Top 10 breakout players of 2015
Earlier in the year, we broke down five players who were having breakout seasons. Here’s an extended list with a number of new faces, complete with their cumulative PFF grades from last season, as well as this one.
1. Linval Joseph, DT, Minnesota Vikings
2014 grade: +4.2 in 743 snaps
2015 grade: +38.4 in 502 snaps
Joseph had some good years in New York, but never threatened the top 10 graded defensive tackles, let alone the top three. He’s behind only Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins in 2015, with the third-best run defense grade and the sixth-highest grade rushing the passer. Mike Zimmer is getting the best out of his free agent acquisition. Amongs defensive tackles, he’s fifth in run stop percentage, which is his greatest strength, but he’s a capable pass rusher, too. Overall, Joseph has recorded at least a +1.2 grade in all but one game this year. After losing a couple of key games, the Vikings could do with their best lineman back.
2. Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
2014 grade: +9.6 ftom 850 snaps
2015 grade: +23.1 from 707 snaps
It is perhaps unsurprising that a recruit from Arkansas-Pine Bluff took some time to reach his true potential in the NFL. With that said, Armstead had a pretty solid introduction to life in the NFL in 2014 when he finished as our 24th overall tackle. He’s still taken a dramatic step forward this year, though, grading positively overall in all but one game. Armstead has improved from 22nd in pass blocking efficiency to third in 2015, and is yet to concede more than three combined pressures in any contest. Coupled with his improvement in pass protection, Armstead also holds the second-best run blocking grade at the position. The third-round pick the Saints invested in him looks to increase in value by the day.
3. Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
2014 grade: -29.9 from 1,017
2015 grade: +16.5 from 768
Carr is the only player to retain his spot on the list after carrying his early season form into the second half of the year. He’s moved up to fourth amongst quarterbacks in pure passing grade, ahead of Andy Dalton and Cam Newton. The starkest improvement has come when throwing deep, where Carr leads the NFL in accuracy percentage. Overall, he’s completed 20-of-47 attempts for 698 yards, with eight touchdowns and just two picks when throwing 20+ yards downfield. The other crucial category for quarterbacks is how they perform under pressure. After struggling in that regard as a rookie, Carr is now amongst the most proficient. He is picking up 7.4 yards per attempt, and has thrown six touchdowns to four interceptions when disrupted, culminating a +9.5 grade. Despite their loss to the Chiefs, the Raiders look like contenders for the first time in awhile, thanks to their franchise quarterback.
4. Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins
2014 grade: +13.7 in 850 snaps
2015 grade: +28.1 in 718 snaps
Vernon’s performances over the past two years have fluctuated from outstanding to terrible in three distinct periods. In the first eleven weeks of 2014, he recorded a +21.5 grade. From Week 12 of 2014 to Week 7 this year (12 games), he recorded a -11.9 grade. However, since Week 8 (when Cameron Wake went down for the year), Vernon has really responded. He has a +32.2 grade in just six games, including that matchup against New England. Vernon has recorded six sacks, 17 hits, and 17 hurries.
He’s just overtaken Cameron Jordan as our highest-graded 4-3 defensive end, in terms of pass rushing alone. Vernon remains only an average run defender (+0.9), but he’s one of the hottest pass rushers at the moment.
5. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
2014 grade: +1.5 from 524
2015 grade: +17.7 from 762
After a solid rookie year, Robinson has exploded in his second season in the NFL. His +17.7 overall grade is good enough for fifth in the league, ahead of the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Deandre Hopkins. One of Robinson’s greatest strengths is his ability to generate big plays down the field. He leads the NFL in both receptions (16) and yards (537) on deep passes. It’s a stark contrast from his role as a rookie, where he was targeted deep on just 17.1 percent of targets, a figure which has risen to 33.3 percent this season. The other of Robinson’s greatest attributes is the threat he poses in the red zone. He’s caught 11 touchdowns this year, which leads all NFL receivers. With positive grades in all but two games this year, Robinson deserves to be very much in the Pro Bowl conversation.
6. Derek Wolfe, DE, Denver Broncos
2014 grade: +10.0 in 780 snaps
2015 grade: +20.3 in 422 snaps
Wolfe was a good, if one-dimensional, piece in the Broncos’ defense his first three seasons. He’s elevated his game in 2015, despite a four-game suspension to start the season. The arrival of Wade Philips has brought more predominantly odd fronts to the Broncos, and Wolfe looks a more natural fit at five-technique than he did on the end of a four-man line. Overall, he’s our 10th-ranked 3-4 defensive end, despite taking only 422 snaps. He’s No. 1 in run stop percentage at the position, with 26 tackles around the line of scrimmage from just 172 reps. Wolfe has done more as a pass rusher (+4.8) than he has in any previous season, too. In the eight 2015 games he’s played, he has six “green” graded games (above +1.0) and just one negatively graded outing. The Broncos’ incredibly rich defense just got richer.
7. Weston Richburg, C, New York Giants
2014 grade: -9.5 in 1,058 snaps
2015 grade: +12.3 in 744 snaps
Richburg’s case is an interesting one, because he transitioned from left guard, where he played as a rookie, to center. The Giants tried J.D. Walton out at the position in 2014, but his struggles initiated a reshuffle this season. Richburg has responded with a season good enough to rank him fifth amongst centers. He holds the best pass protection grade, having allowed only eight hurries, and is the only player at his position who is yet to allow a QB knockdown. While Richburg’s run blocking remains a work in progress (+2.3), his athleticism in the screen game remains an asset (+4.0). He could do with becoming a little more consistent, as well, but overall, it seems the Giants have found a key component of their line for years to come.
8. Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Indianapolis Colts
2014 grade: -9.2 in 981 snaps
2015 grade: +14.3 in 571 snaps
Freeman has showed flashes of potential in the past, but never form like this. In the past five games, he has a +19.6 grade against good offenses, including New Orleans and Carolina. He’s moved up to fourth overall amongst inside linebackers as a result. Freeman is second in run defense, a spot he also holds in run stop percentage (27 stops in 206 snaps). Perhaps most pleasing for Colts’ fans, he’s missed just four tackles from 63 attempts, compared with 16 from 108 in 2014. Freeman could stand to improve in coverage, where he’s allowing a QB rating of 112.2, including three touchdowns, but he still has a positive grade in that facet of play (+0.2). If Freeman can sustain this level of play, he could help Indianapolis limp into the playoffs.
9. Gabe Jackson, G, Oakland Raiders
2015 grade: +19.2 in 810 snaps
2014 grade: +6.8 in 836 snaps
Jackson keeps us on the theme of mid-round offensive lineman who required a brief period of adjustment before hitting their stride in the NFL. Unlike Armstead, however, Jackson showed improvement in a specific area rather than overall. After finishing as only our 56th-graded guard in 2014 (-3.3), he’s improved to 16th (+8.9) this year. Pass protection has never been an issue for Jackson. He allowed just one sack, two hits and 16 hurries as a rookie, and has conceded only an additional four knockdowns and 13 hurries this year. Improvement on the offensive line has been key for the Raiders’ offense this year, and Jackson deserves a lot of credit for it.
10. Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions
2014 grade: +7.7 in 1, 101 snaps
2015 grade: +12.7 in 773 snaps
After a rocky rookie season, Slay improved to capable NFL starter in his second year. He still recorded an only modest +6.4 grade in coverage, though, limiting further superlatives. That’s changed this year, however, where Slay can make a pretty convincing case for being the best corner in the league over the past few games. He’s our fourth overall corner in 2015, with the eighth-best coverage grade. Slay has graded negatively once since Week 4, and has seven green graded games in that span. Although he’s allowed a QB rating of 99.5, he has seven pass deflections and committed just a single penalty. The Lions don’t really have much left to play for this season, but they do have a potential shutdown corner in Darius Slay.