50 Young NFL Players Sure to Break out in 2012
Only one game is left in the 2011/2012 NFL season, and unless you're a fan of the New England Patriots or New York Giants, I'm sure you're already looking forward to free agency and the draft.
You'd like to see who your team will add or subtract, how they would fit in with your team's system and what kind of impact they will have.
This list will not discuss any of those potential players.
Instead, this list is about the young players already on your team that will either break out in a way you wouldn't think, or potentially add to what was already a great rookie year (or first two years) in a way that not only touches their potential, but exceeds it.
Sometimes the key to turning your team from 6-10 to 10-6 is already on your depth chart, frustratingly waiting for the chance to show what he has. Here are some of those guys, along with the young players that will make an extraordinary leap into superstardom.
Von Miller: LB Denver Broncos
Here's a star 2011 rookie who will break out further in 2012.
Von Miller recorded a great rookie season forcing two fumbles and recording 64 tackles and 11.5 sacks. However, the defense surrounding Miller was quite suspect save for Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey in the secondary.
But next season expect Miller to record more tackles and become the ball hawk that he was at Texas A&M. The Broncos should have more talent on defense that will take some of the blocking attention—and more importantly, pressure—off of Miller, allowing him to play his game and attack the offense.
Expect quite a few more tackles and sacks for Miller, as he's set to become one of the most dominant defensive forces in the AFC.
Cameron Heyward: DE Pittsburgh Steelers
By most standards, Cameron Heyward had a quiet rookie season.
Heyward recorded only 11 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Statistically, he was as quiet as a church mouse (wait, who came up with that cliche?).
But in 2012, with one season under the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme and a full offseason to learn it, Heyward can become dangerous.
We know that James Harrison is going to get the majority of attention (not just from other offensive linemen but also from Roger Goodell). We also know how talented Heyward really is; he's not the 11 tackles and a sack he recorded last season. His talent was seen while at Ohio State, where in four seasons he recorded 162 tackles (31 for a loss) and 15 sacks.
How many tackles will he be responsible for in 2012? I'm thinking somewhere along the lines of 40 tackles (seven for a loss), five sacks and two forced fumbles for his sophomore season.
Da'Quan Bowers: DE Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Many thought that the Buccaneers received a steal in the 2011 draft when they selected Da'Quan Bowers in the second round with the 51st pick. Bowers was expected to go as high as No. 1 in the draft, but due to health issues including offseason knee surgery, he would wind up slipping in the draft.
Those health issues as well as the lack of an offseason due to the lockout would manifest themselves with Bowers often being a few steps slow. While he played all 16 games, Bowers only recorded 25 tackles and one-and-a-half sacks.
Next season, however, the Buccaneers, along with Bowers, will have a new beginning. While at Rutgers, new Bucs head coach Greg Schiano has a good history of coaching up front-line defensive players.
With the talent that Bowers possesses and a coach who can tap into that talent, Bowers will show what a bargain he was when the Bucs drafted him last season.
DeMarco Murray: RB Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray was on his way to having a great rookie season before getting hurt in Week 14 against the Giants.
Murray had already gained 897 yards and scored two touchdowns on 164 attempts. A 1,000-yard season was but a game away when he suffered the injury setback.
How Murray recovers from his injury going into 2012 will determine how well he plays. If he recovers well—which he should at the tender age of 23—then expect Murray to get 250 touches on the year and gain somewhere around the 1,500-yard mark on a Cowboys team that will look to bolster their offensive line this offseason.
Charles Clay: TE Miami Dolphins
Of the many reasons why this Miami Dolphins fan approved of the hiring of Joe Philbin, the fact that Philbin will bring the West Coast offense to Miami is one of the top reasons.
You know who else is happy about that? Dolphins tight ends Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay.
Fasano will likely be the more reliable tight end taking the majority of the snaps, but keep in mind that nowadays most WCO teams use two tight ends. That's where Charles Clay comes in.
Last season Clay had 16 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns. At 6'3" 239 lbs and with great speed for his size, Clay will only continue to develop. In a West Coast offense with more touches (think Jermichael Finley), Clay will likely haul in about 30 to 35 catches for somewhere in the 500- to 600-yard range with five touchdowns (assuming Brandon Marshall is still a Miami Dolphin; if he isn't for any reason, expect those numbers to only go up).
Hey, speaking of tight ends in the West Coast offense...
D.J. Williams: TE Green Bay Packers
There's a good chance that the Packers might not retain current tight end Jermichael Finley.
With Green Bay having so many impending free agents (including Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells along with Finley) and only one franchise tag, the question one might ask is where the franchise tag will be used.
Based off of Green Bay's depth at tight end, I'm going to say that Finley doesn't get the franchise tag. But no need to worry, Packers fans—DJ Williams, the Packers' fifth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Arkansas and 2010 winner of the John Mackey Award, will fill that void very capably.
Considered the one of the best tight ends coming out of college in 2010, Williams would see limited action in Green Bay this year (as to be expected when Finley is ahead of you on the depth chart), only catching one pass for seven yards.
However, with Finley (likely) gone, Williams will be in a spirited battle for the starting tight end spot, a spot he should win. Williams will likely provide the Packers with about 75 percent of the production that Finley has, but that's still better than most tight ends not named Rob Gronkowski.
Julio Jones: WR Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones was supposed to be the "final piece" of the Falcons' Super Bowl puzzle.
While he did produce with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns, the Falcons still found themselves getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Jones, like many other players on this list, will benefit from a full offseason and a new offensive coordinator.
Yes, new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will still have an offense that primarily focuses on the running game, but Jones should get more catches next season, meaning more yards, more touchdowns and a trip to Hawaii.
Mark Ingram: RB New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints are going to have to balance out their already-superb passing attack with a running game that can chew some time off the clock as well as some yards up the field.
Already with Drew Brees running the offense, their passing game is one of the most dangerous in the NFL and should have no problem opening up the lanes in the running game.
Good thing they have Mark Ingram to carry most of the load.
Ingram only had 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns last season, but with a new year and the benefit of getting healthy and more in tune with the playbook during the offseason, Ingram should become another valuable weapon in the Saints offense.
Taiwan Jones: RB Oakland Raiders
Speed: something that the Oakland Raiders always lust after.
Taiwan Jones: one fast mother—...
Jones didn't see a lot of action for Oakland last season. The fourth-round pick out of Eastern Washington only had 16 carries for 73 yards (that's 4.6 yards per carry) as well as two catches for 25 yards.
Next season, the Raiders should have more trust in him. Jones can supplement Jacoby Ford on kickoff returns and it might also be a good idea to use Jones on punt returns since teams are kicking it to Ford less often.
Meanwhile Jones can also be used as a slot receiver at times and on pitchouts while playing running back; complementing Michael Bush and Darren McFadden in much the same way that the early '70s Dolphins used Mercury Morris and his speed to complement Larry Czonka and Jim Kiick.
If the Raiders do that (and quite possibly could with new head coach Dennis Allen and new defensive coordinator Greg Knapp), expect Jones to surprise many in 2012.
C.J. Spiller: RB Buffalo Bills
Our first third-year player on the list is Bills running back C.J. Spiller.
Spiller received more carries for Buffalo after Fred Jackson's injury in November, and played well in that span. For the season he finished with 561 yards on 107 carries and four touchdowns.
Jackson's health coming into training camp could allow for a competition as to who is the No. 1 back in Buffalo, and Spiller looks to be the favorite right now. Entering his third year in the league, he's improved in his first two seasons.
Is he ready to be an every-down back for the Bills? The best answer is to look down south at the decent season that Reggie Bush was able to string together in Miami (and he'd be on this list for 2012 too since he is exactly the type of running back you'd want for a West Coast offense, but he's been around for far too long to really be considered "young," at least by NFL standards) and keep in mind that Bush didn't cement himself as the primary back in Miami until Week 8, whereas Spiller will likely go into Week 1 of 2012 as the Bills' No. 1 back.
In other words, the answer is yes. Spiller should be a 230-carry, 1,500-yard back next season with anywhere between eight to 12 touchdowns.
Brandon Spikes: LB New England Patriots
By the looks of things, this breakout could already be in progress.
So far this postseason, Spikes has 15 tackles, two pass deflections, a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception.
All the more impressive in this is the fact that during the regular season, Spikes only had 42 tackles, no sacks, and one pass deflection.
Is this just the relatively small sample size of the postseason when players seem to step it up, or is it a promising trend for the Patriots in 2012 that Spikes is about to become a beast on defense?
Based off of his career at Florida—where he had 307 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 20 pass deflections and two forced fumbles in four seasons—I'm going to go with a sign of a promising trend for Spikes.
Jeremy Kerley: WR New York Jets
You are going to draft Jeremy Kerley in the later rounds of your fantasy draft.
Your friends will laugh at you, and think you're crazy. After all, while Santonio Holmes will likely be gone and whether Mark Sanchez comes back or the Jets bring in Peyton Manning, why would Kerley be a good fantasy pickup? Common knowledge says that Dustin Keller will be targeted more and the Jets will continue to rely on their running game.
Here's your reference: Davone Bess.
You see, Kerley has the potential to be the Jets' equivalent to Bess, only faster. Not very big, but pretty strong, a decent route-runner and good hands.
Why the Bess comparison other than size (Kerley is an inch shorter than Bess)?
New Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
Before Brandon Marshall came to Miami, it was Bess who was the go-to receiver in Miami's offense. Bess has been a sure-handed receiver in his four years in Miami with 260 catches for 2,669 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Coaches for the most part go for what is familiar to them, and Sparano is familiar with receivers of Kerley's ilk (Greg Camarillo also comes to mind). With Holmes gone, the Jets receiving corps will be pretty thin. They'll attempt to draft someone or sign someone in free agency, but there's no reason for that; Kerley played well in his limited appearances in 14 games with the Jets, catching 29 passes for 314 yards.
Give him an expanded role and you'll see a tiny Jets receiver reminiscent of Wayne Chrebet.
And hey, speaking of things that Tony Sparano is familiar with...
Nick Folk: K New York Jets
Nick Folk is set to become a free agent. However, it would benefit him if he re-signed with the New York Jets.
New Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is extremely fond of field goals, so Folk will have plenty of opportunities to show off his skills. A 4th-and-inches at the goal line while down by four with two minutes left in the game? To you, me or anyone else, that's time to go for it. But to Sparano, it means time to send the field-goal unit in!
Folk will add his second Pro Bowl to his resume if he stays with the Jets and will likely be their MVP next season.
Obviously this slide is a joke. I mean, there are 51 slides minus the intro in a list of 50 players. Keep reading for more serious slides
Bruce Carter: LB Dallas Cowboys
Last month at the Senior Bowl, Jerry Jones praised the 49ers' superb linebacking corps of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (best linebacking tandem in the NFL right now, if you ask me) with what some might say was a slight twinge of jealousy:
“We all watched Bowman and Willis out there, and boy, did those guys make a difference."
Jones would also state that he would like to see Bruce Carter add to the speed of Sean Lee up the middle making up a similar type of style to Willis and Bowman.
Carter only appeared in seven games for the Cowboys this season, mainly on special teams. It would be a non-story since a lot of rookies start off that way. However, Carter was selected by the Cowboys in the second round. The reason for his work mostly being on special teams is Carter didn't return to the field until October after a knee injury sidelined him while he was still at North Carolina in late 2010.
But now with seven games under his belt as well as going through an offseason to work out and learn the playbook as well as training camp, Carter will have the opportunity to earn a starting job at linebacker.
His history at North Carolina, where he recorded 215 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 12 pass deflections and two interceptions says that if he's fully recovered from knee surgery, he will be an effective linebacker for the Cowboys.
The tandem of Lee and Carter won't approach Bowman and Willis (which again, I'll remind you, is the best tandem in the NFL right now), but will be very good all on their own wreaking havoc in the NFC East.
Mark Herzlich: LB New York Giants
Here's another potential "we're watching the breakout happen right now" like with Brandon Spikes.
It's surprising that despite the fact that it has every ingredient needed for "Super Bowl story that gets beaten to the ground," the story of the guy who beat cancer, then signed on with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent and wound up playing in the Super Bowl his rookie year hasn't been told as much as it should.
If you ask me it's a much better subject for a movie than how to circumvent NCAA rules in recruiting a football player for your alma mater.
Mark Herzlich has only played 11 games in the NFL and only recorded 12 tackles in those 11 games. However, he does have two starts to his credit already, and with a full offseason and training camp is sure to work his way up to get more starts and snaps.
Based off of his senior season at Boston College after returning from cancer, things seem to be looking up for Herzlich; in that season he recorded 65 tackles, eight pass deflections, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Again, this was in his senior year, only a year-and-a-half after he was diagnosed with cancer, and only a year after the cancer went into remission after going through cancer treatments—which can be downright hellish itself.
Next season, Herzlich will get significant playing time with the Giants, and he will perform well, very well.
Casey Matthews: LB Philadelphia Eagles
There are many words that could be used to describe the Eagles linebacking unit, and I can't type a single one of those words here.
But that doesn't mean there isn't any talent there—far from it, there's plenty. It just has to be used correctly. An offensive line coach who hasn't coached defense in decades might not be the best guy to do that, especially during a locked-out offseason and condensed training camp (condensed in the sense that you had to also mix in everything you would normally work on during the April and May minicamps along with what you normally work on in the summer).
But giving him a year of experience along with a full offseason, and you should be in good shape, especially with the talent that the Eagles do have.
That includes Casey Matthews.
Casey, whose brother is Green Bay's Clay Matthews, recorded 24 tackles and a sack in the limited action he saw this year (he only started three games but did appear in all 16 games).
That will change. Already promoted to the starting job in December, it is now Casey's job to lose.
But if he holds onto the job, he will be very effective. I could easily see a 60-tackle, three-sack and two- or three-interception season from Matthews in 2012.
Leonard Hankerson: WR Washington Redskins
Never underestimate the effect that a competent quarterback has on a wide receiver.
While receiving passes from the likes of Rex Grossman and John Beck, Leonard Hankerson played in four games, starting two of them while recording 13 catches for 163 yards before suffering a subluxation of his right hip and a torn labrum in his second start.
Washington will improve their quarterback situation this offseason (how could they not—it's Rex Grossman and John Beck, so it's not like we're setting the bar too high here) by going after either Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn or trading up for Robert Griffin III. With that as well as Hankerson's recovery coming together, expect a big 2012 from him.
How big? Well, remember: This was a guy that went to the University of Miami and broke Michael Irvin's record for touchdown receptions in a season, and with Jacory Harris as his quarterback (Randy Shannon-era Jacory Harris that always found new ways to fall apart, not the Al Golden version you saw his senior year that finally looked like he had put everything together).
Dexter McCluster: WR Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs will have Matt Cassel returning next season along with Jamaal Charles after a season from hell where both suffered season-ending injuries.
They will also likely retain their wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and will look to bolster their offensive line in the draft.
But they'll need another receiving threat who can also run the ball. Enter Dexter McCluster.
McCluster last season had 46 catches for 328 yards and a touchdown. On the ground he rushed the ball 114 times for 516 yards and one touchdown.
With Charles coming back, his touches at running back will be split. The same output on the ground is expected.
But as a wide receiver out of the slot or backfield, McCluster could explode. Think Danny Woodhead with New England.
Cam Thomas: DT San Diego Chargers
Thus far, Cam Thomas has only appeared in 22 games and recorded six sacks and 26 tackles.
Will this change next season? It looks like it. Thomas started for the first time in 2011 and was effective in his role. Now with two seasons under his belt, he should be ready to plug up the middle of a Chargers defensive line that will have to be exceptional at pressuring the quarterback.
Especially in two games against you-know-who.
Sam Acho: LB Arizona Cardinals
Sam Acho's first season as a Cardinal was a good one as the fourth-rounder from Texas recorded 35 tackles and seven sacks.
Not bad for a rookie year.
An increase in tackles is sure to follow Acho in his 2012 campaign along with double-digit sacks and a few more forced fumbles as he will be the anchor of Arizona's front seven for many years to come.
Aldon Smith: DE/LB San Francisco 49ers
A rookie in a part-time role gets 14 sacks and 37 tackles as part of one of the best defenses in the league en route to an NFC Championship game appearance.
What a great way to start off a career.
So what do you do for an encore?
How about take the starting job? Yes, Aldon Smith should expect to get the permanent OLB job in San Francisco meaning he'll be on the field for a lot more plays.
More tackles (somewhere between 50 to 65) and of course, more sacks (could the 20s be a possibility?).
All while being a part of one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Golden Tate: WR Seattle Seahawks
In his first two years in Seattle, Golden Tate has been a decent wide receiver with 56 catches for 609 yards and three touchdowns.
But here comes year three, which is always a crucial year for young wide receivers.
Odds are, Tate will be working with his third different quarterback. However, he'll have one more year under the current system in Seattle led by offensive coordinator Darrell Revel as well as the fact that Marshawn Lynch will likely return to give Seattle their good running game, while Sidney Rice and Zach Miller also taking up some coverage.
This will mean Tate will be able to roam free with the defense focused on two other threats. Sounds like a great position for a young wide receiver to be in.
Now if only Seattle could fix their quarterback situation. Nothing against Tarvaris Jackson, but he's Tarvaris Jackson.
Best-case scenario for Seattle: Hope and pray that the Jets sign Peyton Manning. After that, send two second-rounders to New York for Mark Sanchez.
Not only will Tate have a breakout year (which he will have anyways), but this will make Seattle a true contender.
Jerry Hughes: DE Indianapolis Colts
In two seasons and 24 games (with only one start in those 24 games), Jerry Hughes has amassed one sack and 21 tackles.
Pretty horrid for a former first-rounder, but behind Robert Mathis he wasn't getting too much playing time.
However, next season Hughes should be counted on more by the Colts with the likelihood that Mathis will leave via free agency.
Hughes was a tremendous pass-rusher in college as he recorded 142 tackles, 28.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, seven pass deflections and three interceptions in his four years at TCU. With two seasons to learn the speed of the NFL game while watching two of the best ends in the league right now in Mathis and Dwight Freeney, Hughes is ready to be unleashed towards quarterbacks.
And in an irony that he likely never saw coming when the Colts drafted him in 2010, one of those quarterbacks might very well be Peyton Manning.
J.J. Watt: DE Houston Texans
This one can break one of two ways for the Houston Texans.
Houston can re-sign Mario Williams, who was injured for the final 11 games of the 2011 season, thus along with Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt putting together one of the NFL's premier pass rushes. This will allow for the defense to focus mainly on Williams, which means Watt will spring free more often and record double-digit sacks in his second year.
Or Houston could decide that Williams is to expensive, then go the draft route to replace him. Watt, along with Cushing, assumes a leadership role on the Texans defense, and while his numbers will improve from this season, he will warrant most of the attention.
Either way, Watt is destined to make the Pro Bowl in 2012/2013. I see the Texans re-signing Williams, meaning AFC South quarterbacks be afraid, be very afraid—J.J. Watt will be coming after you, even after you think you are safe when you see that Williams has been picked up in a double-team.
Last season Watt had 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks. This season expect him to increase his tackles, reach double-digit sacks (because, again, Houston is re-signing Williams, who will be double-teamed) and even force a couple of fumbles on his way to his first trip to Hawaii.
Or New Orleans actually—and yes, I think Houston is that good when healthy.
Tim Tebow: QB Denver Broncos
Yes, Tim Tebow winds up on this list.
Look at his stats, there's nothing but room for improvement. Then remember that he only started the final 11 games of the season (going 7-4) plus two playoff games (where he went 1-1).
Now factor this in: He didn't lose his offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to a head coaching gig, which would've forced him to start from scratch once again.
Now he'll have a full offseason to work with the current Broncos coaching staff who now knows that they'll need an offensive lineman and a tight end with great hands in order to get the most out of Tebow.
And the Broncos will find a way to plug those holes this season. Will it lead to a second straight AFC West title? I doubt it. But Tebow will have better numbers than he did last season, and it will likely be to the point where we can't even complain about how bad his stats are anymore as he's beating our teams.
Nick Fairley: DT Detroit Lions
Ndamukong Suh got most of the press for the Lions defense this season due to his dirty play. However, his partner in crime Nick Fairley was somewhat overshadowed.
No, I'm not saying Fairley was dirty as well (he wasn't), but his performance wasn't what you would've expected from a first-round pick, as he only recorded 17 tackles and one sack.
His main job is to clog the holes in the opposing team's running game, and he will continue to get better at that while at the same time serving as Suh's other half in what should be the most dominant front four in the NFL.
Jordan Norwood: WR Cleveland Browns
In Jordan Norwood's first season in Cleveland, the wide receiver had 23 catches in 14 games for 268 yards and a touchdown. He started four of those games.
Next season, however, Cleveland will likely draft Robert Griffin III (I'd say they're the favorites right now because Miami and Washington will land either Peyton Manning if he's cleared to play or Matt Flynn), which should create a speedy and exciting offense. Think West Coast offense on speed.
Norwood and Josh Cribbs will be one of the speediest wide receiving combinations in the NFL, and Norwood will get plenty of touches next season. I could see 52 receptions for 700-plus yards and seven touchdowns for him next year while you curse at yourself that you didn't pick him up off the waiver wire after Week 3.
But you'll be fine if you paid attention to my advice a few slides back and drafted Jeremy Kerley.
Devin McCourty: CB New England Patriots
Hey Devin, nice hat!
Already in two years in the NFL, you've been to the postseason twice, you have nine interceptions and two forced fumbles to go along with 164 tackles. Your secondary unit has been maligned these two years, although you did go to the Pro Bowl last year and this year you're in the Super Bowl.
So how can you become a breakout star next year since you've already partially broken out?
Well, New England's secondary will improve, but teams will still test you next season. You also get two games against the Dolphins, who will be more pass-happy than you remember them being, which only means more opportunities to cause turnovers.
Then there's the fact that as long as the Patriots have Tom Brady as their quarterback, other teams usually have to play catch-up with them. That too means more passing plays.
So would eight interceptions including two that you take to the house be a reasonable prediction for next season? What if it goes with 70 tackles and another 13 pass deflections?
I'll mark you down as being somewhat in that ballpark.
Mike Pouncey: C Miami Dolphins
I had to name at least one offensive lineman, so I went with Mike Pouncey mainly because while he's currently the Miami Dolphins center, he likely won't be come 2012.
While enjoying a great rookie season, questions lingered about the right side of Miami's offensive line. One possible solution mentioned since Philbin was named Dolphins head coach has been to move Pouncey to right guard and sign Packers free-agent center Scott Wells.
Also with the Peyton Manning talk circulating Miami, there's also the possibility that Miami could attempt to bring in Colts center Jeff Saturday, who seems to be leaning towards retirement.
Miami could also draft a center in the later rounds, which looks like the most likely outcome.
Either way it will require Pouncey to move to the right side, which will help Miami in a myriad of ways as he provides solid run and pass protection and will strengthen the weakest part of the line, which at times resembled a human turnstile.
The difference on the Dolphins will be a stark one. Fewer sacks, more holes for running backs Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush, and a more efficient offense. Sure there's no stat for it, but isn't that quite a breakthrough for a player?
Christian Ponder: QB Minnesota Vikings
A 54.3 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 1,853 yards passing in 10 starts (but played in 11 games). All of this will lead to a 2-8 record as starting quarterback if you're Christian Ponder.
However, Ponder showed poise throughout the season despite the fact that for the most part he was battered behind a weak offensive line and a defense that allowed 28 points per game.
Ponder's numbers at Florida State paint the story of a quarterback who can win games for his team, which is exactly why the Vikings picked him at No. 12 in the 2011 NFL draft.
Will he produce victories for Minnesota next season? Yes. A full season at the helm plus a full offseason and training camp are extremely beneficial for anyone—especially a quarterback like Ponder who has the potential to be a franchise QB.
Oh, and having Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin along with Visanthe Shiancoe will also help as well.
Sam Bradford: QB St. Louis Rams
Before discussing Sam Bradford, there is the question of his health: Will it hold up?
Prior to missing six games in his sophomore season, Bradford missed most of his final year at Oklahoma due to injuries. Durability is still a major concern.
But maybe his durability issues in St. Louis stem from what he had around him last season: nothing.
Under new head coach Jeff Fisher, expect the Rams to focus on building their offensive line this offseason as well as finding more weapons for Bradford to throw it to. Fisher and his new regime will also use Steven Jackson heavily, thus decreasing the pressure on Bradford to perform.
In theory, this would make him a better quarterback. Assuming he can play all 16 games in 2012, Bradford should show more of the promising signs that he showed in 2010 when the Rams were eliminated from postseason contention in the final game of the season. That year Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns with a completion percentage of 60 percent.
That's more of what we expected from Bradford, and if he remains healthy, he will give the Rams much more than that next season.
Brandon Harris: CB Houston Texans
Brandon Harris only appeared in seven games this season and in those games had three tackles.
That's it, just three tackles—no other stats to tell you about.
But the potential is there, and Houston's secondary could use just a little bit more help.
While at the University of Miami, Harris recorded 133 tackles and four interceptions while forcing five fumbles. He's a defensive playmaker who can also return kickoffs and punts, which is exactly what Houston needs.
With more playing time, Harris will show the type of playmaker he is and make an already-scary Texans defense even scarier.
Dennis Pitta: TE Baltimore Ravens
After a quiet 2010 rookie season, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta showed signs that he should replace Todd Heap right away in 2011 as he caught 40 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns.
By right away, of course, we mean 2012. Pitta will be in his third year in the league and also entering a contract year. Meanwhile, it would always help Joe Flacco to have one additional tight end/safety blanket to pass it to. Pitta is as big of a safety blanket as you could find.
He will likely have 50 receptions for around 650 yards and five touchdowns next season as the starting tight end of the Baltimore Ravens.
Chris Conte: S Chicago Bears
Bears safety Chris Conte had a pretty good rookie year recording 30 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception in 14 games played and nine stars.
In 16 starts expect to see this ball hawk getting around 55 tackles and an interception while making wide receivers dread going up the middle of the field.
Pat Lee: CB Green Bay Packers
Entering his fifth season next year (he's the senior member of the list), Pat Lee hasn't had as much time on the field as one would think a former second-rounder would have.
Lee currently has 21 tackles and a pass deflection in a career that thus far has been riddled with injuries. This season he played in all 16 games for the first time in his career and recorded 10 of those tackles.
Another year of health for Lee in 2012 will also mean more playing time for the talented corner from Auburn by way of Miami that once shared a classroom with yours truly in high school (corny name-check alert, although, in fairness, I didn't remember his face and connect the dots until last year prior to the Super Bowl). More playing time will give Lee a chance to add his first career interception as he makes plays for a playmaking Packers defense that has to get younger in the secondary.
It can start from within with Pat Lee.
Jimmy Wilson: CB Miami Dolphins
Jimmy Wilson was the darling of Miami Dolphins training camp in 2011 with his work ethic, speed and ball-tracking ability at corner. Many Dolphins fans were ecstatic for Wilson after finding out that he made the team.
He would play in 15 games for the Dolphins, starting one of them, and record 10 tackles and one interception. However, you didn't want to be one of those 10 tackles, as this little guy had quite a punch to them.
Next season brings the possibility that Sean Smith could be shifted to the safety position in Miami which creates a hole at corner alongside Vontae Davis. Wilson already started once in place of Smith and could find himself in that position again. With quarterbacks attempting to throw the ball away from Davis, expect Wilson to be involved in more plays, and watch out any time he has the chance to hit someone because you will feel it when he does.
Jake Locker: QB Tennessee Titans
Jake Locker only appeared in five games and started none of them. However, his performance in those five games left many impressed.
Locker went 34-of-36 for 542 yards and four touchdowns in his sporadic appearances, teasing Titans fans and the rest of the NFL as to what he can do.
He'll compete with Matt Hasselbeck in training camp, and based off of last season's performance will likely win out. We'll be able to see Locker for 16 games and really get a good grasp on what he will do in the future.
The potential is there for Locker completing about 55 percent of his passes for 3,300 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his first year as a starter. Numbers like that will be exactly what Tennessee is looking for out of their rookie quarterback (save for the interceptions, but as the years go on he will cut back on them) and help them to a potential playoff spot.
Locker has the arm of a pro; now after a season on the bench, he's more accustomed to the speed of the NFL game. It will help to have Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt on his side, as well as a good offensive line and solid defense.
Brandon Browner: CB Seattle Seahawks
Brandon Browner is a rare big cornerback that can line up against tight ends. This is a key for the Seahawks who have to deal with Vernon Davis twice a year.
In Browner's rookie campaign in 2011, he recorded 51 tackles and six interceptions. He will be relied upon more not just to stop opposing receivers, but he will also have to handle tight ends as well.
This will be a challenge but gives Seattle an advantage most other teams don't have and thus frees their linebackers up to watch the quarterback and drop into coverage against smaller receivers and linebackers.
Browner will see an increase in tackles in 2012 as well as a modest increase in interceptions as he helps solidify a young and blossoming Seahawks defensive unit.
Sergio Kindle: LB Baltimore Ravens
Sergio Kindle's story is one filled with many twists and turns.
Drafted by the Ravens in 2010, he wouldn't see the field until 2011 thanks to a fall down two flights of stairs at a home in Austin, Tex. prior to the start of training camp in his rookie year. The fall would wind up fracturing Kindle's skull.
Kindle would make his return to the field in 2011, but would only appear in two games and only on special teams.
But Kindle will get his chance in 2012. Considered the best linebacker in the draft when he came out in 2010, Kindle will have a shot at starting for the Ravens next season at outside linebacker.
Even if he doesn't start, he will get more playing time. The Ravens are pretty bullish on Kindle at this point and feel that he could live up to the potential he had when drafted. It's a good sign for him that the Ravens have this much confidence in him.
Kyle Wilson: CB New York Jets
So far Kyle Wilson has been a tremendous pickup for the Jets as he has 50 tackles and two interceptions in his first two years in the league.
Already a part of a great secondary, Wilson will likely have a bigger impact in 2012 for New York. With more teams using multiple wideouts and tight ends, a speedy cover corner like Wilson is a luxury, but one the Jets can afford. Look for him to continue to cover small and speedy Wes Welker-type receivers and make life a living hell for quarterbacks throughout the league.
Patrick Peterson: CB Arizona Cardinals
Last season, Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson was one of the most exciting players in football.
Peterson tied the record for most punt returns for a touchdown while amassing an NFL rookie record for return yards in a rookie season with 699.
He also had 64 tackles, two interceptions and a sack to complete his rookie Pro Bowl season.
What could Peterson possibly do for an encore?
Well, his punt return yards and touchdowns will go down. This has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the fact that teams will not punt to him (then again, remember when we said the same thing about Devin Hester—how did that turn out?).
But on defense, Peterson will become a more important part of the Cardinals secondary. Expect his interceptions and tackles to go up, and through his interceptions (I'm predicting somewhere in the range of six to nine), he'll return at least one for a touchdown.
Mike Thomas: WR Jacksonville Jaguars
There's really not much to like about the Jacksonville Jaguars going into 2012.
They have a coach that just seems like he's destined for failure, they're still unsure about Blaine Gabbert being the quarterback of the future, and other than Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew, there's really nothing there in Jacksonville.
But Mike Thomas does have the chance to excel. Going into his fourth year he already has 158 catches for 1,688 yards and six touchdowns and is coming off a 2011 where he had 44 catches for 415 yards.
With Gabbert gaining more experience, those numbers should rise as Gabbert will likely gain more confidence to throw it to his receivers as opposed to the safety blankets that Lewis and Jones-Drew offer him. Thomas will win in the end with more catches, likely around 60 for about 1,000 yards and six touchdowns.
Ryan Matthews: RB San Diego Chargers
After an injury-filled rookie season, Ryan Matthews is coming off a strong 2011 season where he ran the ball 222 times for 1091 yards and six touchdowns.
Now the question must be asked: Is that the peak of what Ryan Matthews can do, or is there more?
Next season we're sure to find out, and it's likely that he will do more. Matthews' numbers will fall between 1,300 and 1,500 yards as he'll start all 16 games and score eight touchdowns.
Allen Bailey: DE Kansas City Chiefs
In his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs, Allen Bailey recorded 10 tackles and a sack while appearing in all 16 games but only in certain situations.
In 2012 Bailey looks to be ready to start for Kansas City to be the pass-rusher that the Chiefs need.
Bailey recorded 19 sacks for his career at the University of Miami and was also effective stopping the run behind the line of scrimmage. The Chiefs hope he can do the same thing for them.
Bailey's numbers will be somewhere in the area of 52 tackles, eight sacks and five pass deflections in 2012, giving the Chiefs a formidable pass rush.
Jacquizz Rodgers: RB Atlanta Falcons
Jacquizz Rodgers' first season in Atlanta saw him carry the ball 57 times for 205 yards and a touchdown.
Rodgers should assume a bigger role in Atlanta's running game in 2012 relieving both Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. Rodgers provides a quick burst into the hole and a change of pace to Atlanta's running game, which is one of the tops in the NFL.
Rodgers will likely get about 100 to 110 touches for anywhere between 600 to 700 yards and three touchdowns.
Robert Quinn: DE St. Louis Rams
Robert Quinn saw limited action in St. Louis last season.
Quinn only started one game but played in 14 games recording 20 tackles and five sacks.
In 2012 he'll have Jeff Fisher as his head coach and Fisher knows a thing or two about pass-rushers (Javon Kearse, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Albert Haynesworth) and will likely place Quinn in the starting role.
Thus expect his tackles to go up into the 60s while his sacks reach double digits as he wreak havoc on backfields in the NFC next season.
Cameron Jordan: DE New Orleans Saints
New Orleans defense relies mainly on forcing turnovers and creating big plays for the defense.
Sacks are an integral part of this, which is why in the first round of the 2011 draft, the Saints chose Cameron Jordan.
Jordan would play in all 16 games in 2011 recording 31 tackles and a sack while being a general pest to opposing quarterbacks.
Next season should be no different, as Jordan should get a few more sacks and step his game up to the next level.
Brandon LaFell: WR Carolina Panthers
Pictures of celebrations like this are a glimpse into the promising future of the Carolina Panthers.
Next season will be Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell's third season in the NFL. He will be following up a good sophomore season where he caught 36 passes for 613 yards and three touchdowns.
Due to his youth and playmaking ability, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be looking for LaFell more next season. During his four years at LSU, LaFell had 175 catches for 2,517 yards and 25 touchdowns and was a consistent deep threat.
Sounds like the perfect receiver to pair with Cam Newton, and it sounds like the formula for a breakout 2012 for the wide receiver.
Prince Amukamara: CB New York Giants
The Giants' first-round draft pick from a year ago is already in the Super Bowl after a season where he produced 14 tackles and an interception. His job on Sunday is already tougher than what he will likely have to encounter next season.
The Giants are high on Prince Amukamara, who missed the first nine games of the season with a broken left foot. In 2012 he is expected to be the Giants' full-time starter.
Give him a full season and could see around 30 tackles and seven interceptions with teams attempting to avoid him later on in the season.
Marcell Dareus: DT Buffalo Bills
After a distinguished college career at Alabama, Buffalo drafted defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in the first round and were not disappointed in the results.
Dareus recorded 32 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his rookie campaign and helped to solidify a Bills front seven that was good for most of the first half of the season. He showed the ability to be one of the most dominant defensive players of today.
Next season should be better for Dareus. A season with 40 to 45 tackles and six to eight sacks would be a tremendous follow-up to an already-impressive rookie season.
Cam Newton: QB Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton's rookie year has to rank (statistically speaking) as one of the best rookie years in any sport.
Newton threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 60.1 percent of his passes. He also managed to run for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Mind you, his preseason with Carolina entailed showing up at camp in July when the lockout ended and learning the playbook from there. This is a credit not only to Newton, but to Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinsky, who will surely get a head coaching job come 2013 if the Panthers offense continues to show improvement.
If anything I'd say he should've received one this season, but anytime you can hire someone that failed spectacularly at his first head coaching gig then followed that up by being a mediocre offensive coordinator whose game plan was to hide the strength of the offense, you have to do it—right, Jacksonville Jaguars?
So now Newton will get a full offseason, with a new draft class coming in for Carolina (which hopefully for the Panthers means a better defense) and a stable situation? Sounds to me like a breakout year for Newton.
He'll top 4,051 yards passing; I'm thinking next season it will be somewhere between that neighborhood and the 4,250-yard range. Maybe even the first NFL QB to pass for 4,000 yards and run for another 1,000. At least 30 touchdowns combined in the air and on the ground, and the most important part: fewer turnovers!
Last season, Newton had 17 interceptions and five fumbles. Expect to see those numbers drop as his other numbers rise.
He was the breakout player of 2011, and he will also be the breakout player of 2012.