Kansas City Chiefs Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Rodney Hudson

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Kansas City Chiefs, that player is center Rodney Hudson.

Hudson was a 2nd round pick of the Chiefs in 2011. He was as accomplished as a collegiate offensive lineman could be, starting all 4 years, making the All-ACC team in his final 3 years, and the All-American in his final 2 years, doing so unanimously in his senior year. However, the NFL doesn’t have a lot of sub 300 pounds offensive lineman and Hudson weighed in at 299 at The Combine, while not posting a particularly fast 40 time at 5.31. In spite of 27 reps of 225, there were still major questions about his ability to anchor.

Hudson barely played as a rookie, serving as a reserve guard. However, with long-time NFL veteran Casey Wiegmann retiring, a hole opened up at center for the Chiefs and Hudson was moved there for the 2012 season. The move made sense. Hudson’s lack of strength and athleticism wouldn’t be as big of an issue at center and his intelligence and technique would be big time assets.

Hudson started out very well in his first season at center, only allowing 1 pressure in his first 2 and ½ games, but he went down with a broken leg during the middle of that 3rd game, costing him his season. In spite of the limited playing time, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked center, grading out above average as a run and pass blocker. Only Dallas’ Phil Costa played fewer snaps than him and graded out better than him. Provided he can stay healthy (injuries have never been an issue for him before last year), Hudson could certainly pick up where he left off and emerge as one of the better centers in the game.

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Dallas Cowboys Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Bruce Carter

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Dallas Cowboys, that player is outside linebacker Bruce Carter.

When the Cowboys selected Bruce Carter in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, they were taking a real chance. Carter had first round ability, with legitimate 4.4-4.5 speed at 6-1 241 and great weight room strength, throwing up 25 reps of 225 at The Combine, but was widely expected to go on day 2 because he had torn his ACL in the prior November. Not only would he likely not contribute as a rookie, he was a real question mark going forward. He couldn’t run the 40 at The Combine and it was a question whether he’d ever be able to regain that same explosiveness.

The Cowboys didn’t wait long into the 2nd day to take him, taking him 40th overall with the 8th pick of the 2nd round, doing so despite having 3 established middle linebackers ahead of him, Sean Lee, Keith Brooking, and Bradie James and also despite running a 3-4 scheme that Carter didn’t seem to be a natural fit for. He’d be playing 3-4 middle linebacker, a position more focused on size and strength, coming up to plug the run, rather than speed, instincts, and athleticism, making plays in space. His sideline to sideline speed would not be best utilized in that scheme.

Carter predictably barely played as a rookie, but in his 2nd year in the league in 2012, with Brooking and James gone, Carter beat out free agent signee Dan Connor, widely perceived as the favorite for the job after landing a multiyear deal in free agency. Carter eventually became an every down linebacker at middle linebacker after injuries knocked out Sean Lee for the season, but once again, injuries found Carter when he dislocated his elbow on Thanksgiving and had to be put on IR. Still, despite only playing 625 snaps and despite playing out of position, Carter graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked inside linebacker out of 62 eligible, with only 3 players ranked higher than him that played fewer snaps than him.

Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Carter is healthy again, but more importantly the scheme has changed. Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense are gone and Monte Kiffin and his Tampa 2 scheme are in. Carter will be moving outside to weakside linebacker, where he will play every down in the role that Derrick Brooks thrived in with the Buccaneers for so many years under Kiffin. Carter’s skill set fits that role perfectly as his natural athleticism, instincts, and range will be allowed to shine. Provided he stays healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Carter emerged as one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL this season.

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Houston Texans Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Whitney Mercilus

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Houston Texans, that player is rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus.

Mercilus was a first round pick, 26th overall, of the Houston Texans in 2012. I gave him a top-10 grade, calling him the best pure pass rusher in the draft class, comparing him to Aldon Smith, and praising his work ethic. Mercilus comes from humble beginnings in more ways than one. He grew up as the son of Haitian immigrants, but he was also just a 3-star recruit in the 2008 draft class, a rarity among 1st round picks.

Mercilus did well to bulk up from 225 to the 260 range while in college and after recording just 2 sacks in his first 2 seasons as a backup, Mercilus earned his way to a starting job in 2011 and made the most of it. He led the country in sacks, with 16, and also had 22.5 tackles for loss and 9 forced fumbles. He showed a wide variety of pass rush moves and never took a play off. At The Combine, he flashed excellent athleticism for his size, running a 4.68 at 6-4 261 and putting up 27 reps of 225.

However, as a rookie, he struggled. He managed just 6 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries, including playoffs, on 327 pass rush snaps, a mediocre 6.7% pass rush rate, splitting snaps with Brooks Reed opposite Connor Barwin. He was ProFootballFocus’ 29th rated 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible and his pass rush productivity was 26th out of 32 eligible.

That being said, plenty of players struggle as rookies and then go on to have excellent NFL careers. Mercilus still doesn’t turn 23 until July and he still has plenty of natural ability and upside. With Connor Barwin gone, he’ll be an every down player opposite Brooks Reed with rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams sprinkled in as depth. He’s expected to line up almost exclusively at right outside linebacker, the primary pass rushing position in Wade Phillips’ scheme (the DeMarcus Ware, Connor Barwin role), rather than moving around the formation, as he did as a rookie. This could very well help him, especially since he played almost entirely on the right side in college at Illinois. He’ll have every opportunity to shine and I expect him to breakout.

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New York Giants Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Brandon Myers

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the New York Giants, that player is tight end Brandon Myers.

The Raiders had one of the least talented rosters in the NFL last season thanks to a decade of poor drafting and recent salary cap hell. One of several positions without a clear proven starter for the Raiders last year was tight end. When 4th year tight end Brandon Myers, a 2009 6th round pick, won the starting job, he was described as a decent blocker and little else and for good reason.

He had just 32 career catches in his 3 year career so far, including just 7 in 5 starts in place of an injured Kevin Boss the year before. He wasn’t a premium draft pick, going in the 6th round and he didn’t have special athleticism. After not being invited to The Combine, he ran a 4.79 40 at 6-3 250 at his Pro Day in 2009, with a 31 inch vertical and 17 reps of 225.

However, Myers really surprised as a pass catcher, catching 79 passes for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the team in receiving ahead of bigger names like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore. He did this on just 101 targets, a very impressive 78% catch rate, and he was sure handed, dropping just 6 passes. He ranked 8thamong eligible tight ends in terms of yards per route run.

While he managed just 10.2 yards per catch, and 3.6 yards after catch per catch, both towards the bottom of the league, he did break 8 tackles and, because of his high catch rate, the Raiders actually averaged a very impressive 8.0 YPA throwing to Myers last year, over a full yard over the 6.8 YPA Raider quarterbacks averaged on the season. Overall, Raider quarterbacks had a 100.7 QB rating when throwing to Myers, well above their overall 82.5 rating.

Surprisingly, the one area Myers really struggled with his blocking, both pass and run blocking, which was supposed to be the only thing he was good at. No tight end graded out worse as a run blocker on ProFootballFocus than Myers, which actually led to him being the 2nd worst rated overall tight end, despite his great play in the passing game. However, it was revealed after the season he played most of last year with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder, which really effected his blocking. With an off-season to heal, he should do a better job of blocking in 2013.

Myers hit the open market this off-season and did not command a big deal, signing for just 2.25 million over 1 year in New York with the Giants. One of the things that is noteworthy is that Giants tight end coach the legendary Mike Pope requires his tight ends to be great blockers to get on the field so the fact that they signed him and are listing him as a starter is a good sign for his ability to bounce back as a blocker.

One other thing about New York and tight ends that is noteworthy is that Giants tight ends always seem to be productive in the passing game, regardless of who they are. Mike Pope is a big part of the reason for this, as is the offensive system and Eli Manning’s tendency to throw to the tight end. The Giants took Jeremy Shockey in the 1st round in 2002 and turned him into one of the league’s best tight ends.

Injuries didn’t allow him to play a full 16 game set in 6 seasons with the Giants, but he averaged 70 catches for 796 yards and 5 touchdowns per 16 games, back before the days of tight ends really putting up huge numbers. For his efforts, he was named to the Pro-Bowl 4 times in 6 seasons. However, when he got hurt down the stretch in their eventual Super Bowl winning 2007 season, a no name rookie named Kevin Boss took over and did well enough for the Giants to win without Shockey.

Boss ended up driving Shockey out of town that off-season, as the Giants got a 2nd and 5th round pick for him from the Saints, a good haul. The Saints, however, would not get what they paid for, as Shockey last just 3 years in New Orleans, averaging 59 catches for 615 yards and 3 touchdowns per 16 games despite Drew Brees throwing him the ball. He spent a final nondescript season in Carolina in 2011 before being forced to retire (technically he hasn’t retired, but if you’ve been out of the league for at least a year, you’re essentially retired) at age 31, due to lack of interest in his services around the league.

Boss, meanwhile, did a solid job filling in for Shockey, averaging 39 catches for 527 yards and 6 touchdowns per 16 games in 3 years as a starter, despite being just a 5th round pick in 2007. He earned himself a multiyear deal in Oakland and lasted just one year before getting cut. He then went to Kansas City, where the same thing happened and now he remains a free agent at just age 29, after 31 catches in the last 2 years combined.

Boss was replaced by Jake Ballard, a similar player, a blocker first that put up surprising pass catching numbers in 2011, catching 38 passes for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns. After he tore his ACL in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory, the Giants waived him and replaced him with Martellus Bennett. Bennett was a former 2nd round pick of the Cowboys, but largely a blocker first who had caught just 85 passes for 848 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 seasons. Bennett nearly matched those numbers in his one year in New York, catching 55 passes for 626 yards and 5 touchdowns, before signing a multiyear deal with the Bears, only to be replaced by Myers on the cheap.

Myers now comes to New York as the most NFL proven tight end they’ve brought to the team in at least over a decade and he should be able to continue to get his in the passing game as the 3rd option after Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Assuming he also bounces back as a blocker, by the end of the season, we may be able to call Myers one of the most complete all-around tight ends in the NFL. Not bad for a 6th round pick with limited athleticism.

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Green Bay Packers Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Casey Hayward

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Green Bay Packers, that player is cornerback Casey Hayward.

Casey Hayward was my #1 sleeper prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft class and earned a first round grade as a cornerback, as I compared him to Devin McCourty. Hayward lacked elite size and speed, but always impressed on tape and put up big time production. In his final two years at Vanderbilt, he had 13 interceptions and 21 pass deflections, playing most of his games against big time SEC competition. He rarely allowed completions, had a big time 6 deflection game against an Arkansas passing offense that was one of the best of the country, and even solo tackled Trent Richardson for a loss or no gain twice in their matchup against Alabama.

When the Packers moved up to get Casey Hayward in the 2nd round in 2012, it gave me some affirmation. While Hayward was not expected to go before the 3rd round, the Packers were known for being one of the best drafting teams in the league. They also rarely move up for guys, so when they do, it’s something that should catch your eye. It’s very, very possible that they too had a 1st round grade on Hayward.

The way he played as a rookie was even better than anyone, including even the Packers, could have expected. He did this largely under the radar, as he was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck.

Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.

As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.

It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and was my choice for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

This year, he will compete with Sam Shields and Tramon Williams for a starting job. While Shields and Williams are both fine players, I don’t see how the Packers can keep Hayward from a starting role in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll probably line up outside in base packages and move to the slot in 3-cornerback sets. If he plays in 2013 as a starter anywhere near the way he did as a rookie, he’ll deserve to be an easy Pro-Bowl selection.

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New Orleans Saints Potential Breakout Player of 2013: Junior Galette

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the New Orleans Saints, that player is outside linebacker Junior Galette.

Last season, the New Orleans Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, a year after a 13-3 regular season. A lot of people blamed this on Sean Payton’s absence with a yearlong suspension, but Payton comes from an offensive background and the offense was not the problem in 2012. In fact, they ranked 3rd in the NFL in scoring behind only New England and Denver, but unlike the Patriots and the Broncos, who both earned 1st round byes, the Saints were sitting at home at the end of the regular season because of their defense. They allowed more yards than any team in NFL history and their scoring defense ranked 31st as only the Oakland Raiders allowed more points.

The first move made to change things this off-season was to fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While Spagnuolo is a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, winning a ring in 2007 with the Giants, his scheme never really fit in New Orleans. His scheme is largely reliant on a strong defensive line and being able to get to the quarterback with 4 guys, something the Saints just didn’t have the personnel to do in 2012. In 2011, they had a league average defense under disgraced defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is one of the most blitz happy coordinators in NFL history, sending an extra man over 50% of the time.

After firing Spagnuolo, the Saints immediately decided to wanted to switch up the defensive scheme entirely and targeted defensive coordinators with 3-4 backgrounds. This move made a lot of sense for 3 reasons. The first is simply that when you were as broken defensively as the Saints’ were in 2012, any change can’t possibly hurt. The second reason is that eventual hire Rob Ryan, while he runs a different base scheme than Williams, is very Williams esque with the amount of blitzes he calls, which, after not using a single draft pick on a pass rusher until the 6th round, the Saints will largely rely on to get pressure in 2013.

The 3rd reason is that several players in their front 7 are more natural fits for the 3-4 than the 4-3, which will help compensate for the lack of added pass rushers this off-season. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a former 1st round pick in 2011, played in a 3-4 in college and has largely looked like a fish out of water at 4-3 end in the first 2 years of his career, playing the run well, but struggling mightily to get pressure. Martez Wilson was a collegiate linebacker and will benefit from moving back to the linebacker position next year, after an attempt to convert to the defensive line in 2012.

They also added Victor Butler, an underrated pass rusher and a natural 3-4 fit who follows Rob Ryan from Dallas. However, the #1 player who figures to benefit from the scheme change is Junior Galette, who will play rush linebacker this season. For that reason, he, and not Cameron Jordan or Victor Butler, gets this write up. Though I think Jordan and Butler both have career best years, Galette should lead this team in sacks.

Galette came to the Saints as an undrafted free agent from Division-II Stillman and did well to even make the roster as a rookie. He barely played as a rookie, as could be expected, but in 2011, he earned a bigger role as a situational pass rusher on a struggling defensive line, especially down the stretch. Overall, he graded out as an above average pass rusher on ProFootballFocus and really shined down the stretch when given more playing time. In his final 10 games of the season, including playoffs, he managed 2 sacks, 8 hits, and 14 hurries on 238 pass rush snaps. Overall, he had 4 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 339 pass rush snaps. His biggest weakness was the run, as he graded out below average as a run stuffer (and below average overall because of it), as could be expected of a 255 pound defensive lineman.

In 2012, he was expected to have a bigger role as the 3rd defensive end behind Cameron Jordan and Will Smith, both coming off of rough 2011s rushing the passer. However, because he missed 4 games with injury, he actually played fewer snaps than he did in 2011, playing just 301 snaps. 225 of these snaps were rushing the passer, but he managed an impressive 5 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries on them.

Among 4-3 defensive ends who played as many snaps as he did, only Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson had higher pass rush efficiencies (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries/pass rush snaps). While he still struggled against the run (part of the reason why he didn’t get more playing time), he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked overall 4-3 defensive end, 14th ranked overall in terms of pass rush grade.

With the Saints moving to a 3-4, it gives Galette his best chance ever to earn a starting job and serious playing time. As a 3-4 rush linebacker, his lack of size and ability against the run won’t be as big of an issue and his natural pass rush ability will be allowed to shine. Assuming he beats out 3-4 misfit Will Smith for the starting job opposite Victor Butler, Galette should have a breakout year. He could easily have double digit sacks if he plays enough snaps. If he did that, he’d be the first Saints player to do so since 2009. The Saints obviously believe in him, locking him up to a 3 year deal this off-season after originally slapping a 2nd round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Given that the deal is worth less than 2 million per year, the Saints figure to be rewarded for their foresight.

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