By: Jamie Samuelsen
@jamiesamuelsen

Defining potential breakout players is a difficult task. The term “breakout” implies that it’s a player currently riding under the radar emerging seemingly from out of nowhere. Being ‘under the radar’ is nearly impossible given the very nature of the NFL where every pick and every signing is dissected to the twelfth degree. For example, if I say that defensive end Ziggy Ansah is poised for a breakout year, I’ll get 15 e-mails from fans that have been touting Ansah for weeks as the breakout player.

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Can you truly be a breakout player when everyone anticipates the breakout? It’s like the age-old argument about underrated players? If everyone thinks you’re underrated, aren’t you properly rated?

So depending on how you define breakout, this list may trouble you. I define breakout as a player who takes a major leap forward from one year to the next. That may be the leap from second string to starter. That may be the leap from starter to star. There is no doubt that Darius Slay was the Lions top breakout player in 2014. After an injury-plagued rookie year where most fans were pleading for the Lions to take a cornerback (and not a tight end), Slay became a very strong cover corner in his second year and enters year three as the Lions top corner.

Who will be the Darius Slay for 2015?

Here are five possible nominees.

1. Ansah: Come on, you can’t ask a question like this and not expect me to choose the easiest answer. Ansah had eight sacks in his rookie year when he was plagued by a bad ankle. Last year, he emerged as the Lions best pass rusher not named Ndamukong Suh. Remember, this is just Ansah’s sixth year of playing organized football, so there is still room to grow. The downside of course is that with Suh gone, opposing offenses will focus a great deal more on stopping Ansah.

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2. Kyle Van Noy: This is almost a do-over for Van Noy. He missed the first eight games of 2014 on the PUP list before returning for the stretch drive. The need is even greater now with Deandre Levy out for at least the opener against the Chargers. I remember listening to NFL Radio on the night that Van Noy was drafted and hearing the analysts rave about him being one of the most complete defensive players in the draft. If he can emerge on one side with (a healthy) Levy on the other, the Lions might have one of the best linebacking corps in the league.

3. Nevin Lawson: I’m using the Darius Slay corollary here. Lawson missed almost his entire rookie year after injuring his toes in week two. But he was the Lions’ fourth round draft pick in 2014 and entered training camp as a highly thought of cover corner. NFL teams go through defensive backs like the Pistons go through head coaches, so depth is always an issue. The Lions were relatively healthy last year with their defensive backfield of Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo, Slay and Rashean Mathis. Don’t expect the same such luck this fall paving the way for Lawson to make an impact.

4. Travis Swanson: The very nature of going from a backup to a starter gives someone like Swanson the chance to emerge. The hard part is that it’s difficult to notice whether a center is playing well. It’s easy to tell if he’s playing poorly. Swanson will have the outstanding Larry Warford to his right and either rookie Laken Tomlinson or veteran Manny Ramirez to his left. The good news for Lions fans is that Swanson is not Dominic Raiola. The bad news for Lions fans is that he’s not Dominic Raiola. Fans loved to rip Raiola and he gave them plenty of reasons to do so – but he was a durable, reliable center for a lot of years here.

5. Eric Ebron: Go ahead. Let me have it. I’m not predicting great things for Ebron, I’m merely pointing out the following factors that make him a candidate to break out. First, by all NFL scouting accounts, he is a talented player. The Lions drafted him 10th, but there were plenty of other teams that had him there too. Second, his rookie year humbled him a bit and he clearly has something to prove. Nothing wrong with a little motivation. Third, it’s year two for everyone on offense in the Joe Lombardi system. This might make Matthew Stafford more comfortable and it should make Ebron more comfortable, too. I’m certainly not justifying that pick (I still hate it). I’m just saying that there is a reason that the Lions made the pick (and it’s not just because they’re the Lions).

No rookies on the list because unless you’re Odell Beckham Jr. or Cam Newton, you don’t normally qualify as a breakout player. You’re a rookie and a new addition who brings with him a certain level of expectations.

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Speaking of expectations, the early look at the Lions has them as an eight- or nine-win team, which seems fair given the departure of Suh and the close wins that they piled up last year. What’s encouraging is that there is clearly talent on this team, which wasn’t the case five or six years ago. Talent can emerge. Talent can shine through. If any of the five players listed is able to “break out” that win total should only rise.