With the upcoming OTAs soon approaching, and with the preseason contests coming up, I decided to do a little thinking and came up with a player on each squad that not many people may know about coming into the season, but at the end of it there will be a good chance fans will know who they are. Every team will have a sleeper pick with a description after the pick as to why I believe he first maintains a sleeper status, as well as why I believe they will break out and become a household name for their squad.
Crockett Gillmore, TE, BAL- This pick may not qualify as a sleeper to some, as his numbers that he produced in his limited action last season (ten games) was solid for a tight end outside of the Gronk echelon. However, coming back for his third season and still being coupled with Joe Flacco gives Gillmore an edge to breakout this year. He ended his 2015 season with over 400 yards and four touchdowns, all in ten games. While that is a consistent output for a tight end whom was mostly a no name coming into last season, as long as he avoids injury again he has a great chance to break out (600 yards and 8 scores) and give the Ravens another receiving threat. He offers the best upside of the tight ends on their roster, and he has a chance to come from nowhere and make a name for himself similar to a former Ravens great, Todd Heap.
Tyler Boyd, WR, CIN- The rookie out of Pittsburgh has a great chance to have an impactful first season for the Bengals opposite A.J. Green. His high levels of production in college, especially with inconsistent quarterback play, speaks volumes about his playmaking abilities. He fell just short of 1,000 yards in his junior year, and his speed (4.58) will not blow anyone away, but will get the job done. He is most known for his hands and catching ability, creating an opportunity for him to become a go-to threat over the middle for Andy Dalton/whoever replaces him when he gets injured (no apologies). Do not be surprised if he gets over 500 yards and 7 scores in his rookie year while fighting for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Duke Johnson, RB, CLE- You got to feel bad for the guy, honestly. He has such potential and of all teams he must jog out onto the field on Sundays, it happens to be the Browns. However, I digress. Regardless, with the Browns actually having a quarterback who is feasible at running an offense for the first time since they decided not to put Josh McCown on the field, Johnson has a chance to open up the playing field and give the Browns an actual threat out of the backfield. He had more receiving yards (534) than rushing (379) last year, but he should become a 1,000 to 1,300 combined yardage player this upcoming year. He has the possibility to become a go-to for Cleveland on offense and potentially give them a chance to avoid losing more than 10 games for two consecutive seasons for the first time 2001-2002. Hopefully Josh Gordon comes back to where he actually made a name for himself and creates more options for the running attack.
Ross Cockrell, CB, PIT- If your first words are not, “Who the hell is he?” then you are lying to yourself or you are related to this man. Unless you are like me, who has actually heard of Ross, this pick remains an absolute mystery to you. Last year, Cockrell went out and had himself a career year, albeit in his second season but first in Pittsburgh. He started seven games and recorded 44 tackles, along with 11 defended passes, 2 interceptions, and one forced fumble. The fact that he is six-feet tall means that he can match up with any wide receiver out there, and I believe he has a great chance to record 5+ picks this next year.
Alfred Blue, RB, HOU- Filling in for the injured Arian Foster last year, Blue took over the job and never let up as the season progressed. His impressive season, however, was not enough to provide management enough reasons to make him the featured back, as Lamar Miller was brought in from Miami to assume the starting role behind Brock Osweiler. However, I feel that Blue and not Miller will have a better year due to Blue’s familiarity with the system and what is all expected. Blue started nine games in 2015 and amassed almost 7o0 rushing yards to go along with 109 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. Starting the season as Miller’s backup, Blue should gain enough carries to eventually push Miller for the starting position and take it from him due to his consistency and poise. Watch out for Blue reaching a 1,000-yard rushing season for Houston, especially with Osweiler and Hopkins opening up the field in passing situations.
Phillip Dorsett, WR, IND- Sticking with the predominantly-offensive tone set here, Phillip Dorsett is set up quadruple his receiving yardage total from last year in the 2016 campaign. Having started zero games and been in 11, Dorsett only had 225 yards receiving and one touchdown. Last year was not a pleasant rookie season for Dorsett, which was also marred by inconsistent quarterback play that led to the Colts not having a real successful season. Dorsett has the skillset and the potential to become a consistent contributor for Indy as the years go on, and he should at least earn 800 receiving yards this upcoming year, provided both he and his quarterback stays healthy.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, JAX- This team has the potential to really make some noise in the AFC playoffs this upcoming year, as they are finally fulfilling their potential. Yeldon, who rushed for 740 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, was very solid in only 12 games last year. If he would have played in all 16 contests, he most likely would have reached 1,000 yards in his rookie year, but injuries derailed his first season. This upcoming year, even with Chris Ivory being brought in to compete with Yeldon, T.J. has the potential to break away from his competition and make a stake for being one of the best AFC South running backs. Look out for 1,000+ yards and around 10 TDs in Yeldon’s second year, as long as he avoids injuries.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, TEN- Going into his second season, DGB should have no issues establishing more of a connection with Mariota, especially with how those two played well together last year. DGB played in all 16 games last season but started only 5, recording 32 receptions for 549 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was very inconsistent last year, having only 2 games with 100+ receiving yards while earning less than 50 yards in six contests. He should assume more of a potent role in 2016 for the Titans, especially with this team finally having a solid rushing force (hopefully), opening up more passing opportunities. If he does not reach at least 1,000 and 7 TDs this year, consider it a disappointment.
Robert Woods, WR, BUF- Sammy Watkins has established himself as one of the top receivers in the league due to his consistency and overall high-performance level he especially displayed last season. With teams fully aware of his potential, they will try more and more to shut down the Taylor-Watkins connection, which should open up more opportunities for Robert Woods to contribute this year. This past year Woods regressed, only recording 552 yards on 47 catches. While 500+ receiving yards is a respectable number, for the Bills to be successful he has to become a better number two receiver and create options for the offense to go to. Watkins, barring injuries, should surpass 1,000 yards again this year, provided Woods steps up and gets at least 750 yards and 70 catches, while also recording 6+ touchdowns. For a receiver who has the smart football IQ of Tyrod Taylor throwing to him, he should be able to reach these numbers.
Jay Ajayi, RB, MIA- Just as their initials point out, the Dolphin’s rushing attack has been missing in action for a while. By not playing until Week 9 due to injuries, Ajayi had less than energized appearances from Week 9 out, rushing for 187 total in these weeks, reaching a high of 48 yards against the Eagles in Week 10. Having a full offseason to rest up and prepare for the season gives Ajayi more prep time to attempt to win the starting position and prove to the coaching staff that he belongs as the feature back. The Dolphins have a solid offensive attack, and adding another layer to it with a consistent rushing force will make them even more solid and hopefully push them into playoff contention. Ajayi should reach 800 yards and 7 scores this season, but 1,000 and 10 are both not out of the question either.
Chris Long, DE, NE- When the newly-crowned Los Angeles Rams threw Chris Long to the side during the offseason, I had a feeling that he could easily latch on to another team and prove his worth, even in certain packages and situations. But when New England picked him up, I felt like they made a solid unit even better with Long’s addition. He may be 31 and have an injury past, but the Pats seem to have some special luck with older players that they pick up on and use, so I see Long regaining some of his power and stats in Foxborough. 25 tackles and 5 sacks would make his performance for the Patriots worth picking him up, but I do not see him contributing much more than that.
Bilal Powell, RB, NYJ- The Jet’s main rusher Chris Ivory signed with the Jaguars over the offseason, but New York went out and brought in Matt Forte to shore up their rushing attack. While Forte was a serviceable back in the Windy City, their dependence on him makes me believe that any sort of workload he may receive here will eventually lead to injuries, especially with how battered he is from Chicago. Powell, who had more receiving (388) than rushing yards (313), is a younger version of Forte who has received a lower workload than Forte has, plus he is familiar with the offense and most things that goes into it. Look for Powell to at least double his rushing yardage total from 2015 and earn more than three total touchdowns.
Virgil Green, TE, DEN- The Broncos will have a very different look this year, and not just due to the change in signal caller. The running back position, which was supposed to be solidified by C.J. Anderson, was in shambles last year due to his very inconsistent performance through the year. Yes, he ran for over 700 yards but he was not the back that he was supposed to be. The receiver will be gaining more attention this year too, especially with Sanders and Thomas both having 1,000+ yards on the year. Denver traded for Vernon Davis, but he was a massive disappointment. Green, who amassed only 12 catches for under 200 yards last year, will need to break out to give whoever the quarterback is another weapon to take advantage of. If Green manages 400 yards to go along with 5 touchdowns, he will be able to hold down the starting job for the foreseeable future.
Mike Williams, WR, KC- The Chiefs finally got off the schneid and had a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass last year. The fact that these words must be put anywhere has got to be a tough pill to swallow for KC fans, but Jeremy Maclin made everything easier last year with his 1,088 receiving yards. They do not truly have a second receiver that can be run out there and expected to make consistent plays, so that is why they decided to take a risk and sign Williams. After not being signed for a year, Williams looks to get back to his playing results that he put out for Tampa Bay in 2012, falling just short of 1,000 yards while catching nine touchdowns. He may have absolutely no impact on this offense whatsoever, but I am willing to take a calculated risk and say that Williams could amass 500 yards and 6 scores for Andy Reid and the Chiefs this year. Plus, I am a sucker for an underdog story (see Mercer, NCAA March Madness).
Mychal Rivera, TE, OAK- The Raiders really have made strides in the performance department over the past couple years. Derek Carr now has reliable weapons to throw to in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, a solid offensive line to protect him, and a proven 1,000+-yard rusher in Latavius Murray. The defense is very scary as well, with newly signed Bruce Irvin joining up with Khalil Mack to form a daunting defensive front that should wreck havoc in opponents’ backfields for years to come. Mychal Rivera fits the mold of development that the Raiders have been following lately, and his time has officially come to become yet another focal point of the offense for Oakland. He did have 32 catches last year, and even though he only had 280 yards to show from them, he displayed reliability and consistency that Derek Carr can rely on when needed. Rivera should catch 40 balls for 450-500 yards in 2016, scoring 5 times as well.
Brandon Flowers, CB, SD- After putting up solid numbers for the division-rival Chiefs, Flowers flew the coup and came to sunny San Diego in 2014. In his first season, he put up solid numbers with 10 defended passes and 48 total tackles. 2015 was the reverse side of that, as he only put up 29 tackles and 4 passes defended. Yes, he only played in 11 of 16 games, but he has only had one full season in his now nine-season career. This may have been due to them staying away from him due to his coverage skills, but I also believe that he ended up having to deal with injuries during the season. Watch for Flowers to come back to the performance level that he experienced in Kansas City, and while he most likely will again not play a full season, he will raise his tackles up to 40 and have 4 interceptions along with 8 passes defended.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, CHI- With the departure of Matt Forte in the offseason to the Jets as previously mentioned, this opened up the starting gig, most likely for Jeremy Langford to take hold of. He impressed in his action last season, and he had made the Chicago brass believe in him enough to not resign Forte or go out and get another ‘back. So, with Langford all but guaranteed to be the starter come the first game, the backup spot becomes that much more important with this being Langford’s first year starting. Rodgers, who will be in Chicago for this second season in 2016, had a very limited role last year being third in the pecking order for backs. He has proven in the past (see Atlanta Falcons, 2011-13) that he can be a decent threat from the backfield and can contribute to the passing game as well. He has been just below 100 carries two years in his career, so he is well tested. Look for him to provide Langford rest during games and not have much of a different between the two. 400 yards and 3 touchdowns should be around where Rodgers will be in the 2016 season.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, DET- When Ameer Abdullah was drafted in 2015 out of Nebraska, Lions fans had faith that they actually had found a solid running back that could become a starter eventually. Fast-forward a year, and with Joique Bell not returning, Abdullah has an opportunity to do just that. He ran for almost 600 yards last year as a backup (even though he did start 9 games) on 143 carries, showing that he is durable and has the ability to last through an NFL season. Between Abdullah, Theo Riddick, and Stevan Ridley, these three will have to make up for the production that Bell is leaving behind, and I believe that because Abdullah was used so much last year that he has the inside track to taking over for Bell. 1,000 yards is a possibility, but 800 and 8 scores is more realistic in nature.
Jake Ryan, ILB, GB- Linebacker seems to always be a topic of discussion for the Green and Gold, and this offseason was no different. Depth is always a topic matter, and when Ryan was drafted from the Maize and Blue last year, he stepped in and laid claim to another mid-round draft pick made by Ted Thompson that made a name for himself. With Sam Barrington coming back this year after his injury, Ryan’s role may be a bit more diminished. However, I believe that with his production last year, Ryan has a great chance to force the coach’s hands and carve out a role for him. Even with Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, Barrington, Julius Peppers, as well as new draftees Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell coming in, Ryan should get 60+ tackles, two sacks, and an interception.
Trae Waynes, CB, MIN- So Waynes did not have the type of season a first round pick should have. 26 tackles and 4 passes defended does not equal first-round grade in my book, but he has the talent there to make his draft selection worth it for Minnesota. They did just draft Mackenzie Alexander in the first round this year, so the leash may be a bit shorter for Waynes due to their willingness to keep drafting corners. Look for Waynes to come out and get 40 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 6 defended passes. If he does not, do not be surprised if he gets shopped in the offseason.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, ATL- By playing second fiddle to AJ Green in Cincy, Sanu learned the ropes of how to be successful as a wide receiver in the NFL. He caught passes from Andy Dalton, so he was blessed with playing with a top-15 QB. He does not really lose much by signing with the Falcons, as he still gets to play next to a top receiver in Julio Jones, and he has a top QB in Matt Ryan under center still. However, there may be a bit of a stress on the passing attack in Georgia at the beginning of the season at least due to Devonta Freeman’s workload being watched because of overwork and durability from last season. Sanu should get at least 800 yards and 9 scores this season, but 1,000 yards is more than feasible for both Jones and Sanu.
Devin Funchess, WR, CAR- Just what Carolina needs is another weapon. With Kelvin Benjamin having been lost last year for the entire season, someone needed to step up and fill his role as a receiver. Ted Ginn filled in admirably, having over 700 yards receiving last year. But Ginn most likely cannot be held to that same standard this year, and with Benjamin being worked back into a full workload, Funchess will continue his rapid development this year. 473 yards and 5 TDs on 31 receptions is a good stat line for a rookie, but the former Wolverine tight end has the promise to become a 1,000 yard receiver in his career. If Benjamin comes back very slowly this year, 900-1,000 is realistic. If Benjamin comes back at a fast pace, expect 800 yards and 8 scores from Funchess, which is still a vast improvement from last year.
Nick Fairley, DT, NO- When he was with Detroit, Fairley teamed up with Suh to create one hell of a great defensive tackle combination in the league. Now they both have left the Motor City, with Fairley making two stops after Detroit. Last year with the Rams, Fairley had a down year, encapsulated with the fact that even though he appeared in 15 games, he did not have a start. His 18 total tackles and one-half sack are both very low for a player of this caliber. Now in New Orleans, I believe that he can have a bounce-back campaign and have 30 tackles to go along with 3 sacks.
Vincent Jackson, WR, TB- Playing alongside Mike Evans and his 1,000+ yard season, Jackson had another successful campaign with 543 yards and 3 TDs. This was his lowest yardage total since 2010 with San Diego, but this was still a successful season. Jameis Winston obviously developed a level of trust quicker with Evans, but Jackson was still a focal point of the audience. Look for Jackson to get back to his normal numbers, with 900 yards and 7 TDs on 50 catches.
Morris Claiborne, CB, DAL- After being drafted in the first round in 2012, Claiborne has mostly been a disappointment for the Cowboys. Last year, he only had 37 tackles in 11 games, even though he did have 7 passes defended. For Morris to hold down his roster spot in Dallas, he must have a breakout season this year and I do believe he will (finally) live up to his draft projections. 45 tackles, 8 passes defended, and 3 interceptions should be around what he earns this year, and if he does not, he may be looking for a new team soon.
J.T. Thomas, OLB, NYG- After a stellar 2014 season with Jacksonville, Thomas came over to New York to shore up their linebacking core. He unfortunately did not have a good campaign in his first season with the Giants, recording 20 less tackles and no defended passes or interceptions. While 30 tackles constitutes a solid contribution, that is a low number for a starting linebacker, and I perceive that he will bounce back this year. He should have entrenched his spot as a starter just on sheer talent, and he should again have 80 tackles, 4 passes defended, and 2 interceptions.
Nigel Bradham, LB, PHI-Coming over from Rex Ryan and Buffalo, the Eagles will have high expectations for Bradham, even with him having regressed last season. Having 42 total tackles, one sack, and three passes defended is a solid line, but expect Bradham to turn in career numbers playing for Todd Peterson’s squad. 2014 in Buffalo was his best year, have 104 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one interception, and I fully expect Bradham to exceed these totals in 2016. 120 solo tackles, 5 defended passes, and 3 interceptions along with 4 sacks should put him back on the top-tier track for linebackers in the NFL.
Matt Jones, RB, WAS- Jones was the second-leading rusher on the Redskins last year, and with leading rusher Alfred Morris having left through free agency, the starting gig should fall to Jones now. With Chris Thompson the other back who receiving considerable playing time last season, plan on Jones to be worked into the starting role in his second season. The ceiling is very high, and his chance at reaching 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns is realistic, provided he cuts back on the fumbling issues he had last season.
David Johnson, RB, ARI- After being a relatively unknown out of Northern Iowa, Johnson broke onto the scene down the stretch last season, filling in admirable for Chris Johnson when injury issues came calling. Johnson had 12 total touchdowns last season, including four receiving on 457 yards. He rushed for 581 and eight touchdowns, meaning that 1,000 and 12 touchdowns is right in his range come 2016.
Dominique Easley, DT, LAR- After being drafted out of Florida by the Patriots, Easley never truly lived up to any hype surrounding him during his first two seasons in New England, prompting NE to release Easley and make him a free agent. The Rams, seeing how they needed to add defensive line depth, took a flier on Easley and signed him to a non-guaranteed “prove-it” contract to assess his worth. Easley will be on a short leash throughout the season, but I believe that with the Rams not having both Chris Long and Nick Fairley on their lines anymore, Easley has a chance to break out and become a diamond in the rough for them. 15 tackles, 4 sacks, and one forced fumble would show that Easley has more promise than once thought in 2016.
Carlos Hyde, RB, SF- Going into the 2016 season, Hyde has two seasons under his belt for developmental and production purposes, although neither of them have been full 16-game contests. Last season, Hyde was only available in seven games due to injury, yet still ran for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Early reports during the offseason are saying that Chip Kelly and the 49ers are planning on using Hyde more in passing situations as well, trying to get him into the game as much as possible due to his potential and explosiveness. Look for Hyde to leave 2015 in the dust, play all 16 games and run for 800 yards, 11 touchdowns, as well as have 300 receiving yards in his first full slate of games.
Thomas Rawls, RB, SEA- He may not be the most ideal breakout candidate for this team, but with as loaded as they are, it is hard to pick someone who has not already made a name for themselves. Rawls, who ran for 100+ yards in four games this past season in relief of Marshawn Lynch, is poised to take over the starting spot in the backfield with Russell Wilson in 2016. He ran for over 800 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2015, yet he still has room to grow. 1,200 yards and 9 rushing touchdowns, coupled with 250 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns in 2016, will have front office personnel members from all other 31 teams upset over not signing him.