As the league continues to be pass oriented, receiver breakouts are becoming a common occurrence these days. Last year you had players such as Golden Tate and Emmanuel Sanders who burst onto the scene in their first year on new teams. Then DeAndre Hopkins had your more typical breakout season as he emerged in his second year as the Texans top option. And unlike any other, 2014 was the year of the rookie receiver. It seemed almost every team had a young wideout showing flashes of potential. On top of that Odell Beckham and Mike Evans cemented themselves as some of the games top young talents at the position.
The players I see breaking out at the position this year are all from the heralded 2014 class. They all showed flashes in their rookie seasons, but figure to benefit from seeing more targets in their direction. One thing that will be apparent is that the 2014 draft when it comes to receivers is the gift that just keeps on giving.
Brandin Cooks, Saints: Before a thumb injury cut his rookie season short, Cooks was on pace to catch around 85 passes for the Saints. With both Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills out of the picture, it wouldn’t be surprising if that number was around 100 in 2015. Cooks gives Drew Brees a dynamic that he has never had in his career. Over the years, he has had plenty of players who are productive on short screens (Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush) or deep threats (Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem), but never has had a player with both traits.
Cooks has shown in the ten games he did play the potential to do both of those things at a very high level. Of the five receivers selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, Cooks’ rookie season was the most normal in comparison to your normal crop of rookie wideouts. Chances are after this year he will have certainly done enough to once again be discussed with those other receivers.
Davante Adams, Packers: Slated to be the third option with the league’s best quarterback at the helm, Adams has been someone I had been viewing as a breakout candidate throughout the offseason. Now with the unfortunate loss of Jordy Nelson for the season, I’m even more confident that Adams will show everyone what he is capable of. Due to Nelson’s absence, there are 151 Aaron Rodgers targets from last season that will need to be distributed. Obviously Randall Cobb will receive more and others such as Richard Rodgers or Jeff Janis will see upticks in usage. But odds are at least 110 to 120 of those will be headed Adams’ way.
By the end of the year, Rodgers and Adams had formed a nice little rapport and it appeared clear Rodgers trusted him when need be. This and the increased knowledge of a complex offense will only help Adams going into what is now a bigger role than he would have ever expected. Obviously Nelson not being out there will be a huge blow to the Packers, but Adams has the talent to soften the loss. A 1,000 yard season is certainly in play here.
Jordan Matthews, Eagles: Like Adams, Matthews is expecting to see a big increase in usage due to the loss of his team’s leading receiver from last year. In Matthews’ case though, Jeremy Maclin left for the Chiefs in the offseason and has had more time to prepare for the challenge. Regardless of who was throwing him the ball, Matthews was productive and with a 6’3’ 212 pound frame to go with plus route running he was a force in the slot. A comparison I’ve seen for Matthews that I find accurate would be a more athletic Marques Colston.
Like Colston, Matthews knows how to use his size against smaller defensive backs and just finds ways to continue getting open. It’s worth noting that with Maclin leaving, that frees up 143 targets to be distributed amongst Eagles receivers. Matthews should be the prime beneficiary here as word is he has looked fantastic all offseason. A season with 1,200 plus yards and double digit touchdowns is a very realistic possibility.
Allen Robinson, Jaguars: This year marks the 10 year anniversary of when the Jaguars last had a 1,000 yard receiver. Yes, you read that correctly. Whether it has been bad quarterback play, substance abuse issues or injuries the team just hasn’t been able to find that consistent threat in the passing game. Robinson looks like the guy that could end this trend. While a broken foot ended his rookie season prematurely, he flashed the type of skills a team would want in their number one receiver.
At 6’3’ 210, Robinson has the size to go up over defenders but also showed an impressive ability after the catch. He plucks the ball out of the air and can also outmuscle defensive backs. The main question really surrounding Robinson entering year two is what kind of play he will get from Blake Bortles. As someone who has previously mentioned they expect Bortles to show growth, I believe he will give Robinson enough opportunities to continue developing into the player he is capable of.
John Brown, Cardinals: Despite both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the roster, there is a chance Brown will be the Cardinals leading receiver at the end of the year. Both Carson Palmer and head coach Bruce Arians have gone to great lengths praising him this offseason while adding ten pounds of muscle this offseason should help him better withstand the season long wear and tear. While he proved last year what he can do as a deep threat, Brown showing more on short to intermediate routes is what could really set him apart. If Palmer could manage to stay healthy (yes, that’s a big one) there is a good chance people will realize Arians may have left the Colts three years ago, but he has his own T.Y. Hilton equivalent.
Jarvis Landry, Dolphins: Timing can be a funny thing. Almost any other year a rookie season where you haul in 84 passes is a huge deal. Unfortunately for Landry he’s known by many casual fans as “Odell Beckham’s college teammate”. That won’t be the train of thought by the end of the year. Landry proved in his rookie year that people still put too much emphasis on combine numbers as while the great straight line speed may be lacking, he can flat out play.
He quickly became one of Ryan Tannehill’s favorite targets hauling in a fantastic 75 percent of the passes thrown his way. In a Dolphins passing attack that is expected to build off last season, Landry figures to continue doing his thing in short to intermediate routes and creating after the catch. Both 100 catches and 1,000 yards appear like they could be very realistic possibilities.
Martavis Bryant, Steelers: Do you like receivers with big play potential opposite an elite wideout in a potent offense? Than Bryant is the player for you! Last year in ten games Bryant averaged a whopping 21.1 yards per reception while recording 549 yards and eight touchdowns. Despite that, it is no sure thing Bryant will start entering this season. Early signs have pointed to Markus Wheaton starting opposite Antonio Brown to begin the year. Regardless, there will be more targets available to Bryant than there was in his 2014 campaign.
Last year playing in only ten games, 48 passes were thrown in Bryant’s direction last year. Even if he is only the third receiver, chances are Ben Roethlisberger will throw 60 to 70 passes in his direction this year assuming he will be playing in more games. Compared to some of the others mentioned in this piece, Bryant is still relatively raw despite them all being at the same point in his career. This may not be his true “breakout” year and it is inevitable that the yards per catch should decrease, but at the least he is going to build off of his strong results last season.