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With training camp about to get underway, here are five breakout candidates for the Jets...
RB Elijah McGuire
McGuire is a player the Jets would like to step up and assume a bigger role this season. They obviously love his skill set, with Stump Mitchell heaping praise on him by comparing him to the legendary LaDainian Tomlinson last month.
Last season, operating behind a struggling run blocking unit, McGuire failed to produce on a consistent basis, although he did have a huge game against the Jaguars in October's overtime win. With a running style that's well-suited to the type of running game new offensive line coach Rick Dennison likes to employ and pass-catching abilities tailor-made for the modern era, McGuire will aim to take reps away from veterans Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell and may even make one of them expendable.
WR Chad Hansen
The main issue with including Hansen on this list is that maybe the cat is already out of the bag. Everyone's been talking about how impressive Hansen was during organized team activitiess and at minicamp. This included safety Terrence Brooks, who didn't hesitate to identify Hansen as his choice for a breakout candidate during an appearance on NFL Network's Good Morning Football last week.
However, if you drew up a depth chart today, Hansen is probably still only the fifth wide receiver with free-agent addition Terrelle Pryor set to return from an ankle injury. It's not uncommon for veterans to go through to motions until the pads go on, which can lead to a young player like Hansen standing out early before falling back into the pack when everyone else gets into shape. However, if he can keep up the momentum, Hansen is sure to build on his nine-catch rookie campaign and might even challenge for a starter's workload if Pryor remains limited.
OLB Dylan Donahue
The Jets were effusive in their praise for Donahue during training camp last season, and he was rewarded with a regular role as a situational pass rusher until being sidelined with a season-ending arm injury a month into the season. While he didn't make much of an impact, Donahue had at least one play in each game in which he flashed some kind of ability to beat his man, get into the backfield or get in on a stop. The Jets also seemed keen to find some creative ways of freeing him up, including using him as a pass-rushing middle linebacker in dime packages.
Donahue has a decent chance to reclaim this role, mainly because the Jets haven't made much of an effort to address the position. However, they'll still be hoping for growth from him in his second season. If he can put his off-field issues behind him, Donahue could push the likes of Lorenzo Mauldin for more pass rushing reps and would hopefully start to produce as his workload increases.
S Doug Middleton
Middleton was expected to battle for a role last year and perhaps would have pushed the likes of Brooks or Rontez Miles for some of their rotational dime package work. However, he was sidelined with an injury and missed the entire season. As an undrafted rookie, Middleton had managed to earn himself a spot on the active roster over the last month and made some contributions, including a special teams touchdown.
With Miles expected to start the season on the PUP list, there are a few contenders to compete with Brooks for those rotational reps, and Middleton should be right in the mix with his closing speed, playmaking abilities and intangibles.
TE Neal Sterling
Sterling already had a breakout of sorts when he caught five passes for 74 yards in the final game of last season, the best production any Jet had from the tight end position all year. Had he turned in that performance in the middle of the season, there would have been calls for him to get more opportunities to see if he could build on that. However, as it happened right at the end of the year, it's been mostly forgotten. Most breakdowns of Jets tight ends barely, if at all, mention him.
The Jets will not have forgotten, though, and that performance carries some weight when the two main competitors for a pass catching tight end role -- rookie Chris Herndon and second-year man Jordan Leggett -- have not had a chance to prove they can produce at this level yet. Reports indicated that the converted wide receiver Sterling was a standout at minicamp, so perhaps he still has a shot to win a major role.