BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Every year in the NFL, players seem to burst onto the scene, grabbing the collective attention of fans and opposing teams.
Last season, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and New England Patriots running back Steven Ridley were among the players who built off of early career performances and exploded in a big way, proving themselves to be legitimate NFL stars and players that opposing teams need to gameplan for.
Predicting who is going to breakout is an inexact science, but certainly a fun game to play. Looking at players’ overall skill sets, college pedigree, brief professional experience and the opportunity presented by their 2013 situation, I’ve selected an offensive and defensive player from each team in the AFC East who I think is primed for a breakout season.
New England Patriots
Shane Vereen, Running Back
I was close to putting Danny Amendola on this list on the off chance that he can duplicate Wes Welker’s numbers as the Patriot’s main slot receiver. However, I really see another injury in Amendola’s future with the increased workload and his fragile past. I think that potential injury, along with the departure of Danny Woodhead, will really open the door for Vereen to shine.
After showing an explosive skillset at Cal, Vereen was slow out of the gates in his NFL career. He carried the ball only 15 times his rookie season and followed that up last year with 62 rushes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Yet, what really makes me think Vereen can make the jump is his playoff performance against Houston. Although he carried the ball only seven times (for 41 yards and a touchdown) Vereen exploded in the passing game, catching five balls for 83 yards and two touchdowns. It was the only game the entire season that Vereen had more than two catches.
Now that Danny Woodhead is gone, Vereen is the favorite to slide into that third-down role where he should see an increased number of passes thrown his way. With incredible open-field ability and vision, the uptick in receptions will do wonders for the former second-rounder’s numbers. If Amendola were to go down with an injury, Vereen would likely see even more receptions and an even better year.
Chandler Jones, Defensive End
While many people have discussed Devin McCourty as a breakout candidate, the fact that he already earned a Pro Bowl nod limits his breakout status in my eyes. That leaves Chandler Jones as the next-best option. A pass-rushing project out of Syracuse, Jones flashed some real talent last year before trailing off at the end of the year. He finished the year with 45 tackles and six sacks, but did not record a regular-season sack after Week 8.
Jones came out of college as a light, 6’5″, 247-pound defensive end. He showed good hands as a pass-rusher at Syracuse and used his 35.5” arms to keep defenders off of him and chase down quarterbacks. It was a tougher transition for him in the NFL, where more physical lineman were able to keep him close as the season went on. Jones also battled ankle injuries throughout the second half of his rookie season after suffering an injury in Week 11 versus the Colts.
What suggests a potential breakout for Jones is an offseason that has seen him bulk up to more than 260 pounds, and the hybrid defense that the Patriots are planning to install in earnest this year. Lining up next to Vince Wilfork will ensure that Jones will see one-on-one assignments when the Patriots are in a 3-4 set, while also rotating in as a stand-up pass rusher and an edge rusher in the 4-3 sets should give him ample opportunities to use his unique athleticism.
Jones’ natural athleticism, increased experience against NFL offensive lineman and new variety of opportunities suggests that he might be set to see his stock rise dramatically.
New York Jets
Chris Ivory, Running Back
There’s not a lot to like about the Jets offense, but they may have found a potential star in New Orleans castoff Chris Ivory, who they acquired during the NFL draft in exchange for a fourth-round pick. Although he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his three years with the Saints, Ivory’s carries slipped from 137 his rookie season, to 79 his second season, and 40 last season. Now with the Jets, he figures to be the team’s starting back and bell cow.
Rex Ryan loves his teams to pound the ball on the ground. Shonn Greene was a terrible option as a lead back, but Ivory possesses an explosion that Greene lacked. He runs with good power, is a better short-yardage back than Greene is and has the ability to break some long runs. He’s not much of an option in the passing game, but with the 20-plus carries that he figures to receive as the starting running back, and the help Sanchez will need if he wins the starting job again, Ivory could be in for a huge year.
Demario Davis, Inside Linebacker
A prospect I liked coming out of Arkansas State, Davis had 36 tackles for the Jets last year as a reserve linebacker. With Bart Scott departing, Davis is in line to take over Scott’s job at inside linebacker, a position from which Scott racked up 92 and 81 tackles in his first two seasons before age started to catch up to him.
Davis possesses superior agility and speed to an end-of-career Scott, and has the leadership ability to really take control of the defense from the position. At 6’2” and 239 pounds, Davis has the physical strength to thrive in Rex Ryan’s aggressive system. Davis’ mentality, along with his solid fundamentals, increased playing time and the likelihood teams will be running out the clock against a potentially dismal Jets team, all add up to a career year.