Top 10 breakout players of 2015

John Breitenbach lists 10 players who have taken their performances up a notch this season.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Guillaume Martin

    You guys forgot Tyler Eifert, Josh Norman, Kawann Short, Reshad Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Tyrod Taylor, KJ Wright and Latavius Murray. These guys were far from being household names for NFL fans and they are all deserving of going to the pro bowl.

    • ZLC

      Reshad Jones was just as good last year, he’s not breaking out, just getting better publicity.

    • Fan

      Respectfully, I believe there are other QBs that are more deserving of Pro Bowl honors than Tyrod Taylor. He has certainly exceeded expectations and had a good season, but he is asked to do so little in that offense that other signal-callers with significantly more responsibility should be looked at first.

    • Adam

      I think this list is players who played at least a good portion of last season and showed significant improvement this year. Eifert missed almost all if last season. Norman and Hopkins were already good last year, Tyrod is a rookie and Lat Murray just doesn’t deserve to be on the list. Keep in mind a Top 10 list limits it to 10 players…

      • Person

        Tyrod is not a rookie

      • Forrest

        Tyrod is in his fifth season. He’s just a first year starter.

        • whatguythatguy

          I think that’s the reason he’s not on the list. No significant play previously to have shown a breakout role.

    • dd

      I too am shocked that Deandre Hopkins is not on this list. He was very good last year and now he is an elite Top 10 receiver. I’d take him in a second over the overrrated TY Hilton

      • Jagrick

        I would too. That guy is one of the best IMO.

      • whatguythatguy

        You just explained why he’s not on the list. He was already the obvious #1 receiver in Houston coming into the year.

    • Joe

      They only named 10 dumb ass. They cant name everybody

    • Noah

      Reshad was in their top 3 for safeties last year. Nothing new for him.

  • Tommy Schaffer

    I’m really surprised Josh Norman or Tyrod Taylor didn’t crack this list.

    • Jaguars28

      Or Blake Bortles. Much improved from last year.

      • Guillaume Martin

        Bortles still makes too many mistakes but the future looks bright for him. He also has great young skill position players to progress with him.

        • Daniel Nottingham

          That whole division is going to be special. Stacked with Bortles, Mariotta and Luck all in one division in their primes. If they all live up to the hype the AFC South will become a big part of the NFL’s future.

      • Tommy Schaffer

        He’ll be good but I think he makes too many mistakes right now.

    • JT

      Norman was basically just continuing his 2nd half play from last season

  • crosseyedlemon

    Having two players on the list is good news for long suffering Raider fans. The Silver and Black have a rich history and it will be fun seeing them as a contender again.

    • Joe

      Dont kid yourself, they suck and will for the foreseeable future

      • Jake

        Lol found the guy that doesn’t know shit about football

        • Dt

          Talk about not knowing shit about football… Look in the mirror turd burglar

      • Rik-The Crusader..

        Lol you d bag..

      • Autocephallus

        They’re getting better whether you like it or not.

      • Rico Stifler

        Sounds like what you do in the back alleys for $5…..

      • raider32assassin

        What a moron

      • Raidernationallday

        Every Raider player would destroy you in fight bitch. Don’t test the Silver and black fangirl.

    • Brandon Quinlog

      agreed. im one of them. i really like where this team is going with guys like cooper, crabtree, DC4, murray, edwards, mack. on the up and up

    • George McDowell

      Rich history? They currently have the most consecutive non-winning season in NFL history. They are a laughingstock, a joke of a franchise playing in a joke of stadium. This isn’t 1976 anymore. The Rai-duh’s and their few fans suck, and will continue to suck even with one good player on defense.

    • Packerfan all week

      The raiders have a rich history of being everybody’s whipping boy in the NFL. But it is nice to see a bum ass team take to good teams like the raiders only to lose like they always do. “Keep Winning(Losing) baby” Al Davis.

  • Vladimir_Poutine

    Crazy Barnidge didn’t make it. had around 150 yards and no td’s last year to on pace for over 1000 and currently has 7 tds, maybe he can hit 10. You think someone would grade outstandingly higher with such a career year.

    • pbskids4000

      He’s a terrible blocker. I believe he’s graded negatively this year solely because of his blocking.

      • whatguythatguy

        That’s the problem with PFF’s grading: So what if he’s not a great blocker? That’s not why he’s such a huge asset to the Browns. I agree, he should definitely be on this list.

        • Jonathan Seidman

          that’s exactly what is GREAT about PFF’s grading….

          1. who cares if you get 1,000 yards and 7 TDs if you’re run-blocking means the RBs average 1.5 ypc less when you are in there? (not sure if that’s true, just an example.)

          2. same goes for passing…if your QB is getting pressured more when you’re in their, there is negative value in that…

          3. also, his counting stats could have more to do with the system and what’s available to the QB than him being good…perhaps you put Delani Walker in the same situation and he’d be on pace for 1,400 and 12 TDs.

  • Reggie Mac

    Michael Crabtree?

  • Adam Gonzales

    How can you leave Cleveland’s Gary Barnidge off this list??? He’s a top 5 TE this year at the age of 30 and was just rewarded with a 3 year contract for $12M. And, even more impressive, HE’S A BROWN!

  • Sam Schell-Olsen

    How on Earth is Blake Bortles not on the list?


    No Blake Bortles? He improved leaps and bounds from last year.

  • Joe Doe

    If there are any doubts about Slay being on this list, it has been leagues different from the first couple of games to the 8 games. He regularly did not know his assignment in coverage early on, which is no longer the case. He has the physical ability, the mental side of things is what has improved in my mind.