By Zack Levine
Every NFL season features several running backs that quickly become household names either during their rookie season or after a year or two of development.
Last season, there was rookie Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins who recorded over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Trent Richardson also had a great season for the Cleveland Browns by rushing for 950 yards and making 11 end zone appearances.
There are three scenarios that stimulate the possibility of a running back having a breakout season.
The first is if it is the rookie season of the player. Rookie tailbacks have a high chance of being breakout candidates because despite all the scouting and film-watching, coaches don’t really know what they’re getting until he gets on the field.
A fresh start could also indicate that a player will have a breakout season. Sometimes, a new place and a new look can create an entirely new opportunity. An example of this would be how Michael Turner became of the NFL's most valuable running backs for the Atlanta Falcons immediately after leaving the San Diego Chargers and the shadow of LaDainian Tomlinson.
The third place to look for a breakout candidate is in training camp when there is a battle at the running back position. The player that steps up and wins the starting job should be able to continue that momentum going into the season.
Here are several 2013 breakout candidates at the running back position:
Chris Ivory, New York Jets
Ivory is one of those backs that has been given chances due to the players ahead of him getting injured. Whenever the Saints gave Ivory carries, he always ran like he was finally getting his big break. The Saints never made him their feature back, however, and now he has a chance to be one with the Jets.
The Jets' offense currently is filled with uncertainty, with no solid starter at quarterback or running back. Ivory will certainly have the opportunity to earn the starting job, and if he runs like he did when he got his opportunities with New Orleans, there’s a good chance he has an excellent year.
Giovanni Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard is a dynamic player out of North Carolina who was the first running back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. You’ll have trouble finding a more patient runner who waits for blocks to develop before he attacks the hole. In the open field, Bernard is shifty and his low center of gravity makes him difficult to bring down. He has the ability to score every time he touches the ball and is even a dangerous weapon in the return game.
The Bengals currently have BenJarvus Green-Ellis plugged in as their starter, but he was inconsistent last season and uncharacteristically struggled to hold onto the football. If that trend continues, don’t be surprised to see Bernard get substantial playing time early in the season. He certainly has the skills to be a breakout performer for the Bengals.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
This is scenario number three, where there will be a battle during training camp and throughout the preseason that will determine the week one starter. The Dolphins let Reggie Bush walk this offseason and picked up rookie Mike Gillislee from Florida in the draft. That means that Gillislee, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller will be competing for the starting running back job this summer.
Miller should be able to beat out the rookie and the injury-plagued and inconsistent Thomas. When he does, he will be able to truly showcase his talent and expand on the good things he did last season. Although he only carried the ball 51 times in 2012, Miller averaged an excellent 4.9 yards per carry. If he becomes the Dolphins’ starter and keeps his yards per carry average that high, he will be a tough problem for defenses to deal with throughout the season.
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh finally gave up on the Rashard Mendenhal and decided to look for a running back in the draft. They found former Michigan State standout Le’Veon Bell. A physical yet athletic runner, Bell should fit perfectly into what the Steelers try to do with their running game.
Another reason Bell could be primed for a breakout season is that Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to be too thrilled with any of the backs currently on its roster. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey have all been effective at times, but never consistently. If Mike Tomlin gives Bell significant carries, the rookie could have a season similar to the one Alfred Morris enjoyed last year.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff Demps, Tampa Bay; Ryan Williams, Arizona; Daryl Richardson, St. Louis.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets
By Jeff Risdon
The first round of the 2013 NFL Draft on Thursday will be remembered as the Year of the Lineman, as nine of the 32 picks were offensive linemen. Other intriguing developments caught my eye as well, some positive and some negative.
-- To the wild unpredictability of this year’s draft. I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating: I have better contacts with more teams than ever before, yet this is the year I knew what fewer teams were going to do than ever before. Once I got past the professional humiliation of having a wildly inaccurate mock draft, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not knowing what was going to happen was titillating, like riding a roller coaster with a blindfold. I run a Detroit Lions' draft website and I honestly had very little idea who the team was going to pick until about 15 minutes before they were on the clock. Beat writers for just about every team fumbled and balked on answering direct draft questions because they had no clue either. It made for the most exciting first night of the draft I can remember.
-- To the Kansas City Chiefs for opting on Eric Fisher as the #1 overall pick. I like Luke Joeckel and I think he’ll be a very good tackle for a long time, but Fisher offers the chance of Joe Thomas-esque greatness. When you have the #1 pick, you have to go for greatness. The Chiefs made the correct choice, even if it scuttled what my team (the Lions) had planned.
-- To only having one quarterback in the first round. Never mind that it was E.J. Manuel, a player I graded out as a fifth round prospect. The bellyaching over the relative lousiness of this quarterback class led everyone to histrionics about how big of a mistake some teams were going to make in selecting Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, and Ryan Nassib in the first round. Guess what…it didn’t happen. Either the teams listened or they knew it on their own. Either way, it’s a positive for both the teams and the quarterbacks themselves, who are now in a much more favorable position to succeed with a lot less pressure to do so off the bat.
-- To the Carolina Panthers, who made what I believe to be the best pick of the first round by taking Star Lotulelei at No. 14 overall. Star fills what is by far the biggest need on the team, and he was a top 3 overall talent before the pesky heart issue at the Combine. He’s also an outstanding foil to Mark Ingram, Steven Jackson, and Doug Martin within the division.
Other picks I liked: Cleveland Browns/Keke Mingo, Cincinnati Bengals/Tyler Eifert, the Dolphins trading up for Dion Jordan, Lions/Ziggy Ansah, San Diego Chargers/D.J. Fluker and the St. Louis Rams trading up for Tavon Austin and down for Alec Ogletree.
-- To the early run on interior offensive linemen. I’m actually okay with the Cardinals taking Jonathan Cooper at 7, because the North Carolina guard is an immediate above-average starter and it fills what is unquestionably the weakest position on the team. I would like him a lot better at 14 instead of seven, but the Cards did what they had to do. Chance Warmack is one of the few guards worthy of top 10 consideration as well, but he goes to the Titans, who broke the bank to import free agent Andy Levitre. Now Tennessee has a massive investment at the guard position, traditionally the one spot on the field where teams skimp to save money for the skill position players. They have what should be the best guard tandem in the AFC, but they still don’t have a passing game that scares anyone but their own fan base or the ability to stop any other team’s passing game with a pass rush. But what really points the thumb down is the later picks. Justin Pugh, Travis Frederick and especially Kyle long (more on him below) are all horrible value picks in the first round in descending order. Yes, the teams who took them (the Giants, Cowboys, and Bears respectively) absolutely needed help at the positions. But first round interior linemen are supposed to be players with such overwhelming and obvious talent. None of these guys fits the bill, and none really help their teams as much as other players available could have in the long run.
Other picks I didn’t like: I really like DJ Hayden, No. 12 overall is too high for the Oakland Raiders. The Atlanta Falcons traded up for the wrong cornerback, taking overrated Desmond Trufant instead of Jamar Taylor or either Mississippi State player, Johnthan Banks or Darius Slay.
-- To the Minnesota Vikings, who made three picks in the twenties. Holding onto their original selections at 23 and 25, they took Florida DT Sharrif Floyd and Florida State CB Xavier Rhodes. Not content to call it a day, GM Rick Speilman engineered a trade with the (who else?) New England Patriots to move back into the first round. Every single person covering the draft presumed the move was made to acquire Manti Te’o, including the team’s own beat writers, who Tweeted out that Te’o was the pick. Except the Vikings took Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Pattterson instead. Believe it or not I actually like the picks in inverse order; Patterson has game-changing potential at should have gone at 23, while Rhodes is one of the more overhyped players in this draft. Rhodes benefitted from fitting the physical profile of the big corners in Seattle, never mind that he is a holding machine with iffy instincts. Floyd is an intriguing player who will be widely seen as one of the perceived “fallers” in this draft, though 23rd is about where he belonged. However, they selected Floyd over Sylvester Williams, a better player and a better scheme fit. And they passed on Te’o, who for all the criticism he’s taken would have been an excellent fit for the Vikings as well. This is a “chips all in” move for the Vikings to try and win with Adrian Peterson still in his prime, and it made them a better team for sure. I’m just not sold that they couldn’t have made themselves even better with some savvier choices.
-- To the pick “spoilers”. I applaud both the NFL Network and ESPN for refraining from revealing the selections before Roger Goodell announces them at the podium, eliminating the cutaway shots of players on the phone. The vast majority of viewers didn’t want to see that, and the networks responded. Good for them. But at the same time I admit to harboring curiosity about who really knew what was about to go down. I also get Jay Glazer’s point about wanting a 100 percent accurate mock draft but then complaining about having to wait an extra minute to find out if it’s really correct. Guys like Jason LaCanfora are just doing their jobs by tweeting out the names before they are delivered to the podium. I like that both options are available, but if you are someone who must know the pick before the tension and suspense are broken by the Commissioner, well, I just don’t understand why you want to eat the dessert before the steak.
-- To the Chicago Bears, for taking Oregon guard Kyle Long with the 20th overall pick. This pick is the second-biggest reach in terms of value that I have ever seen. The biggest also happens this ear with EJ Manuel, a fifth round talent, but at least he’s a quarterback and even his harshest critics acknowledge that if the light bulb ever turns on, he could be very good. Plus he plays a premium position where reaches are not uncommon.
If Manuel is a 100 watt bulb, Long is the 40 watt soft white light. Long wound up with the 114th highest grade of the nearly 200 players we graded out at detroitlionsdraft.com, a solid 4th round value at what is arguably the least-coveted position on any football team. The Bears got caught up in the run on offensive linemen and name value (he’s Howie Long’s son and Chris Long’s brother) and executed a ridiculous reach. Even if Long becomes a serviceable starting guard, which he probably will, there is no value at all in taking him at 20. Teams cannot panic for an interior lineman.
The Dallas Cowboys did the same with Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, but they at least traded back to do so and I also had Frederick rated a lot higher (63rd) than Long. A team with a decrepitly aging defense ignores some excellent talent (Bjoern Werner was a perfect fit, Sylvester Williams or Datone Jones also made great value sense there) and makes a huge reach for a guard who started less than 10 games at the BCS level and was not real impressive during Senior Bowl week. That is a horrible fail by GM Phil Emery and the Bears staff.
Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons
By Michael Milliron
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off of a mediocre 8-8 season in 2012 in which they failed to make the playoffs. On offense, as has become the norm, Ben Roethlisberger missed some games (three) and the offense mounted nothing close to a consistent ground game. Defensively, the Steelers were statistically very good (first in the NFL in yards allowed per game at 275.8), however, the unit did not come up with many game-changing impact plays, sacks (37), tackles for loss (44), and interceptions (10).
Many changes were clearly in store for a cap-strapped football team and many have already taken place. Two starters entering the prime of their careers, wide receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis were allowed to leave and signed with the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, respectively. Stalwart defensive menace, linebacker James Harrison has joined the Cincinnati Bengals after a contract impasse with the organization.
Oft-injured veteran offensive lineman Willie Colon was released. Maligned running back Rashard Mendenhall signed with his old offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals. Backup safeties Will Allen (Dallas Cowboys) and Ryan Mundy (New York Giants) landed elsewhere. While still possible, it is unlikely that either longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton or offensive tackle Max Starks will be back with the team.
While the first wave of free agency is usually a spectator sport in Pittsburgh, there was some drama, as well as some positive developments on the personnel front. The Steelers seemingly won a game of "chicken" with the rival New England Patriots, when they matched a restricted free agent offer sheet to receiver Emmanuel Sanders for $2.5 million. They would have been better off taking New England's third round pick (91st pick of the draft) as compensation, as the Steelers have a lot of needs and Sanders is not likely to sign beyond 2013.
Better free agent receiving options could have been pursued such as Brandon Lloyd, who would play very well with Roethlisberger's sandlot style of quarterbacking. Lloyd stays alive and makes great catches and big plays. Devery Henderson could provide a "Mike Wallace-Lite" element to the passing game with his speed to open up the underneath passing attack for the Steelers while making the occasional big strike downfield.
The nose tackle of the future - and seemingly the present - Steve McClendon not only signed his restricted $1.3 million dollar free agent tender, but the Steelers also extended him with a three - year $7.25 million dollar deal. Veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote resigned for another go around in the black and gold, as well as, backup inside linebacker Sylvester Stevenson. Veteran starting guard Ramon Foster, who was an unrestricted free agent, was also resigned to a new three - year deal. He can also play right tackle if necessary.
Some former Steelers were brought back to provide both depth and lessen needs going into the draft, including tight ends Matt Spaeth and D.J. Johnson, as well as former starting cornerback William Gay. Receiver Plaxico Burress is back for 2013 after signing during the 2012 season and making little impact.
Restricted free agent running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer both signed their one-year restricted free agent tenders. Pittsburgh looked at free agents Ahmad Bradshaw and Beanie Wells, but neither received a contract offer. Running back is a clear need in either the draft or the second wave of free agency. Redman is an underrated third down back though, as he can run, block and catch.
The only true free agent signed who had never been previously with the Steelers was QB Bruce Gradkowski, who is originally from Pittsburgh. Gradkowski represents a younger, more mobile option behind Roethlisberger, as opposed to aging veterans Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. The Steelers could look to bring in a developmental QB in the middle rounds of the draft if someone they like falls to them, perhaps Tennessee's Tyler Bray, but it would be difficult for the Steelers to draft a quarterback before the fifth round with all of their pressing needs.
Last year's draft class was a mixed bag for the Steelers. Injuries kept first round guard David DeCastro out until the final four games, but he has considerable promise. Character concerns will be even more paramount for the team in 2013 after nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu led Pittsburgh Police on a car chase. He was charged with DUI and subsequently is on probation. Running back Chris Rainey, who was a very good return man and showed some promise as a change of pace back from scrimmage last year was released after an incident with his girlfriend in Florida.
A character concern coming into the draft caused Mike Adams to fall to the second round to Pittsburgh. When the Steelers had a 100-yard running back three times last season, Adams was at right tackle. The Steelers hope he can avoid injury and become a consistent road grader there as they try to get back to being a consistently good running team. His pass protection still needs work, however, as speed rushers can give him fits.
Inside linebacker Sean Spence may not yet be ready for 2013 after sustaining a horrific knee injury in the preseason a year ago. Tight end David Paulson made the team and got some significant playing time behind Heath Miller. Offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum was a find in the seventh round and played well when called upon at tackle and guard when the Steelers suffered their seemingly annual offensive line injury issues.
The Steelers, who build primarily through the draft, typically like to take the top rated player on their board regardless of position. That should not be difficult for them to do this year, due to all of their needs, and the age of their team at many positions, where some young athleticism would be welcomed over the next couple of years. If the opportunity presents itself, the Steelers may trade down to try to get more picks and address even more needs throughout the course of the three-day draft affair.
They likely will not go for a QB until the middle rounds, and they will also likely stay off of offensive line early due to the high round talent infusion over the last several years, but if someone falls to them like DeCastro did last year at number 17 this year, it could give them pause.
The following is a 2013 "Fantasy Draft" for the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Round 1., Pick # 17 – Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida St. – The focus at the cornerback position has been young nickel back Cortez Allen taking over for the departed Lewis. However, veteran Ike Taylor is thirty - three years old and could hit the wall at any time, as he tries to stay with the NFL's fleet receivers. The Steelers could need a new starter opposite Allen as soon as 2014. Enter Rhodes, who is an outstanding all-around prospect coming out as a junior. He has a frame in the Mel Blount, Rod Woodson mold at 6'1", 215 lbs. Rhodes can support against the run, while also having the hips, speed, and athleticism to turn and run with receivers while providing good coverage. Certainly, to mention Rhodes in a conversation with Blount and Woodson is extremely premature, but he has a ton of potential and the making of an excellent football player for years to come.
Round 2., Pick # 48 – D. J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina – The Steelers are extremely old at safety with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Even though both still possess Pro Bowl cache, some new talented blood is needed. It is a matter of when, not if Polamalu becomes a cap casualty at some point. Pittsburgh lost both backup safeties to free agency. The team feels that safety Robert Golden has some promise, but he is still largely an unknown. Swearinger is an intimidating, instinctive playmaker from the SEC. He can be overly aggressive at times, but the rewards often far outweigh the risks...sound familiar? He can play at either safety position, which is a plus, in terms of both personnel, as well as, coverage and blitz options for Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau. Swearinger could play in nickel and dime defenses this year while tearing up special teams and be ready for a starting spot in 2014
Round 3., Pick # 79 – Sio Moore, LB, Connecticut – Moore is a bit like Head Coach Mike Tomlin's first ever pick with the Steelers, Lawrence Timmons - a "run and hit" linebacker. He is not the master of any one skill, whether it be rushing the passer, or being stout against the run, but during the course of a game, he just makes plays, whether it be beating a 300 lb. tackle on the edge or shedding a block and stopping the ball carrier. Moore can do it all, but he has to develop more consistency against better competition than he went against in the Big East. He has a nasty demeanor which should fit in well with a defense losing Harrison. Moore does not have ideal size at 6'1", 245 lbs. to play outside in a 3-4, but he can add 10 - 15 lbs. and adapt to that position in the NFL. If he would not make it outside, he could always move inside to replace Foote. The Steelers need another playmaking linebacker with attitude - and Moore fits the bill.
Round 4., Pick # 115 – Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M – The Steelers are trying to avoid any character concerns this year, but when perhaps the most talented back in the draft is available in the fourth round at a position of need - no less - you pounce on the opportunity. Michael runs with speed and power with a 4.47 in the forty and a 5'10", 220 lb. frame. He can be a lead back and handle 20 carries a game while also being a factor in the passing game. His talent did not produce the expected results at A&M, as he often found himself in the dog house. However, if he can turn things around from an attitude perspective going from college to the pros like former Steelers running back Willie Parker did, Pittsburgh could have itself a legit threat at running back.
Round 5., Pick # 150 – Tavarres King, WR, Georgia – Pittsburgh could certainly pick a receiver a lot higher than this, with possibly even Cordarrelle Patterson or Tavon Austin in the first round, but the team has had considerable success picking receivers in the mid to late rounds. Wallace and Sanders were third - round picks, while Antonio Brown was a sixth - rounder. King is a speedy, angular receiver who could be Sanders' replacement as soon as next season. He can get deep, as his career 19 - yard per catch average in the SEC demonstrates. King will need to refine his route running and show toughness breaking away from NFL defensive backs and going across the middle. As a work in progress, he has a lot of upside while bringing a big play threat and ability.
Round 6., Pick # 186 – Montori Hughes, NT, Tennessee - Martin – Hughes could be a poor man's Dontari Poe as a nose tackle, bringing considerable ability after playing at a lower level of football after washing out at a major program (Tennessee) earlier in his career. He has a massive frame at 6'4", 330 lbs. that would look good on the nose of an NFL defensive line. Hughes is far from a finished product, as his technique needs work going from Tenessee - Martin to the NFL, as he stands up too much, but he has the ability to anchor a team defensively against the run. He could be a rotation player for the Steelers providing depth as McClendon has never held the full - time nose tackle job before and Ta'amu is one more mistake away from being a former Steeler.
Round 6., Pick # 206 (compensatory pick) – Kapron Lewis - Moore, DE, Notre Dame – This could be a pick with more of 2014 being in mind than 2013, as Lewis - Moore tore his ACL in the national championship game against Alabama. Until his injury, the big, 6'4", 298 lbs., natural 3-4 defensive end was one of the primary reasons for Notre Dame having one of the best defenses in the country. Lewis - Moore has a great attitude and brings a lot of leadership to a team. He is stout against the run and occupies offensive linemen well, allowing the linebackers to make plays - perfect for Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme. Defensive end Brett Keisel is not getting any younger, Ziggy Hood is an impending free agent to be in 2014, and former first - round pick Cameron Heyward has yet to establish himself as a full time, consistent starting end. The Steelers getting a late value pick here with a quality player coming off of injury could prove to be invaluable.
Round 7., Pick # 223 – John Wetzel, OT, Boston College – The Steelers are always looking for tough, big - bodied linemen who have the ability to play multiple positions. At this point in the draft, Wetzel fits the mold - he is big at 6'7", 315 lbs. and started at left tackle for Boston College in 2011, but moved to the right side in 2012 and was a better player this past season. He is considered as somewhat of a plodder and does not figure as a starting left tackle in the NFL, which is why he will be a later round pick. That said, his experience and size may allow him to be an effective swing tackle off of the bench for the Steelers. Wetzel could either be a bench lineman this year along with Beachum and John Malecki, or at worst, be a good practice squad candidate who could be ready to earn a roster spot in 2014 after a year of seasoning.
For a team like the Steelers, no one draft can address all of the team's immediate and future needs, but the organization is looking for prospects that can provide an impact sooner as opposed to later, who will also merit being resigned after their rookie deals. There have been more busts over the last five years which directly led to playoff failures and the mediocrity that the team currently finds itself in.
GM Kevin Colbert and Tomlin will look to improve depth at some positions via the second wave of free agency - post draft - with perhaps a veteran receiver and running back, possibly even a pass rusher and maybe even find a starter or two. However, the Steelers do their damage in the draft and the 2013 haul will be as pivotal as ever to the team's ability to consistently contend for the playoffs.
This is one of the strangest drafts ever. It's two days before the draft and we still don't know who will be the No. 1 pick. Enjoy the unexpected twists and turns and embrace the fact that nobody knows what is going to happen!
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Some of these have basis in legitimate info gathered. Some are reading between some lines that may or may not exist. Some are wild figments of imaginary vision of the draft.
Dion Jordan, Eric Fisher, Tavon Austin, Shariff Floyd, Jonathan Cooper, Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Gavin Escobar and Ryan Swope make this year's list.
People are always seeking out Jeff Risdon with their draft questions. In this edition, he answers several of the more intriguing ones.
Luke Joeckel at the top of the draft, Ezekiel Anash at No. 2, two quarterbacks in the top-10 and more in an uncertain draft.