Top 25 NFL breakout players for 2015
The NFL is loaded with difference-making players, and every season we see new ones emerge who have seemingly come out of nowhere to become impact performers.
At PFF, we have dug into our wealth of data and grading, and highlighted our top 25 potential breakout players for the 2015 season. In general, these are guys who have performed very well on a per-snap basis but haven’t been given prominent roles.
Here are our top 25 NFL breakout players for the 2015 season. (Note: We’ve included each player’s PFF rating in parentheses.)
- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings (79.1)
Most observers are aware that the Vikings’ young signal-caller really improved at the end of last season, but just how much he improved really stands out. Over the final five weeks of the season, no quarterback had a higher overall grade than Bridgewater (+11.0), not even the league’s MVP Aaron Rodgers (+10.2). Heading into his second season, expectations are high that he can continue to improve, and if he can perform like he did to end his rookie season, he’ll have the Vikings contending for a playoff spot come December.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, Dolphins (80.2)
Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins get most of the hype from the 2014 wide receiver draft class, and for good reason, but Landry had a very good rookie season coming out of LSU in his own right. A dangerous weapon from the slot, he forced 11 missed tackles from 84 receptions.
- Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers (84.2)
In a rookie season cut short by injury, Verrett had two big-time performances against the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders. Across those two games he was targeted 14 times, but gave up just five receptions for 61 yards, adding an interception and pass breakup against the Raiders.
- Timmy Jernigan, DT, Ravens (77.7)
Haloti Ngata’s departure paves the way for a much bigger role for the second-year man out of Florida State. Jernigan graded positively both against the run and as a pass-rusher, producing five sacks, eight hits and 12 hurries in the regular season and playoffs.
- Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots (74.1)
The Super Bowl game winner saw just 220 snaps in the regular season and playoffs as an undrafted rookie, but was impressive even before that interception to seal the championship for New England. 33 passes were thrown into his coverage, with Butler coming away with an interception and six pass breakups.
- Khiry Robinson, RB, Saints (80.2)
Always a productive player on limited snaps since entering the league, Robinson should now see more of the ball in New Orleans. Tough to bring down, he forced 21 missed tackles from 76 rushing attempts in 2014, averaging 2.7 yards after contact per carry.
- Bene Benwikere, CB, Panthers (83.1)
A fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Benwikere flourished as a starter late in his rookie season. The only touchdown he gave up all season came in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks. That was also the only game all year where he gave up over 100 receiving yards, allowing 57 or less in the rest of the games he played in.
- Marvin Jones, WR, Bengals (81.9)
Jones missed all of 2014 due to injury, but had a big season in 2013. Everyone remembers the four-touchdown performance against the Jets, but Jones was impressive throughout the season, forcing 15 missed tackles on 59 receptions, including the playoffs.
- K’Waun Williams, CB, Browns (81.1)
There are several young cornerbacks in Cleveland, but Williams is the best of the bunch right now. Williams had the sixth highest coverage grade of all cornerbacks in 2014, allowing just 221 yards through the air and breaking up nine passes.
- Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles (75.4)
With Jeremy Maclin now with the Kansas City Chiefs, Matthews should see a bigger role in the Eagles’ offense in 2015. He suits the Eagles well, and made the most of getting the ball in his hands last year, forcing nine missed tackles from 67 receptions.
- Arthur Moats, DE/OLB, Steelers (75.6)
Is it considered a breakout if you’re entering your fifth season in the league? Moats is the best pass-rusher the Steelers have and should see plenty of playing time over struggling recent first-round draft picks Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree. He rushed the passer just 156 times in 2014, but still had 22 total pressures.
- Devon Kennard, LB, Giants (75.9)
Taking over as a starter in Week 11, Kennard was solid in coverage, but excelled against the run and in limited work as a pass-rusher. Attempting 36 tackles, he missed just one all season.
- Darius Slay, CB, Lions (78.6)
Things started to go right for the former Mississippi State cornerback in his second season, and while there were still some ups and downs, he looked much more like the player the Lions were expecting him to become. Allowing a catch rate of just 56.2 percent, he had nine pass breakups over the course of the season.
- De’Anthony Thomas, WR/KR, Chiefs (69.5)
Thomas is a wild card on offense, and his impact will have a lot to do with how much playing time he sees, but in the very least he’ll be a dangerous return man once again. He averaged 30.1 yards per kick return, and 12.3 yards per punt return a year ago.
- Ian Williams, NT, 49ers (80)
He played just 219 snaps in 2014, but Williams had one of the best run-defense grades among defensive tackles. He’s a strong nose tackle who can be a bully against the run and add something as a pass-rusher, too, and he’ll prove that if given the opportunity.
- Danny Lansanah, LB, Buccaneers (79.9)
He isn’t as well-known in Tampa Bay as star teammates Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, but that could change if he continues to play this well. Lansanah had a very solid season as a starter in 2014, impressing both against the run and in coverage, finishing the year with 38 total defensive stops.
- Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders (69.1)
Murray needs to work on his consistency, but what he offers is the ability to break the game open. In the final six weeks of the season he had 3 carries of 25 yards or more, including the 90 yard touchdown run against the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Michael Campanaro, WR, Ravens (73.5)
Campanaro saw just 85 snaps in 2014, but impressed in that limited action throughout the year. He had a reception of 16 yards or more in all five games he played in as a rookie. With rookie Breshad Perriman struggling to get on the field with an injury, and Torrey Smith now in San Francisco, the opportunity is there for Campanaro to see more time in 2015. On top of that, he opens the seasons as the team’s punt returner, so he will see more touches there too.
- Darren Fells, TE, Cardinals (76.3)
Fells had a limited role for the Cardinals in 2014, but graded positively as a starter, both as a blocker and a receiver. Targets were limited for the big tight end, but he caught all six of the catchable passes thrown his way, and should have a bigger role in 2015.
- George Iloka, S, Bengals (78.3)
Another Bengals player to keep an eye on in 2015, Iloka impressed in 2014. The former Boise State standout recorded three interceptions and six pass breakups during the regular season.
- Ryan Davis, DL, Jaguars (79.9)
Davis played just 310 snaps, across various positions on the defensive line, for the Jaguars in 2014, but was a very productive pass-rusher. With eight sacks, five hits and 13 hurries, he registered some form of pressure once every 11.1 pass-rushing snaps.
- Audie Cole, LB, Vikings (76.6)
The Vikings have a crowded group at linebacker, but every time Cole gets onto the field he performs well. The challenge for him is getting onto the field ahead of some of his teammates. Last season he barely played until the final two weeks of the season, but his performance against the Bears in Week 17 was one of the best we saw from a linebacker all year.
- Gabe Jackson, G, Raiders (68.7)
Jackson really improved as a blocker in the second half of the 2014 season. He didn’t really stand out as a run blocker until the final three weeks of the season, but in the second half of the year he allowed just 11 total pressures.
- Chris Matthews, WR, Seahawks (70.7)
Matthews played just 45 snaps all year, but the plays he made in the Super Bowl were enough to warrant him having the potential to break out. He’ll face plenty of competition for snaps, but if we can continue to make plays down the field for the Seahawks, he’ll see more playing time.
- Branden Oliver, RB, Chargers (78.3)
Oliver filled in brilliantly for Danny Woodhead as the Chargers’ receiving back last year, to the point that he deserves to keep seeing touches on offense – even with the presence of No. 15 overall pick Melvin Gordon on the roster. From the 36 catchable passes thrown his way, Oliver caught all of them, and forced an impressive 14 missed tackles too.