10 NFL Players Ready to Emerge as Elite in 2013

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10 NFL Players Who Could Emerge as Elite in 2013

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a fine line between being a solid player in the NFL and being elite. Many players seem destined for greatness but never quite get over the hump. Last year we saw several players make the jump from being a very good player to becoming elite. Perhaps the most notable was Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens. He had spent years claiming he belonged in the conversation with the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but until last year, there were too many questions around him. With a 2012 playoff run that included four wins, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, he answered all those questions.

For the purposes of this conversation, let’s define elite as a Pro Bowl caliber player. If a player is in the top three or four players at his position, he should be considered elite. The problem with predicting who will breakout and become a star is there’s obviously something holding these players back. For a quarterback, it might be an offensive line, or perhaps more likely, a lack of skill players around him. For a running back it might be injuries or splitting carries with another player. Whatever the reason, the jump is difficult to make.

You will notice the following list of ten candidates who could emerge as elite doesn’t include any offensive linemen. It’s a tough position to project, and even great players don’t get the notoriety that skill position players do. So, predictably, it’s heavy on the skill positions and heavy on offense.

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10.) Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots LB

Kirby Lee-USA Today

The New England Patriots already have two great linebackers in Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. If Dont’a Hightower develops they could have as good a LB corps as anyone in the NFL. Hightower is an instinctive LB who tackles extremely well. His 270 lbs. frame allows him to shed blocks well and pursue the ball. In year two, Hightower could become a star.

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9.) Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns WR

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There were not many bright spots for a Cleveland Browns offense that ranked 24th in points scored in 2012. However, Josh Gordon displayed a skill set that could make him a future star in the league. Although his numbers aren’t in the top tier yet (50 catches for 805 yards and five touchdowns), he could develop into an outstanding weapon for the Browns. His future production is tied to another inexperienced Browns player, QB Brandon Weeden. If Weeden continues to improve, expect Gordon’s numbers to get much better.

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8.) Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings TE

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA Today Sports

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph had a productive year in 2012, scoring nine touchdowns. He’s become QB Christian Ponder’s favorite target and is a viable option on play-action plays that take advantage of defenses that are over-committing to the run. While other young tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham) get much more attention, Rudolph was quietly very solid for the Vikings. Expect his catch and yard totals to increase in 2013.

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7.) Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins WR

Luc Leclerc-USA Today Sports

Everyone in the Washington Redskins offense benefited from the emergence of QB Robert Griffin III. Leonard Hankerson's numbers improved dramatically in his second year, primarily because he had a QB who could get him the ball. While he didn’t produce consistently, he did show that he had big play potential in an offense that is designed to have explosive plays in the pass game.

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6.) Chris Ivory, New York Jets RB

John David Mercer-USA Today Sports

Everyone knows the New York Jets are going to run the ball. It’s in Rex Ryan’s DNA, and with the options at quarterback, it makes the most sense from a philosophical standpoint. With only Bilal Powell as a potential starting running back, the Jets acquired Chris Ivory, who played in a pass-heavy offense for the New Orleans Saints. If he’s able to stay healthy and the Jets commit to the run like they have under Ryan, Ivory could have surprise many people.

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5.) Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams TE

Phil Sears-USA Today Sports

Jared Cook will provide St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford a big, athletic option working the middle of the field. It will be interesting to see how the presence of slot wide receiver Tavon Austin might impact Cook’s ability to get open. Teams will have to commit underneath defenders to stopping Austin, perhaps opening up opportunities for Cook.

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4.) Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears WR

Tim Fuller-USA Today Sports

Anyone operating opposite Brandon Marshall should have a great year. Teams roll coverage in his direction, allowing other receivers in the offense a lot of one on one chances. In that vain, Alshon Jeffery’s 2012 production for the Chicago Bears was a disappointment. Although not blessed with great speed, Jeffery is known for his acrobatic catches and his innate ability to high-point the ball. Jeffery could very well have a breakout season for QB Jay Cutler in 2013.

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3.) LaMichael James, San Francisco 49ers RB

Daniel Shirley-USA Today Sports

This ranking is all about fit. LaMichael James is the perfect running back for the offense the San Francisco 49ers ran after Colin Kaepernick took over at QB. He’s a shifty, cutback runner, who fits well in zone schemes. The threat of Kaepernick’s running ability does just enough to give James a crease, which he can exploit with his tremendous burst. The 49ers are likely going to try to reduce Frank Gore’s workload as the All-Pro running back approaches the tail end of his career. James should see his touches increase in 2013.

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2.) David Wilson, New York Giants RB

Jim O'Connor-USA Today Sports

There really aren’t too many options at running back for the New York Giants. The departure of Ahmad Bradshaw leaves David Wilson as the primary ball carrier for an offense that is predicated on establishing the run. Wilson only had 71 carries last year, in part because he had trouble hanging onto the ball. If he’s able to correct that, Tom Coughlin will gain confidence in him, and in turn, he’ll get every opportunity to be the featured back.

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1.) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins QB

David Butler II-USA Today Sports

While other rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck got most of the attention last year, Ryan Tannehill took his lumps with the Miami Dolphins. This year, his name could be right there with the other two. Last year Tannehill threw for over 3,000 yards and had 12 touchdowns. With the addition of speedster Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller, Tannehill’s numbers are sure to go up. The entire Dolphins team has an aura of self-confidence heading into the 2013. If they come anywhere close to achieving their goals, Tannehill is in line to have a monster season.