Some of the game’s biggest breakout players have come out of the NFC West over the last couple of years. The emergence of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson specifically have spearheaded the rise of the NFC West to the NFL’s best. This week Around the NFC West: Breakout Players edition will take a look at a potential breakout player from each team.
Many people thought the signing of Rashard Mendenhall was going to give the Cardinals the feature back they were seeking. Bruce Arians’ offense needs a running game that will at least keep opposing defenses honest. Mendenhall abruptly retired after a lackluster season. The Cardinals selected Andre Ellington in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft to be a change of pace option for Mendenhall. To their surprise, Ellington made a push to become the feature back in 2014.
Last year, Ellington rushed for 652 yards on 118 attempts. He also caught 39 passes for 371 yards in 2013. He gave the NFL a hint of what he could do as a feature back when he got the start in week 8 against the Atlanta Falcons. Ellington had 154 yards rushing on 15 carries in that game. He also scored one touchdown.
Arians has already stated that he plans to give Ellington 25 – 30 carries per game. Ellington made a commitment to get his smaller frame ready for the onslaught of hits that a feature running back has to absorb. He has also kept his head in the playbook more this off season. There will be a number of play calls tailored specifically to Ellington. The time is now for him to breakout and display the play making ability that allowed him to lead the NFL in yards per carry (5.5) according to ESPN.com.
San Francisco 49ers
There was a buzz in Santa Clara after the 49ers signed veteran corner, Nnamdi Asomugha. That experiment didn’t last long, two games to be exact. Nnamdi suffered an injury against the Seahawks in week two and in came Tramaine Brock. Brock was an unsigned free agent out of little known Belhaven University in 2010. He was set to be the left corner when the 49ers went into their nickel package om 2011. Unfortunately, Brock suffered an injury in training camp that opened the door for then rookie Chris Culliver to take over.
Ironically, it was an injury to Culliver in 2013 that reopened the door for Brock. He battled his way onto the roster and took over as the left corner when starter Carlos Rogers moved inside in nickel packages. The move paid off instantly for the 49ers. Brock had two interceptions against the Houston Texans including a touchdown on a 41 yard interception return. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts in the Texans game. Brock also had a key role in a game saving play against the Falcons that sealed a victory in the last game to be played at Candlestick Park. He deflected a Matt Ryan pass that Navarro Bowman caught and returned 89 yards for a touchdown.
The 49ers rewarded Brock with a four year extension that was worth $16 million in November. Brock is a fiesty corner that cut his teeth as a special teams player. He is the kind of corner that will give opposing receivers problems because of his aggressiveness. He is very much in the mold of a Cortland Finnegan, minus the excessive personal fouls. His five interceptions solidified his spot as a starter and key piece to one of the NFL’s top pass defenses.
The loss of Golden Tate left a void in the Seahawks receiving unit. Tate was the go to option for Russell Wilson in crucial third down situations. Paul Richardson is definitely going to help fill the void, especially in the vertical passing game. However, the player that is set to break out is Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks believe this as well and that’s why they signed him to a contract extension that will guarantee him $9 million. He was set to make $2.2 million this season as a restricted free agent. The Seahawks have made it a habit to sign young productive players to relatively short term deals that reward the player but offers them incentive to strive for a more lucrative extension once the deal expires.
Baldwin has been a productive player since joining the Seahawks as an undrafted player out of Stanford in 2011. He was tied for the team lead last year with five touchdown receptions. Wilson had a good degree of success when he targeted Baldwin last season. His completion percentage when targeting Baldwin was 70.5%. He also averaged 10.7 yards per attempt with Baldwin. Baldwin also posted 778 yards receiving.
His regular season was decent, but it was the playoffs that really showed how he can make big plays in crucial situations. Baldwin had a 24 yard reception on a third down in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Playoffs against the Saints. The conversion helped thwart a late comeback attempt that the Saints were making a push for. He also had a 51 yard reception in the NFC Championship Game that setup the Seahawks first points after they fell to an early 10 point deficit. The Seahawks won the game and Baldwin ended up with six catches for 106 yards. Baldwin also had five receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos.
Coming through in the playoffs was a key sign for things to come. Baldwin has proven himself to be a player that delivers in the clutch. Now that Golden Tate is gone, he will get more opportunities and will be a focal point of the Seattle passing attack.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams will finally get to have their defensive coordinator, Greg Williams on the sidelines. One of the things that has been a constant in a Williams defense is outstanding safety play. This dates back to Blaine Bishop (Houston Oilers/Titans) and includes standouts such as Sean Taylor (Redskins), Darren Sharper (Saints) and Roman Harper (Saints). If history is any indicator of the past, second year safety T.J. McDonald is in line for a big season.
McDonald is the son of former 49ers and Cardinals Pro Bowl safety, Tim McDonald. T.J. could very well be the second pro bowler in the family after this season. His aggressive style of play matches perfectly with the turnover generating attack that Williams employs. He will play the robber role and read the quarterback as he sits in the middle of the field. It can lead to some easy interceptions for McDonald. That is especially the case with the Rams because of the fierce pass rush that Chris Long and Robert Quinn generate. In addition to that, rookie Aaron Donald will provide the interior pass rush. Collapsing the pocket into a quarterback’s lap is kryptonite to quarterbacks. It forces them to make rushed throws and not see the robber in Greg Williams defensive scheme.
He will also get to lay some big hits on unsuspecting receivers. McDonald had a tendency to really strike anyone who had the ball when he was at USC in 2012. That continued last year during his rookie season. McDonald did suffer a leg injury that cost him a stretch of games but he came back strong. His best game was against the New Orleans Saints in which he got his first career interception. Keep your eyes on this violent hitter as he maximizes his play making ability in 2014.
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