It happens every fall. A player bursts onto the scene, makes a big play or helps his team win a pivotal game, and the collective football world celebrates his arrival as a true difference maker in the NFL. Let's get ahead of the curve! In advance of the 2013 season, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks identifies candidates for significant improvement, concentrating on offensive linemen below. Click here for other positions.
Most Improved Offensive Lineman for 2013: David DeCastro
DeCastro's backstory: The Pittsburgh Steelers attempted to address their annual offensive-line woes by selecting DeCastro with the 24th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. At the time, the transaction was lauded as a brilliant move, based on the prevailing opinion that DeCastro was the best offensive guard in the draft. While a preseason knee injury prevented DeCastro from contributing in the first three months of his rookie season, he worked diligently to make it back to the starting lineup for Pittsburgh's last three games. Most importantly, DeCastro displayed the toughness and physicality to deal with the feisty defenses in the AFC North.
Why he will improve in 2013: Most NFL players make the biggest strides in development during the offseason between Years 1 and 2. Part of the growth stems from a better understanding of the tempo and intensity of the pro game. Through valuable game experience, young players develop the instincts and awareness to excel.
In DeCastro's case, the epiphany occurred during a three-game run at the end of the regular season when he logged significant playing time as a starter. The 2012 first-rounder dominated at the point of attack, displaying the strength and power to move defenders off the ball. Additionally, DeCastro showed the balance, body control and lateral quickness to handle skilled pass rushers in isolated matchups. DeCastro frequently won on quick sets in pass protection, with his accurate strikes stopping rushers dead in their tracks. Overall, DeCastro's combination of sound technique, footwork and fundamentals solidified the Steelers' interior offensive line, leading to more efficient play from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Given the positive reviews already surrounding DeCastro, it is easy to envision him blossoming into a Pro Bowl-caliber player this season. Of course, this is a lofty expectation for a player with only three career starts under his belt, but Pittsburgh's implementation of a zone-based blocking scheme should accentuate DeCastro's skills as an athletic blocker at the point of attack. As a collegian at Stanford, DeCastro did an outstanding job blocking on the move, while also displaying the strength and power to blow defenders off the ball. Those traits are critical to establishing a physical running game -- something that has been lacking in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons.
Impact on the team: DeCastro's emergence as a dominant force on the interior gives the Steelers one of the most athletic offensive lines in the NFL. With C Maurkice Pouncey, LT Mike Adams, RT Marcus Gilbert LG Ramon Foster and DeCastro starting to form a cohesive unit, the Steelers' once-maligned front line could help Pittsburgh reach the 10-win mark in 2013.
Other Offensive Linemen to Watch
Gino Gradkowski, C, Baltimore Ravens: The retirement of Matt Birk thrusts Gradkowski into the starting lineup, but the second-year player is ready for a prime-time role after serving an apprenticeship in 2012. He possesses the size and strength to hold up against physical defensive lines, while also displaying the football aptitude to sort out the complex defensive fronts and blitzes favored by AFC North opponents. With a solid performance in the Ravens' regular-season finale to build upon, Gradkowski should help Baltimore's offense stay on track despite the loss of a six-time Pro Bowler in the middle.
Jonathan Martin, LT, Miami Dolphins: It's not easy to make a position change in the NFL, but Martin capably handled moving to right tackle last season after enjoying a stellar collegiate career on the left side. Following Jake Long's departure in free agency, though, Martin will return to his natural position on the blind side, armed with the experience of playing against rugged edge rushers. Although he will need to adjust to the freakish speed and athleticism of right defensive ends (designated pass rushers), Martin's improved strength, footwork and technique should allow him to thrive as the Dolphins' marquee pass protector.
Riley Reiff, LT, Detroit Lions: A much-maligned offensive line is one of the Lions' biggest question marks in 2013, but the left tackle position shouldn't be a concern with Reiff stepping into the lineup. As a rookie last season, Reiff played exceptionally well in the run game, while also flashing the footwork and technical skills to be an effective blocker in pass protection. Of course, Reiff will be hard-pressed to match the consistency and reliability of Jeff Backus -- a career Lion who missed one start in 12 rock-solid seasons before retiring in March -- but the second-year pro certainly possesses the skills to be a solid performer on Matt Stafford's blind side.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.