Breakout Stars of 2013

(ed. note: We’ve added a new contributor to the blog for the upcoming season. tweedybirdd‘s film breakdowns helped us make some of our most accurate forecasts on draft prospects this year. Here he presents his first article for Zone Reads, an analysis of his projected breakout players for this coming season:)

Randall Cobb

With the Packers losing Greg Jennings (and Donald Driver), there will be plenty more targets to go around in Green Bay. Cobb is easily the most talented receiver the Packers have.

Jordy Nelson is a nice #2 WR, but, numbers from his 2011 season aside, he has proven that he isn’t capable of being a #1 WR. He struggles to get separation against upper-tier corners and is often a non-factor when the defense has a safety over the top. He will be the Packers go-to receiver on the outside, and I suspect he will struggle to get open now that he will be matched up with defenses’ #1 cornerback.

James Jones hit pay dirt at an unsustainable rate last season. He looks to have cured the dropsies that plagued him early in his career, but he is not an especially explosive receiver and disappears in games much too often. He’s a good #3 receiver, but nothing more than that.

Cobb will see most of his time in the slot. He has elite lateral movement and very good top-end speed. Despite dropping a few too many passes, he still turned in one of the better catch rates among WR’s in 2012. Cobb was only on the field for ~60% of snaps last season, but he was clearly Rodgers’ favorite target when he was in the game. He should see a solid bump in playing time and could see 140+ targets. Similar to Percy Harvin, Cobb is highly efficient when he’s on the field and is a terror with the ball in his hands. Despite his size, Cobb handled an obscene workload at Kentucky (334 touches in his sophomore and junior years). All reports suggest he has A+ intangibles, so I have no reservations about projecting him to put up Wes Welker-type numbers.

DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins will almost certainly start at WR for Houston opposite Andre Johnson.

Even though he is a rookie, Hopkins was perhaps the most polished WR in this year’s draft class. He and Robert Woods were pretty easily the top 2 route runners of this year’s WR crop. There’s very little wasted movement when he gets in an out of his breaks, and he runs an absurd double move that victimized David Amerson and others. He’s easily the most natural hands catcher in the class.

Some scouts are wary of his ability as a downfield receiver and feel he will be strictly a possession receiver. He’s obviously not as explosive as his teammate Sammy Watkins or Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, but he ran under a 4.50 at his pro day and will fight for the ball down the field.

Houston’s WR corps is nothing to write home about. They have one high-quality pass catcher in Andre Johnson, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. With Kevin Walter no longer in town, the Texans are incredibly thin behind AJ. They’re depending on an injured Devier Posey, who may very well start the season on the PUP, and 2012 4th rounder Keshawn Martin. Hopkins should see the field early and often for the Texans. 1000+ yards is certainly doable.

Morris Claiborne

The Cowboys traded up for Claiborne with the intention of lining him up against #2 WRs opposite Brandon Carr. Well, Claiborne could easily leapfrog Carr and become the lead dog in Dallas’s secondary.

Claiborne possesses prototype athleticism and good enough height at 5’11”. During his rookie season, he clearly relied on his physical gifts more than his technique. Quite often he would shadow a receiver perfectly but would locate the ball late and give up a catch. As he becomes more accustomed to the speed of the game, his quality coverage will be rewarded more often with incompletions and interceptions.

Claiborne also had some issues with penalties as a rookie, especially against the Eagles in week 10, when he was flagged 5 times. Even though he drew plenty of flags as a rookie, they weren’t the result of getting beat down the field. Several were on plays away from the ball. Basically, he didn’t need to commit a penalties for lack of skill.

Claiborne was perhaps the most talented defensive player in the 2012 class and has reportedly bulked up for this season. Look for him to emerge as the best player behind DeMarcus Ware on Dallas’s defense. His career arc should mirror that of his former LSU teammate, Patrick Peterson.

Eric Berry

Berry was perhaps the most highly-touted safety prospect ever. At Tennessee, he excelled as both a classic center-fielder and then as a box safety in his final year. Physically, he has every trait you look for in a safety. So when Scott Pioli made him the 5th pick in the 2010 draft, hardly anyone scoffed at taking a safety in the top 5.

His rookie year was an up and down season. He excelled in the run game and displayed obvious potential to be a thumper. He had some troubles in coverage, especially early in the season. Despite his struggles in coverage, he did not go the way that many young DBs go and become skittish in nature. He continued to break on the ball well and was by all accounts fearless. He managed to earn a trip to a Hawaii.

Unfortunately, his 2011 year was a lost season due to a gruesome ACL injury. In 2012, Berry did not take a step forward like many had hoped he would. He clearly wasn’t as explosive or as fluid as he was as a rookie.

When the 2013 season rolls around, Berry will be two years removed from his serious knee injury. He should be able to regain some of that explosiveness that he lost after his injury and realize the potential he showed in his rookie year. Look for him to close to gap between himself and his 2010 counterpart, Earl Thomas.

Danny Amendola

New England fans were understandably furious when the Patriots let Wes Welker go over seemingly peanuts. However, Belichick and co. didn’t wait long to fill the void left by Welker when they inked Danny Amendola. Amendola has long teased fans with his elite efficency, but has continually disappointed with his constant injuries. He has been thrust into the perfect situation. He’ll be catching passes from Tom Brady in an offense that depends on a high usage role from the team’s slot receiver.

Amendola has very good short area quickness and reliable hands. Despite it being considered a racial stereotype, I do have to mention that Amendola is a reliable route runner and has good enough, if not great, straight-line speed. Amendola excelled in the Rams offense last year when he was catching passes from the not-so-reliable Sam Bradford. This year, he’ll have an all-time great at QB.

With the Patriots lacking talent at receiver, Aaron Hernandez in jail, and the Gronk recovering from surgery, Amendola is going to see a ton of targets. If Amendola can manage to stay healthy, he may very well prove to be an upgrade over an aging Wes Welker.

Ryan Tannehill

With Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin putting up historic rookie years and Andrew Luck leading the Colts to the playoffs, Ryan Tannehill’s rookie year flew under the radar. At first glance, Tannehill’s rookie year was relatively ordinary. A 76.1 passer rating, 58.3 completion %, and a 5.23 ANY/A aren’t exactly exciting numbers. But for a guy whose first full year as a QB was as a senior in college, those are very respectable numbers.

Physically, there’s a lot to like about Tannehill. At 6’4”, Tannehill is a gifted athlete with plus arm strength. He’s clearly very comfortable in the pocket and has a great feel for the rush. There’s no danger of his pocket presence deteriorating to Blaine Gabbert levels of incompetence. Outside of the pocket, Tannehill is perhaps better than the likes of Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin. Tannehill can wing it from all arm angles, not unlike Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford.

In his rookie season, Tannehill was throwing to a rather uninspiring WR corp led by Brian Hartline. This year, in an effort to save his job, Jeff Ireland overpaid for several high priced free agents. Mike Wallace can take the top off the defense and Hartline should be more comfortable as the #2 receiver. Dustin Keller will be a much more dynamic threat than Anthony Fasano, and will be playing on a 1 year prove-it deal. Look for Tannehill to make a massive jump this year and perhaps even leapfrog Wilson and Griffin.

Andrew Luck

The Colts surprised a lot of people last year with an 11-5 record and a wild card berth. Despite the solid record, Indy really wasn’t that good (18th in DVOA). Luck had similar numbers to Tannehill (76.5 passer rating, 5.66 any/a) and was clearly a cut below Russell Wilson and RG3. Still, there was a lot to love about Luck’s rookie year.

Luck was probably the cleanest QB prospect ever, and has every attribute you look for in a QB. With a shaky OL, possibly one of the league’s worst, Luck managed to keep his sacks down to a league-average percentage. And with seven 4th quarter comebacks, the NFL stage was obviously not too big for Luck. His passing efficiency numbers won’t look as good as Wilson and Griffin’s, because the Colts leaned on him much more than the ‘Hawks and ‘Skins did on their respective rookie signal callers.

Griffin and Wilson both threw exactly 393 passes, had very good running games, and weren’t asked to throw the ball down the field like Luck was. Luck attempted a ridiculous 627 passes as a rookie. In Bruce Arians’ vertical attack, Luck attempted 101 passes of 20+ yards (tops in the league), compared to Wilson’s 64 and Griffin’s 36. Every young QB needs to take their lumps, and with more than 200 attempts than both Griffin and Wilson, Luck has a leg up.

Luck was given a much more difficult offense with much less talent around him, and came out the other side of the season in one piece and with decent numbers. With a cast of young talent around him (Hilton, Allen, and Fleener) along with the ageless Reggie Wayne, Luck will have every opportunity to build on his rookie year. Luck should make a massive leap in his 2nd year, vaulting himself past Wilson and Griffin. By the end of the season, he should comfortably sit in the 2nd tier of QB’s, among the likes of Matt Ryan and Tony Romo.

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