What players should be on your radar to watch out for this season? ISH breaks down the top players in the NFL to emerge as stars in this upcoming season.
10. Ben Tate, RB, Cleveland Browns
Ben Tate was one of the best backups in the league for the past two years, and he has finally landed a starting job in the NFL. As the backup to Arian Foster in Houston, Tate piled up 771 yards in 14 games last season with the Texans; he ran for almost 400 yards more than the Browns leading rusher from last season. Even though he wasn’t the top back in Houston, he got his fair share of carries as well as starts due to the injury prone Foster. As the starting back in Cleveland, Tate has the capability to tip the 1,000 yard rushing mark this season if he can stay healthy. He will have a very good offensive line blocking for him, highlighted by Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, and hopefully help from rookie tailback, Terrance West, to help lighten the load a bit. He is no Jim Brown, but he will be one of the better backs that the Browns have had in a long time.
9. Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
After being in the shadow of Adrian Peterson his whole career, Gerhart can finally show what he is truly capable of as he will start for the Jacksonville Jaguars this upcoming season. Despite not getting great opportunities in Minnesota, he still has a very solid average of 4.7 yards per carry throughout his career, including averaging 7.9 yards per carry last season. Jordan Todman will be the backup in Jacksonville behind Gerhart, and it seems like he will stay there as Gerhart has a definite handle on the starting role, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the increased work load. There have been questions surrounding his durability when he starts getting 20+ carries a game potentially, but I think he should be able to handle it fine; after all he did average just under 27 carries a game for a Jim Harbaugh coached Stanford team. Gerhart should help improve the second worst rushing offense from last season, honestly it would be pretty hard for him not to improve it.
8. Jarrett Boykin, WR, Green Bay Packers
Here is a name that you may have never heard of before, but let me be the first to tell you he is the real deal. With good hands, tremendous open field skills, and a determination to pick up extra yards that many receivers don’t have, Boykin showed last season why he is a blooming star in this league. Despite not getting the attention that Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb get, Boykin caught for over 680 yards last season, very impressive numbers for someone who started the season as the fourth string receiver. After the loss of James Jones this offseason and with both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson being susceptible to injury, Boykin will play an even more significant role this season for one of the top passing attacks in the NFL. So whether you are a Green Bay fan or not, I guarantee you will hear Jarrett Boykin’s name being called plenty of times this season.
7. Johnathan Cyprien, S, Jacksonville Jaguars
As just a rookie last season Cyprien was one of the best safeties in his run support skills, and he is only getting better. Obviously playing on Jacksonville last season meant no publicity for Cyprien, so not many people have heard of this diamond in the rough down in Jacksonville. Cyprien was third among all safeties last year in solo tackles, and I would think he could easily be first this season. His coverage skills will improve quite a bit from last season, and he will be one of the most feared safeties in the league. Cyprien showed improvement throughout the season last year, as he averaged 5.5 combined tackles per game in the first half the season, but then averaged over 8.5 in the second half of the season. All of his deflected passes and his lone interception came in the second half of the season as well, showing improvement in the coverage game. Cyprien is starting to come on to the scene now, and should have a big impact on the Jaguars next season.
6. Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints
At just age 21 last season, Stills caught for 641 yards as well as being the one of the most consistent deep play threats in the NFL. Last season Stills led the NFL in yards per catch, at 20.0, showing that he has the potential to end up in the end zone at the end of each of his receptions. After proving his skills, Stills should play a much more significant role in the Saints high power passing offense, after having just 32 receptions on the season last year. He was just one of 20 receivers last season to catch a pass for over 75 yards, and on that play he happened to be covered by none other than Darelle Revis. As a great route runner with favorable speed, Stills could turn into a player like DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace in the upcoming season with lead reciever Marques Colston not getting any younger. The only factor that could affect Stills production this season was the addition of Brandin Cooks in the draft, another deep play threat with good speed. But no matter how many catches or yards he puts up one thing is for sure, Stills has skills.
5. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings
After a disappointing season last year for Rudolph, he should rebound this season with big numbers. Rudolph missed half of the season last year, and only caught for 331 yards so you may be asking what has changed that will make him so much greater this season… two words, Norv Turner. Turner, the new offensive coordinator for the Vikings, has improved teams by an average of 10.5 slots in the offensive ranks in his first year with the team. One of the main points of Turner’s offenses is the involvement of the tight ends, i.e. Antonio Gates, Jordan Cameron. Cameron had only caught for 226 yards the year before Turner was there in Cleveland, once Turner was there he was the tight end with the second most yardage in the NFL. Rudolph has the tools to be a good receiving tight end, but simply hasn’t had the tools around him to capitalize on his potential. Expect big things from Rudolph this season, as he should be a very important piece in a much improved Vikings offense.
4. Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
Despite having the worst quarterback rating in the NFL over the course of last season, I am still seeing a big year for Geno Smith. The Jets did everything they could to help surround Smith with talent this offseason, as they signed both Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. Last season the leading receiver for the Jets was Jeremy Kerley, who ranked 86th in the NFL in receiving yardage; that’s the equivalent to having every NFL team having at least two better receivers than the Jets. The absence of a decent receiver on the roster could be the explanation of Smith’s lackluster statistics from last season. This year with Eric Decker coming in, and a more threatening running back than Chris Ivory, Smith should be set up for success as he showed glimpses of his potential last year. He showed that at West Virginia when surrounded by playmaking recievers he was a true threat, the Jets are hoping that this is true in the NFL as well.
3. Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals
A sixth round pick last season, Ellington was one of the best second string running backs in the nation, and he will now get his chance to start this season. Last season Ellington ran for 652 yards despite playing behind Rashard Mendenhall in the Cardinals back field, but Mendenhall’s recent retirement means a starting job for Ellington. Ellington showed he was perfectly capable at playing in the NFL, as he led all players with 100 or more carries in the NFL in yards per carry with 5.5 yards per carry. He reminds me of Chris Johnson, and no it is not just the dreads, but it is the big play making ability he has. Ellington showed off his playmaking ability as he was first among running backs in his longest rush of the season, as he ran for an 80 yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons, and sixth among all players in the number of 20+ yard rushes with eight. He is also extremely valuable in the passing game, as he caught for 371 yards last season, 14th among running backs. Ellington’s playmaking ability will make him one a top 10 running back next season.
2. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
Ansah had an admirable rookie season last year, and he should amend upon that performance with a stellar performance this season. Last season Ansah recorded 8.5 sacks, which was the most by a rookie since Von Miller in 2011, and more than recent star pass rushers, Aldon Smith, JJ Watt, and Robert Quinn, in their rookie seasons. In only his fourth year of playing football, Ansah has shown rapid development over the years to go from a Congolese kid who didn’t know how to put on pads, to a talented pass rushing threat in the NFL in just four years. With this shown development, who knows what Ansah is capable of in his second season in the league. I am almost certain he will be a top 10 defensive end, and he could find himself in the top three or five most productive defensive ends by the end of the season. Based on previous pass rushing numbers, I am predicting that Ansah will record 15 sacks this upcoming season. If the Lions are going to be contenders like they say, Ansah will need to be a key piece, and I think he will be.
1. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
After two seasons under his belt, Tannehill is ready to fully bloom as a franchise quarterback that his fans can brag about. He threw for 700 yards more last season than his rookie season the year before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he throws for 700 more than this past season in the one upcoming. A lot of the problems with Tannehill last season was the fact that he was sacked 8 times more than any other quarterback in the NFL, and the Dolphins have made progress to fix that issue in this offseason. Signing pro bowl tackle, Brandon Albert, and drafting tackle, Ja’Waun James, should lock down the outside of the offensive line. Assuming that no bullying problems arise, the guards should be more consistent this year as well. The receiving core is going to be good this season as Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline return, Jarvis Landry was drafted and can contribute right away if needed, Charles Clay will continue to develop at tight end, and newly signed Knowshon Moreno will give them a receiving threat out of the back field. With all this talent around him, Tannehill will have no excuse to not succeed. He showed glimpses last season of superb talent, as he passed for over 300 yards in five different games. With new additions not only should Tannehill improve greatly, but also the Dolphins as an entire unit.