Every NFL season, a handful of players emerge from the shadows to blossom as surprise stars. Who will it be this year?
As OTAs begin to wind down, with minicamps not far off, here are 10 names to remember as potential breakout performers for the 2016 season.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Panthers
Jonathan Stewart’s presence as the lead dog in the backfield (not to mention Cam Newton’s own rushing prowess) will likely put a cap on what Artis-Payne can accomplish during his second pro season.
Keep in mind, though, that Stewart has not played a full 16 games in any of the past four years, and he is still dealing with the foot injury he aggravated during Super Bowl 50. Stewart set a career high with 242 rushing attempts in 2015, then tacked on another 50 carries during the playoffs. The Panthers would love to be more successful at sharing the load and keeping Stewart fresh than they were last season.
Accomplishing that goal may not mean a return to the two-headed monster days of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but Artis-Payne flashed some serious upside by posting 152 yards on 33 carries when Stewart was out of the lineup last December.
“I felt like the game slowed down a little bit,” Artis-Payne told the Panthers’ website of that stretch. “That was big for me moving forward. It gave me a lot of confidence in what I can do in this league.”
His downhill, physical running style meshes well with what Newton and the Panthers want to attack. Barring an even slower recovery from Stewart, a 1,000-yard performance is not in the cards for Artis-Payne, but that glimpse he offered late last season is just the beginning of what he can do.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns
Believe it. Maybe.
There are two factors working in Pryor’s favor this off-season: 1. Even though the Browns just spent four draft picks on receivers, no player outside of first-rounder Corey Coleman is a lock for snaps; and 2. At least to the new coaching staff, Pryor is no longer a quarterback transitioning to receiver but rather a versatile weapon who has potential at his new position.
“He’s demonstrated the ability to play receiver, so to me he’s a weapon,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said in March, via Cleveland.com. “He’s somebody that we can do a lot of different things with and we’ll see where he fits here pretty soon.”
He could wind up as a relatively high-volume option within the passing attack. Coleman will start at one spot, and Andrew Hawkins should maintain a hold on the slot duties. The job of second outside receiver and of the next in line on the inside are both up for grabs.
Pryor’s remarkable athleticism gives him an edge, even over a more polished option like rookie Rashard Higgins. His 6' 4" frame is sure to be a factor, too.
Rod Streater, WR, Chiefs
Streater already enjoyed one breakout season, producing team highs of 60 catches for 888 yards with the Raiders in 2013. He is a candidate again because he spent 2014 on injured reserve and all but fell off the face of the earth last season.
Now, after jumping from one AFC West squad to another, he has a shot at a resurgence. Streater said this week from OTAs that he is seeing ample time in the slot, which is rather unusual for a guy his size: “I feel like I can beat nickels. It’s a mismatch. I’m 6' 3", guys probably won’t think I can get open like I can. However, I can fight in and where coach wants to put me that’s where I’m going to make plays.”
Larry Fitzgerald was an oversized nightmare from the slot last season for the Cardinals. No one would compare Streater to the future Hall of Famer, but the Chiefs’ goal has to be to create a similar advantage.
Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers
Heath Miller’s retirement deserves a little more attention for the impact it could have on the upcoming season. Miller was a mainstay in the Steelers’ lineup for 11 years, as a steady blocker and one of the most reliable pass-catching tight ends in league history. Pittsburgh will miss him, even if Green is ready to follow through on his hype.
Whereas Miller was a move-the-chains type receiver, Green brings a new element to the passing attack: A 6' 6" vertical threat carrying a career average of 14.1 yards per catch.
It's stretching Green's limits to expect him to replace suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant as a cog in the Steelers’ offense, but he'll be able to exploit the seam-to-seam openings that should be there for him.
Vance McDonald, TE, 49ers
The No. 1 receiver in Chip Kelly’s high-tempo offense always sees a ton of looks—DeSean Jackson was targeted 126 times in 2013; Jeremy Maclin was targeted 143 times in ’14 and 126 last year. Also working heavily into the mix during Kelly’s final two Philadelphia seasons was tight end Zach Ertz, who saw 112 passes thrown his direction a season ago, sixth-most among all players at his position.
That history does not necessarily mean Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick will feed McDonald, but with an uncertain receiver group beyond Torrey Smith, the 49ers quickly could come to rely on McDonald’s pass-catching abilities. McDonald reeled in 30 passes last season, which actually tied for third place on a putrid offense.
Another factor to consider: McDonald is entering a contract year. It’s not a given that a player will play well before potentially hitting free agency, but it certainly adds some motivation.
Zach Orr, LB, Ravens
The Ravens cut linebacker Daryl Smith back in March. How they fill his vacated starting job remains TBD. Should they stay in-house, the competition would be between Orr, Arthur Brown and Albert McClellan. Of the three, Orr entered this off-season with the brightest future.
That says as much about what a letdown Brown has been since his selection in the 2013 draft. He was on the roster bubble ahead of the ’15 season, and there are no indications Baltimore plans to extend his soon-to-be expiring rookie contract. Last year, Brown played all of 10 defensive snaps, compared to 160 for McClellan and 142 for Orr.
Former first-rounder C.J. Mosley is sliding over to replace Smith at the MIKE, leaving the WILL up for grabs. It is possible that Brown ascends the depth chart in July and August, but Orr should be viewed as the favorite given each player’s history. In his limited playing time, Orr has displayed the coverage skills necessary to complement Mosley.
Will Clarke, DE, Bengals
Quite simply, someone has to emerge as a pass-rushing option for the Bengals. They are thin at DE on paper, but not yet adding anyone via free agency or the draft would point toward a little confidence in what’s there. The thing is that either Clarke or disappointing 2013 draft pick Margus Hunt could just as easily wind up dropping off the roster as they could end up making a significant impact.
What makes Clarke intriguing is his size. The Bengals list him at 291 pounds, which in theory should allow him to set an edge on early downs before dropping inside, as he did on a very minimal basis last season. Cincinnati has a very deep group of defensive tackles as it is, including rookie Andrew Billings, so how Clarke exactly gets on the field will be up to the coaches.
But the Bengals are not getting through the season with just Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson off the edge.
Ryan Russell, DE, Cowboys
Another 2015 draft pick, Russell barely saw the field last season, suiting up for just one game before landing on injured reserve. But Greg Hardy’s departure, Randy Gregory’s suspension and Demarcus Lawrence’s back surgery have flung the door wide open for the Purdue product.
Russell reportedly has been lining up as the Cowboys’ left DE (Lawrence’s usual spot) during early off-season workouts.
“I just think I see some maturity in him, how he’s handling it,” Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said recently. “This is non-pads—we’ll make a decision in camp. But I like what he’s doing.”
Russell never produced much in the way of sacks during his college career, averaging just 2.4 per year. The flip side is that he is 6' 5" and 270 pounds, with long arms and athleticism (he ran a 4.7-second 40 time at his pro day).
Marinelli loves to rotate his D-linemen frequently, so rookie Charles Tapper, newcomer Benson Mayowa and others figure to join Russell and eventually Gregory and Lawrence in the fight for playing time. Just by being on the field now, Russell is on his way to a significant role, and he has the skill set to do some damage.
Phillip Gaines, CB, Chiefs
It feels like forever ago that Gaines opened the 2015 season as Kansas City’s fill-in starter while Sean Smith served a suspension. The Chiefs’ secondary scuffled without Smith, and Gaines blew out his ACL, ending his year prematurely.
Gaines is still in the process of getting back to 100% this off-season, while others like rookie KeiVarae Russell, Steven Nelson and Marcus Cooper battle for the role left void by Smith, who signed with Oakland in March. If he gets there, Gaines should be better prepared to compete opposite standout Marcus Peters.
At 6' 0" with sub-4.4 speed before his ACL injury, Gaines has the measurables the Chiefs want in their outside cornerbacks. He has the look of a lockdown defender, with enough side-to-side quickness that the Chiefs briefly experimented with him at safety as a rookie.
Teams tested Peters last season, and he responded with a league-leading eight interceptions. Assuming QBs try a little harder to avoid him this year, a lot of pressure will fall on Kansas City’s second starting cornerback. Gaines wasn’t ready for the heat at the beginning of last season, but he could be this time around.
Nevin Lawson, CB, Lions
Lawson came off the board 46 picks after Gaines at the 2014 draft. He has far less impeding his path to a full-time starting spot this summer.
Rashean Mathis’s concussion last season bumped Lawson up the depth chart. Mathis’s retirement this off-season could lock him in there semi-permanently—at the very least long enough to get first crack ahead of Alex Carter (who missed 2015 to injury) or any veterans added in the coming weeks.
Rather quietly, Detroit’s Darius Slay has become one of the NFL’s top young cornerbacks (Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 2 overall CB last season). As is the case with the Peters/Gaines dynamic in Kansas City, Lawson could wind up under fire as a result of Slay’s ability. His nine-start 2015 was a mixed bag—he finished with seven pass breakups, no INTs and ranked 101st among all cornerbacks by PFF.
The experience gained should help. He also is in a system directed by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who has often maxed out the talent he has had in the secondary. If Austin trusts Lawson enough to start him, odds are that the third-year corner has done enough to earn that designation.
Mo Alexander, S, Rams
Mark Barron no longer need be discussed as a safety/linebacker hybrid. He is a linebacker, period. Alexander is the player on this Rams roster who could become what Barron once was. In fact, Alexander was a linebacker before converting to safety during his college days.
“He’s a very, very talented player and has huge upside,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said after his team drafted Alexander out of Utah State in 2014.
The Rams lost Rodney McLeod to free agency this off-season, further thinning out a safety group already shy on proven talent. Add in Los Angeles’ usage of three-safety looks and it’s clear why Alexander’s versatility could appeal to the coaching staff. He could slot in as a starter next to incumbent starter T.J. McDonald; he could walk down in the box as an extra linebacker; he even could slide out and play coverage as a corner.