Insiders

Players Ready to Breakout in the AFC West

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With off-season workouts about a week away, players expecting to make a huge leap must be prepared to get better everyday from this point on.

We’re starting a series of players from each team who are primed for a breakout campaign. Today, we’re starting in the AFC West.

Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos – What a rookie year for Shane Ray, eh?

Ray is already a Super Bowl champion with the opportunity to see substantial playing time in year two, but things weren’t always so pretty.

Following his marijuana innocent before last year’s NFL Draft, the former SEC Defensive Player of Year witnessed his stock fall, as he went to the Broncos with the 23rd overall pick.

As expected, when Denver selected Ray, fans and media alike were making fun of the fact that marijuana is legal in Colorado, but general manager John Elway wasn’t too concerned.

Ray made Elway look like a genius, as the rookie linebacker appeared in 14 games, totaling four sacks and one forced fumble.

With Danny Trevathan going to Chicago and veteran DeMarcus Ware’s playing time likely to go down, it’s up to Shane Ray to become a major factor.

Head coach Gary Kubiak isn’t lacking for confidence in the young Ray.

“I think he’s ready to make the jump,’’ Kubiak stressed. “We’re expecting big things from him coming up.’’

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs – While Kelce had a solid season, it feels like he should’ve been much better.

The 26-year-old caught 72 passes for 875 yards to go along with five touchdowns, which are good numbers. However, when playing on a team that’s very limited offensively, Kansas City needs to feature Kelce a little more.

Standing at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Kelce is a legit matchup nightmare in the middle of the field, which is why former great Tony Gonzalez expects more going forward.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Gonzalez stated. “I think he’s going to get better, no doubt. You haven’t seen the best of Travis Kelce.”

When looking at the Chiefs offense, if Jamaal Charles is able to stay healthy, quarterback Alex Smith will have him and Jeremy Maclin to rely on to make huge plays in the aerial attack, which only opens things up for Kelce.

What’s Kelce’s ceiling?

Gonzalez believes it’s very high.

“If he keeps his head on straight, he could go down as one of the best,” Gonzalez said. “He really can; I believe it.”

Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders – Similar to Kelce, running back Latavius Murray was expected to ascend to star levels in 2015, but he fell short.

Now, this isn’t to stay 1,066 rushing yards on fours yards per carry to go along with six touchdowns are bad numbers by any means.

Nonetheless, Murray was suppose to be way better and he knows it.

“I felt that I left so much out there,” says Murray. “To me, it didn’t feel like a 1,000-yard season. There were games where there was absolutely nothing. For me, I just know I want to get better. I know that if I can move it 1,000 yards with that kind of season, then there’s a lot more out there for me.”

Head coach Jack Del Rio knows their ground game is a focal point heading into next season.

“We’ll improve the running game,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “That was certainly an area I had hoped by this point would be further along. Latavius, we got him over 1,000 yards and he did a nice job of staying healthy and making it through a full season. We feel like there will be an opportunity to really have some growth there. We’ll attack that with all of our force.”

With Derek Carr under center to go along with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on the outside, things should only get easier for Murray moving forward.

Manti Te’o, ILB, San Diego Chargers – The former Heisman finalist is coming off his best season to date, in which he totaled 83 tackles to go along with an interception and a forced fumble.

Meanwhile, the Chargers had one of their worst seasons in recent memory, as they stumbled to finish with a record of (4-12).

Having said that, San Diego’s defense ended the season on a high note.

Against Denver in week 17, they generated five turnovers with key guys such as Eric Weddle, Jason Verrett and Corey Liuget all out. 

“That was the culture growing,” Te’o explained. “When you establish a culture of what the expectation is, then you have people meet that expectation – it doesn’t matter who’s in there really.”

Now, with Eric Weddle in Baltimore and veteran linebacker Donald Butler expected to sign elsewhere, San Diego will look to Te’o for leadership.

“I was born to be a leader,” he implied. “I had the best example of what a leader is with my dad.”

San Diego will look to improve their defense via the draft as well, especially up front, which would allow more sack opportunities for Te’o.


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.