Each NFL season features players who elevate their games to the next tier. Below are 10 players who have the potential and talent to be breakout stars in 2014.
Andrew Luck (QB, Indianapolis Colts)
The 24-year-old 2012 first overall pick out of Stanford has led the Colts to the postseason back-to-back years. In January, Luck torched a stellar Chiefs defense for 443 yards and four TDs en route to a comeback win for the ages. He did so with few weapons around him and a lackluster running attack. The Colts added free agent wide Hakeem Nicks to pair alongside veteran Reggie Wayne (who missed most of last season with torn ACL), and with speedster T.Y. Hilton manning to slot, Luck is surrounded by talent and playmakers. The mobile, big-arm, do-it-all quarterback is ready to make the jump into the elite, top tier of QBs in the National Football League.
Doug Martin (RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Martin made a name for himself in his2012 rookie campaign, rushing for more than 1400 yards, including a 251-yard, four-touchdown game vs. Oakland. The former first round pick out of Boise State was having somewhat of a disappointing season last year when he was placed on injured reserve after injuring his shoulder in the seventh game of the season. Now fully recovered from surgery, Martin is set to be the Bucs every-down back — the “bellcow,” according to new coach Lovie Smith — and is prepared to equal his rookie season performance both running and catching the football. The Bucs just acquired All-Pro guard Logan Mankins in a trade with the Patriots. Mankins is a huge addition for what was an average offensive line. Doug Martin will be a major beneficiary of the deal.
Zac Stacy (RB, St. Louis Rams)
The Rams were dealt a serious blow with the season-ending injury to quarterback Sam Bradford. With career backup Shaun Hill now leading the offense, the already rush-heavy attack will lean on second-year back Zac Stacy to carry the load in the toughest division in football. Stacy rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season after landing the starting gig in October. Just 5’9”, the Vanderbilt product is tough to bring down and often carries defenders for far more yards than appear possible to gain. He should get 20-plus touches per game, and will rely on a solid Rams O-line, bolstered by second overall draft selection Greg Robinson to create gap for him to run through.
Golden Tate (WR, Detroit Lions)
The leading receiver on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, Golden Tate picked up a deal from the Detroit Lions this offseason and is now ready to build on his nearly 900 yard, five TD 2013 season. Of course, when you think of Lions’ receivers, Calvin Johnson comes to mind. And while Tate will be the obvious #2 in a pass-first offense, he will draw plenty of targets while defenses focus their game plans around containing Megatron. Tate, speedy and fearless, will benefit a lot from a new home, and will look to top 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.
Emmanuel Sanders (WR, Denver Broncos)
Another wideout for whom a new environment will be especially beneficial is former Pittsburgh Steeler Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders was picked up by the Broncos this offseason in hopes of replacing Eric Decker, who caught 87 balls for 1,288 yards this past season. Sanders put up solid numbers over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh, playing in an offense in which he was not a go-to option, and was lower on the depth chart than his talent suggested. With Peyton Manning under center, and Sanders starting opposite Demaryius Thomas, expect a huge season from the 27-year-old out of SMU.
Greg Olsen (TE, Carolina Panthers)
Every year I wonder if this will finally be the season Greg Olsen breaks through with a Gronkowski-like season. The Panthers tight end, now entering his eighth season, has had back-to-back 800-plus yard seasons, and has been among the top tight ends in the league in recent seasons. This season, however, has the potential to be the best year of Olsen’s career. With Cam Newton under center, Steve Smith in Baltimore and Brandon LaFell with the Patriots, the Panthers simply have minimal weapons besides Olsen. Carolina drafted wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of this years’ draft, and he shined in the preseason. If Benjamin can spread the field and create space for Greg Olsen, Cam Newton should be able to find his tight end often. If the Panthers offense is going to score points, Greg Olsen will need to have a career-season.
Brandon Spikes (LB, Buffalo Bills)
The Bills defense took a major hit when stud linebacker Kiki Alonso tore his ACL in July. With Alonso out for the season, someone will need to fill the void and make lots of tackles. That man is offseason acquisition Brandon Spikes, the former Patriot who the Bills signed in hopes of creating a dynamic linebacker duo. But with no Kiki Alonso, Spikes will be asked to anchor the linebacking core. Spikes will benefit from playing behind two phenomenal defensive linemen in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. If the linemen can win the battle at the trenches, Spikes will be leaned on to wrap up tackles and force turnovers. For the Bills to compete in the AFC East, Brandon Spikes will need to play to the best of his ability and make around 10 tackles per game. It’s not out of the question.
T.J. Ward (SS, Denver Broncos)
T.J. Ward made his first Pro Bowl last season and has been a top safety in the league for the Browns since he came out of Oregon in 2010. So a big year for Ward in 2014 is expected, and not exactly a breakout season, but he is on the list due to his impact he will have on his new team, the Denver Broncos. The Broncos were slim at safety last season, and teams exposed their defensive backs to be a weakness of the defense. Acquiring a hard-hitting, consistent tackler in T.J. Ward will solidify the defensive back core, and provide a safety valve for a defense that, last season, was only a defensive player or two away from winning a title. Ward has already topped 100 tackled twice in his career. Expect him to do so again in Denver this season.
Star Lotulelei (DT, Carolina Panthers)
Star Lotulelei was a steal for the Panthers in the 2013 NFL draft. A projected top-five pick by draft pundits, Lotulelei was unable to work out at the NFL combine after a heart issue was revealed — not a heart condition, as many people were worried it to be — but a problem caused by an infection. But even after being cleared by doctors, teams still shied away from the Utah standout defensive lineman. So the Panthers grabbed him with the 14th overall selection, and he did not disappoint. He was an efficient run-stopper and helped a Panthers defense record a league-leading 60 sacks, and Star Lotulelei finished fourth in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Alongside fellow defensive stars Greg Hardy and Luke Kuelchy, Loutulelei is poised to be a top defensive tackle in just his second year in the league.
Lavonte David (LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Like T.J. Ward, Lavonte David has already put together a nice two-year NFL résumé that includes a first-team All Pro selection. But David has the potential to be among the top few linebackers in the league this season. Only 24 years old, he has racked up 139 and 145 tackles in his first two seasons respectively. He added seven sacks and five interceptions last season, hence the All Pro selection and Pro Bowl snub. Playing behind young star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, David is likely to top his career high in tackles, and will continue to cause havoc and force turnovers. Lovie Smith speaks highly of David and even brought up Hall of Fame Bucs’ linebacker Derrick Brooks as someone David has the potential to become. After his first two seasons, the idea seems realistic.