We're going to take a look at 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- players who could be primed for a breakout season in 2014-15. Keep in mind that we won't be including rookies, since we're all very aware that every single player drafted this year will be an immediate success and sure-fire Pro Bowler, to the extent that there's no point in even discussing it (looking at you, Bruce Ellington). I'll probably be wrong on most of these, but when one of them actually works out I'll use this post as ever-lasting proof that a busted clock is right twice per day.
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver has had his off-the-field issues, and whatever you happen to believe in regards to his character is something I'm not going to touch on today. This is about what a player can bring on the field, and I personally think Culliver could be one of those guys who has a big, big season. You might even call it a breakout year.
Culliver, a third-round pick in 2011, played in all 16 games in his first two seasons in the league. In 2012, he took a big step and was one of the better cornerbacks in the league. Many liked his ability to stick to receivers in the short game, though he did have his faults. His biggest issue was a tendency to lose himself on extended plays. Despite the fact that he's one of the faster players on the team, when he was getting beat, he was getting beat deep.
That's a troubling tendency for any defensive back, but some would argue the good outweighed the bad. He matched up well with several big-name receivers, including Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. Now, Johnson had a big game, but Culliver wasn't matched up against him the whole game. He was primarily covering Titus Young, who had a single reception for 11 yards in that game, but he went up against Johnson and won on multiple snaps.
Culliver is strong against the bigger, more physical receivers. He's not exactly a huge cornerback himself, either, which makes that even more impressive. In all, Culliver played in 63.2 percent of defensive snaps in 2012, and many were excited to see what he could bring to the table in 2013. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL during practice and missed the entirety of said season.
Still, coming back strong is possible. He showed a lot of promise on the field, and I think the 49ers are banking on that given the way the roster is shaping up. Let's promise to never show that deep pass from the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl ever again. Deal?
What Needs To Happen
Culliver needs to come back healthy, and stay healthy, above all. He hasn't yet been cleared for 11-on-11 drills, not that the 49ers are doing a ton of that at this stage of organized team activities. But training camp is just about to happen, and those drills will be a central part. When Culliver is ready is not yet known, but he can't rush back and he can't risk further injury.
Tearing your ACL has had such wildly different results from player to player in every sport. What's obviously needed here is for that to ... go his way. He can do all the proper work he needs to do and follow the plan to the exact letter, but there's still a chance his body just doesn't agree. That not happening is what needs to happen.
Where He Fits If He's Successful
A 49ers defense where Culliver is performing up to the standards we'd like to see -- in other words, him being a breakout player -- basically has him as the starting No. 1 corner. Culliver is already expected to earn one of two starting jobs alongside Tramaine Brock, but Culliver is regarded as someone with a higher ceiling than Brock.
San Francisco's cornerback position will be interesting next season. We have all of Culliver, Brock, Chris Cook, Perrish Cox, Eric Wright and rookie first-round pick Jimmie Ward vying for starting spots. Most figure it will be Culliver and Brock starting with Ward playing a nickel role, though it's hard to tell with rookies. Culliver will get every chance to shine, and he has the skillset to do it.