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Darrius Heyward-Bey, Dante Rosario primed for breakout years

Stan Liu / US Presswire
Four years after his winning TD, Dante Rosario returns to San Diego aiming to contribute to a retooled offense.

In the midst of a recent, wide-ranging conversation about the San Diego Chargers, coach Norv Turner caught me off-guard. We were talking about players he thought could emerge as unsuspecting contributors and he brought up tight end Dante Rosario. Rosario's biggest claim to fame was the touchdown he caught against San Diego as time expired in the 2008 season opener.

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Since then, he's been just a guy, so to speak. He had a career-high 32 catches in 2009 with the Carolina Panthers, where he spent four seasons before splitting time with the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos last season (seven catches combined). Turner thinks that Rosario, entering his sixth season, could do some things in San Diego's system to really diversify an offense that's adjusting its skill position personnel.

"We really think he can help us, and really be a red-zone threat because (Antonio Gates) gets doubled in the red zone so much," Turner said.

Rosario isn't being counted on as a high-volume receiver, but he is expected to be an option who could benefit from the attention paid to Gates -- or serve as a distraction to free up Gates. After losing standout wide receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency, the Chargers are going to have to figure out something to concern opposing defensive coordinators.

Rosario is a decent blocker with decent speed and good hands. Now is the time to see if, as a total package, he can be someone who occasionally grabs our attention.

He's not the only player a few seasons into his career who is at the crossroads of stalling out or breaking through as a significant contributor. Let's examine a few others:

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders: It's arguable that he crossed the threshold last season when he caught a career-best (by far) 64 passes for 975 yards. The guy has been dogged by being overdrafted (seventh overall) in 2009, but finally played like he wants to be a No. 1 wideout. An offseason DUI arrest he said he'll plead not guilty to could motivate him even more.

Heyward-Bey came on strong at the end of last season after taking a midseason dip following the season-ending injury to quarterback Jason Campbell and the arrival of Carson Palmer. That late-season momentum and an offseason to build chemistry with Palmer could have its benefits. Then again, if his production dips or he stops improving, he'll be unable to shake the overdrafted tag.

Harry Douglas, WR, Falcons: Douglas has killed fantasy football owners who thought he'd thrive with all the attention paid to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Douglas, who missed 2009 with a knee injury, had a career-high 39 catches last season and averaged 12.8 yards per catch. That's not bad for a No. 4 receiver. The small but tough slot receiver stands the chance to see fewer balls thrown his way this season with Jones expected to be even more of a factor.

Even so, with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Douglas -- who was a free agent but re-signed with the Falcons -- has an opportunity to emerge a more of a factor than he's been.

Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers: Carolina coach Ron Rivera is extremely high on this talented third-year player.

"Hardy has been tremendous," Rivera said. "Talk about growth in a young man. He's really matured in terms of being here every day on a voluntary basis, for the most part. I really am excited about him."

Hardy had four sacks last season and also moved from end to tackle at times. He was able to play inside at times because he weighed close to 290. Rivera said Hardy is closer to "278, 279 now," which would probably keep Hardy at end, opposite hard-working end Charles Johnson. There were high expectations of Hardy last season, but he was slowed by a motorcycle accident just before training camp.

The idea that Hardy will develop into a solid player kept the Panthers from selecting a defensive end in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Carolina did select Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander in the fourth round.

Paul Kruger, DE/OLB, Ravens: Coming off a career-best six-sack season, the table is set for Kruger -- who is entering his third season -- to show himself. Outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson bolted to San Diego in free agency and Pro Bowl outside 'backer Terrell Suggs sustained an Achilles injury that will sideline him for at least part of the season. Kruger, even if he remains a sub-package player, has to elevate his game.

He has been in a culture that doesn't allow any excuses and he really showed the aggression that is a Ravens trademark last season. Though the plan to replace Suggs could come more by committee, Kruger seems the most prepared to man up. If he doesn't, then he might not even develop into anything more than a situational player.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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