Happy Wednesday, friends. It’s time for another question from the mailbag. We solicited your questions, and you’ve been sending them. If you just now thought of something, hit us up here. For today, Kaleb Harvey writes:
Every year a few players break out like Zane Beadles and Chris Harris did this year. And also players that take on a bigger than expected role like Tony Carter and Wesley Woodyard. Who are your picks for breakout players for next year?
That’s a good question. I can see some players on both offense and defense stepping up their games, so I’m actually going to break this into two articles, beginning with offense today, and ending with defense tomorrow.
I think, for starters, that it’s easy to point to Ronnie Hillman as a guy who could make a big leap in his second season. He was the youngest player in the NFL, and it often showed. He has a lot of talent, but there’s a good deal of work to do there on both technique and physical ability.
The reason Hillman didn’t see the field as much in 2012 as he probably would have liked was that he was untrustworthy as a pass protector. He also didn’t show much as a receiver, so when he was on the field, defenses pretty much knew that he was either getting a handoff, or would be used in play action. (His use in play action is an indirect tactic to improve pass protection, because it misdirects rushers.) Defenses would know it wasn't a dropback pass when he was out there, and that's a handicap for an offense.
One thing that Hillman can do is work hard in the offseason training program. He really could stand to add strength through an NFL weight training program, and his technique as both a blocker and receiver has a lot of room to grow.
I have always believed that the biggest leap an NFL player takes comes between his rookie and second seasons, and that the reason for that leap is the offseason program. When you’re a rookie, you have a couple of minicamps, but those are primarily centered on initial installation of schemes. Training camp features some coaching of technique, but again, there’s a lot of installation activity going on.
The offseason program is where gains are made, both in terms of physical ability and technique. I think that’s why we saw the emergence of second-year guys like Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, and Chris Harris in 2012. We also saw leaps from third-year players like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Zane Beadles, and J.D. Walton, who participated in their first offseason program, after 2011’s never occurred due to the lockout.
I think that Hillman has some similarity to Philly's LeSean McCoy, and if he can improve his blocking, we should expect to see him on the field more often in 2013. If he can actually get some carries where the defense isn’t certain that he’ll be running or faking the run, he’s likely to find some more big holes than he did in 2012.
Another offensive guy to watch for is Brock Osweiler. Make no mistake, the Broncos need him to take a leap as well. We won’t hopefully see his improvement on the field during regular season games, but he needs to take full advantage of the offseason program as well, so that he can prepare himself to someday be a starting QB.
I’ll be very interested to watch Osweiler’s play in the preseason, and I’ll want to see him emulating some things that Peyton Manning does, and playing with precision. As a rookie, he looked lost at times; as a second-year backup QB, we’ll want to see some confidence and command in him.
I could also see Virgil Green starting to take more snaps from Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. He has a lot of ability as a receiver that hasn’t been mined yet. He’s already a good blocker, which is why he plays, and Julius Thomas stays inactive.
As for Thomas, it might be time to cut the cord; two years on scholarship, with no apparent emergence is probably enough. He’s going to need to have a great offseason program and training camp, in order to change his status quo.
On the offensive line, for a deep sleeper, I’m taking Pat Kirwan’s word for it when I say to watch out for Quentin Saulsberry. According to Pat, Saulsberry was blowing people up at times in Vikings training camp last summer, and he was very surprised that he didn’t make the team’s final cut.
I haven’t seen Saulsberry do much with my own eyes, but a second-year center/guard who plays with power can advance himself pretty far with a good offseason program and camp. I’m sure the Broncos wouldn’t mind having a plan in place for the post-Kuper era at RG, and Saulsberry (or Philip Blake, for that matter) could insert himself into that mix this spring and summer.
That’s all I have for today. Check back tomorrow, and we’ll talk about some guys who could take a leap on defense in 2013. That side of the ball has more exciting guys than the offense, to me, so don’t miss it.