For the loyal and devoted of Beaver Nation, one of the greatest thrills imaginable is getting to watch the stars of yesterday excel at the next level. Here are five NFL Beavers who are primed for breakout seasons in 2014.
Jacquizz Rodgers RB Atlanta Falcons
The diminutive speedster won the hearts of Reser Stadium’s ticket holders soon after arriving in Corvallis. The younger brother of standout wide receiver James Rodgers, “Quizz” combined shifty foot work, reliable hands, and a tenacious spirit that came to resemble the teams he played for in the late 2000’s.
Since being drafted in the 5th round by the Falcons in 2011, Rodgers has taken on a larger work load with every season. Paired with Michael Tuner, Jacquizz was a perfect scat-back option out of the backfield who blocked, caught passes, and gave defenses (who were already tasked with stopping the Falcons passing game) headaches.
Entering his forth year, Jacquizz again finds himself as more of a change up option rather than a solid, workhorse back. Given his size, a workload of 25-30 touches a game could be detrimental to his longevity.
Shouldering the majority of touches out of the backfield, IF healthy, will be former Beaver great Steven Jackson. Jackson’s running style resembles that of a charging elephant, so Rodgers will again benefit from the diversity of the Falcons backfield.
In the 4th round of this year’s draft Atlanta selected Florida State running back Devonta Freeman, the first Seminole to rush for a 1,000 yards in a season since Warrick Dunn in 1996. Freeman poses the biggest threat to Rodger’s field time and at 5’8, 205, posses a larger caliber of physicality between the tackles and at the goal line.
Reports of Steven Jackson‘s tender hamstrings already feeling the many years of physical labor from his time in St. Louis have surfaced, and should Rodgers fall to third on the depth chart, an injury or setback to Jackson could open the door for a tandem duo of Jacquizz and Devonta Freeman.
Stephen Paea DT Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears defense had a historically relevant 2013 season. Historically awful.
The Bears ranked 30th in both points allowed and yards surrendered, and with a full slate of NFC North offensive juggernauts like Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Adrian Peterson on the way in 2014, Chicago must bolster the traditional hood ornament of their franchise.
Chicago used the 2014 draft to reinforce their porous defense, picking up CB Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech, SS Brock Vereen from Minnesota, and two defensive tackles- Will Sutton of Arizona State and Ego Ferguson of LSU.
While these selections bode well for the Bears future, it’s hard to imagine this combination of rookies making a division changing impact.
Coming on late in the year, Jeremiah Ratliff, a 10 year vet from Auburn, helped the Bears to stem the tide of free flowing rushers.
Enter former Beaver and Bears 2nd round draft pick in 2011, Stephen Paea.
Paea terrorized backfields for two seasons in Corvallis. With a non-stop motor and a unique combination of stout size and speedy feet, Paea could be the key to the Bears sealing off what was previously one of the worst defensive lines in the NFL.
With new and energized pieces around Paea, the pressure will be spread amongst the entire front, allowing him to battle one on one with offensive lineman, instead of grappling with double teams.
Brandin Cooks WR New Orleans Saints
Oregon State’s first Biletnikoff Award winner since Mike Hass in 2005, Cooks may also be the most highly touted Beaver rookie to break into the NFL since Steven Jackson in 2004.
It doesn’t take an offensive guru to see this picture.
Cooks has a legitimate chance to be Rookie of the Year in 2014. He’ll lineup against the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice a year, two defensive bottom feeders of 2013, and will never be the main focus of any defense with Jimmy Graham drawing two or three defenders at a time.
Markus Wheaton WR Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers took a big hit at the receiving position this offseason, losing veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to the ocean of NFL free agency. The two accounted for 16 of Ben Roethlisberger‘s 28 total touchdowns, leaving a considerable void on the edges of the field.
A 3rd round pick by the Steelers in 2013, Wheaton’s rookie campaign fell victim to injury and depth chart obscurity. The aforementioned departures Sanders and Cotchery will clear the way for Wheaton to see field time on a more regular, starting basis.
Much like his former teammate Brandin Cooks, Wheaton relies on speed as a tool to baffle corners and leave pursuing linebackers and safeties in the dust. With options like Antonio Brown, Lance Moore, and a stable of tight ends at Big Ben’s disposal, Wheaton will also benefit from one on one coverage, and may become the primary downfield option for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s running game will also change significantly in 2014, with the addition of LaGarette Blount to go along with standout rookie Le’Veon Bell. Dri Archer, a rookie out of Kent State with burning speed, is also an intriguing addition to a reloaded offense.
With defenses now having to balance themselves to defend against a potent running game and Big Ben’s arm, Wheaton will surely see favorable coverage and ample opportunity to display his blazing speed in the open field.
Brandon Browner CB New England Patriots
Riding one of the most incredible paths to NFL stardom, Brandon Browner spent three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League before signing with Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. Two years later, Browner was in the conversation of best corner in the league.
During botched investigation by the NFL and a cluster of false pretenses surrounding missing drug tests, Browner found himself staring down an indefinite suspension by the league. After the dust had cleared and the facts finally surfaced, Browner’s suspension was reduced to the first four games of 2014.
Browner is now paired with the keeper of Revis Island, now located in Foxborough, Mass., on arguable the most imposing defense in the NFL.
Browner’s 6’4, 225 pound frame makes him a big, fast, physical and aggressive force who can make plays all over the field. He’ll be surrounded with some of the best talent in the league, allowing his ballhawk-hard hitting nature to run free across the hash marks.
With a solid support system to back him up, Browner will be free to display the incredible play making ability that took him from the CFL to NFL prominence.
As a Beavers fan and a Patriots fan, this makes me very, VERY happy.