Mayock of NFL.com feels he can play anywhere on the offensive line, and it appears that his first start will be at right guard.
And don’t be shocked if the former Golden Domer makes an immediate impression on his opponents.
Center: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders have provided the NFL with many standout players at the center position.
The Silver and Black also used to have a star at guard named Steve Wisniewski, an eight-time Pro Bowler who started 206 games in 13 seasons for the franchise.
So when it comes to excellence, there’s obviously a lot on the shoulders of three-year pro Stefen Wisniewski, the starting center the past two seasons. As a rookie in 2011, the second-round draft choice was a 16-game starter, but 13 of those performances came at left guard.
He started 14 games in 2013 and, according to Pro Football Focus, graded out as the 10th-best center.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion may be just coming into his own.
Guard: Brandon Brooks, Houston Texans
When you open the season at 2-0 and then proceed to lose your last 14 contests, you’re probably grasping at straws when it comes to finding the positives.
Unfortunately for the Houston Texans, the mistake-prone team would have probably dropped those straws in 2013.
One of those bright spots was guard Brandon Brooks, a third-round pick from Miami of Ohio in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6’5”, 340-pound performer played 1,063 snaps this past season, and only veterans Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans (teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles) graded out higher in the league as run-blockers in 2013.
With new head coach Bill O’Brien in town and the Texans looking to get their quarterback situation back on track after a messy season, running back Arian Foster (who missed eight games in 2013) may be back to his busy self this season. And Brooks will be leading the way.
Tackle: Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons
The 2013 season kind of got away from the Atlanta Falcons. And kind of...is being kind.
A team that finished 13-3 and tied for the best record in the NFL in 2012 stumbled to a 4-12 finish this past season.
Of course, the reasons for the collapse are numerous. But one was the play of an offensive line that didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan, who was sacked a career-high 44 times.
Then again, when you finish dead last in the league in both rushing attempts and rushing yards, you are not exactly fooling anyone in terms of game plan.
So it’s a back to a basic approach for Mike Smith’s club. Part of that was bolstering an offensive front that now has new starters on the right side in free-agent addition Jon Asamoah and rookie tackle Jake Matthews, the sixth overall pick in May’s draft. The rough-and-tumble blocker will be an immediate starter, and while he’ll take some lumps, you get the feeling that he will administer his share as well.
And for those looking for the Falcons to soar in 2014, don’t be surprised if the club is a bit more grounded this season...for all of the right reasons.
Defensive End: Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers
It wasn’t much of a debut season for Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones.
Then again, it wasn't much of a season by the Packers defense.
In 16 games in 2013, the team’s first-round pick totaled a mere 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
But that was a year ago. This upcoming season figures to be different if outside linebacker Clay Matthews can stay healthy (he missed five games this past season) and new addition Julius Peppers still has some spice left.
In any case, 2013 was a learning experience for Jones. We will soon find out just how good a pupil he was, perhaps much to the dismay of his opponents.
Defensive Tackle: Bennie Logan, Philadelphia Eagles
No team in the NFL gave up more passing yards in the league this past season than the Philadelphia Eagles.
Then again, it wasn’t like this team was exactly stingy when it came to the run. Billy Davis’ defenders ranked just 10th in the NFL in rushing defense, a number that must improve if Chip Kelly’s team is to take the next step. And let’s not forget that the Eagles allowed 185 yards rushing in the playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, a team that ranked 25th in the league in rushing in 2013.
This season, nose tackle Bennie Logan will hope to make a more sizable contribution on defense. Via Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com, the third-round pick from LSU in 2013 added 10 pounds to his frame this offseason. He hopes to use the additional weight to be more of a problem for opposing offensive lines and command his share of double-teams.
Logan and the entire Philadelphia defense should be fascinating to watch in its second season under Davis.
Defensive Tackle: Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore Ravens
Defense has been the calling card of the Baltimore Ravens for most of the franchise’s relatively short existence.
Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, the second-round pick last month, has made an impression in a relatively short time.
“He's playing fast,” said guard Kelechi Osemele, via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, “especially for being a young guy, and being thrown in there with the (first-teamers) every now and then and it being a new system and everything. He's coming along really well. We really need him to contribute this year, and I think he has the ability to do that.”
That would be a great idea, especially with starting defensive tackle Arthur Jones taking the free-agent route to Indianapolis this offseason. Baltimore’s defense was better in 2013 than it was a year earlier (yes, the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012), but immediate contributions from both Jernigan and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, the first-round pick, could have this unit very much on the rise in 2014.
Defensive End: Willie Young, Chicago Bears
When it was all said and done for the Chicago Bears defense in 2013, it proved to be an off season.
That’s not a typo. In this case, it’s a two-word description for a club that allowed 478 points (201 more than in 2012), the most rushing yards in the NFL and a league-low 31 sacks (tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars).
Exit defensive end Julius Peppers (released) and defensive tackle Henry Melton (signed with the Dallas Cowboys). Enter free agents Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Israel Idonije (a former Bear) and Willie Young.
Houston and Allen are the expected starters, but Young may bear (no pun intended) the most watching. He’s totaled just six sacks in four seasons but comes off his most productive campaign. He totaled 47 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries and five pass deflections in 2013.
That sack total figures to improves, thanks to a little tutelage from Allen.
Outside Linebacker: Kyle Van Noy, Detroit Lions
At times, the Detroit Lions defense doesn’t play as imposing as the talent may indicate. There are productive performers such as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy.
Still, a mere 33 sacks and just 22 takeaways aren't going to get it done these days.
Enter second-round draft choice Kyle Van Noy, who was just recently married (via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press). Now the Lions are hoping he’s a perfect match to cure what ails them on the defensive side of the ball.
A college teammate of defensive end Ziggy Ansah, Detroit’s first-round pick in 2013, the former BYU standout will be used in a variety of ways, and all are designed to disrupt opposing offenses.
Don’t be shocked if Van Noy not only secures a starting job this summer by supplanting Ashlee Palmer but warrants Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration for his play.
Inside Linebacker: Kevin Minter, Arizona Cardinals
Call this a hunch out of necessity.
We saw plenty of the Arizona Cardinals defense in 2013. This past season, no team in the league gave up fewer yards on the ground, and only five clubs in the NFL surrendered more total yards.
But it’s safe to say that any chance of a repeat or improved performance in 2014 could be tough. Last year's three top tackles—inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Yeremiah Bell and inside linebacker Daryl Washington—are with the Cleveland Browns, out of the NFL and serving a season-long suspension, respectively.
Enter second-year pro Kevin Minter, who also happened to be a second-round pick in 2013. The former LSU product played in 13 games last season but was never a starter and totaled a mere four tackles.
That will change in a hurry in 2014. He will partner inside with veteran free-agent pickup Larry Foote and show the Cards why he was the 45th overall pick a little more than one year ago.
Outside Linebacker: Jamie Collins, New England Patriots
Despite their issues on the defensive side of the ball this past season, the New England Patriots still wound up one game away from a sixth Super Bowl appearance in 13 years.
Injuries were a big part of last season’s issues. But head coach Bill Belichick is hoping that won’t be the case in 2014.
The Pats will feature a new linebacking corps with the free-agent defection of Brandon Spikes, who is now a member of the Buffalo Bills. Dont’a Hightower moves to the middle, and former Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo and second-year pro Jamie Collins will man the outside spots.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich likes what he sees from Collins, a second-round pick in 2013 who started eight games in the regular season as a rookie. “He definitely has all the tools to do anything he wants in this league,” said Ninkovich to Glen Farley of The Patriot Ledger at last week’s OTAs. “He just has to go out there and do it.”
Collins did just that and made his biggest impression in the playoffs. He totaled 13 tackles, one interception and a sack in the postseason split with the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.
“Just trying to pick up where I left off from,” Collins told Farley, “always trying to get better every day.”
Here’s saying he will indeed.
Cornerback: Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks
With the departures of cornerbacks Brandon Browner (New England Patriots) and Walter Thurmond (New York Giants), Byron Maxwell has gone from fill-in starter to player to watch.
Late last season, the sixth-round pick from 2011 was thrust into action and played very well for the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. He totaled 28 tackles, four interceptions and a dozen passes defensed in 16 games.
The former Clemson product would wind up starting the Seahawks’ final five contests and three more games in the 2013 postseason. His workload will be a lot different in 2014...and with even better results.
Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings
Under new head coach Mike Zimmer and new defensive coordinator George Edwards, the Minnesota Vikings hope to erase the memory of a 5-10-1 season in 2013 when they gave up a league-high 480 points.
There’s a new-look front four in the Twin Cities, featuring free-agent pickup and defensive tackle Linval Joseph (New York Giants) and more expected contributions from Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen and perhaps rookie defensive end Scott Crichton.
You can also expect more from cornerback Xavier Rhodes. As a rookie in 2013, he started six games, totaled 48 stops and led the team with 10 passes defensed. But the second of the team’s three first-round draft choices in 2013 failed to record an interception.
That latter number is about to change dramatically in 2014.
Strong Safety: George Iloka, Cincinnati Bengals
Only the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers gave up fewer total yards in the NFL than the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. Marvin Lewis’ team ranked fifth in the league against both the run and the pass this past season.
This unit has its share of standouts in defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Leon Hall. The team just added to a deep secondary this offseason with the free-agent addition of safety Danieal Manning and the first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
Under the radar was the 2013 play of strong safety George Iloka. The two-year defender finished third on the team with 66 tackles while also totaling one interception, six passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles.
Under new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the Bengals may have to be even better on this side of the ball to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Look for Iloka to make that a possibility.
Free Safety: Mike Mitchell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Back in 2009, safety Mike Mitchell was a stunning second-round pick by the Oakland Raiders. And in four seasons with the Silver and Black, he didn’t make much of an impression.
A total of 61 games with the team netted two interceptions, 3.5 sacks and 10 passes defensed.
He signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers in 2013, and isn’t it amazing what happens when you receive a little support? He finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Now he’s a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and will team with veteran Troy Polamalu in Dick LeBeau’s last line of defense. And while his play this past year was eye-opening, opponents of the Black and Gold might want to have both eyes open this upcoming season.