Prior to breaking out into difference-making receiving threats, whether it be in the regular season or just the postseason, Jimmy Graham and DeMaryius Thomas were two of the players featured on my second-year players to watch for in the 2011 season.
With the draft and free agency in tow, it's not too early to start thinking about the coming season and who will be the next Victor Cruz or Jimmy Graham.
Here is a list of 10 second-year players to look out for in the 2012 NFL regular season.
In St. Louis, very few things went right for Steve Spagnuolo and his team; so much so that it is no longer his team. The final parting gift that Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney left fans with comes in the form of former first-round pick Robert Quinn.
Quinn, the former North Carolina prospect, didn't feature much during his rookie season; but only because the Rams already had talented defensive ends entrenched as their starters. With James Hall gone, the Rams will now ask Quinn to step into a starting role rather than just be a situational pass rusher.
In limited time, Quinn managed to notch five sacks while also being impressive on special teams.
The most impressive thing about Quinn's play was his burst off the line of scrimmage and his relentlessness in chasing down opposing quarterbacks. He may not have had an Aldon Smith-type of rookie year, but the difference in the defense around him should be taken into account.
Quinn has the frame to add bulk as he matures. He won't be under any major pressure to perform this year, but the Rams will expect to see some development. One thing is certain, the defense around Quinn is better suited to support him with a revamped defensive line rotation and some new additions in the secondary.
When drafted, Justin Houston was described as a first-round talent who fell to the third round because of character reasons. When a player like this falls into the right situation, it's always intriguing.
Landing in Kansas City was good for Houston as leaders like Thomas Jones, Kelly Gregg and Derrick Johnson were there to watch over him as a rookie. While the team's actual first-round pick proved to cause the most trouble, Houston quietly forced his way into the lineup.
The Chiefs have been lacking a consistent pass rusher in recent years, relying too much on Tamba Hali. With Houston looking to start across from him this year, and Dontari Poe added to the middle of the defensive line, that should no longer be an issue.
Playing across from Hali, with three mammoth defensive linemen in front of him, should give Houston plenty of opportunities to make plays.
While he struggled to make an impression early on, starting the first two games before being benched, the 22-year-old did eventually become the full-time starter at left outside linebacker during the final seven games of last year.
He exploded onto the scene in Week 13, recording his first three career sacks against the Chicago Bears. After that, he added one more sack against the New York Jets the very next week and 1.5 sacks in the final game against the Denver Broncos.
Houston will hope to carry the momentum from the end of last season into this one. A more competitive Chiefs team should help his cause.
The 22-year-old wide receiver, Jonathan Baldwin, didn't have the greatest start to his career. Baldwin got into a fight with veteran running back Thomas Jones and missed the first five games of his rookie season.
By the time Baldwin acclimated himself to the NFL, the Chiefs offense had already been decimated.
Baldwin only had three full games with Matt Cassel under center. Furthermore, the Chiefs offense was also missing two of its brightest young weapons in Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles. Baldwin finished the season with only 21 receptions in 11 games. However, you have to take into account how dysfunctional the team's offense was during that span.
Baldwin showed enough in short spells to prove he has the potential to start at wide receiver in the NFL. Even at this level, his height and physicality should allow him to overpower smaller corners. If he can consistently catch the football, Baldwin shouldn't have any issues getting free from coverage.
With Dwayne Bowe across from him, Steve Breaston playing inside, and the return of the team's key offensive cogs, Baldwin could play a big role on a team that should be looking at the playoffs this year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers let William Gay leave this offseason despite his excellent performance last year. While Keenan Lewis is the next man up to replace Gay in the starting lineup, Allen will be the new nickel cornerback.
During his rookie year, Allen was impressive despite being drafted as a project player out of Citadel.
Allen's performances as a rookie where a huge reason why the Steelers' secondary was able to vault itself to the top of the rankings during the regular season. He is a very rangy cornerback who, along with Keenan Lewis, added a new dimension to the Steelers defense, while also providing much needed depth at the position.
Despite being a big, physical cornerback who excels in man coverage, Allen also proved last year that he was agile and intelligent enough to play inside as the team's dime back. He may have been the second cornerback the Steelers took in the draft last year, after Curtis Brown, but Allen was a big contributor for the team and quickly surpassed Brown on the depth chart.
Adjusting to a bigger role is the only issue Allen will face this year. He proved last year, with a dominating performance against Rob Gronkowski (3 receptions, 28 yards) that he has all the talent needed to be an elite cornerback.
Kyle Rudolph has all the potential to be the next elite tight end in the NFL.
The first thing you notice about Rudolph is that he has huge hands. He has the ability to snatch the ball out of the air as if he were a wide receiver, despite his bulky frame.
Despite already having tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on the roster, the Vikings drafted Rudolph in the second round of last year's draft. Much like the Toby Gerhart pick the year before, I initially hated this selection for the Vikings.
Unlike the Gerhart selection, it's easy to see why the Vikings brought in Rudolph. Rudolph has all the physical attributes to be a star tight end in the NFL. Much like Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller or Jason Witten, he is actually a tight end opposed to an oversized receiver.
Rudolph will be the starting tight end in Minnesota this year and should develop a good rapport with Christian Ponder as the team will look to compensate for Adrian Peterson's injury. Also, the Vikings' offense now has a good young base to build off of after the addition of Matt Kalil.
The tight end will be a very important piece of that base as he will influence both the run and passing game.
Another offensive weapon expecting to be more involved this season is Clyde Gates. In fact, since Brandon Marshall was traded and Joe Philbin was appointed head coach, every receiver in Miami is excited about their chance to get on the field this year.
Outside of Miami, Gates is not a name that many NFL fans will recognize. Gates was drafted by the Dolphins last year in the fourth round and is most definitely a project.
His rookie season was quiet offensively as he finished with only two receptions on the season. However, Gates was electrifying as a kick returner, showcasing great speed. While he never reached the end zone as a returner, 24 of his 34 returns went for over 20 yards, and one for over 40.
That was no surprise, considering the speed that Gates showed in the preseason. He needs to develop as a football player, but now has the right coach to help him get better. If used in the right way, Gates could have a big year this season (presuming that whoever his quarterback won't handicap him).
Vincent Brown's quarterback certainly won't handicap him, but Brown does have his own issues to contend with.
Brown is a typical San Diego Chargers receiver. In fact, had he been drafted by another team, I probably wouldn't be as high on him. He is a perfect fit in San Diego and was only hindered by his lack of opportunities last year.
Brown must have been excited to make his mark this season after watching Vincent Jackson sign on in Tampa Bay. But then, the team brought in Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. The competition at receiver will be somewhat deflating for Brown, but he shouldn't fear the prospect of beating out Royal, Meachem or even Floyd.
He is that talented.
Despite being listed at 5'11", 184 lbs, there is a certain level of toughness and physicality that comes with Brown's play. He fights defenders for the football, gains position and can adjust to the ball in the air.
Couple that with his down-field speed and his 17.3 yards per reception last year, and Brown has all the makings for a breakout season. Even as the Chargers offense struggled this year, Brown still managed 19 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns in only 14 games of mostly limited action.
Brown's biggest asset is the mismatch he presents to opposing defenders. While there are other good secondary receivers in the league, very few combine the strength, speed and one-on-one ability to intimidate defenders like Brown does.
Whether you want to play him inside or out, Brown has the physical abilities to flourish as part of Philip Rivers' arsenal.
Gabe Carimi is undoubtedly an elite prospect at the right tackle position. Carimi barely played as a rookie because of injury, but showed a lot in limited action.
Replacing Mike Martz with Mike Tice should significantly improve the play of the offensive line, as Tice will put less pressure on the line with a lot more running plays and tighter formations.
With Matt Forte and Michael Bush in the backfield, Carimi will get plenty of opportunities to do what he does best—blow defenders away in the running game. His bulk alone will be enough to manhandle some defensive ends and linebackers, while his agility will allow the Bears to run more dynamic plays behind his big frame.
Bulk is an important word with Carimi. He has size, but he doesn't have any weight issues. His athleticism is instantly obvious when you see him work on the field. I suspect the Bears will look to use Carimi a lot next year as they try to establish the running game and protect Jay Cutler.
Carimi is easily the best lineman on the Bears' roster. While that isn't saying much, it doesn't take away from his outstanding talent.
He may not be the greatest pass protector, and his two knee surgeries since being placed on IR last year are undoubtedly worrying. However, he is still young and has plenty of time to work on his technique as he recovers from surgery.
Another player coming off a rookie season that was cut short by injury is Ras-I Dowling of the New England Patriots.
Dowling possesses the skill-set that the Patriots were desperately lacking at cornerback last year, as Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty are both short corners.
There were times last season when bigger receivers treated McCourty like a box of kittens being hit with a nuclear bomb.
With Dowling in the lineup, Bill Belichick has a physical presence to aggressively attack opposing receivers. Dowling is listed at 6'1", 198 lbs, has good range and showed a lot of fight against the Miami Dolphins last year.
After the second game of the season, Dowling didn't appear again for the Patriots before being placed on IR after Week 6. In the first matchup of the year, he showed tenacity when matched up with Brandon Marshall. Marshall gained most of his yards yards against McCourty, and the Dolphins rarely threw at Dowling during the game.
The few times they did throw against Dowling, he played aggressively in the red zone and prevented touchdowns to Marshall in single coverage. The Patriots will be looking to Dowling to step up next year, as he has the skill-set to potentially be the team's No.1 cornerback. As with all young players, consistency will be the key.
To an extent, Marcel Dareus shouldn't be on this list because he had a fantastic rookie year. However, I believe Dareus has the potential to be a huge difference-maker for the Buffalo Bills next year.
After Kyle Williams got injured last year, Dareus was switched between nose tackle and defensive end in a defense that lacked much talent. Losing Kyle WIlliams was huge—not only because Dareus had to move around more, but also because teams could more easily double-team the rookie.
While JJ Watt got some recognition for his great play last year, Dareus was completely overlooked because he played in Buffalo. That doesn't mean that he didn't have a very good year though. He showed more consistency than Von Miller did in Denver, but that consistency was squandered on a bad defense.
Playing anywhere on the defensive line in a 3-4 defense is not a statistically rewarding role, yet Dareus still managed 5.5 sacks. His team's scheme and the lack of talent around him were the two biggest things holding Dareus back as a rookie.
The Bills have corrected both of those issues this offseason.
No longer will the Bills run a 3-4 defense, as Kyle Williams and Dareus will be moved inside as defensive tackles in a 4-3. The duo should prove to be the best pairing at defensive tackle since the WIlliams Wall in Minnesota was in its prime.
Also, with prized free agent Mario Williams arriving, and rookie Stephon Gilmore aiding the secondary, Dareus now has plenty of talent around him to flourish.
Considering Dareus was mostly drafted for his ability to shut down the running game, the production he had as a rookie was phenomenal. 5.5 sacks as a 3-4 defensive lineman is on par with Ndamukong Suh's 10 from his rookie season, as he played in a 4-3. Unlike Suh, Dareus also doesn't play me-first football in search of stats.
Because of that trait, his potential is endless regardless of scheme. Even if he had stayed in a 3-4 defense, Dareus would have become the next Aaron Smith.
Now that he is in a 4-3, he will be known by everyone. Stat head or not.
Ryan Williams and Mikel Leshoure:
Leshoure and Williams are in similar situations. Both players missed their first seasons due to injury, which will inevitably draw comparisons to Ben Tate. Unfortunately for Williams and Leshoure, that's where the similarities end.
Unlike the dominant Houston offensive line, the Cardinals and Lions' respective groups still aren't set up to dominate the line of scrimmage. Also, Williams' health still appears uncertain, while Leshoure has had some off-field issues this offseason.
I believe Amukamara will have a good second season after sustaining injuries early as a rookie. However, I think he will remain a role player in New York as Terrell Thomas returns and Corey Webster remains one of the most underrated players in the league.
Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram:
Jordan made a small impact for the Saints last season. He didn't really show any flashes that would indicate a massive change this season either.
Ingram is part of an offense that is never going to heavily rely on him. He is the type of back that could carry the ball 25 times a game, but that will never happen in New Orleans.
Dalton is one of many many rookies that cannot break out next year because of the high level he played at as a rookie.
The Oakland Raiders guard will get a lot more coverage this year when Darren McFadden returns. However, that coverage is the only thing that will change. Wisniewski was a dominant force as a rookie, too.
He also appears to be an option to start at center this year.
Locker really impressed me during his limited time on the field as a rookie. I fully expect him to be a big-time starter in the future.
However, I also think Matt Hasselbeck has one more year left in him, and Locker would be better off starting in his third year.
Sam Acho and KJ Wright:
Acho and Wright are two linebackers on teams that don't get much national attention—the Seahawks and Cardinals. Both players had big rookie seasons which should continue into next year. However, they are essentially in the same boat as Wisniewski.
Ridley showed a lot as a rookie. His role in the New England Patriots offense will increase this year, but he will remain a complementary piece as long as Tom Brady is healthy.
Sherman had an amazing rookie season. In order for him to break out this year though, he would need to hit Darrelle Revis' level; so it's unfair to put him on this list.