When discussing what constitutes a "breakout" year, there is plenty of criteria to discuss. Pro Bowls are often an indicator. Certainly any sort of season-ending award would signify a big year. Many players, like Art Jones for example, have neither of those in their career, but a breakout year could just be moving up into the starting lineup as a key contributor.
On this year's offense, there are several candidates for "breaking out," depending on how you qualify the extolment. Torrey Smith could continue his upward trajectory and be selected to his first Pro Bowl. Dennis Pitta, now fully healed, could find a home in the new scheme and receive a similar honor. Rick Wagner, who we have seen very little of, could hammer down a starting spot at right tackle and solidify an offensive line that looks to be much improved over last season. These players, and more, are more than capable of breaking out.
According to my criteria, however, my money is on quarterback Joe Flacco.
This may initially seem odd, I admit. Flacco, a quarterback who has started each and every game since he entered the league in 2008 after being selected in the first round with the 18th pick, would seemingly have already "broken out." He was a Super Bowl MVP. He's one of the highest-paid QB's in the game. Flacco's durability and historic postseason run in 2012, in which he threw 11 touchdowns without an interception, have to make him a seemingly odd choice to "break out." But there are a few reasons why I think he will earn this accolade.
The question of Flacco's "eliteness," a tired and largely worthless conversation, has dogged him nearly since he played his first down in this league. Regardless of where he falls on the list of current top QB's is irrelevant. Flacco is coming off of his worst statistical season, which itself came on the heels of the best string of games in his career. He only threw eight more touchdowns in all of last year (19) than he did in that aforementioned playoff hot streak. He's hot and cold. That's the way Joe is. Had he continued his playoff success, he likely would not be the focus of this piece. But there are a few reasons why I believe he will earn a breakout campaign.
To begin with, let's talk about Gary Kubiak. The man's track record speaks for himself. The man led Matt Schaub to a Pro Bowl. This Matt Schaub. If that doesn't give a guy hope, I don't know what will. Matt Schaub is about as out of place at the Pro Bowl as he is as at a modeling gig. Kubiak has stated he likes Flacco's athleticism. Anyone who remembers his first NFL touchdown — a run — will know that Joe is deceptively athletic. Now, Kubiak is supposed to say these things, but I believe Flacco will be an excellent fit for the system. He has the athleticism and the arm strength.
Secondly, Flacco has a lot more around him than he did last season, or indeed most seasons. He has Steve Smith, who brings the reliability and attitude this offense so desperately needs. He has the ever improving Torrey Smith, who is still one of the best burners in the league. Jacoby Jones is another returning deep threat. Pitta, ol' reliable, is healthy. Owen Daniels is here to add another pass catching tight end possibility to Kubiak's arsenal. Ray Rice looks healthy and slimmed down, perhaps back to his old "hey diddle-diddle" days. Even Kyle Juszczyk looks to have an expanded role in the offense.
Perhaps even more importantly than of this, Flacco may finally be able to stay upright. He was sacked a career-high 48 times last year. With Eugene Monroe on the blind side all year, Kelechi Osemele healthy at left guard, and the upgrade at center in Jeremy Zuttah, maybe Marshall Yanda gets back to the high level he is accustomed to and the line gives him time.
This is all not to say that Flacco has a bounce-back year, though I obviously believe he will. No, I think when these factors are combined together we have the best shot, as Ravens fans, of seeing Flacco make a Pro Bowl. I believe we may see something closer to the 2012 playoff run-Flacco than last year's struggles. We have seen enough of Flacco over the years to know that is unlikely that he suddenly starts challenging Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for seasonal MVP awards. We know with Flacco it can be feast or famine. But more often it is somewhere in the middle.
Given this, it doesn't seem like such a stretch to predict that he produces his best statistical season and possibly his first Pro Bowl nod. If this were to happen, I see no reason that he couldn't be labeled as having a breakout season. It's all relative with these things. He could very well simply return to his typical above-average numbers and winning ways, and Marlon Brown could rocket into the position of breakout offensive player.
But I think it's Joe who ends the season as having had the greatest uptick in production. He's poised for a turnaround from last season and for his own coming out party.