Every NFL Team's Potential Secret Weapon for the 2014 Season
In each and every NFL season, at least one player per team emerges from his under-the-radar status to make a major impact, and 2014 won't be any different. It's time to assess every team's potential secret weapon for this upcoming season.
No player that has already achieved "star" status was eligible for this list, and a number of those included are rookies. But there's also a smattering of second- and third-year players and a few veterans as well.
The primary reason why a player is included here is because he isn't currently being discussed as a potential big-time contributor, and that happens for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the player has yet to truly prove himself. In others, he has a number of more well-known options in front of him. And for the unheralded rookies on this list, they are victims of both of the aforementioned causes.
But just because a player isn't thought of as a star doesn't mean he can't or won't perform and help his team win games. Trying to pick a club's breakout player provides an interesting exercise that can shed light on the club's potential fortunes.
Here is the potential secret weapon for every NFL team for the 2014 season.
Arizona Cardinals: WR John Brown
With the 91st overall pick (third round) of last month's draft, the Arizona Cardinals selected Pittsburg State receiver John Brown, prompting eyebrows to be raised around the league.
But upon further review, it appears that Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians may have struck gold with their selection.
Brown is 5'10" and 170 pounds and fits the physical mold of a former Arians receiver, the Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton. He has outstanding speed and quickness and has already impressed his new coach, as Arians told Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com, "He’s way ahead of most rookies, and coming from a small school, that’s unusual. It doesn’t overwhelm him at all. He learns fast and he can apply it fast."
With fellow receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd sure to draw the lion's share of defensive coverage, it's entirely feasible that Brown could sparkle as a neophyte.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Devonta Freeman
While Steven Jackson is currently perched atop the Atlanta Falcons' depth chart at running back, there's a player who could usurp him and wind up as the starter.
That would be Devonta Freeman, the club's fourth-round pick in last month's draft.
Just consider this quote from Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who gushed over Freeman to Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com:
He's a versatile back. He has the ability to tote the rock as a lead back. He's a strong guy. He runs with some authority and some anger to his running style. He can catch the ball well. And for us, we thought he was just a real versatile addition to our running back group.
With Jackson and fellow back Jacquizz Rodgers having underwhelmed in 2013, expect Freeman to be given a chance to earn playing time.
And if Dimitroff is right, Freeman could end up as the top option in the run game before long.
Baltimore Ravens: S Terrence Brooks
When one thinks of the Baltimore Ravens defense, a few players come to mind. Linebacker Terrell Suggs. Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil.
But if things go according to plan in 2014, the team's young safety duo of second-year player Matt Elam and third-round draft choice Terrence Brooks could become household names.
Since Elam played last year, Brooks is the choice here as the team's potential secret weapon.
And he knows that once he becomes familiar with the playbook, he'll have an opportunity to sparkle, telling Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, "I feel like it's just a matter of me getting the playbook down. As soon as I get down and comfortable with it, I can play fast. So, it will be good."
Brooks will compete to start at free safety, and the expectation should be that he claims the job. If and when that happens, Brooks could be a difference-maker in the Ravens secondary.
Buffalo Bills: WR Robert Woods
While much of the hype surrounding the Buffalo Bills wide receiving corps is rightly centered around rookie Sammy Watkins, second-year pass-catcher Robert Woods is quietly in line for a huge season.
Woods caught 40 passes for 587 yards and three touchdown receptions as a rookie, and he should be even better in 2014, as he'll be the team's primary slot receiver. It's an assignment that coach Doug Marrone was comfortable bestowing upon Woods, as he told Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News, "We felt very comfortable with (Woods) being able to play the slot and be very successful there."
Last season, Woods developed a rapport with quarterback EJ Manuel, and with Watkins and receiver Mike Williams set to play on the outside, Woods should have an opportunity to explode onto the scene this season.
Carolina Panthers: S Robert Lester
Last season, the Carolina Panthers possessed the second-ranked defense in the league, and it helped buoy them to a 12-4 record and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
A player that contributed to that cause but didn't receive much national attention was safety Robert Lester, who finished the season ranked as the 15th-best player at the position by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He intercepted three passes and didn't look like an undrafted rookie.
Lester will battle Roman Harper (formerly of the New Orleans Saints) for the starting strong safety job, and even if he loses out to the veteran Harper, there's no doubt he'll see the field this season and will be looking to improve upon his sensational rookie form.
Chicago Bears: WR Marquess Wilson
The Chicago Bears possess arguably the finest one-two combination at receiver in the league with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
And if Marquess Wilson can continue to develop into the receiver the Bears think he can be, the dynamic duo could evolve into a tremendous trio.
The Bears cast a major vote of confidence in Wilson when they released receiver Earl Bennett, leaving Wilson as the front-runner to claim the third receiving job. Even though he only caught two passes in his neophyte campaign, general manager Phil Emery believes Wilson is on the upswing.
According to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, Emery had this to say about Wilson:
(Wilson has) had a good offseason. His attitude has been fantastic. He's training like a pro. He's acting like a pro, and I expect him to come out and show his best side, and we'll see how it works out for him. But obviously, we've signed other receivers, and he's going to have to compete for his job.
Wilson will compete with Josh Morgan and Eric Weems for the spot, but he's the most talented option and should win it. And the sky will be the limit from there.
Cincinnati Bengals: DE Margus Hunt
Although the Cincinnati Bengals spent a second-round draft pick on defensive end Margus Hunt in 2013, the plan was never to feature him heavily last season. Instead, the club opted to let him learn in a reserve role.
And the fruits of their labor might be bountiful, as many believe Hunt is ready to have a big season.
One of the 26-year-old's fans is former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Earlier this offseason, Zimmer told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com that he expects Hunt to make a "big jump" in his sophomore campaign.
Hunt, who is freakishly big (6'8", 280) has the physical tools to one day be a dominant player. The Bengals are hoping that time comes later this fall.
Cleveland Browns: WR Andrew Hawkins
When the impending suspension (still no word on the final amount) of Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon was announced, many assumed the team would add a pass-catcher or two during last month's draft.
Well, that didn't happen, leaving those same people to wonder which receiver would be catching passes this season.
Look no further than Andrew Hawkins.
The Browns signed the diminutive Hawkins (5'7") away from the Bengals, and he projects to be an absolute demon out of the slot this season.
Count Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer among those impressed, as Hoyer told Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal:
The one guy I like more and more every day I work with is Andrew Hawkins. The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with (Wes) Welker, where the guy runs every route to win. He’s going full blast. You see him out there and you can tell when he walks back to the huddle, he gave his all on every play. He’s just a competitor, and I think the more guys you get like that, the better your team becomes.
With the team's receiving corps looking questionable, Hawkins will see plenty of passes come his way this season.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Terrance Williams
While Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams played well enough as a rookie that he's no longer a secret, he's still not viewed in the same light as fellow receiver Dez Bryant or tight end Jason Witten.
But after this season, that could change, as Williams is poised for a monster campaign.
With former Cowboy Miles Austin now in Cleveland, Williams will serve as the team's second receiver. And with Bryant drawing most of the coverage, he will have an opportunity to shine.
Williams caught five touchdown passes last season and should haul in more this year. The Cowboys are expected to air it out under new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and Williams will be a beneficiary, catching lots of passes from quarterback Tony Romo.
Denver Broncos: DT Sylvester Williams
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Sylvester Williams might not have been talked about much in his rookie year, but he played well down the stretch and in the postseason for the AFC champions.
Now, he appears ready to make a major impact in 2014.
ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold has banged the drum for Williams, writing here that the Broncos believe he can be an "anchor in the run game."
Count CBS Sports' Pete Prisco as another who believe Williams is on the cusp of great things, as Prisco named him as a breakout player for this season.
If Williams can realize his potential, the retooled Broncos defense could be even better than expected.
Detroit Lions: DE Larry Webster
The Detroit Lions have a stacked defensive line that includes players such as tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and end Ziggy Ansah.
By the end of 2014, defensive end Larry Webster, the club's fourth-round selection in last month's draft, could end up cracking that rotation and contributing.
There's no sugarcoating the fact that Webster is an extremely raw prospect, but the Lions have been enthused by his progress, with coach Jim Caldwell saying this to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
He’s got a huge upside. Obviously, he’s a guy that certainly has explosion. He has speed, he has quickness, he’s intelligent. ... And working with him out here, I think our guys on our defensive line have been pleased with where he is right now.
If the Lions' coaching staff can accelerate Webster's development, the club's pass rush could be even more formidable this season.
Green Bay Packers: DE Mike Neal
It took the Green Bay Packers four years, but they finally figured out that the best position for Mike Neal is outside linebacker, and he registered five sacks and an interception from that spot in 2013. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 40th-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and really came on as the season came to a close, offering hope that a breakout campaign is in the cards.
Former Packers linebackers coach Kevin Greene is among those impressed by Neal's transition from defensive lineman to outside linebacker, as he told Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette:
Mike Neal, his transition from a one- and three-technique interior defensive tackle to a stand-up, two-point stance outside backer, and then having to see the entire field and having coverage and knowing exactly where you need to fit in the grand scheme of things in your coverage, all the checks and adjustments, he really has had a remarkable transition.
With the addition of pass-rusher Julius Peppers, the Packers defense looks to be much improved. Neal is a big part of that projection.
Houston Texans: TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
The Houston Texans tabbed tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third round of last month's draft. While he hasn't received the same fanfare as some of the team's other selections (defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Tom Savage chief among them), he will still make an impact in 2014.
Per Marc Vandemeer of HoustonTexans.com, Texans coach Bill O'Brien called Fiedorowicz a "Y" tight end, meaning that he will block and run a lot of short-to-intermediate routes. In O'Brien's offense, that role could turn into a focal point of the passing attack.
Expect Fiedorowicz to beat out fellow tight ends Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin to become a security blanket for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Indianapolis Colts: TE Dwayne Allen
Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen hurt his hip in the season opener last year and ended up missing the entire season. But he is ready to come back with a vengeance.
Allen was the team's third-round selection in the 2012 draft. He sparkled as a rookie, catching 45 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns, and he should be on track to perform even better in 2014.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is a huge fan of Allen, telling Kevin Bowen of Colts.com:
The guy’s a beast. Anyone that game plans against him or watches the tape, or Joe Fan that just sees him how he plays in the red zone, how he plays in traffic, how he blocks at the point of attack, the tempo he plays at and the ferocity he plays at, he’s a guy you want on your team.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will surely be happy to have Allen back in the lineup. Allen will form with Coby Fleener to give Indianapolis a devastating one-two punch at the tight end position.
Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Telvin Smith
Few fifth-round draft picks receive as much fanfare as linebacker Telvin Smith did when he was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars last month.
And through the initial batch of OTAs, it appears that the praise was well-founded.
The speedy Smith impressed coach Gus Bradley, as Bradley told Hayes Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union:
He’s got a strong personality and a very vibrant personality. You saw more of that today. He felt more confident, and that’s part of the reason we drafted him, that spirit. His speed [stands out]. With Telvin, he moves really well in space. He picks things up. He’s just got to put some weight on.
Expect Smith to make an impact as a rookie. Once the season starts, he won't be a secret for long.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Knile Davis
Although Jamaal Charles is the unquestioned focal point of the Kansas City Chiefs rushing attack, expect backup Knile Davis to emerge this season as a viable option for coach Andy Reid.
Charles carried the rock 259 times last season and caught another 70 passes, and he'll turn 28 in December. It would definitely behoove Reid to spell him more often in 2014, and Davis is the primary backup.
Davis is an immensely talented player in his own right, having shown flashes of brilliance in his time at the University of Arkansas. He could break out in a big way and give the Chiefs an outstanding one-two punch at running back.
Miami Dolphins: WR Jarvis Landry
The Miami Dolphins selected receiver Jarvis Landry with the 63rd overall pick (second round) of last month's draft, and he's being counted upon to make an instant impact as a neophyte.
The good news for the Dolphins is that Landry looks ready to contribute, as he impressed at rookie OTAs, per Adam H. Beasley of The Miami Herald.
Landry has phenomenal hands and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could evolve into a security blanket over the middle of the field for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Landry looms as a receiver to watch for this season.
Minnesota Vikings: LB Audie Cole
The Minnesota Vikings have a new head coach in Mike Zimmer, and he's surely looking for defensive players to complement his attack-first philosophy.
Enter third-year linebacker Audie Cole, who displayed a relentless motor when he saw the field in 2013.
If he can beat out Jasper Brinkley, it's possible that Cole will start at middle linebacker for the Vikings in Week 1, and he'll have the opportunity to impress.
Bleacher Report's Giancarlo King is a fan of Cole, having recently named him as a breakout candidate for 2014.
New England Patriots: RB James White
New England Patriots running back James White had a sensational collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin, rushing for 4,015 yards and scoring 45 touchdowns. Now, the fourth-round pick from this last May's draft is aiming to impress at the NFL level, and he knows what coach Bill Belichick likes out of his running backs: ball security.
Last season, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley played himself into Belichick's dog house with a number of fumbles, and White is taking care to make sure that he avoids that fate if given the opportunity.
Speaking with Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe, he said, "Ball security is job security. That’s the quote that I know. All my coaches stressed that. If the ball’s in your hands, you better protect it. That’s the most important part.”
Belichick has shown that he doesn't play favorites with his running backs, so it's possible White will be given an opportunity. And if he does, don't expect him to fumble it away.
New Orleans Saints: OT Terron Armstead
NFL fans need to remember the name Terron Armstead, because he's in line for a big-time season for the New Orleans Saints.
Once he was inserted into the starting lineup prior to the team's Week 16 game against Carolina, the Saints run game improved dramatically, and Armstead played very well in his four starts at left tackle.
Saints offensive line coach Brett Ingalls is excited about Armstead's development, telling John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com:
I’d say that he’s made a lot of strides since the end of last year. He had almost a full year of work before he got on the field and he played last year and yet, I think he’s the kind of guy that studies what he does. He’s conscientious, he’s focused and I’ve already seen improvement, just in his confidence, No. 1.
If Armstead continues to improve, it'll be a major boon for quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints offense.
New York Giants: DE Damontre Moore
New York Giants defensive end Damontre Moore failed to record a sack as a rookie and was one of the main culprits behind the team's toothless pass rush.
But with a full offseason soon to be under his belt, it's reasonable to expect improvement from Moore in year two.
Moore was a monster on the collegiate level at Texas A&M, compiling 26.5 sacks in three seasons. With an increased opportunity and playing with star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, he should have the chance to flash the form that made him the Giants' third-round pick in 2013.
New York Jets: CB Dimitri Patterson
New York Jets fans were unhappy that the team missed out on a number of free-agent cornerbacks, including Darrelle Revis (New England) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Giants).
But the team did make an under-the-radar signing at the position that could pay dividends: Dimitri Patterson.
Although Patterson has been a journeyman throughout his NFL career, he did intercept four passes in only six games last season for the Miami Dolphins, and he clearly isn't short for confidence, saying this to Kieran Darcy of ESPN New York:
I've been asked to do what (the departed Antonio) Cromartie was asked to do. Do I have a high profile? No. Do I have the biggest name? No. But I've covered the same receivers, and I've held up extremely well against the same receivers, the elite guys. I don't have a high-profile name, but I'll put my film [up] with anybody's. That's the reality of the situation.
While Patterson is exhibiting a little too much braggadocio in that quote, a cornerback needs to have confidence, and Patterson clearly has it in spades.
If he can perform to the level he thinks he can, the Jets defense will be all the better for it.
Oakland Raiders: WR Juron Criner
Oakland Raiders receiver Juron Criner only caught three passes last season, but there's reason to believe he'll break out in 2014.
Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times recently wrote about Criner's improved play, noting that he has been "far and away" the best Raiders receiver at OTAs.
With Matt Schaub locked in as the team's starting quarterback, Criner will have an opportunity to impress. So far, he's making the most of it.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Markus Wheaton
The Pittsburgh Steelers were surely expecting more than six catches out of 2013 third-round draft pick receiver Markus Wheaton.
But while Wheaton might have disappointed last year, he's poised to do big things in 2014.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently predicted that the 23-year-old will emerge as a starting receiver opposite Antonio Brown, and that will mean an uptick in targets, catches and touchdowns.
Wheaton has outstanding speed and possesses the ability to stretch the field. He could end up being a favorite target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Philadelphia Eagles: TE Zach Ertz
The Philadelphia Eagles are loaded on offense, with head coach Chip Kelly serving as the mad professor behind the exotic schemes and game plans.
And while quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy and receiver Jeremy Maclin are the most familiar names in the unit, tight end Zach Ertz will soon join them, as he's poised to break out in 2014.
Speaking with Chris McPherson of PhiladelphiaEagles.com, Ertz detailed the main reason why he'll be an improved player this season:
The game truly started to slow down towards the second half of the year. It was such a whirlwind at the beginning that I didn't really know what was going on. The playbook wasn't too hard to grasp, but just the play speed was the biggest thing to get used to. Last year, I didn't know what to expect from the offense and just being out here in Philadelphia as a whole. Obviously, this year it's going to be a lot better.
Ertz has an outstanding combination of size and speed and should be a nightmare for opposing defenses to handle.
San Diego Chargers: TE Ladarius Green
Because he plays behind a legend in Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green has yet to truly enter the public consciousness.
But that could easily change in 2014.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers believes Green has the ability to be great, telling Michael Gehlken of The San Diego Union Tribune:
Green only caught 17 passes last year, but he's sure to surpass that number in 2014, especially since his quarterback is such a big fan of his development.
San Francisco: DE Tank Carradine
The San Francisco 49ers had an eye on the future when they selected Cornellius "Tank" Carradine in the second round of the 2013 draft, as he was coming off a torn ACL suffered at the collegiate level.
Well, as it concerns Carradine, the future is now.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com reported that Carradine is "moving around well" in OTAs, which is obviously a positive sign.
If Carradine can stay healthy, he could turn out to be a major contributor to the 49ers defense.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Christine Michael
With the amount of hype he's currently receiving, Seattle Seahawks running back Christine Michael won't be a secret for too much longer.
Michael only carried the ball 18 times as a rookie, but he is slated for a much larger role in 2014.
Per Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll lavished praise upon Michael, saying:
He’s just a million miles ahead of where he was in terms of understanding what we want scheme wise, pass protection wise, route wise, and we know he’s a natural runner. He’s got explosive talent and we just want to get him fit in. By the end of preseason he should be just a real comfortable part of this football team.
Plus, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said that he expects the team to use a running back by committee, which means an expanded workload for Michael.
Get on the bandwagon now. By the time the season starts, Michael will no longer be a secret.
St. Louis Rams: S T.J. McDonald
Despite missing six games last season with a broken leg, St. Louis Rams safety T.J. McDonald still impressed, accruing 53 tackles, a sack and an interception.
His role in new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' defense should only expand in his second season. In fact, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com recently wrote that McDonald projects to be a "monster in the middle of the field" in Williams' defense.
McDonald is a physical, intimidating presence and will bring a swagger to the Rams secondary. He's a player to watch in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Charles Sims
Yes, Doug Martin is currently atop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart at running back, but there are a number of facts that need to be considered.
First, this current regime (head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht) didn't draft Martin. Second, Smith and Licht spent a third-round draft pick on running back Charles Sims. And third, new Buccaneers offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford recently told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times that he plans on alternating running backs.
This all means that Sims will have the opportunity to carve out significant playing time as a rookie, and his pass-catching ability should provide an added dimension to Tedford's offense.
While Martin will be the primary ball-carrier, don't sleep on Sims as a potential difference-maker for the Bucs offense.
Tennessee Titans: WR Justin Hunter
Last season as a rookie, Tennessee Titans receiver Justin Hunter hauled in 18 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns.
There's no question the team is expecting bigger and better things from the second-year pass-catcher in 2014.
In an interview with Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, Titans receivers coach Shawn Jefferson gushed over Hunter's upside, saying:
(Hunter) can be the receiver that puts us in the playoffs, and helps us win our division. With the growth he is going to go through, if he can keep progressing he can be the receiver that puts us over the edge. He has that much potential.
Hunter has outstanding size (6'4") and has the ability to be a difference-maker playing alongside No. 1 receiver Kendall Wright. If the Titans are to contend for a playoff spot this year, quarterback Jake Locker must find a way to get Hunter the football.
Washington Redskins: WR Andre Roberts
When the Washington Redskins signed free-agent receiver DeSean Jackson, it seemed as if everyone forgot about another free-agent receiver the team brought into the fold: Andre Roberts.
Roberts, formerly of the Cardinals, is way too good a player to be flying under the radar the way he currently is. He thrived out of the slot last season, hauling in 43 passes, and projects to make a similar impact for the Redskins.
With Jackson serving as a deep threat, the middle of the field should be open for Roberts to maraud across. Don't count him out as a major contributor to the Redskins offense in 2014.