Saints WR Andy Tanner
Canal Street Chronicles: Andy Tanner is in his second year with the Saints and now has a real opportunity. He has wrapped up a spot among the receivers, for now, and if healthy, can prove quite a lot. Drew Brees raves about him and knows his talent level. He loves throwing to this kid. Watching him, you expect him to catch everything. He is going to be a sleeper for your fantasy team this year.
Chiefs NT Dontari Poe
Arrowhead Pride: The young Chiefs roster needs several players to make the leap, but Dontari Poe is most likely to make a major step forward. He was drafted at No. 11 overall last year, and few linemen have his blend of size and athleticism. With a full year of experience under his belt, expect Poe to make the leap into the conversation of upper-tier NFL defensive tackles.
Browns WR Travis Benjamin
Dawgs By Nature: Although I feel quarterback Brandon Weeden will make steady improvements in his second year, I'm going with wide receiver Travis Benjamin. He had just 18 catches for 298 yards in 2012, but should be given a lot more opportunities to use his speed to stretch the field in Norv Turner's offensive system. More important, though, will be his contributions as a punt returner.
Benjamin's success rate in his recent punt return attempts is simply remarkable. When he got one opportunity late last season to return a punt, he took it back 93 yards for a touchdown. In the first preseason game this year, he had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the second preseason game, he had another punt return for a touchdown (which was nullified by an iffy penalty). Benjamin could very well be one of the league's fastest players, and it won't be long before teams are trying to angle the ball away from him. He could really help the offense out in terms of field position in 2013.
Titans WR Kendall Wright
Music City Miracles: Kendall Wright is poised to have a big year. He has been slowed by a knee injury for the last few weeks, but he has the ability to be a dynamic player. The team didn't use him correctly last season, but look for offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to find ways to get the ball in his hands. Wright has a a lot of "wiggle" once he gets the ball in his hands.
Broncos DT Derek Wolfe
Mile High Report: This is a tough question, because the Broncos' top two draft choices from a year ago, Derek Wolfe and Ronnie Hillman, are each expected to play much larger roles for Denver this year. I'm going with Derek Wolfe. Wolfe looks bigger and faster in training camp and has clearly taken to Denver's conditioning program with dedication and aggression. He'll start at defensive end and move inside to DT in nickel packages, having a ton of opportunities tocreate pressure. And I expect a big leap forward for Wolfe this year.
Eagles LB Mychal Kendricks
Bleeding Green Nation: Without a doubt, that would be Mychal Kendricks. He had an up-and-down year as a rookie, mostly because he was switching positions throughout the season from WILL to SAM to WILL again, then there was the midseason defensive coordinator switch and at no point was he used to blitz, which was his specialty in college.
Packers LB Nick Perry
Acme Packing Company: We expect a big jump from outside linebacker Nick Perry, who plays opposite Clay Matthews. Perry had an inconsistent start to the 2012 season, but really started to show his athletic ability in the pass rush over his last few games before being shut down after Week 6 with a wrist injury. The speed he showed on this sack-strip of Andrew Luck is just a flash of the talent that he has (and whether or not you think that deserved a flag, that was an impressive play). The Packers are counting on Perry to be an every-down linebacker on the strong side this year, and if he does indeed emerge, that should give the Packers' pass rush a huge boost.
Cowboys G Ron Leary
Blogging The Boys: Ron Leary. Leary is the next in line for great UDFA pickups by the Cowboys. The team rated him as a 3rd-rounder in 2012, but a degenerative condition in his knee scared everybody off. When he arrived to the team he was overwhelmed by pro competition after leaving University of Memphis. This year though, he's much improved and has won the team's starting left guard position. Sandwiched between first-round picks Tyron Smith (2011) and Travis Frederick (2013), he'll have the best chance to succeed in Bill Callahan's zone blocking system. Leary earned the job before the Cowboys had to place Nate Livings on IR due to his knee condition. I think it's safe to say that going from the practice squad to starter in one year is a successful leap.
Patriots DE Chandler Jones
Pats Pulpit: Chandler Jones is the top candidate here, with Dont'a Hightower being a close second. As rookie starters in 2012, both of these players flashed the potential to be great. Jones' rookie year was slowed by an ankle injury. However, he's healthy now, he's bigger, and he looks primed to break out. If he can develop into the bonafide pass rusher that we all know he has the potential to, the Patriots defense will become much more powerful.
Steelers G David DeCastro
Behind The Steel Curtain: It's sort of cheap to consider Steelers right guard David DeCastro a second year player - he missed the vast majority of the 2012 season with a knee injury. However, DeCastro is arguably the most talented non-quarterback on the roster, and with a full camp under his belt, and three games of experience, the Steelers should reap a huge upgrade due to his presence.
The Steelers failed to win a preseason game, and the running game didn't exactly shine through those games, but it's still a work-in-progress. DeCastro as an individual should have an outstanding season.
49ers RB LaMichael James
Niners Nation: Seeing as the 49ers have unloaded most members of the 2012 draft class, I'll go with LaMichael James. He did not exactly impress in the preseason, and now he is out 3-4 weeks with an MCL sprain, but once he gets back, I have a hunch his speed and athleticism will add another element to the short passing game. He struggled to get on the field last year, not getting a spot until Kendall Hunter went down for the year and Brandon Jacobs basically imploded. However, I think we'll see more of him once he's healthy this year.
Panthers CB Josh Norman
Cat Scratch Reader: Josh Norman is poised to have a breakout year. The mid-round cornerback selected a year ago struggled in pass coverage during his rookie year, but showed flashes this preseason as he amassed four interceptions across the four games. If he can play with a little more discipline, and make those game-changing plays during the regular season, he'll easily cement a starting job.
Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill
However, it all comes down to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The team has built everything around him to make him successful this year, so he should be able to step up. But, when it all comes down to it, Tannehill has to make the biggest leap if the Dolphins are going to have success.
Raiders WR Rod Streater
Silver and Black Pride: Rod Streater became the starter late last season and looked very good at times. He is being considered the number one receiver for this team now, and I expect big things from him.
Cardinals WR Michael Floyd
Revenge of the Birds: That would be Michael Floyd. He has a quarterback, he can stretch defenses, and there is an offense that pushes the ball down the field.
Bucs S Mark Barron
Bucs Nation: Mark Barron is going to stand out in a big way this season. He struggled through most of his rookie season, although he played well at the start and end of the season. He seemed especially lost in deep coverage, which shouldn't be too surprising given the predominant in-the-box experience he had in college.
This season, he's going to get back to that. He'll see more time in the box, which will help him stand out and emphasize his strengths. More importantly, perhaps, he's taken some steps in pass coverage, which was his biggest weakness last season. Overall, Barron should be much improved this year.
Bills CB Stephon Gilmore
Buffalo Rumblings: When he returns to the lineup in five to seven weeks following wrist surgery, it'll be cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Drafted No. 10 overall in 2012 out of South Carolina, Gilmore had a shaky start to his career, but by the end of his rookie season was showing signs of "getting it." He then had a great three weeks at training camp and looked the part in preseason action, but as is the Bills' luck, he broke his wrist in Washington and needed surgery that'll keep him out for a couple of months. He is by far the Bills' best cornerback, and he will be sorely missed while he's out of the lineup.
Lions OT Riley Reiff
Pride of Detroit: Hopefully Riley Reiff. He got quite a bit of playing time last season, but he was mainly used as the Lions' sixth offensive lineman. Now he's tasked with being their starting left tackle with Jeff Backus retiring in March. Protecting Stafford is obviously of huge importance to the Lions, and Reiff needs to take a big step forward, as does the offensive line in general. With three new starters on the O-line, there is a lot of pressure on some new faces to succeed.
Another strong contender to make the biggest leap is wide receiver Ryan Broyles. He's coming back from another torn ACL, but the hope is that he will become one of Stafford's go-to targets once fully healthy.
Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu
Cincy Jungle: Mohamed Sanu is looking to resume his impressive redzone production from last season, scoring four times in a span of three games that helped transform Cincinnati's inconsistent offense into a team that comfortably secured wins. (even before half time) We're not talking about 10-15 receptions per game, or 200 yards receiving. That's not Sanu's style. Yet, when the Bengals needed to convert a third down or score a touchdown in tight coverage, Sanu was an all-star Power Forward in the post. Once he suffered a season-ending injury during practice, the Bengals struggled to put up another 30 spot for the rest of the year.
George Iloka, a safety drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft, may go from infrequent special teams participant to starting strong safety, impressively stepping through the door that was made available to him this spring. Paving the way for the ultimate story of an opportunist, Iloka eventually suffered a setback when he punched Jordan Campbell in the head, while still wearing his helmet. Iloka isn't just recovering from an injury, he's tasked with setting things right with the coaching staff, who had to remind their second-year safety that his actions not only hurt himself, but the team as a whole.
Vikings WR Jarius Wright
Daily Norseman: Conventional wisdom would point to either safety Harrison Smith or offensive tackle Matt Kalil, but those guys are already pretty good at their positions, and don't have that far to "leap" to reach that next level. With that, I'm going to go off the reservation a bit and say wide receiver Jarius Wright. Wright came on at the end of last season, being responsible for the team's two longest receptions of the year, and was one of the stars of training camp this past off-season. With Greg Jennings mentoring him and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson hopefully opening things up, Wright should have plenty of opportunities this season.
Giants RB David Wilson
Big Blue View: David Wilson, the Giants' first-round draft pick in 2012, has taken the reigns in the Giants backfield. And with Andre Brown breaking his leg for the second time in as many years, it'll be up to Wilson to be a do-it-all back, in terms of blocking, third downs, short-yard situations and, of course, giving the team a reliable running game.
The Giants don't usually draft running backs in the first round, so in the case of Wilson, the organization has extremely high hopes for the young play-maker. And rightfully so.
Wilson's fumbling issue landed him in coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse at the start of the 2012 season, but after Ahmad Bradshaw and Brown were both unable to suit up due to injury Wilson earned a second change. Wilson responded with 247 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
Seahawks LBs Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner
Field Gulls: Apart from the obvious in Russell Wilson, I think two guys are poised to really make a big jump are middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, the runner up for the defensive rookie of the year last year, and Bruce Irvin, who finished with eight sacks and is making a move to outside linebacker in 2013.
Irvin will miss the first four games due to suspension, but he's a dynamic, exciting player that I believe will acclimate nicely to his new position. I'm guessing his elite athleticism will lead him to carve out a big role in the defense and he may end up getting more sacks rushing from different spots and different angles in year two that he was able to grab in year one.
Bobby Wagner should assume full control as the quarterback of the defense, and with a year of experience under his belt, should improve on his great rookie season. He's maybe the fastest linebacker in the NFL and conversely, the game will only slow down for him as he learns more pro schemes.
Jets WR Stephen Hill and LB Demario Davis
Gang Green Nation: There really are two that stick out here so I really can't limit it to just one. Luckily there is one on the offensive side of the ball and one on the defensive side of the ball. First of all you have Stephen Hill, the Jets 2012 second-round receiver out of Georgia Tech. He had a poor first season, struggling with both injuries and drops. He had severe concentration lapses and despite getting off to a great start against Buffalo, he fizzled out for the rest of the season. He has all the measurable attributes you want in a receiver but coming from that triple option offense at Georgia Tech, it was always going to be a steep learning curve. We've heard how he has improved his routes and hands over the summer, but that's training camp. He needs to take that into the game, his fumble against the Giants in the 3rd pre-season game did nothing to quell the fears we had.
On the defensive side of the football we have Demario Davis, the ILB out of Arkansas State who was out third round selection a year ago. Last year he started on the bench but when we realized that Bart Scott's play was heading downwards in a hurry he did see game time. Unfortunately he looked a little lost at points. Although we have seen flashes this off-season, he still needs to consistently perform. Our linebackers don't possess the most speed in the world, apart from Davis. So he needs to use that to his advantage and help in coverage as that's why we drafted him in the first place. I have high hopes for Davis this year and I think he'll do better than most people expect.
Colts QB Andrew Luck
Stampede Blue: Hmmmmmm ... [Looks at roster] ... Let me see. I'm thinking, maybe... Justin Anderson, guard out of Georgia taken in the seventh round last year. I mean, he played in the SEC. So, he has to be some sort of NFL Kick-Ass Super Soldier Avenger From Krypton, right? ... [Looks at roster again] ... Oh wait! Nevermind. They cut Anderson during training camp. Well, if he's not there, I guess I'll go with quarterback Andrew Luck. He's got a great chance to make the team this year! Gotta good feeling about him.
Ravens LB Courtney Upshaw
Baltimore Beatdown: With Kelechi Osemele already a starter, this description belongs to outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw was a substitution package linebacker a year ago. This year, he'll have the opportunity to start games at Sam linebacker, with Elvis Dumervil coming in on third downs and in pass rush situations. The two figure to split time to keep each other fresh in the fourth quarter. Upshaw has had a solid preseason, especially against the run.
Bears DE Shea McClellin and WR Alshon Jeffery
Windy City Gridiron: There are high expectations for DE Shea McClellin and WR Alshon Jeffery, both of which were inconsistent in their rookie season. Both have shown progress this offseason, and could end up being playmakers in 2013. McClellin has the speed off the edge to chase down most quarterbacks in the league, and Jeffery is a big-bodied receiver that should compliment Brandon Marshall and take some of the pressure off of Cutler.
Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon
Big Cat Country: Justin Blackmon wasn't bad as a rookie, but he was far from dominant. His 236-yard explosion against the Houston Texans was the only game where he cracked 100 yards and it took until November for him to score his first NFL touchdown.
While he'll miss the first four games of the season due to an impending suspension, Blackmon has looked like a leaner, quicker, stronger and simply better version of his 2012 self in preseason. If that same level of contribution comes in the regular season, he'll likely make a much bigger impact than he did as a rookie.
Redskins QB Kirk Cousins
Hogs Haven: Well, it'll be hard for Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris to "leap" much further than they went their rookie seasons. Keenan Robinson and Richard Crawford would have been good candidates here but they are both now lost for the season with injuries. So, by default, that leaves Kirk Cousins. It's realistic Cousins will play at least 2-3 games this year, so given his progress this summer, I think we will see a much more polished QB.
Rams WR Brian Quick
Turf Show Times: WR Brian Quick. He's the biggest wide receiver on the Rams' roster. Behind just Tavon Austin, he's the next highest drafted wide receiver. He's really in a battle not against the rest of the WR corps but just Austin Pettis and Pettis was a draftee from the last front office and coaching staff; in fact, he's the only WR on the Rams that wasn't brought in by GM Les Snead and HC Jeff Fisher in one way or another. There's less in front of him to overcome, both in terms of personnel and the quality thereof. I'll take Quick as the breakout candidate in year two.