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Rich getting richer: Champs have more emerging stars

Rob Grabowski / US Presswire
Sam Shields had two interceptions in the NFC Championship, including the game-clincher.


Each year, we see a few unheralded players grab the spotlight with their surprisingly spectacular play.

While some have already shown signs of promise, most rise from obscurity by building off the momentum established at the end of the previous season.

Let's take a look at a handful of players poised to experience a breakout 2011 campaign:

Sam Shields, CB, Packers

The Packers have found their eventual successor for Charles Woodson in an undrafted free agent with remarkable speed and athleticism. Shields rose from the bottom of the depth chart to become a key contributor in the team's sub packages. With few cornerbacks capable of matching his speed and natural ball skills (four interceptions in 2010), he is poised to have a big second season.

Jacoby Ford, WR, Raiders

Al Davis has been tirelessly searching for the next coming of speedy WR Cliff Branch, but he might have found him in Ford. The former standout track star was sensational over the second half of the season as the Raiders' designated big-play specialist. He scored seven touchdowns on a combination of receptions, reverses and kick returns. He also flashed the potential to develop into more than a gimmick player in the offense.

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Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

The Bengals' willingness to part with Chad Ochocinco might be influenced more by Simpson's breakthrough at the end of the season rather than the addition of A.J. Green. He posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to close out the year, and finally showed the promise that prompted the Bengals to select him ahead of DeSean Jackson in the 2008 draft.

James Starks, RB, Packers

Starks burst onto the national scene by carrying the Packers' running game in the postseason. He posted a 100-yard game in the team's wild-card matchup against the Eagles, and tallied 20 or more carries in three of the Packers' four playoff games. Although Ryan Grant is slated to return after sitting out most of last season with an injury, Starks' emergence could make him expendable when the league year commences.

William Moore, S, Falcons

Moore bounced back from an injury-plagued rookie season to become one of the team's standout defenders in 2010. He finished the season as the Falcons' fourth-leading tackler and recorded five interceptions as a first-year starter. With a full season of game experience under his belt, he is poised to make a Pro Bowl run.

Josh Wilson, CB, Ravens

Wilson has flown under the radar for most of his career despite being a solid contributor during a three-year run in Seattle. However, a trade to Baltimore provided him with more opportunities and a bigger stage to show off his emerging skills. As a ball-hawking corner with outstanding speed and athleticism, Wilson is on the cusp of becoming a household name as an upper-echelon cover man.

Carlos Dunlap, DE, Bengals

In a few years, taking Dunlap in the second round of the 2010 draft might look like one of the biggest steals. He finished his rookie season with 9.5 sacks in only 12 games as a situational player. Given his combination of burst, explosiveness and rush skill, Dunlap is on his way to becoming a perennial double-digit sack artist as a pro.

Marcus Benard, OLB/DE, Browns

Benard quietly emerged as the Browns' most disruptive defender during his second season. Although the team's decision to move to a 4-3 could force him to shift positions, his natural rush skills and explosiveness will lead defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to come up with creative schemes to take advantage of his talents. If he can quickly acclimate to the change in position, he could be a critical part of the team's defensive makeover.

Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints

Sean Payton letting Jeremy Shockey go was largely due to the development of Graham. The former basketball standout quickly became one of Drew Brees' favorite red-zone targets. With more opportunities to snag balls as the No. 1 tight end, Graham could see his numbers double in his second season.

Rodger Saffold, OT, Rams

The team's decision to keep Saffold at left tackle over former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith is indicative of his potential to blossom into a franchise-caliber player at the position. His sound footwork and fundamentals will make him a perennial Pro Bowler in St. Louis.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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