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NFL Offseason 2014: Identifying the Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position

Russell S. BaxterContributor IApril 20, 2014

NFL Offseason 2014: Identifying the Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position

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    Running back Zac Stacy had it going on in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.
    Running back Zac Stacy had it going on in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    To a point, we are all in the prognostication business. Making predictions and looking back to see if we nailed it can be satisfying…and excruciating.

    With that in mind, here’s a look at nine different positions and the players who look to become bigger names in the NFL in 2014.

    To further emphasize the term breakout, we are talking about players who have yet to earn a Pro Bowl invitation and are only household names around their own neighborhoods.

    Obviously, the list includes its share of second-year pros coming off very-respectable rookie seasons. But we have also included a few players who have toiled in the league for a few years and could be on the verge of bigger and better things. Besides our main choice we will also include a few other candidates that we deem are “in the discussion.”

    Hopefully, a review in January shows that a good number of these performers will live up to our billing this upcoming season. Of course, that’s a mere nine months from now.

    But as Tom Petty once stated, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Quarterback: EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills

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    Associated Press

    Just about this time a year ago (April 25, 2013), the Buffalo Bills were busy making Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel the lone quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

    While the former Seminole was bitten by the injury bug and failed to play in all 16 games, he showed enough to make you think that the franchise got it right this time around.

    In 10 starts this past season, Manuel forged a 4-6 record as a starter. He completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,972 yards and 11 touchdowns but did commit a dozen turnovers (nine interceptions, three lost fumbles). Manuel also ran for 186 yards and a pair of scores and was sacked 28 times.

    Those numbers are certainly far from awe-inspiring. But last season was a bit trying to Manuel, who, according to head coach Doug Marrone, didn’t get a lot of prep time as a rookie.

    “He played last year and really didn't practice that much,” said Marrone to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News back in February. “If you think about all the players that played in the league, he probably practiced the least and played.”

    But another offseason of learning Marrone’s playbook, the team’s commitment to the running game and the addition of wide receiver Mike Williams from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could add up to some very big things for the Bills’ young quarterback.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans

    2. Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Browns

    3. Geno Smith, New York Jets

Running Back: Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This offseason, the St. Louis Rams haven’t made it much of a secret that running back Zac Stacy will be extremely busy in his second NFL season.

    “He should be more productive because he should have more carries,” said Rams general manager Les Snead back in February to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.

    “I think over time, he'll probably be that 70-percent of the carries guy," said head coach Jeff Fisher to Larry Hartstein of CBSSports.com last month at the NFL owners meetings.

    Stacy, a fifth-round pick a year ago, would wind up the Rams’ starting running back for the final 12 games of the season. He finished with 973 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, plus added 26 catches for 141 yards and a score.

    The former Vanderbilt product proved he could be Fisher’s workhorse. In his final nine outings, Stacy totaled at least 26 carries in five of those contests and topped the 100-yard mark four times. All told, 759 of his 973 yards and all seven of his touchdowns came in the final nine games.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos

    2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

    3. Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals

Wide Receiver: WR Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints

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    Bill Haber

    This past season, it was kind of tough being a wide receiver with the New Orleans Saints.

    What? Didn’t quarterback Drew Brees throw for 5,000-plus yards for the third year in a row? Didn’t the prolific signal-caller connect for 39 touchdown passes?

    All true indeed. But also consider that 25 of those scoring tosses went to tight ends and running backs. Four players on the team caught at least 70 passes: veteran wide receiver Marques Colston (75) as well as tight end Jimmy Graham (86) and running backs Pierre Thomas (77) and Darren Sproles (71).

    Veteran wideout Lance Moore was released this offseason, and Sproles was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles last month. That alone figures to open more things up for second-year pro Kenny Stills, who as a rookie in 2013 averaged 20.0 yards per catch on 32 receptions and tied for second on the team with five touchdown grabs.

    As we know, rookie wide receivers rarely put up big numbers. Could Stills have a Alshon Jeffery-like season in 2014?

     

    In The Discussion

    1. Rueben Randle, New York Giants

    2. Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys

    3. Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers

Tight End: Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Are the New York Jets ready to bet the farm on tight end Jeff Cumberland?

    The franchise made sure he didn’t get away this offseason, re-signing the potential unrestricted free agent. The former undrafted free agent has made the most of his playing time the last two seasons after seeing action in only four games combined from 2010-11.

    Cumberland has started 24 out of 30 contests the last two years, totaling 55 catches for 757 yards and seven touchdowns. This past season, the 6’4’, 249-pound weapon led the team with four touchdown receptions. Cumberland totaled 26 grabs for 398 yards, a nifty 15.3 yards per reception.

    Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg knows the importance of the tight end in the West Coast attack. The offseason additions of wide receivers Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford will benefit the Jets’ attack as well and make Cumberland a much bigger factor.

    With a little more rapport with quarterback Geno Smith, you can look for both he and Cumberland to improve their numbers this upcoming season.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. Andrew Quarless, Green Bay Packers

    2. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

    3. Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers

Offensive Lineman: RT Demar Dotson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    In case you had not noticed, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a very busy organization this offseason.

    Case in point is the offensive line, a unit that no longer features performers such as tackle Donald Penn, guard Davin Joseph and center Jeremy Zuttah. The new faces include left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

    One of the incumbents on the team’s offensive front is right tackle Demar Dotson, a former undrafted free agent who signed with the team in 2009 and comes off a very impressive 2013 season. The 6’9”, 315-pound performer has started a combined 31 games the past two seasons.

    He comes off a year in which Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him 13th among NFL tackles, including sixth in the league when it came to pass protection.

    With all the new looks in Tampa this season, a familiar face in the form of Dotson could wind up shining a lot brighter than most may expect.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. G Brandon Brooks, Houston Texans

    2. C Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders

    3. G Larry Warford, Detroit Lions

     

Defensive Lineman: DT Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It’s been quite a while since the Tennessee Titans made an appearance in the NFL playoffs.

    That would be 2008, when the team finished with the best record in the league at 13-3.

    These days, the Titans are on their third head coach in five seasons in the form of Ken Whisenhunt, who takes over for Mike Munchak.

    They also have a new defensive coordinator in Ray Horton, who has had success in a few places and reunites with Whisenhunt.

    The Titans also have defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, who gave opposing offenses something to think about in 2013. Rated the fourth-best defensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, the former USC product totaled 55 tackles and a team-high 10.5 sacks. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that Casey was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), receiving eight votes.

    In Horton’s new 3-4 defensive unit, Casey will line up at nose tackle. That’s quite all right with the three-year pro who has played at numerous spots along the defensive line in his short career. It’s easy to envision Casey’s numbers in terms of sacks going down but at the same time, his overall impact on the Tennessee defense increasing greatly.

    It could also be the start of even bigger and better things for him and the overdue Titans, who perhaps can barely remember being a pair of the NFL postseason.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. DE Devin Taylor, Detroit Lions

    2. DT Sylvester Williams, Denver Broncos

    3. DT Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings

Linebacker: OLB Danny Trevathan, Denver Broncos

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Denver Broncos were very busy in March adding some big names to the NFL’s 19th-ranked defense this past season.

    The additions of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward should help the defending AFC champions immensely. The presence of former Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller for an entire season would be a major plus as well.

    Somewhat quietly, outside linebacker Danny Trevathan comes off a very solid season. The 2012 sixth-round pick started all 16 games and led the team with 129 tackles. Pro Football Focus ranked him 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers and gave him no negatives grades when it came to his play against both the run and pass.

    Add in a pair of sacks, three interceptions, 10 passes defensed and four forced fumbles, and it’s easy to understand why he could be on the verge of some bigger things in 2014 with arguably a better supporting cast.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. OLB Jamie Collins, New England Patriots

    2. ILB Kevin Minter, Arizona Cardinals

    3. OLB Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland Browns

Cornerback: Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It doesn’t seem like we are going out on a limb here.

    Late last season, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell was thrust into duty and responded extremely well.

    After seeing action in a total of 18 regular-season games in his first two seasons, the former Clemson product wound up starting the team’s final five contests and three more games in the 2013 postseason.

    Of course, the team has a recent rich history of striking gold with defensive backs. The sixth-round pick in 2011 played in all 16 games this past season, totaling 28 tackles, four interceptions and a dozen pass breakups. All told, he was responsible for five of the Seahawks’ league-high 39 takeaways in 2013.

    With cornerbacks Brandon Browner (New England Patriots) and Walter Thurmond (New York Giants) now elsewhere via free agency, you can look for even more playing time and more improvement from Maxwell, who looks to drop the hammer on opposing passing attacks this season.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles

    2. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings

    3. Dwayne Gratz, Jacksonville Jaguars

Safety: SS George Iloka, Cincinnati Bengals

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    David Richard

    Will the third year be the charm for strong safety George Iloka of the Cincinnati Bengals?

    It’s not like the former Boise State product isn’t coming off a productive season. After playing in just seven games as a rookie, Iloka was on the field every week for Marvin Lewis’ team in 2013. It may surprise many to know that he finished third on the team with 66 tackles while also totaling one interception, six passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles.

    As Coley Harvey of ESPN.com alludes to, the Bengals are looking for more from the former fifth-round pick despite the recent addition of Danieal Manning, let go by the Houston Texans this offseason.

    The Bengals finished third in the league in terms of fewest yards allowed in 2013, ranking fifth in the NFL against both the run and the pass. This unit has its share of standouts in defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Leon Hall.

    Don’t be surprised if Iloka starts making a name for himself as well.

     

    In The Discussion

    1. FS Mike Mitchell, Pittsburgh Steelers

    2. SS D.J. Swearinger, Houston Texans

    3. FS Will Hill, New York Giants

     

    Some statistical support comes via Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and ESPN.com.

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