Projecting the Most Improved NFL Player at Every Position for 2014
With training camps opening across America, it's a time for boundless optimism in the NFL world. And in that vein, it's time to project the most improved NFL player at every position in 2014.
A few criteria needed to be met for a player to be included on this list. First, the player cannot be a rookie, as there is nothing for him to improve on. The player also couldn't have yet reached his full potential or be considered a superstar. And the player needs to be on the precipice of a big season.
Some of the players on this list authored poor seasons in 2013 and will surely bounce back and improve in a major way. Others didn't receive much playing time and are expected to put forth a better showing with more reps. And a few have already sparkled but are on the cusp of superstardom.
Here is my projection for the most improved NFL player at every position for 2014.
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Out of every quarterback who has yet to ascend to the rarefied air of stardom, the one with the best chance to get there in 2014 is Miami Dolphins signal-caller Ryan Tannehill.
Last season he threw 24 touchdown passes against only 17 interceptions and brought the Dolphins to the cusp of a playoff berth, despite an offensive line that allowed a league-high 58 sacks. When you couple the fact that the offensive line resembled a moldy piece of Swiss cheese with the Bullygate scandal that rocked the NFL, it's a miracle that Tannehill performed so well.
Yes, he failed to impress in the team's final two games, when one win against inferior competition (the Bills and Jets) would have earned a postseason berth, but that can be chalked up to a young passer's introductory experience in a playoff race. Plus, as previously noted, the offensive line was dreadful throughout.
Thankfully for Tannehill, the Dolphins improved the line this offseason, signing tackle Branden Albert, acquiring guard Shelley Smith and spending a first-round pick on tackle Ja'Wuan James. The injury to center Mike Pouncey hurts—especially if he misses half the season, as Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald recently reported—but the talent level on the line is still exponentially better than in 2013.
Then there's new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who came to South Beach after a year as Eagles quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly. His offense should be much more exciting than that of the deposed Mike Sherman, and if Nick Foles' play last year was any indication, Tannehill could be in line for big things this fall.
Tannehill has weapons at the skill positions (highlighted by receiver Mike Wallace), an improved offensive line and a heralded new offensive coordinator. He is also entering Year 3 of his NFL career. He's set for a big-time season.
For more on why Tannehill is a player to watch, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey.
Running Back: Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks
Last season Seattle Seahawks rookie running back Christine Michael carried the ball only 18 times for 79 yards.
Expect those numbers to spike in a major way in 2014, as he will serve as the primary backup to starter Marshawn Lynch.
Michael has dazzled in offseason workouts, drawing significant praise from coaches and teammates. Coach Pete Carroll recently told Terry Blount of ESPN.com:
We have very high expectations for him. He's going to get a ton of work. He's just a million miles ahead of where he was in terms of understanding what we want scheme-wise, pass protection wise, route wise, and we know he's a natural runner. He's got explosive talent and we just want to get him to fit in.
If Michael does indeed get a "ton of work" in Seattle's offense, the talented back is going to put up eye-popping numbers.
The Seahawks didn't need Michael to produce as a greenhorn to win a Super Bowl championship. This year, they'll likely lean on the second-year rusher to form a devastating ground game with Lynch.
Wide Receiver: Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
While 2013 can certainly be constituted as a breakout year for Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd—he hauled in 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdown receptions in his sophomore campaign—he hasn't yet elevated his game to the level of superstar.
Expect that to change this season, as Floyd is on the verge of evolving into one of the game's next great receiving threats.
He has been stupendous throughout offseason workouts, flashing the form that made him the 13th overall pick of the 2012 draft. Count quarterback Carson Palmer as those impressed with Floyd's progression, as he told Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, "The way Mike Floyd is playing just jumped out at me. I have very high expectations for Mike this year."
With Larry Fitzgerald drawing coverage on the other side of the field, it's easy to conjure up a scenario where Floyd authors a dominant campaign. That could be enough to push the Cardinals into the postseason out of the ultra-tough NFC West.
Don't be shocked if Floyd puts up better numbers than Fitzgerald this year. He's that good.
For more on how Floyd can improve in 2014, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland.
Tight End: Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
In his two NFL seasons, San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green hasn't seen much playing time, largely due to the fact that he's been behind star Antonio Gates on the depth chart.
But in 2014, expect Green's workload to be amplified, and as a result, the 6'6", 240-pound pass-catcher will take the AFC West by storm.
Green is a freakish talent who flashed last year, catching 17 passes for 336 yards and three touchdown receptions. He profiles as an absolute monster in the fast-paced offense set to be run by new coordinator Frank Reich.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal agrees, as he named Green as a candidate to "make the leap" into stardom this season.
With quarterback Philip Rivers serving as the trigger man of the exciting new offense, Green will receive myriad opportunities to make plays and could become a household name by the time the calendar turns to December.
For a detailed breakdown of Green's game, this column from Bleacher Report's Marcelo Villa is recommended reading.
Tackle: Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints
While the New Orleans Saints boast a number of high-profile players on both sides of the ball, offensive tackle Terron Armstead is not yet among them.
That will change after the 2014 campaign, as he possesses the skill set to dominate.
Last year, once he was inserted into the starting lineup prior to the Week 16 game against Carolina, the Saints run game improved dramatically, and Armstead played very well in his four starts at left tackle.
Armstead's development has continued into this offseason, as offensive line coach Bret Ingalls detailed to John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com:
I’d say that (Armstead has) made a lot of strides since the end of last year. He had almost a full year of work before he got on the field and he played last year and yet, I think he’s the kind of guy that studies what he does. He’s conscientious, he’s focused and I’ve already seen improvement, just in his confidence, No. 1.
Armstead made a major impression in only four starts last season. With a full campaign protecting the blind side of quarterback Drew Brees, he will emerge as the most improved offensive lineman in football, and that's a scary proposition for the rest of the NFC South.
Guard: Brandon Brooks, Houston Texans
One of the bright spots on last year's ultra-disappointing Houston Texans was right guard Brandon Brooks.
Despite playing for a 2-14 team, he finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 10th-best guard, coming in ahead of more heralded players like Logan Mankins, Marshal Yanda and Jahri Evans.
But Brooks hasn't yet reached his full potential as a player, with Greg Gabriel of NationalFootballPost.com noting that he "needs to develop overall consistency."
Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com is a believer in Brooks, recently naming him as the Texans' most underrated player.
With Brooks set to enter Year 3, the sky is the limit for the 6'5", 340-pound behemoth. He could be earmarked for a Pro Bowl berth.
Center: Brian Schwenke, Tennessee Titans
Despite being the NFL's most nondescript team, the Tennessee Titans boast one of the league's best offensive lines, and one of its principals is second-year center Brian Schwenke.
Schwenke, the club's fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft, started nine of the team's final 10 games last year and proved to be an adept run-blocker. It stands to reason that if he can improve his pass protection, he'll be thought of as one of the game's best young centers.
To his credit, he seems up for the task and wants to make sure the line performs as well as expected, telling Joe Fann of TitansOnline.com:
We don’t have goals numerically or anything like that, but we have a mindset we want to achieve. We want to go out there and dominate as an offensive line and dictate what we’re doing. If we want to run ball then we need to be able to run the ball. The same goes for the passing game. If you can control what you want to do then you can make good things happen.
The center needs to be the leader of the offensive line, and Schwenke seems poised to handle that responsibility. He looms as a breakout candidate.
Defensive End: Damontre Moore, New York Giants
New York Giants defensive end Damontre Moore was disappointing as a rookie, failing to notch a sack as Big Blue's sagging pass rush mightily contributed to the club's 7-9 record.
But Moore has the talent to bounce back and make an impact, as evidenced by his 26.5 sacks at the collegiate level at Texas A&M. And he'll have the opportunity to do so in 2014.
To begin the campaign, Moore likely won't start alongside end Jason Pierre-Paul on the defensive line—that honor should belong to Mathias Kiwanuka—but Dan Graziano of ESPN.com believes Moore could end the season in that role, which would indicate a major improvement in Moore's overall play.
This is a critical season for coach Tom Coughlin and the Giants, who have missed the postseason for two consecutive years following the club's triumph in Super Bowl XLVI. If Moore can flash and get after the opposing quarterback, he will earn a significant amount of playing time, and that should enable him to fully showcase the skills that made him a pass-rushing demon in college.
Defensive Tackle: Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers
Last April the Carolina Panthers spent their first two draft picks on defensive tackles, tabbing Star Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short in the second.
And while Lotulelei earned the lion's share of the hype and praise given his first-round status, Short also played extremely well as a neophyte and projects to dominate in Year 2.
Short garnered 1.5 sacks last season and was a beast in the run game, all despite not starting a single contest. While he's currently behind Dwan Edwards on the depth chart to start alongside Lotulelei, the expectation should be that the ultratalented Short beats him out and puts forth a spectacular sophomore season.
Outside Linebacker: Sio Moore, Oakland Raiders
In Oakland, all eyes are on rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick in May's draft.
But the club boasts another speedy young linebacker in Sio Moore, who will be a disruptive force in his second season.
With Mack joining the defense, Moore will shift to the weak side, which will allow him to showcase his speed and playmaking ability. Moore accrued 4.5 sacks as a rookie and should best that total in Year 2.
By season's end, Moore and Mack could very well end up as the league's premier one-two punch at linebacker, a prospect that excites Moore, who recently told Eddie Paskal of Raiders.com:
(Mack) and I are both out there working, and everybody is working to earn their place. He has a lot of athleticism, a lot of burst, same as me, and we’re just out there trying to put it together. Right now it’s talk, but if we do what we have to do between the two of us, when we get out there on that field, it can become everything that everybody has made it out to be.
The inclusion of Mack should allow Moore even more freedom to assert himself and ply his wares. Expect a big-time season from the second-year linebacker.
Inside Linebacker: Michael Wilhoite, San Francisco 49ers
You might not know Michael Wilhoite's name just yet, but you will.
That's because he's the San Francisco 49ers linebacker who will likely replace All-Pro NaVorro Bowman in the starting lineup until Bowman is fully recovered from his torn ACL.
Wilhoite started two games last year in place of the injured Patrick Willis and played well, accumulating 20 tackles. And even though the 49ers drafted Chris Borland to provide depth at the position (and potentially push to start in Bowman's absence), Wilhoite's experience should help him keep the job.
If Wilhoite does indeed open the season as the starter, he'll be afforded a significant opportunity to make an impact. And if last year's performance is any judge, expect him to garner much hype and praise as Willis' batterymate.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
When one is asked to name the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Stephon Gilmore of the Buffalo Bills is never mentioned.
But if the latter half of 2013 is any indication, expect Gilmore's name to be injected into that conversation sooner rather than later.
He quietly emerged as a legitimate shutdown corner after missing the first five games of 2013 with a wrist injury, starring down the stretch for Buffalo's defense. That malady prevented him from truly making the leap that many thought he would, but he now has an opportunity to do so in 2014.
According to Bret McCormick of The Herald, Gilmore intercepted two passes (both in the red zone) and only allowed 122 yards passing against him in the team's final four games. If Gilmore can stay healthy and carry over his sterling play, it will not only be a major boon to Buffalo's defense and playoff chances but will also serve to catapult Gilmore into the stratosphere of the league's best cornerbacks.
Safety: Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars
When the Jacksonville Jaguars selected safety Johnathan Cyprien in the second round of the 2013 draft, he was expected to start and play well as a greenhorn.
Well, that didn't exactly come to fruition, as Cyprien finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' 84th-best safety (out of 86 eligible candidates). To say that he didn't meet expectations would be like saying HBO's putrid The Leftovers has fallen just short of masterpiece theater.
The good news for Jaguars fans is that Cyprien elevated his level of play as the season went on and performed well down the stretch, flashing the form that made him worthy of a Day 2 selection.
Cyprien is a bone-rattling hitter who can also excel in coverage, making him a valuable piece on Jacksonville's defense. It's not outside the realm of possibility that he will emerge as the leader and best player on the unit in 2014.