Predicting the Top Second-Year Performer at Every Position in the NFL
Second seasons in the NFL can prove to be huge breakout years for budding stars.
Some rookies already made a name for themselves in 2011, while others had to bide their time. If nothing else, Cam Newton quickly proved false the notion that rookies as a whole would be hurt by the NFL Lockout.
Now, with a full year to learn, plus a full offseason, who is ready to continue their stardom, or explode onto the scene in the NFL?
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WR1: AJ Green
AJ Green was a constant figure on SportsCenter with one of the best rookie seasons we have ever seen from a receiver. His first-year marks of 65 catches, 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns were better than the debut seasons from the all-pro triumvirate of Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
More than produce highlights, Green brought hope back to the Cincinnati Bengals and helped them clinch a playoff berth. As Cincinnati continues to move forward, Green gives the Bengals an advantage over the rest of the AFC North, as neither the Baltimore Ravens nor the Pittsburgh Steelers have anyone on their respective rosters that can cover Green.
WR2: Julio Jones
If AJ Green is to be this generation's version of Randy Moss, than Julio Jones will the be the next Terrell Owens. Already one of the game's best yards after catch threats, Jones will look to build on a rookie campaign that saw him reach pay dirt eight times and nearly break the 1,000-yard plateau.
The explosive Jones appears to be the perfect complement to the steady Roddy White and could soon replace the vet as Matt Ryan's go-to threat.
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RB1: DeMarco Murray
Apparently Oklahoma University just breeds big angry backs with freakish athletic ability. For a brief time last season, Murray was the best rookie back we had since his predecessor at Oklahoma, Adrian Peterson.
It took a few weeks to crack the lineup for the Dallas Cowboys, but when he did, Murray made up for lost time. The 227-lb. back showed a rare combination of speed and power with 253 rushing yards in his first NFL start. Despite just five games with 20 or more carries, Murray led all rookie backs with 897 yards before injury ended his season just as suddenly as it started.
Look for Murray to be back with a vengeance in 2012, as there will not be anymore time wasted sitting behind "more established" veterans.
RB2: Mark Ingram
Ingram was expected to have more of an impact as a rookie, but to call him a bust is an injustice. Ingram competed with two other solid backs in an offensive system that is pass-first anyway. The bruiser rushed for just under four yards per carry before injuries shortened his season.
Look for the big back to get a more generous portion of the New Orleans Saints' running back timeshare. Ingram should serve as the goal line option and the team's closer in the fourth quarter.
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The electrifying Newton shattered about every rookie record for a quarterback and transformed the Carolina Panthers into an instant threat in the NFC South.
Newton appears to be that once-in-a generation athlete with all the talent in the world, as well as the drive to maximize his potential. Cam Newton can run like Vick and throw like Favre.If he studies like a Manning, the Panthers will be a perennial Super Bowl contender for the next decade.
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On paper, this was a quiet year for rookie tight ends. Dig a little deeper and there just might be another Rob Gronkowski biding his time with the Minnesota Vikings.
Rudolph had a decent season for a second-round rookie on a team with one quarterback that was over-done and one that needed to marinate a little longer. However, the 26 catches and three touchdowns are not the stats that jump out at me: It's the six-foot-six-inch, 260-lb. frame.
In theory, Rudolph and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder will develop excellent chemistry as potential stars of a rebuilding franchise from the same draft class. If that is the case, look for Rudolph to easily double his production as a big-time (pun intended) security blanket for Ponder.
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T: Gabe Carimi
Carimi had the majority of his rookie season cut short by injury, appearing in (and starting) just two games.
I don't know that Carimi is the best player on this list, but for a Chicago Bears team that is set everywhere but on the offensive line, he may be the most important. Carimi has a chance to earn the left tackle spot and if he excels and protects Jay Cutler's blind side, the Bears might be my pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
LG: John Moffitt
Moffitt wasted little time going from unknown third-round rookie to starter in the NFL. Moffitt earned the gig by the middle of the season, around the same time the Marshawn Lynch went beast mode on the rest of the league.
C: Mike Pouncey
Apparently patience is not a virtue in the Pouncey family. Mike followed his twin brother Maurkice's footsteps by starting all 16 games of his rookie season after being selected in the first round.
Pouncey helped pave the way for Reggie Bush's best season in the NFL, as Miami progressed as the league's 11th-best rushing offense.
RG: Danny Watkins
Watkins was not a popular first-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, but he soon rewarded Andy Reid's selection. Watkins started 12 games and paved the way for NFL rushing king LeSean McCoy.
T: Anthony Castonzo
Castonzo started from Day One for the Indianapolis Colts and only injuries kept him on the sideline from there, as he missed four games from his rookie campaign.
Of course, the Colts drafted him with the idea that he would help keep Peyton Manning upright for his remaining years with the Colts. Now, the plan has changed and Castonzo will try to make franchise quarterback Andrew Luck's transition to the NFL a painless one.
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DE: J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt was drafted as a high-motor, prototypical 3-4 defensive end. Any questions about his athleticism were answered in his playoff debut, when he rushed Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton, leaped to block the pass, but instead plucked it out of mid-air and rumbled 29 yards for a momentum-shifting touchdown.
Watt actually got better from there, finishing with 3.5 sacks in two playoff games to go with 5.5 from the regular season. The Houston Texans appear to have a more athletic version of the Pittsburgh Steelers' recently retired Aaron Smith, who manned the 3-4 end spot for over a decade as well as anyone in the NFL.
DT: Marcell Dareus
Lost in the return—and subsequent collapse—of the Buffalo Bills was the play of first-round pick Marcell Dareus.
While the offense got the credit and the blame for the up-and-down Bills, Dareus was a constant anchor to the defense for all 16 games. The 340-lb. Dareus showed unreal athleticism with 5.5 sacks and 43 tackles.
Dareus could be the most disruptive defensive force since Albert Haynesworth—but for more than just a contract season.
DE: Adrian Clayborn
The Tampa Buccaneers had a disappointing 2011 campaign, but don't go blaming Clayborn. The Iowa product had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles in his debut campaign.
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OLB: Von Miller
The Denver Broncos drafted Miller second overall, extremely high for an outside linebacker. As the Defensive Rookie of the Year, Miller rewarded Denver's faith.
The Texas A&M product exploded for 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Lost in Tebowmania was the job Miller and the defense did in the second half of the season. Miller added three tackles and a sack in Denver's upset playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
MLB: Akeem Ayers
In a relatively weak class for middle linebackers, Ayers was the best of the bunch, recording 76 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
MLB: Colin McCarthy
Right behind Ayers was fellow Tennessee Titan Colin McCarthy. The duo looks to have the middle of Tennessee's defense solidified. McCarthy had two forced fumbles and an interception to go with his 68 tackles.
OLB: Aldon Smith
Ask anyone west of the Rocky Mountains and Smith was your true Defensive Rookie of the Year. True, Smith beat Miller in sacks, 14 to 11.5, but he was less consistent and more one-dimensional than Miller.
While Smith excelled in blitz packages, he also went four games without recording a sack or a tackle. Easy, San Francisco 49ers' fans. I'm not knocking the kid, just trying to give an explanation as to why your quarterback-menace was bypassed by the man from Denver.
Smith is a special talent and should have double-digit sacks for the next decade-plus as he continues to round out the rest of his game.
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CB1: Patrick Peterson
Patrick Peterson just might be the fastest player in the NFL. At six feet tall and weighing nearly 220 lbs., he has all the tangibles to translate from being the game's best punt returner to its best cornerback.
I don't know enough about Peterson off the field to say one way or another, but the only thing that could hold this kid back is if he is the type to just coast on natural gifts.
CB2: Prince Amukamara
Amukamara had his rookie season derailed by a preseason injury. As a result, he did not make his NFL debut until November 20th.
He started off with a bang with an interception in his first game. Expect Amukamara to make up for lost time and have a big impact in the New York Giants' secondary.
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FS: Rahim Moore
Moore played well when given a chance to shine with the Denver Broncos. Primarily a package player as a rookie, Moore had two games with five or more tackles and recorded an interception against the Green Bay Packers.
Expect Moore to build on his experience. With the retirement of Brian Dawkins, Moore has a great opportunity to push for time as a starter.
SS: Tyler Sash
As a back-up for the New York Giants, Sash actually had the second-most tackles of any rookie safety, free or strong. Sash will likely remain a back-up, but gained valuable experience and should see more playing time in his second season.