At this time last year, Arian Foster was a backup running back for the Houston Texans, with a looming training-camp battle approaching in what appeared to be a crowded backfield. Yes, he flashed late in 2009, but did anybody think he could become what he was in 2010?
All Foster did was lead the NFL in rushing to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
|Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon showed skills as a rookie that could get him to a Pro Bowl. (Getty Images)|
Some have been held back by injuries so far. Others are young players who haven't yet hit their peaks. Others appear ready to receive a much-needed chance. Can they follow the path that Foster, Cleveland's Peyton Hillis, Denver's Brandon Lloyd or Green Bay's Tramon Williams did last year, exceeding what many expected of them to have their breakout seasons?
I say half of them will -- if they get the chance to play a season in 2011.
Matt Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions: Injuries have limited his time the first two seasons, but when he's played we've seen signs of a future star. Stafford started only three games last season, and must stay on the field, but has all the stuff coaches love in a quarterback; he's big, strong and has a rocket for an arm. Josh Freeman took a huge step forward last season for Tampa Bay at quarterback, and this is the year Stafford does it for the Lions.
Jason Hill, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars picked him up late last season after the 49ers let him go. They liked him coming out of Washington State but missed out on getting him in the 2008 draft. When Hill became available last year, they quickly picked him to add some speed to the offense. He proved to be a nice addition, averaging 22.5 yards on his 11 catches for the team. At 26, he still has a lot of good football left. He is scheduled to be a starter when the team opens camp. Could Hill be their new Jimmy Smith?
Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Atlanta Falcons: When the first-rounder was on the field as a rookie, the Falcons were much better on defense, especially on third down. Weatherspoon is a speed linebacker who can run to the football but also can cover in the pass game. He had some early struggles -- particularly in an early season victory at New Orleans -- with some missed assignments, but he came on late. He did battle through injuries that slowed him and limited him to five starts. If he stays on the field for 16 games, he has a chance to be a Pro Bowl player in 2011.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: This second-year player might be ready to push Hines Ward to the bench. Sanders was the team's third receiver last season, showing speed and quickness. He got hurt in the Super Bowl, which limited the Pittsburgh offense. Look for a lot more from him in 2011, a la the job Mike Wallace did for the Steelers last season in his second year on the roster.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: Coming out of college, this kid had freakish athletic ability. But most scouts thought he was a year or two (or three) away from being a productive pass rusher because he was so raw. He started slow last season as a rookie, but came on strong to show he is more advanced than some scouts expected. Pierre-Paul is an explosive player who needs to refine a few things. When he does, he will be the next great pass rusher for the Giants, who seem to have a knack for finding them.
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Matt Shaughnessy, DE, Oakland Raiders: He moved in as a full-time starter late last season and showed he's ready for big things. A third-year player from Wisconsin, he is a good run player who also can rush the passer. He will never be a 15-sack player, but he is capable of getting 10 and holding up against the run. He had seven last season.
Vontae Davis, CB, Miami Dolphins: He has been a good player in his two years as a starter, but has the tools to take a big leap forward this season. Davis is a smooth cover player who needs only to get more consistent. He had only one pick last season and was beaten at times for long touchdowns. But he has the size and tools to be a Pro Bowl corner. Is this the year?
Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati Bengals: Dunlap had 9 1/2 sacks as a rookie, which shows he has pass-rush ability. He will be on the field more in 2011, which should help that total go up. It wouldn't be a shock to see this kid with 15 sacks in either of the next two seasons.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints: Now that Jeremy Shockey is gone, look for Graham to be a big part of the Saints passing game. At 6-8, he creates big problems for cover players, and should be huge in the red zone. It will be a shock if he doesn't catch 70 passes.
Terrence Cody, NT, Baltimore Ravens: He wasn't great as a rookie, but he showed late that he has the ability to be a force in the middle of the Ravens line. Cody has to keep his weight in check, which he did last season. If he can do that again, look for him to show big improvement in 2011.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: A top five pick last year, Berry was good as a rookie, but I don't think he was as good as others think he was. But that should change this year. He has the speed and the range to be a big-time cover safety. He won't be thinking as much as he did as a rookie, which means more reacting, and in turn more picks.
|Speedster C.J. Spiller should be ready to deliver on his big-play potential in his second NFL season. (US Presswire)|
Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns: With Maurkice Pouncey starting for the Steelers, the AFC North has two of the best young centers in the league. Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but Mack isn't far behind. He needs to be a little more consistent.
Sione Pouha, NT, New York Jets: Pouha is the oldest player on this list at 32, but he's only been a starter the past two seasons. The 6-3, 325-pounder was a big reason the Jets were third in rushing yards per game and per attempt last season. He has 29 starts the past two seasons after getting one in his first four seasons.
Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers: Though their tackles get more attention, Sitton is the best of the Green Bay linemen and one of the best guards in the league. He should have been on the NFC Pro Bowl team last season; he will be this time around. Carl Nicks of the Saints was the guard to watch in terms of taking a step forward last season, and he did. Now it's Sitton's time.
Sebastian Vollmer, T, New England Patriots: He has emerged as the best tackle on the New England roster -- passing Matt Light -- and one of the better right tackles in the league. Now entrenched as a starter, he should be pushing for a Pro Bowl berth this season.
Antonio Dixon, DT, Philadelphia Eagles: The undrafted Dixon was a surprise starter in Philly last season after being claimed the year before on waivers from the Redskins. He is a powerful man who holds up against the run, but also can push the pocket. With the experience he got last year, he should be ready for even more.
Rodger Saffold, LT, St. Louis Rams: He started all 16 games as a rookie in 2010 and showed great feet and an ability to run-block. As he learns the tricks of the trade, he will be even better. The Rams love him.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans: This fourth-rounder was a 12-game starter as a rookie and played well. He isn't a burner, but is smart. The coaches raved about his smarts last summer in camp and that carried over to the regular season. Verner might not be great as a man-cover player, but he is a perfect zone-cover corner who will attack the running backs.
Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49ers: An athletic guard, Iupati stepped in and started the entire season, outplaying tackle Anthony Davis, a fellow rookie starter and 2010 first-round pick. Iupati is a mauler, but he's also athletic enough to get outside and lead the running game.