Ranking the Top NFL Players Primed for Breakout Seasons in 2014

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IApril 23, 2014

Ranking the Top NFL Players Primed for Breakout Seasons in 2014

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    Bill Feig

    While the vast majority of the focus in the NFL world is currently on prospects who will be selected in next month's draft, there are a number of players already on rosters who are capable of taking their game to a new level and making an impact. It's time to rank the top NFL players primed for breakout seasons in 2014.

    In order to qualify for this list, a player cannot have already had the kind of season that places him in the upper echelon of those at his position. These are players that are on the cusp of doing great things and are now ready to explode on the scene.

    In some cases on this list, injury has limited a player's potential prospects. In others, it's about experience. And a few just need (and will receive) a larger opportunity to showcase their skills.

    In this column, I rank the eight players poised for breakout campaigns in descending order. So the eighth player on the list doesn't have as good a chance as the seventh and so on and so forth, leading up to the No. 1 player, who is a virtual lock to put it all together and dominate this fall.

    Here is the ranking of the top NFL players primed for a breakout season in 2014.

8. Arizona Cardinals, G, Jonathan Cooper

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last April, the Arizona Cardinals selected North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick of the draft in an attempt to stabilize their tattered offensive line. Unfortunately for both team and player, Cooper broke his leg in the team's third preseason game, ending his season before he could begin to make an impact.

    Bot fortunately for both team and player, Cooper will be back this season, and he'll make an impact on a Cardinals offensive line that has already been retooled in the free-agent period with the signing of left tackle Jared Veldheer.

    It's topic that NFL.com's Gil Brandt recently opined about, writing that Cooper is "100 percent and looks great" and that he "expect(s) him to start and play at a high level for the next 10 years, becoming a familiar face at the Pro Bowl in the process."

    The left side of the Cardinals line will now be a strength, with Cooper manning guard and Veldheer at tackle. He should have every chance to shine, and the expectation should be that he will do so.

    If Cooper can stay healthy, he's ready to break out in a major way, but because of his injury, he can't be ranked higher on this list.

7. Seattle Seahawks, CB, Byron Maxwell

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    John Froschauer

    The Legion of Boom secondary was outstanding for the Seattle Seahawks on their way to winning Super Bowl XLVIII and capturing the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.

    But while players like cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor received much of the attention, cornerback Byron Maxwell quietly authored an outstanding season that has him ready to break out in 2014.

    Bleacher Report's Russell S. Baxter agrees, as he recently named Maxwell as his breakout candidate at cornerback for this upcoming season.

    Maxwell finished the 2013 season ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 13th-ranked cornerback, accumulating four interceptions and breaking up 12 passes. He also started the final five regular-season games and all three playoff contests en route to a Super Bowl title.

    With former Seahawks cornerbacks Brandon Browner (New England) and Walter Thurmond (New York Giants) signing elsewhere in the free-agent period, Maxwell will take on a bigger role in the LOB and should shine this upcoming season.

6. Miami Dolphins, QB, Ryan Tannehill

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    Lynne Sladky

    Out of every quarterback that 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, Tannehill threw 24 touchdown passes against 17 interceptions and had the Dolphins on the cusp of a playoff berth despite being sacked an NFL-high 58 times. Because of both poor play along the offensive line and the Bullygate scandal that rocked the team, Tannehill was constantly running for his life and didn't have the best opportunity for success.

    It is disconcerting that he played poorly in the team's final two games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, when one win would have lifted the Dolphins into the postseason. Tannehill threw one touchdown pass against three interceptions in those contests and threw for less than 300 combined yards.

    But that can be chalked up to a young quarterback experiencing meaningful football for the first time and, again, playing behind a horrible offensive line. The expectation should be that Tannehill will play much better in 2014.

    Earlier this week at the start of the Dolphins' offseason program, Tannehill spoke with Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel, saying of those final two losses:

    Obviously last year didn't end up the way we wanted, but you can't do anything about that now. We look back and we learn from our mistakes. We'll learn from where we went wrong and then move forward, I think we can use that as a springboard. We have a lot of guys coming back this year and we can use that moving forward to build that championship team this year.

    He also spoke glowingly of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who replaced the deposed Mike Sherman:

    I need to improve a lot, in a lot of different areas. I think coach Lazor, our new offensive coordinator, is a guy that can help me take the next step as far as preparation, the fundamentals of playing the quarterback position, and the new offense.

    Tannehill is saying all the right things, and he has the physical tools to back it all up.

    With the Dolphins offensive line looking like it'll be much improved with the free-agent signings of tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith—along with a likely high draft pick—Tannehill should have a greater opportunity for success this year. He looms as the biggest breakout candidate among the quarterbacks.

    And before you go nuts that Tannehill is ranked sixth, Dolphins fans, take a look at the five names ahead of him and ask yourself if you truly believe that he is more likely to break out than they are.

5. Arizona Cardinals, RB, Andre Ellington

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    Ben Margot

    When one thinks of the best and most versatile running backs in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles is one of the first names that comes to mind, so being compared to him is high praise.

    That was an honor recently bestowed upon Cardinals running back Andre Ellington by none other than his head coach, Bruce Arians.

    Speaking to Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports at March's owners meetings, Arians said that Ellington is "very similar" to Charles, adding:

    His skill set is so unique. I don't think even he knew how good of a receiver he was. ... He's not a guy you're going to pound into the middle 30 times a game and survive. You'd rather have him catch 10 passes and get 20 carries and let Stepfan Taylor or Jonathan Dwyer pound the ball in there. You see mismatches all throughout the league with tight ends, but I remember when that was a running back. You did those same things with running backs because they had a skill set that a safety or linebacker couldn't cover. It's going to be fun with Andre seeing how people cover him.

    Wow. Let that sink in for a second.

    Last season, Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt and 9.5 yards per catch. And with the Cardinals offensive line looking much improved (as covered earlier), he possesses major breakout potential. In fact, he'd be the top running back on this list if not for the man occupying the top overall spot.

4. Buffalo Bills, CB, Stephon Gilmore

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    While the Seahawks' Maxwell will break out in 2014, it won't be to the same level as the top cornerback on this list: Stephon Gilmore of the Buffalo Bills.

    Gilmore 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 final four games. With a strong finish to last season under his belt, he's ready to break out.

    Two writers that agree are Bleacher Report's Brandon Croce and Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit, the latter of whom named the cornerback to his 2014 All-Emerge Team, opining that Gilmore will soon be mentioned in the same breath as star cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.

3. Washington Redskins, TE, Jordan Reed

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Fantasy football owners, take heed. Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed is ready to break out and have a monster season in 2014.

    Last year as a rookie, Reed caught 45 passes for 499 yards and three touchdowns in nine games (four starts). It was an excellent neophyte campaign that was cut short when a concussion ended his season in Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Despite only appearing in nine games, Reed finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best tight end. He has the size and speed to potentially dominate.

    Playing in new coach Jay Gruden's offense should help too, as should the team's offseason additions of receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. Jackson is able to take the top off of defenses, opening things up over the middle for a player like Reed.

    Expect to see him in the Pro Bowl next season.

    For a heavily detailed look at Reed's 2014 prospects, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Chris Hayre.

2. Minnesota Vikings, WR, Cordarrelle Patterson

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    After a slow start to the season, Minnesota Vikings receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson really came on in the last five games of the season, catching three touchdown passes and rushing the ball for three more scores. In addition, he was named to the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro for his efforts on kick returns.

    There's little doubt that with another offseason under his belt, especially working with a proven offensive coordinator like Norv Turner, Patterson will only continue to get better. He comes in at No. 2 on my list of players primed for a breakout season in 2014, and it's more for his expected improvement as a receiver than for his continued success in the return game.

    In fact, Patterson's upside is such that Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune recently wrote a piece pondering if he could be the next Josh Gordon, the phenomenal receiver that Turner coached last year in Cleveland.

    Patterson is a weapon who can be effective as a returner, rusher and receiver. He's all but a lock to break out next season.

1. Cincinnati Bengals, RB, Giovani Bernard

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    Al Behrman

    The No. 1 player on my list of NFL players primed for a breakout season in 2014 is Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. Provided he stays healthy, he's as close to a lock as you'll find in the category.

    Last season as a rookie, Bernard rushed for 695 yards and scored eight total touchdowns (five rushing, three receiving) while splitting time in the backfield with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

    This season, the Bengals will have bigger plans for the 2013 second-round pick out of North Carolina, with coach Marvin Lewis telling Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer that he "envisions a second-year growth similar to (Ravens running back) Ray Rice."

    In Rice's second year (2009), he rushed for 1,339 yards, caught 78 passes and scored a combined eight touchdowns. If Bernard can match that production, he'll go to the Pro Bowl. Expect it to happen.

    Bleacher Report's lead AFC North writer, Andrea Hangst, agrees, writing here that Bernard is poised for an incredible season.


    Nick Kostos is a featured NFL columnist for Bleacher Report and an executive producer for SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.