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Perhaps they've gone unrecognized. Maybe they just need to step their games up a bit. They might just need to capitalize on a new opportunity. But the following players could be ready for a Pro Bowl breakout in 2014:
QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: Seriously, he's six-plus seasons, $100 million-plus and one ring into his career with nary a Pro Bowl trip. But if new OC Gary Kubiak can make Matt Schaub the NFL's leading passer, surely he can expand Flacco's game.
LT Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills: He's quietly blossomed into one of the league's better left tackles, and the team needs him to maintain (or exceed) his recent level of play despite the mysterious illness Glenn battled this summer.
RB Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: This shifty runner racked up 1,200 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2013 despite never starting a game. That figure should rise now that Bernard is the No. 1 option for a club that plans to run more.
OLB Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns: He's one of the NFL's unheralded 3-4 outside backers, probably due to humdrum sack numbers (21 in three seasons), though Sheard did get one in Week 1. New coach Mike Pettine has singled Sheard out as a player he's amped to unleash.
RB Montee Ball, Denver Broncos: The new No. 1 back in the league's most powerful offense, Ball may never see an eight-man box. He averaged nearly 60 rushing yards per game over his last five as a rookie backup in 2013. Expect a huge season despite the quiet opener.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: He began his sophomore season with a 76-yard TD. Should be a sign of good things to come.
CB Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts: Played his best game of 2013 when Indy ruined Peyton Manning's homecoming. Now the Colts are banking nearly $10 million annually over the next four years that Davis is ready to be consistently elite.
DT Sen'Derrick Marks, Jacksonville Jaguars: He's one of the first players GM Dave Caldwell identified as a building block for a fixer-upper franchise. Marks may be ready to anchor one of the emerging defenses in the AFC.
C Rodney Hudson, Kansas City Chiefs: He settled in as the starting pivot last year and now must anchor an offensive line that lost three starters to free agency and another (RT Donald Stephenson) to a four-game suspension to start 2014.
TE Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins: He can play tight end. He can play fullback. He can get into the end zone, too, surprisingly leading the Fish with seven TDs in 2013 in a surprise season that included 69 catches for 759 yards.
DE Chandler Jones, New England Patriots: He nearly doubled his sack total (11½) last year after notching six as a rookie. Look for another big leap with new CB Darrelle Revis locking down receivers behind Jones' pass rush.
DE Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets: Frankly, it's a crime he hasn't gone to Honolulu yet. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better 3-4 defensive end in the league not named J.J. Watt. And Sheldon Richardson's rise only helps Wilkerson.
C Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders: There aren't many positions the Raiders have settled for the next decade, but Wisniewski's might be one. Time for him to get on the Pro Bowl board after uncle Steve made eight for the Silver & Black.
G David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers: Third-year lineman is a big reason Pittsburgh's blocking has shown steady improvemenet. He could truly flourish under the watch of Hall of Fame assistant Mike Munchak.
WR Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers: The rare rookie to surpass 1,000 receiving yards — all the more impressive considering Allen had three catches for 30 yards after the first three weeks of 2013. No telling what he'll do as the go-to guy now.
WR Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans: Bet you didn't know he had 94 catches last year. Don't be surprised if he's soon regarded as the league's premier slot receiver while under the watchful eye of Ken Whisenhunt.
WR Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals: Coach Bruce Arians likes to throw deep, and fellow Card Larry Fitzgerald will probably still be the guy garnering double coverage. It could up to a monster season for Floyd, who eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2013, and may be close to assuming Fitzgerald's long-held No. 1 role.
K Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons: Given the number of huge kicks he's made in more than a dozen NFL seasons — plus two more in the Week 1 upset of the Saints — hard to believe he's never been to Hawaii. And with 89.8% of his field goal tries converted since 2010, Bryant, 39, seems to be getting better with age.
LB Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers: How does a guy record 123 tackles, four sacks and two INTs for the NFL's second-best defense a year ago while playing on a right ACL that's been reconstructed three times? By having Pro Bowl skills.
DL Lamarr Houston, Chicago Bears: DE Jared Allen may have been the headliner addition in the Windy City, but Houston is the one who got a five-year $35 million deal to wall up perhaps the worst defense in the Bears' 94-year history.
WR Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys: There should be plenty of balls in the air in Dallas this year. Expect Williams to pluck his fair share of them — especially between the 20-yard lines - after he secured QB Tony Romo's trust as a rookie.
LB DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions: A Pro Bowler? No. But his peers voted him the league's 59th-best player in NFL Network's annual survey. That will happen when a linebacker picks off six passes. Only Richard Sherman had more in 2013. (And Levy already snared another beauty away from Eli Manning on Monday night.)
WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers: No denying his talent. And with a starting job locked up, his return responsibilities diminished and his body at full health, little reason to believe Cobb won't be one of the NFL's most dynamic wideouts.
S Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings: Healthy again, he's ready to emerge as something special. And being coached by defensive whiz Mike Zimmer should only hasten Smith's seemingly inevitable journey to safety stardom. Last week's 81-yard pick six won't hurt.
OLB Junior Galette, New Orleans Saints: He transitioned perfectly into Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense and posted 12 sacks as a first-time starter off the edge in 2013. A bolstered secondary could give Galette even more time to bag quarterbacks.
RB Rashad Jennings, New York Giants: Given the state of the Giants' new passing game, their best option may be to rely on Jennings, who's shown nice burst and the ability to be a workhorse as a three-down player.
WR Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles: Provided he's healthy, hard to believe he won't flourish as the No. 1 wideout in Chip Kelly's system.
LB Alec Ogletree, St. Louis Rams: The line garners most of the attention for this unit. But Ogletree is an exceptional athlete, and it stands to reason he'll create plenty of havoc with Gregg williams now calling the defensive shots.
WR Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers: For a change, he a season injury-free. He's playing for his next contract. He's trying to provide evidence he's not the "sorry" receiver Richard Sherman claims he is. Plenty of fuel here.
He tends to fly under the Legion of Boom's significant radar signature. But Wagner also flies all over the field, and it shouldn't be long before he's recognized for his role on this defense.
OLB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How does a guy get named first-team all-pro in 2013 while Pro Bowl recognition eludes him? Let's fault the fan balloting. But playing for Lovie Smith probably means David won't stay anonymous much longer.
WR Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins: He snatched 113 passes in 2013. Nobody caught more last year, and no one ever caught so many in the lengthy history of this franchise. Expect Garcon to snare more accolades, too, in a pass-heavy offense.
By | Nate Davis