Indianapolis Colts RB Donald Brown
With Ahmad Bradshaw injured and Trent Richardson not making good on the first-round pick the Colts shipped to the Cleveland Browns for him, it was Donald Brown who carried Pep Hamilton’s ground game. After averaging over four yards per carry just once in his previous four seasons, Brown averaged a hefty 5.3 yards per pop last year on 102 carries for 537 yards. While that wasn’t a career-high in yards and might not qualify as a true breakout, he had a career-high eight total touchdowns and 27 receptions for 214 yards. Brown parlayed this production into a significant contract with the San Diego Chargers, which was a bit of a strange move for the Chargers since they already have Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. In any case, Brown had a very nice 2013 season for the Colts.
Note: I did not give this to T.Y. Hilton, since he was already very good as a rookie.
Tennessee Titans WR Kendall Wright
I know I passed up on a terrific, second-year wide receiver as the Colts breakout player because he was too good in 2012 to qualify, so I’m going back on that by tabbing Kendall Wright here. But it was more difficult to pick a clear-cut breakout player for the Titans, since there were a few decent picks on defense but nobody who stood out nearly as much as Wright.
The former Baylor standout caught 94 passes for over 1,000 yards last season after hauling in 64 passes in 2012, and Wright definitely deserves more national attention as one of the NFL’s premier slot receivers. Yes, premier. This guy is an elite route-runner, and the Titans allowed him to free-wheel routes like he did back in college. Wright has steady hands, good physical tools, and he definitely knows how to get open. I think Wright will have 100 catches in his third season, and he’s a great safety net for any quarterback.
Jacksonville Jaguars CB Alan Ball
Gus Bradley lived up to his billing as a defensive backs guru in his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, immediately turning three cornerbacks who weren’t well-known into a talented CB trio. Dwayne Gratz, Alan Ball, and Will Blackmon are still relative unknowns, but at least those familiar with these corners know how solid they are. Gratz has great press-man skills and immediately looked comfortable as a rookie, Blackmon is the best playmaker of the three, but Ball is the best player overall among the Jaguars cornerbacks.
Ball spent the 2012 season with the Houston Texans as a JAG after playing for the Dallas Cowboys in his first five seasons. His first year out of the state of Texas was a smashing success under Bradley, as he defended 14 passes and actually looked like a steady, No. 1 corner. Ball was one of the biggest breakout players last season in the secondary, even if his breakout was a quiet one.
Houston Texans RG Brandon Brooks
It was incredibly difficult to find a true breakout player on the NFL’s worst team, but Brandon Brooks stood out as a very surprising and pretty clear-cut pick for the Texans. Brooks is a big 6’5″, 335-pound, road-grading right guard who played in 15 games last season (started all of them) after netting just six appearances in 2012 as a rookie. Brooks is a pretty spotty pass blocker and helped form a rocky right side in pass pro with the horrible Derek Newton, but he more then made up for it with some incredible run blocking for Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Dennis Johnson, and the rest of the bunch.
Just how good was Brooks as a run blocker? Let’s take a look at some stats from Football Outsiders. The Texans were 14th in the league and 29th in the league on a per-carry basis when rushing off the left end and left tackle, but they were third up the middle, 18th off right tackle, and 3rd off of the right end. That’s a significant difference, and it’s mostly due to Brooks’s terrific play as a run blocker and not Newton’s work at right tackle.
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