Every NFL season there are players who go from fair to good and good to great. FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez takes a look at one strong contender from each team to experience that growth in 2015.
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NFC SOUTH -- Atlanta: Running back Devonta Freeman
The Falcons have a new Kyle Shanahan-led offensive system that has produced a slew of 1,000-yard running backs. Freeman should be a good fit as a one-cut rusher and receiver out of the backfield. He will open training camp with the starters but must hold off an expected push by 2015 third-round pick Tevin Coleman to keep the first-string spot.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
New Orleans: Tight end Josh Hill
There are plenty of opportunities for other tight ends to catch passes from quarterback Drew Brees with Jimmy Graham traded to Seattle. Hill, who scored touchdowns on five of his 14 catches last season as primarily a red-zone target, will have the first crack at replacing Graham as a starter.
Getty ImagesWesley Hitt
Tampa Bay: Defensive end Jacquies Smith
After brief, forgettable stints with Miami, Buffalo and the New York Jets, the undersized Smith (6-foot-2 and 260 pounds) found a home in Tampa Bay last season. He led the Buccaneers in sacks with 6.5 and is now slated to play right end as Tampa Bay’s primary pass rusher.
Getty ImagesJoe Sargent
Carolina: Defensive end Kony Ealy
The Panthers drafted Ealy in the second-round last year knowing there was a good chance defensive end Greg Hardy wouldn’t be back. With Hardy now gone to Dallas, Ealy is a strong candidate to win the starting role outright after playing off the bench in 2014.
Getty ImagesGeorge Gojkovich
NFC WEST -- St. Louis: Cornerback E.J. Gaines
Based upon last season, a strong argument can be made that Janoris Jenkins is no longer the top cornerback on the Rams’ roster. Gaines was a sixth-round steal out of Missouri in the 2014 draft who already is proving equally adroit in stopping both the pass and run.
Getty ImagesNorm Hall
Seattle: Outside linebacker Cassius Marsh
Marsh was being developed as both an every-down end and inside pass rusher along the defensive line in a 2014 rookie campaign cut short by a foot injury suffered during a mid-October practice. The Seahawks are now giving Marsh practice snaps at outside linebacker, where he could become the heir apparent to Bruce Irvin, who is in the final year of his contract.
Getty ImagesOtto Greule Jr
San Francisco: Running back Carlos Hyde
San Francisco’s 2014 second-round pick impressed enough in limited duty last season (83 carries for 333 yards and four touchdowns) that the 49ers didn’t competitively try to re-sign starter Frank Gore. Hyde is the unquestioned lead back as he tries to fill the giant shoes Gore left behind as San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
Arizona: Inside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon
Although he posted a combined total of 210 tackles with Atlanta during the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, Weatherspoon was still considered to have not yet reached his full potential. Injuries then kept him out all of last season and nine games in 2013. Weatherspoon now has a chance to reinvent himself on a one-year deal with Arizona in a defensive system where inside linebackers have the chance to shine.
Getty ImagesTom Szczerbowski
NFC EAST -- Dallas: Running back Joseph Randle
The Cowboys felt confident enough in their ability to produce a strong running game without DeMarco Murray that the NFL’s reigning rushing leader was allowed to leave via free agency to Philadelphia. Dallas’ confidence stems from the belief that Randle is ready to lead a committee approach after averaging 6.7 yards on his 51 carries as a backup in 2014.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Philadelphia: Wide receiver Josh Huff
While flashing on kickoff returns, Huff contributed little to Philadelphia’s passing game in an eight-catch rookie season. The Eagles expect that to change this year with Huff in line for a major role following the free-agent departure of Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City.
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New York Giants: Defensive end Damontre Moore
Moore didn’t have the breakout season the Giants had hoped in 2014 and needed offseason shoulder surgery from which he is still recovering. Moore, though, did log a career-high 5.5 sacks and may have the chance to serve as New York’s primary pass-rushing threat depending on the severity of Jason Pierre-Paul’s hand injury from a July 4 fireworks accident.
TNS via Getty ImagesPaul Moseley
Washington: Outside linebacker Trent Murphy
The Redskins need someone to fill the void left by outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who shuffled off to Tennessee as a free agent. The favorite is Murphy, a 2014 second-round pick who has gotten stronger and heavier after immersing himself in offseason strength training.
Getty ImagesMitchell Layton
NFC NORTH -- Chicago: Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee
With a modest career-high of 7.5 sacks last year for Baltimore, McPhee wasn’t signed to a five-year, $39 million contract this offseason based upon past performance. The Bears believe McPhee has plenty of upside left after serving as a backup last season to the outstanding outside linebacker tandem of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Minnesota: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater was arguably the best member of the 2014 rookie quarterback class but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Bridgewater’s growth should be helped by the return of star running back Adrian Peterson from suspension and the acquisition of ex-Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace, who is one of the NFL’s top deep targets.
Getty ImagesJoel Auerbach
Detroit: Tight end Eric Ebron
Too much was expected from Ebron too soon in what became a 25-catch rookie season in 2014. He is now much more comfortable in Detroit’s offense after a full offseason working with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Ebron also should benefit from the extra attention that opposing defenses give to Lions wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
Green Bay: Wide receiver Davante Adams
Adams has earned high offseason praise from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy, who tabbed his second-year wideout as the team’s offseason MVP. If his development from a promising rookie showing continues in 2015, Green Bay will field the NFL’s top trio of wide receivers in Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
Getty ImagesJoel Auerbach
AFC EAST -- New England: Cornerback Logan Ryan
The Patriots will need someone to fill the void following the offseason departures of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (New York Jets) and Brandon Browner (New Orleans). Entering his third NFL season, Ryan has the most playing experience of the returning cornerbacks. His skills also are well-suited for the increased amount of zone coverage the Patriots are expected to use in defense of their Super Bowl title.
Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBoston Globe
Miami: Cornerback Jamar Taylor
After two unimpressive seasons, it appeared Taylor was en route to becoming yet the latest second-round bust in Miami draft history. Taylor, though, came on so strong in offseason practices that he now enters training camp as the favorite to replace retired starter Cortland Finnegan.
Getty ImagesTom Szczerbowski
New York Jets: Strong safety Calvin Pryor
Pryor struggled in his rookie season as the Jets gave him more coverage responsibilities to try and compensate for a weakened secondary. Pryor is now being shifted from free safety to strong safety, which is the ideal fit for his tackling skills.
Getty ImagesWesley Hitt
Buffalo: Wide receiver Sammy Watkins
Watkins faded during the second half of his rookie campaign and suffered a hip injury that required offseason surgery. Although uncertainty remains at quarterback, the Bills signed some high-end skill-position talent this offseason to complement Watkins as he tries to prove worthy of being the first wide receiver drafted last year, ahead of Odell Beckham Jr.
Getty ImagesThearon W. Henderson
AFC NORTH -- Cincinnati: Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick
A 2012 first-round pick, Kirkpatrick has made only five starts in his first three NFL seasons. Kirkpatrick, though, showed he is ready for first-string work after intercepting Denver quarterback Peyton Manning twice in a Week 16 win. Kirkpatrick will enter training camp ahead of 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard on the depth chart.
Getty ImagesJohn Grieshop
Cleveland: Cornerback Justin Gilbert
Gilbert’s poor attitude and commitment toward bettering himself were even more alarming than his on-field rookie struggles. Gilbert has taken a more professional approach toward his career during the offseason and recently told Browns media that he was “humbled” from the experience. If he truly has matured, Gilbert has the physical tools to form a top-notch cornerback tandem with Joe Haden.
Getty ImagesJason Miller
Pittsburgh: Defensive end Cameron Heyward
Heyward recently told Sports Illustrated that he thinks of himself as a “bust” despite coming off a season in which he became the first Steelers defensive end to tie or lead the team in sacks (7.5) in almost 30 years. While he may be hard on himself, Heyward is on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the NFL’s top 3-4 ends headed into the 2015 season.
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Baltimore: Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan
The Ravens might not have been willing to trade Haloti Ngata to Detroit if Jernigan wasn't waiting in the wings. Almost 50 pounds lighter than Ngata at 295, Jernigan should provide more of a penetrating element on Baltimore’s defensive line.
Getty ImagesLarry French
AFC SOUTH -- Jacksonville: Quarterback Blake Bortles
If there isn’t a breakthrough, the Jaguars are in trouble. Bortles was thrust into action prematurely last season and the result was 13 interceptions in his first eight starts. Bortles did greatly reduce his turnovers over the final month of the season, which the Jaguars hope is a sign of development. Bortles also will be surrounded by a much better supporting cast this season as the Jaguars try to finish with their first winning record since 2007.
Getty ImagesSam Greenwood
Indianapolis: Outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome
Newsome was one of the Colts’ most pleasant surprises in 2014, leading the team in sacks with 6.5 as a fifth-round pick. Newsome’s numbers should continue to grow with fellow outside linebacker and 2013 NFL sack leader Robert Mathis set to draw attention from blockers when he returns from an Achilles tendon injury.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Houston: Defensive end Jared Crick
Crick was a non-factor his first two NFL seasons before he started to make a splash in 2014. Should his rapid improvement playing opposite J.J. Watt continue this season, Crick is set to become one of the hottest free-agent defensive linemen on the 2016 free-agent market.
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Tennessee: Running back Bishop Sankey
Although he was the first running back drafted in 2014, Sankey only ranked seventh among all rookie rushers last season. With the Titans set to field a better offensive line, Tennessee has confidence that Sankey can excel to take some of the pressure off rookie starting quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Getty ImagesPatrick McDermott
AFC WEST -- Denver: Wide receiver Cody Latimer
Latimer struggled for snaps last season as a rookie backup for Denver’s deep wide receiver corps. Those days are over. Latimer has impressed enough to earn playing time with the Broncos opting not to re-sign veteran Wes Welker.
Kansas City: Outside linebacker Dee Ford
Considering he was making the transition from 4-3 end, Ford’s lack of production in his first NFL season wasn’t a surprise. Ford has said he now has a much better feel at his new position, which should lead to more snaps on a unit with heavy-hitting outside linebackers in Tamba Hali and 2014 NFL sack leader Justin Houston.
Getty ImagesPeter G. Aiken
Oakland: Outside linebacker Khalil Mack
Mack needed 10 games last season to register his first NFL sack. The wait surely won’t be as long in 2015. Mack’s pass-rush numbers should improve as he continues developing into one of the league’s top all-around outside linebackers.
Getty ImagesBrian Bahr
San Diego: Tight end Ladarius Green
Green will be starting San Diego’s first four games with Antonio Gates suspended for use of a performance-enhancing drug. This could result in Green exceeding his career season-high of 19 catches in the first quarter of the year. Green will greatly enhance his free-agent stock for 2016 with a strong showing.