Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
Quarterback is the one position where you can’t identify an “out of nowhere” breakout guy. Fans are already familiar with everyone who plays this position, including most backups. So for our purposes, the question essentially becomes, Who will be the most improved quarterback in 2014?
The answer is Ryan Tannehill. While America has been debating the myriad hullabaloos involving RG3, marveling at the heroics of Andrew Luck and lauding Russell Wilson as the latest underdog-turned-champion, Tannehill has quietly been developing in textbook fashion. His pocket poise, throwing mechanics and field vision have improved with each of his 32 starts. He has the athleticism to make improvisational plays, and the maturity to operate within the confines of the system.
That system is changing, as former Eagles and Seahawks quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor has taken over for Mike Sherman as offensive coordinator. There won’t be a complete system overhaul—after all, it’s still head coach Joe Philbin’s playbook—but there will be a change in the coach-quarterback working operations. Philbin would not have made this move if he didn’t feel it’d help propel his young QB to stardom.
The wild card is Tannehill’s offensive line. The group that surrendered a league-high 58 sacks last season will not be back, as Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito are done in South Beach and starters Bryant McKinnie, Tyson Clabo and John Jerry are all free agents. If the Dolphins can piece together a decent front five, Tannehill will prosper. If they can’t, it will be Lazor’s job to help scheme moving pockets, run-pass disguises and quick throws to keep the quarterback upright. Either way, Tannehill should only continue to get better.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals
The 2013 sixth-round pick emerged as Part B of Arizona’s two-man backfield down the stretch of his rookie season. In Year Two, Ellington will emerge not just as the Cardinals’ featured weapon, but as a top 10 NFL back. By 2015, he’ll be top 5. There’s nothing the 5-9, 200-pounder can’t do. Sharp body control and lateral agility allow Ellington to slice inside and make defenders miss, while simple speed and quickness enable him to consistently get outside. In the passing game, Ellington is electrifying out of the backfield and a good enough route runner to line up at any wide receiver position and beat cornerbacks one-on-one.
Khiry Robinson, Saints
The secret came out in January when NBC’s Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels shared with Saints-Eagles wild card viewers that Bill Parcells had called Sean Payton earlier that week to tell him he had the next Curtis Martin sitting at the end of his bench in Robinson. Payton had been trying to find touches for the undrafted rookie all season long. With Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet still on the roster, that will once again be a challenge—but not if Robinson evokes more Martin comparisons in OTAs and training camp.
Andre Holmes, Raiders
The 25-year-old entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and bounced around the camps and practice squads of the Vikings, Cowboys and Patriots for two years before latching on with the Raiders in 2013. He played 10 games, averaged 39 snaps and finished with 25 receptions for 431 yards, flashing tremendous raw playmaking talent (you probably saw his 136-yard performance at Dallas on Thanksgiving). It’s hard to figure how a 6-4, 225-pounder with an NBA-caliber vertical leap and such dexterous body control toiled in anonymity for so long, but if the Raiders find someone who can consistently throw downfield (a big if), Holmes won’t stay anonymous much longer.
Marvin Jones, Bengals
Maybe Jones doesn’t qualify as an “emerger” after catching 51 balls and 10 touchdowns last season. But if he continues the torrid pace of development that he’s shown since entering the league as an unripe fifth-round pick in 2012, he’ll have at least 70 catches and 1,000 yards in 2014. If Jones played with anyone other than A.J. Green, he’d be the most acrobatic downfield receiver on his team. Working with one of the league’s best passing game position coaches, James Urban, Jones should continue to improve his route running and become a more dynamic threat anywhere on the field. And, thanks to Green, he’ll mostly face single coverage.
Marquess Wilson, Bears
Wilson played just 76 snaps as a seventh-round rookie last year, but 34 of them came in the critical season finale against Green Bay. Word is the Bears think he can soon be one of the NFL’s best slot weapons. And, at 6-3, 195 pounds, he has the size to also operate outside. Playing in Marc Trestman’s system and alongside football’s best receiving duo (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey), he’ll have every chance to prosper.
Tim Wright, Buccaneers
Wright is a converted wide receiver, and it shows. He has the quickness, change-of-direction skills and stop/start control to consistently beat one-on-one coverage from an X-iso receiver position or the slot. The beauty is, because the 6-4, 220-pounder is a tight end, he’s often facing linebackers in those one-on-one scenarios. That could change this year if Lovie Smith and new coordinator Jeff Tedford are less committed to the run than Tampa Bay’s previous staff. But even if Wright is facing safeties or backup corners, he can still blossom into a top-five receiving tight end by the end of his second season.
Terron Armstead, Saints
The Saints plugged the third-round rookie in at left tackle after Charles Brown was benched in late December. The assumption was Armstead wouldn’t be ready. He wasn’t in his first outing, but he survived. From there, he showed astounding improvement, with his second, third and fourth outings markedly better than the previous one. The Arkansas Pine-Bluff product can be legitimately characterized as one of the NFL’s most gifted tackles. Like most linemen, his raw strength and power should improve significantly in his first full offseason in an NFL team’s conditioning program. If he can develop an adequate anchor to accompany his light feet and quickness on the perimeter, the Saints, for the first time since the Willie Roaf era (or maybe parts of the short-lived Jammal Brown era), won’t have to worry about constantly helping their left tackle with chip blocks and line slides.
Shelley Smith, Rams (free agent)
Smith ultimately did not claim a starting job after working in a rotation with Chris Williams last year, but when he was on the field, he flashed as a drive-blocker in the running game. His pass protection can be iffy at times, so Pro Bowls aren’t on the fourth-year veteran’s horizon, but he can be a solid plug-in starter in the right ball control scheme.
Travis Frederick, Cowboys
Frederick, the 31st overall pick of 2013, did nothing early last season to dispel many draft analysts’ carps about his being selected a full round too soon. But any rookie center is bound to struggle, especially when working between a pair of makeshift guards like Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary. As the season progressed, so did the former Wisconsin Badger. By December, Frederick was being credited with stabilizing an overachieving offensive line. He flashed sheer dominance as a reach-and-seal blocker in the running game and cut down on his mental mistakes in pass protection. This year, the 23-year-old will be talked about as a potential Pro Bowler.
David DeCastro, Steelers
This is another player who might not be eligible to “emerge” in the technical sense. Most fans know DeCastro; he entered the league two years ago as just the seventh true guard in 14 years to be taken in the first round. But he was quickly forgotten after his rookie season was all but lost to injury. Last season, a healthy DeCastro was up and down, but some of the ups were astoundingly high (his performance in Week 7 against the Ravens was the most dominant of any guard’s in 2013, save for Andrew Whitworth’s debut inside against the Chargers in Week 13) and his downs became fewer and less frequent. Given the paucity of quality guards in the league right now, DeCastro is just one or two steps away from pushing for All-Pro honors.
Jordan Mills, Bears
He was the “other” rookie on the right side of Chicago’s O-line—the fifth-rounder alongside first-round guard Chris Long. Mills showed the inconsistency that every right tackle, and almost every first-year player, tends to show. But he also showed the stability to survive for stretches on his own. Mills doesn’t have long arms or great athletic range, but he can easily overcome that under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. The longtime Saints O-line coach has a keen sense for teaching players to employ unique mechanics that can offset their shortcomings. And Bears head coach Marc Trestman has a great understanding of how to alleviate stress on pass-blockers through design (the most obvious being a steady use of six-O-linemen protection concepts). There’s little chance of Mills failing, which means he’s fully liberated to reach for success.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Ellington); Otto Greule Jr. (Robinson); Bob Levey/Getty Images (Holmes); John Grieshop/Getty Images (Jones); Patrick McDermott/Getty Images (Wilson); Stacy Revere/Getty Images (Wright)