- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The AFC East saw several breakout players make their marks last season. Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller, New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, and Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline are among the players who had career years in 2012.
So who are this year's under-the-radar players who could have a big season in 2013? Here are seven breakout stars to keep an eye on the AFC East:
2012 stats: 35 tackles
Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan put a lot of pressure on Davis before his rookie season. Ryan compared Davis, a third-round pick from Arkansas State, to a young Ray Lewis, which certainly raised some eyebrows. But by the end of the season, you could see some of the things Ryan bragged about. Davis was athletic, aggressive and finished with 35 tackles. The Jets believe Davis is ready to go into his second season as a full-time starter. New York released Bart Scott this offseason, and Davis is up next. Health permitting, Davis should be able to build off his rookie season.
No. 6: Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills
2012 stats: 61 tackles, one INT
Analysis: Gilmore was viewed as one of the safer picks in last year's NFL draft. He was considered an NFL-ready cornerback who could start in Week 1, which is why Buffalo invested its first-round pick. Gilmore suffered through rookie mistakes like most young cornerbacks, but he did start all 16 games. Expect a lot more consistency from the 22-year-old, who is already Buffalo’s best cornerback. New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a reputation of making cornerbacks better. He worked well with former Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in New York. Pettine is excited about the opportunity to make Gilmore one of the better cornerbacks in the AFC East this year and beyond.
No. 5: Kyle Wilson, CB, Jets
2012 stats: 48 tackles, one INT
Analysis: Wilson, 25, is the oldest player in this bunch. The three-year veteran spent most of his career backing up Pro Bowl cornerbacks Cromartie and Revis. But Wilson finally got consistent playing time in the starting lineup in 2012 after the season-ending knee injury to Revis. Wilson held his own but didn’t make a lot of big plays. He had one interception and one forced fumble in 16 games. But the Jets believe Wilson is capable of taking over Revis’ spot full-time in the starting lineup. That is why New York has been in trade discussions about Revis, who will be a free agent in 2014. I expect a Revis trade to happen before the start of the season, which means Wilson must step up and be a better playmaker.
No. 4: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins
2012 stats: 51 carries, 250 yards, one TD
Analysis: Most people who do not watch the Dolphins on a regular basis aren’t familiar with Miller. He never had more than 10 carries in a game. But those who closely follow the Dolphins know Miller was dangerous nearly every time he touched the football. He led the Dolphins with a yards-per-carry average of 4.9. Miller showed good vision and burst. The Dolphins also believe Miller is a better fit for their system than former tailback Reggie Bush. That is why Miami didn’t try to keep Bush from signing with the Detroit Lions in free agency. Miller should combine with Daniel Thomas to be a formidable young backfield. Miller’s biggest weakness is pass protection against the blitz. But with all-new weapons in Miami at receiver and tight end, Miller should have some open running lanes.
No. 3: Dont'a Hightower, LB, Patriots
2012 stats: 60 tackles, four sacks
Analysis: It’s surprising how Hightower’s rookie year went virtually unnoticed. He immediately added toughness, athleticism and playmaking ability to New England’s front seven. Hightower also got better as the year went on. He started 13 games for the Patriots and had seven games with at least five tackles. Hightower was unusually steady for a rookie linebacker. He didn’t make many mental errors, and also showed a knack for blitzing, as evidenced by his four sacks. Another year under Bill Belichick’s tutelage will only make Hightower a bigger force. Playing next to linebacker Jerod Mayo and behind defensive lineman Vince Wilfork will only make Hightower a better player in Year 2.
No. 2: Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots
2012 stats: 45 tackles, six sacks
Analysis: The Patriots haven’t had a consistently dominant pass-rusher since Mike Vrabel. Jones has a good chance to end that search and become a consistent double-digit sack player for New England. Jones started fast his rookie season and registered six sacks in his first eight games. But an ankle injury caused Jones to miss two games, and he didn’t have the same burst and production when he returned. Injuries have been an issue for Jones dating to college. But if he can stay healthy for 16 games, he could have a big 2013 season for the Patriots.
No. 1: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins
2012 stats: 3,294 yards, 12 TDs, 13 INTs
Analysis: It's too early to determine whether Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. But Miami’s front office thinks Tannehill has a great shot after a strong rookie year, so the Dolphins added as many weapons as possible around him in Year 2. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland signed dynamic former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson and former New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller. The Dolphins added pass-catchers that fit Tannehill and their offensive system. Tannehill (3,294) threw for more yards last season than fellow 2012 draft picks Robert Griffin III (3,200) and Russell Wilson (3,118). Tannehill could be poised for his first 4,000-yard season, and certainly more touchdowns, with a much stronger supporting cast.