Top 25 NFL breakout players for 2015

Teddy Bridgewater, Jarvis Landry and Jason Verrett lead our list of PFF's top 25 NFL breakout players for the 2015 season.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar)

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.)

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

  • Dohkay

    The Bridgewater hype is getting a bit out of control. His best games last year came against Atlanta (15th in passer rating allowed, 32nd in YPG allowed), Tampa Bay (27th, 28th), Washington (32nd, 24th), Carolina (17th, 9th), New York Jets (30th, 14th), Miami (18th, 6th), and Chicago (31st, 30th) where he averaged: 20/30, 66.7% comp %, 249 YPG, 8.2 YPA, 1.3 TD, 0.4 INT.

    When he faced top 10 pass defenses (Detroit twice, GB, and Buffalo) in passer rating allowed he put up the following average line: 22.5/35.25, 63.8% comp %, 217.5 YPG, 6.2 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INTs.

    I even excluded his bad games against NO (24th in rating allowed) and Chicago (31st).

    Will he get a boost from AD returning? Absolutely. Will he also face a brutal schedule? Absolutely. Seattle, San Fran, Arizona, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit (twice), and Green Bay (twice) should all boast above average pass defenses. I think Teddy will be a fine QB but I also think it will take more than a year before he reaches that point.

    • Mike

      I agree. This doesn’t even account for opposing defenses adjusting to the second year QB. DCs have had an entire year to take a look at his tendencies. Teddy is headed for a big regression.

      • Matt

        not real sure how many scary defenses were listed there but you’re being a little biased and underestimating the impact a running game, improved ability to stretch the field (Mike Wallace), and improved defense. He’ll see less of a pass rush, pushed back safeties, and won’t have to force many throws. I’d bet on this kid under those circumstances.

        • Dohkay

          Now missing his starting Center and Right Tackle for at least half the season. Still think he won’t face much of a pass rush?

      • corners

        EXACTLY!

    • Samuel Myers

      He was a rookie quarterback with a mediocre offensive line, very poor left tackle, running back by committee (the most explosive of whom was a rookie former college quarterback), and no legitimate receiving threat (particularly given Rudolph’s injuries).

      He performed better than any other rookie in his class — perhaps without as many wow throws as David Carr who had a far superior line — and irrespective of which teams he played at the end of the season (by the way a mixed bag of opponents that demonstrates very little), he out-shined many of the league’s best passers in terms of decision making and efficiency, particularly when under pressure. Given the fact that he is consistently rated below David Carr and in the mid-low 20s among starting quarterbacks by various publications, I would say the hype is definitely not at some kind of remarkable level. I am left wondering why, of all the players on this list, you targeted Bridgewater?

      He has an emerging player at WR in Johnson (maybe two if you believe Stefon Diggs can make good on his prodigious gifts), one of the all-time great tailbacks in league history lining up behind him, and an OC who is renowned for getting the most out of young QBs and putting them in position to succeed. I’d say he’s a pretty good bet for another step forward, even if he isn’t breaking down the door of the top-5 QB conversation.

      • Mike

        They now have an elite RB in place of a very effective run game last season so that’s a step forward. What about the OL? It’s been ravaged by injuries.

      • Dohkay

        Performing better than any rookie in his class doesn’t mean he should be considered a breakout player. If all of the players at one position are average or below average we shouldn’t highlight the best of the group as a very good player and a breakout candidate simply because there are no other options. Why did I single out Teddy? Maybe because he’s listed first on this list? Maybe because he’s been written about significantly both on PFF and elsewhere? Read ESPN, PFT, Rotoworld, FO, PFF… all are high on the Vikings this year and all list Teddy as one of the main reasons.

        As for your criticism of the teams I listed, I’m not sure why it’s a mixed bag. I listed top 10 pass defenses that he performed poorly against and average to terrible pass defenses that he performed well against. I even excluded two terrible pass defenses from the example since he performed poorly against them as well (one was his first game, understandable, and one was in Soldier Field where Vikings apparently forget how to play football).

        As for Derek Carr (not David as you note, interestingly of course since he’s apparently talked up everywhere yet you can’t even get his name right), I’m not sure where you’re getting that. PFF is significantly higher on Teddy. Check out their QB rankings: https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2015/09/09/ranking-all-32-nfl-starting-qbs/

        Teddy ranked at 14, Carr at 28. Perhaps you have been reading fantasy articles which might have Derek higher given the volume and poor defense he has but pretty much everyone else likes Teddy over Carr. Hell, even fantasy writers love Teddy as a sleeper this year.

        Last time I checked, the Vikes OL is still awful (arguably worse now because Loadholt is gone), your WRs are still average at best even with Wallace and a healthy for now Rudolph, and the schedule for every NFC North team is brutal. Not to mention as another commenter noted, 2nd year QBs typically struggle as DCs get the offseason to study film and find their tendencies and weaknesses. I like Teddy as a good QB in a few years and obviously the best of his very weak QB class but take issue with everyone and their mom saying this year will be a huge season for him.

        • Samuel Myers

          Not talking about PFF. Talking about national media (namely ESPN and CBS as I recall). You said hype “everyone and their mother”. I wouldn’t call anything PFF does “hype” and I certainly wouldn’t characterize it, as you did, as “out of control”. So now you’ve doubled back on your own argument. If PFF is the only publication you can site that’s obviously problematic. Further, I don’t see anything here or in my comment about this being a “huge season”. Further again, while some QBs struggle as sophomores, most don’t perform as well as Bridgewater did to close out their rookie seasons, irrespective of competition.

          Again, my point about competition is quite simple: He put up stable numbers for a rookie (yes in absolute terms they aren’t great and would be concerning for a vet) given his circumstances against some very strong defenses. He had a few bad games against poor defenses (he was a rookie on a poor offense…your point?). He played well for the majority of the season, played even more effectively under pressure, and seems poised to make gains with more weapons, though the OL is admittedly not fixed. Loadholt was not a great pass blocker so not sure how much that hurts. All of this is to say, he played much better than most rookies do, much better than fellow rookies one of whom had a much better line in front of him. Which is to say it’s reasonable to expect a step forward (when taken with the other factors I mentioned previously). The line is problematic. Everything else has improved, including, presumably, his mastery of the system.

          The one frequent exception to the rookie QB who struggles is the rookie QB who does not struggle because his game is predicated on athleticism and playing outside the pocket. This is I think rather obviously also the type of rookie — or as in Kaepernick’s case, 1st year starter — who tends to come back to earth as defensive coordinators “scheme” against him. A QB who takes what the defense gives, is smart and collected under pressure, knows when to get rid of the ball, and plays from the pocket is much harder to “scheme” against. So I don’t know how much weight that comment has, though you clearly disagree…

          And yes, Derek my bad. I guess everything else I’ve said is forfeit in the face of that revelation (shocking that I’d make that slip, truly). Now that you’ve made a weirdly personal attack — “you can’t even get his name right” — I will bow out and wait for the regular season to settle this silly difference of opinion. And for the record, I don’t read fantasy publications buddy. They’re drivel.

          • Dohkay

            Oh man, saying “you can’t even get his name right” is now a personal attack. What a world we live in!

          • Samuel Myers

            Maybe it was a bit dramatic.

      • corners

        “He performed better than any other rookie in his class”

        Thats not exactly a complement.

    • Marcus Johnson

      I agree on the teddy hype its wild…he threw two passes over 20 yards all preseason. he holds the ball pretty long too which people say is him going through his reads but when all the leagues starting qbs in the preseason are around 2.1 to 2.3 seconds and hes at 2.66 with that line I dont think its that good.

    • walker8084

      In the final 5 games PFF notes, Teddy’s leading RB, TE, and WR were Matt Asiata, Chase Ford, and Charles Johnson (none of whom were even drafted). Not to mention the garbage O-line he played behind. Any QB who could be successful with that cast is, especially a rookie, is impressive. No hype I’ve read lists Teddy as a top 10 QB, but with a vastly superior group of playmakers around him, as well as his own growth, the hype of being above average or top 12-15 is warranted.
      Unfortunately, a possibly even worse O-line may get him killed before we can find out.

      • gregg rice

        Comparing the progress of undrafted rookies to a second year qb is not the way to go. There are only two developmental programs worthy of mentioning based on consistency, GB WR program and DET DL program.

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          • corners

            your naive if you think you have ANYTHING figured out in 3 months.

        • corners

          I dont know, dolphins defensive line has been churning out defensive lineman for a while now.

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    • Rudy

      Agree. If I had to put money on it, I say he regresses this year.

    • Eye Test

      Dohkay, You keep on referring to ‘bad’ games against Buffalo, GB, and Detroit. But those games were really close, the scores go as follow; 17-16, 24-21, 16-14, and 17-3. I watched every game with my grandfather, and the other thing keeping us competitive was Teddy Brigdewater. Even though his numbers weren’t pretty, he still allowed us to contend with good decision making, 3rd down conversions, and clutch 4th quarter play.

      You cant make all your judgements on just numbers, if you watched those games play by play you would understand. But Teddy is the real deal, a future top 10 QB, and that’s all you can ask. Besides, those games were early in the year, people are excited because how he grew as the season progressed. In sum, your a Debbie Downer

    • Gbolahan

      Your underselling the value of Adrian Peterson. This guy may be the greatest runner to ever live, the same guy who made the playoffs with Christian Ponder at QB. You add that to the speed they have on the outside and Teddy is poised to make a big jump.

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      • Dohkay

        You are underselling the value of an offensive line.

      • gregg rice

        Barry sanders had statistically some of the worst qb’s as well. Please stop with the greatest runner stuff. Walter Payton, Curtis Martin, Jim Brown, Marshall faulk, thurman thomas, emmitt smith, eric dickerson, TD , marcus allen. I could go on and on. Just because they dont fit in the pff timeline doesnt mean they were inferior. Get a f.o. subscription please before making such assumptions.

        • Adrian Edwards

          AP is one of the greatest runners ever. The tape doesn’t lie.

          • corners

            I AGREE, but it doesnt seem to matter who his qb is, they still dont do so well.

          • gregg rice

            Um, about that game vs. The niners…..yeah….

          • Adrian Edwards

            You’re going to judge a player’s career on one game? Good luck!

      • Sincerely Rude

        I’ll say maybe top five when A.P. career is over but no where near top three or the greatest.

        • bcdctf

          No wide receivers to mention or quarterback for most of his career, D’s played mainly the run against him, for what he has done he is the greatest. You sir are a idiot.

    • Joseph

      I 100% agree with the Teddy Train needs to slow down and with your final point that he will be fine. I don’t think the column is trying to say he is going to be a top 10 QB just that his leaps and grains will be significant.

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  • Jaguars28

    Expecting Ryan Davis and the rest of the D-Line to have a big year.

    • Samuel Myers

      I hope so. Question is always twofold with Davis: Can he make an impact from the outside? And if not, how do you get him more opportunities at tackle without his being overwhelmed in the run game?

      If he can make an impact from outside, you would think the coaching staff would have him higher on the depth chart given all the injuries. Having Marks back will make a big difference.

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  • Madi

    “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.”

    Haha yeah, when is Bud Dupree gonna finally get his act together? As of a couple weeks ago, he’d yet to record a single sack in the NFL! Not even a tackle! Not even a snap! Come on, Bud! Snap out of it!

    Okay, now we’re 2 weeks in and Bud is leading the Steelers in sacks, despite splitting time. Jarvis has no sacks yet, but looks like a new player and is hardly struggling. Pittsburgh is spreading the love at OLB, so no one player figures to dominate the numbers, especially early on.

    I’m a Moats fan, but he’s not the Steelers’ best pass rusher, regardless of what your scores say. He’s a versatile, well-rounded, borderline starter that can fill in the cracks, and he’ll be a great bridge to Bud Dupree. Who’s the best pass rusher could be up for debate until the end of the year, but I’d put both starting DEs ahead of Moats for sure. If we’re counting preseason, James Harrison is up there too.