NFL "On the rise" lists are a dime a dozen this time of year. Most of the lists look roughly the same, with many of the same players. There's an obvious reason for that, of course: we all watch the same preseason games, visit the same training camps, talk to the same coaches and keep our eyes on the same storylines. If a coach announces that last year's first-round pick (who missed most of his rookie year with an injury) is having an outstanding camp, then plugs the kid in with the first string, then the kid scores a 70-yard touchdown, he's a mortal lock for "on the rise" status.
The Mandatory Monday Who's Next list does not try to reinvent the can opener: many of your favorites of the preseason watch list genre make an appearance. But there are a few surprises as well. From breakout stars to rising role players who will have a surprising impact on the playoff race, here are the guys we will be talking about in 2014 and beyond. Besides Johnny Manziel, of course.
Montee Ball, Running Back, Broncos
Stupid appendix. It just sits there, like an easily-infected time bomb, waiting to become an inflamed career roadblock the moment your first training camp as a starter is about to begin. So instead of taking reps with Peyton Manning and mastering the finer points of his audible-heavy style, you are lying around eating lime sherbet and croaking with a burning throat. Oh wait, that's tonsils.
Ball had an appendectomy three weeks ago but was back in the lineup for the Broncos on Saturday night, gaining 34 yards on eight touches with the starting offense. Ball rushed for 559 yards and four touchdowns last season but usually ceded the receiving and blocking chores to Knowshon Moreno. He caught four passes in limited action on Saturday, a sign that he has become a full-fledged "Peyton Back" in the Knowshon/Joseph Addai mold. (Edgerrin James was something else completely.)
Peyton Backs don't have to be Adrian Peterson-level talents. They need to be ready for audible running plays, know who to block in pass protection and do more with swing passes than gain a yard or two before running out of bounds. Ball, a slasher who rushed for over 5,000 yards at Wisconsin, has absorbed enough of the passing game to stay on the field. That means he will get 50-60 receptions to go with his rushing yardages, plus all the privileges (defenses on their heels, extra scoring opportunities) Peyton Backs enjoy.
Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Vikings
Johnny Manziel will generate twenty times the headlines. Blake Bortles may be the better long-range prospect. Derek Carr may be the first one to crack the lineup. But no rookie quarterback is as poised as Bridgewater to have a standout rookie season, in part because few rookie quarterbacks are as poised as Bridgewater.
Bridgewater landed in an excellent situation. Adrian Peterson remains the focal point of the Vikings offense. Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph provide a playoff-caliber receiving corps. Left tackle Matt Kalil anchors a solid offensive line. Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner won't ask Bridgewater to be a savior, just a ball distributor who limits mistakes and gets the ball in the hands of the playmakers.
Zimmer and Turner won't even ask Bridgewater to start immediately; Matt Cassel will probably break camp as the starter. When it comes to rookie quarterbacks, finishing the season is much more important than starting it. The Bridgewater who was ready to lead two-minute drills and scoring drives in August will be ready to do more when his number is called. When he does start, Bridgewater will be the beneficiary of many screen-and-run touchdowns, thanks to Peterson/Patterson/etc. Those still count, and they can keep a rookie productive and confident while the rest of his game develops.
Justin Britt and James Carpenter, Offensive Line, Seahawks
The Seahawks title defense hinges on their offensive line. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch cannot be expected to do so much by themselves this season, and left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger are only as good as the weaker links surrounding them.
Britt, this year's second-round pick, has emerged as the clear-cut starter at right tackle, beating veteran Eric Winston for the job in camp. Britt is a size-strength-mobility marvel who has made some rookie mistakes in preseason action but gets better by the game. He's a great blocker on the move -- a big deal in the Seahawks' screen game -- and he can manhandle quality defenders when he doesn't make a technical blunder.
Carpenter, an injury-prone former first-rounder, has shed weight after a frustrating 2013 season when he was stuck in a rotation role on a line that desperately needed healthy (and in-shape) bodies. He will never be the star tackle the Seahawks were looking for in the 2011 draft, but after the best training camp of his career, he should settle in as a very reliable guard.
Few teams as great as the 2013 Seahawks had a unit as bad as their offensive line was. If Britt and Carpenter improve that line significantly, imagine what it can do for the defending champs.
Tank Carradine, Defensive Line, 49ers
Carradine is a staple of 2014 preseason watch lists, and it is easy to see why. Take a major-college standout who recorded 11 sacks in his final season at Florida State. Stick him on the injured reserve while rehabbing an ACL tear he suffered at the end of his college career. Give him 60 snaps in the preseason opener, allowing him to rack up eight tackles and a sack (in a televised game full of unheard-of players). Presto! Instant buzz.
The buzz is deserved. Carradine is still officially a backup on one of the NFL's best defenses, but he's a nasty quickness-power package with the ability to complement -- and one day replace -- Justin Smith as the Niners' best penetrator on their 3-4 line.
Carradine is the kind of player the 49ers like to gamble upon as they outsmart the market in an effort to sustain success: a damaged-goods prospect who was drafted below his talent level and brought along slowly. The hit rate for these Carradine-Marcus Lattimore-Brandon Thomas types will never be 100 percent (Lattimore, sadly, will probably not be making any watch lists), but if Carradine regains his 2012 form, he will be a die roll that came up boxcars.
Josh Chapman and Arthur Jones, Defensive Tackle, Colts
Fans call Chapman "Chapnado." Chuck Pagano once called him "a 900-pound safe." Chapman is not quite 900 pounds -- he's more like 320 -- and he is not an intentionally bad movie, either. He's a mountainous run stuffer, with the potential to be more now that he has fully recovered from the massive knee injury he suffered late in his college career. Chapman will never record double-digit sacks, but he is slimmer and quicker than he was last year, when he was basically a sleeping moose in the middle of a country highway: immobile, tricky to get around and potentially dangerous, but manageable if you knew what you were doing.
Jones is the eldest brother in America's toughest sports family: middle brother Jon is a UFC champion, while baby bro Chandler is a star lineman for the Patriots. Arthur may be the least known of his siblings, but he is a Pagano favorite from Baltimore: a 300+ pound hybrid tackle who can slide all over the line, occupying blocks and causing disruption.
The Colts are the contenders no one is talking about. They reached the playoffs the last two seasons, a division full of rebuilding teams all-but-guarantees a return and they are led by one of the league's best young quarterbacks. We just assume that they will again hit a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning wall and bounce backward. Chapman and Jones represent a different wall, one that can take away opponent's running games and force Brady-Manning types to do more with their arms than they like to at this point in their careers.
Derek Dimke, Kicker, Saints
Dimke has not yet won the kicker battle against veteran Shayne Graham, but the concession speech is coming soon. Graham missed an extra point in a dome in the preseason opener and has been inconsistent in practices and scrimmages. Dimke has been perfect in the preseason and more impressive in practice. Graham's huge experience edge -- Dimke has never kicked in an NFL game after two seasons of tryouts with multiple teams -- won't help him much when he is missing 33-yarders indoors.
The Saints have not had a reliable kicker in years, opting instead to alternate between erratic Garrett Hartley and whichever 40-something answered the phone first when Hartley was hurt/suspended/too terrible to cope with. Dimke represents the Saints' best chance to turn their biggest weakness into a source of strength. All the Saints need for a deep playoff run is a kicker who makes all the field goals he is supposed to make.
The loser of the Graham-Dimke battle will probably wind up in Denver for four games, thanks to the Matt Prater suspension. So even if Sean Payton gets the midnight cold sweats and wakes up shouting KEEP THE OLD GUY, Dimke could still find himself kicking playoff-critical field goals.
Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars
Ace Sanders entered a substance abuse counseling program and is facing a suspension when he returns. Rookie Allen Robinson pulled a hamstring and will probably miss the start of the season. According to Jaguars tradition, these setbacks should be enough to cripple the offense: left with no one but Marcedes Lewis to throw to (again), Blake Bortles goes bust, while Chad Henne grabs the mop-and-bucket for another cleanup on aisles 6 through 16.
But the Jaguars are bucking tradition. They doubled-down on rookie receivers in a deep draft class, and Lee has taken over Sanders' role as the tough traffic receiver. Some of his preseason numbers look a little hinky -- Lee caught three passes for just ten yards against the Lions -- but Lee is showing that he has what it takes to be a useful possession role player as a rookie.
While Lee has caught passes on six-yard crossing routes, Hurns has claimed the spotlight with 13 preseason receptions for 230 yards and a touchdown, most of the production accumulated with the starting offense. Hurns went undrafted despite a 62-1,162-6 season at Miami; he's skinny, his workout numbers weren't great and the draft was crawling with Lee and Robinson types hanging around on the second and third days.
With Cecil Shorts still available as a deep threat and Lewis looking reborn in a more functional Jaguars offense, Hurns could find a niche as a very productive third receiver. And the third Jaguars receiver could actually become someone you give a darn about.
Micah Hyde, Defensive Back, Packers
Hyde is neither a traditional safety nor a traditional cornerback. He's more like Tyrann Mathieu without the hype and cool nickname. Hyde took over a nickel role last year similar to the one Charles Woodson perfected during the Packers' Super Bowl run. With the rest of the Packers secondary struggling, Hyde flew around the field making some plays but whiffing on a few others. He was undisciplined and mistake-prone, but he was also breathtakingly fast.
The Packers drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to handle traditional safety duties beside Morgan Burnett, but Hyde will keep finding his way onto the field as a slot corner or "heavy nickel" safety who brings intense pressure off the blitz and covers a lot of ground in underneath zone coverage. Dom Capers' defense is designed to allow athletes like Hyde to attack. Now that he has a year of experience and reinforcements around him, Hyde can evoke some fond Woodson memories.
Jerry Hughes, Defensive End, Bills
Placing a player with double-digit sacks last year on a prospect list may seem a little weak: hasn't Hughes already "arrived?"
Well, the bulk of Hughes' sacks came after the world stopped paying attention to the 2013 Bills. (After mid-September, in other words.) And Hughes, a situational pass rusher, notched just 32 solo tackles to go with his ten sacks. The former Colts first-round pick had drifted into obscurity before the Bills traded for him during the 2013 draft. So while six sacks in November and December pushed Hughes into double digits, they did not make him a household name.
The Bills have switched to a 4-3 defense, and Hughes is now the starting end opposite Mario Williams on one of the NFL's strongest front fours. He may not benefit from Mike Pettine's mix-and-match schemes anymore, but Hughes won't leave the field as often, either. Hughes has been focusing on his run defense to become a more complete player, and the attention Williams and tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams draw will keep Hughes single-blocked all season long.
Also, Hughes just turned 26 years old two weeks ago. Bill Polian may have reached for him in the first round of the 2010 draft, but a two-time Mountain West Defender of the Year who was still only 21 through much of his first training camp can be forgiven for blossoming a little late.
Justin Hunter, Wide Receiver, Titans
Hunter has slid into the Chris Johnson niche in the Titans ecosystem. He's the super-talented player everyone frets over, mostly for fantasy purposes, so we can safely ignore the rest of the Titans. The team motivated the inconsistent 6-foot-4 speedster by making him wear a J.A.G. ("just another guy," of course) jersey during practices a few weeks ago. The good news is that he responded with two touchdown catches against the Saints. The bad news is that the Titans still have 30 or 40 of those jerseys lying around.
We've read scouting reports on receivers like Hunter dozens of times before: size and speed you cannot coach, the athleticism to out-jump or simply glide away from defenders, but inconsistent hands, focus, technique and motivation. Receivers like Hunter have a habit of breaking your heart, but not before they give you something to fall in love with. Hunter produced five pass plays of 30+ yards in limited action with bad quarterbacks last year. The quarterbacks look a little better (Jake Locker has had a pair of decent preseason starts), and Hunter's role will increase this year. There will still be ups and downs, but it is all a matter of proportions.
Rashad Jennings, Running Back, Giants
Jennings may be the ultimate Tom Coughlin running back. He's the Anti-Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs was powerful and shockingly fast and about as reliable as a stolen cable box. Jennings is pretty big and fast enough, but he's a 29-year-old journeyman, not the kind of guy who usually appears on watch lists. His game is built around reliability and versatility, peppered with a surprising nose for the highlight reel.
Jennings will share the Giants backfield with rookie bulldozer Andre Williams, but the Giants offense is now built around short passes, and Williams has hands like drill bits. Jennings will grind along with about 15 rushes and five catches per game, quietly making the most of his first full-season opportunity to be a featured back. If he improves slightly on his 2013 Raiders numbers -- 1,025 total yards, six touchdowns -- Coughlin will be thrilled, and the Giants will look more like their 2007-2012 heyday than the team that grabbed running backs from turnpike underpasses last year.
Travis Kelce, tight end, Chiefs
Kelce trended on Twitter last week. The 2013 third-round pick caught 69 and 43-yard touchdowns in his first two preseason games and the fantasy football community began buzzing about the next big thing at tight end. Kelce was a sleeper when the magazines went to print in June, which means your brother-in-law will probably get a little ahead of himself and draft him in the third round this week.
Kelce is technically the backup tight end behind Anthony Fasano, but the receiver-thin Chiefs are likely to use lots of two-tight end sets this year. Andy Reid called for two tight ends on 24 percent of snaps last season, even though Kelce missed most of the season with a knee injury and Fasano was also hurt for seven games. When the Chiefs want their five best skill-position weapons on the field, they will call for Kelce.
Kelce was a classic seam-stretcher at Cincinnati who averaged 16 yards per catch in his final season. He has the speed and body control to be a reasonable Jimmy Graham facsimile. Experience and blocking ability will keep Fasano in the starting lineup, but Kelce has the potential for 50 catches and a half-dozen touchdowns. Whether that floats your fantasy boat depends on how deeply you waded into the hype.
Numerous other Young Tight Ends
One reason to pump the breaks on the Kelce enthusiasm is that Kelce is hardly alone. The NFL is teeming with athletic young No. 2 tight ends.
LaDarius Green would be a starter on most teams, but, in San Diego, he is trapped behind Antonio Gates, who refuses to age like a normal human. Zach Ertz would be generating a lot more buzz for the Eagles if Brent Celek had not looked so good in the preseason. Rookie Eric Ebron will soon outstrip Brandon Pettigrew in Detroit, but his touches will still be limited by Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Gavin Escobar will play second fiddle to Jason Witten in Dallas this year, but like Green, he has the ability to do much more. And we're not even counting more established young second tight ends like Tyler Eifert.
The two-tight end personnel group is a perfect complement to the no-huddle offense. That second tight end can line up anywhere from fullback to split wide, so his presence on the field does not limit the offensive formations or play calls. As more teams experiment with no-huddle strategies, and as colleges churn out 6-foot-6 250-pounders who can run and catch, second tight ends will see increased playing time and reception totals.
So this may be the year of the No. 2 tight end. Kelce will lead the way, but he will have a small army marching behind him.
Saints: The Next Generation
Derek Dimke was singled out earlier because I am fascinated by kicker controversies in general and Sean Payton's Garrett Hartley fixation in particular. But the Saints' Super Bowl hopes rest with a whole slew of young players who were not around when the team won it all five years ago.
Terron Armstead now protects Drew Brees' blind side and got better every week at the end of last season. Tim Lelito, an undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State last year, is being groomed to take over for Jonathan Goodwin at center. Kenny Stills will be Brees' next great all-purpose weapon: he has gliding speed and a knack for getting open on third downs. Kenny Vaccaro will join Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush in a secondary that will use tons of three-safety formations. Vaccaro will operate as something halfway between a linebacker and a safety, with Byrd playing center field behind him. Rookie Brandin Cooks is a hybrid of Darren Sproles and Devery Henderson. Khiry Robinson is the kind of role player who excels in the Saints' backfield rotation. And then there are all the young defenders who came of age last year, like Junior Galette, Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks.
In other words, the Saints are not an old team. They have an old quarterback, and they have some old faces like Marques Colston and Champ Bailey, but they have an exciting young nucleus. The Seahawks and Niners may still be better, but the Saints have room to grow, and no team lead by Drew Brees can ever be overlooked.
Taylor McCuller, Fullback-Linebacker, Patriots
Bill Belichick loves two-way players. From Troy Brown and Julian Edelman subbing on defense to Mike Vrabel serving as a goal line tight end, Belichick has defied labels and reengineered roles for unique players. Why restrict undrafted rookie linebacker McCuller to defense when he was an all-purpose back in high school? All McCuller needed for his dual role was two jerseys so he could switch uniform colors during practices.
McCuller has played 42 snaps on offense and just a handful on defense and special teams in the offseason, so he is clearly getting a long look at his new position. He caught a 17-yard touchdown against the Panthers, so he is more than a goal line blocker. But will McCuller have a role when Rob Gronkowski completes his return to the lineup, making extra fullback H-back types superfluous? Belichick found a two-way role for Dan Klecko for several years, so anything is possible. Even if McCuller ends up bouncing to and from the practice squad and chasing punt returners, he's a very Patriots kind of player. And if he winds up doing more, you are guaranteed to hear about it.
Bishop Sankey, Running Back, Titans
There are a few things standing between Sankey and the Rookie of the Year award that could be his to claim. Sammy Watkins and the best rookie receiver class since 1996 will have something to say about the award voting, but rookie receivers often face problems that don't affect rookie running backs. None of Sankey's fellow rookie rushers has as clear a path to a featured role behind a solid offensive line. Sankey is useful in the passing game and only needs to siphon carries from Shonn Greene, who should be issued one of those Justin Hunter J.A.G. jerseys.
The only things really standing in the way of a 1,000+ yard season and serious award consideration are Sankey's hands. He had a case of the rookie fumbles in both camp and preseason games. Sankey must run laps every time he loses a football in practice, because we all know that a fumbling problem can be punished away (gosh, coach, I did not know I was supposed to hold on to the football until you made me run all those gassers). Fumbles often fade with the rookie jitters, and once Sankey proves he can take care of the ball, the Titans will have a consistent, multi-purpose slasher to feature in their backfield.
Markus Wheaton, Wide Receiver, Steelers
As mentioned earlier, lists like these are made for former well-regarded prospects that were limited by injuries as rookies. You know how the news cycle goes: incoming rookies are scrutinized, analyzed, hyped and then forgotten if they suffer something as minor (yet temporarily debilitating for a wide receiver) as a finger injury.
Wheaton caught 91 passes for 1244 yards and 11 touchdowns for Oregon State in 2012, but a broken finger kept him off the field for over a month last season. Wheaton did everything possible to master the Steelers offense while injured, running routes and reaching to catch imaginary footballs. The extra work paid off, and while Martavis Bryant is the rookie getting most of the scrutiny in Pittsburgh, Wheaton is entrenched as the starter opposite Antonio Brown.
"He's a young guy people don't know about yet," Ben Roethlisberger said last week. "He hasn't earned that respect, which is probably rightfully so, because he hasn't done much. But I'm excited for him because I think he's going to surprise a lot of people." To be fair, the only reason people don't know anything about Wheaton is because we have such short memories.