Who are the potential surprise starters for every NFL team as we begin the month of June?
Right now, that question seems rather difficult to answer, but we enter this topic with an equal dose of speculation, wonderment and open-mindedness to try to see if there is one possibility that makes sense to highlight for every team.
Some may seem more of a long shot than others, but if we named people that were too obvious, what would be the entertainment value in that?
There will be some players on the roster bubble that the light bulb will turn on and get it. They have the chance to take advantage of injuries to veterans or to new scheme changes when most of the team will have come in with a clean slate. It will be interesting to see how many of these picks do wind up becoming starters in 2012.
Arizona Cardinals Projected Surprise Starter: John Skelton
The Arizona Cardinals took a swing at Peyton Manning in free agency and missed. They then agreed to pay the roster bonus of $7 million to Kevin Kolb.
Considering that Kolb was suffering from his 2011 concussions into the offseason, and that Kolb was only able to guide the Cardinals to a 3-6 record in 2011, is it any wonder that head coach Ken Whisenhunt has opened up the quarterback competition to Kolb and John Sketlon, with the victor emerging with the starting job?
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic writes that the concussion side effects are now behind Kolb. That still doesn't guarantee him the starting job.
Many football fans probably concluded that when the Cardinals agreed to pay that bonus to Kolb, that the gesture signaled Kolb as the unquestioned starter. Not so fast. Skelton did lead the Cardinals to a 5-2 record, and Wisenhunt said that he will go with the quarterback that gives his team the best chance to win.
It is still very early, and my opinion might stand in the minority on this one, but I have the feeling that it will be Skelton that emerges as the Cardinals starting quarterback to begin 2012. The Cardinals seem to play better behind him and he averaged 26 more passing yards per start, in addition to not getting sacked as much as Kolb.
Atlanta Falcons Projected Surprise Starter: Lofa Tatupu
After sitting out the entire 2011 NFL season, many football fans wondered how effective Tatupu would be in 2012. The Atlanta Falcons are going to give him every chance to find out, as they have lined him up as the starting middle linebacker in OTA's.
Tatupu will still have to win the job at training camp this summer, and he is expected to get some competition from Akeem Dent.
Tatupu has been troubled by knee injuries over the years, but for now feels good. The Falcons will see first-hand how effective Tatupu still is.
Baltimore Ravens Projected Surprise Starter: Paul Kruger
It is not like he has a well-known household name, but the Baltimore Ravens could very well be starting Paul Kruger at linebacker in 2012. After three years with the Ravens, Kruger has started only one NFL game before in his career.
But after the Achilles' tendon injury to Terrell Suggs and the offseason departure of Jarret Johnson, there are some vacancies at linebacker that need to be filled. It appears that the Ravens will use rookie Courtney Upshaw to fill one hole (no real surprise about that choice) and then Kruger would handle the other spot.
Kruger had only 14 tackles in 2011, despite playing in all 16 games. What is interesting is that he did have 5.5 sacks, which is a very high percentage of sacks per tackle. Whatever happens, the Ravens need Kruger to step up, especially while Suggs is out.
Buffalo Bills Projected Surprise Starter: tackle Chris Hairston
It was widely assumed that when the Buffalo Bills invested the No. 41 overall draft pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Georgia tackle Cordy Glenn, that Glenn would be a projected starter for the Bills in 2012.
That may or may not happen. When the Bills began their first session of OTA's on Tuesday this week, it was Glenn and Hairston that lined up as the starting tackles. According to this update from Chris Brown of Buffalo Bills.com, starting right tackle Erik Pears is absent from OTA's due to recovering from offseason hernia surgery. The return date for Pears is up in the air.
Hairston is 6'6" tall and weighs 330 pounds. In his rookie campaign, Hairston played in 13 games and started in seven of them. While Pears is out, Hairston finally gets his first offseason work in to be fully coached and prove that he belongs in the starting lineup.
There is also the prospect that Glenn proves that he isn't ready to start yet and needs more seasoning. It could be at right tackle or at left tackle, but there is a reasonable chance that Hairston will be starting in 2012.
Carolina Panthers Projected Surprise Starter: Byron Bell
Jeff Otah has been injured far more than he has been healthy over the past two years. When the Carolina Panthers opened up OTA's, it was the starter from 2011, Byron Bell that lined up with the first team, not Otah.
It appears that the Panthers need to be convinced that Otah is healthy enough to deserve becoming the starter again. If not, maybe Bell can take the job and run with it, provided that he gets some individual coaching this year.
Otah is a former first-round draft pick, so that is why it would be a surprise if Bell beat him out for the job.
Chicago Bears Projected Surprise Starter: Alshon Jeffery
It will be interesting to see what the Chicago Bears decide to go with when it comes to determining their starting wide receivers for 2012; experience or size.
Devin Hester appears to be locked in as the wide receiver opposite of Brandon Marshall. Hester has a ton of experience over rookie Jeffery, as Hester has already been in the league for seven years.
But Hester is only 5'11" tall, while Jeffery is considerably bigger at 6'4". For a team that was looking to upgrade their wide receivers, the Bears thought highly enough of Jeffery to trade up to get him in the 2012 NFL Draft.
According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, he writes that "he would be stunned if Jeffery is starting in Week One across from Brandon Marshall.
If he proves to be the better receiver, what would be so stunning about that?
Cincinnati Bengals Projected Surprise Starter: Armon Binns
When the Cincinnati Bengals lost Jerome Simpson in the offseason, they turned to their youthful receiving corps, hoping somebody would step forward to claim the starting job of lining up opposite of A.J. Green.
The potential choices include Binns, and rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Sanu was drafted in the third round, while Jones was a fifth-round pick.
According to Geoff Hobson of Cincinnati Bengals.com, the competition is pretty open. Jones might have an edge because he runs the best routes.
But Joe Reedy tweeted that his biggest surprise so far is Binns.
Since Binns attended the University of Cincinnati, it would only make sense for the local kid to come through and shine for the pro team. It's too early to tell how this will shake out, but Binns could be the biggest surprise starter for the Bengals.
Cleveland Browns Projected Surprise Starter: John Hughes
When John Hughes was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the third round, he was probably hoping to become part of a rotation, and get his feet wet in his rookie year by participating in some defensive snaps.
But all of that changed when the Browns lost starting defensive tackle Phil Taylor to a torn pectoral muscle.Taylor could be gone for at least the first eight weeks of the 2012 season.
Hughes has been able to impress the Browns in OTA's, according to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, so it is possible that Hughes winds up being a surprising starter for the Browns this year. Other defensive tackles in the mix are Scott Paxson and Ahtyba Rubin.
Dallas Cowboys Projected Surprise Starter: Bruce Carter
The Dallas Cowboys made some changes in their defensive unit in the 2012 offseason. Among those changes was finding an inside linebacker to pair up with Sean Lee. Right now that battle looks to involve Carter, who was drafted in the second-round by the Cowboys in the 2011 NFL draft, and veteran Dan Connor, who the Cowboys signed in free agency.
In a story from Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com, it turns out that it is Carter, not Connor, who is taking the snaps with the first-team defense in OTA's.
It helps Carter's chances that Connor is still waiting for medical clearance due to an operation on his shoulder in the offseason, before he can get out on the field again. By that point, Carter may have sewed up the position.
Denver Broncos Projected Surprise Starter: Tracy Porter
With Champ Bailey on one side at corner, many thought that the Broncos would be plugging in Drayton Florence, the free agent they acquired to play on the opposite side, while allowing Tracy Porter to play in the slot, which is what he did for New Orleans.
But, according to Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post, it is Porter and not Florence, that will be asked to line up as the starting corner on the other side, with Florence acting as the slot corner. This plan is obviously subject to change, but it is worth monitoring.
Throughout his career, Florence has played as an outside corner, so how he will adjust to this role remains to be seen.
Photo courtesy of Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post
Detroit Lions Projected Surprise Starter: Aaron Berry
Berry was a rookie in 2010, appearing in just one game and coming up with his only NFL interception in the contest. In 2011, Berry appeared in 11 games, making 31 tackles, but had no interceptions, no sacks, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. So with such an empty stat line, why is Berry lining up as a starting cornerback in OTA's?
The word according to this tweet from Albert Breer of NFL Network is that the coaches love Berry.
The Lions drafted Dwight Bentley, but he is being viewed as the nickel corner, leaving Berry for the other corner. Does this put the Lions in the market for a veteran corner? Quite possibly, but Berry has the chance to run with the job if he comes up with a solid training camp.
Green Bay Packers Projected Surprise Starter: Jerel Worthy
Due to some offseason moves, the Green Bay Packers have assembled an array of veteran defensive linemen to try to figure out who gives them the best chance for helping to generate a better pass rush than they did in 2011.
Those veterans include Mike Neal, Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson, Lawrence Guy, Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir. To go along with the veterans, add in two 2012 draft picks, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels.
With all of the experienced linemen to pick from, the Packers seem to be okay with the idea of starting Worthy. It helps Worthy that two linemen are facing suspensions in Hargrove and Neal, so that begins to trim the field immediately.
Worthy won't be handed the job, since he will have to earn it. It helps having this much competition in camp, as that can only push Worthy to turn him into a better player.
Houston Texans Projected Surprise Starter: Lestar Jean
Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle.com wrote that Jean is the most impressive wide receiver in OTA's, as Andre Johnson is not ready to compete yet due to his knee surgery. When Jacoby Jones left in free agency, that opened up the competition for the No. 3 wide receiver position in Houston's offense, and Jean seems to be running away with the job as of now.
His competition for the job are the rookie receivers that the Texans just drafted, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey.
It should be noted that Jean made a strong impression last year as well, but got hurt before the season started and went on I.R.. So, 2012 could be the year that Jean makes a name for himself, other than being known as "First-Team All-Shorts".
Indianapolis Colts Projected Surprise Starter: Donnie Avery
An article by Craig Kelley of Indianapolis Colts.com this week states that out of the 90 players on the Colts current roster, 50 of them are new to the team this year.
To me, that qualifies as a complete overhaul. With that many new faces on the team, it is conceivable that there will be a number of potential surprise starters identified when the Colts are finally ready to start the 2012 season.
One of those surprising starters could be at wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is running three-receiver and five-receiver sets in OTA's, which means that you need to have quality depth at wide receiver to make those sets as effective as possible. It also suggests that Andrew Luck will be throwing the ball often this year.
Our surprise selection for the Colts is Donnie Avery. Avery has only caught three passes for 45 yards in the last two years, so he is basically looking to resurrect his career in Indianapolis. Injuries have been the major culprit for the lack of production from Avery. We will see if he can take this opportunity and run with it.
Photo courtesy of http://www.colts.com/news/article-1/AVERY-FOCUSES-ON-REBOUND/6cc2da2e-4452-4435-ab44-25591a9749f0
Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Surprise Starter: Lee Evans
The last time we saw wide receiver Lee Evans, he was dropping this potential game-winning pass (see photo) that would have propelled the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl. Instead, Evans allowed the ball to be stripped out of his hands, and after a missed field goal, the Ravens season abruptly ended.
2011 was a rough season for Evans. He was injured for a good portion of the year and only played in nine games. His production total was a feeble four catches for 74 yards, both of which represented career lows. We are talking about a receiver that has two seasons of 1,000 plus yards in receptions, so that was a bitter pill to swallow.
In Jacksonville, Evans has a realistic chance to bounce Mike Thomas from the starting rotation. In three wide receiver sets, the Jaguars could line up Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson and Evans. Thomas is still there, but is considered to be falling down the depth charts, as per this article by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times Union.com. Thomas is guaranteed too much money to release him, but it doesn't prevent him from being demoted.
For Evans, the 2012 season gives him a chance to revive his career, and prove that 2011 was a fluke.
Kansas City Chiefs Projected Surprise Starter: Dontari Poe
After reading a number of articles on the Chiefs, I am hard-pressed to come up with a surprise starter for Kansas City. They have improved their holes from the 2011 team with a series of moves in the offseason that addressed not only the starters, but added depth as well.
Out of the big three injuries from 2011, Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry, the Chiefs secured depth behind them with the additions of Peyton Hillis and Kevin Boss. If Berry has a setback, that might be the only area that I would have a concern about the drop off in talent behind Berry.
Some might think that it is a surprise move to start defensive tackle Dontari Poe, but the Chiefs didn't draft him at No. 11 overall to sit on the bench. His college production is deemed as questionable due to his motor, but with much more attention being paid to him in Kansas City, he will be hearing about it often from the fans and coaches alike if there is any concern about him giving less than 100 percent effort.
Miami Dolphins Projected Surprise Starter: David Garrard
While the buzz coming out of the Miami Dolphins OTA's centers around Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill, the one guy that nobody is really talking about is David Garrard.
Garrard clearly has the most experience of the trio of quarterbacks. He has been through the most wars in the NFL. Garrard took off the entire 2011 season to rest and heal up, so he is ready to go for the 2012 season. Reading this update from Izzy Gould of Sun-Sentinel.com, Garrard looks very good at OTA's and has a bounce and spring to his step.
Looking at the competition, Moore has 25 starts under his belt, sporting a record of 13-12. Garrard has 76 NFL starts, with a record that is also slightly above .500 at 39-37.
While Tannehill does have experience working with Mike Sherman's offense in college, he doesn't have enough overall experience at quarterback to be ready to start in the NFL right now. That is why it wouldn't surprise me to see Garrard emerge as the Dolphins starting quarterback.
Photo courtesy of Robert Duyos | Sun Sentinel
Minnesota Vikings Projected Surprise Starter: Jerome Simpson
When the news broke last September that Jerome Simpson received 2.5 pounds of marijuana shipped to his home, few people could have imagined that he would be in a position to be starting for any NFL team the following season.
But according to this report by Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.com, wide receiver Jerome Simpson is being viewed as the top candidate to start, over the Arkansas rookies, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright.
Maybe Simpson will be better off being away from the Bengals, a team that has amassed an odd assortment of personalities that seem to attract attention from the police.
New England Patriots Projected Surprise Starter: Shane Vereen
When the New England Patriots let BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk away in free agency, the next question was, who would be replacing him as the starting running back for the Patriots?
For right now, that answer appears to be Shane Vereen. The Patriots drafted running backs Vereen and Stevan Ridley just one-round apart from each other in the 2011 NFL Draft, so it was anybody's guess as to who would be selected to be the starter this year.
The Boston Herald ran a story that Vereen was running with the first-team as the starting running back during OTA's, giving him the early lead in the competition with Ridley.
Why is it surprising for the Patriots to go with Vereen? Well for starters, Vereen wasn't very impressive as a rookie. In 15 rushes in 2011, he managed a total of 57 yards, which is a below-average 3.8 yards per carry. Ridley on the other hand, cranked out 441 yards on 87 carries, for an impressive average of 5.1 yards per carry. Just looking at that body of work, you would think the nod would go to Ridley. Stay tuned.
New Orleans Saints Projected Surprise Starter: Garrett Hartley
How many field goal kickers take a year off, and then come back to win a Week One starting job in the NFL? It's not the normal way to maintain job security, but that is the potential scenario for Saints kicker Garrett Hartley.
Hartley missed the 2011 season due to a hip injury, and the Saints replaced him with John Kasay. Kasay was re-signed by the Saints to come back and engage in an open competition with Hartley to see who will win the job to be the Saints kicker in 2012.
Kicking inside the dome and working on behalf of a high-powered offense, this is one of the more high-profile kicking jobs in the league. If all things are equal, you would think that the younger leg would have the edge. That clearly belongs to Hartley, who is 17 years younger than Kasay.
According to Nakia Hogan of the Times-Picayune.com, the competition is wide open. May the best kicker win.
New York Giants Projected Surprise Starter: Domenik Hixon
According to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York.com, wide receiver Hixon is doubling in OTA's as the replacement for Hakeem Nicks while he is out due to his broken foot, and will be allowed to have the first chance to claim the role Mario Manningham held with the Giants.
To be able to do that, Hixon will have to beat out Rueben Randle, who the Giants secured with a second-round draft pick. Jerrel Jernigan is also in the mix, but right now it appears that Hixon is establishing himself as the early leader.
For now the Giants have been content to focus on their young wide receivers, as they have shown no interest in free agent veteran receivers like Plaxico Burress or Braylon Edwards.
New York Jets Projected Surprise Starter: Wayne Hunter
While New York Jets fans were suspecting and hoping that tackle Wayne Hunter would either be replaced or released, one of the bigger surprises out of the Jets OTA's is that Hunter is back lining up as a starting tackle for the Jets offense.
How could the Jets organization not see what is obvious to the rest of football? Well, all you really need is to make a believer out of one person, and if that one person happens to be Jets OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo, then you are basically set.
According to this tweet from Dennis Waszak, "Until they ship him out of here or shoot me dead in my office, the guy's the starting right tackle," said DeGuglielmo.
Case closed. Well Jets fans, there is always the 2013 draft.
Oakland Raiders Projected Surprise Starter: Khalif Barnes
The Raiders were watching as draft picks kept coming off of the big board, patiently waiting for their turn to come around at No. 95. The team had a terrible salary cap scenario, so there was only so much the Raiders could possibly do to improve their starters for 2012.
Is there any surprises emerging for the 2012 season? One surprise was that the Raiders couldn't find any kind of an upgrade at right tackle. Right now, according to this tweet from Steve Corkran, the starter there appears to be Khalif Barnes, which means that the Raiders will be looking at free agency or the waiver wire over the summer to see if they can find a better fit.
It is quite possible that the starting right tackle is not on the Raiders roster right now.
Philadelphia Eagles Projected Surprise Starter: Jamar Chaney
When the Philadelphia Eagles began their 2012 OTA's, the linebackers that ran with the first-team defensive unit were Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Rolle.
The thought here is that Chaney will find a way to take the starters job away from Rolle.
According to this story from Geoff Mosher at CSN Philly.com, the competition for the starting spot will boil down to a battle between Chaney and Rolle.
From a physical standpoint, Chaney is the bigger linebacker, as he goes 6'0" and weighs 242, while Rolle is 5'10" and weighs 227. Should make for an interesting battle to watch in camp, but I think Rolle is just too small to hold his own in that position.
Pittsburgh Steelers Projected Surprise Starter: Steve McLendon
Steve McLendon is a defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It probably seemed almost impossible one year for anyone to consider him as a starter.
But, as we learn from this article by Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.com, the Steelers appear to be fine with the idea of McLendon starting on defense.
Now we need to point out that McLendon starting does come with a few conditions. One would be that Casey Hampton hasn't recovered from his ACL injury and secondly, that he can hold off rookie Alameda Ta'amu for the job.
McLendon did see some action in 2011, and came up with one sack and 13 tackles on the year.
San Diego Chargers Projected Surprise Starter: Brandon Taylor
While NFL draft analysts were singing the praises of Mark Barron and Harrison Smith as the two best safeties in the 2012 draft class, few people were talking about how good Brandon Taylor. The Chargers knew that they wanted Taylor and traded up to get him. They were somewhat lucky that he was still there on the board for them at No. 73 overall.
Taylor has been able to make a strong enough impression on the Chargers coaches that they plan to insert him into the starting defensive unit at strong safety.
Clark Judge of CBS Sports certainly had a number of nice things to say about not only Taylor, but the Chargers draft class as well.
San Francisco 49ers Projected Surprise Starter: Alex Boone
Some players are resistant to change, just like how some people are reluctant to learn something new.
For 49ers offensive lineman Alex Boone, he had been a tackle all along, and when the 49ers approached him about moving to guard, he balked at the idea.
Eric Branch, writer for San Francisco Chronicle feels that Boone is starting to enjoy the potential move to guard from tackle. Boone wasn't enamored with the move initially, but is liking it more and more.
If the position switch keeps Boone in the starting lineup, it is something that he can learn to live with.
Seattle Seahawks Projected Surprise Starter: John Moffitt
The Seattle Seahawks have been drafting a number of offensive linemen with early draft picks to the point that they are building up some pretty solid depth on the line. The tricky part comes down to trying to figure out who will be the starters.
The competition at guard includes people like John Moffitt, Paul McQuistan, Deuce Lutui and James Carpenter, plus some other camp bodies. Out of this group, a case could be made for each of them as to why they deserve to be a starter in 2012.
I am going to go with Moffitt as the starting guard. He has that Wisconsin pedigree that you like your offensive linemen to have, and he has the size at 6'4" and 319 pounds. Moffitt may not seem as a surprising starter choice to some, but based on the depth that the Seahawks now have on the offensive line, it is not a clear cut deal at all.
St. Louis Rams Projected Surprise Starter: Chris Givens
The St. Louis Rams were excited to draft Brian Quick, but they have also been impressed with the speed demonstrated so far in OTA's by fellow rookie Chris Givens.
As things stand now, Greg Salas and Givens are in a battle for the starting wide receiver job opposite of Brian Quick. With the speed that Givens has, and the quick study ability that he has shown, Givens is doing the right things to have a shot at becoming a stater.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Projected Surprise Starter: Luke Stocker
Things have certainly been changing quite rapidly regarding the tight end position for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In rapid succession, the Bucs determined that 2011 starter Kellen Winslow was not going to fit in with the new Bucs vision for 2012, and traded him off to Seattle.
Before second-string Luke Stocker knew what to expect, the Bucs then signed free agent Dallas Clark, giving Stocker plenty of competition to challenge for the starting job.
Clearly Clark is not the same tight end that he was in his heyday with Peyton Manning. But he does have plenty of experience, and has been on a winning team for many years, so we will see what factors head coach Greg Schiano favors the most.
Clark is 32 years old, while Stocker is only 23 years old. Clark had a rough go of it in 2011, so the educated guess here is that Stocker will emerge as the staring tight end in 2012.
Tennessee Titans Projected Surprise Starter: Jake Locker
The Tennessee Titans have announced that they are going to enter into an open competition between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck coming into the 2012 season.
This article by John Glennon of the Nashville Tennessean.com states that Titans general manager Ruston Webster says that the team will determine who will be the starter based on their gut feel of the situation.
Seems like a rather interesting way to determine your starter in this age of high technology and the like.
But when the dust finally settles, I believe the Titans will opt to go with Locker. He learned quite a bit watching Hasselbeck in 2011 and he showed well when given the opportunity. The Titans invested a first-round pick in Locker, and the 2012 season is the time to really get his feet wet.
Washington Redskins Projected Surprise Starter: Leonard Hankerson
Whoever winds up being the starting wide receivers for the Washington Reskins, will be in for an exciting season, as Robert Griffin III is expected to throwing the ball early and often in the Redskins offense.
But who will the starting receivers be?
From the group of Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss, there will likely emerge the starters. Garcon appears to have his job locked up, but what about the others?
Beat writers covering the team think that Hankerson has a shot at becoming a starter this year. This tweet from John Keim states that Hankerson is now healthy and will be ready to compete for the 2012. I realize he is a longshot pick, but Hankerson is the Redskins surprise starter that I will go with.
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