This upcoming 2014 NFL season, a wide variety of relatively unheralded sophomore and third-year players will inherit or take over key roles for even the best teams in the NFL. Whether it's an already established starter who will now be assuming more responsibility, or a green, untested player who will now look to become a reliable backup, every roster depth chart has a few big question marks.
In this series, I've been breaking down "who" I think those players are, "where" they play, "why" they'll potentially play a key role in 2014 and "how" they'll succeed in that.
On tap today, we have the New Orleans Saints.
Who: Vaccaro was the Saints' first-round pick out of Texas in 2013. He went 15th overall. He started 14 games his rookie season for New Orleans and racked up 79 tackles, 8 passes defensed, and 1 interception. He unfortunately broke his ankle in Week 15 which kept him off the field for the rest of the season and the Playoffs.
Where: Vaccaro returns in 2014 and will play alongside Jarius Byrd in the defensive backfield. Along with the Seahawks' Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, this has potential to be one of the elite safety combinations in the NFL.
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Why: Vaccaro finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting last year and when paired with Byrd, should be a nice joker type of player for Rob Ryan to move around on defense. He has speed, athleticism, and good instincts, and can be used to matchup with receivers, tight ends, and running backs. He gives the Saints a lot of options for multiple schemes.
How: With an NFL offseason under his belt, an offseason of training and watching more tape, Vaccaro's understanding of the game and thus his anticipation is sure to improve. How much? "A ton," Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said recently. "From an Xs and Os [standpoint], he's really football savvy. He's really sharp. He has good instincts. He's powerful. We have seen a big skip from Year 1 to Year 2. And he was playing at an awfully high level when he got injured last year (in Week 16). His offseason's been fantastic. He's moving around and carrying himself like a veteran."
RB Khiry Robinson
Who: Robinson was an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M that broke onto the Saints' roster after trying out post-Draft. The 6'0, 220-pound running back carried the ball 54 times for 224 yards and a touchdown.
Where: Robinson has gotten a lot of hype lately as a guy that could potentially develop into the #1 back for the Saints this season, and he's currently splitting snaps at that spot with Mark Ingram.
Why: Pierre Thomas is now 30-years-old and Darren Sproles was recently released, so there's opportunity for carries in New Orleans' high-volume offense. Robinson packs a punch at 220 pounds but does a nice job of getting upfield with decisiveness.
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How: Two things that Robinson must prove he's capable of doing -- pass protection, and being a factor in the pass game. Khiry did not catch a pass last season so his ability there is a bit of a question mark, and obviously protecting Drew Brees is a top priority.
WR Kenny Stills
Who: Stills was a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma by the Saints in 2013. He caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns and his speciality was most definitely the deep pass. His per catch average of 20 yards best in the NFL.
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Where: With the addition of Brandin Cooks to ostensibly take the Darren Sproles role as a space player underneath, my guess is that Stills' role as a deep threat will remain similar to last season, and he'll continue to run sideline routes for Drew Brees.
Why: Stills will compete for a role as the No. 2 receiver behind Marques Colston, but will have to beat out Robert Meachem for targets. However, with the departure of Lance Moore, Stills will have a chance to really separate himself as one of Brees' top targets.
How: Stills has proven that he can be a deep threat but he'll need to round out his game a little more as an all around receiver.
LT Terron Armstead
Who: Armstead was a third-round pick out of Arkansas Pine-Bluff, and came out of obscurity to become that high of a pick after he tore up the NFL Combine, particularly the 40 yard dash. He came on late in his rookie season to earn the ever-important starting left tackle position in Week 16, and played there for the Saints through the playoffs.
Where: Left tackle
Why: Armstead impressed in his limited action and comes in as the presumptive long-term answer there for the Saints. That's a big find in the third round if he pans out.
How: Keep getting stronger, keep developing understanding of footwork and hand use.