5 breakout performers this season
Not every player immediately produces when making the transition from college to the NFL. Robert Quinn, for example, had two negatively graded seasons before exploding in 2013. This list details those players whose performances have taken a significant step up in 2015 compared to last season.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
2014 grade: 72.4 in 678 snaps
2015 grade: 84.5 in 377 snaps
Although John Brown had a solid rookie season, his 2014 performance doesn’t quite match the high standard he’s set for himself this season. Brown’s numbers are up across the board, most notably in catches per target. After making the grab on 52.5 percent of his targets as a rookie, he’s now catching 74 percent in year two. The yardage output has improved, also; Brown has already gained 562 yards at 2.53 yards per route run, compared with 696 yards at 1.52 yards per snap in all of 2014. Some of that has to do with the fact Carson Palmer has returned as his QB, but Brown still had a few poor games prior to him going down with an injury last season. Brown has also been far more productive in the intermediate game (10-to-19 yards), where his QB rating when targeted is above 120, almost double what he produced in 2014. With the seventh-highest receiving grade at the position, John Brown is giving the Cardinals a legitimate threat opposite Larry Fitzgerald, and their offense is improving because of it.
Trai Turner, RG, Carolina Panthers
2014 grade: 79.8 in 673 snaps
2015 grade: 88.8 in 412 snaps
Although Turner’s improvement started towards the latter part of 2014, he’s taken his play up a notch for the undefeated Panthers. Between Week 13 and the Divisional Playoff (seven games), Turner recorded a +7.4 grade, giving up just two hits and five hurries. So far in six games in 2015, he has recorded a +12.4 grade, allowing just eight hurries. It is as a run blocker, however, where the biggest improvement has come for Turner. Ranked as the 41st-best run blocker in 2014, he’s improved to fourth in that regard this season. Carolina needed road-grading interior lineman to make their run-heavy offense a success this season, meaning Turner’s improvement has come at just the right time.
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
2014 grade: 51.6 in 1,017 snaps
2015 grade: 79.4 in 364 snaps
While Derek Carr made some plays in 2014 to win the Raiders some games, his overall performance was disappointing, finishing the season with our second-worst grade amongst QBs. His second season has seen a significant improvement, as Carr now ranks as our eighth best passer. The Raiders’ starting QB has boosted his numbers in every key category. Carr’s been more accurate overall, with 74.6 percent of targeted passes accurate, compared to 69.1 percent in 2014. He’s also been more effective throwing deep, already having thrown three touchdowns with just one interception on 20+ yard passes (21 attempts), compared with two touchdowns and two picks as a rookie (71 attempts). Finally, passing under pressure is probably the area where Carr has shown the most improvement. After accumulating a QB rating of just 57.0 when disrupted in 2014, he’s now has a QB rating of 89.3.
Chris Baker, DE, Washington Redskins
2014 grade: 70.6 in 515 snaps
2015 grade: 87.2 in 238 snaps
Unlike most of the players on this list, Baker has been in the league for over five years. After spending the majority of his time at nose tackle in 2014, he has taken more snaps at end in the first seven games of 2015. Baker finished last season as our 50th ranked nose tackle out of 81 qualifying players. He’s now our fifth-overall 3-4 defensive end, with positive grades in every game so far. Baker is playing much better in run defense than he did a year ago; after finishing with a negative grade in that facet of his play last season, he’s now our top-ranked player at that skill at his position, above players like Calais Campbell and J.J. Watt. Currently holding the second-best run stop percentage illustrates why Baker has graded so well so far this year. As a pass rusher, he’s making more impactful plays than a year ago, having already more than doubled the number of knockdowns he accumulated in 2014. His four sacks and six hits are a significant improvement on the single sack and three hits he amassed last season.
Jaye Howard, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
2014 grade: 70.7 in 449 snaps
2015 grade: 87.3 in 314 snaps
Howard is another player who had to wait for his opportunity to get on the field. He showed enough in his third year (2014) to earn more playing time this season, and is taking full advantage. With a negative grade in run defense that year, though, Howard needed to become stouter against the ground game. He’s done that, and more, with an absurd 16 stops in just 64 snaps from the nose tackle position. Howard hasn’t earned those same numbers at defensive end (three stops in 75 snaps) but his grade shows a marked improvement from a year ago. Interestingly, he’s been a lot more productive as a pass rusher from defensive end than he has when playing over the center. With 12 combined pressures from 69 snaps, he’s No. 1 in pass-rushing productivity amongst 3-4 DEs. In contrast, he has just five combined pressures from 80 snaps from the nose tackle spot. Considering Dontari Poe is still feeling the effects of his back injury, it might be wise for the Chiefs to use Howard as a nose tackle on run downs, before kicking him outside to pass rush.