Which player had the biggest breakout for each team last season?

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A hot offseason topic usually centers around potential breakout stars for the upcoming season, but I feel like it’s equally important to take a look back at which players had the biggest breakout in the previous season. It’s a way of taking a step back and looking at which players made a big splash or surpassed expectations the previous year, and their success last season will most likely carry into their 2014 campaign. For each team, I’ve decided to pick a player who I felt had the biggest breakout year, and it gets tough when it’s difficult to find a player who truly broke out or when it’s difficult to choose among very qualified candidates on one team.

New England Patriots WR Julian Edelman

In November 2012, Edelman had something of a mini-breakout, as the Patriots finally figured out that he had improved enough as a receiver that he could be a legit threat downfield. But with Wes Welker gone and Danny Amendola injured, Edelman was mostly used as the chain-moving slot receiver while also making some plays on the outside. With Welker gone, Edelman looked excellent, and he was somewhat groomed in that role early in the 2012 season after the Patriots gave Welker some rest in the first two weeks. Edelman wasn’t too good in that role, but he didn’t play a completely Welkerian role in 2013.

He finished the year with 105 receptions and some more excellent work on punt returns. It’s clear that he was Tom Brady‘s most reliable wide receiver, and Brady certainly trusts the Kent State product a great deal. Edelman has good hands, solid long speed, above-average agility, nice short-area quickness, versatility, and polished route-running. Several people tabbed him as a breakout candidate if health was on his side (he played in just nine games in 2012 due to foot and hand injuries), and he definitely made good on those breakout predictions in a full slate of 16 games.

Miami Dolphins DT Jared Odrick

The subject of trade speculation last offseason after a very disappointing start to his NFL career and worries that he wouldn’t fit the 4-3, Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick finally made good on his potential last season. The 26-year-old Penn State product was touted coming out of college, but it wasn’t until his third full season in the league when he really found his footing. Odrick had six sacks in 2011 and 5.5 sacks in 2012 as a 3-4 DE, but he couldn’t consistently pressure the quarterback. When transitioning to the 4-3, the worry was that Odrick wouldn’t be fast or explosive enough to succeed as an end or good enough to make it inside as a tackle. DT always looked like the better fit for him, and he acquitted himself to his new position much better than initially expected. Odrick had less sacks last season than in 2011 or 2012 with 4.5 overall, but he was much more disruptive as a pass rusher and wrecked havoc on the inside. He also improved as a run defender, recording 43 tackles compared to 21 and 35 in the previous two seasons.

New York Jets NT Damon Harrison

The New York Jets have the league’s most ferocious three-man front, and Damon “Snacks” Harrison is literally at the center of it. Kendrick Ellis is a solid nose tackle, so it’s telling that Harrison played so well in training camp that he was able to beat out Ellis for the starting gig. Muhammad Wilkerson is the best player on the Jets D-Line and Sheldon Richardson was the league’s best rookie last season, but Harrison is plenty impressive in his own right. The best player in the league at plugging up holes, Harrison swallows up blockers like an amoeba of awesomeness, and it’s pretty extraordinary how powerful he is. At this point in time, he’s the best pure nose tackle in the league.

Buffalo Bills OLB Jerry Hughes

My eyes will be peeled on how well he performs in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 next season, but there’s no doubt that Jerry Hughes was excellent in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense last season. I have a huge amount of respect for Pettine as a coach because of his ability to help Hughes break out, as he was viewed as a massive bust after a terrible career with the Indianapolis Colts. The Bills acquired the former first-round pick from the Colts last year in a trade that only costed them backup LB and special teams contributor Kelvin Sheppard. Their return, of course, yielded them a vicious pass rusher who recorded 9.5 sacks and 46 tackles last season, and it’s a shame more people don’t talk about Hughes’s big, feel-good breakout. He was simply a menace off the edge last season, and I thought he was at least as impressive as Mario Williams last year.

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  • dolphinmofo

    Odrick had a good year granted. But how do you not pick out of brent grimes, charles clay, or olivier Vernon. Crazy talk.

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Clay is an excellent choice, but why would I pick Brent Grimes as a breakout star? He’s always been an excellent player. I thought Odrick played better than Vernon last year, and Vernon had more positive buzz around him coming into the season.

      • dolphinmofo

        Grimes more of a come back player I’ll give you that. We both agree on clay but we’ll have to agree to disagree on Vernon. He wasn’t hyped coming in the season. He wasn’t even a starter. Odrick was our starting de. We even traded up to get jordan. Vernon did so well he made Odrick change positions and jordan never saw the field. And he led the team in sacks over cameron wake.

        • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

          Vernon was actually hyped a bit before the season, as I remember several positive articles written about him and a potential breakout year, whereas people had soured on Odrick so much coming into a scheme shift that he was even in trade rumors. Vernon is a good player and had more sacks, but there’s more to evaluating players than sacks. Firstly, DTs have a more difficult time recording sacks or any pressure for that matter. Secondly, total pressure > sacks, and pressures are also harder to come by at DT. According to PFF, Vernon put pressure on the QB four more times, but he had 20 more snaps rushing the passer. Vernon had better numbers than Odrick, but that flips when you take position into account. For me, the thing that swings it is run defense.

          Vernon vs. Odrick is a tough argument, though, and I gave very strong consideration to both Vernon and Clay. In fact, I’m starting to regret picking against Clay here.

          • Terry Moore

            They all were good but you have to give the edge to Clay…

  • Travis Crouch

    What about the rams rb no one expect him to be the starter I can’t remember his name

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Stacy? He would be a great choice if I were adding rookies, but I omitted rookies from this list. Why? Because it technically isn’t a breakout year if it is your first year.

  • SmartThinking

    You omitted Dallas’ 1,000+, Pro Bowl running back, Murray from your list. Beasley’s deceptive and flies under the radar while Murray took it right to opposing defenses. If he’d had those three extra injury weeks back, he could easily have gone for 1,300, maybe fifteen hundred yards. Bigger impact, mon!

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      I omitted the likes of Murray and Jurrell Casey largely because I’ve always seen them as top players. I have no qualms with adding those guys on the list, and I probably left Murray off because of my personal bias; I liked him a lot going into the season.

      • SmartThinking

        Your a headline denotes “biggest break out.” Murray broke out. Beasley made a few plays and two TD’s. Not to decrease Beasley’s efforts but Murray’s contribution resulted in at least one win, maybe two, all on his efforts. That’s break out to me.

        • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

          Yes, “I have no qualms”, therefore I agree with your logic. I just went in a different direction, as I didn’t want to stack things up with too many well-known players. I agree with your logic, especially the second and third sentences in the comment above.

  • Billy Schwandt

    What about Paterson for the Vikings?

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Patterson did some very nice things last year, especially as a returner, but, as I stated, I don’t think rookies count as breakout players. I mean, it’s their first year in the league, so they technically didn’t break out. I guess that’s a bit unfair for people like Zac Stacy, though. Anyway, Patterson’s true breakout year should happen next season, and he’s definitely an exciting player to watch.

  • David Thompson

    Dolphins – Olivier Vernon way more so than Odrick. Odrick has always been a solid if unspectacular player who’s natural position was 4-3 DT. Vernon went from 3.5 sacks to 11.5 and from 25 tackles to 46. Not even the coaches saw that coming.

    • Johnny

      And TE Charles Clay.. These 2 are way more obvious then Odrick?? Clay came from nowhere and even made the “Top 100″.. And your Vernon also, with his team leading 11.5 sacks… Both had better years than Odrick.. And both were more unknown…

      • David Thompson

        Oh dude I brain farted. Focused only on the D – line lol. It’s definitely Clay

  • Maria Marry

    No no I am not agree with that because http://bit.ly/1tFDwSM

  • powderBLUE801

    I really like how king Dunlap smacked down all the non believers last year. He is a huge body and a great addition to our O-line.

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      I was a non-believer haha, but I’m glad he proved me wrong.

      • powderBLUE801

        I’m not going to lie cuz he proved me wrong as well.

  • Amar S.

    This is completely random, but, you are a much better writer than any of the authors on NFL.com

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Thanks for the kind words, Amar. I would definitely put the likes of Wesseling, Silver, and Rosenthal (among others) ahead of myself, but that’s awesome praise nonetheless.

  • Johnny

    Dolphins.. Odrick??? Really??? How can you NOT say TE Clay???…

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Haha, sorry guys. I guess I dropped the ball on that one, but at least Odrick makes sense, right? I mean, the guy finally made good on his first-round draft stock, and he was one of the most productive interior pass rushers in the league last year. Seriously, compare his PRP among 4-3 DTs to Vernon’s PRP (Pro Football Focus stat “Pass Rushing Productivity in case you have a subscription) among 4-3 DEs…the results are pretty interesting.

      But yes, I should have put in Clay for the Dolphins and, while we’re at it, Mike Mitchell as the guy for the Panthers. As I said in the first paragraph, plenty of teams have multiple candidates worth mentioning, and I just so happened to go in a different direction than most people. Does that make me wrong? No, but I would have changed the pick to Clay in hindsight. Hope this helps.

  • Robert Fairbanks

    CHARGERS: Hands down third round draft pick rookie WR Keenan Allen.

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Keenan Allen was a total beast, and I’m glad I hyped him up before the draft even when his stock fell. That said, I omitted rookies from this list, since it technically isn’t a breakout season.