Every year in the NFL there are multiple players who have huge jumps in their performances from prior seasons, and 2013 has been no different. Some of these players are building off of impressive past seasons, while others came out of absolutely nowhere. Without further ado, here are the top ten breakout players midway through the 2013 NFL season:
Back in 2010, no one would be surprised to learn that Burfict would be one of the league’s best linebackers by age 23. He was named an All-American after his sophomore year at Arizona State and was projected to be a high first-round pick. But then he lost all motivation, got into trouble off of the field, and had one of the worst combines in recent memory. His struggles led to him going undrafted, but the Bengals decided to take a flier on him. It might turn out to be one of the best decisions the team has ever made. Burfict is tied for the league lead in tackles this year with 90, and is getting better week to week. With Rey Maualuga now injured, Burfict will be asked to do even more on the field, and he should not disappoint.
I know; this one is a little questionable. Rivers has already made four Pro Bowls in his career and has led the Chargers to the playoffs four times. But after two awful seasons in 2011 and 2012, everyone around the NFL thought that Rivers was done. But with a new head coach and different weapons around him, Rivers is back in rare form. He is sixth in the league in passing yards, fourth in touchdown passes, and second in QBR among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. But more importantly, he has the Chargers in prime position to make a run at a wild card spot.
Even the not-so casual fan might not recognize this name, but there is a good chance that Verner will find himself in Hawaii after the season. This fourth-year cornerback out of UCLA is one of the main reasons that the Titans boast one of the best defenses in the league. Verner is tied for the league lead in interceptions with four and is tied for second in passes defended with 13, and he has done so while matching up against other team’s best receivers. He almost single-handedly won the Titans’ game against the Jets, where he intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble.
Justin Houston is not exactly a no name, as he was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year. But no one thought he would be this good in 2013. Houston is a half-sack off of the league lead with 11, and is a major reason that the Chiefs have the league’s best record at 9-0. He is third in the league in quarterback hurries and seems to be in the backfield on every play. Yes, Houston does play on the league’s best defense and might not even be the best pass rusher on his team (Tamba Hali). But Houston’s impact has been undeniable, and he might as well book his plane ticket to Hawaii for his second Pro Bowl.
If you need some general background on Vasquez, he is the right guard of the Denver Broncos. And he might be the most underappreciated player in the NFL. Vasquez came over in the offseason from the Chargers to find the Broncos offensive line in shambles. Ryan Clady was lost for the season due to injury, as were the top two centers on the depth chart. But Vasquez has been the anchor of the line, and the Broncos offense has seen results. Peyton Manning has been given enough time to pass for otherworldly numbers, and the running game has emerged as a legitimate threat to defenses. Vasquez might not deserve all of the credit for the Broncos offense, but he definitely deserves a lot of it.
Coming into the season, it was uncertain who would take over as the leading receiver for the Steelers after the team lost Mike Wallace in free agency. Antonio Brown had a 1,000-yard season in 2011, so he was the favorite to win the job despite physical concerns. Now halfway through the season, it seems ridiculous to think that there were any doubts concerning Brown. He leads the league with 61 receptions and is ninth in receiving yards. The Steelers may be struggling as a team, but Brown has nothing to do with that. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 as a kick returner, and now he can expect to go back this year as a wide receiver.
If this list were comprised four games through the season as opposed to eight, then Cameron probably would have been at the top of it. In this first quarter of the season alone Cameron had 30 catches, 360 yards, and 5 touchdowns. He has crashed down to reality since then, but there is no doubt that he is now among the elite tight ends in the league. He still remains in the top ten in the league in both receptions and receiving touchdowns, and he has done so with three different quarterbacks under center for the Browns. Cameron is still only 25 years old, so if he can get a dependable quarterback throwing him the ball then his potential will be limitless.
Last year in his sophomore season, Quinn quietly notched 10.5 sacks for the St. Louis Rams. This year he is already at 10 sacks at the halfway point, and it has not been quiet at all. Quinn has emerged as a star pass rusher, and with Chris Long opposite him the Rams have the best defensive end combination in the league. His 10 sacks are good enough for fourth in the league, and his 4 forced fumbles are tied for the most. Quinn’s coming out party came against the Seahawks on a Monday night, when he sacked Russell Wilson three times in the first half. That performance was no fluke, as Quinn’s combination of speed and power is very real. The scary thing is that he is only 23 years old, so Quinn should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks for years to come.
Finally! This is Moreno’s fifth year as a member of the Denver Broncos, but for the first time in his career he has been the player the Broncos envisioned when they drafted him twelfth overall in 2009. Ironically, this was the year when preseason expectations for Moreno were at an all-time low. The Broncos drafted Montee Ball to be their running back of the future, and Ronnie Hillman was supposed to get a bulk of the carries. But Moreno won the starting job because of his pass-blocking skills, and he has not turned back since. In addition to keep Peyton Manning upright, he has rushed for over 450 yards and leads the league with 8 rushing touchdowns. Moreno has also been a weapon in the passing game, catching 29 passes for 287 yards. Manning has undoubtedly been the MVP of the Broncos, but their offense would not even be close to where it is today if were not for the contributions of Moreno.
Coming into this season, Jets fans had practically nothing to be excited about. The offense had no identity, and the leader of the defense (Darrelle Revis) was traded away. But after nine games the Jets are 5-4, and Wilkerson has been the key reason for their success. Normally it would be unrealistic to give a defensive end the majority of the credit for a massive team turnaround, but Wilkerson actually has been that good. The third-year pro out of Temple had two promising years to begin his career, but he has advanced leaps and bounds in his third season. Even as a 3-4 end, he already has 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. But stats do not show his real value. Wilkerson is in the backfield on virtually every play, whether it be a pass or run. Wilkerson’s progression is not quite equal to J.J. Watt’s from last season, but he is not as far off as you might think. He is already the second best end in football behind Watt, and is emerging as one of the best overall players in the league as well. If Wilkerson’s domination is news to you, then start paying attention.