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Breakout stars: Once unknowns, these 10 guys are on the rise

Crystal LoGiudice / US Presswire
Saints TE Jimmy Graham has become an important part of the offense in just his second year in the league.


With the 2011 season nearing the end of its first quarter, several stories have taken shape: The Bills and Lions at 3-0, playoff teams from a season ago struggling and, one that's close to my heart as a talent evaluator, players emerging for breakout years.

It's easy to look at former first-round picks and say, "This guy is in for a big year." But when you go deeper in the draft, things are tougher to predict. That goes for me the same as it does for teams.

In coming up with my 10 players in line for breakout years, I used the following standards:

The player must be 25 or younger
Cannot be a first-round pick
This is his first season as a full-time starter -- hasn't started more than eight games in a season
The player might have lacked experience or been unable to play because of injury

I'll also include where each of these players should have been drafted considering the value they're now showing. I'm sure every fan will have recommendations, but here's my list in alphabetical order:

LeGarrette Blount, Bucs, RB: He started seven games as a rookie and ran for 1,007 yards after going undrafted. He has good instincts, can block in pass protection and uses a stiff arm. Off-the-field issues kept him being drafted, but from what we're seeing, he should have been a second-round pick.

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NaVorro Bowman, 49ers, LB: In his first season as a starter, he plays on all three downs. He's been very productive this season, leading the 49ers in tackles. His 6-foot frame and that he came out a year early dropped him to the third round out of Penn State, but he brings second-round value.

Morgan Burnett, Packers, S: He missed most of last season because of injury. So far this season, he's shown very good ball skills with three picks and great athletic ability. It's hard to understand how he fell to the third round, but safeties don't get drafted as high as they should. The mentality is to wait on the position. In reality, he should have been a late first- or early second-round selection.

Eric Decker, Broncos, WR: He's leading the Broncos in receptions with 15 and is also a factor as a punt returner (has a 90-yard touchdown this season). At 6-3, 218 pounds, he runs great routes, catches the ball over the middle and will block for the run game. Decker lacks great speed, which is what made him a third-round pick instead of being a middle to late second-rounder.

Jimmy Graham, Saints, TE: A matchup problem for opposing defenses, especially in the red zone. He played just one season of college football after coming from a basketball background. He's a future Pro Bowler, and the only thing that kept him from being a late first-rounder was experience. The Saints got a steal in the third round.

Aaron Hernandez, Patriots, TE: Another matchup nightmare, Hernandez has a knack for finding holes in coverage. He's a receiver in a tight end's body. That means great hands, but his lack of height (6-1), struggles blocking and off-field issues made him a fourth-round pick. He would be picked in the lower half of the second round.

T.J. Lang, Packers, G: He is playing better than the player he replaced in the starting lineup -- Daryn Colledge, who left Green Bay to sign with Arizona as a free agent. Lang is very strong and has outstanding punch as a blocker. He is the only player on this list not from the 2010 draft. He fell to the fourth round in 2009 largely because of the Eastern Michigan program he came from struggled to win games. He should have been a late second- or early third-round pick.

Sean Lee, Cowboys, LB: The defensive leader for the Cowboys, he calls the plays and makes them, too. He already has two picks and a fumble recovery. Lee is a good tackler and very athletic. His size (245 pounds) made him a second-round pick instead of going in the bottom of Round 1.

Colt McCoy, Browns, QB: A very accurate passer with a never-give-up attitude. McCoy started poorly against the Dolphins last week but drove the Browns to the winning score in the game's final minute. His leadership qualities can't be overlooked. With McCoy, people were worried about his 6-1 frame. While I'm not sure he would be as good as a drop-back passer, he's a good fit in the West Coast offense. He lasted until the third round, but should have been an early second-round choice.

Ben Tate, Texans, RB: He has 4.4 speed to go with strength and burst. Tate is also a factor as a receiver because of his good hands. He's playing in a good scheme for running backs, which is complemented by his instincts. He went late in the second round, but probably went a little lower than he should have because there are so many bargains to be had at the position later in the draft. He was more of a high second-round choice.

Each of these players has overcome perceived weaknesses to establish themselves in the NFL. Look for the group to continue to ascend as the season progresses.

Top five special teams coaches

If you look around the league and see all the close games -- 12 of 16 in Week 3 were decided by seven points or fewer -- little things can make the difference between winning and losing. It's estimated that special teams accounts for 22 percent of the plays in an average game, and with the phase playing such an important role in tight games, here are the ones who do it best:

1. Scott O'Brien, Patriots
2. Dave Toub, Bears
3. Mike Westhoff, Jets
4. Brad Seely, 49ers
5. Joe DeCamillis, Cowboys


Listen to the 2011 NFL season LIVE -- hear all the action online in premium sound quality with NFL Audio Pass. Sign up now!

NFL odysseys

» After three weeks, 23 of 48 games have had second-half lead changes.

» We're on record pace in three categories: 2,157 points scored, 153 touchdown passes and 34 300-yard passing games.

» Teams that win the turnover battle are 28-7 on the season.

» The Jets gave up 234 yards rushing in their loss to the Raiders. That's the most during Rex Ryan's tenure with the team. It's also the most a team has given up that he's been a part of since 1995, when he was an assistant with his dad, Buddy, in Arizona.

» Mark Sanchez had career-high 369 yards passing in the loss against the Raiders.

» The Bears' 13 yards rushing against the Packers was their lowest total in 50 years.

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College player who helped his stock

Washington left tackle Seino Kelemete is a former defensive lineman who has made a smooth transition to the other side of the ball. He's tough and strong, and his best position in the NFL will be right tackle. There's a chance he could move inside and be a good guard. Kelemete's play against Nebraska and Cal over the past few weeks has moved from a possible third-round pick to a low first- or high second-round choice.

Top senior offensive line prospects
Andrew Datko, OT, Florida State
Cordy Glenn, G, Georgia
Zebrie Sanders, OT, Florida State
Seino Kelemete, OT, Washington
Ben Jones, C, Georgia

Game to watch: Detroit at Dallas

There are plenty of questions heading into this game, the biggest being will the Cowboys be deflated after a big win Monday night and coming off a short week.

Teams sometimes let down in that situation and Dallas can't afford to do that against Detroit. The Lions are looking for their first 4-0 start since 1980 and will have plenty of motiviation, including quarterback Matthew Stafford coming home to the Dallas area.

Dallas is going to have to find a way to block Ndamukong Suh and cover Calvin Johnson. That's key. Two other key matchups will be Jeff Backus vs. DeMarcus Ware and Chris Houston vs. Dez Bryant.

Detroit wins a game in which both teams score 25-plus points and gets that 4-0 start.

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