Buying or Selling the NFL's Biggest Breakout Stars of 2015
Expectations can be tricky for professional athletes. Once the bar is set high enough, it becomes the standard for which each is judged.
At times, those expectations become too much.
Each and every season, there are surprise additions to the NFL's elite. A player who continued to develop and realized his potential or finally had an opportunity to showcase his overall talent breaks out in a huge way.
Once upon a time, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady served as Drew Bledsoe's backup after being a sixth-round pick. He got an opportunity to lead his team after Bledsoe suffered an injury, and he went on to become arguably the greatest signal-caller in NFL history.
Brady obviously serves as the best and an extreme case, but new stars develop each year.
The question then becomes, "Will these stars continues to ascend, or will they eventually come crashing down to earth?"
For every Brady, there is also an Ickey Woods—a bright-shining star that quickly loses its glow.
Thus, Bleacher Report attempted a pre-emptive strike to determine whether this year's biggest ascending stars will continue to skyrocket or fade away in the coming weeks.
The following five standouts have far exceeded expectations and emerged among the best players at their respective positions.
Just Missed the Cut
- Rookies were not included. Otherwise, St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley would certainly be in the conversation.
- Any player that has previously been named to a Pro Bowl or received any other end-of-the-season honor wasn't considered.
- All players who previously eclipsed certain benchmarks for their position—4,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing or receiving yards and 10-plus sacks—were excluded as well.
- Anyone currently dealing with a major injury was left off the list.
What is a breakout star in today's NFL?
A few ground rules must be established before the chosen few are discussed:
The only players considered were among the best of the best this season despite not reaching a top level of play during previous campaigns.
For example, two players from the New England Patriots, Dion Lewis and Chandler Jones, certainly deserve recognition. However, Lewis suffered a torn ACL in Sunday's game against Washington, according to the Boston Globe's Jim McBride, and Jones amassed 11.5 sacks just two seasons ago.
Others just missed the cut.
Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray is currently sixth in the NFL with 630 rushing yards, but he's not even the biggest breakout star on his team's offense (more on that in a bit).
The Jacksonville Jaguars' tandem of wide receivers, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, have combined for 1,342 yards through the team's first eight games. As good as both are, they take a little bit of the spotlight off each other.
Willie Snead is quietly developing into Drew Brees' No. 1 wide receiver with the New Orleans Saints, but his production is still behind the likes of the aforementioned Robinson and Hurns.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is turning into one of the league's best at his position. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong year to be a burgeoning star at his respective position.
Offensive and defensive linemen rarely get the credit they deserve and generally lack star power, but Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams can be a dominant force in the middle. Being an elite run-stuffer warrants less attention than those defensive linemen who can get after the quarterback, however.
Another defensive tackle on the rise, the Carolina Panthers' Kawann Short, is worthy of being mentioned. However, he also has a teammate who has overshadowed his performance this year, who'll be discussed later.
Linebackers Brandon Marshall and Telvin Smith, of the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, have certainly come into their own.
The Minnesota Vikings' Harrison Smith is another top young defensive back who helps lead a swarming defense on an improving squad.
Yet, none of these names built the type of excitement as the following five players.
Buying: QB Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
While three quarterbacks were selected before Derek Carr in the 2014 NFL draft, only the Fresno State standout was bred to play the position.
Twelve years earlier, the Houston Texans selected Carr's older brother, David, with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
David Carr failed to live up to expectations during his career, but he took all of the lessons he learned during his time in the NFL and instilled them in his younger brother.
This allowed Derek Carr to be better prepared in his quest to eventually become a starting NFL quarterback. The former second-round pick went on to start all 16 games as a rookie, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 3,270 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
However, there were concerns about his ability to handle pressure and a league-worst average of 5.46 yards per attempt. The younger Carr, however, continued to learn and grow during his first season.
The 24-year-old signal-caller discussed with Bleacher Report how he evolved and where he experienced growth from last season:
I never and hopefully will never feel comfortable [as the starting quarterback]. I don't want to feel comfortable. I like to feel uncomfortable, because it means that I'm pushing myself. I'm making it hard on myself. It's never comfortable, but did it start to get familiar? Absolutely. I don't know at what point in the season that was last year, but we hit a point where we felt we were playing together for a long time. That's when you know you're clicking chemistry-wise. That has carried over into this season and hopefully for the next 15 years.
His sophomore campaign has been absolutely outstanding, and those previous areas of concern have vanished.
The Raiders offensive line has only allowed eight sacks, while Carr continues to get the ball out quickly and accurately. The quarterback's average has increased to 7.67 yards per attempt with better talent around him. And Carr is taking care of the ball.
Oakland's quarterback is currently completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 2,094 yards, 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions. In fact, heading into Week 9, Carr owned the league's longest streak of consecutive touchdown passes without an interception (nine), per NFL Network.
All of the teams that passed on Carr in last year's draft should certainly be kicking themselves as he continues his development into a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Selling: RB Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Prior to the start of the season, the Atlanta Falcons held a competition to find their new starting running back. Neither Devonta Freeman nor rookie Tevin Coleman separated themselves at the time, mainly due to injuries.
Freeman officially exploded onto the scene when he ran for 141 yards and added 52 receiving yards in a Week 3 contest against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Florida State product ran for 100 or more yards in three of his next four contests and became the league's leading rusher.
However, advanced stats and his last two performances show Freeman has been relatively average so far this season.
First, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone scheme is quite running back-friendly. Over the years, numerous 1,000-yard rushers have played in the system. For example, Freeman and Coleman are both averaging 4.4 yards per carry despite differing roles this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman is tied for 35th among running backs this season with an average of 2.2 yards after contact. He's actually fourth overall in missed tackles, but his elusive rating (beyond the point of being helped by his blockers) is 18th overall.
Through the first six weeks of the season, only one running back, Seattle Seahawks backup Thomas Rawls, averaged more yards before contact than Freeman, according to SB Nation's Danny Kelly.
Freeman's drop in play has been apparent in recent weeks. Over the past month, the running back's total yards per game has decreased in all but one contest.
This coincides with the struggles of the entire Falcons offense, which indicates Freeman is more a product of the system than an elite running back.
Great players elevate the play of those around them. Freeman's production appears to be a byproduct of a system, offensive line and quarterback-wide receiver combination playing at a high level through most of the season. When the entire group struggled Sunday, Freeman provided 12 yards on 12 carries against the San Francisco 49ers defense. (To his credit, he did secure eight of his 10 targets for 67 yards and a touchdown.)
The second-year runner has actually failed to gain 90 rushing yards in five of his nine contests this season.
It's not hard to argue other running backs in the Falcons system would experience similar success as Freeman if given the opportunity to become the lead back.
Buying: TE Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
For years, the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and then-New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham dominated the discussion surrounding the league's best tight end. Gronkowski usually got the nod, because he's a dominant blocker as well as a fantastic receiver. But Tyler Eifert has now been surpassed Graham as the league's most deadly red-zone target.
Eifert didn't exactly come out of nowhere.
The Cincinnati Bengals spent the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft to acquire the Notre Dame product. However, the Bengals already had a former Pro Bowl tight end on the roster in Jermaine Gresham at the time, and the coaching staff was more comfortable with him during Eifert's rookie campaign. Plus, the rookie was asked to play out of position at times by contributing at fullback.
The 6'6" target dislocated his elbow during the 2014 season opener, and the organization placed him on injured reserve.
This year essentially boils down to Eifert's actual rookie campaign, and the tight end is finally getting an opportunity to display his massive talent. The third-year target currently leads all receivers with nine touchdowns, each of which has come in the red zone. No other player has more than seven touchdown receptions this year.
Eifert's individual success has translated to Cincinnati's overall success.
"You want to point to reasons they are having the success they are having with the weapons they have on the outside, it's from opening up the middle of the field, and [Eifert] is playing good football for them," Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine said after Thursday's 31-10 loss to the Bengals, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey.
The Bengals are now a more complete offense, and quarterback Andy Dalton is playing at a previously unseen level. Cincinnati also happens to be 8-0, too.
What's the biggest difference between this year's Bengals squad and previous seasons? Eifert.
Selling: TE Gary Barnidge, Cleveland Browns
Gary Barnidge's story is a wonderful tale of perseverance.
Through the first seven years of his career, he served as the overlooked veteran who stuck around the league but never contributed at a high level. Entering the 2015 campaign, the 30-year-old tight end had only caught 44 passes for 603 yards and three touchdowns.
In his eighth season—his third with the Cleveland Browns—Barnidge has already caught 42 passes for 602 yards and six touchdowns. He's also done so with dramatic flair by making spectacular catch after spectacular catch.
The Browns' new top target currently ranks second among all tight ends in receiving yardage, trailing only the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, and is tied for sixth in receptions with Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans.
Barnidge's reliability this season cannot be understated.
"Browns' Gary Barnidge on third down... first in TDs (5), third in yards (247) and tied fourth in receptions (15)... That's everyone, WRs/RBs/TEs," NFL Network's Ben Fennell tweeted before the Browns' Week 9 tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals.
As special as Barnidge's season has been so far, there is a potential downside to the second half of the campaign. His long-term viability can also be called into question.
The issue surrounding Barnidge is the same for the entire Browns organization. Instability, particularly at the quarterback position, plagues the entire team.
The tight end built a strong rapport with veteran quarterback Josh McCown that stems to their days playing together with the Carolina Panthers. The same can't be said when Johnny Manziel is on the field.
Every quarterback has their favorite targets, and they're not always the same. During Manziel's two starts this season, the second-year signal-caller targeted Barnidge a total of eight times, resulting in three receptions for 52 yards.
In every start McCown has made this season (in which he finished), the tight end averaged 8.8 targets, 6.0 receptions and 85.3 yards per game.
It would obviously behoove Manziel to utilize Barnidge more if he's the starting quarterback for the majority of the second half, but the young gunslinger is still trying to establish himself and is not necessarily looking for certain targets.
Barnidge is clearly one of the league's best receiving tight ends—he's been a very poor blocker, though. Cleveland's constant turnover could mean this year's effort has gone for naught.
Buying: CB Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers
After a 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings last year, the Carolina Panthers started to trim some fat on the roster and abruptly released veteran cornerback Antoine Cason.
The move was made, in part, because Josh Norman was already coming into his own as the team's top cornerback after a pair of indistinguishable seasons.
Norman's battles last season with Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones were among the league's best as the third-year cornerback developed into not only the Panthers' best cover man, but one of the NFL's top defensive backs.
The Coastal Carolina product simply carried his play from the the second half of last season into this year, and he's now arguably the game's best at his position.
For Norman, his goal isn't simply to shut down an opponent's top receiver. He wants to make game-changing plays each and every week, per ESPN.com's David Newton:
Me, just being a player, I’m a stat-sheet stunner, man. Stat-sheet stunner. I’m going to have to go for those big-time plays to end the game.
Yeah, I guess those situations come up, you might want to bat it down. I know myself on that football field, going for the gusto. That’s just how I play. That’s my makeup.
The 27-year-old defensive back truly came into his own this season with four interceptions through the first four games, including a pair of touchdowns. He's also tied for second in the league with 13 deflected passes.
The NFL named Norman the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September, and he was just as good this past month.
"Josh Norman allowed only 32 yards in coverage in October," Pro Football Focus tweeted.
The advanced stats website also ranks the Panthers defender as league's top cover corner.
Norman has everything a team would want in a modern cornerback: length, speed, ball skills, physical style of play and plenty of attitude.
All of those traits were previously used to describe the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman. Norman might have surpassed the loquacious one.