Predicting Every NFL Team's Most Surprising Starter Ahead of Training Camp
We are closing in on that time…finally.
Training camps around the NFL will open later this month. That means there will be jobs available, some more than others, on all 32 teams.
One of our most valuables assets in keeping up with the many moves around the league is the utilization of the Ourlads depth charts. Don Shonka and his staff do a terrific job keeping everyone up to snuff on a daily basis.
Here, we are going to upset the apple cart a bit. We will try to predict a surprise starter for each squad, bar none, based on factors such as a team looking to add youth to its club, the failure of a regular to live up to his end of the bargain and other factors as well. Some of the choices will have a better shot than others of panning out, and for others, it’s basically a matter of food for thought.
Fair warning: We are going to take some chances with our selections. And while you may think we are completely off the mark on some or all of our choices, rest assured there is a method to our madness. And while some of our picks are far from stunning, we've done our best when it comes to teams that are more settled than others.
Just don’t get mad at us. After all, we are just looking for a different kind of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Arizona Cardinals: RG Earl Watford
It’s been a rough two seasons for Arizona Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper, who missed his rookie campaign with a broken leg and had his share of nagging injuries in 2014. Back in late May, head coach Bruce Arians praised the 2013 first-rounder for his conditioning, per Darren Urban on Twitter.
It has also been a trying couple of years for Earl Watford, who didn’t play as a rookie in 2013. And while he appeared in 10 games this past season, he has yet to make his first start in the NFL.
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com recently stated that Watford has opened some eyes this offseason. While Cooper appears poised to perhaps live up to his former first-round status, we’ll take a flier on the anxious Watford.
Atlanta Falcons: FS Ricardo Allen
In 2014, Dwight Lowery was the starting free safety for the Atlanta Falcons. At the same time, rookie cornerback Ricardo Allen was busy not playing a game for the club.
Now you can look for last year’s fifth-round pick to take over for Lowery, who is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com talks about the strides the former Purdue University product has made as he switches positions this upcoming season.
Simply put, Allen has shown enough progress this offseason to warrant the job and become part of a Falcons defense that figures to be much better under new head coach Dan Quinn and coordinator Richard Smith. In 2014, Atlanta allowed the most total yards and passing yards in the league.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Marlon Brown
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knew he had some holes to fill on offense this offseason with the free-agent departures of wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, as well as the uncertain future of tight end Dennis Pitta.
Admittedly, we didn’t see Marlon Brown at his best this past season. After a promising 2013 in which he totaled 49 receptions for 524 yards and seven scores through their air, the former undrafted free agent put up just 24 catches for 255 yards and zero touchdowns. After starting 12 out of 14 games in his first season with the team, Brown was limited to only one start in 2014.
While the club invested a first-round pick this year on talented Breshad Perriman and the early reviews have been encouraging, we look for Brown to open the season next to the ageless Steve Smith Sr..
Buffalo Bills: CB Corey Graham
Perhaps this is more a vote for an underrated performer than a surprise starter.
No matter how you word it, cornerback Corey Graham produces. Be it with the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills, the savvy veteran continues to get the job done. This past season, he finished third on the team with 84 tackles and led Buffalo with 15 passes defensed and totaled interceptions.
By season’s end in 2014, both Graham and former Bills’ first-rounder Leodis McKelvin both started eight games at left cornerback. Look for the well-traveled defender to spend the majority of 2015 in Rex Ryan’s regular lineup.
Carolina Panthers: RT Daryl Williams
We saw the issues that the Carolina Panthers had this past season trying to protect quarterback Cam Newton.
Don’t be surprised if rookie Daryl Williams plays a major part in the team’s efforts to improve that in 2015.
Carolina added free-agent tackle Michael Oher to play the left side and did not re-sign Byron Bell. At right tackle, Michael Remmers is the man for now and only perhaps until Nate Chandler is 100 percent. Here it says Williams, a fourth-round pick by the team this year, not only takes over on the right side in place of Remmers but then supplants Oher by season’s end.
It’s going to be a busy year sooner than later for the former Sooner.
Chicago Bears: NT Eddie Goldman
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that the team that plays in the Windy City has been blown off the ball the last two seasons.
The Chicago Bears have fallen upon hard times on the defensive side of the ball as of late, allowing a combined 93 offensive touchdowns in their last 32 games while finishing 30th in the NFL in total yards allowed in back-to-back years.
New head coach John Fox and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will take advantage of their younger talent in the new-look 3-4. Second-year pro Will Sutton is expected to line up at nose tackle, and Ego Ferguson will play right defensive tackle.
Instead, we think this year’s second-round selection Eddie Goldman will make an immediate impression and win the nose tackle spot, leaving Sutton to battle Ferguson and perhaps left defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff for playing time.
The bottom line here is that it’s essential for youth to be served in Chicago.
Cincinnati Bengals: RT Jake Fisher
Cincinnati Bengals veteran Andrew Whitworth is one of the league’s top offensive linemen and a fixture at left tackle for Marvin Lewis' team.
As for right tackle Andre Smith, not so much.
It’s not by accident that this team, which has reached the playoffs four straight years and has drafted well for years, looked to the future by using their first two picks in 2015 on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M) and Jake Fisher (Oregon), respectively.
Here it says the future is now for Fisher, who will supplant the talented but erratic Smith sometime this year. It also says the Bengals offensive front won’t miss a beat in 2015.
Cleveland Browns: TE Rob Housler
When it comes to the Cleveland Browns and their tight end situation in 2015, the real surprise was the lack of aggressiveness when it came to retaining former Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron.
The depth chart at the position includes Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray, 2015 sixth-round pick Randall Telfer and undrafted rookies E.J. Bibbs and Kevin Haplea—plus free-agent pickup Rob Housler.
We think that veteran Josh McCown will be the Browns starting quarterback this season. We also think that Housler, who was signed away from the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, will eventually become the team’s starting tight end in 2015.
And we also think that the Browns aren’t done looking for more help at the position.
Dallas Cowboys: RB Joseph Randle
It’s hard to overlook the fact that in 2014, former Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden finally played all 16 games for the first time in his seven-year NFL career and wound up with only 534 yards and two touchdowns on 155 carries.
Of course, McFadden is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys and armed with the NFL’s best offensive front and a unit that many believe either you or me (well, maybe you) could run for big yards behind. Of course, that’s not really the case no matter how talented the running back.
Perhaps it will be a season-long backfield by committee by McFadden, Randle and Lance Dunbar. When he got the ball in 2014, Randle ran for 343 yards on just 51 attempts (6.7 yards per carry) and scored three touchdowns. In any case, look for the talented youngster to wind up as the main ball-carrier this year.
Denver Broncos: C Max Garcia
With all due respect to Gino Gradkowski, we are not convinced that he will be the starting center for the Denver Broncos this upcoming season.
In fact, one look at the team’s offensive line depth chart and we are not sold on this five-man unit at all, at least not yet. There have been too many changes and too many departures for a group that hopes to keep a 39-year-old quarterback out of harm’s way.
In any case, Gradkowski had his issues with the Baltimore Ravens, who dealt him to the Mile High City this offseason. New Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has some familiarity with the young pivot and hopes to get a lot out of him.
Of course, we also don’t think that it was an accident that general manager John Elway added former University of Florida center Max Garcia in the fifth round back in May. And while 2014 sixth-round selection Matt Paradis may be in the mix as well, we lean toward the rookie.
Detroit Lions: LDE Devin Taylor
Something has always intrigued us about Detroit Lions defensive end Devin Taylor.
He came to the Motor City the same year as first-round pick Ziggy Ansah in 2013. The fourth-round selection that year has totaled only 3.5 sacks in two seasons.
But he’s now a member of new-look defensive front in Detroit, one that no longer includes Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and George Johnson. While veteran Jason Jones is the expected starter at left defensive end, don’t be shocked to see Jones upended by the former South Carolina Gamecock, perhaps sooner than later.
Green Bay Packers: ROLB Mike Neal
Back in 2012, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson used his first six picks in the draft that year on the defensive side of the ball.
Those half-dozen selections have really yet to bloom, perhaps with the exception of cornerback Casey Hayward and defensive end Mike Daniels. Still, the Green Bay defense continues to be the team’s biggest shortcoming.
Former first-rounder Nick Perry, part of that aforementioned draft class, has started just 15 games and totaled only nine sacks in three seasons. We like what we have seen from Mike Neal, who totaled 33 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2014. Over his last three seasons, he’s totaled 15 sacks.
Perhaps the oft-injured Perry may be more effective in a reserve role behind Neal. In any case, it’s put-up or shut-up time for Capers and this defensive unit.
Houston Texans: TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
We understand that the tight end didn’t play that big of a role in the Houston Texans offense this past season, the first under head coach Bill O’Brien.
In 2014, Garrett Graham totaled only 18 catches for 197 yards and one touchdown from a number of different quarterbacks. Rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz managed only four catches for 28 yards, with his lone scoring reception coming via running back Arian Foster. Ryan Griffin totaled 10 catches for 91 yards and a score.
And by the way, defensive end/turned tight end J.J. Watt caught three touchdown passes in 2014.
This offseason, the Texans parted ways with veteran wideout Andre Johnson but added the likes of Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington to DeAndre Hopkins. There’s also a strong possibility that free-agent pickup Brian Hoyer will be the starting quarterback in 2015.
We say Graham is supplanted by Fiedorowicz, whom has drawn attention this offseason from the head coach, according to Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com. “I would like to see very consistent play,” coach Bill O'Brien said. “I’d like to see him really do a good job blocking. I think he’s a very good blocker.”
And that is certainly music to Foster’s ears as well.
Indianapolis Colts: CB D’Joun Smith
Here comes one of our major leaps of faith.
Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowler Vontae Davis was certainly one of the best cornerbacks in the league in 2014.
Teammate Greg Toler was not, and the numbers from Pro Football Focus bear that out.
We find ourselves intrigued by rookie cornerback D’Joun Smith from Florida Atlantic. General manager Ryan Grigson used a third-round pick this spring to secure his services and the majority of the team’s draft choices this year on the defensive side of the ball.
Could Smith actually push Toler out of the starting lineup? It may take some time, but don’t rule out this happening by midseason, unless the veteran corner rebounds this upcoming season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: C Stefen Wisniewski
It’s probably not a real shock that we expect four-year pro Stefen Wisniewski to take over as the starting center for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The real surprise was the fact that the former Oakland Raiders pivot was on the free-agent market as long as he was and that he only got a one-year contract from his new team.
Wisniewski started all 61 games that he played with the silver and black. While the team had its problems running the football, he graded out well, according to Pro Football Focus.
The same can’t be said for rookie Luke Bowanko, who had his problems for the Jaguars in 2014.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Jason Avant
Roughly this time a year ago, wide receiver Jason Avant was part of a new-look receiving corps with the Carolina Panthers.
Now he’s a member of a Kansas City Chiefs team in need of serious production from that position.
We all know what Andy Reid’s team failed to do in 2014. Hence Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins received their pinks slips.
Now Avant, whom Reid picked up in the middle of last season after the Panthers released him, looks to team up with another familiar face in Jeremy Maclin, his one-time teammate with the Philadelphia Eagles under Reid.
With the Panthers and Chiefs in 2014, Avant totaled a combined 34 receptions, with 13 of those in Kansas City. Look for those numbers to increase greatly this year.
Miami Dolphins: LDT C.J. Mosley
If you’re going to spend a gazillion dollars on a defensive tackle, you might as well give him someone he likes to play with.
This past season with the Detroit Lions, the tandem of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and C.J. Mosley really held the fort inside for the league’s top-ranked rushing defense.
Mosley took over in the second half of the season for Nick Fairley, and the Detroit defense didn’t miss a beat. Now he and Suh look to improve a Miami Dolphins defense that has ranked 24th in the NFL against the run for two straight years.
Look for the veteran Mosley to push Earl Mitchell one spot back on the depth chart and once again team up with the four-time Pro Bowl defender and former teammate in the Motor City.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Jarius Wright
In three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, wide receiver Jarius Wright has caught 90 passes, seven for touchdowns.
In 2014, he started a career-high seven games and caught a personal-best 42 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns. Teammate Charles Johnson, who is listed ahead of Wright on the depth chart these days, started six games this past season and totaled 31 receptions, two for scores.
Perhaps we are just splitting hairs. In any case, the rapport between Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Wright was hard to overlook this past season.
Here it says Wright actually moves ahead of Johnson and not only becomes a starter next to newcomer Mike Wallace, who was obtained via trade from the Miami Dolphins this offseason, but also leads the team in receptions in 2015.
New England Patriots: CB Bradley Fletcher
There will be a lot of new faces in the New England Patriots secondary in 2015.
That includes one player who some would say had problems showing his face this past season.
As we have noted in the past, it was a good year for actor Bradley Cooper and a forgettable year for cornerback Bradley Fletcher in the City of Brotherly Love. The veteran defender was torched more often than a creme brulee in 2014.
With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard all elsewhere these days, the Pats are thin at cornerback. However, they are not thin on coaching, and that’s where Bill Belichick comes into play. In what should be his latest revival, look for Bradley to rebound in Foxborough and earn a regular job alongside Logan Ryan.
New Orleans Saints: TE Josh Hill
It’s safe to say that replacing three-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham won’t be easy and simply can’t be done.
You don’t just find 386 receptions and 51 touchdowns (over a five-year span) overnight or perhaps in just one offseason.
Veteran tight end Ben Watson enters his 12th NFL season. In 2014, he totaled 20 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns. At the same time, then-third stringer Josh Hill caught only 14 passes. But those grabs went for 176 yards (12.6 average) and five scores.
If you’re looking for experience, Watson is the man. If quarterback Drew Brees is looking for more big-play potential from the position, Hill gets the nod…and he will.
New York Giants: LDT Jay Bromley
Last month, Tom Rock of Newsday documented the work being done by a pair of the New York Giants’ younger performers.
Both defensive tackle Jay Bromley (23) and defensive end Kerry Wynn (24) hope to make bigger impacts than they did as rookies. The former was a third-round pick a year ago but did little to distinguish himself.
Of course, other than Johnathan Hankins, neither did any of the other Giants’ defensive tackles.
Only two teams in the league allowed more rushing yards than New York this past season. Look for the improving third-round pick from a year ago to slide into the starting lineup next to Hankins and aid the cause of new/old defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
New York Jets: RCB Buster Skrine
The team that allowed 31 touchdown passes and picked off just six passes in 2014 spared no expense when it came to bringing in lots of help for the secondary this offseason.
The cornerback parade includes Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine, who combined for nine interceptions this past season.
While Revis is an island upon himself and Cromartie is a former Pro Bowler, the lesser-known Skrine comes off a season in which he totaled 67 tackles, four interceptions and an impressive 18 passes defensed for the Cleveland Browns.
Our prediction is hardly the knock on Cromartie. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. After a forgettable year in 2014, the Jets suddenly have an embarrassment of riches at cornerback.
Oakland Raiders: RG Jon Feliciano
There’s no use rehashing the Oakland Raiders' issues on offense this past season. But we should mention that no team gained fewer total yards or rushing yards than the silver and black in 2014.
Part of those problems were due to the team’s performance up front. Hence one of the biggest offseason additions was the signing of center Rodney Hudson from the Kansas City Chiefs.
In 2014, Khalif Barnes made 13 starts—eight at right tackle and four at left guard. He’s expected to be the right guard this season as Austin Howard moves back outside.
But here it says that Barnes takes a back seat to rookie Jon Feliciano. General manager Reggie McKenzie added the former University of Miami product in the fourth round back in May, and he’ll team with second-year pro Gabe Jackson to give the Raiders a pair of young and homegrown guards.
Philadelphia Eagles: LCB Nolan Carroll
We are still trying to ascertain how a team can total 49 sacks and still allow 30 touchdown passes in one season.
It’s a question both former Philadelphia Eagles cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams no longer have to deal with. The former is now with the New England Patriots, while Williams hopes to soar with the Seattle Seahawks.
Yes, always interesting head coach Chip Kelly opted to take former University of Utah product Eric Rowe in the second round this spring. And his time will come.
Veteran defensive back Nolan Carroll saw more action at safety in 2014 than he did at cornerback. He finished the season with 31 tackles, four passes defensed and a fumble recovery. We see him pair up with free-agent pickup Byron Maxwell this season, at least until Rowe earns his wings.
Pittsburgh Steelers: SS Will Allen
The far-from-surprising offseason retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu has left a hole in a Pittsburgh Steelers secondary that already resembled a colander.
And now it’s up to young Shamarko Thomas to fill the follicles of one of the best defensive players in the proud history of this franchise.
But it says here the former Syracuse University is no lock (pun intended) for the job. Veteran Will Allen has proved to be an important and versatile member of the Pittsburgh secondary and can start at both safety positions. This past season, he finished with 36 tackles and one forced fumble.
Thomas has played in 25 games his first two seasons in the league and is known for being a physical player. But for now, he’ll take a bit of a back seat to the more experienced Allen in what may not be that big of a surprise.
St. Louis Rams: WR Stedman Bailey
We have been waiting for a couple of years for a certain former University of West Virginia standout to step to the forefront.
Yes, we were referring to Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. While he has shown big-play ability on special teams and at times as a running threat, he’s yet to impress as a receiver.
According to new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Austin has been enjoying a good offseason, per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. However, what about former college and current pro teammate Stedman Bailey? In 2014, he caught one less pass (30) than Austin (31) but totaled 435 receiving yards and averaged 14.5 yards per catch, far more than Austin (242) this past season.
Veteran Kenny Britt totaled 48 catches for a team-high 748 yards and three scores in 2014 and seems set at one spot. We like where Bailey is headed, and don’t be stunned if he’s in the starting lineup ahead of Austin this year.
San Diego Chargers: NT Ryan Carrethers
The San Diego Chargers fell short of a second straight trip to the playoffs despite winning nine games for the second consecutive season.
You could point to a number of factors in terms of failure, and one certainly worth mentioning is a defensive unit that finished 26th in the league versus the run. In other words, don’t let the team’s overall ranking (ninth in the NFL in total yards allowed) fool you.
Ryan Carrethers didn’t see a ton of action as a rookie in 2014. The 6’1”, 333-pounder from Arkansas State played in six games and made one start. And according to Pro Football Focus, he showed some flashes when it came to stopping the run.
Despite the presence of incumbent Sean Lissemore and the free-agent arrival of Mitch Unrein, look for the Bolts to go with the second-year pro in the middle.
San Francisco 49ers: RT Trent Brown
The surprising offseason retirement of right tackle Anthony Davis has been one of many departures for the San Francisco 49ers.
Now comes another surprise in the form of Trent(on) Brown, a massive 6’8’, 355-pound specimen from the University of Florida who played both guard and tackle for the Gators. He’s an intriguing prospect who has a lot of work to do…in a hurry, as suggested by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com.
While free-agent pickup Erik Pears appears to be the logical choice to supplant Davis, we will defy logic here—at least by late September.
Seattle Seahawks: C Kristjan Sokoli
When it comes to going to the Super Bowl, the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are certainly in the more-than-merrier frame of mind.
Apparently, that was the mindset when it came to the center position in 2014 when four different players manned the spots, including former Pro Bowler Max Unger—who is now a member of the New Orleans Saints.
That means Lemuel Jeanpierre and Patrick Lewis, both in the mix this past season, will be trying to fend off rookie Kristjan Sokoli. The former Buffalo standout makes the long trip to the Pacific Northwest, and we predict he will make the journey a worthwhile one for all involved.
Truth be told, it could be another revolving door when it comes to the man who gives quarterback Russell Wilson the ball.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: FS D.J. Swearinger
When your team finishes 25th in the NFL in total defense and 28th against the pass, how many surprises are you really expecting when it comes to fixing that side of the ball?
It’s been a revolving door for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when it comes to both safety spots. After two seasons and 30 starts for the team, strong safety Mark Barron was dealt to the St. Louis Rams in the midst of 2014. This offseason, Tampa Bay traded free safety Dashon Goldson to the Washington Redskins.
Enter D.J. Swearinger, a former second-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2013 who was cut loose by the club in May. The Bucs quickly snatched him up.
“A new city, new coaches and new players around me,” said Swearinger to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com back in May. “Just to start over again, that's a big key for me and it's something that I'm looking forward to.”
We lean toward Swearinger as the team’s new free safety ahead of free-agent pickup Chris Conte, who played for Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.
Tennessee Titans: RB David Cobb
When you rank 26th in the league in rushing and average a mere 90.4 yards per game on the ground, the Help Wanted sign is out.
A little over a year ago, the Tennessee Titans made University of Washington’s Bishop Sankey the first running back taken in the 2014 draft with the 54th overall pick. He would play in just nine games and total a team-high 569 yards rushing.
While it’s far too early to pull the plug on the second-year pro, he could give way to 2015 fifth-round selection David Cobb, who at the very least will prove to be a nice second option for the team. But we think the former Minnesota Gopher may not settle for second.
Washington Redskins: RG Arie Kiouandijo
The Washington Redskins are looking for a new right guard this season. Veteran Chris Chester started all 16 games at the position but had his peaks and valleys and was released this offseason.
Spencer Long, a third-round pick in 2014, saw action at three different positions in three games as a rookie and may take over Chester’s spot. But we think he’ll not only be pushed but surpassed by 2015 fourth-round pick Arie Kouandjio.
Chester’s shortcomings in Washington this past season came in terms of run blocking, something the rookie from the University of Alabama hopes to change.
All free-agent information and player signings/transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com.