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.