It seems like anyone who writes about sports composes a list of potential breakout players to watch for in the upcoming season. I'm no different. In fact, I wrote something of a prelude to this article back on January 2. I still stand by that list (especially Cliff Avril), and I'll throw out names of other players now; some of these guys are already getting hyped/pumped up by the media, some aren't.
Sam Bradford - QB - St. Louis Rams
It seems like either Sam Bradford or Matthew Stafford is the pick as the quarterback who's going to break out this season, and I don't trust Stafford's ability to stay healthy for an entire season. Sam Bradford, on the other hand, is on his way to being a top player at the position. I liked him at Oklahoma, but I didn't love him. There was so much talent around Bradford there, that I wondered if his supporting cast was largely to credit for his success. It didn't take long for my doubts to be put to rest as I watched him during his rookie season in the NFL. I'm totally, firmly on the bandwagon. Yeah, yeah, there's a large group of dissenters out there who malign Bradford as king of the dink and dunk quarterbacks and point to the fact that he posted the lowest yards per attempt (6.0) of any starter in the league. Did you see who he had to throw to last year? Danny Amendola was his best receiver. DANNY FUCKING AMENDOLA! (Edit: Not that there's anything wrong with Amendola, of course, because he's the Rams' Wes Welker; but if he's your number one receiver, that's bad). It's like when Donovan McNabb had Torrence Small and Charles Johnson as his starting wide receivers, except worse.
Anyway, I think Bradford is the real deal at the quarterback position and will have the Rams competing at a high level for a long time. Size, intelligence, quick release, arm strength (yes, haters, he has an NFL arm), accuracy, footwork, confidence, poise, moxie, leadership. It's all there. Also doesn't hurt that Josh McDaniels is now his offensive coordinator. The guy can't head coach or scout talent for shit, but he's pretty damn good when it comes to calling plays and working with quarterbacks. With a solid array of weapons on offense that includes the ever-dependable Steven Jackson, rookie standout Lance Kendricks at tight end, and an underrated wide receiver corps of Donnie Avery*, Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Gibson, and the aforementioned Amendola (one of the first three is bound to have a breakout season, by the way), Bradford should put up some impressive numbers in 2011.
*Edit: Avery was cut by the Rams four days after I published this article. Shows what I know.
Prediction: 3800 yards passing, 64% completion, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions
Jared Cook - TE - Tennessee Titans
I remember when Jared Cook, at a shade under 6-5 and 246 pounds, ran a 4.49 at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine. I also remember when he and his 85 speed repeatedly torched me in Madden '10, before progressing to a 90 overall (from a low 70-something) two seasons into franchise mode. After a nondescript first season and a half in the NFL, Cook started showing flashes of brilliance over the final six games of the 2010 season. He's a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and stands to have a breakout year with Matt Hasselbeck throwing him the football. With the Chris Johnson soap opera looking as though it could linger into the season and Kenny Britt liable to end up in jail/get suspended at any moment, Cook is actually looking like the best (and perhaps only) weapon the Titans have on offense. In 2009, my breakout tight end was Brent Celek. In 2010, it was Jermichael Finley (and he was well on his way before tearing his meniscus; Finley will destroy the league in 2011 -- and has the ability to surpass Antonio Gates as the best tight end in the game -- if he stays healthy because he literally cannot be covered). I feel the same way about Jared Cook in 2011.
Prediction: 75 catches, 850 yards, 8 touchdowns
Felix Jones - RB - Dallas Cowboys
Felix Jones is really good and should put up some gaudy numbers this season as the unquestioned number one running back in Dallas. He's a dual threat with breakaway speed, elite burst/quickness, and the elusiveness to make defenders miss both in tight spaces and the open field. I hate that Jones is in my division, much less a fucking Cowboy. I can already tell you I'm not looking forward to writing the season preview article... because I have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that Dallas is going to win the NFC East (and I hate myself for it).
Prediction: 250 carries, 1300 yards rushing, 8 touchdowns; 55 receptions, 500 yards, 4 touchdowns
Mike Thomas - WR - Jacksonville Jaguars
I guess Mike Thomas sorta broke out last year, racking up 66 catches for 820 yards and four touchdowns (including the crazy Hail Mary catch against Houston). Whatever, I'm going to mention him anyway. The diminutive receiver carries a compact 198 pounds on his 5-8 frame, has blazing speed (4.3), and is an electrifying playmaker in the DeSean Jackson mold (except Thomas is not all or nothing, but rather a more consistent receiver). He's also now
David Garrard's Luke McCown's number one target. I think Thomas will go for over 1000 yards this season and make his way into the upper echelon of wide receivers in the league. Maybe he could even become more of a household name, despite playing in Jacksonville.
Prediction: 90 catches, 1150 yards, 7 touchdowns
Dez Bryant - WR - Dallas Cowboys
I've been fearing this possibility since draft night on April 22, 2010. If you ever watched Dez Bryant play at Oklahoma State, you know the guy undoubtedly has the makings of an NFL superstar. He just had to slip to the Cowboys, didn't he? Goddamnit. Unfortunately, I can't disparage Bryant's talent level, so I'll attack his character -- pay off your debts, asshole. Have your mother turn tricks again if you have to. Alright, that was a low blow... for which I am NOT AT ALL sorry.
Prediction: 80 catches, 1000 yards, 10 touchdowns
Andre Roberts - WR - Arizona Cardinals
I'm willing to bet something like nine out of every ten NFL fans have no idea who the hell Andre Roberts is. The Citadel product is a second-year player and, for the time being, the Cardinals' starting wide receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald. After coming on strong at the end of 2010, Roberts appears ready to benefit from the inordinate amount of attention defenses will need to devote to Fitzgerald. He's fast (4.4 speed), smart, tough, sure-handed, and slippery. You wouldn't think so just by looking at him (5-11 / 195), but Roberts has showcased the ability to wiggle out of initial tackle attempts and break off chunks of yards after the catch. He's dangerous with the ball in his hands and a blur in the open field. I liked Roberts coming out of college, and I like him now. Expect Kevin Kolb to quickly realize Fitzgerald isn't the only receiver worthy of his trust -- actually, it seems like he has already.
Prediction: 60 catches, 720 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns
Ryan Mathews - RB - San Diego Chargers
If Mathews gets hurt, this pick changes to Mike Tolbert, everyone's favorite human bowling ball. In fact, I wanted to give Tolbert the nod here originally, but Mathews looks good in preseason and is the guy the Chargers want to be the number one running back (or so I would think). After being a chique early-round fantasy pick in 2010, Mathews promptly disappointed his owners by struggling through injuries most of the season. He still put up a respectable 678 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 158 attempts (to go along with 22 catches for 145 yards) in 12 games, which it seems everyone forgets. If Mathews stays healthy this year, he's going to easily eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground. It'll no doubt help his cause that sexy MVP pick Philip Rivers is at quarterback. Don't forget about Tolbert, though -- he did rush for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns last season -- because I really like what he brings to the table as a backup and change-of-pace option (not in the speedy sense, but you get what I mean). He'll become the team's feature back and break 1000 yards rushing -- to go along with double-digit touchdowns -- if Mathews is sidelined with an injury or stinks up the joint (or both).
Prediction: 270 carries, 1200 yards, 11 touchdowns; 40 catches, 300 yards, 1 touchdown
Antonio Brown - WR - Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown had some memorable moments with the Steelers last season, like the 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on a reverse to open Week 2 against Tennessee, or the 58-yard helmet catch -- on 3rd and 19 (!) -- against the Ravens in the playoffs right before the final two minute warning, which put Pittsburgh in position to score the winning touchdown. Not bad for a rookie sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan. Brown has been phenomenal this preseason and looks primed to make an even bigger impact for the Steelers in 2011. He might normally be fourth on the depth chart at wide receiver, but he's making it hard for Bruce Arians to keep him off the field. Brown has a knack for making the big play and already earned Roethlisberger's trust -- you can tell Big Ben likes looking for him. With Emmanuel Sanders seemingly out for the beginning of the season as he recovers from three different foot surgeries, Brown will take over as the team's slot receiver. And, honestly, I'm not sure he relinquishes the job even after Sanders returns. The guy is sneaky good.
Prediction: 45 catches, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns
Other players to watch:
Donovan McNabb - QB - Minnesota Vikings - I don't think Donovan's going to have a season that makes people recall his days with the Eagles, nor do I think he'll lead Minnesota to the playoffs. I do, however, think having Adrian Peterson and a formidable run game (finally) will help him out greatly. McNabb will be a solid quarterback for the Vikings and put the debacle that was his one season with the Redskins behind him. He can still throw the deep ball as well as anybody, and guys like Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin should benefit from that. Now, if only McNabb could deliver the ball to his receivers' chest/hands on intermediate routes instead of throwing one-hoppers at their feet.
Jimmy Graham - TE - New Orleans Saints - The guy's 6-6, super athletic (former basketball player in college), and Drew Brees looks for him in the red zone. He's also now the starting tight end. Yeah, breakout season.
Tim Hightower - RB - Washington Redskins - The Shanahans love him, and with the running back situation in D.C. still very unsettled, Hightower looks to be the starter. He's got loads of ability, just needs to stop fumbling the ball. The run game is a very important part of what the Shanahans like to do on offense, so it wouldn't surprise me if Hightower gets enough carries to surpass the 1000 yard mark (even with Roy Helu and Ryan Torain rotating in). Still, whatever you do, don't follow Peter King's advice and take him in the third round of your fantasy draft.
Ed Dickson - TE - Baltimore Ravens - The new starting tight end in Baltimore, but Dennis Pitta will also get a lot of playing time. Dickson is big, extremely athletic, and can run -- he has a chance to be a real impact player for that offense.
Aaron Hernandez - TE - New England Patriots - Hernandez can work the middle of a defense and stretch the field. He's a tight end for the new age... and also has Tom Brady throwing to him.
Eric Decker - WR - Denver Broncos - I was a big fan of Eric Decker when he played collegiately at Minnesota. He always had trouble staying healthy, though, and that held true his rookie season in the NFL. He's not a speed guy, but he's big, strong, cerebral, and catches everything. Decker is currently third on the depth chart for the Broncos; I think he will find his niche as a dependable possession receiver, especially with a legit quarterback like Kyle Orton throwing him the ball. (Edit: Oh, and he can do serious damage as a punt returner, too.)
Jason Avant - WR - Philadelphia Eagles - Avant stands to emerge as something more than a third down target this season. He's clutch, has the best hands on the team, and makes some of the most insanely acrobatic catches you'll ever see. Get this guy on the field.
Harry Douglas - WR - Atlanta Falcons - Roddy White and Julio Jones will be a handful for opposing defenses and are sure to command a lot of extra attention. Harry Douglas, the team's number three receiver, stands to be a major beneficiary. He just needs to stay healthy.
Bernard Scott - RB - Cincinnati Bengals - I like his skill set a lot more than I do Cedric Benson's (who, by the way, will be spending the Bengals' bye week in jail after pleading no contest to an assault charge from May 2010).
Jared Veldheer - OT - Oakland Raiders and J'Marcus Webb - OT - Chicago Bears - Two young left tackles with Pro Bowl talent who will be protecting their respective quarterback's blind side for the next decade.
Chris Long - DE - St. Louis Rams
After watching Chris Long annihilate the competition at Virginia, I was guilty of thinking he would be a dominant force in the NFL immediately. Instead, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft has come along more subtly, putting up solid numbers on awful Rams teams his first two seasons in the league. Solid, but nothing that really made people take notice. Long finally started to scratch the surface of his potential as an elite pass rusher during the 2010 season, his first playing for Steve Spagnuolo (which I don't think was merely a coincidence). He recorded 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, to go along with 29 total tackles. Expect Long to build on that performance and be even better in 2011 for a Rams team that should win the NFC West. He's also switching his number from 72 to 91, which he wore in college. Yeah, I'm feeling good about that move from a karma standpoint. This season will be Chris Long's coming out party.
Prediction: 70 total tackles, 14 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 5 forced fumbles
Jason Pierre-Paul - DE - New York Giants
Jason Pierre-Paul is an absolute freak of nature who was raw coming out of college, but something clicked for him in the second half of last season and he started to become a force. With Osi Umenyiora out after undergoing knee surgery, Pierre-Paul will start opposite Justin Tuck. He's next in the line of dominant Giants defensive ends. And my Eagles, who passed on taking Pierre-Paul in favor of Brandon Graham, get to face him twice a year. Great.
Prediction: 50 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 6 forced fumbles
Antonio Dixon - DT - Philadelphia Eagles
As I've written in past articles about the Eagles, Antonio Dixon, if healthy, will be a Pro Bowler this season. He was the single most important player on the Eagles defense in 2010 (yes, more than Trent Cole), and it's no coincidence the unit's performance against the run improved by leaps and bounds once he entered the starting lineup. Dixon is enormous and powerful, yet he possesses nimble feet and an athleticism and quickness that you simply do not find in 320+ pound linemen. He dedicated himself to getting in the best shape of his career last offseason and really worked on his game (specifically using his hands). It showed. Dixon can penetrate the offensive line almost at will and collapses the pocket as well as any defensive tackle in the league; he has a chance to be a special player. Unfortunately, he's been hampered by back spasms since the beginning of training camp and has yet to play a preseason game. I hope it's not a recurring problem throughout the season because Dixon and Cullen Jenkins (with Mike Patterson rotating in) have the potential to be a dynamic duo in the middle of that defensive line.
Prediction: 45 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble
Bradley Fletcher - CB - St. Louis Rams
Fletcher had a quietly impressive season in 2010. He's big, fast, long, strong,
down to get the friction on (sorry, I couldn't resist), tough, possesses excellent ball skills, and makes life miserable for wide receivers as they try to get off the line. Fletcher is a complete cornerback who's at his best in press coverage and isn't afraid to step up and play the run. Now nearly two years removed from a serious knee injury suffered during the 2009 season, he says he's fully healthy and feels as good as ever. Fletcher's one of the league's rising stars at the cornerback position, and 2011 will be the season everyone learns his name.
Prediction: 85 total tackles, 7 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 14 passes defended
Lamarr Houston - DE - Oakland Raiders
I've seen Matt Shaughnessy's name thrown around as a potential breakout player, but I'm going to go with his teammate starting at the opposite defensive end postion. Houston's size (6-3, 305) would normally indicate he should be playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 (like he did in college) or defensive end in a 3-4. But he plays end in Oakland's 4-3. We're talking about a rare breed of athlete who has 4.84 speed even though he weighs over 300 pounds. Houston is big, quick, agile, and strong, a high-motor player whose unique combination of size and speed presents serious challenges for the right tackles (and tight ends) who try to block him. The scariest thing is, he's still learning how to play the position and promises only to get more dangerous as he refines his pass rush skills and develops counter moves.
Prediction: 60 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles
Jameel McClain - ILB - Baltimore Ravens
Jameel McClain already had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010 as the strong side linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme, but he's now transitioning inside to play next to Ray Lewis. At 6-1, 245 pounds, he's compact and thickly built with the kind of strength at the point of attack that allows him to take on offensive linemen and shed blocks. McClain isn't particularly fast, but he shows keen instincts, excels against the run, and is at his best near the line of scrimmage (as opposed to being in space). As such, playing inside should better suit his skill set and allow him to flourish even more. McClain has also flashed pass rush ability and can be used as an effective blitzer. He is tough as nails and plays with a nastiness and edge to his game.
Prediction: 115 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles
Charles Godfrey - FS - Carolina Panthers
I liked Charles Godfrey coming out of college (played at Iowa). As with Jameel McClain, he is another guy who had something of a breakout season in 2010. Unfortunately for Godfrey, he did it on a 2-14 Panthers team, so hardly anybody noticed. Regardless, he has made himself into one of the league's better free safeties. A former cornerback in college, Godfrey shines in coverage, possesses excellent ball skills, and has steadily improved against the run. He also has elite speed, which enables him to cover a lot of ground and get to the spot before the receiver. I'm actually expecting Godfrey to be top-five in the league in interceptions. I wonder if Sean McDermott might experiment deploying him in similar ways that Jim Johnson did with Brian Dawkins.
Side note: Look around the league and you'll see there's a very impressive crop of young free safeties, all drafted within the last three years, making their mark -- Godfrey, Patrick Chung (Patriots), Eric Berry (Chiefs), Glover Quin (Texans), Louis Delmas (Lions), Thomas DeCoud (Falcons), Malcolm Jenkins (Saints), etc.
Prediction: 90 total tackles, 8 interceptions, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 8 passes defended
Austen Lane - DE - Jacksonville Jaguars
Austen Lane was one of my sleepers in the 2010 NFL Draft. Being the nerd that I am, I even posted about him on an NFL message board back in December 2009 (yes, Birds_I_View was my username, and I am a loser). I'm always interested in the small school prospects, and Lane, from Murray State, is someone who caught my eye early on. The reason? At about 6-6 and 260 pounds, it was first listed on NFLDraftScout.com that he ran in the 4.6 range. I did a double take, and then a triple take, when I first saw that. It's not very often, if ever, that you find such an awe-inspiring combination of height/weight/speed anywhere, let alone defensive end. Regardless of the veracity of the height/weed/speed listing (and I was dubious about it), I immediately became intrigued with Lane and had to learn more. Turns out he completely destroyed the competition in college and was a man amongst boys. Lane ended up running a 4.84 at the Combine, but I still liked everything I'd read and heard about him, especially the fact that he had long arms. The Jaguars selected him in the fifth round, and by the end of the 2010 season, Lane was getting pretty regular playing time and starting to show he belonged at the NFL level. A standout at training camp, he's quickly ingratiated himself as a fan favorite with his hard work, hustle, and overall performance. Lane looks to be penciled in as the team's third defensive end behind Aaron Kampman and Matt Roth going into the season. I think he ends up starting at some point, especially with Kampman coming off an ACL tear. Lane is a high-motor player with a wealth of raw skill and is going to turn some heads in 2011.
Prediction: 45 total tackles, 6 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles
Justin Durant - OLB - Detroit Lions
With the signing of Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant's acquisition flew under the radar. It could end up paying huge dividends for the Lions. There aren't many linebackers in the league as fast (4.5 speed) and athletic as Durant. He's 6-1, 240 pounds, can run with any tight end or running back, excels in coverage, and is a sure tackler. Durant played at a high level for the Jaguars in 2009 (98 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception) but struggled with injuries last season and got lost in the shuffle. Now the starting strong side linebacker on a Detroit team that looks poised to challenge for the playoffs, I expect him to have a season more in line with what he did in 2009.
Prediction: 100 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions
Other players to watch:
Jason Jones - DT/DE - Tennessee Titans - A player I liked as a sleeper in the 2008 draft, Jones has already made himself into one of the league's better interior pass rushers. Now he's being moved to defensive end, where his speed, quickness, and athleticism should translate nicely. I think the position switch could end up being the best thing that happens to him.
Morgan Burnett - SS - Green Bay Packers - Burnett is another guy I liked in the 2010 draft, and the third round pick out of Georgia Tech immediately won the Packers' starting strong safety job in training camp. He was looking really good, too, until he tore his ACL on October 4 and had to be placed on injured reserve. We'll see how he fares in his first season back from the injury. Burnett's fast, intelligent, instinctive, a sound tackler, and can even cover -- he's the whole package at strong safety and a future Pro Bowler.
Kendall Langford - DE - Miami Dolphins - One of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league, and a bright spot on an otherwise (seemingly) shitty Dolphins team. At least the defense has looked good in the preseason.
Jamar Chaney - OLB - Philadelphia Eagles - Jamar Chaney is compact, smart, fast (runs in the 4.5 range), and apparently looks like the best coverage linebacker the Eagles have had in some time (since Carlos Emmons?). That's terrific news, especially when you consider that a serious Achilles heal for this defense recently has been its woeful inadequacy covering tight ends. For a team that devalues the linebacker position perhaps more than anyone else in the league, it struck gold drafting Chaney in the seventh round of the 2010 draft. He is a tackling machine who can also play inside, as he did last season, in the event that Casey Matthews can't get the job done. A rising star, for sure.
Andy Studebaker - OLB - Kansas City Chiefs - A former Eagles draft pick in 2008 (FROM?! Wheaton), it's taken Studebaker some time to find his niche in the NFL. He blends ideal size with tremendous speed and profiles as the perfect edge rusher in a 3-4 defense. Studebaker made strides last season and has the talent to take his game to the next level in 2011.
Sean Smith - CB - Miami Dolphins - Doesn't get a lot of recognition because he plays across from Vontae Davis, but Smith performed very well as a rookie last season and has the size (6-3), length, strength, speed, and athleticism to match up with any wide receiver in the league. He'll be even better in 2011.
Late Addition: Kroy Biermann - DE - Atlanta Falcons - I can't believe I forgot to include Biermann when originally writing this article, especially since I really liked his play in 2010. A standout at the University of Montana, Biermann won the 2007 Buck Buchanan Award as the D-IAA Defensive MVP, which automatically meant he was someone I'd follow in the pros. He's been scratching the surface the past two seasons and seems primed to be a major contributor for the Falcons, even though the team signed Ray Edwards to start opposite John Abraham. Biermann always had good quickness and acceleration off the edge, but he's been able to develop into a more consistent player because he's gotten stronger. He's a classic high-motor guy who brings a blue-collar attitude and will make a lot of plays based purely on effort.
Rookie who has caught my eye in the preseason:
D.J. Smith - OLB - Green Bay Packers
As if that linebacking corps needed anymore talent. Ted Thompson called Smith, an Appalachian State product, "one of the most productive tacklers in the history of college football" (link), and he's right. Smith's height (5-11) and level of competition likely scared teams off, but he's built like a brick shit house (240 pounds), can run (4.75 speed), and is just a good, instinctive football player. The Packers sure do know how to pick them.