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Potential AFC breakthrough players: Keep an eye on Luke Joeckel, other rookies

The SportsXchange
NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars-Mincamp
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Jun 11, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (76) during a minicamp at the Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields. (Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports)

From rookies to fifth-year veterans, NFL teams in the American Football Conference are eyeing potential breakthrough players to help boost success in the 2013 season.

Some seem as obvious as the last piece of a puzzle, such as the Super Bowl champion Ravens inserting first-round draft pick Matt Elam at the strong safety spot that became vacant by the departure of controversial Bernard Pollard.

Others are not so obvious, such as fourth-year cornerback Brandon Ghee of the Bengals, second-year kicker Randy Bullock of the Texans or fifth-year receiver Kenny Britt, who hopes he has finally overcome injury woes and a series of off-field issues with the Titans.

Here is a closer look at potential breakthrough players in the AFC, based on results from a survey of team correspondents for The Sports Xchange:

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Matt Elam, while at Florida, forces LSU WR Odell Beckham Jr. to fumble the ball. (AP)

Baltimore Ravens – Rookie safety Matt Elam
The first-round pick is athletic, aggressive, hard-hitting and is expected to take over at strong safety for Bernard Pollard, who was cut and signed with the Titans.

Buffalo Bills – Rookie wide receiver Robert Woods
Woods, one of the team's two second-round picks, steps into a dream situation after starring for USC. He joins a team desperate for receivers and willing to give newcomers a lot of playing time under a new coaching staff. Woods should flourish opposite veteran Stevie Johnson.

Cincinnati Bengals – Fourth-year cornerback Brandon Ghee
Ghee, a third-round pick in 2010, has been beset by injuries in training camps. Last year a wrist injury ended his season. He seems to have improved his coverage skills.

Cleveland Browns – Second-year safety Johnson Bademosi
Bademosi was a special teams star last season and saw some brief action at cornerback. Used at safety in minicamp, he seems to have found a permanent position. At the very least be could be part of a rotation in the nickel and dime defense.

Denver Broncos – Second-year defensive end Derek Wolfe
Wolfe had six sacks as a rookie while rotating between defensive end and tackle. Linebacker/defensive end Von Miller figured that Wolfe would have finished with 10 sacks and teammates compare Wolfe to Houston's J.J. Watt, the 2012 Defensive Player of Year.

Houston Texans – Second-year kicker Randy Bullock
Bullock, a fifth-round pick in 2012, suffered a groin injury in camp last year and was placed on injured reserve. Bullock has a good leg for kickoffs and coaches feel he will be steady for years.

Indianapolis Colts – Second-year nose tackle Josh Chapman
Chapman missed his rookie season after undergoing knee surgery before the draft to repair an injury he played through at Alabama. Team officials say Chapman is 100 percent and is expected to make a major contribution to the Colts' defense, especially against the run.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Rookie offensive tackle Luke Joeckel
The No. 2 overall pick in the draft, he appears as good as his pre-draft hype suggested. In offseason workouts, Joeckel showed he has the footwork to be solid at that position and, if so, that should finally free up tight end Marcedes Lewis to do less blocking and operate more as a receiver.

Kansas City Chiefs – Second-year defensive tackle Dontari Poe
Poe, the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, had a serviceable rookie season playing in the two-gap 3-4 defense of former head coach Romeo Crennel. New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's defense may be better for Poe's ability to be disruptive with his quickness.

Miami Dolphins – Rookie defensive end Dion Jordan
Jordan, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, showed intriguing versatility in college. If it translates to the NFL, he could be a pass-rushing terror opposite Cameron Wake.

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Pats QB Ryan Mallett hands the off ball to Shane Vereen. (USA TODAY Sports)

New England PatriotsThird-year running back Shane Vereen
Vereen enters his third NFL season with the opportunity of a career because Danny Woodhead moved to San Diego. The former Cal star will be leaned on heavily to make plays in a revamped Patriots' offense, and worked in recent minicamps at wide receiver and as a third-down back.

New York Jets – Third-year defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson
Wilkerson is already a star, he just doesn't have the Pro Bowl accolades that most people associate with stardom. Being snubbed in the Pro Bowl balloting has motivated Wilkerson and should fuel a rise in his play.

Oakland Raiders – Rookie linebacker Sio Moore
Moore flashed talent while working under the Raiders' coaching staff at the Senior Bowl. The staff immediately saw him as an explosive player who could make an immediate difference and as a third-round draft pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell
Bell has a chance to boost the Steelers' ground game to where Art Rooney says it should be. The second-round draft choice looked good in the spring, albeit in shorts, but he should start a year after the Steelers survived with a patchwork rotation at the position.

San Diego Chargers – Third-year wide receiver Vincent Brown
Brown is under the radar, after his season last year was derailed by a broken ankle suffered in the preseason. An excellent route-runner with great hands, he should be a prime target for Philip Rivers.

Tennessee Titans – Fifth-year wide receiver Kenny Britt
Yes, a fifth-year player can be a breakthrough player. Britt has shown flashes of his ability, but injuries and bad judgment held him down. During offseason workouts, he showed the form he displayed in 2011 prior to tearing his ACL.

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