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10 NFL players most likely to take a step back in 2012

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com
Are Dalton, Wallace, MJD and Freeney candidates to regress in 2012? (US PRESSWIRE)

In preparation for 2012, we've already looked at the impact rookies, the best bargains and worst contracts, and the top comeback candidates. But which players coming off solid-if-not-spectacular outings can we expect to slip this season? Our list is below.

Looking ahead to 2012
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10. Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals

If not for Cam Newton, Andy Dalton would've been the unanimous choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was that good. And unlike Newton, no one expected anything from Dalton, a second-round pick out of TCU. All he did was replace Carson Palmer and help lead the Bengals to the playoffs after a four-win effort the season before. Much of the credit has to go to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who did a masterful job of putting the quarterback we affectionately call Ginger Power in positions to succeed. But now that opponents have a season's worth of tape on Dalton, they will try to take away what he does well (anticipation and accuracy, to quote NFL Films' Greg Cosell) and exploit his weaknesses (which Cosell identifies as "his inability to drive the ball with velocity"). Then the question becomes: is Dalton good enough to overcome schemes designed to make him uncomfortable? He wouldn't be the first NFL quarterback to experience growing pains in Year 2 after a stellar start to his career.

9. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons

In his annual top 100 players list, CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco ranked Turner 95th noting that while "He continues to be a workhorse in the Atlanta backfield … is he starting to slow down because of all the carries?" To answer Pete's question: Yes, yes he is. In fact, you could've said that a year ago. Turner combined for 635 carries in 2010 and 2011 and even though he managed 4.5 yards per carry last season, 433 of his 1,340 total rushing yards came against the Panthers, Lions and Bucs, three of the worst run defenses in the league. Against that trio, Turner averaged 6.1 yards per carry. Against the other 13 teams, his YPC fell to 3.9. More perspective: he ranked 39th in Football Outsiders' total RB value metric behind Jackie Battle, Michael Bush and Ryan Grant. This might help explain the speculation about the Falcons' new pass-heavy offense.

Tebow is a backup ... for now. (US PRESSWIRE)

8. Tim Tebow, QB/WS/PP*, Jets

You knew this was coming, right? No, Tebow isn't a starter, but even though everybody in the Jets' organization insists that it's Mark Sanchez's job, we're not convinced. Especially since New York has a brutal schedule to start the season and if things go horribly wrong, we won't be surprised if Tebow is under center in Week 6. But assuming that he's only used in the roles the Jets have suggested this summer -- *Wildcat specialist and punt protector -- Tebow's having nowhere near the impact he did for the Broncos a season ago when he set the passing offense back 100 years while leading Denver to a division title and the playoffs.

Rex Ryan may think that Tebow can be the new Brad Smith, but the thing is, the old Brad Smith is more dangerous and the Jets let him walk in free agency.

7. Curtis Lofton, LB, Saints

The Falcons didn't think enough of Lofton to bring him back to Atlanta, but the Saints were quite happy (relieved?) to sign him to a five-year deal since starter Jonathan Vilma, one of the New Orleans players implicated in the bounty scandal, was eventually suspended for the season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (though the league has yet to rule on the bounty appeals).

Assuming that Vilma doesn't play in 2012, will Lofton be an adequate replacement? He had a career-high 147 tackles in Atlanta last season, but the Falcon reportedly let him walk because they considered him a two-down player who struggled in pass coverage. Turns out, he's an ineffective pass rusher, too, ranking in the bottom 10 among all middle linebackers in ProFootballFocus.com's "pass-rushing productivity" metric. It doesn't help that Lofton is in a new system and playing for a unit that will begin the season without two of its best players: Vilma and defensive end Will Smith.

6. Aldon Smith, LB, 49ers

Even before suffering "minor injuries" during an "incident" Friday night at a house party, we tabbed Smith as one of the players who could slip in 2012. After all, he set the bar pretty high as a rookie with 14 sacks as a part-timer. Now he's penciled in as a starter at outside linebacker, which means his responsibilities will extend beyond "tackle the guy with the ball standing five yards behind the line of scrimmage." He'll have run-stop and pass-coverage duties as well. While Smith has a year's experience to draw from, he came out of Missouri as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, making the transition all the more difficult. We don't think Smith will suddenly morph into Manny Lawson, just that we'd don't see him playing as well as he did in '11.

5. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars

MJD called Emmitt Smith's NFL rushing record "doable" in a recent radio interview. First things first: he and the Jags need to come to terms on a contract because he is, without a doubt, the most important player on the roster. That's not hyperbole; Jones-Drew accounted for nearly all Jacksonville's offense a year ago, which is what happens when the rookie quarterback is in way over his head, there are no wideouts to speak of, and the second biggest scoring threat is the kicker (who, incidentally, also wants more money). By the time it was over, MJD led the league in rushing but he also carried the ball 343 times and had another 43 receptions. That's a heavy workload for any back, especially one that stands 5-7 and whose style encourages contact. Ideally, Blaine Gabbert will pick up the slack and he'll be helped by free-agent acquisition Laurent Robinson and first-rounder Justin Blackmon. Because if Jones-Drew doesn't approach the season he had a year ago, Jacksonville's offense could actually be worse.

Can Rogers do it again? (US PRESSWIRE)

4. Carlos Rogers, CB, 49ers

Ask any Redskins fan last summer what the 49ers could expect from Carlos Rogers and the unanimous response would've been some variation of "he'll drop a lot of interceptions and get beat a lot in coverage." It would be a reasonable assessment given that was pretty much Rogers' M.O. during his six years in Washington. So it was with great astonishment when Rogers not only had the best season of his career, but made the Pro Bowl. He had six interceptions, 18 passes defended and 40 tackles as part of one of the league's most menacing defenses. Can he sustain that production again this season? Maybe, but we've already mentioned Aldon Smith -- if the pass rush isn't what it was in 2011, the secondary will have a tougher job. And that brings us to the other Smith...

3. Alex Smith, QB, 49ers

Yes, the 49ers have three players on this list, but we're not dumping on them. Let's be honest: nobody thought they'd go 13-3 last season, let alone make it to the NFC Championship Game. It's not a stretch to suggest that if everything doesn't fall into place in 2012 San Francisco could win nine or 10 games instead of 13. For Smith, 2011 was a nearly perfect confluence of events; Jim Harbaugh's offense didn't depend solely on the quarterback, which meant a healthy reliance on the running game and the defense. Again, if either falters going forward, it'll mean more pressure on Smith and that will increase the chances he'll make mistakes. (We don't care what Harbaugh says now, there's a reason the 49ers were interested in signing Peyton Manning this offseason.) Does that mean Smith's destined to revert to the form that got him benched for Troy Smith? Of course not. Just that in six month's time, the 49ers could easily be a .500 team battling for a wild-card spot.

2. Dwight Freeney, LB, Colts

Freeney comes in at No. 34 on Prisco's list of top 100 players for 2012. Six years ago, fine, but Freeney had just 8.5 sacks in 2011 (the lowest total for any season in which he played at least 14 games) and now he's moving to outside linebacker in new coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense. Freeney admitted in May that the transition wouldn't be easy. "It's going to take a little time at the beginning to get used to and as comfortable as I have been having my hand in the ground (at end) and being in one position.” Also not helping: he's 32 and playing on pretty awful defense.

1. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers

Wallace wants a long-term deal. Based on his first three years in the league (171 catches, 3,206 yards, 24 TDs) he deserves it. The problem: The Steelers, who don't have much salary-cap room to begin with, aren't interested in paying "Larry Fitzgerald money" (or anything close to that, we'd imagine). Whatever happens over the long haul, Wallace doesn't have much leverage. Which means that whether he signs his franchise tender tomorrow or in October, Pittsburgh will have the upper hand.

And while we understand that he's not particularly jazzed about his current situation, un-Wallace-like productivity in 2012 will affect any multi-year deal he signs. In fact, he could end up making less then than what the Steelers are interested in paying him now. Instead of having that over his head for the next six months, Wallace might be better served signing his tender, concentrating on football, and worrying about the money in the spring. (Which, we realize, is unbelievably easy to say when we have no financial stake in the matter.)

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Pick-6 Podcast and NFL newsletter. You can follow Ryan Wilson on Twitter here: @ryanwilson_07.

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