SI's Chris Burke explores players we believe could make a big leap during the 2014 NFL season, including a Ravens running back biting at the heels of the aging veteran ahead of him on the depth chart and the second-round draft pick who may end up becoming the first rookie quarterback to start a game this year.
A few days ago, we discussed some second-year players who displayed clear breakout potential for 2014. Now it's time to show some love to a few other players who might be on the brink of stardom. So, who else is ready for a career leap?
Bernard Pierce, RB, Ravens: Cleveland's Ben Tate can thank new Ravens offensive coordinator/former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak for the starting shot (and $6.2 million contract) he was handed this offseason. Tate rushed for 942 yards as a rookie in 2011, then topped 700 on the ground last season, taking advantage of the opportunity to shoulder the load when Arian Foster was out of the lineup. Pierce finds the door open in similar fashion to start 2014, with Ray Rice suspended for Weeks 1 and 2.
The 24-year-old Pierce was dragged down by the O-line ineffectiveness that buried Baltimore last season. He is a nice fit for Kubiak's one-cut run game, though, and averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry back in 2012.
Wallace Gilberry, DE, Bengals: Gilberry has dubbed himself the "Dark Knight", according to the Bengals' website. In his first season as a full-time starter, Gilberry may have to be slightly less anonymous than the caped crusader if Cincinnati's defense is to keep humming. He has inherited the starting defensive end job left vacant by Michael Johnson's departure in free agency; and, to a lesser extent, by Margus Hunt's ongoing development as an NFL player. Gilberry managed to tie Carlos Dunlap for the team lead in sacks last season with 7.5 while playing 400 fewer snaps than Johnson, who finished with 3.5 sacks.
Justin Hunter, WR, Titans: The Titans' coaching staff has gone out of its way to keep a fire lit under Hunter this season, with wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson forcing Hunter to wear a "JAG" ("Just A Guy") jersey in practice and Ken Whisenhunt calling out Hunter on multiple occasions. Whether those specific tactics -- or, say, keeping Hunter No. 3 on the depth chart behind Nate Washington and Kendall Wright -- are working, Hunter has been strong in the preseason and appears primed to blow up if Jake Locker can get him the football. The 6-foot-4 Hunter caught four touchdown passes last season. He could hit double digits in 2014.
Michael Wilhoite/Chris Borland, LB, 49ers: The jury is still out on which of these two players will start at inside linebacker while NaVorro Bowman rehabs his knee injury. Borland turned in a statement game this past weekend, racking up seven tackles and a flying sack of Chargers backup quarterback Brad Sorensen. Neither player will replace Bowman, either from a talent perspective or as a leader on the defense, but both could churn out some tackles until Bowman returns. The 49ers might opt to split time between the two, which is not a bad Plan B.
Ron Parker, CB, Chiefs: Parker has taken a roundabout way to a potential starting spot -- he signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and has since played for Seattle (multiple times), Oakland, Carolina and finally Kansas City. A really strong showing in the Chiefs' third preseason game likely locked up significant playing time in the secondary for Parker, alongside Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith.
As we saw in Carolina last season, teams with strong front sevens tend to breed better, more aggressive secondaries because the corners and safeties can take more chances. Kansas City features some of the best players in the league at the first two levels: Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Justin Houston. Parker will find playmaking situations.
Derek Carr, QB, Raiders: Almost a forgotten man amid all the Blake Bortles-Johnny Manziel-Teddy Bridgewater hoopla, Carr could be the first of that group to start a game in 2014. That moment is on track to come as early as Week 1, as Matt Schaub suddenly finds himself dealing with an elbow injury. Oh, and Schaub also is not all that good anymore, so getting Carr into the lineup makes sense for the rebuilding Raiders anyway.
Once he's on the field, Carr will put up some numbers -- even if one of those numbers is a hefty interception total. As we saw when he was at Fresno State, Carr can wing it around the field, and Oakland has an intriguing set of pass-catchers, including James Jones, Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Mychal Rivera. This is not a team that will have many games where it races out to a lead and sits on the football. To win, the Raiders will have to light up the scoreboard, meaning plenty of passes.
Brandon Bostick/Richard Rodgers, TE, Packers: Andrew Quarless is the veteran of Green Bay's now Jermichael Finley-less tight end group; he hauled in a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers last weekend. But it was the other Rodgers, Richard, who has started over Quarless in the preseason, and it is Bostick, a former undrafted free agent with seven career catches, who has the most upside.
Bostick suffered a slight leg fracture in the Packers' second preseason game, an injury that figures to sideline him at least a couple of weeks. Once he returns, don't be surprised if he takes over the tight end duties for good.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals: A first-round pick in 2012 with a 1,000-yard '13 in his back pocket, Floyd is hardly a secret weapon for the Cardinals. (His teammate, rookie slot receiver John Brown, better fits that bill.) But Floyd impressed throughout Arizona's offseason workouts, and once this season is complete he may be more of a dominant NFL wide receiver than a rising star.
Floyd actually bested Larry Fitzgerald in receiving yards last season -- 1,041 to 954, with Fitzgerald seeing 22 more targets from quarterback Carson Palmer. Should Palmer's attention shift even further to Floyd as the 31-year-old Fitzgerald enters a contract season, Floyd will cruise past his 2014 numbers. Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods, plus the designation of being Arizona's No. 1 receiver, would not follow too far behind.
Mychal Kendricks, LB, Eagles: Kendricks finished second on the Eagles only to DeMeco Ryans in tackles last season, finishing with 106 and four fumble recoveries. Philadelphia is banking on that level of production and then some from its third-year linebacker. Kendricks is more than capable of meeting those expectations, particularly if he improves as a three-down player -- he had three picks last season but graded out as the Eagles' worst pass defender on Pro Football Focus. Ryans is due $6.9 million in 2015, the final year of his contract, so this defense could be under Kendricks' control sooner rather than later.
Zach Sudfeld, TE, Jets: Now a two-time member of the preseason All-Hype Team, Sudfeld starred in the lead-up to the 2013 campaign as an undrafted rookie, then flopped badly in the regular season. New England waived him last October, and the Jets struck. After finishing out a rather nondescript rookie year (five catches for 63 yards), Sudfeld has pushed 2014 draft pick Jace Amaro for playing time in the Jets offense. Should Sudfeld keep it together into September, his 6-7 frame would make a towering red-zone target for Geno Smith.
Harrison Smith, S, Vikings: If any player in Minnesota stands to benefit from Mike Zimmer's arrival as head coach, it is Smith. The 2012 draft pick had a standout rookie season but lost half of 2013 to a toe injury. Now healthy again, Smith will be a versatile cog in Zimmer's defense, which tends to shuffle its safeties around all over the field. Smith can play a deep center-field role, but in his career he has been even more effective creeping up into the box.
Keenan Robinson, LB, Redskins: The Washington defense will feel incomplete without London Fletcher, who retired this offseason after playing in 256 consecutive games, 112 of those in the nation's capital. He was as reliable as they come.
The reality is that by swapping out the 39-year-old Fletcher for the 25-year-old Robinson, Washington's defense has increased its speed. Robinson is capable of playing on all three downs. The 2012 fourth-rounder will make mistakes on occasion, especially given the anticipated uptick in snaps he'll see, but overall, he brings even more athleticism to a linebacking corps that already features Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Perry Riley.