Top 25 breakout players of the 2015 season

John Breitenbach identifies 25 players that took a major step forward in the 2015 season.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

(AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Top 25 breakout players of the 2015 season

The 2015 season saw a number of players make huge strides forward, with many seeming to come out of nowhere.

Shortly after the conclusion of the NFL regular season, PFF’s John Kosko named the top 5 breakout players of 2015, with Tyrod Taylor taking home the No. 1 spot. With the Super Bowl now behind us, we expand that list to 25 players that greatly improved between 2014 and 2015.

(Editor’s note: For each player, you will see the cumulative season grade noted for both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Keep in mind that 0.0 is average on PFF’s cumulative grading scale.)

1. Tyrod Taylor, QB, BUF

2014 cumulative grade: -0.5 on six snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +18.3 on 941 snaps

Tyrod Taylor’s first year as a starter was an unmitigated success, earning him PFF’s Breakout Player of the Year honor. The time Taylor took riding the bench adds credence to the notion that throwing young QBs into the mix isn’t always the wisest move. While the former Raven impressed on the ground, it was his emergence as a legitimate passer that has him at the top of this list. Taylor can move the chains on the ground, but then hit teams over the top with one of the best deep balls in the league. He was accurate on 44.9 percent of attempts, tossing 12 scores to just three picks. Experience will only likely bring further improvement.

2. Weston Richburg, C, NYG

2014 cumulative grade: -9.5 on 1,058 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +20.6 on 1,035 snaps

The Giants really struggled on the edge of their offensive line, but quietly had one of the better interiors around. Richburg’s improvement was a key part of that. He allowed just a single knockdown and 12 combined pressures for the second-highest pass protection grade. Richburg isn’t the best in the ground game, but did post the highest screen-blocking grade (+5.0) in the league amongst all offensive lineman.

3. Allen Robinson, WR, JAX

2014 cumulative grade: +1.5 in 524 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +17.4 in 998 snaps

Robinson’s 2015 numbers were outstanding. He caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 scores, consistently winning at the catch point down the field. Partnered by Allen Hurns, the Jaguars finally have the threat at wide receiver they’ve been lacking for some time. It was a big jump for the former Penn State receiver, who caught only 48 passes for 550 yards and two scores as a rookie. Robinson was helped by Bortles’ improvement from a total disaster in 2014, but also did a fair amount of the work himself on misplaced passes. He’s looking like a steal at the back end of the second round.

4. Olivier Vernon, DE, MIA

2014 cumulative grade: +13.7 on 977 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +54.9 on 850 snaps

Vernon appeared a solid complement to Cameron Wake coming off his decent 2014 season. His early-season production wasn’t particularly special, either, but he exploded in the second half of 2015. Vernon recorded a combined 81 pressures this season, including a single-season high of 30 hits. He more than doubled both his 19 knockdowns and 25 stops from 2014, proving he’s an elite edge defender. The Dolphins have a tough decision to make with limited cap room and Vernon’s expiring contract.

5. Terron Armstead, LT, NO

2014 cumulative grade: +9.6 on 850 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +30.8 on 952 snaps

Small-school offensive lineman seem to be growing in popularity after Armstead’s selection in the third round in 2013, as well as with Ali Marpet’s selection in the second round last year. Armstead makes a good figurehead for that movement, having improved to elite status amongst tackles. He was solid in his second year, allowing three sacks, four hits, and 18 hurries, but took the major step upwards in 2015. Armstead allowed just three sacks, two hits, and 15 hurries in more snaps this season, finishing with the third-highest grade in pass protection. Considering that he combined those pass protection skills with the third-highest run blocking grade, the case for elite status is strong.

6. Linval Joseph, DT, MIN

2014 cumulative grade: +4.2 on 743 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +41.8 on 576 snaps

Joseph was a solid player for the Giants, but it wasn’t until he joined the Vikings that he really started to shine. Minnesota really missed his impact when he was injured towards the end of the year; any team would struggle without the eighth-best defensive tackle in the NFL. Joseph remains far from the most dynamic pass rusher, but recorded the fifth-highest run defense grade on the back of 30 defensive stops. If he stays healthy for a whole season in 2016, Joseph could elevate his stock even higher.

7. Derek Carr, QB, OAK

2014 cumulative grade: -29.9 in 1,017 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +14.5 in 1,047 snaps

No player made as dramatic of a leap in 2015 than Derek Carr. He came from an admittedly low starting point, but finished the year as a legitimate starting QB. Carr’s +16.2 cumulative passing grade was ninth in the league, only just behind Andy Dalton, who received rave reviews. His QB rating improved from 76.6 to 91.1, as he threw 50 percent more TD passes. Carr also crucially improved under pressure, with a grade of +4.8 when disrupted, compared with -13.2 output with a muddy pocket in 2014. With Carr at QB, the Raiders are a dark horse for the playoffs next season.

8. Delvin Breaux, CB, NO

2014 cumulative grade: N/A

2015 cumulative grade: +11.8 on 958 snaps

Breaux is not the first talented player to arrive from the CFL, and he’s unlikely to be the last. The Saints’ corner looked like an All-Pro at times in 2015, but then proceeded to look like a rookie moments later. Experience in the NFL should iron out those inconsistencies, ensuring a reduction in the 10 touchdowns he allowed from just 40 catches last season. Breaux’s 15 pass deflections and 48.8 percent catch rate allowed (40-of-82) both indicate the talent at his disposal; now he just needs to harness it on every down.

9. Tyler Eifert, TE, CIN

2014 cumulative grade: +1.4 on eight snaps (season-ending injury)

2015 cumulative grade: +9.6 on 838 snaps

In some ways, the timing of the season-ending injury Eifert suffered in 2014 helped his breakout year. He was fully recovered in time for this season, flashing the potential of an elite receiving tight end. Eifert was only targeted 66 times, but caught 52 passes for 615 yards and 13 scores. Although he dropped too many passes (seven), he proved an almost unstoppable red zone threat. If Eifert continues his improvement at this rate, the NFL might finally have someone capable of challenging Rob Gronkoswki’s All-Pro crown.

10. Jerrell Freeman, ILB, IND

2014 cumulative grade: -9.2 on 981 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +21.4 on 758 snaps

Another late-career bloomer, Freeman put together one of the best periods of form we’ve ever seen from an inside linebacker. He’d amassed a combined -34.1 run defense grade (2012-2014) prior to 2015, but finished this season only just behind Luke Kuechly in that facet of play. Freeman became a tackling machine in the latter part of the year, finishing with 53 defensive stop and just five missed tackles. Another on the list set to hit free agency, the challenge for Freeman will be sustaining his remarkable level of performance.

11. Sammy Watkins, WR, BUF

2014 cumulative grade: -1.7 on 1,051 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +15.4 on 728 snaps

At one point, Clemson had a pair of top 10 NFL receivers. That’s pretty remarkable. While Watkins is not at DeAndre Hopkins’ level, he’s still a fantastic receiver and should see more targets in Buffalo. After catching 52.4 percent of targets as a rookie for 982 yards and six TDs, Watkins improved those numbers to 65.9 percent, 1,047 yards, and nine scores in 2015. Scarily, there might be even more development to come from Watkins, who has the ability to make spectacular catches down the field, but could also become more consistent. He may never reach Hopkins’ class, but Watkins is an excellent receiver in his own right.

12. Delanie Walker, TE, TEN

2014 cumulative grade: +7.3 on 788 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +22.0 on 698 snaps

Quite where Walker’s previously unforeseen receiving ability came from is anyone’s guess, but he emerged as pretty much the only playmaker on the Titans’ offense. His ability as a blocker has always been obvious, but he’d recorded a -19.9 cumulative receiving grade since 2007 prior to this year. Walker tied for the league lead with 16 broken tackles, posted over 1,000 yards, and scored six touchdowns. His 2015 receiving grade of +12.3 was fourth amongst tight ends, suggesting that the Titans have a weapon to employ in future seasons.

13. Trai Turner, RG, CAR

2014 cumulative grade: +8.8 on 825 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +29.0 on 1,318 snaps

Turner developed this year into one of the most complete guards in the NFL. He was solid as a rookie, but it wasn’t until this season that he started crushing defensive lineman in the run game. Turner’s cumulative run-blocking grade spiked from +0.6 to +16.4. He was also one of only two guards who played the majority of their team’s snaps to give up two knockdowns or less in pass protection. The Panthers’ front may have been dominated in the Super Bowl, but Turner played as well as he has all season.

14. Derek Wolfe, DE, DEN

2014 cumulative grade: +10.0 on 780 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +40.4 on 835 snaps

Wolfe looked like a solid starter in his third year with the Broncos, but elevated his game to another level in 2015, despite missing the first four games with injury. His postseason was particularly impressive, as he racked up a combined +12.5 grade over the three games. Wolfe has improved most in the pass-rush department, where he amassed 10 sacks, 10 hits, and 40 hurries this season after totaling just 14, 19, and 67 in his three seasons prior. The Broncos deservedly rewarded his improvement with a long-term deal.

15. Charles Sims, HB, TB

2014 cumulative grade: -3.4 on 237 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +16.1 on 469 snaps

The Bucs’ backfield was the best in football in 2015, thanks in part to Doug Martin’s return to form, but also because of the one-two punch he provided with Sims. The backup was the perfect complement to Martin, performing the third-down role he’s ill-suited to. Sims recorded cumulative grades of at least +2.3 in each facet of play, recording the fourth-highest receiving grade and the 11th highest rushing grade. Sims broke 24 tackles on just 106 carries, and added a further 13 from just 52 receptions. In contrast, he broke just 10 combined tackles from 85 total touches as a rookie.

16. Josh Norman, CB, CAR

2014 cumulative grade: +5.5 on 747 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +17.5 on 1,265 snaps

The Panthers required a number of breakout players to improve to 15 wins and a Super Bowl appearance. Norman is only down at 16 on this list because he played well in 2014, allowing a QB rating of only 53.9. His 2015 numbers are even more remarkable. Norman allowed only 50.9 percent of targets to be caught, limited receivers to just 9.3 yards per catch, picked off four passes, and made 12 pass deflections. He’s elevated himself into the shutdown corner category, and is about to get paid like it.

17. Jabaal Sheard, DE, NE

2014 cumulative grade: +10.8 690 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +39.1 on 677 snaps

Sheard illustrates how Cleveland’s deficiency is not purely personnel-based. While he was a solid contributor for the Browns, he was never the difference-maker he became after joining the Patriots. Sheard graded positively in every game in 2015, recording career-highs in hits (five) and hurries (51), as well as adding eight sacks. Couple his pass-rushing prowess with the fifth-highest run defense grade at his position, and its clear the Patriots got a steal in signing him for just $11 million over two years.

18. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, HOU

2014 cumulative grade: +5.7 on 822 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +30.5 on 810 snaps

It’s rare for pass-rush skills to develop after three years of an edge defender’s career, but that’s exactly what happened in the case of Mercilus. He had a combined -14.1 pass rush grade with just 20 sacks, 20 hits, and 73 pressures between 2012 and 2014. In 2015 alone, Mercilus amassed 15 sacks, seven hits, and 42 pressures, over half the total he’d managed in the three years prior. After appearing to be a first-round bust, Mercilus is now amongst the top 10 pass-rushing outside linebackers.

19. Kamar Aiken, WR, BAL

2014 cumulative grade: +0.2 on 334 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +12.7 on 955 snaps

Few good news stories emanated from the Ravens’ franchise this season, including at wide receiver, where Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury. Kamar Aiken stepped up with Smith sidelined, however, suggesting he can contribute in the NFL. The undrafted free agent caught 75 passes for 944 yards and five scores. His hands proved more reliable, dropping only 5 percent of passes compared with 7 percent in 2014, and he made more happen after the catch, breaking eight tackles compared with one. Set to hit free agency, the Ravens will surely want to ensure stability at the position by resigning their young receiver on an upward trajectory.

20. Gabe Jackson, LG, OAK

2014 cumulative grade: +6.8 on 836 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +18.0 on 1,089 snaps

The overhaul of the Raiders’ offensive line was crucial to their return to relevance. Derek Carr looked like he might be going the way of his brother before the improvement up front. Jackson was a key part of that, even if his development came predominantly as a run blocker. His cumulative grade spiked from -3.3 in 2014 to +4.8 in 2015 as a blocker for the ground game. He also allowed only four QB knockdowns (one sack & three hits) for the sixth-highest pass protection grade amongst guards.

21. Jason Verrett, CB, SD

2014 cumulative grade: +8.6 on 230 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +13.2 on 735 snaps

While Verrett’s overall grade only improved slightly, his coverage grade improved significantly with a bump in snaps. He was only targeted 28 times in 2014, but allowed just 50 percent of those targets to be caught, limiting receivers to just 11.3 yards per catch. As a starter in 2015, he picked off a couple more passes, but continued to limit big plays as he had done the year prior. Verrett’s +16.9 cumulative coverage grade this year was second behind only Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu.

22. Darius Slay, CB, DET

2014 cumulative grade: +7.7 on1,101 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +15.9 on 1,019 snaps

Slay had a good season in 2014, finishing 20th overall in our cornerback rankings. However, he recorded a cumulative coverage grade of only +4.9. Slay more than doubled his production as a third-year pro, finishing second overall amongst corners with a +11.7 coverage grade. He also improved in run defense, cutting his missed tackles down from nine to four, suggesting Slay can now mix it up in both facets of the game.

23. Ryan Schraeder, RT, ATL

2014 cumulative grade: +6.3 on 655 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +18.5 on 1,142 snaps

The Falcons’ improvement at tackle was a key reason they started the 2015 season so well. Jake Matthews improved significantly on the left side, but it was right tackle Ryan Schraeder who made the jump from average to very good. Despite taking the field for about double the snaps he managed in 2014, Schraeder allowed fewer combined QB knockdowns than he had the previous year. He finished 2015 with just two sacks, two hits, and 20 pressures allowed, culminating in the fourth-highest pass protection grade.

24. John Brown, WR, ARI

2014 cumulative grade: +0.7 on 715 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +7.3 on 962 snaps

Brown would be higher on this list but for a disappointing championship game performance. Still, his production in his second year was impressive. He caught 20 more passes, improved his catch percentage from 52.5 to 62.6, caught two more scores, and broke six more tackles, taking both tallies to seven. Brown stepped up during Michael Floyd’s absence, staking his claim for a starting berth.

25. Patrick DiMarco, FB, ATL

2014 cumulative grade: -4.0 on 214 snaps

2015 cumulative grade: +14.0 on 371 snaps

The FB position is dying in the pro game, but the Falcons’ Patrick DiMarco is fighting to keep it alive. Skill position players who relish blocking are rare in today’s NFL, but DiMarco still falls into that category. The Falcons’ fullback led all players at his position with a +13.6 run-blocking grade, a marked improvement from the -2.0 grade he achieved in 2014.

| Analyst

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

  • Alphonso Thomas

    I’ma let y’all finish, but Jake Matthews had one of the greatest improvements of all time

    • Amaed

      No. He didn’t

      • Alphonso Thomas

        From 2014 to 2015? Yes, yes he did

    • Grayson Freestone

      I think he did too. He was absolutely horrid in 2014 and in 2015 he played as a top 3 LT. He no doubt should of been to the pro bowl, same goes for shraeder.

      • Alphonso Thomas

        My thoughts exactly. The recognition will come though, just give me consistent play

  • AdamT

    Err, Kirk Cousins?

  • Jags28

    Where is Bortles? Also, Robinson was picked at the end of the second round.

    • Jagster

      it says back end of second round

      • Jaguars28

        It said first yesterday

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        • Vic Hedges

          Yes, you have to be careful around here. They will edit the article to fix the mistake without even acknowledging the mistake. Acknowledgement would be refreshing but…

  • Alejandro Balmaceda

    Glad to see Verrett get more recognition

  • billbob

    Wasn’t an injury that caused wolfe to miss the first four games, it was PEDs

    • Tim Edell

      It’s funny the writer doesn’t even know why he missed the first 4 games!!!

  • Steve

    And congratulations to 2016 PFF breakout player Amari Cooper

  • Backinmd

    Where’s Kirk Cousins ? … he should be on this list …

  • Nick_CT

    I had no idea Carr was ranked so poorly last year.

    • Jagster

      yea me either, alot of good talk about him last year and trash talk about bortles then bortles finished this year better than carr which was a bigger leap yet no mention

      • crosseyedlemon

        Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to have a ‘man crush’.

      • Johnny Rotten

        Again this season:
        Bortles grade: 69.7 good for 23rd best QB.
        Carr’s grade: 81.6 good for 10th best QB.
        (Grades are from 0-100)

        You’re misinterpreting what they meant when they said Bortles made a bigger improvement. Bortles made the bigger improvement on his individual grade but he didn’t surpass Carr’s grade.

        I don’t know the specific grades they had their rookie seasons so this is just an example to show what they mean. Let’s say Player A had a grade of 30 as a rookie and an improved grade of 70 his 2nd year. That’s a 40 point improvement. Player B had a grade of 60 as a rookie and improved his grade to 80. That’s a 20 point improvement. So technically Player A had the biggest improvement because he improved his grade by 40 points as opposed to 20 points by Player B. But even though Player A made the biggest improvment, Player B is still the better player because he has the higher grade.

  • NAJ

    How are Lival Joseph and Derek Carr not 1 and 2? Joseph improved his grade by 37.6 and Carr went from 1 of the worst QB’s in the league to top 10 and grade improvement of 44.6. It’s almost that lists like this are baseless sometimes

    • Jagster

      bortles went from a worse season in their rookie years to a better year than carr in their 2nd season, how did carr even make a list that bortles didnt is the real question

      • Johnny Rotten

        Bortles made a bigger improvement in terms of his individual grade from his rookie year to his 2nd year. But he didn’t have a better year than Carr. When they say Bortles made the biggest improvement they don’t mean that he surpassed Carr. He just individually made a bigger improvement on his own grade.

        For instance. As a rookie Bortles was ranked as ‘Very Poor’ on PFF’s scale. This season Bortles improved to a ‘Below Average’ ranking (69.7). His grade was so bad his rookie year that it was a huge improvement for him to jump into the ‘Below Average’ category.

        As for Carr. As a rookie he ranked ‘Below Average.’ This season he ended up ranking in the ‘Good’ category (81.6). So Carr had the better year and has the better ranking.

        It’s just that Bortles made the biggest improvement on his own individual grade. Even though he made a huge improvement he’s still ranked as ‘Below Average’ and that’s probably why they didn’t consider him as a break out candidate.

      • NAJ

        Bortles is nowhere near better than Carr. He makes way too many back breaking mistakes for you

    • crosseyedlemon

      Ideally you want to see an improved grade along side an increased work load and that was not the case with Joseph so his rank here seems about right. Carr really matured this past season and looks destined to join the elite QBs in the league soon.

  • David Stinnett

    Doug Baldwin. 14 TD

  • Tony

    Jordan Reed? Kirk Cousins? Not that the Redskins care about your list – they’re busy breaking out to a division championship and having the 2nd best turnaround via record in the NFL.

    • Jack Casey

      And being one and done and making the competition committee rethink the playoff format.

    • Sam

      How are they rethinking it? How would they change it to keep Washington out? The 9-7 Redskins had a better record than any other non-qualifier in the NFC. The Jets were the only team left out that had a better record. The Packers exposed their run defense in the first round, and I wouldn’t have a problem with seeding for home field based on final record, but this Redskins team was not among the historically bad playoff teams that finished 8-8 or 7-9 even in recent years. I think the mediocrity of this team has been exaggerated by people that probably didn’t watch them play much this year. They won all the games they had to down the stretch and finished with a winning record. They played competitively with a perennial playoff team in the first round. Kirk Cousins was the main reason for all that. I think it’s odd he’s getting left off all these PFF offseason lists too.

  • Dustin

    how about that devonta freeman guy?

  • Johnny Rotten

    Should’ve had David Amerson on this list. He went from being the worst CB to top 15.

  • Tim Edell

    No Gary Barnridge???

  • Nikrizzi17

    Richburg well deserved at the no. 2 spot

  • Eric O. Nelson, III

    Unmitigated success for Taylor? Huh?? Since when is 8-8 great? He was mildly better than serviceable.

    • Grayson Freestone

      Great QB on bad team. He didn’t play a lot of the games. It’s not all about the QB