One of the most enjoyable aspects of following the NFL is watching young talents develop, injecting a playmaking element that takes opposing teams and casual observers by surprise. A perfect example from last year was Randall Cobb, emerging from special teams weapon and occasional slot receiver to Aaron Rodgers' go-to receiver as the season progressed.
The goal of this piece is to highlight part-time players making the leap to difference-makers or unproven young talents ascending to key contributors. Once players have truly made the leap, they will graduate from this running list.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 prospects for Week 1.
1. David Wilson, New York Giants running back
All of the ingredients are in place for Wilson to take the NFL by storm in his second season. With Andre Brown out of the picture until at least midseason, the Giants will saddle up their 2012 first-round draft pick as a true lead dog. Already one of the top big-play threats in the league, Wilson has also demonstrated the ability to shed tackles and run between the tackles. Picture C.J. Spiller's electric 2012 breakout as a template for Wilson this season.
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2. Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions defensive tackle
Injuries and bone-headed penalties have prevented Fairley from sharing Ndamukong Suh's national spotlight. For a large portion of the 2012 season, however, Fairley outplayed the more heralded Suh. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that this defense has held opposing running backs to 3.6 yards per carry with Fairley on the field versus 5.4 yards per carry when he's on the sidelines. He was on point when he noted that Detroit boasts the NFL's most disruptive defensive tackle tandem.
3. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver
My opinion of Hilton changed in early July, when I re-watched game tape for this article on the Colts' impressive 2012 draft class. Far from a one-dimensional deep threat, Hilton is a freakish talent and one of the game's most dangerous run-after-catch threats. Picture an early-career DeSean Jackson.
4. Kyle Long, Chicago Bears guard
5. Chandler Jones, New England Patriots defensive end
A first-round draft pick last year, Jones already was making plays in the backfield and commanding double teams in the first few games of his career. After tallying six sacks and three forced fumbles by mid-season, his production tailed off as a result of injuries to both ankles. Now healthy, Jones is the linchpin to an improved Pats defense.
6. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers running back
Reminiscent of a young Steven Jackson, Lacy is my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year after an impressive showing in preseason action. As the Packers' new featured back, Lacy is a major upgrade on the 2012 trio of Cedric Benson, Alex Green and James Starks that failed to top 3.5 yards per carry on 277 rushing attempts.
7. Bruce Carter, Dallas Cowboys linebacker
Arguably the fastest linebacker in the NFL, Carter was well on his way to a breakout season when a dislocated elbow ended his 2012 season in November. His skill set is a perfect fit for Monte Kiffin's scheme, in which Carter will fill the old Derrick Brooks role as the prototypical Tampa 2 weakside linebacker.
8. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams wide receiver
Austin's listed position is misleading, as is his lack of preseason production. Coach Jeff Fisher recently acknowledged that the No. 8 overall pick was kept under wraps in August for strategic purposes. The Rams have big plans for the "electrically fast" Austin as a punt returner, slot receiver and even occasional tailback. Chris Givens might be more polished, but Austin is the one with game-breaking talent.
9. Junior Galette, New Orelans Saints edge rusher
After losing Victor Butler and Will Smith to ACL tears, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have to scheme a pass rush this season. That scheme will emphasize Galette, whom Ryan is "betting on" as a "special" player. If the Saints' talent-challenged defense has any chance of carrying its weight this season, Galette will have to emerge as a double-digit sack artist.
10. Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos tight end
The former college hoopster finished the preseason as Peyton Manning's leading receiver. The Broncos have since anointed Thomas their starting tight end, perhaps playing all three downs in an offense that projects as the league's highest-scoring. Thomas didn't dissapoint Thursday night, finishing the game with five catches for 110 yards with two touchdowns. "He's really athletic, and he's a competitor, too," football czar John Elway told NFL Media's Michael Silver. "It just adds another weapon where they're gonna have to make a choice. You're going to get great matchups with him."