Every year players on each NFL team are expected to perform to a certain standard offensively. These players are typically the lynchpins of the team’s attack and are widely expected to live up to their role by excellent play each week.
Outside of those core players are the remainder of the team’s supporting cast. These are the players who might be question marks on the field. They haven’t necessarily yet proved themselves in the NFL or have perhaps struggled thus far in their careers, but they also have the potential to break out with an unprecedented big season.
Every player in the NFL has the potential to turn into the next impact offensive contributor. He may not exactly reach superstar a level, but he can always rise well above expectations to make a difference to his team.
Keep reading to find one offensive player for each team in the NFL who has the potential to be a sleeper contributor this season.
Running back Beanie Wells had a breakout year in 2011, and he did it with a bad knee and an unreliable group of backups because rookie Ryan Williams was placed on injured reserve during the preseason.
This year, Williams will take the field as Wells’ backup and embrace the role that should have been his last season. He should see a fair number of touches that will allow him the opportunity to use his explosive running and big-play abilities to help revitalize a Cardinals offense that struggled to move the ball last season.
With many eyes focused on Julio Jones and the big year he is expected to produce in 2012, another Falcons wide receiver has quietly positioned himself to have a breakout year as well.
Harry Douglas re-signed with the Falcons over the offseason and is expected to see an increased offensive role thanks to the direction that the team’s new offensive coordinator is taking. Douglas caught a career-high 39 passes for 498 yards last season, so a larger presence on the field should mean even better numbers in 2012.
With Eric Weems departed from the team, Douglas might also find himself participating in the return game—another opportunity for him to make a positive difference for the team.
A third-round draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens this year, running back Bernard Pierce is already turning heads in team activities—so much so that he may be able to grab the No. 2 slot on the roster.
It may seem that the Ravens are already set at that position thanks to the excellent services of Ray Rice, but a running style that is more of a hard-nosed bruiser approach may allow Pierce to build an identity as a short-yardage back reminiscent of former backup Ricky Williams.
There’s a competition for the second starting wide receiver slot underway in Buffalo, and Marcus Easley seems to be a dark horse candidate.
Placed on injured reserve for the second year in a row early last season after being diagnosed with a heart condition, Easley has the opportunity to prove that he is better than the replacement players who were brought in to take over for him. He will make the most of every opportunity available to him.
Easley has the type of physical build that the Bills seem to want lining up opposite No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson, and he has shone so far during his limited reps with the first team. Regardless of whether he lines up as a starting receiver in September, Easley has the talent and the hunger to become an impact player for the Bills this season.
Another wide receiver who spent time on the injured reserve list last season, David Gettis knows that he will not begin the season with a starting spot in Carolina. He can, however, still step up to grab the No. 3 spot.
As long as his knee stays healthy, the new offensive scheme that has been implemented in Carolina will play into many of the strengths that Gettis brings to the table—he has the speed and the build to be a threat downfield and may find his targets on the rise if he proves himself to be a reliable option.
Earl Bennett might not be the most talked-about wide receiver for the Chicago Bears—not even close when he’s surrounded by Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester and rookie Alshon Jeffery.
Despite flying under the radar, however, Bennett may prove to be a key piece of the Bears offense this season. He should have the luxury of remaining in the slot, where he has proven to be effective.
The difference between previous years and this year is that the Chicago offense has been modeled closely after the Denver Broncos offense of 2008. Bennett looks poised to take over the “role” that was played by slot receiver Eddie Royal in Denver that year, when he brought in 91 passes for 980 yards.
Under a similar offensive scheme, there is no reason to believe that Bennett cannot enjoy similar success.
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have parted ways with Cedric Benson, they must find a new way to be as effective on the ground as they are becoming through the air.
The solution this season looks like a time-share at running back between BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott.
Scott may not be a flashy back who is capable of carrying the full load as a team’s premier running back, but he has the type of quick, squirrely outside running ability that will be an excellent complement to Green-Ellis’ more solid, inside approach.
As part of a running back committee, Scott should enjoy a somewhat expanded role in this year’s offense. This will give him a great opportunity to step up his game and embrace his role as an outside threat who can run for big yardage gains.
Undrafted free-agent rookie Josh Cooper may not have generated much press when he signed with the Cleveland Browns, but he may be on more peoples’ minds by the conclusion of the 2012 season.
He already has a good relationship and great on-field chemistry with quarterback Brandon Weeden, an important factor for a young wide receiver trying to make a name for himself in the NFL. As long as he performs well in the preseason, he should see some time on the field even if he is buried in the depth chart.
That foot in the door may be all Cooper needs to grab his opportunity and run away with it as a slot receiver who is able to turn catches into big gains.
With the departure of Laurent Robinson and the inconsistency of Kevin Ogletree, there is plenty of room for new impact players on the Dallas roster at wide receiver. The door is wide open for Andre Holmes to come in and have a big year with the Cowboys.
Built like a slightly smaller version of Calvin Johnson, Holmes spent the majority of the 2011 season on the Cowboys' practice squad. The team thought highly enough of him that he was signed to the 53-man roster shortly before the end of the season to ensure that no other team could sign him.
With his speed and reach, Holmes could quickly develop into a favorite target for Tony Romo. The Cowboys seem to be a breeding ground for relatively unknown receivers to develop into superstars, so perhaps Holmes will be the next in that great tradition.
Peyton Manning will certainly transform the Denver Broncos offense into a pass-first system, but there is still need for a running game. Starting running back Willis McGahee still has a few good years left in him, but rookie Ronnie Hillman has the potential to give McGahee a run for his starting job by the end of the season if he lives up to his potential.
Hillman is the type of squirrely running back exemplified by Darren Sproles. He is fast with great burst speed, and he has very good vision. He is also difficult to bring down once he gets moving.
Best of all, he has good hands.
As a dual running threat and potential dump option for Manning, Hillman will quickly establish his place in the Broncos offense.
Wide receiver Ryan Broyles stands poised to fill a role in the slot position that the Detroit Lions have been plugging with tight end Brandon Pettigrew—once he’s healthy.
Broyles will potentially miss the first part of the season due to his ongoing recovery from a November knee surgery, but the efforts he has made thus far in training camp have already impressed Lions coaches.
His instinct for the middle of the field and his size and athleticism will give the Lions a better success rate in that area and open up the field for the team’s other receiving options. The added dimension that he gives the Lions offense will make an already-potent squad even more dangerous.
In the opening game of the 2011 season, Randall Cobb turned heads with his spectacular kickoff return for a touchdown. After that jaw-dropping effort, Cobb never managed to quite reach that pinnacle again. He was a mediocre returner and received little opportunity offensively since he was buried on the Packers' ridiculously deep depth chart.
With a full offseason under his belt, however, look for Cobb to make a series of statements this season. He will still be buried on the depth chart, but there’s a changing of the guard underway with Donald Driver likely giving up his starting position to Jordy Nelson and James Jones still not certain where he fits in.
Cobb will likely benefit from some of that upheaval by coming away with more time on the field, more targets and ultimately a bigger presence for the team.
Lestar Jean may not have any experience in the NFL, but neither does the majority of his competition when it comes to the No. 3 wide receiver slot on the roster.
He does, however, have the apparent favor of Gary Kubiak.
With Andre Johnson sidelined in practice, Jean has been working exclusively with the first team—and he has been impressive so far. He’s athletic, fast and difficult for defenders to cover. Even better, entering the season as a relative unknown will cause opponents to take time to get a feel for what he can do.
There’s no guarantee that the Texans won’t sign a veteran wide receiver to their roster to help add some experience to such a young group, but even if that does happen, Jean will still get plenty of playing time with which to explode onto the scene in Houston.
Reunited with his college quarterback Andrew Luck in the big league, Coby Fleener finds himself in an excellent position to make a big splash right away in the NFL.
Fleener has the feel of a safety blanket for Luck as the new Colts quarterback adjusts to the rest of his receiving corps. It is expected that Luck will find a way to whip the new Colts offense into shape, but the expectations surrounding Fleener aren’t quite as high.
With his height and athleticism, Fleener will quickly make a name for himself in his own right. He has excellent hands, good field awareness and great speed that will combine to make him a dangerous weapon. His familiarity with Luck will only add to his potency, especially in the beginning of the season.
As a rookie thrown into a starting role, Blaine Gabbert watched his career get off to a rocky start. He struggled to find his footing and show adequate leadership, and he was unable to consistently put points on the board or protect the ball.
A full offseason to complement his starts in 2011 should help Gabbert make a better adjustment to the NFL. He should be a much improved player in 2012.
With wide receiver Justin Blackmon entering the scene as a new wide receiving threat and Maurice Jones-Drew continuing to provide a spectacular ground game, Gabbert should finally be able to demonstrate his true potential and make better contributions to his team.
Jon Baldwin raised some eyebrows last season with some of his spectacularly athletic catches. He has spent the offseason workouts proving to the Chiefs that those displays could be the new norm if they give him a bigger chance on the field.
Baldwin has taken full advantage of Dwayne Bowe’s absence from training camp, showing off a physical prowess that has prompted Matt Cassel to try throwing balls to Baldwin that they wouldn’t try with other receivers.
That’s a huge compliment for a young man who only played a minor role during most of the Chiefs' 2011 season, and it is indicative that the Chiefs may turn to Baldwin to have a much increased presence in 2012.
Lamar Miller might find himself buried in the No. 3 slot on the Miami Dolphins' roster, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t get a chance to shine in 2012.
In front of Miller will be the injury-prone Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, who has also proved himself to be less than durable. If either one of those players falls to injury and must miss time, Miller will be in a position to greatly increase his time on the field.
In addition to taking limited touches with the potential to move up on the depth chart at any point as a running back, Miller’s speed and fluid running style with the ball have made him a viable option to be placed in the slot receiver position.
He may also find himself returning kicks and punts, which will be another opportunity to make an impact for the Dolphins and earn additional time on the field.
The Minnesota Vikings offense struggled to find its way during the 2011 season, but they have regrouped during the offseason and look to return as a much more cohesive group in 2012.
Entering his second year at tight end, Rudolph will no longer be overshadowed by Visanthe Shiancoe, nor should he have any lingering negative effects from the knee surgery that impacted his rookie season.
Instead, Rudolph will be given every opportunity to live up to the expectation of his enormous size.
With Jerome Simpson facing a three-game suspension to start the season and plenty of questions surrounding the efficacy of Adrian Peterson in the aftermath of his ACL surgery, the Vikings will look to players like Rudolph to really step up and make an impact in the coming season.
The departure of running back BenJervus Green-Ellis to the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason has left a question mark at running back for the New England Patriots.
With teammate Shane Vereen nipping at his heels in training camp, the preseason and early season will be Stevan Ridley’s opportunity to prove his mettle. The close competition means that Ridley will share touches with Vereen, which will surely cut into the perceived impact value of both running backs.
Ridley showed flashes of greatness during his limited touches in 2011, however, and he should be able to improve upon that with an expanded role in the Patriots offense to emerge as the team’s general go-to back.
On an offense as overloaded with talent as the New Orleans Saints, it can be difficult for any sort of sleeper talent to even find a place on the roster. It appears that wide receiver Nick Toon might have a chance, though.
With an offensive void due to the departure of Robert Meachem, Toon has an opportunity to move ahead of veteran Adrian Arrington as a receiving option.
Once he gets his shot on the field, Toon’s athleticism should do the rest. There will be plenty of opportunities available thanks to the void left by Meachem’s departure, which means that Toon will have a good chance to shine.
Losing Brandon Jacobs to free agency was a big blow for the New York Giants, particularly in light of how prone to injury Ahmad Bradshaw has proved to be.
Enter David Wilson, the first-round draft pick of the Giants this offseason. Wilson has all of the raw talent that will be necessary for him to succeed in the NFL. He’s explosive and has good instincts to rely on. What he’s missing is the experience.
It is questionable whether Wilson will make it as the No. 2 running back behind Bradshaw, but he should be able to slide onto at least the practice squad to start out the year. He will have plenty of opportunity to make an easier transition into the NFL with less pressure than he would face if he were thrown out there right away.
This also means that Wilson will be fresher as the season inevitably begins to take its toll on Bradshaw, who has only played one full season in his NFL career. It isn’t a question of if Wilson will be able to make an impact for the Giants, but only of when the opportunity will arise.
The New York Jets are showing every indication of moving back towards a run-first offense, which means that running backs will play an expanded role. With the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson, the door is wide open for new stars to emerge.
While it seems clear that Shonn Greene will be the de-facto starter, he will have to share his load with someone else. That someone else will likely be Joe McKnight.
With just 323 rushing yards last season, McKnight is flying low on the national radar. A bigger offensive role could cause his rushing attempts—and yardage—to skyrocket in 2012.
After a promising start to his career with 33 catches for over 600 yards in 2011, Denarius Moore will look to make a much bigger impact as a sophomore receiver.
It appears that his struggles to find playing time might be over as the Raiders try to balance their glut of talent at wide receiver and their transition to a West Coast-offensive style. Moore should break out in 2012.
Right now, Jacoby Ford and Darrius Heyward-Bey are the likely candidates to lose snaps, while Moore seems poised to gain them. He has good size and movement, reminiscent of Greg Jennings in Green Bay.
With general manager Reggie McKenzie coming straight from the Green Bay Packers, it seems unrealistic to believe that those similarities won’t be noticed and taken advantage of.
After becoming an undrafted free agent, running back Chris Polk was quickly snapped up by the Philadelphia Eagles to serve as a potential backup option for the excellent LeSean McCoy.
Granted, there are plenty of injury concerns surrounding Polk—that was the reason that he was undrafted in the first place. Other players have faced surgery and physical conditions that subjected them to intense scrutiny and still have productive NFL careers. There is no reason to believe that Polk won’t be one of them.
Still, he will find himself either on the practice squad waiting his turn or behind Bryce Brown as the No. 3 running back option. Polk will have to work to prove himself in the NFL, but he has the raw talent and physical presence to do it—perhaps the truest sleeper talent on this list.
He will provide a more physical alternative to the speedy McCoy, coming in as the guy who will keep his legs moving to pick up every available yard even after contact.
There’s been a lot of talk that starting running back Rashard Mendenhall will be placed on the PUP list to begin the season, which will open things up for other running backs in Pittsburgh.
Isaac Redman seems to be the uncontested favorite to take over the starting role, and it appears that Jonathan Dwyer should be able to come in as Redman’s backup.
After suffering a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve in 2011 and facing criticism for arriving to the season’s first team activities overweight, Dwyer will be out to prove that he is a go-to man for short yardage and goal-line situations.
He should have plenty of opportunity to do that as well as to make an impact in the passing game if things continue down the current projected path for Mendenhall.
The San Diego Chargers may have brought in Robert Meachem from the New Orleans Saints to help fill the void left by the departure of Vincent Jackson, but the wide receiver swap is not equal. Jackson’s departure has still left a void in the Chargers offense that will need to be filled by more than just Meachem.
That opens the door for Vincent Brown, who showed himself to be a capable go-to guy for Philip Rivers last season when he stepped in for 12 games as a rookie. Now he has a year in the NFL and a full offseason under his belt.
With three injury-prone receiving options (including tight end Antonio Gates) ahead of him on the depth chart, look for Brown to step up and assume a bigger role in the Chargers offense this year. He’ll receive more targets, which should translate to more yards and better scoring opportunities.
There is a lot more competition in San Francisco this season than there was last season, but there should still be a place as a slot receiver for Kyle Williams.
Most peoples’ memories of Williams will be of his two major special teams mistakes in the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants in 2011, but he did play a minor role in the 49ers offense outside of his botched return duties.
If he can stay healthy, his quickness should get him a spot on the roster and a bit of playing time on the field. Williams must know that this is the year for him to make a big impact if he wants to keep his job in years to come.
Currently suffering from a broken hand, wide receiver Golden Tate shouldn’t be sidelined for more than a few weeks.
After making progress in his career last season and demonstrating that he has the potential to succeed as a starter, Tate will find himself taking a step back on the depth chart to begin the new season.
He reeled in 35 catches for 382 yards and three touchdowns last season, and despite his probable backwards change in status, he should be able to improve upon those numbers—perhaps quite a bit depending on how well he clicks with whoever is starting under center—since he has demonstrated his reliability and his good hands.
After losing most of his 2011 season to an elbow injury, Danny Amendola will return to St. Louis with plenty of question marks surrounding his place on the starter.
Amendola is not the fastest receiver, nor does he have the best athleticism or the softest hands on the team. What he does have is a rapport with Sam Bradford that hasn’t really been matched by another receiver since Amendola went down.
The Rams need a jump start offensively, and while there’s plenty of hope that the spark will come from other offensive players, the fact remains that Amendola is essentially his quarterback’s safety blanket. As long as he is able to stay healthy, he should produce surprising numbers giving his lack of standout talent.
Coming into the NFL with LeGarrette Blount as the starting running back can’t be an easy task, but if anyone can make the most of his opportunity, it will be Doug Martin.
Martin is the same type of all-around, muscle-packed talent that is embodied by Ray Rice, giving him a versatility edge that Blount simply cannot match. What he lacks in raw speed, he makes up for in almost every other aspect of his game.
Martin will certainly see plenty of time on the playing field despite the commanding presence of Blount. The sky is the limit for Martin; he should break out in his rookie year.
Marc Mariani has been almost exclusively used in the return game for the Tennessee Titans, but this might be the year that he makes it onto the field regularly as a wide receiver.
It’s either that or find a new team since it seems that his job as a return specialist might be on the line.
Given how much he has impressed coaches during training camp, Mariani should ultimately have a spot on the 53-man roster.
He will need to step up and make the most of whatever opportunities come his way. He may not have been comfortable enough with himself to do that in his previous two seasons with the Titans, but if his training camp is any indication, then this will be the year that he breaks out into his true potential.
Towards the end of the 2011 season, Evan Royster was given a chance to prove his mettle at running back for the Washington Redskins. He stepped up to the task, posting back-to-back 100-yard games as a starter.
Unfortunately, although Royster would like to pick up where he started last season, he will likely be bumped back to the No. 3 slot on the roster with the return of Roy Helu Jr. and Tim Hightower.
As the lesser part of a running back committee, Royster will have to make the most of the limited touches that will come his way. With two injury-prone running backs in front of him and concrete proof that he is capable of producing plenty of yardage, however, Royster should see plenty of opportunity regardless of his official position on the roster.