|Comeback candidates: Marshall, Ochocinco, Asomugha and Clady. (AP/US PRESSWIRE)|
We're in the slowest part of the NFL offseason. The draft, minicamps and OTAs are behind us and training camps are still a month off. But it's also the time when everyone -- fans, players, coaches -- is hopeful that this will be the year that everything comes together for the hometown team. In late June, the playing field is level. There are no losing streaks, season-ending injuries, or underwhelming performances from key contributors.
Reality won't set in until early fall, but teams that are successful are often lucky, too. And part of that luck involves exceptional efforts from unexpected sources. Building on that theme, below are 10 players who weren't on their respective games in 2011 but who we fully expect to bounce back in 2012. (Note: We didn't include players coming off injuries, just those who, for various reasons, didn't play up to expectations last season -- but who will this time around.)
|Looking ahead to 2012|
10. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
If Johnson had it to do over again, we're guessing he wouldn't hold out on the heels of a lockout. The Titans eventually caved last summer and paid him $53.5 million over four years. And for that they got this: a grand total of 302 rushing yards through the fist nine weeks of the season before he finished 2011 with 1,047 yards, 300 fewer yards than he gained in 2010 and almost a 1,000 yards fewer than he ran for in 2009. Johnson was also third from the bottom in Football Outsides' RB efficiency metric. But this offseason, the former first-round pick did something he normally hadn't: regularly showed his face at OTAs. In previous years, he trained in Florida with his trainer, something plenty of veteran players do. Now he's working out with the team five days a week, is in much better shape than he was 12 months ago, and has drawn glowing reviews from offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. “C.J. has worked very hard. He is here, running hard and working hard. I'm very optimistic about how he's going to perform this (fall).” So are we.
9. Chad Henne, QB, Jaguars
In May, new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey announced that second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert would be his 2012 starter. As the team's 2011 first-round pick, it makes sense even if Gabbert was one of the NFL's worst passers a season ago. But Jacksonville also signed Chad Henne, who spent the first four seasons toiling away for the Dolphins, and it's reasonable to think that Gabbert could continue experience growing pains in Year 2. Henne never lived up to expectations in South Beach but under the right circumstances he could be a successful NFL quarterback. Yes, we know, referring to Jacksonville as potentially the "right circumstances" is bust-a-gut hilarious. But assuming the team comes to terms with Maurice Jones-Drew, and Josh Scobee (hey, he accounted for 40 percent of the team's points in 2011) shows up next month, the Jags' offense will be much improved. They signed Laurent Robinson this spring and drafted Justin Blackmon in April. A balanced attack with a new offensive-minded coach could benefit Henne. In Miami, Henne was hampered by Dan Henning's 80s-styled offense. And last season, under Brian Daboll, he actually improved until he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Some people would take Henne over Mark Sanchez, which probably says more about the latter than the former. Put differently: in the right system, Henne would be adequate, maybe slightly better. And in the right system, that could be good enough. Sanchez got two two AFC Championship games, after all.
8. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Eagles
As a general rule, things usually don't end well when the conversation begins with comparing yourselves to the Dream Team. These fateful words were uttered last August by then-Eagles backup quarterback Vince Young because, on paper, Philly really did look like a dream team. The organization spent the shortened offseason wheeling and dealing, stacking the roster, and that included landing one of the NFL's best cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha. That, it turns out, was the highlight of Asomugha's season. "Here, things aren't as familiar," he said in late September. "The biggest reason is because when I got here, we went straight into football. I didn't get here in March, so I didn't have months to get acclimated. It's the end of September and I'm still getting acclimated to the area and just using my down time to familiarize myself with the East Coast and with football out here." The Eagles also used Asomugha all over the field something he never did in Oakland. Now he knows the system, and Philly went defense-crazy in the April draft (four of their first five picks were front-seven players). Translation: a better pass rush will make the secondary's job easier, and that could mean big things for Asomugha.
|Palmer looks to rebound in '12. (AP)|
7. Carson Palmer, QB, Raiders
Palmer was so fed up with the circus that had become the Bengals that he opted for temporary retirement instead of returning to Cincinnati. Owner Mike Brown not only called his bluff and drafted rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, he let Palmer fidget uncomfortably on his couch while the regular season was underway. Eventually, the Raiders, desperate to do whatever it took to keep Kyle Boller off the field, traded a first and second-rounder to Cincy for Palmer. He saw his first game action in Week 7 after days on the practice field with his new team. The results were predictably disastrous. Palmer threw three interceptions in a 28-0 blanking by the hapless Chiefs. Two weeks later, he made his first start -- another loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos. He then showed glimpses of the franchise quarterback the Raiders had hoped they were getting. Oakland won three in a row including a clinical Palmer performance against the Chargers in Week 10. But the Raiders lost four of five to end the season, were outpaced by the Broncos for the division title, ended up missing the playoffs and coach Hue Jackson lost his job because of it. At the time of the trade, the consensus was that, anything less than a postseason appearance would be hugely disappointing and eight months later, that still holds. Now, with a full offseason to learn the offense and become comfortable with his teammates, and under new coach Dennis Allen, Palmer should more resemble the passer we saw in Cincy early in his career. Because if he doesn't get it done this year, he could be out of chances.
6. Devin McCourty, CB, Patriots
The defense, after being an integral part of New England's success early this century, has been a decided weakness in recent years. Coach Bill Belichick looked like he hit the jackpot with McCourty, the team's 2010 first-round pick, who had seven picks and two forced fumbles as a rookie. But Year 2 was as forgettable as the one that preceded it was memorable. He became a liability in coverage which wasn't helped by a shoulder injury. By the end of the year, McCourty was playing a lot of safety, which led to speculation that he would move to the position full-time in 2012. Turns out, the position switch was more out of necessity than anything else and the plan, for now, is to keep him at cornerback. It was clear last season that offenses were making a point to target McCourty, but he should benefit from an improved Patriots pass rush. The team drafted Chandler Jones 21st overall, and took linebacker Dont'a Hightower four picks later to bolster the front seven. In fact, six of their seven selections were on the defensive side of the ball (including three defensive backs). While McCourty may not return to his rookie form as a shutdown corner, he'll always be valued for his solid tackling. Which, worst case, could necessitate New England moving him permanently to safety.
5. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
We know, it's absurd to call a guy who put up 4,624 yards, 27 TDs and completed 63 percent of his passes a "comeback" candidate. But the reality is this: last season, Rivers' struggled, particularly the first half of the year. He threw six picks in the first three games and and had eight multi-pick games by the time it was over. His 20 total interceptions was the worst of his career and his 7.9 average yards per attempt was the lowest since he became the Chargers' starter in 2006. There were constant rumors that Rivers' was fatigued by the recent birth of his latest child (his sixth), and that he was playing injured. He usually laughed off the former and constantly denied the latter. A more likely explanation: Rivers often found himself trying to bring the Chargers back late in games. When the other team knows you're airing it out, it's a lot easier to defend. This explains why San Diego took linebacker Melvin Ingram, defensive lineman Kendall Reyes and safety Brandon Taylor in the first three rounds of the draft. Shore up their defense, keep the game close and let Rivers do what he does. Plus: Rivers' owns Peyton Manning. "To play him twice a year that would be a battle like crazy to win the division," Rivers said in March just before the Broncos landed Manning. "I hope it happens." Wish granted.
4. DeSean Jackson WR, Eagles
Jackson came out of Cal with a chip on his shoulder. He lasted until the second round because of concerns about his work ethic and he immediately set out to prove his critics wrong. From 2008-10 he was considered one of the league's most dangerous players, both at wide receiver and as a punt returner. And then, whether it was wanting a new contract or other distractions, Jackson looked like a completely different player last season. It didn't help that, in the middle of a down season, he said he wanted to be paid like a top-5 wide receiver. It sounded ludicrous at the time but coach Andy Reid continually supported his player and even took issue with the media's portrayal of Jackson as someone who took plays off. So here's the multi-million dollar question: will Jackson be motivated by his detractors or will he become complacent after signing a five-year, $48.5 million deal this offseason (or worse: distracted by his burgeoning rap career)? Well, he's already guaranteed an Eagles Super Bowl (at least he didn't invoke the name that shall not be spoken) and wants to be a Hall of Famer. That only happens if he returns to his 2008-10 form.
3. Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos
Clady was the 12th-overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, he was inserted into the starting lineup, and quickly became one of the league's best young offensive linemen. After two seasons of dominating his position, he tore his patellar tendon during the spring of 2010. In the subsequent two years, he has yet to miss a start but he hasn't been the player he was in 2008-09. Early on, part of that may have been due to rust associated with rehabbing his injury. But last season, he allowed a career-high nine sacks and was flagged 12 times. Here's the thing, though: it's one thing to block for a traditional pocket passer like Kyle Orton (or even the relatively mobile Jay Cutler before him, whose quick release made up for holding the ball too long). It's something else entirely when you're asked to pass-block for Tim Tebow who a) struggled to read defenses, b) held the ball in the pocket for what felt like days, and c) and had a wind-up that even Byron Leftwich thought was protracted. With Peyton Manning and his precision offense now running the show in Denver, Clady should return to his old dominating self.
2. Brandon Marshall, WR, Bears
Yes, Marshall has a lot going on off the field, but when he's focused on football he's a game-changer. Even playing in Miami with Chad Henne and Matt Moore, Marshall put up gaudy numbers (81 catches, 1,214 receiving yards, six touchdowns in 2011). But it's not the totality of his effort that's in question; it's how he handles himself from play to play and game to game. Now, after two years with the Dolphins, Marshall has been reunited with Jay Cutler in Chicago. The two started their NFL careers in Denver where the former racked up 4,019 receiving yards in four years (the first three were with Cutler, who was traded to Chicago before the '09 season), and the latter threw for more than 9,000 yards. Together again, Marshall thinks his chemistry with Cutler will lead to big things in 2012. Also helping: offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who Cutler described this spring as inflexible, is gone, which should help open things up for an offense that has the potential to be explosive.
1. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Dolphins
Ochocinco says he's changing his name back to Johnson. Hopefully, his game will return to its previous form, too. Coming off easily the worst season of his 11-year career, the bar couldn't be set any lower. Ochocinco, 34, managed just 15 catches for 276 yards and a lone touchdown during his nine-month stint with the Patriots. He was released earlier this month, signed by the Dolphins days later and wasted little time returning to his old, loquacious self. Regularly fined for touchdown celebrations during his time with the Bengals, Ochocinco has already warned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell via Twitter that "I will be a problem this year." By itself, this seems like more Ochocinco grandstanding. OK, it's hard to argue that, but it also shows that his confidence -- which was nonexistent a year ago -- has returned. And while he's not the player he was five or six years ago, he can still help the Dolphins, a team with no shortage of needs. Plus, after last season in New England, there's nowhere to go but up.
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