Predicting Every NFL Team's Most Surprising Starter Ahead of Training Camp
Everybody loves a pleasant surprise. This is especially true in the NFL, where an unexpected star can help change the fortunes of a franchise in a hurry.
The best recent example is probably Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a former third-round draft pick who snatched the starting job away from Seattle's high-priced free agent as a rookie and helped deliver a Super Bowl title less than two years later.
Unfortunately for franchises not situated in the Pacific Northwest, stories like Wilson's don't unfold on a very regular basis.
However, this doesn't mean that each NFL team can't see a surprise starter emerge from training camp and make his mark on the regular season.
Just for the fun of it, we are going to take a look at recent reports, rumors and trends around the league to try to predict each team's 2014 surprise starter before training camp battles get underway.
SS Jonathan Meeks
Former fifth-round pick Jonathan Meeks played sparingly as a rookie for the Buffalo Bills in 2013 (eight total appearances). However, he just might have what it takes to emerge from training camp as the team's starting strong safety.
According to A.J. Devine of BuffaloBills.com, the position is definitely one worth watching heading into training camp. Per Devine, Meeks will have an opportunity to battle it out with Da'Norris Searcy and Duke Williams for the starting job.
"Searcy was more often spotted alongside the rest of the first team defense toward the end of minicamp, and his experience in the NFL appears to give him a leg up on the competition." Devine recently wrote. "However, Meeks has the ball-hawking attitude to push Searcy for the starting spot."
Searcy does indeed have more NFL experience (three seasons to Meeks' one), but he is far from a sure thing. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Searcy ranked a pedestrian 47th among all safeties a season ago.
RB Lamar Miller
Originally a fourth-round draft pick back in 2012, Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller got the chance to become a starter in 2013.
However, it appeared earlier this offseason that the Dolphins might want to force Miller back into a depth role when the team acquired former Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno.
Miami ranked just 26th in rushing last season (90 yards per game), and Miller was responsible for just 709 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Moreno, meanwhile, racked up 1,038 yards and 10 scores for the Broncos in the same number of starts (15).
Still, ESPN's James Walker has reported that Miller is leading the running back competition and is making more plays as a runner than Moreno.
According to Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post, Moreno has been struggling because of a knee injury that may require arthroscopic surgery. If true, Miller may keep the starting job by default.
New England Patriots
WR Brandon LaFell
The fact that Brandon LaFell may start at receiver for the New England Patriots should really only come as a surprise to those who expected Rob Gronkowski to be ready for the start of the regular season.
Yes, Gronkoswki is a tight end, but he is also New England's most reliable deep threat when healthy.
There is a slight chance that he will be recovered from last year's ACL injury when the regular season kicks off, at least according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, via Dan Roche of WBZ-TV’s Sports Final.
Considering Gronkowski's sizable injury history, though, don't be surprised if the Patriots decide not to rush him.
Expect LaFell, a four-year veteran of the Carolina Panthers, to get the first opportunity to fill in as the team's new downfield target. He is more experienced than second-year wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, he is also better suited for a true outside role than Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola.
New York Jets
QB Geno Smith
Believe it or not, the New York Jets are a team that is ready to challenge for a playoff spot right now. The team went 8-8 last season, and even slight improvements could be enough to make it a contender in the mediocre AFC.
This is why it would be somewhat of a surprise to see sophomore quarterback Geno Smith retain the starting job, even after the acquisition of veteran Michael Vick.
Smith was rated the 40th-best quarterback in the league last season by Pro Football Focus, so it would make sense for the Jets to turn to the veteran for that "slight improvement" while Smith plays understudy for a year.
Yet the Jets seems sold on sticking with Smith for a second consecutive season.
According to reports from The Associated Press (h/t FoxNews.com), Smith has been receiving 70 to 75 percent of the starting reps this offseason. The former West Virginia star will likely head into the regular season as the starter unless he experiences a disastrous collapse along the way.
RB Justin Forsett
According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, journeyman running back Justin Forsett drew the most attention of the running backs observed during Baltimore Ravens OTAs.
He also received the first-team reps over longtime starter Ray Rice.
However, as NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal pointed out, head coach John Harbaugh may simply be trying to send a message to Rice and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Both Rice and Taliaferro have been arrested this offseason, with Rice potentially facing a suspension.
Still, there is reason to believe Forsett may actually be the best starting option for the Ravens, even if all three backs are available at the start of the season. While he has not started a game since 2010, Forsett does boast a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over the past two seasons. Rice averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in 2013.
“My mentality is to just seize the moment when it comes,” Forsett said last month, via the team's official website. “I have to be ready when my number is called. I’m preparing for that opportunity.”
RB Jeremy Hill
The presence of rookie running back Jeremy Hill ahead of seasoned veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the Cincinnati Bengals depth chart this early into his pro career is a bit of a surprise.
According to ESPN's Coley Harvey, Hill has shared first-team reps with 2013 rookie phenom Giovani Bernard during OTAs.
Putting Hill ahead of Green-Ellis could be a financial decision. According to Spotrac.com, Green-Ellis is due to earn a base salary of $2.3 million this season. If the Bengals can get comfortable with Hill and Bernard as their football-toting tandem, Green-Ellis may get a chance to seek a job elsewhere.
If the Bengals do not decide to utilize a true tandem backfield, it may be Hill who ends up as the primary runner, as the speedy Bernard may remain best suited as the change-of-pace back.
RB Terrance West
Can former Towson standout Terrance West really beat out prized free agent Ben Tate to be the starting running back for the Cleveland Browns this season?
NFL Media analyst Charley Casserly, for one, seems to think so.
"Here's my prediction." Casserly said of the rookie shortly after the draft. "This guy is going to beat out Ben Tate to be the starting running back this year."
At 5'9" and 225 pounds, West has the size to batter defenses and the skill set to excel in coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking offense. Therefore, the rookie should at least have an opportunity to earn the primary role in what will likely be a committee backfield in Cleveland.
West certainly exudes the confidence to do so.
"I want to be the starter, and I'm going to practice like a starter." he recently said, via Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
WR Markus Wheaton
However, it may be 2013 third-round pick Markus Wheaton who starts the season over the two veteran free agents.
According to ESPN's Scott Brown, receivers coach Richard Mann has already stated that Wheaton has the inside track to start opposite Antonio Brown.
To keep the inside track, Wheaton will have to fend off Moore, Heyward-Bey and 2014 fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant. Despite the impressive (and, in the case of veterans, more experienced) competition, however, it appears the job is currently Wheaton's to lose.
OT Derek Newton
Some players are a surprise to start because no one expects them to step up and claim a job. Others are a surprise because no one can believe they are retaining theirs.
Houston Texans right tackle Derek Newton falls into the latter category after suffering through a dismal 2013 campaign. According to Pro Football Focus, Newton ranked 72nd overall among offensive tackles last season. Yet he started all 16 games.
Per ESPN's Tania Ganguli, head coach Bill O'Brien has made it clear that Newton will remain the team's starting right tackle heading into the regular season.
Hopefully his next surprise will be showing enough improvement to justify O'Brien's faith.
DT Josh Chapman
If you aren't too familiar with Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Josh Chapman, you're probably not alone.
In two seasons with the Colts, the mammoth 6'0", 341-pound defender has never logged a start and has amassed just 15 tackles. However, it appears that Chapman will have an opportunity to raise his profile this season as the starting nose tackle in Indianapolis' 3-4 defense.
“He’s a big, big guy who knows how to play the nose position, how to play with leverage, play squarely, use his hands and eats up blocks,” said head coach Chuck Pagano, via Craig Kelley of the team's official website.
If Chapman can step in and help improve a run defense that ranked just 26th in the league a season ago (125.1 yards per game allowed), he probably won't remain an unknown for long.
OG Brandon Linder
Everyone knows that the Jacksonville Jaguars expect to sit rookie quarterback Blake Bortles for the 2014 season.
Everyone also expects rookie receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson to immediately step into large roles in the Jaguars offense.
The big rookie surprise is third-round guard Brandon Linder, who appears headed for a starting job right out of the gate. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling already has Linder penciled in as a starter.
While the 6'6", 311-pound Miami product will have to keep the job through training camp, he should at least be able to help improve a run-blocking unit that was ranked worst in the league by Pro Football Focus in 2013.
RB Dexter McCluster
The general perception seems to be that rookie second-round pick Bishop Sankey will immediately step in and fill the void left by Chris Johnson in the Tennessee Titans backfield.
However, it could also be the speedy and elusive Dexter McCluster who takes on the role vacated by Johnson.
While McCluster was utilized primarily as a receiver during his four years with the Kansas City Chiefs, he did carry the ball for an impressive 516 yards on 114 carries back in 2011. While his 170-pound frame is unlikely to hold up to a consistent beating, McCluster could find himself sharing duties with Sankey in a committee backfield.
According to Fox Sports' Greg Pogue, Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael simply said, "He's a running back," when discussing McCluster's position in Tennessee.
WR Cody Latimer
With guys like Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders also on the roster, one might envision rookie second-round pick Cody Latimer having a difficult time cracking the starting lineup for the Denver Broncos.
However, ESPN's Jeff Legwold reported that Latimer was already working with the first-team offense in three-receiver sets last month.
If the former Indiana standout can make enough progress during training camp, he might even have a chance at earning the No. 2 job opposite Thomas.
At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Latimer has a clear size advantage over both Welker (5'9") and Sanders (5'11"). This would appear to make him the better fit as an outside receiver, potentially leaving Welker in the slot and Sanders as the No. 4 option.
Kansas City Chiefs
OG Zach Fulton
Former Tennessee guard Zach Fulton may not yet be well-known to Kansas City Chiefs fans, but that could change in a hurry.
With guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah gone via free agency, the rookie sixth-round pick should have a legitimate chance to earn a starting job in training camp.
ESPN's Adam Teicher has reported that Fulton has already received some work with the first-team offense at right guard. If the rookie can show progress there during camp, he may just stick.
"He’s a strong contender to be the starter at right guard." Teicher wrote." The Chiefs wouldn’t waste first-team snaps on Fulton if they didn’t think he had skills worth developing."
OLB Miles Burris
Oakland Raiders linebacker Miles Burris was impressive as a rookie a couple of short seasons ago (100 tackles, 1.5 sacks in 2012). However, he was mostly forgotten last season, as a knee injury limited him to just six appearances and four tackles.
With first-round pick Khalil Mack joining a unit that already includes 2013 rookie standout Sio Moore, it appeared Burris might have been destined for a reserve role in 2014. However, starting linebacker Kevin Burnett has been nursing an ankle injury this offseason, which has put Burris back working with the first-team offense.
"Everything we've seen so far out of Miles this offseason has indicated that he's healthy and ready to go." Head coach Dennis Allen recently said, via the AP (h/t The Boston Herald).
If Burris continues to go through training camp with the first-team defense, don't be surprised if he manages to hold on to at least one of the starting jobs for the regular season.
San Diego Chargers
WR Tevin Reese
Seventh-round draft pick Tevin Reese may be a bit too unpolished to crack the starting lineup in the San Diego Chargers offense, but that doesn't mean he cannot make his mark elsewhere.
"I really want to be a return guy," Reese said last month, via UTSanDiego.com's Michael Gehlken. "I wanted to do it all throughout college. I did it throughout high school and I was good at it. I'm ready to get back out there and return some kicks."
According to Gehlken, veterans who fielded kicks in OTAs included Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal. Danny Woodhead is also a possible stopgap option.
Realistically, these three players are too valuable to the offense to sacrifice in the return game, and Reese should get every opportunity to state his case for the job in camp.
Return specialists are not technically considered starting players. With the impact they can have on a football game, though, perhaps they should be.
DT Ken Bishop
A late-seventh-round draft pick out of Northern Illinois starting as a rookie for the Dallas Cowboys? That would certainly come as a surprise.
According to Bleacher Report's John Owning, it could very well happen.
"Bishop should immediately be in the rotation at 1-technique and could even challenge for a starting spot." Owning wrote early last month.
Since a 1-technique tackle is primarily responsible for drawing double-teams and plugging running lanes, the 6'0", 300-pound Bishop would indeed seem like a natural fit.
When you consider that last year's starter, Nick Hayden, was ranked 68th overall among defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus, Bishop also seems like he could be an immediate upgrade.
New York Giants
DE Damontre Moore
New York Giants defensive end Damontre Moore made a bit of a name for himself last season by blocking punts. If he can continue to make a name for himself during training camp, he may emerge as a starter in New York's 4-3 base defense.
"I just want to go out there—and if that's me starting, or whatever, that's great—and do my job." Moore said back in May, via NJ.com's Conor Orr. "If that's on special teams, that's great, too. At the end of the day, my opportunity will come to me."
Moore's opportunity may come this offseason, especially if he finds himself in a competition with longtime Mathias Kiwanuka.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kiwanuka ranked just 51st overall among 4-3 defensive ends last season. Therefore, there is clearly room for improvement at the position if Moore can find a way to provide it.
WR Jordan Matthews
The Philadelphia Eagles likely used a second-round draft pick on rookie Jordan Matthews with the thought that he could step in as the team's No. 3 receiver.
At 6'3" and 212 pounds, Matthews has the look and skill set of a true outside pass-catcher. He and Cooper (6'3", 222 pounds) could make for an imposing tandem, with the smaller Maclin (6'0", 198 pounds) wreaking havoc out of the slot.
If Matthews can manage to add a little polish to his game before the regular season starts, there is little reason to believe he can't become an immediate starter.
C Kory Lichtensteiger
Kory Lichtensteiger has started at least 14 games in three out of the past 14 seasons for the Washington Redskins. But he makes our list of surprise starters because of where he is likely to be starting this coming season.
Lichtensteiger has been a guard since arriving in Washington in 2012, but he will be moving to center for the 2014 season. The move comes in an effort to replace the departed Will Montgomery.
So far, the transition appears to be going smoothly.
“I was the backup center last year I played it in preseason games on and off throughout my career" Lichtensteiger recently said, per Per Paul St. Jean of The Washington Times. “The shift feels pretty natural. It wasn’t one of those things where you know it was a huge adjustment kind of thing.”
FS Brock Vereen
Players selected in the fourth round of the draft don't typically head into training camp on track to claim a starting job. However, this seems to be exactly where Chicago Bears safety Brock Vereen finds himself—at least as long as former starter Chris Conte remains out after shoulder surgery.
According to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun Times, Vereen has already jumped ahead of M.D. Jennings and has spent most of the offseason working with the starters at free safety.
Vereen certainly has the size (6'0", 199 pounds) and skill set (he played both safety and cornerback) to be the type of rangy defender the Bears are looking for at the back end of the defense.
Considering that Conte ranked was ranked just 82nd overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus for the 2013 season, the starting job may already be Vereen's to lose.
TE Joseph Fauria
The Detroit Lions are extremely deep at the tight end position, with Brandon Pettigrew, Joesph Fauria and first-round rookie Eric Ebron all bringing unique skills to the position.
Pettigrew has been a starter for the past five season, and Ebron, the 10th overall pick in May's draft, seems destined for a large role in the offense. The wild card of the bunch is Fauria, who proved to be a valuable red-zone target (seven scores) as a rookie in 2013.
Accoring to the National Football Post, Fauria is likely to enter the season as the team's third tight end.
However, the UCLA product may be able to earn a more prominent role, especially in passing situations.
While Pettigrew has been the starter in Detroit, he isn't exactly an elite pass-catching tight end. Pro Football Focus ranked him 63rd among tight ends in receiving for the 2013 season.
Green Bay Packers
S Micah Hyde
Pro Football Focus rated Micah Hyde of the Green Bay Packers 40th overall among cornerbacks last season. Therefore, it isn't really surprising to see that Hyde has the inside track to a starting job.
What is surprising is the fact that the Packers are giving Hyde an opportunity to keep the starting safety job away from first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
According to Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are trying out the tandem of Hyde and Morgan Burnett on the back end of the defense. This likely leaves Clinton-Dix, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo competing for playing time.
Further, according to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, it shouldn't be surprising to see Hyde starting at safety because head coach Mike McCarthy won't be handing any starting jobs to rookies this season.
QB Teddy Bridgewater
The Minnesota Vikings spent a first-round pick on former Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater in May's draft with the hope that he can be the team's quarterback of the future.
However, Bridgewater should at least have a decent shot at being the team's quarterback of the present.
Earlier this offseason, the Vikings re-signed journeyman quarterback Matt Cassel to a two-year deal. This seemed to indicate that Cassel would serve as the team's place-holder under center, at least temporarily.
Head coach Mike Zimmer dismissed the notion that Cassel would head into training camp as the presumed starter, telling ESPN's Ben Goessling "I've never said that."
While Cassel did show some flashes of promise last season, he was ranked just 28th overall among quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus. So long as the quarterback competition in Minnesota is truly open, Bridgewater will have an opportunity to pry away the starting job.
FS Dwight Lowery
Though his NFL career got off to a promising start (seven interceptions and two touchdowns in his first three years), safety Dwight Lowery has slipped toward obscurity due to injuries in recent years.
However, it appears that Lowery will be given a chance to jump back into the national spotlight as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2014. ESPN's Vaughn McClure reported back in May that he was already working with the No. 1 defense at free safety.
Lowery has made 41 NFL starts in his career, so he definitely has the experience needed to make an impact in Atlanta's secondary. However, it is still a surprise to see such an unheralded free agent thrust directly into a starting role.
According to Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com, Lowery has said that Atlanta was the only team to show him any interest this offseason. Now, he will have a chance to make the Falcons look smart for doing so.
G Trai Turner
It can be a risky proposition to thrust a rookie into a starting role along an NFL offensive line, especially when that rookie is an early-exit third-rounder.
However, LSU product Trai Turner has the size (6'2", 310 pounds) and the pedigree to step in at guard for the Carolina Panthers almost immediately.
"The newcomer here is LSU's Trai Turner, chosen No. 92 overall and a strong bet to open the year inside at right guard alongside rock-solid center Ryan Kalil." NFL.com's Marc Sessler recently wrote in an evaluation of the team's potential starting lineup.
The good news is that starting next to a Pro Bowl center in Kalil should help allow Turner to disguise his rookie deficiencies. At just 21 years old, Turner will also have plenty of room for improvement.
New Orleans Saints
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Back in May, NFL.com's Marc Sessler predicted that veteran free agent Champ Bailey would earn a starting cornerback job opposite Keenan Lewis.
However, rookie second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste may just have an opportunity to pry that job away form the near-legendary veteran if he can adapt to the NFL game quickly enough.
Injuries limited Bailey to just five games a year ago, and he has notched just four interceptions over the past three seasons. He was ranked 141st overall among NFL cornerbacks in 2013 by Pro Football Focus.
If Bailey can regain his Pro Bowl form after injury, then Jean-Baptiste will likely have an opportunity to come along slowly. However, he made numerous plays during OTAs and has flashed impressive potential, according to ESPN's Mike Triplett.
If Jean-Baptiste does get an early opportunity to work with the starters, don't be too surprised if he never relinquishes the job.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
OG Patrick Omameh
If you're not a die-hard Michigan Wolverine or Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan (and perhaps even if you are a Bucs fan), the name Patrick Omameh probably doesn't ring a bell.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Omameh has yet to appear in a regular-season NFL game. However, he could be holding down one of the starting guard spots for the Buccaneers in Week 1.
According to ESPN's Pat Yasinskas, Omameh has spent most of the offseason working with the first-team unit. He will, of course, have to beat out the likes of Oniel Cousins and Jamon Meredith to keep the starting job.
For what it's worth, Meredith and Cousins were ranked 64th and 71st, respectively, by Pro Football Focus for the 2013 season.
WR John Brown
When the Arizona Cardinals spent a third-round selection on Pittsburgh State receiver John Brown this past May, it might have raised a few eyebrows.
Well, Brown has been raising a few eyebrows himself this offseason and may be on the fast track to going from small-school standout to starting slot receiver.
According to ESPN's Josh Weinfuss, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has "repeatedly talked about how rookie wide receiver Brown has jumped out at him."
Meanwhile, NFL Media analyst Albert Breer has compared Brown to Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton, you may remember, was heavily utilized by Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians while the two were in Indianapolis.
San Francisco 49ers
ILB Michael Wilhoite
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has already indicated that star linebacker NaVorro Bowman won't realistically return from last season's ACL injury until "halfway through the season."
This leaves the 49ers with a rather large hole to fill in the middle of their defense.
While San Francisco did use a third-round pick on Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland, it appears third-year linebacker Michael Wilhoite has the inside track for the starting job in Bowman's absence.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch, Wilhoite is an unlikely front-runner. A collegiate safety at Washburn University, Wilhoite first landed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
Borland and fellow rookie Shayne Skov will have an opportunity to make some noise as the offseason continues. For now, however, the job appears to be Wilhoite's to lose.
WR Paul Richardson
Defending Super Bowl champions typically don't have to turn to rookie talent to help reshape the roster. However, the Seattle Seahawks may want to think long and hard about inserting rookie wideout Paul Richardson into the starting lineup.
Richardson, a second-round pick out of Colorado, brings immediate quickness to the Seahawks receiving corps. If he can adequately adjust to the pro game, he may have a good chance of beating out returning guys like Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice and Jermaine Kearse.
"When the Seahawks have Harvin and Richardson on the field at the same time this season, opposing teams will worry about getting beat over the top." Blount wrote while covering Seattle OTAs. "They have to account for their speed and won’t be able to cheat up near the line of scrimmage."
St. Louis Rams
DT Kendall Langford
St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford performed at a high level in 2013. Not only did he help anchor a defensive unit that ranked third in the league in sacks (53), but he produced 5.0 sacks of his own to go with 49 tackles.
The only real reason it would be a surprise for Langford to start this season is because it would likely mean that 13th overall pick Aaron Donald would be performing backup duties.
"It's rare to see the No. 13 overall pick in the draft sit for long, but don't assume that Aaron Donald will pass solid veteran Kendall Langford on the depth chart right away," NFL Media's Gregg Rosenthal wrote back in May while evaluating the Rams roster.
While Donald is a very intriguing prospect, Langford has six years worth of starting experience to his credit and won't be easy to push from the starting role.