Great players are hard to find.
How hard? Well, think about this: There are 32 teams in the NFL, and those 32 teams have the finest 32 quarterbacks in the world. And yet, there are only about five elite quarterbacks in the league. Comparatively speaking, that means 27 teams have low-end or mid-range quarterbacks.
It's tough to find guys who transcend their sport. It takes guts, brains and instinct to emerge as a truly special player. Those athletes are rare. The moments that make those athletes are even rarer.
Under the stadium lights, surrounded by thousands of fans and cameras ready to record and preserve every potential mistake, players with great instinct emerge as heroes.
Instinct can't be taught. It can be sharpened and refined, but never manufactured out of thin air.
Every player on this list instinctively knows how to win. They've proven it on the field and they're all about to have the best season of their careers.
Here are seven players primed for a breakout season in 2012.
You can teach safeties and cornerbacks to strip the ball. You can scream it at them. You can tattoo the words on their faces so they see it every day in the mirror. But the guy who makes the game-saving strip in the end zone during the final minute of the AFC Championship is the one who was born with the instinct and the guts to become a hero.
For a brief moment, as Lee Evans cradled the ball for a Ravens touchdown, every Patriots fan in the world thought their season was lost.
For Patriot Nation, that moment was a one-two punch of emotion: intense pain, followed by a shockwave of pure joy. It was a nostalgic throwback to 2001's AFC Divisional Playoff game when the referee said, "After review, the quarterback's arm was going forward, it's an incomplete pass."
All season long, New England struggled to balance their depleted secondary. It was constantly in a state of change—trial and error, mostly error. Then suddenly, with that incredible strip, a young cornerback named Sterling Moore painted a picture of New England's defensive backfield of the future. In this picture, Moore would play a starring role.
Moore's strip was instinct in its purest form. That instinct is his greatest strength, but it certainly isn't his only strength; he's tough, brilliant, quick, feisty, athletic, tenacious and brutal.
Get ready to witness his breakout season in 2012.
Here's hoping Nike releases No. 29's jersey.
In the final week of the 2011 season, the Lions and the Packers met for a showdown at Lambeau Field. With the No. 1 seed tucked neatly in their back pocket, it made sense for Aaron Rodgers to take the night off.
And so, Matt Flynn waltzed out on the field. The crowd probably didn't expect to see Flynn throw 480 yards and six touchdowns, but that's exactly what they witnessed.
If you consider the fact that Tony Romo has never put up those numbers in a single game, it makes sense to be very excited about Matt Flynn.
Flynn also has a Super Bowl ring. That means he has championship experience to go with his gutsy performances and fancy numbers. In addition to that, he has several years of Rodgers' wisdom implanted in his brain. Plus, he's only 26.
When you add up all of these factors, it paints the picture of a man who's primed for a breakout season in 2012. Seattle, here he comes.
Many questions remain about Tim Tebow's ability as a quarterback. For every person who thinks he's fantastic, there's another who thinks he can't throw a football to save his life.
2012 will be Tebow's breakout season. The reason is simple: The Jets already have a quarterback (sort of). Tebow will have the opportunity to play at running back, receiver, maybe even on defense and special teams. This is where Tebow will thrive and demonstrate his physical prowess.
By excelling at various positions and taking fewer snaps, Tebow will shed his reputation as a questionable quarterback and expand his reputation as a great athlete. His ability as a quarterback will simply be another element in his vast repertoire. How many running backs moonlight as a quarterback? It's a rare and special thing.
But there's a problem.
At some point during the 2012 season, Tebow will step in as the quarterback and win a game that Mark Sanchez couldn't have won. When that happens, the Jets will be checkmated into giving Tebow more snaps as a quarterback.
That could be bad for the Jets. Obviously, it's bad for Sanchez. It may even be bad for Tebow, as it could thrust him right back into the situation he was in last year. It's a long-term problem for everyone associated with the team.
But in the short-term, this is a beautiful situation for Tebow. Look for him to shed the baggage he accumulated last season and become a more respected superstar in 2012.
The rationale behind Belichick's decision was simple: Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks had their breakout seasons on the books, while Mario Manningham didn't. Belichick wanted to put the weight of the world on the most unproven receivers on the field.
You could say that Manningham had his moment handed to him on a silver platter, but the truth is, only a sensational athlete with a psychopathic aversion to fear could make that catch. It was a terrific throw, but the catch was just sublime.
That was Manningham's moment. And now that he's a newly-minted member of the 49ers, look for him to elevate San Francisco's offense to the level of their defense.
Manningham will emerge as a confident leader with championship poise. This will greatly aid a 49ers team that essentially shot themselves in the foot with mental mistakes in the playoffs. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Get ready for Manningham's breakout season.
2009 was supposed to be Cassel's breakout year as the Chiefs' franchise quarterback. It's now 2012 and the Arrowhead faithful are still waiting. If you keep your ear close to the ground, you'll hear rumblings of dissatisfaction and a hunger for a new slinger, or at the very least, a competitive backup to whip their starter into shape.
It's make-or-break time for Cassel. By the end of next season, he'll either be a franchise quarterback or a backup quarterback for the rest of his career.
Despite Cassel's slow start in Kansas City, he is a proven talent. The evidence came in 2008 when Tom Brady went down with his season-ending injury and Cassel took over.
The Patriots' 2007 Super Bowl loss was devastating to New England. Losing Brady for the following season essentially thrust Patriots fans into an emotional vortex of death. But Cassel saved the day. In fact, he saved the season. His 11 wins were dramatic and thrilling. He put a very distraught and exhausted fanbase on his shoulders and put on an incredible show.
It's true, he hasn't fared so well in Kansas City. But it's different now. Not only have the Chiefs installed a fantastic new coach, but they were perhaps the cleverest team in the league during the free agency frenzy. This is a different team. This is a much better team.
Cassel knows he's under the gun. He will not disappoint. In fact, he'll come through in a big way that rivals his 2008 season. Trust the people of New England when they tell you that this kid comes through when the fanbase really needs him.
Expect Cassel's breakout season to help qualify the Chiefs as the underdog story of the year.
Gone are the days when football players specialized in one thing. The NFL is a hybrid league now; teams are looking for players who fuse together multiple positions to create a new breed of animal.
Think about Rob Gronkowski: massive frame, physical presence, tough blocker, graceful footwork, ability to gain separation, ability to break tackles, total agility, big meaty paws that can catch the ball from any angle, great field vision, fast runner, high IQ, basically everything you've ever wanted in a football player crammed into one body.
Gronkowski was the symbol of the modern NFL player last season. But next season, look for Danny Woodhead to steal the crown.
Like Gronkowski, Woodhead is fantastic at multiples levels of the game. He's a dynamite running back, small enough to squirm through defenses, tough enough to absorb hits, quick moves, iron torso, strong legs, great slot receiver, dynamo on special teams, high IQ, runs the right routes, perfectly in sync with Tom Brady in every way, great personality, stays out of trouble, totally devoted to the team, hungry to win, a true competitor.
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis' recent departure from New England, look for Woodhead to scoop up those minutes and take Green-Ellis' carries. Also look for him to chase Wes Welker's production in the slot. Woodhead is primed to become one of the most lethal offensive threats on a very dangerous Patriots team.
Expect "Woody" to be one of the breakout stars of 2012.
It may seem odd to find one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time on this list. This guy's had enough breakout seasons to go around.
And yet, for all intents and purposes, Peyton Manning is starting over in 2012. He's got a new team, new coaches, new stadium, new fans, new jersey, new home, new everything. Throw some surgery and a season-long absence into the mix, and you've got a guy who has a lot to prove. And prove it, he will.
Ironically, Manning and Andrew Luck are in similar positions; both are hot commodities, yet each is totally defined by their achievements from previous lives. With Indianapolis behind Manning and Stanford behind Luck, they'll both need to prove their value from scratch, one game at a time.
In a strange way, they'll both be looking to have a breakout season.
Seeing Manning in a Broncos jersey on opening day will be a befuddling experience for his fans. Manning knows this. Look for him to make the transition as smooth as possible by completely reinventing himself and establishing the new Peyton as the better Peyton.
Expect Manning to have (his best) breakout season in 2012.