Who's the Biggest Standout of Every NFL Team's Offseason So Far?

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IJune 24, 2014

Who's the Biggest Standout of Every NFL Team's Offseason So Far?

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    We are officially through OTAs, and the NFL calendar will soon shift to training camp. But before the pads are strapped on and actual football commences, it’s time to recognize the biggest standout of every NFL team’s offseason so far.

    There’s a veritable cornucopia of players on this list. Some are established veterans who have dazzled throughout the offseason, while others are younger players and rookies who have inspired hope that they’ll be major contributors this fall.

    There are quarterbacks, both veteran and greenhorn. There are little-known defensive ends and a future Hall of Fame pass-rusher. In total, every position on offense (quarterback, running back, offensive line, receiver, tight end) and defense (defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, safety) is accounted for in this piece.

    Here is each NFL team's biggest offseason standout thus far.

Arizona Cardinals: WR Michael Floyd

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd had a splendid sophomore season, hauling in 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdown receptions. 

    And if this offseason has been any indication, he'll be even better in season three.

    Floyd has been magnificent throughout team offseason activities, flashing the form that made him the 13th overall pick of the 2012 draft. Quarterback Carson Palmer has been impressed with Floyd's progress, as Palmer told Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, "The way Mike Floyd is playing just jumped out at me. I have very high expectations for Mike this year."

    While Larry Fitzgerald remains the alpha dog among Arizona's receivers, he's set to turn 31 in August. If the Cardinals are to take the next step and join division rivals Seattle and San Francisco in the playoffs, Floyd will have to step up his game and elevate the passing attack to a level hitherto seen.

    Based on Palmer's assessment, Floyd's ascendance into rarefied air might not be that far off.

    For more on how Floyd can improve in 2014, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland.

Atlanta Falcons: CB Robert Alford

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    In order for the Atlanta Falcons to bounce back from their miserable 4-12 campaign in 2013, many players will have to step up.

    Count cornerback Robert Alford as one who already has, as he’s received rave reviews for his work alongside fellow starter Desmond Trufant.

    Alford really impressed in a minicamp practice last week, with coach Mike Smith telling Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, "I thought Robert Alford made some phenomenal plays. You got an opportunity to see his speed and quickness; his ability to recover. There were guys that were open and when the ball was in the air, he seemed to run faster than the other guy."

    While it’s worth noting that the work didn’t come against either of the Falcons' starting wideouts, Julio Jones and Roddy White, the emergence of Alford is still a major storyline. Trufant is already on the fast track to stardom, and if Alford continues to improve, the Falcons could have one of the best young cornerback duos in the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens: TE Dennis Pitta

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The fact that Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta was limited to four games (one start) last season really hurt the team's passing attack and was a contributing factor in the club missing the postseason for the first time since 2008.

    But Pitta is now healthy, and he dazzled at OTAs and projects as a major weapon for quarterback Joe Flacco this season.

    Pitta told Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, "I feel good. I feel really healthy. I feel 100 percent. But there are still things that I work through. I would say I’m on my way to getting all the way back.” Mink also wrote that Pitta could be "on the verge of a breakout season," so Pitta is likely being cautious with his quotes. The important thing is that he's feeling physically fit.

    With new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak running an offense that is very tight end friendly, Pitta could dominate in 2014 and help push the Ravens back into the postseason.

Buffalo Bills: WR Robert Woods

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    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 has earned rave reviews for his work this offseason and has coach Doug Marrone excited about his potential operating out of the slot. Marrone told Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News, "We felt very comfortable with (Woods) being able to play the slot and be very successful there."

    Joe Buscaglia of WGR550.com has gushed over Woods' performance in OTAs and wrote about the growing rapport between Woods and quarterback EJ Manuel.

    Last season, Woods caught 40 passes for 587 yards and three touchdown receptions. With the Bills offense having the potential to be explosive, those numbers should skyrocket in 2014.

Carolina Panthers: QB Cam Newton

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    After compiling incredible statistics in his first two seasons (2011 and 2012) but failing to qualify for the postseason, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton quelled his critics by leading the team to a 12-4 mark and NFC South championship last year.

    And given his continued growth and maturation this offseason, Panthers fans should expect more sterling play from their franchise passer.

    Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been pleased with Newton's continued development, as he recently told NFL Media's Albert Beer:

    Over the last 10 weeks, we're seeing Cam maturing, and doing things in other ways to contribute and improve. It got to the point where Cam was installing things. He led the meetings. He was sitting with the receivers, the tight ends and helping them, not just standing next to (offensive coordinator Mike Shula). You see stuff now you didn't see before.

    Newton's on-field talents have never been called into question; it's always been his leadership that has. Now, it appears as if Newton understands what it means to be a general both on and off the field.

    And that is very dangerous news for the rest of the NFC.

Chicago Bears: QB Jay Cutler

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is about to enter his sixth season with the club, and while he has only led the team to one postseason appearance (following the 2010 season), he's played well enough that the team lavished him with a long-term, big-money contract earlier this offseason.

    The issue with Cutler has never been his on-field performance but rather the frequency with which he misses time with injuries. In 2013, Cutler only started 11 games, and he has only started a full 16-game season with the Bears once in five campaigns.

    The good news for coach Marc Trestman and the Bears is that Cutler has put in the necessary work this offseason to help ensure that his body is more prepared to handle the rigors of an NFL season. 

    In that vein, Bears quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required):

    He has always been in shape. He spent a lot more time with flexibility, a lot more time in the weight room. He looks stronger. One of the things we talked about was getting real strong from the waist down. To play this position, you've got to have a good base, and that has definitely changed. He's built up his upper body some, too, to be able to stand out there strong and be able to deliver a ball and take a hit.

    That is exceptional news for the Bears, as their offense looks to be explosive in 2014. With Cutler serving as the trigger man of a unit that features running back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, it's easy to forecast a lot of points being put on the board in the Windy City.

    Especially if Cutler can stay on the field for the entire year.

Cincinnati Bengals: RB Jeremy Hill

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals selected running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of last month's draft, and the greenhorn appears ready to contribute right away.

    Hill has been working ahead of incumbent back BenJarvus Green-Ellis at OTAs and will likely share time with fellow back Giovani Bernard once the season begins.

    He is a powerful runner who provides an excellent complement to the speedy Bernard, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the Bengals cut ties with Green-Ellis as a result of his emergence.

    New Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson loves to run the football, which is good news for Hill. Look for him to make an instant impact as a neophyte.

Cleveland Browns: OT Mitchell Schwartz

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns have the makings of a potentially excellent offensive line, led by center Alex Mack, left tackle Joe Thomas and incoming rookie Joel Bitonio, who is expected to man left guard.

    The perceived weak link of the line has been 2012 second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz, who graded as Pro Football Focus' 30th-ranked tackle last season (subscription required). But all reports out of Cleveland suggest that Schwartz could be an impact player along the line in 2014.

    Both Vic Carucci of ClevelandBrowns.com and Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer have recently written about Schwartz's improvement, with Cabot saying Browns brass expects Schwartz to "excel" in the zone-blocking scheme installed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

    If Schwartz can successfully man the right tackle position, the Browns offensive line could maul opposing defenses and open up rushing lanes for new backs Ben Tate and Terrance West.

    And they could also provide excellent protection for a certain rookie signal-caller by the name of Johnny Manziel.

Dallas Cowboys: S J.J. Wilcox

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    Last season, the Dallas Cowboys finished dead last in total defense, so the team really needs players to come on and perform better than in 2013.

    Enter safety J.J. Wilcox, who only started five games last year but has impressed thus far in offseason work.

    Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli recently told Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News“I just sense (Wilcox is) going to make a step. You feel good about it, but now he’s got to go do it.”

    Wilcox is projected to start at free safety this year, where he'll pair up with strong safety Barry Church to give the Cowboys a potentially underrated duo in the defensive backfield. If Wilcox can stay healthy and carry over his excellent offseason into the regular campaign, it will be a major boon to a Cowboys defense in desperate need of playmaking ability. 

Denver Broncos: DE Quanterus Smith

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When one thinks of pass-rushers on the Denver Broncos, the first names likely to come to mind are linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.

    In fact, Bleacher Report's Russell S. Baxter recently named Ware and Miller the eighth-best pass-rushing duo in the NFL.

    But while Ware and Miller have grabbed all the headlines, a lesser-known pass-rusher has quietly turned heads in Denver: defensive end Quanterus Smith.

    Smith, a fifth-round selection in the 2013 draft, didn't play at all last season as he continued to recover from a torn ACL suffered in November 2012. But now, he's ready to take the AFC West by storm.

    Broncos executive vice president and general manager John Elway recently told ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold about Smith's "unique ability to rush the passer." The team could lean upon him in 2014 to get after the opposing quarterback.

    Miller is coming off ACL surgery, and Ware struggled through an injury-riddled 2013 campaign. If either man is forced to miss time, look for Smith to burst onto the scene and contribute.

Detroit Lions: CB Darius Slay

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay struggled as a greenhorn in 2013.

    The then-rookie failed to intercept a pass in 13 games (four starts) and finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 92nd-ranked cornerback.

    But Slay has really come on strong in offseason workouts, wowing coaches and teammates with his improved play and athleticism. Head coach Jim Caldwell recently gushed over Slay's rise to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com:

    Obviously, we all know and realize that he does indeed have skill and ability. The guy can run. He can flat run, he can jump. He’s got all the physical tools that you’re looking for. He’s just lacking a little bit of experience.


    It’s been a couple months now we’ve been working and he’s grown. He’s gotten a little bit better. He’s coming along. He’s more confident. It’s a new scheme, but he’s making good progress. We feel good about where he’s heading.

    The Lions play in a division (NFC North) with high-octane offenses in Green Bay and Chicago, so Slay's improvement will be critical to the team's playoff chances. 

Green Bay: DE/LB Julius Peppers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers made a major splash in the free-agency period when they brought in pass-rushing demon Julius Peppers, and he hasn't disappointed in offseason workouts.

    Linebacker A.J. Hawk was in awe of Peppers during OTAs, telling Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

    You obviously notice his athletic ability right off the bat. He’s 34 and runs like he’s 18. If ever there was a genetic freak put on this planet, it is Julius. He’s just a specimen. I have a ton of respect for how he works, too. What a great teammate just from Day 1. He’s a quiet guy that already knows what he is doing, so it is fun to be around a guy like him.

    The Packers are counting on Peppers to provide a pass-rushing punch alongside star linebacker Clay Matthews. If he can do that, the Packers will be a real threat to challenge the Seahawks and 49ers for NFC supremacy.

Houston Texans: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    It was widely assumed that the Houston Texans, coming off a 2-14 season, would select a quarterback in the early rounds of last month's draft.

    But the team didn't tab a signal-caller until the fourth round (Pittsburgh's Tom Savage), which seemed to indicate that it was content with free-agent pickup Ryan Fitzpatrick manning the quarterback controls in 2014.

    Coach Bill O'Brien confirmed that last week when he named Fitzpatrick the starter.

    And while Fitzpatrick hasn't always shown the ability to be a true franchise passer, there's no doubting that he's performed well this offseason. Per Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, O'Brien said Fitzpatrick "earned it with his preparation. He earned it with his accuracy. He earned it with his command at the line of scrimmage.”

    It's unlikely that Fitzpatrick will be the starter in 2015 or even for the entirety of the 2014 season. The smart money is on Savage starting at least a handful of games as the calendar turns to November and December. 

    But Fitzpatrick has done his job this offseason and deserves credit for performing well enough to avoid a quarterback controversy. 

Indianapolis Colts: LB Bjoern Werner

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Last year, in his rookie campaign, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner failed to dazzle, garnering only 2.5 sacks in 13 games (one start).

    The Colts coaching staff attributed his slow start to a lack of strength and challenged him to improve his body in the offseason.

    And thus far, it's been mission accomplished for Werner. He's impressed Colts linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald with his work in the weight room, as FitzGerald told Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star:

    He's done a really good job. He stayed here in the offseason. He went to Germany, I think, for a week. He was not gone long. So I'd walk down the hall and pass by him. He was like the only guy around. So, he made a commitment to stay put and he looks a lot better. He just moves better and he's carrying his weight better. He's stronger.

    With star linebacker Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season, it's imperative that Werner can help fill the pass-rushing void and sparkle off the bat. 

    The positive development for Colts fans is that Werner is putting in the work to potentially make that a reality.

Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Denard Robinson

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Once upon a time, Denard Robinson was the quarterback at the University of Michigan and one of the most exciting players in college football.

    If you watched him last season in Jacksonville, you'd never have known that, as his transition to running back didn't go as well as expected. Robinson only carried the rock 20 times for 66 yards as a neophyte and dropped too many passes for coach Gus Bradley's liking.

    But Robinson has dramatically improved this offseason, with Jaguars radio analyst Jeff Lagemen telling Jim Corbett of USA Today that Robinson has had the "best offseason of anyone."

    Toby Gerhart is expected to be the bell cow in the Jaguars backfield, and if Robinson can continue to ascend, he'll represent an excellent change-of-pace option and could provide a new dimension in the team's offense.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Dwayne Bowe

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    John Cordes/Associated Press

    When it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs depth chart at wide receiver, there's Dwayne Bowe and not much else.

    The positive for Chiefs fans is that Bowe is putting together perhaps the best offseason of his career and appears ready to put together a fabulous campaign catching passes from quarterback Alex Smith.

    At age 29, the light seems to have come on for Bowe, as it concerns both his physical and mental preparation.

    As he discussed with Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star: "I’m just trying to be a leader all around, on and off the field or whatever it takes. Staying late, doing extra or showing the guys how to do it. Even in the study room, I get in my group, staying later, just showing them how to do it and how to be in control of it. That’s my main focus this year."

    With coach Andy Reid noting in that same column that Bowe is in "phenomenal shape," it's easy to see why Bowe has generated excitement. He could be the player that elevates the Kansas City passing attack to the next level.

Miami Dolphins: RB Lamar Miller

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller failed to live up to the hype in 2013, only rushing for 709 yards and two touchdowns.

    And when the club signed former Broncos back Knowshon Moreno during the free-agency period, it appeared that Miller would be relegated to backup status.

    But Moreno recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and is set to miss four to five weeks, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, opening up an opportunity for Miller to show coach Joe Philbin that he deserves another chance as the lead back, and Miller has seized the opportunity. In fact, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald recently reported that Miller remains "clearly ahead" of Moreno to start at running back.

    For more on Miller's potential emergence, peruse this piece from Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Teddy Bridgewater

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Out of all the rookie quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings has had the finest offseason, and it could have him in line to be the team's starting quarterback this September.

    The Vikings have a new coach in Mike Zimmer and two uninspiring incumbent passers in Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, so it should surprise no one if Bridgewater ends up being "the guy" for the Vikings this year.

    Cassel has been enthused by Bridgewater's development, telling Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press:

    I think Teddy has done a tremendous job. Obviously, a lot is being thrown at him. There's a huge learning curve, but obviously he's been coached well. He's picking up the system really well. You're going to make mistakes out there, but he does a good job of making corrections. He's done a good job up to this point.

    With running back Adrian Peterson and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, the Vikings have the makings of a potentially decent offense.

    If Bridgewater can carry his outstanding offseason work into the regular campaign, the Vikings could surprise in 2014.

New England Patriots: WR Julian Edelman

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Earlier this offseason, New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman signed a four-year, $17 million deal to remain with the club, rewarding him for a superlative 2013 campaign that saw him catch 105 passes.

    But despite getting paid, Edelman is still putting in the requisite work this offseason and appears ready to author another sensational season in Foxborough.

    In fact, Edelman has been so good during workouts that Doug Kyed of NESN.com called him the team's "offseason MVP."

    If Edelman can continue to grow and mature as a receiver and playmaker, another season of triple-digit receptions could be in the offering.

New Orleans Saints: WR Brandin Cooks

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Much excitement abounded in the Bayou after the New Orleans Saints traded up in the first round of the 2014 draft to take speedy Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks.

    And if his performance at OTAs is any indication, Cooks isn't about to disappoint the Louisiana faithful.

    In fact, cornerback Keenan Lewis has bestowed a flattering nickname upon Cooks, per Christopher Dabe of The Times-Picayune: "I called him 'lightning.' A (defensive back) might be in his back pocket and the next thing you know he's 50, 60 yards down the field."

    Even though Cooks missed a sizable chunk of offseason work as he completed his junior year at Oregon State, he has still come on strong and really impressed coaches and teammates. With running back Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia, it's feasible that the Saints will lean upon Cooks to replace Sproles' production, which could make him an absolute monster on the Superdome turf catching passes from quarterback Drew Brees.

New York Giants: WR Rueben Randle

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The New York Giants have a new offensive coordinator in former Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, and one of the primary beneficiaries of the change looks to be third-year receiver Rueben Randle.

    Randle has come on strong in offseason workouts, with receivers coach Sean Ryan telling Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, "That battle with (Randle) is consistency. And I think he’s addressed it in this offseason in the way he approaches his job.”

    Randle said that he finds McAdoo's playbook "easier" than that of retired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, and that could be a major factor, as Randle was too often not on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning last season.

    With the addition of rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the new offensive system, the Giants have the makings of a potentially dangerous passing attack. And Randle could find himself with an expanded role thanks to his sterling offseason.

New York Jets: S Calvin Pryor

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The New York Jets didn't select safety Calvin Pryor with the 18th overall pick of last month's draft to sit on the bench, so Gang Green fans should be encouraged to know that Pryor has sparkled at offseason activities.

    Pryor, who has a reputation as a hard hitter and trash talker, has earned rave reviews from coach Rex Ryan, who told Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger that Pryor "is going to contribute in a big way" this season.

    Pryor also endeared himself to Jets fans by saying he "hates" AFC East bugaboo New England and the crosstown rival Giants.

    Talking trash about the Patriots and Giants and shining on the field? That's the recipe for an excellent offseason from the Jets rookie safety.

Oakland Raiders: LB Khalil Mack

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last month, the Oakland Raiders spent the fifth overall pick in the draft on dynamic University of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack in the hopes that he could resuscitate the team's moribund pass rush. 

    Thus far, Mack has provided hope that he could be the man to return the Raiders defense to the halcyon days of domination.

    Consider the following two quotes from veteran players to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, both of whom are clearly excited about Mack's potential.

    First, left tackle Donald Penn: "Sometimes (Mack) moves like a defensive back. It's crazy for a guy like that to be doing that. He has a motor that's relentless. As a tackle, you stay on him until you hear the whistle or hear the crowd cheer."

    And second, future Hall of Fame safety Charles Woodson: "It will be great to see him in action when it really goes down. We all have high hopes for him, because he's only going to make us better as a team."

    Mack will carry the weight of an organization and fanbase on his broad shoulders, and so far, it looks as if he's up to the task.

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Nick Foles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Last season, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles came on like gangbusters, tossing 27 touchdown passes against only two interceptions and leading the team to the NFC East championship.

    And as Foles heads into year two as the starter, count new Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave as among those excited by Foles' development. 

    Musgrave recently gushed over Foles, via Jake Kaplan of the Philadelphia Daily News: "We know (Foles is) a gifted athlete. He can throw the ball exactly where he wants to. He can add air, add touch. He can add velocity and really drive it when it's needed. But to see the way that he can visualize formations, coverages, and process what he sees has been impressive."

    The last part of that quote is what's most paramount to Foles' continued growth at the position. With coach Chip Kelly running his exotic offensive scheme, it's vital that Foles' mental preparation and command over the playbook be strong, and it appears that Foles is excelling at that aspect of the job.

    If Foles' excellent offseason can translate into on-field results, the Eagles should find themselves in the postseason again this upcoming January. 

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Ryan Shazier

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers selected linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round of last month's draft to inject speed and playmaking ability to a defense sorely in need of both.

    And thus far, he's been able to provide just that.

    In a recent practice report, Alan Robinson of the Tribune-Review wrote that Shazier "was a younger version of Troy Polamalu — lining up everywhere and anywhere."

    Shazier is the fastest linebacker to enter the league since Brian Urlacher in 2000, and that speed will be needed by a Steelers team trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

    Shazier is a major dark-horse candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

San Diego Chargers: WR Keenan Allen

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Last season, San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen had a marvelous rookie campaign, hauling in 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdown receptions. 

    And if his offseason work will be any indication, Allen is poised for even bigger things in 2014.

    As Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com noted, Allen has put in significant time in the weight room and has impressed on the practice field, lending hope that last season was just the beginning of what will be a marvelous career in San Diego.

    Allen is poised to be the Chargers' No. 1 receiver for years to come. Don't be shocked if he earns a Pro Bowl berth catching footballs from quarterback Philip Rivers this season.

San Francisco 49ers: QB Blaine Gabbert

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    No, there's no need to rub your eyes. You are indeed seeing this correctly.

    Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert has sparkled this offseason with his new team, the San Francisco 49ers. Seriously. 

    Gabbert was a total bust in Jacksonville, where he performed miserably after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. While playing for three head coaches in three seasons surely didn't help, Gabbert was atrocious, compiling a 5-22 record as the starter and appeared largely inept.

    But since being dealt to the 49ers at the start of the free-agency period, Gabbert has seemingly improved and has drawn plaudits from his new coach, Jim Harbaugh, who told Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:

    Very impressed with Blaine mentally, physically – all attributes that you’d like to see in a quarterback. He’s been very good, very solid. (He’s) picked up everything very quickly. It’s going well. Everything is progressing well. I think you’ll watch it when you have a chance to see it today and look at it for yourself. In my eye, it looks very good.

    It's worth noting that Gabbert hasn't yet performed in pads and against a live defense, and that has been his general area of struggle. But if he can continue to learn the offense and become comfortable behind starter Colin Kaepernick, he could provide valuable insurance in the unfortunate event that Kaepernick needs to miss any amount of time in 2014.  

Seattle Seahawks: RB Christine Michael

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    While Marshawn Lynch is the running back on the Seattle Seahawks that currently receives the most fanfare, Christine Michael looms as a name to watch heading into the 2014 season.

    Michael has been outstanding through Seattle's offseason activity, drawing much praise from head coach Pete Carroll. Carroll recently told Terry Blount of ESPN.com:

    We have very high expectations for him. He's going to get a ton of work. 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 to fit in.

    While Michael only carried the ball 18 times for 79 yards in his rookie season, he appears ready to break out and could potentially take carries away from Lynch. 

    Seahawks fans and fantasy owners alike should take heed of Michael and be excited for his potential this season.

St. Louis Rams: WR Kenny Britt

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Since being selected with the 30th overall pick of the 2009 draft, receiver Kenny Britt has ultimately disappointed. He's never caught more than 45 passes in a season and had a host of off-field issues that marred his time with the Tennessee Titans.

    But now, Britt has a fresh start in St. Louis with his first NFL coach, Jeff Fisher, and the early returns on his work have been immensely positive.

    Fisher has reportedly been "impressed" with Britt, per long-time football reporter Howard Balzer, and quarterback Sam Bradford is clearly excited about Britt's potential, via Nate Latsch of Fox Sports Midwest:

    He's a big, explosive wide receiver who can make plays down the field. He's looked good in his time here. I think just watching him and the energy that he comes onto the field with every day has been great. Not only for the offense, but for that wide receiving corps in general. I just feel like he brings kind of a presence and an energy that hasn't been there in the past.

    Britt has always had the size (6'3", 215 lbs) and physical talent to be a difference-maker, but he's never been able to truly put it all together.

    If he can ascend to the next level in St. Louis, it'll provide a major boon to the team's offense and could elevate the Rams into NFC West contention with the likes of Seattle and San Francisco.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Josh McCown

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Earlier this offseason, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht signed Josh McCown to be their new starting quarterback.

    The soon-to-be 35-year-old McCown is coming off a stupendous season in Chicago, where he threw 13 touchdown passes against only one interception. And that has carried over to his offseason in Tampa Bay, as he has really made an impression on the organization.

    In an interview with Greg A. Bedard of Sports Illustrated, Licht spoke glowingly of his new passer: "The guy is just special. He lives, breathes and eats football. Somehow, he just has a way to capture the entire team. They all love this guy. He’s really one of the most special leaders I think I’ve ever been around."

    McCown succeeded last season in Chicago throwing the ball to a titanic trio of pass-catchers: 6'4" Brandon Marshall, 6'3" Alshon Jeffery and 6'6" Martellus Bennett. The Buccaneers have copied that blueprint, adding 6'5" Mike Evans and 6'6" Austin Seferian-Jenkins to go along with 6'5" Vincent Jackson.

    Don't be shocked if McCown plays dynamite football this year for the Bucs.

Tennessee Titans: QB Jake Locker

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2014 clearly represents a make-or-break season for Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker.

    Since he was selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Locker has failed to dazzle in the Music City, compiling a starting record of 8-10, and has missed 14 games over the past two seasons with various maladies.

    With the Titans failing to pick up Locker's fifth-year option for 2015, this is his final shot to perform and navigate the team into playoff contention. And while that shouldn't necessarily inspire confidence among Titans fans, it's worth noting that Locker has impressed coaches and teammates with the work he's put in this offseason.

    Titans quarterback coach John McNulty effusively praised Locker to John Glennon of The Tennessean:

    There's a big difference in that Jake is the leader of this team. Jake's work ethic and his intangibles are unquestioned, and the team looks up to this guy and the team roots for this guy. They want him to be their leader and the guy that makes the plays. He's very comfortable with what he's doing, and in his reads. His footwork has been good, he's been very decisive. ... His whole demeanor and the way he's run the team has been excellent.

    The Titans should have an improved offensive line and have the makings of a potentially intriguing offense. If rookie running back Bishop Sankey proves to be the real deal, he would join receivers Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter to form a trio of weapons that could vault the Titans into the AFC playoff conversation.

    But it will all be for naught if Locker fails to stay healthy and perform at a high level. As of right now, the Titans still believe Locker can put it all together and lead them to big things.

Washington Redskins: LB Keenan Robinson

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

    Washington Redskins third-year linebacker Keenan Robinson has been praised so often this offseason that one would think he's the second coming of Chris Hanburger.

    Robinson, who is ready to step in and start in place of the retired London Fletcher, has drawn rave reviews for his development. Even though he's coming off two torn pectoral muscles in his first two seasons, Robinson has still excited his coaches and players.

    Coach Jay Gruden told John Keim of ESPN.com, "He’s one of the guys on the field that stands out. ‘Is that Keenan again?’ He’s doing a great job, so the big thing is to keep him healthy. We’re hoping he has no drawbacks from his injury.” 

    During the free-agency period, the Redskins brought in three linebackers (Darryl Sharpton, Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward) to potentially replace Fletcher.

    But if Robinson can stay healthy, he should be considered the front-runner to start and potentially shine.