NFL

Players Ready to Breakout in the NFC West

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As we continue our series of potential breakout players in 2016, it’s time to shift our focus to the NFC West. This division is filled with tons of young players ready to burst onto the scene.

Without further ado, let’s dive right into it.

Alex Okafor, ILB, Arizona Cardinals –  The Arizona Cardinals experienced their most successful season since they appeared in the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, where they lost in a 27-23 thriller.

Bruce Arians squad was one win away from reaching the Super Bowl again, but they fell short to the Carolina Panthers.

In order for this team to reach the next level, their pass rush must improve, which is why they traded for outside linebacker Chandler Jones. This past season, Jones led the New England Patriots with 12.5 sacks.

With the addition of Jones, things should open up for others, in-particular, Alex Okafor.

“(Linebackers) Markus Golden, Alex Okafor, whoever’s in there on the other side. We have a great rotation. I think either one of those other guys can be double-digit sack guys,” Arians stressed. “It’s going to make whoever’s next to him better, especially (defensive tackle) Calais (Campbell), when we put them on the same side.”

After an encouraging 2014 campaign, in which Okafor totaled eight sacks in 13 games, the Texas product took a major step backwards last year, as he only accounted for two sacks.

If Okafor doesn’t breakout this upcoming season, he may never.

Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks – Unfortunately, Thomas Rawls season was cut short after breaking his ankle during a December matchup with the Rams. Before the injury, Rawls rushed for 83o yards, while averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry to go along with four touchdowns.

With Marshawn Lynch hanging up the cleats, Seahawks fans are hoping Rawls is the next superstar in line. Having those kinds of expectations come with tons of pressure, but don’t tell Rawls that. 

“I just go out there and work hard and do my job and have an amazing coaching staff and an amazing teammates to encourage me,” Rawls stated. “And also just my support back home. Just fighting through all types of adversity, I rise up and I rise to the occasion at times like this, so it’s no pressure.”

Rawls recently gave an update on how his rehab is going.

“Of course I’ll be ready for camp,’’ Rawls said.

“I’m just taking it day by day,” he continued. “I’m getting better. I’m walking on my own, I’m doing a lot of good things, and my recovery is coming very quickly, so I’m looking forward to being out there very, very soon.”

Very encouraging words for the ’12th man’.

The talent and the scheme is in place for Rawls to be a Pro Bowler in 2016.

Tavon Austin, WR, Los Angeles Rams – It feels like a distant memory when the Rams selected Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

After three seasons, Austin has been a massive disappointment.

He’s only totaled 123 catches for 1,133 yards with nine touchdowns for his career. Nonetheless, to his defense, Austin has been dealing with less than stellar quarterback play.

Having that said, Los Angeles doesn’t even know who their signal caller will be in 2016, but that isn’t stopping head coach Jeff Fisher from seeing his value. 

“I think, from Tavon’s standpoint, he has done everything we have asked of him,” Fisher explained. “I think we have to do more as a staff to get him the football. I think you saw that late in the season, when Tavon got the touches, in addition to the punt returns. I think he’s one of the most dangerous returners in the league, and he has proven that. We’ve had some called back, but I would hate to punt the ball in the field of play with him being there, if I was playing against him.

“I think from that standpoint, we have to do whatever we can do to get him the football. Keep in mind, there’s only one brown ball and we’ve got good players on offense. But I think the combination of Tavon and Todd (Gurley) and the rest of the guys, I think it provides us an opportunity to be very explosive opportunity.”

For what it’s worth, Austin is coming off his best season. He totaled 52 catches for 473 yards to go along with five touchdowns, which are all career highs.

Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco – To be quite frank, there isn’t much to look forward to in San Francisco nowadays.

After finishing last in the NFC West with a record of (5-11), San Francisco has done nothing in free agency to improve their roster.

But hey, they hired Chip Kelly!

Kelly is eager to prove his worth in the NFL and a major part of that will be how he uses running back Carlos Hyde. 

“I’m really excited to get working with Carlos,” Kelly told reporters. “I’ve talked to him a few times because he’s been around rehabbing. He’s got a really good personality, and I think he’s excited about what’s next.

“He’s a big, physical ‘back who has that combination of size and speed. He should be fun to work with.”

Hyde’s 2015 campaign was cut short due to a foot injury.

However, during his seven games, Hyde displayed tremendous upside, especially in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings. In that season opener, he rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns.

Hyde is looking forward to putting together a full season.

“My foot is feeling great,” Hyde said. “I’m good to go.”

Hyde looks the part of a legitimate Pro Bowl caliber running back and he will be the primary weapon in the 49ers offense.  If he can stay healthy, it’s likely that Hyde will have a great 2016 campaign.


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.