Buying or Selling the NFL's Hottest Projected Breakout Stars
Run a search on Google or any major website that covers the National Football League, and you’re bound to find a list of projected breakout players for the upcoming season. As the offseason has toiled along, many NFL analysts have tried their hand at predicting who will become the new stars of the league in 2014.
These projections can be of interest to many people. Fans of specific franchises want to know who will stand out for their favorite teams this year. Fantasy football aficionados want to know which unheralded players could be steals in their respective drafts. And coaches around the league try to determine which opposing players could affect their game plans.
This has led, however, to just about every young player coming off a promising 2013 season—and even some players who didn’t but are still seen as having the potential to be great—being expected to have a breakout season in 2014. Indubitably, many of them will fall short of expectations.
Until the games begin, there’s no way to know for sure which players are actually on the verge of greatness. But among the players receiving pre-training camp hype, some are more likely to be on the verge of greatness than others.
In the following slides, we’ll look at one writer’s take on which projected rising stars are the most and least likely to succeed this year. Examples are drawn from NFL.com’s Making the Leap countdown and CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco’s list of 25 players expected to break out.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
You could say Cordarrelle Patterson already had his breakout year as a rookie. He led all NFL kickoff returners with 32.4 yards per return and two return touchdowns in 2013, and he also ranked second in the NFL in all-purpose yards.
Offensively, however, his first NFL season showed only flashes of his potential. He had five or more catches in three of the Minnesota Vikings’ final six games, but he had three or fewer receptions in the other 13.
Many expect Patterson to have a breakout season in 2014, including the Around The League team at NFL.com, which ranked him No. 1 on its Making the Leap countdown.
“Patterson has the ideal size and burst to continue the string of receivers who explode in their second season,” NFL.com’s Kevin Patra wrote. “Even with the Vikings' run-heavy approach, a potential 70-catch, 1,100-yard season shouldn't be snickered at.”
Bleacher Report’s Nick Kostos ranked Patterson second on his list of the top NFL players primed for breakout seasons in 2014.
“It's more for his expected improvement as a receiver than for his continued success in the return game,” Kostos wrote.
Patterson made a name for himself in 2013, but 2014 should be the year he becomes a superstar.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner should bring emphasis and evolution to the Minnesota passing game, which will lead to more consistent opportunities for Patterson on offense. His production spiked significantly in Minnesota’s final six games last season, and it should only continue to grow in the Vikings’ new offense in 2014.
A triple threat who can also be used situationally as a runner, Patterson is a good bet to lead the league in all-purpose yards in 2014 if he continues to handle kickoff return responsibilities. Possessing a rare combination of speed, elusiveness and size, Patterson is a consistent big-play threat.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Patterson, Le’Veon Bell is a player whose production steadily grew over the course of his rookie campaign.
Bell started the 2013 season slow, as he missed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first three games with a foot injury. He became very reliable in the second half of the year, though, gaining at least 80 yards from scrimmage in each of the team’s final nine games. He ended up with 1,259 yards from scrimmage, the second-most among all rookies.
The big, athletic back can do damage both inside and outside the tackles, and he is also a sure-handed pass-catcher out of the backfield. He can contribute in all situations.
“Bell will be a major centerpiece of Pittsburgh's offense in '14,” wrote Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, which ranked Bell second in its Making the Leap series. “A healthy Bell can clear 1,300 rushing yards, 70 receptions and 12 total touchdowns.”
Bell made a strong case down the stretch of his first season to be a focal point of the Steelers offense in year two, but it shouldn’t be shocking if he takes a step back.
One reason for concern: He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2013. As Rotoworld.com’s Adam Levitan noted earlier this year, that low average does not have a promising outlook for his sophomore season.
“Between 2003 and 2012, four rookie running backs (with 600+ yards) averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry: Matt Forte, Knowshon Moreno, Vick Ballard and Trent Richardson,” Levitan wrote. “All four of those suffered a decline in both yardage and touchdowns as sophomores.”
If Bell is going to take his game to the next level in 2014, the back who ran for 860 yards last season will need to push or eclipse four yards per carry. If he doesn’t, his numbers could decrease, as he faces increased competition for running back touches from veteran free-agent addition LeGarrette Blount and third-round draft pick Dri Archer.
Jamie Collins, OLB, New England Patriots
There’s nothing that stands out about the statistics from Jamie Collins’ rookie season. With just 43 tackles, four passes defensed and no sacks in the regular season, he wasn’t a particularly noticeable difference-maker for the New England Patriots in 2013.
Down the stretch, however, Collins started to stand out. His playing time increased significantly in New England’s final four regular-season games and in the postseason. He started making a name for himself against the Indianapolis Colts, when he recorded his first career sack and interception in a divisional-round playoff win.
An exceptionally athletic 6’3”, 250-pound linebacker who can do everything from rush the passer off the edge to drop back into coverage versus slot receivers, Collins is a chameleon on the defense. He can confuse offenses with his ability to handle a number of different assignments on any given play.
“Jamie Collins is a cornerback trapped in a 250-pound body,” NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote. “If he were a baseball player, we'd talk about his five tools: Speed, strength, pass coverage, pass rush and run stopping.”
If this was simply a ranking of top breakout players, Collins would belong at the top of the list. There might not be anyone in position to make a more drastic leap from unknown to Pro Bowl-caliber player in 2014.
Collins didn’t make the highlight reel much in his rookie season, but his tape shows an unusual degree of versatility. You won’t find many players with his measurables who can transition as seamlessly from one capacity to another as he can.
While his role increased gradually in 2013, Collins projects as a starter and every-down player in 2014. Patriots coach and defensive mastermind Bill Belichick should look to maximize his young defender’s multifaceted skill set.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
Letting Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency might have been a shrewd move by the Denver Broncos. The oft-injured veteran running back “wasn't in the best of shape and didn't look explosive” in spring workouts for the Miami Dolphins, according to ESPN’s James Walker, and he is currently sidelined by arthroscopic knee surgery.
It can only work out well for the Broncos, though, if Montee Ball emerges from Moreno’s shadow in 2014 and succeeds as a bell-cow feature back.
Ball had a decent but forgettable rookie year. He had a strong average of 4.7 yards per carry, but he also had an alarmingly high fumble rate (three in 120 rushing attempts). As the starting running back this year nonetheless, he has an opportunity for considerable production if he fixes his ball-security issues.
Playing in an offense highlighted by legendary quarterback Peyton Manning and a prolific passing attack means opposing defenses rarely stack the box, and runners like Ball, who is at his best between the tackles, have room to thrive on all downs.
An increase in carries shouldn’t negatively affect Ball’s ability to run the ball effectively—he proved at Wisconsin that he can handle a heavy workload and that he can get stronger as both games and the season progress.
A tough runner who senses and attacks lanes effectively, consistently falls forward through contact and is a decent pass-catcher out of the backfield, Ball is a strong bet to reach a four-digit total in rushing yards in 2014.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Four seasons as Adrian Peterson’s backup with the Vikings didn’t provide much for Toby Gerhart to write home about. In playing out his rookie contract, Gerhart has just 1,905 yards and eight touchdowns on 353 offensive touches thus far in his career.
In 2014, Gerhart has a big opportunity to break away from the shadow of Peterson, arguably the NFL’s best running back, and create his own fame as a starter. After signing a three-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, he is set to become a feature back, and some expect that to lead to a rapid increase in production.
“Here's a name that keeps coming up in my talks with personnel guys around the league: Toby Gerhart,” NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah tweeted in June. “High expectations for 2014.”
NFL.com’s Marc Sessler expects Gerhart to be a bell-cow back and considers him “a candidate to lead the league in carries.”
“I can't help but look at his career totals as a guide,” Sessler wrote. “In four seasons with the Vikings, his 276 rushes led to 1,305 yards and five scores. He won't achieve 4.7 yards per tote, but projecting him for 285 attempts and 1,150 yards makes plenty of sense.”
As Sessler alluded to, it’s unlikely Gerhart will be as productive on a per-carry basis in Jacksonville as he was in Minnesota.
If the Jaguars allow their offense to revolve around Gerhart, a big, strong back who drives through contact well but lacks explosive athleticism, defenses will stack the box and game-plan against him. This will make consistent yardage gains much tougher to come by than they were in Minnesota, where opponents could see him as a reprieve from the more dynamic Peterson.
Gerhart is a solid back, but he’ll have to be special to achieve breakout star status in 2014. Sheer quantity of rushing attempts could push him to a high yardage total if he stays healthy, but his play is more likely to be pedestrian than awe-striking.
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
There’s been no shortage of buzz around Christine Michael this offseason. He “drew consistent praise from the coaches during the spring for his conditioning, increased knowledge of the playbook, better pass blocking and overall maturity,” according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
Even Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has specifically referred to Michael as the team’s “biggest breakout candidate,” according to Justin Rogers of MLive.com.
Many members of the NFL media have piggybacked on that hype, including ESPN’s Louis Riddick, who tweeted that if “Christine Michael gets his chance regular season '14, provided he's healthy, he'll show he's the most gifted RB drafted in past 5 yrs.”
Why are expectations so high for Michael, who ran just 18 times for 79 yards as a rookie in 2013? The biggest reason is his measurables, which proved to be among the best of the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, as the 5’10”, 220-pound running back posted a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, 43-inch vertical jump, 6.69-second three-cone drill and 27 bench-press repetitions, according to NFL.com.
The Around The League crew at NFL.com, which ranked Michael No. 23 on its Making the Leap countdown, expects those measurables to translate to production in 2014.
Michael’s predraft workout numbers were impressive, but his on-field statistics have never done much to move the needle. He was a non-factor for the championship-winning Seahawks last season and never reached the 900-yard plateau in any of his four collegiate seasons at Texas A&M.
That’s only one reason it’s a leap of faith to expect a head-turning season from Michael this year. Another is Marshawn Lynch, who has had at least 285 carries, 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of the past three years with Seattle.
The 28-year-old Lynch has become known for his atypical behavior off the field, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down on it. Michael should get a greater share of carries in his sophomore season, but he’s still set to serve in a backup role, which will curb his opportunity to achieve stardom in 2014.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Tribulations are a common and regular occurrence for most rookie cornerbacks, but not Desmond Trufant in 2013. At a position generally considered one of the toughest for a first-year player to excel at, Trufant started all 16 games for the Atlanta Falcons and played consistently well.
Graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the NFL’s seventh-best cornerback last season, Trufant looked smooth and fast in coverage. He was also highly productive on the stat sheet, recording 17 passes defensed and 70 total tackles.
Despite his immediate success, Trufant didn’t get much national recognition for his play. NFL.com’s Kevin Patra expects that to change in 2014.
“With a better defensive front in 2014—the Falcons hope—putting opponents in longer down-and-distance situations and pressuring quarterbacks more frequently, Trufant will have more opportunities to make plays,” Patra wrote. “I'd put him on a preseason list as a favorite to be in Arizona for the Pro Bowl in 2014.”
It’s expected for a cornerback to make significant strides in reliability and playmaking in his second season, but Trufant might end up labeled a breakout player even if he just performs as well as he did in 2013. As Patra said, “Anyone not familiar with Desmond Trufant's work wasn't watching closely in 2013.”
With that being said, Trufant’s explosive speed, quick hips and ability to get his hands on the football give him the potential to emerge as a true star in the Atlanta secondary in 2014.
Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets
Playing for the New York Jets often means becoming a target of exorbitant criticism. Despite being a rookie, No. 9 overall draft pick Dee Milliner received no free pass in 2013.
To an extent, the vituperation against Milliner was warranted. He was targeted once every 4.3 coverage snaps last season—the most frequent rate against any cornerback to play at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps—and allowed 1.75 yards per coverage snap, according to Pro Football Focus.
Quarterbacks picked on Milliner throughout the year, but he finished his rookie season with a bang. He recorded five passes defensed in each of his final two games, including a total of three interceptions.
“In the last six games of 2013, he flashed the type of talent the Jets thought they were getting when they picked him in the first round of last year's draft,” Prisco wrote. “That should carry over.”
Milliner suffered some bad beats in his first NFL season, but he made it clear by the end of the season that opponents who go after his lunch money might pay for their attempts.
The Alabama product’s technique and footwork remain works in progress, but he’s likely to make significant strides in those areas with a year of professional experience under his belt. He’s already established that he has a skill for getting his hands on passes.
The Jets need Milliner to continue his growth, as he now stands as the No. 1 cornerback on their depth chart. If his late-season improvement was any indication, he’ll be up to the task as a sophomore.
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans
Justin Hunter might not be the Tennessee Titans’ best wide receiver yet, but he’s quite clearly their most physically gifted.
A 6’4” wideout who recorded a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and 39.5-inch vertical jump at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com, Hunter has utopian measurables for a prototypical “X” receiver.
Given his immense physical upside and potential to create mismatches as a result, it’s no surprise that NFL.com, Prisco and Bleacher Report's Russell S. Baxter all included Hunter on their breakout players lists.
“The Titans have Kendall Wright to do the inside work, but Hunter will be the speed guy. He is tall at 6-4, and he can run,” Prisco wrote. “His 19.7 per-catch average is what really excites me, and why I put him on this list.”
Hunter had a flash of brilliance in his rookie season—in two games out of a three-week span, he had one touchdown and more than 100 receiving yards in each of them. It didn’t last, however, as he finished 2013 with no receptions in Tennessee’s final three games.
Besides the two aforementioned games, Hunter never had more than two receptions in any contest last year. He finished the year with just 18 catches, despite having only two wideouts—Wright and Nate Washington, who are both back with the team for 2014—ahead of him on the depth chart.
Hunter’s size and speed give him the potential to beat defenders deep or leap over them in jump-ball situations, but he hasn’t been able to put his skills together into a well-rounded game yet. He has to become a more consistent hands-catcher and more diversified route-runner to have sustained NFL success.
The Tennessee product certainly has the potential to make that happen, but his inconsistency in year one leaves doubt in regards to him truly taking advantage of his upside in 2014, especially as Wright and Washington should remain ahead of him on the depth chart.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
Another young player being regularly billed as a potential new star of the upcoming season, Ladarius Green is expected by many to emerge as one of the NFL’s most dynamic tight ends in 2014.
In two NFL seasons, he's caught only 21 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns, but he has shown playmaking promise in limited playing time. A 6’6” pass-catcher with great athleticism for his frame, Green can stretch the field over the middle and be moved around to create mismatches.
“There aren't many humans on the planet with his size and movement skills,” NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote of Green, who ranked ninth in the Making the Leap series.
Bleacher Report’s Cian Fahey sees Green as the NFL’s next breakout star at tight end. Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego expects Green to “at least double” last year’s totals of 17 receptions, 376 yards and three touchdowns.
“There are plays Green makes, with his height, hands and speed, no one else on the roster can make,” Acee wrote.
This might be the toughest call on the list, as Green needs to have a huge increase in production to become a star in 2014, but he is still a backup to Antonio Gates in San Diego. That said, he has shown all the tools in limited action to be a primary candidate for increased playmaking opportunities this season.
Green’s ability to post up on defenders and win with verticality, combined with his sprinter speed downfield, fits the basketball player prototype for a modern NFL tight end.
Coming off a 77-catch, 872-yard season, Gates still presents a serious roadblock to Green’s playing time. That said, by incorporating two-tight end sets and flexing Green out to wide receiver, the Chargers should create more situations that allow them to get one of their most dynamic playmakers on the field.
Expecting a Pro Bowl push from Green may be exaggerated optimism for the tight end in 2014, but an exponential increase in impact seems well within his ability.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.