NFL

Players Ready to Breakout in the AFC East

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Every year there are players who burst onto the scene.

As we get closer to the draft, we’ve decided to start a series of players most likely to breakout this upcoming season. Today’s focus is on the AFC East.

Shea Mcclellin, OLB, New England Patriots – Back in 2012, the Chicago Bears selected Shea McClellin with the 19th overall pick. Due to unique circumstances, the former Boise State product was never able to get into a rhythm in the ‘Windy City’.

McClellin started off at defensive end, but the past two seasons he was asked to patrol the middle of the field. Not only that, McClellin had to play under three different coordinators.

With McClellin being in New England now, he’s prepared to be all over the field.

“I think that one of the best aspects of my game is just my versatility,” McClellin on what he brings. “I think moving me around is what gets the best out of me. But I think last year, I definitely gained a lot of confidence. I played middle-backer in high school, it had nothing to do with that, but just the instincts and that kind of thing but I feel comfortable anywhere, outside, inside but last year definitely grew.”

We’re not sure where McClellin will be placed exactly, but considering he’s the Patriots biggest defensive investment this off-season, there’s no doubt he’ll be given a quality role.

“I think I’m a little bit aware of how the coaches run things around there,” McClellin stressed. “I think that they try to get the best out of every player they have, and that’s something that I try to bring.”

After letting go Chandler Jones, New England’s coaching staff is hopeful McClellin will be able to help fill the void.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins – When Lamar Miller agreed to an four-year, $26 million deal with the Houston Texans, all eyes were instantly on Jay Ajayi.

Ajayi missed the first half of last season due to a cracked rib he suffered in preseason.

When Ajayi returned to action, he totaled 187 rushing yards on 49 carries, for an average of 3.8 yards per carry.

While Miami will likely draft a running back early, Ajayi still figures to be a major part of the ground game moving forward. 

“Going into the season right now I’m the starter, and I’m excited about that role, excited to prove myself and continually showcase what I can do out on the field,” Ajayi stated. “I’ve been preparing myself throughout the offseason to do that this season, and I’m really excited for this season to finally come around.”

At 6-foot, 228 pounds, Ajayi has good vision and he’s tough to bring down after initial contact.

Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills – After just his second season, Sammy Watkins is looking to becoming the star receiver he was expected to be out of Clemson. In just 13 games, Watkins totaled 60 catches for 1,047 yards to go along with nine touchdowns this past season.

The only question is, will Robert Woods be ready to step up as a legitimate second receiver?

Former Buffalo Bill and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Eric Moulds believes in Woods’ ability.

“Looking at Robert Woods, he has to get a lot more opportunities to catch the football because he’s a very good starting receiver,” Moulds said. “The biggest con is – like Sammy – being healthy. Both of those guys need to be healthy. If they’re not healthy, you’re not going to get that consistency from those guys. These guys are a great tandem.”

In an offense where Watkins and LeSean McCoy figure to get the bulk of opportunities, there should still be chances for Woods to make more of an impact.

“I really like Robert Woods,” Moulds continued. “The biggest thing for all the receivers is to stay healthy. They lost Chris Hogan, a guy who was consistent in what he did. If I’m a defensive coordinator, the first thing I’m going to do is say ‘Sammy Watkins is not going to beat us. Clay is not going to beat us.’ Let’s see if the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers can beat us. They’re going to have to run the football effectively to take the pressure off the passing game. And if they don’t, then it’s going to be a tough year for Sammy. But if they keep Woods healthy and a No. 3 guy can come in and make plays, you’ve got enough weapons on that offense to make a lot of noise and really compete against New England.”

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, New York Jets – In limited action during his rookie campaign, 2015 third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin showed flashes of what he can do at this level.

The former Louisville product totaled four sacks to go along with a forced fumble.

As Mauldin preps for year two, head coach Todd Bowles has lofty expectations for the young edge rusher. 

“We expect him to make a big jump as far as being a full-time player at outside linebacker,” Bowles recently stated. “I expect him to be a major player this year.”

Mauldin doesn’t have top tier talent by any means, but he has the work ethic and desire to get better every single day to make up for it.

“I started to progress a little bit more [late in the season] than I thought I would for my rookie season,” Mauldin explained. “I feel like I did pretty good things year, and all I can do is build on it for next year.”

During year one, Mauldin was primarily used as a third-down pass rusher.

Having said that, the second year backer will have the opportunity to be an every down guy. 

“Right now, I feel like they were just trying to put me into the defense, to see what I can do. I’m pretty sure that I put my stamp on everything, showing that, with speed, I am a good enough player to play on every down. It’s just being able to establish myself more into the defense than what I did this year.”


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.