Potential Breakout NFL Stars Nobody Is Talking About
Football (and not the one with the black and white checkered ball) is almost here again.
Training camps are right around the corner, and we can start looking ahead to what teams and players will be doing in 2014.
Every year there are players many fans didn't know much about who break out in a big way and become household names.
Sometimes they're rookies like the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt or Green Bay Packers' Eddie Lacy. Other times they are unknowns like a young Tom Brady.
Either way, there are going to be guys who many people have never taken note of who will make us sit up and take notice this season.
Here are eight players who I think could be those guys who make us look back at 2014 and say, "Wow, how come we didn't notice them before?"
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Much of what is going on in Denver is (rightfully) focused on Peyton Manning and a defense with a ton of new parts.
But let’s not forget about second-year running back Montee Ball.
Ball had a bit of a shaky 2013, but over the last five games he had three very strong performances (along with two games where he rarely carried the ball). With Knowshon Moreno in Miami (and per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, hurt to boot), the job is Ball’s to lose.
Bleacher Report and ESPN Radio’s Cecil Lammey recently wrote a piece on why Ball is ready for a huge leap in his second year.
Along with detailing Ball’s entire 2013, both good and bad points, Lammey relayed offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s feelings on Ball’s improving ability as a receiver: "Montee has proven to me, over last year and so far this year, that his hands have gotten much better than what they were—at least [from] what we thought coming out of college."
Lammey himself says Ball could be the best back Denver has seen since Terrell Davis.
We may be focused on Peyton Manning now, but by the end of the season, it should be Ball who everyone is talking about.
Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers
There are lots of reports about how Marcus Lattimore is going to take Frank Gore’s job (per NFL.com’s Kevin Patra) or how rookie Carlos Hyde is in line for a lot of carries (per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com), but we keep overlooking Kendall Hunter.
We really shouldn’t.
Lattimore may want Gore’s job, but he is still a medical question mark, while Hyde’s pass protection is more than a little suspect.
Meanwhile, as Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com wrote recently, Hunter has a 4.6 yards-per-carry average over the three years, is already far ahead of either other back in terms of the playbook and the team’s protection schemes and is fully healthy after having to come back from a 2012 Achilles injury.
Of course, the assumption that Gore will lose his job is made every year but never plays out. Still, if it does this year, Hunter has a leg up on everyone else and the skill to put up some very good numbers.
Just in time for the end of his contract and possibly in time to line up a big one next offseason.
Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
The more I look at the Buffalo Bills defense the last few weeks, the more I think I underestimated it when I ranked all 32 defenses a few weeks back.
At least part of that comes from how much I like cornerback Stephon Gilmore coming into the 2014 NFL season.
After a solid rookie season, Gilmore started off the 2013 season slowly and then lost a chunk of games to a wrist injury. The Bills' official website reported in early June that Gilmore was recovering from offseason surgery, but we expect him to be back to 100 percent for training camp.
Gilmore finished strong during the last four games of the season, and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had him rated as allowing just 40 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed during that stretch.
Only once in that period did he give up more than 60 yards, and he didn’t allow one touchdown (in fact not allowing a touchdown in the final six games and just one over the course of his whole season).
He’s paired with Leodis McKelvin again, and with McKelvin coming off his best season to date, Gilmore will be in a position to make a lot of plays.
Playing in Buffalo, it’s easy for someone to get overlooked unless he has a tremendous season. Gilmore could have the sort of season that it takes to propel a Bills player into the general consciousness of the average NFL fan.
Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
A new offensive coordinator and head coach could amp tight end Jordan Reed’s production all the way up.
Last season was going well until it was derailed by concussion issues, and if he can stay healthy it looks like he could have a tremendous season.
That’s dangerous for defenses.
Chris Russell of ESPN 980 reported that Reed had an excellent minicamp, while Stephen Czarda of Redskins.com says offensive coordinator Sean McVay (who was the tight end coach last season) expects a great year from Reed.
Robert Griffin III should be healthy and able to rebound from a mediocre 2013, and as he gets better, so will Reed’s numbers.
Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packers
Entering his third year since the Green Bay Packers selected him in the fourth round back in 2012, Mike Daniels is poised to have a breakthrough year.
In a predraft article on potential defensive linemen the Packers could target, Journal-Sentinel writer Tyler Dunne called Daniels “an emerging star,” and Chris Wesseling of NFL.com tweeted that he expects Daniels to make a leap forward, calling him “relentless.”
The Packers were able to get a lot out of Daniels last season, and as last year’s first-round pick, Datone Jones, continues to improve, offensive lines are going to be challenged to decide which one is the priority.
Daniels hasn’t received much press outside of Green Bay yet, but that’s about to change.
Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars safety had a rough rookie year in 2013, but aside from one missed game he was on the field for a large majority of his team’s defensive snaps.
That will continue this season, and Cyprien’s physical style of play will be a huge help not just in assisting the corners in coverage, but also in controlling and defending against the run. If the defensive front improves the way we expect it to, he’s going to have more pressure on the quarterback, making his job easier.
Cyprien improved as the season went on in 2013, and it seems very much like he is in a great position to carry that momentum into this season.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Rashard Mendenhall is gone, and Stepfan Taylor, while a decent back, is a solid short-yardage option and not much more.
That leaves Andre Ellington as the main option in the Arizona Cardinals backfield.
While Ellington never carried the ball more than 15 times in game, Fox Sports 910’s Mike Jurecki has reported that head coach Bruce Arians expects Ellington to carry 25-30 times a game.
While that is clearly an over-the-top statement, Ellington is still going to get the lion’s share of the carries, which in turn should generate significant production.
Ellington will be featured in an offense that should be able to pass the ball well, thereby reducing the number of stacked fronts he will encounter. That too will help his production.
“Bell cow” running backs aren’t all that common anymore, so when a guy is featured as one, you take notice.
Ellington could be the next one.
Bill Bentley, Detroit Lions
With Chris Houston cut, Dwight “Bill” Bentley finds himself in possession of the left cornerback spot in the Detroit Lions secondary.
Bentley has been banged up during both of his initial seasons with the Lions, and the key to any emergence as a breakout star will hinge on his health.
Back in his rookie season, Bentley had some man-coverage and footwork issues as well as a need to increase the physicality of his play.
Last year, it appeared as if Bentley had made significant strides in his technique, and while he still struggled at times, progress was made.
Bentley will continue to improve by leaps and bounds this year. He has to, as he and Rashean Mathis or Darius Slay have to improve on the disappointing performances of Houston in 2013.
With the front seven the Lions feature, Bentley will have a ton of opportunities to show what he can do.
He could be a household name after 2014 regular season.