One of my favorite parts about new NFL seasons is all the unknowns. We know, by the first weekend in February, which teams are the best in the league. But in the first week in August, the new season is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which we can project our hopes and dreams. Nobody is wrong yet. And so, it is with gusto that writers like myself take painstaking amounts of time to research who will be “the next big thing.” So, without further ado, let’s leap into projections; some of which are bound to be wrong, and hopefully some of which that are right. Today, we’re going to tackle 5 possible breakout players at 5 different positions on 5 different teams. Should be fun! There are a couple factors I’m looking at here as I decide who to include: the players can’t be rookies, they must have played most of last year (i.e., I think we all expect last year’s #1 pick Jadaveon Clowney to have a huge year, but he played 1 game his rookie season), and I’m trying to pick players who aren’t already regarded as “broken out” (i.e. Sammy Watkins). As the preseason goes on, we’ll take a look at other positions not covered here.
Five Breakout NFL Players to Watch for in 2015
- Brandin Cooks, WR, NO. Brandin Cooks was a favorite of mine out of the 2014 draft, and is my #1 pick for a breakout year. The speedy little slot receiver from Oregon State missed the last 6 games of the season, but still managed to rack up 550 yards, 4TDs and a 10.3 Y/R in an offense flooded with weapons. His injury was to the hand/wrist which is a good sign, because he has hands like glue and it’s his lightning fast feet that make him a true weapon. With Kenny Stills, Jimmy Graham, and Pierre Thomas gone, and Marques Colston struggling with injuries and age, Cooks suddenly looks like the team’s #1 weapon in the passing game. He’s a dynamic athlete who is explosive after the catch and will get some reps in the backfield as well as out wide. Look for him to deliver on the promise the Saints expected when they took him with their first round pick last season. Projection: 90 rec, 1300 yards, 6TD
- Ezekiel Ansah, DE, DET. The departure of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the offseason leaves a relatively gaping hole along the Lions front seven. While they filled a big part of that hole with Haloti Ngata, a very good run-stuffing defensive tackle, they are sure to see some decline in pass rushing without Suh’s massive presence in the middle. Luckily, Ansah seems poised to fill in the role as a premier edge rusher. The #5 pick of the 2013 draft, Ansah is actually only in his 6th year of football, which is pretty mindblowing, and at 6’5” and 270 pounds, he is also a monster. He might be the best athlete at Defensive End in the entire league, and each year he has shown more and more polish. Although 15.5 sacks in two years isn’t bad, I thought his statistics don’t show his improvement, and were a reflection of playing on the league’s best defensive line. This year, as the Lions main pass rusher, I would not be surprised to see somewhere in the realm of 12-15 sacks. Projection: 13.5 Sacks, 55 tackles.
- Malcolm Butler, CB, NE. Fans outside of New England had never heard of Butler before the fateful interception that ended the Super Bowl. Most fans in New England wouldn’t have expected him to be that guy either – he barely made the team last year as an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama and played sparingly behind the now-gone Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington. So why the hype? Well, Butler made the play of the season for the Pats (as well as playing exceptionally for the rest of the Super Bowl, finishing with 3 passes defended and a spectacular play on the ball that ended up bouncing off every part of Kearse’s body), and with a gaping void at cornerback, someone needs to fill the spot. Butler is on here because he’s gotten a tremendous amount of buzz through OVAs and training camp, and he looks to have a solid lock on the #1 CB spot come Week 1. This could either be a serious diamond-in-the-rough find for Bill Belichik, or another season of a disastrous secondary for the Patriots. Hopefully not the latter. Projection: decent play.
- C.J. Anderson, RB, DEN. Anderson rushed for over 800 yards last year on 4.7 YPC, most of which came over the last 7 games when he took over the starting role. These are fairly impressive numbers, although they get less impressive when you place him in the context of the Bronco’s pass happy offense. Still, most casual NFL fans probably don’t know who he is, and playing in an offense with an insane amount of star power doesn’t add to his fame. Anderson is mainly on this list because, this season, Anderson gets new head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking offense that turned Terrell Davis and Arian Foster from nobodies into potential Hall-of-Famers, and as recently as last year rejuvenated the career of journeyman Justin Forsett. The one cut scheme is perfect for a speedy, but subtly powerful, back like Anderson. It allows him to be a downhill runner, and, since he plays alongside Peyton Manning, there will be holes to exploit. Projection: 350 carries, 1500 yards, 10 TDs
- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, MIN. Some might argue that this is a cop-out, but I legitimately think Bridgewater has a shot to surpass most of the NFL’s starting QBs this year and possible even approach a Pro Bowl bid (on the way, passing guys like Dalton, Tannehill, Stafford, etc). I’m a big fan of Bridgewater: he’s smart, has good feet, and a capable arm. What’s most impressive is that he put up very respectable numbers last year with virtually no support. This year, he gets back All-World running back and child abuser Adrian Peterson, who will force defenses to stack the box. The Vikings also did well to acquire Mike Wallace, a bonafide deep threat who somehow lost all of his value during his short tenure with the Dolphins and Ryan Tannehill’s noodle arm. FTR, side note on Mike Wallace: He was hands-down the best deep receiver in the league in the Steel City, when he had Big Ben’s cannon arm throwing passes. It’s not his fault Ryan Tannehill can’t throw a deep ball to save his life. I expect him to be a big part of a Vikings offense that should be able to use play action to get open deep looks, and I expect Bridgewater, with his excellent accuracy, to be able to deliver. Big year coming in Minnesota. Projection: 4200 yards, 25 Tds, 10 INTs, 500 rushing yards.
Main Photo: DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 28: Running back C.J. Anderson #22 of the Denver Broncos rushes for a third quarter rushing touchdown against the Oakland Raiders (his third of the game) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)