You know who's on the covers of the magazines at newsstands now: Robert Griffin, Colin Kaepernick, Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin, J.J. Watt, Darrelle Revis, Robert Griffin and Robert Griffin. But who will be making news in December, February or this time next year? Well, probably still Griffin and the others listed above. But a whole new generation of budding stars are ready to pose for cover shoots, affect the Super Bowl race and give us someone new to talk about when the weather turns cold.
Here are 23 breakout players for 2013. Some are already fairly well known: They just have to make the jump from "fine young player" to "'SPORTSCENTER' PROUDLY PRESENTS A ONE-HOUR RETROSPECTIVE OF HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS." Others are a little more obscure. All of them are ready to make an impact.
Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Panthers. If you tuned in to Thursday night's Ravens-Panthers preseason game to see how the defending champions looked or whether Cam Newton learned to fold his towel into a Keffiyeh, you saw Kuechly's national coming-out party instead. He recorded seven tackles, intercepted a pass, forced a fumble by blowing up a handoff in the backfield, hurried Joe Flacco into throwing a pick-six and nearly forced another turnover, though he jarred the ball loose from receiver Aaron Mellette with a little too much helmet-to-helmet roughness. Kuechly led the NFL in tackles last year, but he was easy to overlook, because nothing in Carolina matters unless it appears on Cam-cam.
Kuechly is one of three second-year linebackers on the Who's Next list, potential defensive superstars whose rookie years were overlooked during the Year of Rookie Quarterbacks. Watch Kuechly on film, and he just happens to always be where the ball is. At first, it looks like luck: The play just happened to funnel in his direction, so he made the tackle or defended the pass. Then it happens a dozen or more times per game, and you realize that Kuechly is a master of reading, reacting and positioning himself to make plays. Last year, he was still honing those skills. This year, they are nearly perfected. Kuechly is about to become a perennial Pro Bowler on what looks like a much-improved, playoff-ready defense.
Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, Dolphins. Last year's top rookie quarterbacks did everything right EXCEPT save something for the encore. Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have no choice but to keep breaking records and exceeding expectations: Any of them could go 9-7, throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, and still be accused of suffering the dreaded "sophomore slump."
There's something to be said for having room to grow. Tannehill is just as talented as a passer and runner as his classmates, and his 3,294-yard, 12-touchdown rookie season would look great in a typical season. But Tannehill was the least polished of the Class of 2012, having converted from wide receiver during his college career, and he had the weakest receiving corps. Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson join Brian Hartline to form an upgraded receiving trio, and while injured Dustin Keller won't be joining the party, Tannehill now has far more downfield options than he had last year. Best of all, the expectations match the experience level, and Tannehill can earn "he's arrived" accolades just as his classmates are coping with overstated "what went wrong?" handwringing.
T.Y Hilton, receiver, Colts. Hilton became the first Colts player to return a punt for a touchdown since 2007 last year. He also caught seven touchdown passes and averaged 17.1 yards per reception. What must he do for an encore? Hold onto the ball, for one thing: Hilton dropped seven passes last year. He must also adjust to a passing game with fewer deep passes. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians let 'er rip on pass after pass, while Pep Hamilton stresses ball control. So far, so good: Hilton has three touchdowns in three preseason games, and he is still the best return man the Colts have had since Terrence Wilkins retired. Hilton has the potential to be a better deep threat than Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson, and Luck-to-Hilton could be the highlight film combo of the next generation.
Jordan Cameron, tight end, Browns. Cameron started his college career as a Brigham Young basketball forward. Then, after a transfer snafu, he attended Ventura College for a year. Then, he became a USC wide receiver. Finally, he moved to tight end. That was a lot of motion for just 16 collegiate catches and a chance to play for the Browns, who kept Cameron behind the aging Ben Watson for two seasons while his positional knowledge caught up with his travel itinerary.
Cameron always showed that he had athleticism to burn, even in spot duty for a bad offense. In the preseason, he emerged as Brandon Weeden's favorite possession target. New coach Rob Chudzinski moves his tight ends all over the formation, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner has given tight ends from Jay Novacek to Antonio Gates plenty of opportunities to work the middle while the receivers draw the safeties deep. Cameron has finally found the right time and place to settle down.
Everson Griffen, defensive end, Vikings. Griffen was on his way to the TMZ tsk-tsk wasted opportunity file after the 2010 season. He recorded just four tackles as a rookie. He was then arrested in January of 2011 for public intoxication. Three days later, police arrested him for driving with an invalid license: Griffen tried to flee on foot, grabbed an officer somewhere around the privates, and got tased. Griffen had a troublemaker reputation dating back to college, and Leslie Frazier was exasperated with him.
Instead of giving up on Griffen, Frazier gave Griffen a second chance, and the talented pass rusher took it. Griffen recorded eight sacks last year, three of them in the season finale against the Packers (which launched the Vikings into the playoffs). According to all sources, he has grown up.
Griffen still plays behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison, but he was on the field for 605 snaps last year, so he is a regular contributor to the Vikings' pass rush package. A productive year and another multi-sack game against the Packers -- a team whose line already looks more like Swiss than Wisconsin cheddar -- could upend the power structure of the NFC North.
DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Texans. The Texans were essentially a one-receiver team last year. Kevin Walter (now with the Titans) aged into a slow-footed possession receiver who could only get open when Andre Johnson was double-teamed and the rest of the defense focused on stopping Arian Foster. The third, fourth and fifth receivers were virtually nonexistent, so Foster and the tight ends had to pick up the passing game slack. If you forced the Texans into third-and-long 00 which was not easy, thanks to their running game -- all you had to do was shut down Johnson and ready your punt return unit.
That passing game predictability, coupled with the Texans Super Bowl aspirations, makes Hopkins the most important rookie in the NFL this season. He had six preseason catches through the first two games, including a leaping touchdown that showed just what he brings to an offense as an all-purpose threat. Hopkins can work the middle, get deep, and catch less-than-perfect throws. He does not have to make the Pro Bowl or catch 70 passes as a rookie. He just has to give Matt Schaub a second deep threat to look for, and defenses one more player to worry about.
Junior Galette, linebacker, Saints. Galette has been on the verge of a breakout season for so long that it seems like he backed up Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson. But the pass rusher who came to the NFL from Haiti through Stillman College by way of Temple University, is entering only his fourth season. Galette arrived in New Orleans as an undrafted rookie with a spotty past (Temple expelled him because one of his relatives was stealing computers), and Gregg Williams' staff set about honing Galette's raw talent. Then, Bountygate happened, Williams was gone and the Saints began shifting defensive schemes. Galette spent last season as an undersized defensive end, recording five sacks but getting pushed around and shuttled to the sideline as a rotation player.
Rob Ryan has made Galette the "Jack" linebacker, which is just as cool as it sounds. Galette will be the designated pass rusher, and as a 250-pound missile who needed a few years to be properly guided, he is drawing comparisons to James Harrison. Galette has been banged up a little in the preseason, but look for him to get healthy fast and bring the pass rush back to the Saints defense.
Giovani Bernard, running back, Bengals. The screen pass. The check down. They are simple plays, easy to take for granted, until your offense is terrible at executing them. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has never been an effective receiver, and the team resorted to plodding Brian Leonard and journeyman Cedric Peerman as its receiving backs last year. The result: No Bengals running back had a reception longer than 16 yards, and the defense had a reliable "tell" about what the Bengals planned to do, based on which back was in the game.
Bernard caught 92 passes in two seasons at North Carolina, including six receiving touchdowns. He also rushed for 2,481 yards in those two seasons. He is the kind of multi-faceted player who can diversify the passing game and take carries away from Law Firm. Bernard rushed for two preseason touchdowns in the Bengals' first three games, but more importantly, he caught six passes, including a 22-yarder. A few extra yards on short passes don't seem like much, but for a playoff team trying to get over the first-round hump, they add up.
Lavonte David, linebacker, Buccaneers. David is like the Ryan Tannehill of linebackers. He had a great rookie season last year, but Luke Kuechly and others had even greater rookie seasons, and David was easy to overlook because his team failed to make the playoffs. But the numbers are eye-popping: 139 total tackles, 79 of them Stops according to Football Outsiders (productive tackles, not drag-downs after a gain of 12 on third-and-two), 9.5 hurries and more than 1,000 defensive snaps, as David was the rare rookie linebacker who stayed on the field in nickel and dime situations.
David flew all over the field in the Ravens preseason game, then hit the Gatorade circuit. He is not one of the players the Buccaneers have questions about. David needs to become a surer tackler and get a little better in coverage, but his rookie season provided a great foundation, even if no one noticed.
Kenbrell Thompkins, wide receiver, Patriots. The NFL Network personalities met the media in Times Square on Wednesday to plug their programming and talk a little pigskin. Most of the football discussion was big-picture stuff -- Adrian Peterson-Robert Griffin level branding -- until Mike Mayock interrupted the name-dropping to mention Thompkins, the Horatio Alger story of the 2013 preseason.
Everyone who watches Thompkins comes away impressed, myself included, and his battle to overcome preteen drug/gang involvement is the stuff of fiction. Maybe some of us are wishing too hard for a post-Aaron Hernandez redemption story, but Mayock is usually a sober judge of talent (OK, besides John Skelton), and you don't crack the Patriots receiver rotation by being good newspaper copy. Thompkins is big, fast, has great hands, and has a knack for beating coverage. He is going to be good. Wish I could say you heard it here first.
David DeCastro, guard, Steelers. DeCastro's rookie season was a disaster. Teammate Marcus Gilbert fell onto DeCastro's right knee at the start of the third preseason game, causing MCL and ACL damage. DeCastro returned to active duty at the end of the year and was thrust into action against defenders like Geno Atkins, who immediately schooled the rookie guard.
DeCastro is a different player this year. He is healthy, for one thing. The Steelers are emphasizing zone-stretch blocking tactics, which fit DeCastro's quick-and-technical style better than the power blocking the Steelers have emphasized for years. DeCastro left Stanford as one of the most polished blockers in the 2012 draft, so those bad early starts can be written off to "rookie lumps." The Steelers need their running game to rebound after an awful 2012 season, and they need Ben Roethlisberger healthy. DeCastro makes both goals possible.
Michael Brockers, defensive tackle, Rams. Brockers played at around 320 pounds last year. He gained weight in the offseason. Is that a good thing? "I was kind of scared I was getting overweight," Brockers told a St. Louis television station. "That's a bad thing when you're coming into training camp but they said it was good weight, good protein. I feel stronger. I feel faster."
Brockers started slowly last season, missing a few games with a sprained ankle. The 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft showed encouraging flashes later in the season, with 1.5 sacks against the 49ers in November and 1.5 more against the Bills a few weeks later. But Brockers is at his best when doing running game dirty work. The Rams stuffed opposing running backs for a loss on 25 percent of carries, the third-best total in the NFL, with Brockers munching on double teams so Chris Long and Robert Quinn could gobble up ballcarriers. The added weight, assuming it really is "good weight," just makes Brockers more of an anchor.
The Rams' defensive line has the potential to be the best in the league, and it could be the monkey wrench that short-circuits the Seahawks-Niners steamroller. Brokers will get only some of the sacks, but he will demand more of the attention.
Bobby Wagner, linebacker, Seahawks. The third and most overlookable of our overlooked 2012 rookie linebackers. He was the rookie who had a great year for the Seahawks. You mean Russell Wilson? No, no: the defensive rookie. You mean Bruce Irvin? No, NO: the kid who led the team in tackles (139), with three interceptions, plus 17 more tackles and an interception in the playoffs! Wait, I got it: J.R. Sweezy!
No, no and no. Wagner stepped into a complicated defense as a second-round pick, played nearly every defensive snap and was equally effective as a run and pass defender. He won't escape notice as the middle linebacker for a Super Bowl contender this season. And if the 2012 quarterbacks take a step back this year (as mentioned in the Tannehill comment, they almost have to), it may be because 2012 linebackers like Wagner, David and Kuechly bring balance back to The Force.
LaMichael James, running back, 49ers. Frank Gore won't be around forever, and the suddenly weapon-poor 49ers offense needs an explosive counterpoint to its ageless pile driver. James was inactive for most of last season because the 49ers were crawling with running backs, but he became a factor in the postseason, scoring a touchdown against the Falcons and earning a few Super Bowl touches.
James' darting, stop-and-start style makes him a boom-or-bust runner, and the 49ers are looking for ways to maximize the boom. He has returned punts and kicks in the preseason, and he has the perfect skillset to be a slot weapon. His backfield decision-making and pass protection need work (though they appear to have improved), but Gore is a fourth-degree black belt in those arts, so James can learn as he goes.
James is like the young Reggie Bush, without the headaches, expectations and price tag. The young Reggie Bush, you may recall, played a lot of roles for a Super Bowl winner.
Duke Ihenacho, safety, Broncos. A preseason fumble can alter careers. When Ihenacho forced A.J. Jenkins to fumble after a catch in the first preseason game, it cemented Ihenacho's rise from practice squad also-ran to likely starter, and it essentially ended Jenkins' career in San Francisco. Ihenacho's hit was one of seven solo tackles in that game -- his preseason resume also includes a pass defensed and a tackle for a loss -- while the fumble was Jenkins' only touch of the preseason. A first-round pick in reverse, an undrafted second-year player racing forward: preseason drama at its best.
Ihenacho was a productive starter for four years at San Jose State (with a medical redshirt year in the middle), but run-stopping safeties with middling 40-times are not hot draft commodities. Ihenacho signed with the Broncos as an undrafted rookie and clung to the fringe of the practice squad last year, surviving three separate waives/releases. He arrived at minicamps more confident, with a better feel for his coverage responsibilities, and began climbing the depth chart.
Ihenacho is still listed behind Mike Adams on the depth chart, but f he does not start, he will still see plenty of action as a nickel or defender. If you do not think nickel and dime defenders can have an impact on the Broncos' Super Bowl chances, then you have successfully erased last January from your memory.
Jeff Cumberland, tight end, Jets. Eek! It's the Jets offense! Cover the children's eyes! OK, uncover them. Cumberland caught a respectable 29 passes last season in an oil spill of a season, and he has had an excellent training camp. The former college wide receiver looks faster than ever and more athletic than Kellen Winslow, the boogeyman general managers bring to camp to scare incumbent tight ends into getting their act together. The Jets quarterback, whoever that poor benighted soul turns out to be, will need a security blanket who can work the middle and stretch the seam. Cumberland is the best man for the job.
Damontre Moore, defensive end, Giants. DaMonster had to tone his act down at the start of training camp. He got a little carried away during non-tackling practices, which is the kind of "good first impression" gambit that backfires. Moore's pass-rushing game at Texas A&M was predicated on raw speed, power and tenacity, and going at three-quarters speed just didn't come naturally.
Moore then had four solo tackles and a blocked punt in the Giants' preseason opener. Suddenly, it was New York's turn to get a little carried away. The steal of the draft? A Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate? The next Michael Strahan? Slow down. How about the next rookie pass rusher to have a major impact on the Giants' storied defensive line? Mathias Kiwanuka recorded four sacks, intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles as a rookie in 2006. Jason Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a bunch of batted passes. Those two guys are still around, as is Justin Tuck, so Moore does not need to provide a dozen sacks to keep the Giants in the playoff picture. A few flash plays -- a blocked punt is a great start -- and lots of hustle should do the trick.
Evan Dietrich-Smith, center, Packers. Smith's biggest fan is his most important fan. Aaron Rodgers lobbied to get Dietrich-Smith into the lineup last year, when it was clear that aging Jeff Saturday was getting by on reputation and wishful thinking. Dietrich-Smith proved to be a major upgrade, and he is the kind of small, smart, quick lineman the Packers need to protect Rodgers in a pass-happy system.
The Packers' offensive line suffered major injuries in preseason. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the year, and Dietrich-Smith himself missed time with a toe injury. There is going to be some juggling, and Rodgers will be forced to do some scrambling. Dietrich-Smith promises to be the one constant in Rodgers' protection unit, becoming for Rodgers what Saturday was for Peyton Manning.
Shea McClellin, defensive end, Bears. There are many things Shea McClellin is not. He is not a middle linebacker, though some confused Bears fans kept penciling him in as Brian Urlacher's successor. He is not a traditional pass-rushing defensive end. Nor is he one of those dreaded "tweeners" who are too small for the line but not versatile enough for linebacker.
So what is McClellin? He is one of the new breed of defensive ends who are fast enough to drop back and make plays at the safety level, a perfect piece of a zone-blitzing puzzle who can line up all over a defense with multiple fronts.
McClellin had just 2.5 sacks off the bench last year as he battled multiple injuries. He is still listed as a backup and package player, but he had an eye-opening performance in the preseason game against the Chargers, and the Bears won't be quite as Cover-2 vanilla under new coordinator Mel Tucker as they were under Lovie Smith. Look for McClellin to make plays in the backfield AND in the secondary as the Bears discover more purposes for their all-purpose defender.
Denard Robinson, all-purpose back, Jaguars. The college option quarterback realizes immediately that he is not cut out to be an NFL quarterback, even during the read-option revolution. So he changes positions, battles through a challenging learning curve, and emerges as a rusher-receiver-Wildcat. Happy ending, right?
Sort-of. The upside of that career path, for years, has been Antwaan Randle El, Josh Cribbs or Julian Edelman: a gifted special teamer and slash player who might have some productive seasons in the slot. No wonder so many running quarterbacks do all they can to remain quarterbacks. A third-stringer can generate more headlines than a Pro Bowl punt returner.
But Robinson embraced the change, and the Jaguars have embraced the idea of using him as more than a trick-play specialist. Robinson had 27 carries for 94 yards through three preseason games, often taking pitches from the old-fashioned I-formation. Plunges off tackle may not be the best use of Robinson's talents, but his pure speed and electrifying quickness demand more touches than a player can get on punt returns and end-arounds.
By all accounts, the Jaguars have more up their sleeves for Robinson than some change-up carries behind Maurice Jones-Drew. Robinson looks like the next Percy Harvin. If he can stay healthy, that's a notch above being the next Antwaan Randle El, which would not be so bad, either.
Chris Givens, wide receiver, Rams. Givens had no problem generating big plays last year: Je caught a 50+ yard pass in five consecutive games. The little plays were the problem. The Rams needed Givens to step up when Danny Amendola got hurt, but he mixed productive games with awful ones and was briefly benched to get his head on straight.
Givens has been lighting up both Rams camp and preseason games this season, dropping one of his signature 59-yard touchdowns on the Packers, and Jeff Fisher has praised his focus and consistency. Givens could be the best all-around Rams receiver since the Greatest Show on Turf folded its tents, and a big leap forward could make the Rams more than the NFC's designated spoilers.
Randy Bullock, kicker, Texans. The difference between a playoff team and a Super Bowl team often comes down to a yard here and a yard there. Kickoff yardage is often thought of as neither here nor there, so a veteran kicker with a sagging leg can cause a big problem without anyone noticing. Shayne Graham averaged just 63.0 yards per kickoff, and his line drives were easy to return: Opponents averaged 25.9 yards per kickoff return, with two touchdowns. For a team trying to compete with the AFC elite, the difference between an opponent's drive starting on the 20-yard line and the 30-yard line matters a lot.
Bullock missed all of last season with a groin injury, but he replaces Graham this season, and the results are encouraging so far. He nailed four touchbacks and averaged 65.3 yards per kickoff in the first two preseason games, and was 4-for-4 on field goals inside 50 yards. Justin Tucker helped propel the Ravens into the Super Bowl last year with his field goals and kickoffs. If he keeps opponents pinned at the 20-yard line consistently, Bullock could do the same.