Who is one potential breakout player for each NFC West team in 2013?
Arizona Cardinals: Tight end Rob Housler comes to mind as a talented young player likely to benefit from an upgraded quarterback situation. Housler had 45 receptions, so it's not as though he was a nonfactor entirely. Based on that figure alone, we might just as easily point to receiver Michael Floyd, who also had 45 catches, as a breakout candidate. Why Housler? The Cardinals were the only team in the NFL without a touchdown reception from a tight end last season. Housler should catch a few of them with Carson Palmer taking over at quarterback. Last season, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians coordinated an Indianapolis Colts offense featuring rookie tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Those two combined for 111 targets, 66 receptions and five touchdowns. Other breakout candidates for the Cardinals in 2013 could include Sam Acho and/or O'Brien Schofield. Both figure to get extensive opportunities rushing the passer.
St. Louis Rams: Running back Isaiah Pead is a close choice over receiver Brian Quick. Both came to mind immediately as leading candidates for breakout seasons after neither produced much as a second-round choice in 2012. Quick caught two scoring passes among his 27 receptions as a rookie. Pead was a nonfactor with only 10 carries. That gives him more room for growth. Pead should see a significant increase in opportunities now that Steven Jackson is with the Atlanta Falcons. When I asked quarterback Sam Bradford about breakout candidates last summer, Pead was one of the first players he mentioned based on physical abilities alone. Bradford wasn't sure whether Pead could contribute right away after missing organized team activities, because of the graduation schedule at the University of Cincinnati. In the end, Pead never gained much traction. Bradford did think Pead had the talent to be "special" in a change-of-pace role, at least. The thinking here is that Pead should be just as talented now as he was then, and that he'll benefit from a year in the offensive system and additional opportunities.
San Francisco 49ers: Running back LaMichael James stands out as the obvious choice after carrying 27 times for 125 yards as a rookie. James and fellow 2012 draft choice A.J. Jenkins would be the leading candidates for breakout seasons based on players already on the roster. Of the two, only James has shown enough at this point to warrant a clearly defined role in the offense for 2013. There are some obstacles in James' path. Frank Gore remains the projected starter at running back for the upcoming season. Kendall Hunter is returning from injury and could take away carries from James. Still, there should be room for James to contribute over the course of the season. Having the shifty James in the backfield with quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave the 49ers a welcome dimension in the playoffs. James carried 11 times for 65 yards (5.9 average) in the postseason. The 49ers could also have breakout players at free safety and in the No. 2 tight end role behind Vernon Davis; however, it's not yet clear which players will fill those roles. The team could find solutions in the draft later this month.
Seattle Seahawks: Guard J.R. Sweezy is a logical candidate in the truest sense. He projects as the starting right guard after arriving in 2012 as a seventh-round choice from NC State. Sweezy played defensive tackle in college. The Seahawks converted him to guard and loved what they saw, so much so that coaches rushed him into the starting lineup before Sweezy was ready to make the jump. Sweezy played 100 percent of the snaps in Seattle's first, 15th and 16th games last season. He played most of the snaps through two postseason games. Having a full offseason in the starting lineup should send Sweezy on his way. It's possible little-known linebacker Malcolm Smith will break out as a starter after seeing his playing time increase over the final five games last season. Sweezy appears more clearly positioned to start, however. Cornerback Jeremy Lane is another young player to watch. I excluded receiver Golden Tate from consideration because he broke out last season with eight touchdown receptions.
Note: This item was updated to correct the number of receptions for the Colts' rookie tight ends last season.