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Patriots' Shane Vereen tops Week 15's Making the Leap

The goal of our weekly Making the Leap watch is to highlight part-time players making the leap to difference makers or unproven young talents ascending to key contributors. Once players have truly made the leap, they will graduate from this running list.

This week's graduate is Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has entered the Defensive Player of the Year discussion in the absence of Geno Atkins.

Previous graduates are Harrison Smith, Jordan Cameron, Cameron Jordan, Jurrell Casey, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordon and Tyrann Mathieu, all of whom have established themselves as Pro Bowl-caliber players. They've made the leap.

Without further ado, here is the list of players making the leap in Week 15:

Two of the NFL's premier receiving backs. Assuming Aaron Hernandez's "joker" role in the Pats' offense, Vereen has been a mismatch for linebackers and safeties. Vereen set franchise records for receptions (12) and yards (153) by a running back in last week's win over the Browns. Targeted on a greater percentage of pass routes than any player in the NFL, Vereen will become even more important to Tom Brady with Rob Gronkowski out of the lineup.

Bernard's 4.6 yards per rush in the red zone is the highest by a rookie since Adrian Peterson's 4.8 in 2007. He looked like the best player on the field in the Bengals' 42-28 victory over the Colts.

3. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers wide receiver

4. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers running back

Along with Bernard, Allen and Lacy are in a three-horse race for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Four of Allen's last five catches have gone for touchdowns, as he's shown natural playmaking ability as Philip Rivers' No. 1 receiver. ... Fighting through an ankle injury, Lacy got more than what was blocked last week en route to 90 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the comeback victory over the Falcons. He leads the league in rushing yards after contact.

6. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins defensive end

No tight end -- not even Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski -- has more receptions and yards than "Big Play Clay" over the past five weeks. Check out Marc Sessler's Game Rewind writeup on "The Claymaker's" 97-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Steelers.

Vernon has seven sacks in his past four games, bringing his season total to 11.5 -- good for fourth in the league. With two more, he will set the franchise record for most sacks through the first two seasons of a career.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan showered high praise on Vaccaro last week, suggesting that while Earl Thomas is the best free safety in the NFL, Vaccaro is the best overall safety. No coordinator asks more of a safety than Ryan does of Vaccaro, and the rookie has emerged as a difference-maker since mid-season.

Galette is one of just eight linebackers with at least 50 combined sacks, hits and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

10. Da'Rick Rogers, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver

Although Keenan Allen has emerged as the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, Dan Hanzus recently opined that Patterson will have the best career of the rookie wide receiver class. I agree. Patterson isn't as refined as Allen, but he's a big play waiting to happen when the ball is in his hands.

During Friday's "Around The League Podcast," we discussed Rogers' potential impact on a moribund Colts offense. Undrafted for character reasons, Rogers drew comparisons toBrandon Marshall, Terrell Owens and Eric Moulds coming out of Tennessee-Chatanooga. Much like Patterson, he's raw but loaded with physical ability.

Trainer's room: Jake Locker, David Wilson, Mike James, Dwayne Allen, Ryan Broyles, Jordan Reed, Stephen Hill

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