Buying or Selling the NFL's Hottest Projected Breakout Stars
The NFL offseason is a long, meandering time filled with endless opportunities for optimism.
There are rebounds promised, breakouts gushed about and revitalized bodies everywhere after weight was either gained or lost. Injured parts of those bodies are mended, and now the player in question has never felt better.
Players look faster in the hot offseason sun, or stronger. Everything is aligning just perfectly, and it seems every roster is brimming with Herculean upstarts set to rule the NFL kingdom for years.
But hope is an addictive drug, and it can be a mirage of sorts. Quickly promises of a breakout turn into flaws that are still exposed, a player who’s maybe overmatched or a depth-chart burial.
It’s hard to gauge the true breakout potential now as the lazy days of summer pass by, and hope is still blinding. But let’s try anyway.
Here are 10 young players who have been showered in varying levels of hype and the buy/sell verdict on their 2015 breakout chances.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
Long before Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater became the third-most accurate rookie passer in NFL history with a completion percentage of 64.4, he was something else entirely: a liability.
He was a concern, and a source of nervous draft-bust chatter. He was the sort of quarterback who could lead his future head coach and general manager to unemployment, instead of to the playoffs.
What a strange time that was to be alive.
All the worry and hair extracting came from Bridgewater’s Louisville Pro Day, when he was something less than excellent in a highly scripted environment with little more than air as a defender. A handful of throws went fluttering high, and on others his crosshairs needed to be adjusted. It was a display that prompted NFL Network’s Mike Mayock to call Bridgewater’s Pro Day “average at best.”
That’s about the equivalent of a swift kick to the groin when you’re trying to be the first overall pick. Instead, Bridgewater waited until the 32nd overall pick in 2014, when Minnesota traded back into the first round to land their cornerstone quarterback.
And since then, he’s been a whole lot better than average.
Bridgewater started 12 games during his rookie season (he had 13 game appearances in total). In four of those starts he completed at least 70 percent of his pass attempts. That was part of a five-game stretch to end the season in which Bridgewater connected on 72 percent of his throws.
So yes, he’s pretty accurate, and one hiccup under the pressure of raising his draft stock didn’t change how the 22-year-old performed at the next level. He wasn’t just converting easy gimmie passes, either, as 46.3 percent of Bridgewater’s attempts that traveled 20-plus yards landed safely in friendly hands, per Pro Football Focus.
Bridgewater also set a Vikings rookie record by throwing a touchdown pass in 10 straight games. He did all of that without the support of running back Adrian Peterson, without tight end Kyle Rudolph for much of the season and without a true deep threat to consistently be on the other end for those accurate long heaves.
Breakout verdict: This is an easy buy with Rudolph and Peterson returning, though the addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace may accelerate Bridgewater’s growth most. Wallace languished in the Miami Dolphins offense and became expendable. But now the Wallace of old could resurface when paired with Bridgewater and vertical-minded offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
When Wallace was in a similarly vertical offense with the Pittsburgh Steelers he averaged 17.2 yards per reception over four seasons.
Philadelphia Eagles Tight End Zach Ertz
Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz was on the field for only 50.3 percent of his team’s offensive snaps in 2014. That didn’t include a single run snap when he was given a blocking assignment, per PFF, making his role both singular, and often defined rigidly.
His instructions: Be a football-vacuuming behemoth, please, then come directly back to the sideline.
If all you knew about Ertz’s 2014 season was that modest snap count, the next assumption would be that his other totals—namely, his receptions and receiving yards—were proportionally decent, and far short of spectacular.
About that: Ertz finished with 58 catches for 702 yards. He did that on 603 total snaps, ranking 11th among all tight ends in receiving yards. So just for fun, let’s compare Ertz’s yards and snap totals to some of his top-10 peers:
Jason Witten: 703 receiving yards, 1,071 snaps
- Heath Miller: 766 yards, 1,103 snaps
Coby Fleener: 774 yards, 812 snaps
The dots here are easy to connect then. If Ertz can stay on the field a little more and get his snap count up to around the 70-percent mark consistently, his ability to create mismatches through size (he’s 6’5" and 250 pounds), speed and athleticism will translate to production that spikes quickly.
Breakout verdict: Buy, assuming Ertz’s time spent working on his blocking skills this offseason leads to results when it matters. Ertz has been working with former Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who spoke to Bleacher Report recently and said his student has improved significantly during their time together.
Making strides as a blocker is key for Ertz’s breakout potential. In the Eagles’ fast-paced offense, opportunities for substitutions are often minimized, which has left Ertz watching as fellow tight end Brent Celek handles the blocking responsibilities.
Arizona Cardinals Wide Receiver John Brown
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown will always be small. Unless he’s a science experiment of some kind, Brown is done growing at the age of 25.
But he can do something about his bulk, or lack thereof, which is why Brown was often jammed at the line of scrimmage during his 2014 rookie season and beaten physically. His solution this offseason? To send fast food back to the fatty hell from which it came.
“It was hard to give it up because I used to eat it every day,” Brown told Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. “Once I went out to practice without fast food in my stomach, I felt so much faster.”
And Brown feeling faster is a pretty scary thing. He already ran a blazing 4.34 in the 40-yard dash at his scouting combine appearance, which resulted in 696 receiving yards on 48 receptions. That’s fine production considering the Cardinals’ injuries at quarterback in 2014 and Brown’s status as the third option behind fellow receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
The optimism surrounding Brown entering his second season now ranges from bubbly to downright giddy, especially after he added 10 pounds of bulk to beat press coverage. Brown’s leading cheerleader is his quarterback Carson Palmer, who’s healthy after tearing his ACL and told NFL Network’s Alex Flanagan he expects “huge things” in 2015 from the former Pittsburgh State standout.
Can Brown become a more dynamic pass-catcher then, and the latest diminutive receiver to thrive in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense?
Breakout verdict: Sell, and not because of Brown’s talent or fit. No, his true breakout is coming, it just might still be at least one year away.
Brown will be leaned on heavily as a home-run threat, but when healthy Fitzgerald sucks back targets as a possession receiver. Including Arizona’s playoff loss the veteran saw 107 balls thrown his way in 2014, even while missing two games, and Floyd was targeted 95 times.
Brown still saw plenty of work (99 targets), but sharing Arians’ passing-game pie may limit any second-year kaboom to only a mild detonation.
San Diego Chargers Tight End Ladarius Green
For the past two seasons San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green has pretty been the NFL’s version of that vanishing chicken in Orange is the New Black. He exists, but maybe he doesn’t? And if he does, are there mysterious powers running through his veins?
We’re about to find out, and quickly see if Green can cash in on his athletic potential.
For three years, Green has waited for his chance to show just how high his ceiling reaches, and what exactly it means to have a looming frame at 6’6” and 240 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds. Life comes at you fast as a safety when that mass of muscle is galloping downfield, and leaping to snatch throws in traffic.
But Green has been limited by Gates’ presence. The nine-time Pro Bowler hasn’t shown any sign of slowing, and was on the receiving end for 12 of the Chargers’ 31 regular-season passing touchdowns in 2014, a season when he finished with 800-plus receiving yards for the second straight year.
Now Gates is gone for four games, and by default Green finally gets his chance.
Gates has been suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, which immediately makes Green the Chargers’ primary tight end. He’ll assume that role for a quarter of the 2015 season and have an opportunity to earn more playing time even when Gates returns.
Which means by Week 5 a hurdle will still be waiting for Green. Can he secure something meaningful and spend less time watching Gates?
Breakout verdict: Buy, because Green has done a lot with so very little over the past two seasons.
He played only 30.9 percent of San Diego’s snaps in 2014, and 36 percent in 2013, all per PFF. Yet during that time, Green still posted 602 receiving yards on only 36 catches, which adds up to a pretty unfair per-catch average of 16.7 yards. Even better, nearly 40 percent of those receptions went for 20-plus yards.
Pittsburgh Steelers Inside Linebacker Ryan Shazier
The era when NFL middle linebackers could function just fine with their bodies resembling Ayers Rock has long passed. Now they need to be fast enough to stick with equally speedy tight ends downfield and strong enough to plug holes while halting powerful running backs.
They need to have a multidimensional presence. They need to be Ryan Shazier, or at least what the Pittsburgh Steelers hoped they were getting after selecting him with the 15th overall pick in 2014.
Shazier ran an unofficial 40-yard dash time of 4.36 at his Ohio State pro day. Go ahead and give some cushion due to the unofficial nature of times at every pro day. Even when you do that, Shazier is still stupidly fast, and he left his draft peers sucking back dust. Boston College’s Kevin Pierre-Louis was the fastest linebacker at the 2014 scouting combine, posting a time of 4.51.
That’s why important football men in front offices lost their ability to speak while watching Shazier in college, when he recorded 143 tackles during his final season, 22.5 of which went for a loss. But caution came from what held Shazier back from participating in the scouting combine.
Shazier has been vulnerable to injuries, and at the time was working through a hamstring problem. Then during his rookie year with the Steelers he appeared in only nine games due to knee and ankle issues.
His durability woes can likely be tied to a smaller frame by linebacker standards, which is why he can glide around the field so quickly. That’s the trade off which gives Shazier his unique and potentially game-changing speed, and he’ll now be relied on as a key anchor for the Steelers' defensive youth movement.
Breakout verdict: Buy, because although this falls directly in line with the standard offseason sources of fool's gold optimism, Shazier added eight pounds while going through workouts with known body punisher and fellow Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
That’s according to what he told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and it just might be enough to help him better withstand the rigors of an NFL season.
Dallas Cowboys Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence
Prior to the beginning of a new league year in 2014, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves in what had become familiar territory. Once again they faced a fiery salary-cap hell.
Defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who both came at a premium cost, were waived and not re-signed. That meant 17 of Dallas’ 34 sacks the previous season had suddenly evaporated, and a draft need was abundantly clear: Get someone who can make the opposing quarterback’s life unpleasant.
That is what the Cowboys did when they were aggressive in their pursuit of DeMarcus Lawrence, trading up to the 34th overall pick and landing the former Boise State standout who had 20 sacks over two collegiate seasons.
Of course, because this is the Cowboys in 2014 we’re talking about and the football powers above were constantly throwing lightning at them, Lawrence then fractured his foot in training camp. He didn’t make his NFL regular-season debut until Week 9, and the Cowboys’ pass rush predictably floundered. They recorded 28 sacks, which matched their 28th-place ranking in that critical category.
But upon his return, Lawrence showed he just might be both the hero Dallas needs and the hero it deserves. Lawrence totaled nine quarterback hurries over only 223 regular-season snaps, per PFF. Then he truly came alive during the Cowboys’ playoff run, with two sacks and a forced fumble over two games.
Breakout verdict: Buy, because although he’s fully capable of anchoring a pass rush, Lawrence won’t be asked to do that now. The Cowboys made efforts to reinforce the support around him by adding defensive ends Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy this offseason.
They both come with off-field baggage, but they’re efficient producers of quarterback body aches. Especially Hardy, whose suspension has now been reduced to four games, and he’s only one year removed from a 15-sack season.
Houston Texans Wide Receiver DeAndre Hopkins
When we talk about one-handed catches that defy the limits of what was once thought possible, mostly we talk about New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. We’ll be talking about him and The Catch for years, and the buzz will likely still be strong decades from now too, when Beckham is no longer available for our viewing pleasure each week.
But an equally absurd catch will be forgotten, because it technically wasn’t a catch at all.
Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins made a fingertip snatch over the middle against Beckham’s Giants in Week 3 of 2014 that would have led to a spectacular 53-yard gain. But alas, it was erased forever by an illegal-formation penalty.
Keep that nullified play fresh, because it’s a slice of what Hopkins can do with his magnetized hands. The Texans released franchise icon receiver Andre Johnson and began a youth movement at the position because of their faith in Hopkins, whose 15.9 yards per reception in 2014 was tied for eighth among the 78 wideouts who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF.
Hopkins is coming off a second-year outburst in which he increased his receiving yards by just over 50 percent compared to his rookie season. But now with Johnson gone and no longer demanding targets, he's positioned for a sort of second breakout; the kind that ends with him cemented as a top-five receiver.
Breakout verdict: Sell, and that’s not a statement on Hopkins. No, he’s not fair and can catch balls deep downfield that seemed certain to land with only a thud. Hopkins saw 12 catchable throws on balls that traveled 20-plus yards in 2014, per PFF, and he caught them all.
Sadly, he’ll be held back by forces far out of his control. The Texans are conducting one of the league’s most uninspiring quarterback battles between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. The offensive end game there: A whole lot of pounding on the ground through running back Arian Foster, and Hopkins dealing with sprayed footballs.
Dallas Cowboys Running Back Joseph Randle
The Cowboys are about to spend a season trying to answer this question: Can a steamrolling offensive line make the running back’s name irrelevant?
In 2014, the Cowboys rode running back DeMarco Murray so hard it’s surprising he didn’t turn into a tiny dust pile. His 1,845 regular-season rushing yards—which ranks among the top-20 highest single-season totals—came at a cost. Including the playoffs, Murray was given 497 touches.
That’s a mountain of hurt for any running back, especially one who had missed 11 games over the previous three seasons. That's partly why the Cowboys decided not to aggressively pursue the 27-year-old when he became a free agent. The contract Murray eventually signed with the Eagles worth $40 million with $21 million guaranteed was deemed far too steep.
That means it’s Joseph Randle’s time to rise and be the test subject in Dallas’ offensive-line dominance experiment.
Darren McFadden was signed as a free agent, but after a career mostly spent broken so far he’ll likely be used as a source of veteran running back depth. Randle led most of the individual drills throughout offseason workouts and regularly worked with the first-team offense, according to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News.
So it seems the starting job is his to lose, and he’ll ascend to that cushy gig behind an offensive line that sent three of its members to the Pro Bowl in 2014. On limited work during the same season, Randle average 6.7 yards per carry and had two 40-plus-yard runs.
Breakout verdict: Buy, because although Randle can’t match Murray’s one-cut power-running style that capitalizes on holes quickly and creates missed tackles, there’s evidence he can come close enough for the Cowboys running game to keep on chugging.
Including the playoffs, Randle finished his second season with 359 rushing yards, and 220 of those yards (61 percent) came after contact, per PFF.
Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Davante Adams
It seems Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has done only two things this offseason: practice his sick sword skills and speak glowingly about second-year wide receiver Davante Adams to anyone within earshot.
In June, Rodgers told ESPN Milwaukee there's a “humongous upside” Adams is starting to reach. And then when speaking to ESPN.com’s Jason Wilde, he said Adams has an excellent demeanor for a guy who’s “going to be a star.”
But when exactly he’ll reach that high ceiling now becomes the question. It’s a tricky riddle with a guy who’s slotted behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the Packers’ wide receiver totem pole and is in what’s become a more balanced offense over the past two seasons due to Eddie Lacy’s quick emergence.
The Packers attempted 536 regular-season passes in 2014, which ranked 20th and is a low volume for an offense privileged to call Rodgers its quarterback. Of those throws, 146 were directed at Nelson, while Cobb's hands were the football’s intended destination on 125.
The Packers’ top two receivers then accounted for just over half of Rodgers’ targets. That’s not out of the ordinary, or at all against standard NFL practice. Most of the top two wideouts on any team would likely be responsible for a similar percentage.
The difficulty with Adams then is one that’s also typical: The No. 3 wide receiver’s opportunities will often be matchup-dependent.
Breakout verdict: Sell, and it has nothing to do with Adams' talent, of which there's plenty. Instead it’s a ruling on his chances to produce in the Packers offense with wildly inconsistent targets, even if the 22-year-old's role grows overall.
Consider his rookie season: Including the playoffs, Adams recorded 10 games with less than 20 receiving yards, and only two with 100-plus yards.
New Orleans Saints Tight End Josh Hill
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw 17 touchdown passes to a tight end in 2014. The majority of them went to Jimmy Graham, of course, because any team that employs him has an end-zone monster who should be fed footballs often.
But then something impressive happens when you look beyond Graham, who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in a move that’s still jarring four months later. Second-string tight end Josh Hill scored five touchdowns, and he did it on only 20 targets and 14 receptions.
Hill’s speed to both get open on short routes in the flat and then breakaway after the catch stands out when you turn on his tape. He’s different from Graham in that sense, as instead of grappling in traffic, Hill seems like the sort of tight end who can become wide receiver-like in a hurry once the ball is secure.
He averaged 6.8 yards after the catch in 2014 on that limited sample size, per PFF, and now with Graham gone the job title of “athletically threatening tight end” has a vacancy for the Saints.
But will the offensive focus lie elsewhere instead?
Breakout verdict: Sell, because the Saints’ offseason maneuvering indicates they intend to shift toward leaning more heavily on the run.
Max Unger came from Seattle in the Graham trade, and he’s one of the league’s best blocking centers. New Orleans also invested a first-round pick in tackle Andrus Peat, signed dynamic running back C.J. Spiller during free agency and threw the required cash at fellow back Mark Ingram to make sure he stuck around.
There’s also some uncertainty over exactly how much of a snap increase Hill will receive, and what percentage of the tight end snaps Benjamin Watson will be given. Saints head coach Sean Payton hinted to John DeShazier of Saints.com that Hill could be used primarily in sub packages, and his appearances will be dictated by the game plan.
When the head coach is pumping the brakes on a breakout, it’s probably a good idea to follow his lead.