Predicting Every NFL Team's 2015 Breakout Player

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2015

Predicting Every NFL Team's 2015 Breakout Player

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    Which NFL players will have breakout seasons in 2015?

    It's not too early to look, even with plenty of offseason left. After all, plenty has been made clear already.

    Free agency may be an opportunity for teams to improve on paper, but it also means lots of roster churning.

    Opportunity rises out of that churning for certain players who see more playing time in new situations or because a player moved on. Other players could improve by virtue of development or full recovery from injury.

    Let's take a look at a player on each team who is primed for a breakout next season.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Breakout player: CB Tyrann Mathieu

    In fairness, Tyrann Mathieu had a nice rookie season that defied his critics. Unfortunately, injury shortened it.

    That torn ACL cut into the talented cornerback's sophomore campaign, during which he played in 13 games and started just six. It was clear he wasn't back to full strength.

    With a full, healthy offseason under his belt this year—not to mention the departure of starter Antonio Cromartie—look for Mathieu to bounce back with a vengeance.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Breakout player: RB Devonta Freeman

    It was easy to expect Devonta Freeman to have a good rookie season in 2014 given the incumbent starter was clearly past his expiration date, but that just wasn't in the cards.

    A combination of factors shunted Freeman to the back of the backfield in Atlanta, and he was largely forgotten.

    That's not likely to happen in 2015, however, especially if the Falcons don't add much to the position. They finally put their workhorse to pasture by releasing Steven Jackson, opening the door for Freeman to rush through and shine.

    It certainly has Freeman excited, as he expressed to Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com:

    Personally, I want to be the man. I want to be the guy. I want to make my own name with the Atlanta Falcons. I want to go really, really far. I want to set the bar high. I just want to win a Super Bowl and maybe be the MVP one day. You just never know. I feel like I’m hungrier right now. I don’t know what’s gotten into me this offseason. I just feel like a whole new monster. And I ain’t just talking. 

    With room to spread his wings, Freeman could fly in 2015.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Breakout player: WR Marlon Brown

    Why is Marlon Brown set to break out in 2015? To put it frankly, who is going to catch the ball for the Baltimore Ravens next season?

    Torrey Smith signed a big contract with the San Francisco 49ers, and the Ravens cut Jacoby Jones. That leaves 35-year-old Steve Smith and third-year Brown at the top of the depth chart, for now.

    The 6'5", 214-pound wideout has flashed his potential during the two years of NFL seasoning he's gotten thus far, and he could be in for a quantum leap next season. That is assuming the Ravens don't draft a receiver early and force him to start, which isn't general manager Ozzie Newsome's style anyway.

    Newsome has drafted a receiver in the first two rounds just four times in his tenure with the Ravens, the last one being Torrey Smith in the second round of the 2011 draft.

Buffalo Bills

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    Breakout player: LB Preston Brown

    Kiko Alonso is gone. Brandon Spikes remains unsigned. Preston Brown is in line to start behind one of the best defensive lines in the league.

    What more is there to say?

    Well, being handed the starting job guarantees nothing, but Brown is going to be manning the inside of a Rex Ryan defense. That Ryan thinks enough of Brown to trade Alonso and risk losing Spikes goes to show how big his role will be next season.

Carolina Panthers

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    Breakout player: DT Kawann Short

    There aren't too many breakout candidates on the Carolina Panthers roster right now. Either they have already done so (see: Newton, Cam), or the likelihood is low (see: Ginn, Ted).

    One player who has done a nice job in the middle of that defense—but gets little credit for it—is Kawann Short, who has rated well over at Pro Football Focus. He just hasn't notched a ton of volume statistics.

    The third-year player could put up some big numbers next season, but Star Lotulelei thus eclipsed him so far.

Chicago Bears

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    Breakout player: WR Marquess Wilson

    Marquess Wilson had a promising rookie year, but his sophomore campaign shattered along with his clavicle.

    The big wideout was able to return to action late in the season, but he was clearly out of sorts in the offense after missing all that time.

    With Brandon Marshall exiled to the New York Jets, Wilson figures to step in as the starter opposite the ascendant Alshon Jeffery, and he has the talent to shine like his predecessor. 

    He just needs to stay healthy.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Breakout player: TE Tyler Eifert

    Third year's the charm, right?

    Tyler Eifert was, by all accounts, the best tight end in the 2013 NFL draft. That's why the Cincinnati Bengals took him with the 21st overall pick.

    Things haven't quite panned out for Eifert thus far in his NFL career, with injuries and a pesky Jermaine Gresham getting in the way of his success.

    The latter is no longer around—unless the Bengals bring him back on the cheap—clearing the path for Eifert to finally get his career off the ground floor. 

    The 6'6", 250-pound monster of a tight end should finally have the opportunity to break out in 2015.

Cleveland Browns

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    Breakout player: QB Johnny Manziel

    What is Johnny Manziel doing on this list? The writer must be insane!

    For starters, looking closely at the Cleveland Browns doesn't yield many breakout candidates to begin with. Even so, Manziel's name stands above the rest.

    Few stories would be better than a redeemed Manziel taking the NFL by storm after spending six weeks in rehab and getting his head on straight. 

    There's certainly a good chance Manziel simply isn't cut out for the NFL, but he has the talent to succeed if his work ethic catches up. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Breakout player: DE Demarcus Lawrence

    Attrition has hit the Dallas Cowboys hard, with starters everywhere defecting—even to division rivals. 

    One position that has seen an exodus of talent over the past couple of seasons is defensive end. No longer is DeMarcus Ware scaring opposing quarterbacks. Anthony Spencer is struggling to find a job just two years after he was hit with the franchise tag, and George Selvie will be a pleasant surprise elsewhere in 2015.

    That leaves Demarcus Lawrence as the last incumbent standing—at least the last one with the ability to start—and it is his time to shine. He will pair with Greg Hardy—albeit in controversial fashion—to form one of the more formidable pass rushes in the league if everything goes to plan.

Denver Broncos

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    Breakout player: WR Cody Latimer

    It was a predictably low-key rookie year for Cody Latimer, who was buried on the depth chart in 2014. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and even Andre Caldwell were all higher up on the pass-catching totem pole last season, and that doesn't include running backs.

    Year 2 should bring more targets for Latimer, however, especially if Welker doesn't wind up back in Denver. 

    Julius Thomas is gone, replaced by Owen Daniels at tight end. The latter might be effective, but he certainly doesn't have the upside his predecessor did for the Broncos.

    More importantly, Latimer should see the field more by virtue of attrition—Welker is looking for a job, and it's difficult to argue Caldwell is better now that Latimer has a full year as a pro behind him.

Detroit Lions

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Breakout player: TE Eric Ebron

    It's difficult enough acclimating to the NFL, but tight ends not named Rob Gronkowski tend to start out slow.

    That's what happened to Eric Ebron in Detroit last season, where he labored for 25 receptions, 248 yards and a touchdown in 13 games. It was a disappointment, but not a terribly discouraging one for Ebron, according to DetroitLions.com writer Tim Twentyman:

    "It was a lot more learning than I thought I needed, but it was definitely great. It was everything I expected adrenaline-wise, activity-wise on the football field. I can’t complain about anything that happened my rookie season. It was definitely fun."

    Twentyman brought up the fact Jimmy Graham had just 31 catches for 356 yards in his rookie year. That is quite the jump, but Ebron certainly has the talent to get there with one year and a full offseason behind him.

Green Bay Packers

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Breakout player: TE Richard Rodgers

    Richard Rodgers isn't quite Eric Ebron, but he is in the right place to break out next season. It'll help that his biggest competition for playing time is gone.

    Without NFC Championship Game goat Brandon Bostick on the team, Rodgers is primed for a bigger role in the Green Bay offense. With reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers slinging the ball, some big games are in store for his second-year tight end.

Houston Texans

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    Breakout player: OLB Jadeveon Clowney

    The portents came to be. Jadeveon Clowney was a bust in his rookie season.

    Fortunately, most first-rounders get more than one crack at the whole NFL business, especially those with the raw upside Clowney brings to the table. His disappointing rookie season can reasonably be attributed to injury, which ultimately led to scary microfracture surgery.

    That surgery can sap players of their powers, and it remains to be seen whether or not Clowney will have long-term ill effects from it. But hopefully modern medicine and relative youth will prevail.

    If so, Clowney is going to be a monster this season alongside J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Breakout player: WR Donte Moncrief

    Donte Moncrief was in line for a massive increase in playing time. Then the Colts signed Andre Johnson.

    That put a damper on things, to be sure, but don't be fooled—Moncrief is still going to have a stellar second year in the league. 

    It can't hurt to be the third receiver on the field alongside T.Y. Hilton and Johnson, which will be the case for Moncrief as he climbs the depth chart before this fall. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Breakout player: QB Blake Bortles

    He was probably pushed into action too early, but—for better or worse—Blake Bortles now has a year of NFL starting experience. Now comes the second-year leap, right?

    It's not that simple, but Bortles should have plenty of help getting across that chasm. He has a nice, young corps of receivers, a shiny new weapon in Julius Thomas and his protection got better with right tackle Jermey Parnell.

    It won't be a walk in the park, but there is a reason why the Jaguars took Bortles with the No. 3 pick last year.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Breakout player: TE Travis Kelce

    This one is a bit borderline, considering Travis Kelce had a pretty good 2014 season.

    It could have been much better if he got on the field more, though, and that shouldn't be a problem going forward.

    Anthony Fasano no longer plays the foil in Kansas City, taking his talents to Tennessee. That means Kelce will be on the field a lot more in 2015, and the man affectionately known as "Baby Gronk" will put up some big numbers if he can stay healthy.

Miami Dolphins

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    Breakout player: WR Kenny Stills

    Kenny Stills had a decent tenure with the New Orleans Saints, but the third-year receiver never really blew up despite having Drew Brees as his quarterback.

    Part of that was the wealth of options around him—Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks all vied for attention—as was relative youth. Stills was 22 last season, after all.

    A new situation has him rigged to blow next season, however.

    Stills was targeted 134 times through his first two seasons in the league. There's a good chance he will garner that many in 2015 alone, at least if he can stay healthy. Combined with the potential he brings to the table, Stills is in for a big year with the Miami Dolphins.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Breakout player: QB Teddy Bridgewater

    All the hullabaloo surrounding the rookie receiver class masked a quality season by fellow greenhorn Teddy Bridgewater, who silenced his critics with a strong inaugural season in Minnesota.

    The Vikings quarterback proved his detractors wrong, but he left plenty of room for improvement. And he will do just that that—improve—in 2015.

    Bridgewater already got that ball rolling with a great second half of the 2014 season. He was rated as the third-best quarterback in the entire league over that span by Pro Football Focus. He just didn't throw a ton of touchdowns.

    With deep threat Mike Wallace added and running back Adrian Peterson presumably back to keep defenses honest, Bridgewater is liable to put up huge numbers in his sophomore campaign.

New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Breakout player: DT Dominique Easley

    The Patriots knew they were going to need to take things slow with Dominique Easley when they drafted him a year ago. He was coming off a torn ACL in college, and there was no need to rush him into action.

    He wound up playing in 11 games and starting two, though, and he is primed for a big sophomore year by the looks of things. Starting stalwart Vince Wilfork is gone, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line.

    Easley is talented enough to step into that hole and thrive if he can stay healthy. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Breakout player: TE Josh Hill

    The makeover is complete in New Orleans, and the results aren't pretty.

    Gone are Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Ben Grubbs, leaving behind plenty of question marks about who will become a key force on that offense in 2015. Maybe the answer is right under our noses.

    Josh Hill was insanely efficient for the Saints last season, scoring a touchdown on nearly 36 percent of his receptions. Of course, that number is going to be impossible to replicate, but Hill should find himself quite the beneficiary of Graham's absence.

New York Giants

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Breakout player: DE Damontre Moore

    Jason Pierre-Paul is the big name on that New York Giants defense, and it's about time someone new came through and made a name for himself as a pass-rusher.

    That man could be Damontre Moore, the talented pass-rusher who has toiled in relative obscurity since the Giants drafted him in 2013. He played behind Justin Tuck in 2013 and Mathias Kiwanuka last year, both of whom are gone now.

    That means it's time for Moore to operate in a more complete role, one that should see him play far more snaps than the 326 he did last season.

New York Jets

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Breakout player: S Calvin Pryor

    The New York Jets spent big to overhaul their secondary. No one was safe with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist all coming aboard.

    No one except Calvin Pryor.

    Last year's first-round pick had a roller-coaster rookie season that saw more bad than good. But with all that talent being inserted around him and presuming an improvement in his second season, Pryor should bounce back as a reliable member of an elite secondary.

Oakland Raiders

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Breakout player: RB Roy Helu

    Latavius Murray is a fantasy football darling, especially after his monster Week 12 performance against the Kansas City Chiefs on just four carries last season.

    But it may be Oakland's quiet acquisition who makes the biggest noise in the backfield this coming season.

    Roy Helu came over from Washington, a consolation prize after the Raiders missed out on DeMarco Murray. The fifth-year running back is a great pass-catching option who will likely wind up in a third-down role out west, but he could be much more.

    If Murray falters or can't stay healthy, Helu could be asked to shoulder the load. He has flashed his potential in the past, and more touches could mean a breakout season.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Breakout player: QB Sam Bradford

    It might seem silly to think the former No. 1 overall pick can be a breakout candidate, but come on—this is a quarterback playing for Chip Kelly for the first time in his career.

    Some don't believe—can't believe—Sam Bradford is actually the quarterback of the future in Philadelphia. For starters, he hasn't been able to stay healthy, playing just seven games over the past two seasons due to serious knee injuries. 

    But it's more than just injuries. Bradford hasn't exactly looked like a franchise quarterback, at least not on paper, averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt for his career. But his surroundings haven't exactly been conducive to success.

    Assuming he can stay healthy—quite the assumption after the past two years—and the Eagles don't make any more radical moves, Bradford is going to have the reins in a far more interesting situation than he's ever seen his NFL career.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Breakout player: LB Ryan Shazier

    Last season was a disappointment for Ryan Shazier and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The former Ohio State linebacker was primed for a big rookie season as a starter, but injuries sank his year.

    It got bad enough that rumors floated he might move to safety, a notion head coach Mike Tomlin recently dismissed, according to ESPN.com's Scott Brown:

    I often refer to Lawrence’s physical growth and development when I talk to Ryan Shazier. Lawrence’s body was very similar to Ryan’s when we drafted him. He was a 20-year-old third-year junior when we drafted him. Obviously Lawrence’s body looks very different now as he pushes into his late 20s and we expect similar growth and development from all of our young people. When I pull out some 2007 and 2008 tape all of those young guys generally laugh at how small Lawrence looks.

    That sounds like a man who has faith in his young linebacker, one who could be in for a big year if he puts on some muscle this offseason.

San Diego Chargers

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Breakout player: TE Ladarius Green

    Is it safe to trust Ladarius Green yet?

    The big tight end seems to ooze talent, but the San Diego Chargers don't seem to agree. A preseason darling just a year ago, Green barely saw the field at times, frustrating Chargers fans and fantasy football owners alike.

    Maybe he just needed one more year.

    Green still has to contend with Antonio Gates, who had a resurgent year in 2014. But he should see the field more next year, and that is straight from the horse's mouth, according to U-T San Diego's Michael Gehlken:

    There are things we can do more with him. He worked extremely hard. I don't think it was anything he was physically doing out there. I think it was a matter of philosophically what we were doing with the players we had. We got into the 11 personnel game a lot, three receivers and a tight end. When you have the three receivers we had, and you've got (tight end) Antonio Gates, (you'd have to) take the back out of the game. We need to use him more.

    From Mike McCoy's lips to...well, his ears.

San Francisco 49ers

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Breakout player: RB Carlos Hyde

    This was just about the easiest call to make.

    Carlos Hyde showed what he can do in spurts as a rookie, and the San Francisco 49ers are going to unleash him in 2015.

    The big running back will take over for departed stalwart Frank Gore, likely garnering workhorse-level touches. Reggie Bush came to town to put a little damper on things, but the 30-year-old probably won't take away too many touches from the second-year running back.

    Hyde should have a massive season.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Breakout player: WR Paul Richardson

    The Seattle Seahawks surprised many in the 2014 draft when they selected Paul Richardson in the second round. Of course, the pick shouldn't have been a surprise given their propensity to be surprising.

    In a rookie class full of fantastic players, Richardson stood out for all the wrong reasons. Despite Percy Harvin's exile and a glaring need for quality play at the receiver position, Richardson couldn't get on the field much. When he did, the speedster averaged an anemic 9.3 yards per reception.

    He wasn't utilized to his potential for most of the year, though, and he started to come on late in the season. 

    It'll take some doing, given Richardson tore his ACL in the playoffs. Seahawks general manager John Schneider said there's a chance he will open the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, per Seahawks.com writer Tony Drovetto:

    His surgery went real well, which is crazy because I’ve never had a doctor tell me that a surgery didn’t go well. But no, his surgery went great, and he’s such a freak athlete that I wouldn’t put anything past him, but I think there’s a 50/50 chance he goes into the PUP window, and we need to continue to address that position much like we do every other position.

    That would put a damper on things, but Richardson is talented enough for a big leap in Year 2 if he can make it back from injury fast enough.

St. Louis Rams

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Breakout player: CB E.J. Gaines

    Quietly, E.J. Gaines had a solid rookie season with the St. Louis Rams. It's time to make some noise in 2015.

    The former Missouri cornerback rated positively over at Pro Football Focus last season—one of the few rookies who did—and he had a whopping 15 passes defensed, tied for 13th-most in the league. But he didn't get much run in the public.

    Maybe that's because he intercepted just two passes.

    If he can build on his rookie campaign, Gaines could be in for a big year. He will have to in order to stand out at a position that's stacked in the NFC West.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Breakout player: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

    Going big was certainly on the draft agenda last year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with their first two picks. Only one of them worked out as a rookie, however.

    It wasn't Seferian-Jenkins, who struggled to get anything going behind Brandon Myers, and even Luke Stocker, last season. Then again, rookie tight ends generally struggle in their first year.

    The 6'5", 262-pound monster will crack the code in his second season—he's too talented not to, regardless of who is playing quarterback. Granted, what that breakout looks like will depend on whether it's Mike Glennon or Jameis Winston under center, but it will be a nice leap for him regardless.

Tennessee Titans

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    Breakout player: QB Zach Mettenberger

    Who is going to break out in 2015 for the Tennessee Titans?

    No, seriously, who? 

    There's not much going on in terms of quality on that Titans roster right now. Sure, they have some nice players like defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and pass-rusher Derrick Morgan, but they have already shown their colors.

    It's the other guys who are big question marks, and that includes one Zach Mettenberger.

    The mercurial quarterback may just be the Week 1 starter for the Titans, in which case it will be "put up or shut up" time.

Washington

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    Breakout player: TE Jordan Reed

    Tantalizing fantasy owners everywhere for two years now, Jordan Reed has been unable to deliver. Whether because of injury or a bad offense around him, the former Florida star hasn't quite reached his potential.

    There is always a risk of further injury, but a healthy year could finally see Reed realize that potential we have seen him flash in the first two years of his career.