Every season, there is a player for each NFL team that makes a jump in both production and contribution to the team. These performers are called breakout players.
In the AFC East last season, the Patriots had receiver Julian Edelman go from Wes Welker’s backup to a 105 catch season, while the Jets had defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson notch 10.5 sacks in 2013 after eight in his first two seasons combined. The Bills also had a double-digit sack artist come out of nowhere, as defensive end Jerry Hughes went from five total sacks in his first three years in the league to ten last year.
Finally, tight end Charles Clay went from 34 catches in his first two seasons in Miami to 69 catches for 759 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, becoming an unexpected key target for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Whether it is from an unforeseen injury, a system change, or the development of a player, there will always be a unique opportunity for one of the 53 men on the roster to make contributions few, if anyone, could have predicted.
With that in mind, here are the potential breakout players for each team in the AFC East:
Breakout player: Robert Woods, wide receiver
Woods has taken a backseat in terms of hype for this season behind rookie Sammy Watkins, but the USC product has an opportunity to make some noise as well. Woods caught 40 passes for 587 yards and 3 touchdowns in his inaugural NFL campaign.
Woods will likely see more passes through, as last year’s top receive Stevie Johnson was traded to San Francisco this off-season. Ryan Talbot of Billsmafia.com explained in June how Woods and quarterback E.J. Manuel’s on-field chemistry during each of their rookie season’s was a major reason why the team felt comfortable letting Johnson go:
Without Manuel, Johnson found himself catching six passes per game for a little over 56 yards and one touchdown. The lack of chemistry with Johnson may be one reason the Bills were willing to trade Johnson to the 49ers. Another reason Johnson was traded? Robert Woods.
Jason DeHart previously pointed out that the real reason Johnson was traded was due to Woods’ play/chemistry with Manuel. Stats are certainly on DeHart’s side. When Manuel was in the huddle, Woods averaged 3.25 receptions and 50.75 yards per game. All of Woods’ touchdowns came from Manuel.
Woods’ numbers declined mightily without Manuel. When Jeff Tuel or Thad Lewis was under center, Woods averaged 2.33 receptions, a shade over 30 yards per game and zero touchdowns.
Woods will likely assume Johnson’s spot in the slot and his stats should improve with increased playing time and opportunities. If Manuel and Woods stay healthy in 2014, both parties will benefit.
While Manuel develops chemistry with Watkins early on, it may be Woods who he looks to early. If that is the case, look for Woods’ numbers to jump significantly from last season.
Breakout player: Rishard Matthews, wide receiver
As a second-year in 2013, Matthews had only 10 receptions in the first half of the season. Matthews then made a name for himself on the big stage, catching 11 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns in a week 10 Monday night game against Tampa Bay.
An ACL injury to slot receiver Brandon Gibson in week 11 forced Matthews to play the slot role, and he recorded 20 receptions in the final seven games of the season. While the team drafted Jarvis Landry in the second round and Gibson will try to come back from injury this season, Matthews could be the player that becomes third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s go-to-guy out of the slot.
After some initial issues with head coach Joe Philbin, Matthews has rebounded in the team’s most recent minicamp, according to the Miami Herald (via rotoworld.com):
“Rishard had a really good camp,” said Philbin. Matthews claims he and Philbin “ironed out their issues” during an offseason chat. He admitted “being late to a couple of meetings, among other things.” The Fins have a three-way battle at slot receiver, with rookie Jarvis Landry pushing Matthews and Brandon Gibson.
Matthews size (6’0”, 215 pounds) gives Tannehill an unusually large target for a slot receiver with underrated quickness. If Matthews has both Tannehill’s trust and playing time, look for him to take his 2013 second half of the season performance into a consistent 16-game campaign in 2014.
Breakout player: Jamie Collins, linebacker
Collins only started eight games in his rookie season, amassing 43 tackles, with no sacks or interceptions.
However, in his playoff debut against Indianapolis, Collins recorded six tackles, a sack, and an interception. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal listed Collins fifth in his list of 25 players that would be “Making The Leap” in the 2014 season:
Jamie Collins is a cornerback trapped in a 250-pound body. While most linebackers are forced into pass coverage duties, Collins looks at home on an island.
As a rookie, Collins played inside and outside linebacker. He lined up at defensive end occasionally to rush the passer, and could blitz up the middle. Moving forward is typical of a guy his size, but it’s not typical to see the same player line up one-on-one outside the numbers against receivers, and win.
Bill Belichick has found a new sort of prototype. Nearly 30 years removed from establishing what NFL teams look for in a 3-4 linebacker, Collins is the right player for this era. Once a safety at Southern Mississippi, Collins can go entire games without going after a quarterback. (Week 16 against Baltimore was a great example; he shut down their tight ends on passing downs.)
“He does everything,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty told the Boston Globe this offseason. “He’s one of those freakish athletes that can do what we do as defensive backs and as a linebacker.”
“He can do five back-flips, front flips, whatever you want him to do,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said.
Collins should get more playing time now that inside linebacker Brandon Spikes has moved onto Buffalo, as the Patriots linebacker core of Jerod Mayo, Hightower, and Collins have shown the ability to play either linebacker spot. Hightower and Collins also have the strength needed to play defensive end in certain situations, but Collins’ coverage ability could be important in certain situations.
Now that he should have the scheme down after a year in the league, Collins could line up against running backs, receivers, and tight ends. This eliminates a potential match-up nightmare or two for a Patriots defense that may have previously needed to rely on innovative schemes to stop certain aspects of another team’s offense. If Collins can become the Swiss army knife defensive piece New England thinks he has the capability of being, teams will have to avoid throwing in his direction as much as they will Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Breakout player: Dee Milliner, cornerback
Milliner ended his rookie season much better than he began, with two of his three interceptions in a week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins. Milliner told the Montgomery Advertiser that the finish of his debut season will be a constant throughout his second year in the league (via profootballtalk.com’s Mike Wilkening):
“Yeah, I never thought it would go like it went,” Milliner said of his rookie season in a story published by the Advertiser on Tuesday. “But it was great, it just started off rough. I expected to have a better year but I finished the way that I wanted to play the whole year, so I felt great about that.”
“Coming into this year, that’s what I’m trying to do. The way I finished, I want it to be like that the whole year, be consistent in my play.”
Player ratings service Pro Football Focus gave Milliner his three highest game grades of the season in December, so there’s something to his belief regarding his late-season improvement. If he can continue on that arc, it will help a secondary that has parted ways with accomplished cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis in back-to-back offseasons.
With Cromartie joining the Arizona Cardinals, Milliner appears to be the leader of a young secondary that includes rookie safety Calvin Pryor and rookie cornerback Dexter McDouble. Milliner’s role is larger this season, but as the No. 9 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the expectations are that he is ready for those responsibilities at this point.
Milliner needs to play at the level Cromartie and Revis played in their past Pro Bowl seasons in order to make sure the Jets play pass defense at an elite level, not the one that allowed the eleventh-most passing yards per game last season (according to profootballtalk.com).
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