Denver Broncos: Julius Thomas, Wes Welker
Rise: Julius Thomas is arguably the second-most reliable tight end in the league. The best is Jimmy Graham of the Saints. Considering the fact that Rob Gronkowski keeps getting sidelines for the Patriots, Thomas is in the ideal situation. Entering his 4th season, Thomas was an unknown commodity a year ago, only to earn the starting gig for 65 catches and 788 yards. His dozen touchdown strikes from Peyton Manning will put defenses in a “pick your poison” situation, as the offense lit up the scoreboard in 2013 for nearly 40 points per game. What’s even better, “Orange Julius” worked with future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez this offseason. This being a contract year for the breakout star, the man should continue producing en route to an extension.
Decline: Wes Welker is also heading into the final year of his contract. The 33-year old got more targets in the redzone in his first season with Manning and the Broncos. Known for torching secondaries from the slot, Welker’s topped the 1,000-yard mark in five of his six seasons with the Patriots. Perhaps a strategy to keep Welker healthy, he posted his lowest numbers since 2006 when he was still earning his stripes with the team that drafted him, the Dolphins. Part of a deep arsenal for Manning to use, his 73 receptions for 778 yards could very well reveal why New England gave him a low-ball offer.
New England Patriots: Julian Edelman, Stevan Ridley
Rise: The man that earned the starting role over Welker at the time, only to get injured and concede the snaps, none other than Julian Edelman. The biggest reason the team moved on from Welker. Coming off his first 1,000 yard campaign, Edelman’s 105 receptions ranked 4th in the entire NFL in 2013. The beneficiary of a decimated receiving core, combined with the absence of Gronkowski, Edelman developed trust as Tom Brady’s go-to guy. As for this season, don’t expect another 100 catches with the return of “Gronk” and a healthier Vereen but he is part of that featured trio in the offense.
Decline: This is where the player has the most control of his situation. Stevan Ridley was featured in 2012 where he racked up over 1,200 yards, yet fumbled the opportunity by putting the ball on the ground four times. New England’s backfield was bit by the injury bug and Ridley was called upon for a second chance to split carries with Shane Vereen. Unfortunately, Ridley isn’t a factor in the passing game and the Patriots are high on rookie James White, who’s been stealing most of the headlines at camp. Ridley is the biggest back in the mix and will kick the year off by getting double-digit carries, but all it takes is one mistake to get yanked for good.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Hartline, Knowshon Moreno
Rise: Brian Hartline anybody? The 27 year old wideout is coming off back-to-back, 70+ catches and 1,000 yard seasons. With only a handful of scores, the possession receiver has been MR. Reliable for the young Ryan Tannehill. Despite the turmoil with the offensive line drama and injuries, Hartline kept his head down and carved out the leading receiver role. He is the best route runner on the team with a nose for the seam, unlike overhyped teammate Mike Wallace. He led the team in receptions and yards, and figures to use his 6’2 frame a little more, in a way that Riley Cooper last season for the Eagles.
Decline: Knowshon Moreno was spectacular behind Manning in that Broncos offense. His productivity is comparable to the second tier of running backs, with over 1,000 yards on the ground and 400 through the air. Known for his excellent pass protection, Moreno returns to the state that he starred at the college level years ago. Signing with Miami this offseason, the homecoming hasn’t gotten off to a good start. He came into camp a little overweight and has been sidelined with a knee injury. The lifespan of a back is short enough with the wear and tear, let alone recovering from a knee injury and learning a new offense. Even if he gets back to form it is believed that he will share snaps with Lamar Miller, who is a lock to begin 2014 as the starting tailback.