Last season's All-Breakout Team highlighted emerging players like Chris Borland and Harrison Smith, as well as then-rookie quarterback Derek Carr. Not every selection was a hit (still waiting on you, Justin Hunter), but this is about the time of the football year when a few unexpected stars begin to gain momentum.
Which players are ready to step into the spotlight this season?
Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
Don't freak out. No one is calling for Geno Smith to turn into the next Aaron Rodgers or anything. However, he might turn the corner enough to give the Jets a reliable starting quarterback this season.
There are two key factors working to his advantage: first, a well-stocked group of receivers, which now includes Brandon Marshall in addition to Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley; and second, the arrival of Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator. Gailey's aim will be to put Smith in winnable spots, using the run game to set up easy reads through the air. Simplifying the attack could highlight Smith's arm and athleticism, while limiting the intricacies required in his decision-making.
It may never all come together for Smith in New York, or in the NFL as a whole. This season, though, marks his best chance yet.
[Editor's Note: The day after this article was published, Smith was punched in the jaw in a locker room fight with since-released linebacker IK Enemkpali and declared out 6–10 weeks. So, 0-for-1.]
Alfred Blue/Chris Polk, RB, Houston Texans
Someone has to pick up the slack with Arian Foster sidelined for the next several weeks. Blue will get first crack (he made three starts last season, en route to 529 yards rushing); Polk could emerge as the better three-down back. The latter never received much of a chance during his three seasons in Philadelphia, but he played well when the touches came—a 4.7-yard average on 57 carries and 12.8 yards per reception on six catches.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Had Robinson played a full 16-game slate last season, the ship may have sailed on pegging him a breakout candidate. As a rookie Robinson caught 48 passes for 548 yards in his first 10 games, only for a broken foot to end his 2014 prematurely.
The Jaguars have to find a go-to option for second-year QB Blake Bortles, and it's a race between Robinson, Allen Hurns and TE Julius Thomas for the job right now. Robinson can be the most reliable of the three.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Saints beat writer Larry Holder wrote late last month on NOLA.com that Cooks is "more than able to assume" the job as Drew Brees's No. 1 target. High praise for a young receiver with 10 regular-season games under his belt. But Cooks has the speed to thrive in New Orleans' attack. More than that, the Saints may have no choice but to force feed him the football now that last season's top two pass-catchers, Jimmy Graham (Seattle) and Kenny Stills (Miami), are playing elsewhere.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Third time's a charm? Eifert has been pegged as a possible standout tight end ever since being selected at No. 21 in the 2013 draft. He scratched the surface as a rookie with 39 catches and two touchdowns, but a dislocated elbow erased all but one game of his sophomore campaign.
Healthy again, Eifert is starring in camp, furthering the notion that he could develop into Andy Dalton's second-favorite target behind A.J. Green. The 6'6" Eifert can play inline or shift out to the slot, a mismatch-creating combo that led to his high draft status in the first place.
Malcolm Butler, CB, New England Patriots
Can a player break out after delivering one of the Super Bowl's all-time moments? We'll find out. Butler bailed out the Patriots in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, but stepping into a starting role formerly held by Darrelle Revis is another challenge altogether. That Super Bowl interception was Butler's first as an NFL player and he has all of one start to his credit.
The confidence and aggressiveness Butler showed in jumping Russell Wilson's goal-line pass are the leading reasons for optimism here. While no one should compare Butler to Revis yet, the second-year cornerback has the mentality to hold his own.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
While the Hall of Fame Game does not offer much insight into any participating team's regular-season plans, Shazier's performance Sunday night was noteworthy. The Ohio State product looked back to his old self, flying to the football in all directions while playing the entire first half.
A September knee injury more or less washed out Shazier's rookie season—he played in just nine games and was clearly feeling the effects of that issue when he did suit up. The Steelers have huge plans for him this season, playing inside next to Lawrence Timmons in their base defense. He has the potential to do for Pittsburgh what Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley accomplished for Baltimore during his stellar rookie season.
Nick Moody, LB, San Francisco 49ers
From the outside looking in, San Francisco's off-season has been nothing short of nightmarish. For the players remaining on the 49ers' roster, the silver lining has to be that the long list of defections has opened several jobs up for the taking.
Case in point: inside linebacker. The 49ers lost both of their outstanding 2014 starters at the position, Patrick Willis and Borland, to retirement. NaVorro Bowman has returned more than a year removed from a gruesome knee injury to claim one of the gigs, but Moody may now have the inside track next to him. He has taken advantage of the increased reps provided by Michael Wilhoite's own injury.
“He’s had the best offseason I’ve seen of anybody," said Darnell Dockett of Moody, via 49ers.com. "He’s the first one in and the last one to leave. He’s asking questions and doing things outside of football to take care of his body. … I think that when you’ve been in an organization with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, you think ‘Why not him?'"
DaQuan Jones, DL, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee already has Jones penciled in up front, alongside Jurrell Casey and whichever player claims the nose-tackle spot. By that starter designation alone, Jones should fly past his 2014 totals (eight tackles, 1.0 sack). At 320-plus pounds Jones still has the strength to play inside with enough presence to eat up blockers as a 3–4 end.
Will Hill, S, Baltimore Ravens
Neither talent nor performance has never been an issue for Hill. When he's on the field, Hill rises to the occasion as he did over the second half of last season. The problem is that the 25-year-old has been suspended three times in his three seasons for off-field incidents, including a six-game ban to open last year.
The 2014 penalty was beneficial to Baltimore twice: once, in allowing GM Ozzie Newsome to sign Hill for pennies on the dollar after the Giants released him; again this off-season, when no other team came through with an offer despite the Ravens placing an original-round tender on the formerly undrafted Hill.
Hill has moved over to strong safety to accommodate newcomer Kendrick Lewis. With Matt Elam out for the year (torn biceps), the job is Hill's and Hill's alone. And he has ample reason to stay out of trouble this season with the potential for a big free-agency payday looming.
Bene Benwikere, CB, Carolina Panthers
Carolina's young cornerback enjoyed something of a mini-breakout last year after taking over as a starter in November. Whether or not he stays as a full-time defender or slides back into a slot-back role remains to be seen—Charles Tillman's arrival via free agency could point toward the latter.
Either way, in Benwikere and Josh Norman the Panthers have themselves an impressive young tandem at the cornerback slot. Benwikere has been a playmaker dating back to his San Jose State days, and he seems primed to carry over his 2014 success.
Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers
As with Shazier, Verrett was more injured bystander than contributor during his rookie season. The first-round pick needed shoulder surgery before the 2014 campaign even began, then was shut down in November due to a torn labrum. His was a huge loss for San Diego because, both in college and in his NFL cameos, Verrett had the look of a legit top-two cornerback.