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Predicting one Surprise Player for Each NFL Team in 2014

The 2014 NFL regular season is nearly upon us. While we attempt to look through all the kind words that teams have for their players during training camp, it’s important to gauge where some of the lesser-known players are. After all, some of the biggest stars on the NFL stage today were once unknowns.

Today’s article is going to project one player from each NFL team that is bound to surprise during the 2014 season. From rookies and second-year players to some veterans, here are 32 players to keep an eye on once the regular year gets rolling.

Buffalo Bills: Robert Woods, Wide Receiver

Entering his second season, Woods is listed as a starter opposite rookie Sammy Watkins. The USC product put up 40 receptions for 587 yards and three scores a season ago. With EJ Manuel expected to have more weapons to work with and a better offensive line in front of him, the Bills passing game could take off a great deal. If so, Woods could very well be the beneficiary. Look for a minimum of 65 receptions and a half of dozen touchdowns from Woods in 2014.

Miami Dolphins: Dion Jordan, Defensive End

Jordan barely played as  a rookie. A lot of that had to do with a lack of a scheme fit and the Dolphins’ perception that he wasn’t ready to make an immediate impact. Now fully entrenched in the defensive line rotation, this former Oregon standout will be able to see the field more in 2014. He has all the raw ability you look for in a pass-rush specialist, which is how I envision the Dolphins to use him in 2014. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan near the double-digit sack plateau. Of course, this is limited by the fact that he has to serve a four-game suspension to start the regular season. However, there is just too much talent here for Jordan to continue struggling on the field.

New England Patriots: Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback

Courtesy of Metro.us: Dennard has the talent to be a Pro Bowler.

Courtesy of Metro.us: Dennard has the talent to be a Pro Bowler.

Dennard would have easily been a top-round pick in 2012 if it wasn’t for his arrest on assaulting an officer leading up to the draft itself. Unfortinately for Dennard, that cost him a bunch of money and forced the cornerback to spend some time in jail. With that whole incident behind him and potentially planted in a nickel role behind Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this season, Dennard should have that breakout campaign we have all been looking for. The strong cover man has 19 passes defended and four interceptions in 16 career starts. Expect him to duplicate those numbers in 2014 alone.

New York Jets: Geno Smith, Quarterback

Smith may very well have been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL last season, but he did come through with a strong performance as his rookie season progressed. Smith accounted for seven touchdowns compared to just two interceptions over the course of his last four starts. In what can’t be considered a coincidence, New York won three of those four starts. Smith now looks to take that next step. And the Jets have surrounded him with more talent on offense. Eric Decker takes over as their No. 1 wide receiver, while Chris Johnson will be sharing duties with Chris Ivory in the backfield. The addition of rookie second-round pick Jace Amaro promises to help Smith as well. Look for some solid progression from this second-year quarterback in 2014.

Baltimore Ravens: Ricky Wagner, Offensive Tackle

Prior to his final season at Wisconsin, Wagner was considered an upper-echelon draft prospect. Unfortunately, the former Badger struggled big time in 2012 and that caused him to drop all the way to the seventh round. Still physically imposing, he now takes over for the recently departed Michael Oher at right tackle. While Wagner will have some struggles in pass protection, look for him to be a major upgrade over Oher when it comes to the run game. That’s going to be huge for Baltimore in 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert, Tight End

Eifert was poorly misused by former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as a rookie last season. He is, without a doubt, a much better all-around tight end than Jermaine Gresham. Unfortunately, the 2013 first-round pick wasn’t used in a way that best fit his tremendous skillset and imposing build. We can fully expect that to change in 2014 under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who knows full well how to use his best assets. Even in a disappointing statistical campaign as a rookie, Eifert still put up 39 receptions for 445 yards and two scores. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his reception total nearly double as a sophomore.

Cleveland Browns: Miles Austin, Wide Receiver

You cannot deny the impact Austin has had when he’s been healthy over the course of his career. The former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler is just one year removed from putting up 943 yards and six scores. And it appears that he’s fully healthy for the first time in what seems like ages. Add into the equation the fact that Cleveland will likely be without Josh Gordon for at least half the 2014 season and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Austin will be Cleveland’s No. 1 wide receiver. Depending on who is under center, this could translate to the third 1,000-yard season of his career.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End

Tuitt, a second-round pick from Notre Dame, is a near perfect fit as a defensive end in the Steelers 3-4 defensive front. He’s an imposing figure against the run and can get into the offensive backfield on a consistent basis. The rookie has been so much of a surprise in camp that it has prompted defensive coordinator Dick Labeau to indicate that he’s going to see a ton of snaps during the regular year. If so, we could be looking at one of the best overall defensive rookies in the entire NFL.

Houston Texans: Tim Jamison, Defensive Line

Jamison is battling for major role in the Texans’ defensive front. As to where Jared Crick is the more heralded option opposite J.J. Watt, Jamison has been impressing the Texans more during training camp and could very well earn playing time both at defensive tackle and defensive end. The primary goal of this position will be to create lanes for the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Brooks Reed, among others. If Jamison can continue to hold down the fort, he will be an unstrung hero in what could be one of the better defenses in the NFL.

Indianapolis Colts: Da’Rick Rogers, Wide Receiver

To the surprise of many, Rogers went undrafted back in 2013. After being picked up by the Buffalo Bills immediately after the draft, he was quickly released. Short on receivers, Indianapolis picked him up during training camp. While the results weren’t immediate and Rogers struggled with route running, he was able to accumulate 14 receptions for 192 yards and two scores in just five games. The talented but enigmatic 23-year-old receiver has a chance to earn a regular role in Indianapolis’ wide receiver rotation. If so, he could very well be a breakout star for Andrew Luck and company.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Toby Gerhart, Running Back

Despite the fact that Gerhart has been banged up in training camp, there is no reason to believe he won’t earn the Jaguars’ starting gig when all is said and done. The former Stanford standout averaged over five yards per touch in limited playing time with the Minnesota Vikings over the course of the past four seasons. He’s the down-hill runner that is needed in Jacksonville’s offense this season. If Gerhart touches the ball 250 times or so, there is no reason to believe he can’t rack up about 1,200 total yards and double-digit scores.

Tennessee Titans: Bishop Sankey, Running Back

Courtesy of Fox Sports: Sankey could very well earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Courtesy of Fox Sports: Sankey could very well earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

I am predicting it now. Sankey will have a rookie campaign that rivals what Doug Martin did with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in 2012. He has the offensive line help in the form of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. He has the blocking tight end in the form of Delanie Walker. And even more than that, Sankey has the necessary talent to by a dynamic running back in the NFL. Facing less-than-stellar competition in the form of Shonn Greene and COP (change-of-pace) back Dexter McCluster, there is no reason to believe Sankey won’t get a ton of carries this year.

Denver Broncos: Virgil Green, Tight End

We already know just how much Peyton Manning likes to feature his tight ends in the passing game. This was proven with Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme, among others, in Indianapolis. And it was taken to a whole new level with Julius Thomas last year in Denver. With Eric Decker now suiting up for the New York Jets and Wes Welker not getting any younger, there is reason to believe the Broncos will run more two tight ends sets in 2014. Green, a former pass catcher of Colin Kaepernick’s at Nevada, has the talent to be a major mismatch between the hashes with Thomas.

Kansas City Chiefs: A.J. Jenkins, Wide Receiver

Outside of Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City doesn’t have a single starter-caliber receiver on its roster. Donnie Avery has been a solid depth option throughout his career, but he’s not at the point in his career where the Chiefs can expect him to step up. Junior Hemingway and Kyle Williams have done a whole lot of nothing in their NFL careers. While youngster Albert Wilson is an unknown. After coming over from the San Francisco 49ers in a trade last year, Jenkins failed to impress all that much. But he did step up to an extent late in the season and in the postseason. As the most talented receiver not named Dwayne Bowe on the roster, Jenkins is the best bet to step up into a more important role this year.

Oakland Raiders: Sio Moore, Linebacker

Courtesy of USA Today: Moore's tape spoke for itself in college. He's now looking to take that next step as a sophomore.

Courtesy of USA Today: Moore’s tape spoke for itself in college. He’s now looking to take that next step as a sophomore.

When Moore saw action last season as a rookie, he was one of the few bright parts for a bad Raiders team. Starting in 11 games, Moore recorded 49 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Now in a weakside role next to Nick Roach and rookie Khalil Mack, Moore looks to up his game and become a stout force for what promises to be a much improved Raiders defense. His tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline playing style could come in handy in 2014. Look for triple-digit tackles and an uptick in sacks, especially with Mack taking away most of the focus of would be blockers.

San Diego Chargers: Ladarius Green, Tight End

Last year saw Keenan Allen breakout and perform as a Pro Bowler for the Chargers. I fully expect Green to be the next man in line to do the same for Philip Rivers and Co. this year. The former Louisiana-Lafayette standout averaged a whopping 22.1 yards per reception on just 17 catches last year. With Antonio Gates growing a bit older in the tooth, Green promises to take on a larger role this year. In addition to that, we can expect the Chargers to go with more two tigh end sets and will be lining Green out wide. There is no reason not to expect this massive 6’6″ receiving target to have a stellar third season in the NFL. I am looking for him to record 50-plus catches for 700-plus yards.

Dallas Cowboys: DeVonte Holloman, Linebacker

Pegged by many as the best pure cover linebacker in the 2013 NFL draft, Holloman stole the show for Dallas in the preseason last year. He made play after play, recording interceptions and causing fumbles throughout the exhibition season. Once the regular seasons tarted, Holloman took somewhat of a backseat to mediocre starters for the Cowboys. Even now, he’s considered Kyle Wilber’s backup at strongside linebacker. I don’t expect that to be the case once the regular season gets going. Holloman brings much better coverage ability to the table, which is going to be huge considering the Cowboys’ issues at safety.

New York Giants: Weston Richburg, Offensive Line

Now listed as a backup center, there is very little chance that Richburg won’t begin the season as one of the Giants’ starting guards. Geoff Schwartz is pretty much slated to start at left guard, but current right guard Brandon Mosley doesn’t possess anywhere near the same talent as Richburg at this point. If Tom Coughlin wants to get his top-five offensive linemen out there as starters this season, Richburg will find himself among them. It’s that simple.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver

We saw just how much Chip Kelly likes to use spread formations and four-wide sets last season. With DeSean Jackson now moving on to the Washington Redskins, the Eagles need another receiver to step into a quasi-starter role. From all the reports we’ve been hearing, it appears that Matthews has the inside position to be Philadelphia’s No. 3 wide receiver. The Vanderbilt product possesses some great hands and a solid ability to make plays after the catch. It goes without saying these two things could come up big, especially with the Eagles offense spread out. I can easily envision a 800-yard receiving season from the rookie.

Washington Redskins: Phillip Thomas, Safety

Thomas, a second-round pick from Fresno State last year, missed his entire rookie season with injury. From what draftniks saw on tape throughout the entire scouting process, Thomas was seen as an under-the-radar performer who could step into a starting role. Now looking to get fully healthy and with the horrendous Brandon Meriweather in front of him on the depth chart, there is no reason to believe Thomas won’t break camp as a starter. If so, he’s going to make his presence known in the box as a player able to provide run support. The major thing here is getting Thomas, who is suffering from an hamstring injury, to actually see the practice field consistently.

Chicago Bears: Jon Bostic, Linebacker

Bostic made nine starts last season, recording 57 tackles, one sack and an interception. He struggled a great deal against the run, which is one of the reasons Chicago retained veteran linebacker D.J. Williams this past offseason. Based purely on upside and potential, there is no reason to believe Bostic won’t win the starting gig when camp breaks. If so, look for him to have a breakout camaign. The size and speed are both there. It’s now all about becoming more consistent pre-snap. Chicago’s upgrades at the safety position could also help him a lot.

Detroit Lions: Darius Slay, Cornerback

Slay is the Mississippi State cornerback that I liked the most heading into the 2013 NFL draft. His fluidity, change of direction and coverage ability all stood out at that time. It was all about honing what had to be considered some technique issues. This is exactly what Slay did as his rookie season continued. When all was said and done last season, Slay recorded 34 tackles and six passes defended in 13 games (four starts). Pro Football Focus (subscription required), also gave Slay a positive pass coverage grade in three of his last four outings. Now slated to start opposite Rashean Mathis, there is no reason to believe he won’t make a dramatic jump from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign.

Green Bay Packers: Davante Adams, Wide Receiver

Courtesy of USA Today: Adams, a rookie, could turn into the next great Packers receiver.

Courtesy of USA Today: Adams, a rookie, could turn into the next great Packers receiver.

Adams is firmly in the mix for the Packers No. 3 wide receiver position. In fact, there is a decent chance he earns that all-important gig when all is said and done. As to where there was some concern about Adams’ ability to run a pro-level route tree, it seems tha the has improved in that aspect of his game since being selected in the second round back in May. In addition to this, Adams is tremendous off press coverage and shows great fluidity down the field. Add into account plus hands and a solid catch radius and you have someone who will thrive with Aaron Rodgers.

Minnesota Vikings: Cordarrelle Patterson, Wide Receiver

While Patterson did put up a solid rookie campaign, he just didn’t get on the field enough to make a major impact. He averaged just 28 offensive snaps per game in a Pro Bowl campaign. With those numbers likely to double this year as Patterson makes the transition to a starter role, we can expect him to tally 1,000-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns as a sophomore.

Atlanta Falcons: Prince Shembo, Linebacker

As it transitions to a multiple-look defensive front, Atlanta is going to need someone to step up from a pass-rush standpoint. Osi Umenyiora will likely play more with his hands down, but when the Falcons go to a sub package, it looks like they’re going to need a couple pass rushers to play with their hands up. This is where the talented Shembo comes into play. He was utilized this way at Notre Dame and shows a tremendous initial burst through the line. Couple that with solid pass-rush moves, and Shembo could very well be the pass-rush specialist head coach Mike Smith has been looking for.

Carolina Panthers: Tavarres King, Wide Receiver

King is now officially in the competition for a major role in Carolina’s passing game. While all the focus has been the stellar play of rookie Kelvin Benjamin, this former fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos has also been impressive in camp. With Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery as his primary competition for a larger role, there is reason to believe King will get a tremendous amount of playing time. With long strides and an ability to adjust to the ball in the air, King will be a solid deep threat for the strong-armed Cam Newton. Look for similar production to what the Panthers received from Ted Ginn last season.

New Orleans Saints: Terron Armstead, Offensive Tackle

Now firmly entrenched in as the Saints starting left tackle, Armstead now has the ability to show the entire football world what many insiders already knew. He has the talent to be a dominating pass-protecting tackle along Drew Brees’ blindside. Despite playing against less-than-stellar competition in college at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Armstead didn’t seem to have too much of a learning curve as a rookie. In fact, he even held his own at left tackle against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That pretty much tells you what he brings to the table. If he hones some technique issues (pad level too high sometimes), Armstead could put up a Pro Bowl-caliber 2014 season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Johnthan Banks, Cornerback

The more physical of two 2013 high-round cornerbacks from Mississippi State, Banks struggled to an extent as a rookie. When he wasn’t able to jam receivers at the line, he didn’t show the catch-up speed to stay with them down the field. This is something he’s going to have to work on in order to become a starter-caliber cornerback in the NFL. Now with a solid opportunity to start in 2014, Banks has impressed the Buccaneers a great deal in camp. The talent, size and physicality is all there. He now needs to put it all together.

Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon, Safety

Courtesy of USA Today: Bucannon is a physically imposing defensive back.

Courtesy of USA Today: Bucannon is a physically imposing defensive back.

Some were surprised when Arizona made Bucannon a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, but his pure physicality and in-the-box hitting ability makes him a perfect fit in the Cardinals secondary. Teaming up with Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, Bucannon could very well be the last piece in a secondary that could rival what the Seattle Seahawks do in the Pacific Northwest. Outside of his hitting ability, Bucannon does a solid job recognizing the play pre snap and isn’t bad in coverage over the top. Look for him to be a breakout star as a rookie in 2014.

St. Louis Rams: Brian Quick, Wide Receiver

We have been waiting some time now for Quick’s frame and physical ability to translate to the football field. The 2012 second-round pick hasn’t necessarily been a solid player thus far. He has put up just 29 receptions for less than 500 yards in two seasons. With issues still remaining at wide receiver in St. Louis, Quick has been as impressive as any receiver in camp. It’s now up to him to show that he can do it on a consistent basis when the regular season rolls around. With what seems to be an improved route tree, something that was an issue earlier in his career, Quick could be in for a breakout campaign.

San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, Running Back

Coming off a stellar preseason debut, Hyde is now firmly entrenched in as the 49ers primary backup behind Frank Gore. His down-hill running ability and elite vision on the field will pay off for a run-first offense that needs someone to step up behind Gore. There is no reason to believe that Hyde can’t rack up 120-plus attempts in 2014, which would lead to an extremely productive rookie season.

Seattle Seahawks: Jermaine Kearse, Wide Receiver

Let’s face facts here for a second. While Doug Baldwin is a solid receiver in the NFL, he isn’t nearly as talented as some receivers behind him on the Seahawks depth chart. Kearse, a former undrafted free agent from Washington, made his presence felt as a down-field threat last season. He averaged over 15 yards per reception and provided Russell Wilson with a solid target down the field. Blessed with solid hands and great athleticism, look for Kearse to be a larger part of Seattle’s offense in 2014.

Photo: ESPN.com