Earlier this week, Bryan Broaddus mentioned three players who he anticipates breaking out in 2013. I liked his selection of tight end James Hanna, a player who I would have chosen as well had the Cowboys not drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round. Barring injury, Hanna simply won't see the opportunities required to make a significant impact. That doesn't mean he won't be a good player, but just that a 40-catch season isn't likely.
Using stats and my nerd's intuition, I'm going to take a crack at projecting four breakout players. I already broke down one of the guys who I'm projecting for a better-than-expected season, running back DeMarco Murray, so you won't see him on this list (but you can read the top four reasons Murray will have a big year right here).
So what am I looking for in predicting a breakout? The primary thing I want to capitalize on is variance; I'm looking for players who have already showed signs of quality play but have been the victims of randomness, i.e. they've experienced bad luck. Examples of that might be a cornerback who breaks up 15 passes but doesn't have an interception or a defensive end who has a bunch of quarterback pressures but few sacks (see Anthony Spencer circa 2011). If you can identify predictors of elite play, it's pretty easy to subsequently make accurate predictions. When I used Spencer's past pressure rates to project his 2012 sack total at nine, a number many ridiculed, it was one of the predictions in which I was most confident heading into the season.
Below, you'll find the names of four players who underperformed (or got injured) in 2012. In many ways, their "breakouts" will come simply because they're more likely to play to their potential. You can think of players as stocks, and I'm simply "buying" on those stocks whose price point is at a low and likely to "regress" upward.
1. LT Tyron Smith
One of the most important aspects of predicting a breakout is age. Spencer was a rarity for me in that I don't normally project veteran players to break out. Instead, I'm looking for players on the rise, and that characterizes Smith perfectly.
When the Cowboys drafted Smith in 2011, he was just 20 years and four months old. Now 22 and six months old, Smith is entering his third NFL season at an age when many players are beginning their careers. Combined with his elite athleticism, Smith's experience at such a young age is reason enough to predict a breakout.
Don't be surprised to see Smith allow more sacks in 2013, though. I tracked him as yielding three sacks last year, but Pro Football Focus recorded 37 pressures. Based on historic pressure-to-sack ratios, Smith should have allowed closer to nine sacks last season. Nonetheless, Smith's pressure rate should drop considerably in his third year. Expect him to allow in the range of 20 pressures and five sacks – quality numbers for a left tackle.
2. RT Jermey Parnell
Parnell was the "anti-Smith" in 2012, allowing way more sacks than he "should have." I tracked Parnell as giving up five sacks, but he allowed pressure on Romo on just 4.2 percent of his 191 snaps in pass protection. Based on his play, Parnell's most likely sack total was just two.
The question is whether or not Parnell will be starting in 2013. If given a fair shake to win the starting job, I don't see any way he doesn't beat out Doug Free. If that happens, Parnell's partial 2012 play suggests he could have a surprisingly efficient season.
3. S Barry Church
Church was playing well in 2012 before going down with an Achilles tear in Week 3. While that injury is a concern, Church had shown signs of improvement for a few years, racking up a team-high 10.5 percent tackle rate in his limited snaps.
At 6-1, 222 pounds, a good comp for Church is Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. That's especially true because Seattle runs a defense that's very similar to what Monte Kiffin is going to bring to Dallas in 2013 – more zone concepts (although less Cover 2 than people think). That means Church will be in the box quite often. The safety recorded a 4.17 short shuttle before entering the NFL, suggesting he has plenty of short-area quickness to thrive in that area.
4. CB Morris Claiborne
Claiborne is an elite player whose rookie season was marred by a few poor outings (think his five-penalty performance against the Eagles). The truth is that Claiborne wasn't as bad as people tend to think, playing pretty well on a per-route basis.
Claiborne was targeted only 69 times in his first season, a really low mark for a rookie. Compare that to 87 targets for veteran Brandon Carr. When a cornerback isn't targeted a whole lot, it typically means he has good coverage and quarterbacks are throwing only when his man is more open than usual. When Nnamdi Asomugha was in his prime and rarely thrown at, for example, he allowed one of the highest completion percentages and YPA in the NFL. It didn't mean he was playing poorly – just the opposite, actually.
So when analyzing cornerbacks, I like to look at yards-per-route. That metric doesn't penalize cornerbacks for having good coverage. If they aren't targeted on a particular play, they're rewarded for good coverage. Claiborne actually ranked in the top 25 in the NFL in yards allowed if we take into account all of the snaps he was in coverage. That suggests that Claiborne, despite hauling in just one interception, played as a low-end No. 1 cornerback in his rookie season. As the targets increase, so will the picks.