Wednesday was a day to talk breakout NFL players at the SB Nation headquarters, with Stephen White publishing his predicted standouts for each team in the league. With all due respect to White, a great NFL columnist, his choice of Adolphus Washington left Buffalo Bills fans scratching their heads. The confusion can be summed up entirely in White’s dek:
Washington should get more opportunities to rush the passer this year. That’s scary.
Washington rushing the passer? Scary? Let’s be real for a second. Washington was a five-star pass rushing defensive tackle recruit who topped out at 4.5 sacks (13.5 in four years) for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He had one sack last year. After Buffalo drafted Harrison Phillips this year, Washington should be more concerned about breaking into the league than breaking out.
Here are three better candidates for a leap forward this season. Based on how the preseason’s going, do you have a breakout candidate in mind?
The 6’4” 253 pound Lee has been an afterthought throughout his career. Originally an undrafted free agent from Division II Bowie State, he bounced around the waiver wire until 2017, and played eight games for last year’s Bills. Known mainly for his run blocking, Lee played only 4.5% of snaps last year, and he only has a single career catch in his first three seasons.
There’s a chance that his role will expand significantly in 2018, though. In the preseason, he’s shown that he has the athletic ability and body control to be an effective receiver. He’s the team’s fourth-leading target through two games with four catches for 51 yards, including an acrobatic grab that set up Josh Allen’s first touchdown. Lee is in the mix for backup tight end with Nick O’Leary, Jason Croom, and Logan Thomas, and with no clear favorite, he could vault into the first spot in line before August is over. Brian Daboll’s offense makes liberal use of tight ends as both blockers and receivers. If he survives the roster cut, Lee’s in line to have the best season of his career.
After spending his first year out of the league, Yarbrough stuck with Buffalo’s roster in 2017 as a decent backup defensive end. He only recorded one sack in what was a down year for Buffalo’s pass rush as a whole - the team only managed 27 sacks, and Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson led the way with four each. Having added Star Lotulelei, Trent Murphy, and Harrison Phillips to the mix, the Bills are due for a better pass rush, and Yarbrough can be a beneficiary.
The first piece working in Yarbrough’s favor is that Sean McDermott makes heavy use of player rotation on the defensive line. Four defensive ends played at least 39 percent of snaps last year, so even if he’s sitting behind Hughes, Murphy, and Lawson, Yarbrough will get his opportunities (and often be paired with starter-caliber players). Also to his advantage is that Yarbrough’s style is a combination of high effort and advanced hand usage. Yarbrough doesn’t give up on plays, and understands how to string multiple moves together. In a year where the pass rush plays well, it’s not uncommon to see the fourth- or fifth-best sack artist land 3-5 sacks. I think that’s an optimistic, but realistic, expectation for Yarbrough’s season.
Buffalo’s third-round pick from the 2015 draft took a couple steps backward in 2017, playing ineffectively in Rick Dennison’s zone blocking scheme. He lost his starting job to Vlad Ducasse after four weeks, and never played another snap for the rest of the season.
Fast forward to 2018 - new offensive coordinator, new offense, new blocking system. The offensive line coach is the same (Juan Castillo), but Miller’s situation is much better than a year ago. Furthermore, he’s been putting in work over the offseason, doing his best to qualify for the annual “In The Best Shape Of His Life” honor. He’s been starting at right guard through the preseason, and is blocking defenders like he did when he was considered a breakout player in 2016. Of these three, Miller is the surest bet to impress all season long.