Most of those preseason stars who slalomed their way into the end zone or smashed into ball carriers now get to watch the real elite NFL players take the stage.
Some of them might even join the upper echelon in 2015. Here are some players on the verge of breakthroughs to keep an eye on:
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins. Entering his fourth pro season, Tannehill should be well past the baby steps he needed coming out of college, where he was a receiver for portions of his career. Miami believes he’s their franchise guy and paid him accordingly.
Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders. Murray didn’t get into a game as a rookie and started only three games last season. But he made a strong impression with 5.2 yards per carry and also can catch the ball.
Chris Ivory, RB, Jets. A powerful runner with an upright style that can invite big hits from defenses, if Ivory can stay healthy and determined, he could be a force in the Meadowlands.
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders. Yes, another Raider — and a rookie, to boot. With an entrenched quarterback in Derek Carr, with whom Cooper already has a good rapport, the fourth overall draft pick could be a game breaker from the outset.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers. We like Martavis Bryant for this role, too, but he’s suspended for four games, so Wheaton gets his chance. If he can produce, Ben Roethlisberger will find him. Plenty.
Eric Ebron, TE, Lions. Ebron caught only 25 passes as a rookie, but now is the time for him to step ahead of Brandon Pettigrew to become an added focal point in Detroit’s passing game.
D.J. Fluker, OT, Chargers. After a solid rookie year, Fluker moves from right tackle to guard, where he can use his bulk more effectively.
Russell Bodine, C Bengals. One of several rookies in 2014 who made their mark at center, Bodine started every game and got better all season. Now he can set his sights on Pro Bowl recognition.
Ziggy Ansah, DE, Lions. Ndamukong Suh is gone and someone must emerge in the Motor City. Look for Ansah, who is relatively new to the sport, to be that rising star in Detroit and to get double-digit sacks.
Kawann Short, DT, and Kony Ealy, DE, Panthers. Carolina’s group in the trenches is one to watch, and both of these guys already have showed some spark. Ealy has won a starting job where Greg Hardy once was. Short has been overshadowed by fellow DT Star Lotulelei, but has the goods, too.
Josh Boyd, DE, Packers. Green Bay has some issues on the line due to suspensions, so Boyd will get his chance and could be a breakout pass rusher.
Sharif Floyd, DT, Vikings. Floyd had a good 2014 on an improving defense under head coach Mike Zimmer and has the tools to be dominant.
Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Texans. The top overall draft pick last year has his season ravaged by injuries. If he is healthy this year, and working on the opposite side from J.J. Watt, well, watch out.
Anthony Barr, LB, Vikings. Minnesota thinks this versatile playmaker has All-Pro skills. So do we, and, again, in Zimmer’s schemes, he could become a star.
Michael Wilhoite, LB, 49ers. He had better breakthrough considering the 49ers are depleted at the position, except for returning standout NaVorro Bowman. Wilhoite has been a capable part-timer who now gets fill-time duty.
Preston Brown, LB, Bills. Intelligent player who filled in so well last season the Bills felt comfortable trading Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia. He fits nicely in a Rex Ryan defense.
Logan Ryan, CB, Patriots. New England will rely heavily on this 2013 draftee with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gone. Ryan could deliver.
Jonathan Cyprien, S, Jaguars. An under-the-radar player on an under-the-radar team, Cyprien has the look of a budding playmaker.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Packers. After some early struggles in his rookie season, Clinton-Dix really came on for the Packers. No laughing!
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