Predicting the Biggest Breakout Star on Every NFL Team's 2012 Roster
Free agency, trades and the draft will shake up every NFL roster in the next few months. But every one of those wells to draw in new talent is an uncertainty, a risk.
Players already on the roster, ones in which the coaching staff and front office are already familiar with, are usually a more reliable commodity.
So while Matt Flynn, Robert Griffin III, and even the injured/damaged goods Peyton Manning will steal all the headlines with their new teams, these players could be a safer bet to spark their teams in 2012.
New York Giants
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Player: Ramses Barden, WR
The Giants passing attack will again be one of the best in the NFL next year, regardless of whether or not they lose Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham to free agency.
Eli Manning will still have Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
But if Manningham leaves, there will be plenty of passes to go around to a new third receiver, and because he has such remarkable size, Barden might be the choice to fill that third option over Jerrel Jernigan.
Hey, and given Barden's size (6'6", 225) maybe they can bulk him up to play tight end, a position the Giants will need help at in 2012.
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Player: DeMarco Murray, RB
Had rookie DeMarco Murray not gotten injured late in the season, the Cowboys might have been able to maintain their edge in the NFC East, which could have ultimately altered the playoff picture.
More importantly for this list, had Murray not been injured late in the season, he might already be a star.
He averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and had three 100-yard days including his monster 253-yard effort against the Rams.
Give him 16 starts and he could be the NFL's rushing champion.
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Player: Akeem Jordan, OLB
Another year in that "wide nine" system should do all the Eagles defenders some good, and if they end up nabbing the top middle linebacker in the draft (Boston College's Luke Kuechly), Juan Castillo will look a whole lot smarter.
Besides, that defensive line certainly has pass rushers (Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins) and a fine secondary even if Asante Samuel leaves.
So there will be plays to make, and Jordan showed strong production in the second half of the season: 27 solo tackles.
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Player: Roy Helu Jr., RB
In Denver, Mike Shanahan seemed capable of making any running back into a 1,000-yard gainer: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson, etc.
And although that hasn't been the case in Washington, he's had sporadic success with guys like Tim Hightower, Keiland Williams and Ryan Torain.
But towards the end of the 2011 season, Helu looked like his next great project: The Nebraska rookie had three straight 100-yard games and made significant contributions out of the backfield.
If the Redskins move up to get Robert Griffin III (and therefore don't look at a player like Trent Richardson), Helu will see the majority of the snaps.
Green Bay Packers
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Player: Randall Cobb, WR
As a special teamer, Cobb showed what he was capable of in his first game as a pro, returning a kick against the Saints 108 yards for a touchdown.
Yet, he didn't make a major impact as a wide receiver in 2011, which is almost impossible for a rookie in that offense overloaded with weapons.
But that should change with another year under his belt and the possibility of the Pack letting 37-year-old Donald Driver go before he's due a $1.5 million roster bonus.
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Player: Titus Young, WR
Much like his NFC North rookie counterpart, Young walked into a difficult situation in 2011. And he certainly wasn't going to take balls out of the hands of Calvin Johnson.
But towards the end of the season, he started becoming a huge factor in the Lions' explosive offense, scoring four touchdowns (including two in the must-win over Green Bay) in the final four weeks of the season.
He still hasn't collected a 100-yard effort or caught more than seven passes in a game, but with Matthew Stafford at the helm, expect that to change in 2012.
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Player: Dane Sanzenbacher, WR
Another wide receiver? Well, in this modern NFL, where passing records are falling like crazy, someone has to be on the receiving end.
And this former Ohio State Buckeye has the intangibles and hands to be a major factor in the new Bears offense.
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Player: Toby Gerhart, RB
Who knows what will happen with Adrian Peterson in 2012. Yes, his surgery and rehab is reportedly already ahead of schedule, but even if he is in uniform, ready to start in Week 1, there are no guarantees.
Most people who know say that it takes two years to recover from this type of knee injury, and in that case, Peterson might have limited productivity.
That's why Gerhart will shoulder an extra portion of the load. He showed an ability to be a workhorse late in the season, with 15 or more carries five times in the Vikings' final six games.
New Orleans Saints
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Player: Adrian Arrington, WR
Both Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are free agents, and given the Saints' current problem with Drew Brees, it will be hard for them to sign one, let alone both.
(And who here is really sold on the idea of Randy Moss—a year removed from retirement—coming into New Orleans and being a star?)
So even with Jimmy Graham in line to catch 100-some passes for 1,600-some yards, there will be plenty of room for a talented receiver to make plays.
He's done next to nothing in his first two seasons, but at 6'3", 190 pounds, Arrington has an ideal frame, and the coaching staff trusted him enough to play significant minutes in both playoff games. Besides, they wouldn't have re-signed him last month if they didn't think he had a great upside.
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Player: Akeem Dent, MLB
The Falcons have franchised Brent Grimes, so unless they break the bank to pay Lofton, he could be on his way out of town.
There aren't many mike linebackers left in the NFL, let alone one who hasn't missed a start in four seasons, averages well over 100 tackles per season, and is only 25 years old. In short, he's going to command a ton of money.
So the Falcons better have a plan in place if he does, and Dent has talent and earned valuable experience in 2011.
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Player: Brandon LaFell, WR
Although Steve Smith has made many a person feel like a fool—those who counted him out last year, specifically—he can't play forever. And one of these years the age and wear-and-tear from his many injuries will catch up to him.
So with Cam Newton entrenched as a superstar, the Panthers need to find another receiver who is as reliable deep threat.
LaFell showed he was capable of that at times in 2011.
He'll have many more opportunities to do so in 2012 as Newton becomes more in-tune with that offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Player: Da'Quan Bowers, DE
For those with a pretty short memory, here's a reminder: At this point last year, Da'Quan Bowers was at the very top of plenty of noteworthy people's mock drafts.
The concerns over his knee brought that to a halt, with the Clemson stud falling to the second round. But he's had a year to learn, a year to rehab with the best doctors and trainers available, and that should lead to a big sophomore year.
A healthy Gerald McCoy will help as well.
San Francisco 49ers
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Player: Kendall Hunter, RB
I think the world of Frank Gore; he's a tremendous back and is coming off his third pro bowl season.
But sooner or later all those carries, coupled with a string of injuries that date all the way back to Miami, will catch up with him.
Kendall Hunter—who boasts a similar frame and skill set as Gore—showed the 49ers coaching staff he was capable of being a great second option, taking the backup job from Anthony Dixon.
Either as a precautionary measure or a replacement for an injured Gore, Hunter will see an increase in touches.
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Player: Sam Acho, OLB
The Cardinals are going to have to find a pass rusher to replace Clark Haggans and/or Joey Porter.
There are several great options available to them in the draft (Courtney Upshaw, Melvin Ingram), but since they already have Acho on the roster, he might be the best replacement.
He's an excellent pass rusher with great speed off the edge and since the Cardinals defense does have some fine talent elsewhere (Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Calais Campbell), he should have a chance to make plays.
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Player: K.J. Wright, OLB
After Aaron Curry was shipped out of town, Wright took his place. Unfortunately, because the Seahawks 2011 season left little to be desired, few took notice.
But heading into the 2012 season Wright will be one of the most versatile linebackers in the NFC.
He can rush the passer when necessary, play the pass, and is coming along as a tackler in the running game.
St. Louis Rams
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Player: Robert Quinn, DE
For a player coming off a major health scare and an entire season away from the game, Quinn had a phenomenal rookie campaign.
Sure he only started one game, but playing in 14 and recording 5.5 sacks on a terrible defense is a feather in his cap and validated the Rams' somewhat risky pick.
Now the future of the Rams defense is a huge question mark going forward with the Gregg Williams situation still in flux, but whoever is coordinating Jeff Fisher's group will turn Quinn loose.
Double-digit sacks should be a given in 2012.
New England Patriots
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Player: Stevan Ridley, RB
BenJarvus Green-Ellis might turn out to be a luxury the Patriots cannot afford. They're going to be charged with paying Wes Welker a ton and there's talk about signing names like Mike Wallace or Mario Williams.
If the Law Firm leaves New England, those carries will go somewhere and since Ridley got more and more involved in the offense last season—enough to the point that he earned a spot in the Super Bowl over Kevin Faulk—he could wind up the full-time starter.
In that Pats offense, even as a starter, Ridley won't be a 300-carry, 1,500-yard back, but he'll still be a major factor on one of the NFL's most high profile teams.
New York Jets
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Player: Jeremy Kerley, WR
It doesn't look like Plaxico Burress will be back in New York next season, but even if he were, the Jets new offense will see plenty of changes under Tony Sparano.
For Mark Sanchez to have any type of success, he'll need to keep the press and fans off his back, and to do that another receiver will have to emerge beside Santonio Holmes.
Kerley took a month or so to shed the rookie mistakes and by the end of the season was a valuable third receiver.
With Burress gone, he'll probably open the season up as the second option.
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Player: Clyde Gates, WR
I'm of the opinion that Peyton Manning is going to be taking his talents to South Beach. That should translate to a huge increase in the passing attack in Miami.
So even if Manning courts Reggie Wayne to Miami as a complement to Brandon Marshall, there will be plenty of passes to go around, and a slot receiver will be a critical element to the Dolphins success.
Gates fits that mold: He's not that big but has great speed and would benefit tremendously from the veteran leadership in Miami.
Player: Kevin Brock, TE
During Buffalo's mini-resurgence early in the 2011 season, tight end Scott Chandler became a favorite of both Bills fans and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Chandler caught four touchdowns in Buffalo's first three games.
But there's a very good chance that he won't be back next year, as the free agent figures to command more than the Bills are willing to pay.
His possible departure will leave a gaping hole at the tight end position, but Brock is an interesting candidate to fill the void.
He comes from Rutgers, which is clearly becoming a hotbed of NFL talent. And as a practice squad guy who has had to scrap and fight just to make an NFL roster, he's definitely a hard worker.
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Player: Sergio Kindle, OLB
Although he's one of the most underrated players in the NFL, Jarret Johnson is probably not in the Ravens future. He's going to command a ton of money, but at 31 years old that's a red flag—especially since they have to pay Ray Rice a ton next year.
So while they'll be sad to see Johnson leave town, the Ravens are fortunate to have a great heir apparent to his spot.
Kindle has good strength and speed and has had the benefit of learning from the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs.
Player: Cortez Allen, CB
Fortunately, the Steelers front office began preparing for the need last April, drafting Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third round and fourth rounds, respectively.
Allen—who saw much more playing time—seems to have the upper hand on Brown, as he's bigger and slightly more athletic.
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Player: Carlos Dunlap, DE
With their two first-round draft choices, the Bengals are a good candidate to take one of the better 4-3 defensive ends (Quinton Coples?) available on Draft Day. They certainly will have a need there with Frostee Rucker and Robert Geathers both possibly gone.
But regardless of whether or not they spend a pick on a defensive end, they already have a great replacement on the roster.
Dunlap's sack stats dipped a great deal in 2011, but he finished the season strong and has been staying on Marvin Lewis' good side.
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Player: Jabaal Sheard, DE
The Browns defensive numbers aren't terribly impressive, but with Joe Haden, Phil Taylor and D'Qwell Jackson, the future looks bright.
The unsung young hero of that group, however, has to be the second-round choice out of Pitt.
Sheard recorded 8.5 sacks as a rookie and was an above average contributor against the run, a must in the AFC North.
He struggled to get attention with the rest of the division so loaded with pass rushers, but if he nabs 12-14 sacks that'll change.
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Player: J.J. Watt, DE
Other than the dominance of Arian Foster, what stood out the most of the Texans' playoff run this year was the performance of their first-round draft choice.
Watt's play in the regular season wasn't necessarily earth shattering: Von Miller and Aldon Smith had far more productive years rushing the passer.
But in January, Watt was almost impossible to block: The "motor" that helped the Wisconsin star soar up the draft boards surfaced, especially in the loss to Baltimore when he recorded 2.5 sacks and nine tackles.
Don't be surprised to see him contend for the NFL sack crown next year.
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Player: Jake Locker, QB
Ah, the only quarterback on this list.
Sure, Matt Hasselbeck is still on the books for another two seasons, but since Locker showed some real promise the former Huskie has the inside track. He's much more athletic and has already shed some of the knocks about his lack of accuracy.
Don't look for him to record Aaron Rodgers type numbers or even those Cam Newton put up as a rookie, but the Titans should be in the playoff hunt again with an improved running game, a solid defense, and the return of Kenny Britt.
A young first-round starting quarterback on a contender is a natural star in the NFL.
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Player: Austen Lane, DE
It might not have been enough to save Jack Del Rio's job but Jacksonville's defense was above average last year and helped keep a team with a bad offense in contention of several games.
And although the free agent signings of Dawan Landry and Paul Posluszny were keys to that success, the Jags pass rush was extremely underrated...and vastly improved from the 2010 season.
But because Jeremy Mincey and Matt Roth are free agents and Aaron Kampman still hasn't passed a physical on his knee there will be an opportunity for Lane to climb the ladder.
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Player: Delone Carter, RB
In the post-Peyton Manning era a running game will be critical for Andrew Luck and the new offense Bruce Arians installs.
Joseph Addai and Donald Brown may be veterans with the experience, but Delone Carter has the frame and low-to-the-ground running style that will avoid the type of injuries that have plagued Addai and Brown over the past few years.
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Player: Julius Thomas, TE
Tight ends have a way of being a struggling quarterback's best friend. Big bodies and their positioning over the middle of the field provide a security blanket.
So if Tim Tebow's magic starts to run out at any point in the 2012 season, a great tight end will become key part of that offense.
Dante Rosario and Daniel Fells were Denver's two starters at the spot last year, but neither really produced much in the passing game. And since both are free agents, turning to the younger (and cheaper) Thomas has to be intriguing.
San Diego Chargers
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Player: Curtis Brinkley, RB
Mike Tolbert will almost certainly bolt the Bolts, and although Ryan Matthews will reclaim his place as the starter, there should be plenty of extra carries to go around.
Brinkley has the low center of gravity that Tolbert employed to be an excellent change-of-pace back in a Charger offense that seems to be undergoing changes as Antonio Gates gets older and struggles to overcome his foot ailments.
And maybe Week 17 was insight into the future, as Brinkley led the Chargers with 16 carries.
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Player: Denarius Moore, WR
Well, that Raiders offense could go any direction, couldn't it?
Michael Bush is a free agent, Darren McFadden can't seem to stay healthy for a full season, and Greg Knapp will likely install a whole new system.
The one consistent is that talented and fast receiving corps. Louis Murphy, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford all have great speed, but perhaps the most talented player is the former Tennessee Vol.
Moore is the type of deep threat who Carson Palmer needs to continue the resurrection of the Oakland passing game, regardless of who's calling the plays.
Kansas City Chiefs
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Player: Justin Houston, OLB
Being raw out of college did nothing to keep this third-round draft choice from finishing second on the Chiefs in sacks and earning team Rookie of the Year honors.
Give him another year to mature, learn from Romeo Crennel, and become comfortable playing in a 3-4 and he could be one-half of the best book-end rushers in the NFL.
With Tamba Hali on the other side, opposing teams have almost no option but to leave him matched up with a back or tight end in pass protection, and that should be a win for Houston every time.