|Jacquizz Rodgers, Lavonte David and Kevin Ogletree (from left to right) could all be on the rise this season.|
Victor Cruz, Jimmy Graham and NaVorro Bowman are three players who rose from relative obscurity to become stars during the 2011 season. With that in mind, which non-star players are poised to have a breakthrough year in 2012?
Niners RB Hunter can be the next Darren Sproles -- with powerSan Francisco 49ers running back Kendall Hunter can be the next Darren Sproles, but with more power between the tackles. Linebacker Colin McCarthy would already be seen as a rising NFL star if he didn't play for the Tennessee Titans. This season, he'll make so many plays for the Titans that we won't be able to help but notice. Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon isn't exactly unknown, but I think he'll be recognized as one of the game's very best by the end of the year. And finally, Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb should go from being a nice utility man to a consistently dangerous threat.
Bucs rookie LB David is a playmaker; watch out for Ravens DL McPhee, tooMy three players are: Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, Cleveland Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard and Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Pernell McPhee.
David is a very instinctive linebacker who will fit very well into the new Tampa Bay system. He has already shown his ability to make plays in the preseason games. Sheard had a nice rookie season for the Browns. He has the natural quickness and explosion off the ball that you want in a pass rusher. I also like how quickly he can change directions on pass-rush moves. Finally, McPhee has encouraging pass-rush talent on a team that needs to replace Terrell Suggs' production. McPhee showed promise last year with a quick move off the line and should continue to develop.
Oakland's Moore, Atlanta's Rodgers primed to break out in Year 2Victor Cruz dealt with injury issues as a rookie, so if you want a parallel to his story, go across the country to Oakland and explosive second-year man Denarius Moore. He's dealt with a hamstring problem in training camp, but if he can stay healthy, Moore's primed to take off. The former fifth-round pick had a pair of eye-opening games last fall: 146 yards and a touchdown on five catches against the Buffalo Bills, and 123 yards and two touchdowns on five catches against the San Diego Chargers.
My second breakout candidate, like Jimmy Graham, will benefit greatly from his surrounding cast. And he plays in the NFC South, too: Atlanta Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers. A few factors are in play here. First, there are weapons around him (Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez) to open things up underneath in the way that's been done for Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Second, after throwing just one screen pass to him last year, the Falcons are working to find ways to get him the ball. Third, Michael Turner has really slowed down. And fourth, Rodgers is a better fit for Dirk Koetter's offense than Turner.
Finally, to find NaVorro Bowman's counterpart on defense, I'll turn to another inside linebacker in a 3-4 front: Green Bay's D.J. Smith. Opportunity has knocked, thanks to the injury to Desmond Bishop, one of the Packers' most important defensive players, and Smith has been all over the field since. He can play all three downs and consistently makes plays. If the Packers have the defensive revival I expect -- When does Dom Capers have two bad defensive years in a row? -- Smith will be in line for credit.
Cardinals have an emerging sack artist in AchoI think Sam Acho will become a household name as a sack artist for the Arizona Cardinals, racking up more than 10 quarterback takedowns. And while we're on the subject of Cards defensive players ... I voted Daryl Washington first-team All-Pro last season, so I already think he's a star. But this year, more people will catch on to the genius of the Cardinals linebacker.
Door open for Ogletree in Dallas; Vikings TE Rudolph should make great stridesQuestions surrounding all of Tony Romo's favorite targets -- Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten -- could open the door for fourth-year receiver Kevin Ogletree to become a reliable playmaker for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph looks to be the second-year tight end with the most to gain in 2012, especially since sophomore Christian Ponder will need a safety valve if his offensive line isn't sturdier this season.
NaVorro Bowman took full advantage of Aldon Smith's addition to the Niners' defense last year. The New England Patriots' Brandon Spikes will similarly benefit from the selection of front-seven stars Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the first round of last April's draft. Expect Spikes to go from part-time starter to Pro Bowl candidate this fall.
Super sleeper: Cowboys tight end PhillipsYou can't consider receiver Brandon Lloyd an obscure player, but he's definitely a guy who should produce at a higher level with Tom Brady throwing him the football in New England. Lloyd is still viewed as an underachiever by some in NFL circles, but this is a guy who played well last season, despite having to go through the Orton-Tebowmania drama in Denver and then the trials and tribulations of the St. Louis Rams' offense. Lloyd's ability to make tough catches is trumped by no one -- Larry Fitzgerald included -- and he clearly works well with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Jacob Tamme is another player who could have a big impact, playing with his old quarterback (Peyton Manning) on the Denver Broncos. Tamme was quite productive for the Indianapolis Colts when Dallas Clark went down to injury in 2010 (notching 67 catches in only eight starts). He could conceivably catch 80 balls in Denver while being a go-to guy on third down.
Super, super sleeper? If Jason Witten ends up missing more than one week in Dallas, or has any further complications, keep an eye on Cowboys tight end John Phillips. This guy can play, and it boggles the mind that Dallas let Martellus Bennett hang around as long as he did. That said, Phillips is dealing with a slight ankle issue at the moment.
Green-Ellis will flourish in Cincy; Decker will become Peyton's go-to guyBenJarvus Green-Ellis is going to become a star this season. Cincinnati will give him a Cedric Benson-type workload of 20-plus carries per game. Remember his 2010 season, the one year New England decided to ride him? He eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns. "The Law Firm" has a nose for the end zone, so I'm expecting at least 10 touchdowns and upwards of 1,200 rushing yards. I expect Eric Decker to become Peyton Manning's go-to guy in Denver. He wanted the Colts to draft him back in 2010, and Manning loves precise route-runners like Decker. He'll wind up being the big breakout player in that offense.
Jennings taking advantage of Jones-Drew's holdout in JacksonvilleThis easily would have been San Diego Chargers wideout Vincent Brown, if not for the broken ankle that he suffered a couple weeks ago.
While the holdout saga of Maurice Jones-Drew plays out, Rashad Jennings is running for his opportunity. It's sad to admit, but when you're behind a star player, this is the best-case scenario.
Barry Church has had an explosive training camp and preseason as the Dallas Cowboys' new starting strong safety. He is a physical and highly intelligent defender. Church showcased his coverage skills during combo practices with the San Diego Chargers, harassing tight end Antonio Gates for two days.