The Seattle Seahawks had a lot of questions heading into the 2011 season. They had a young offensive line, issues at quarterback and a very young and inexperienced secondary.
Earl Thomas was a known quantity, but Kam Chancellor was a new starter in his second year and Brandon Browner was a first-year player.
Both had a breakout season for the Seahawks, and all three of their young players made the Pro Bowl.
The offensive side of the ball had a breakout player of its own. Undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin set himself up as a player to watch while leading the team in receptions and yards.
2012 will have a few breakout players as well. Following are several players to watch down the road and six young players ready to breakout this year.
Youth has been a primary focus for Pete Carroll and John Schneider. This has led to one of the youngest starting rosters in the NFL and plenty of opportunities for players to step up and earn roster spots and playing time.
These young players figure to make a list like this soon, but not in 2012:
Rishaw Johnson, OG
Korey Toomer, LB
Robert Turbin, RB
Robert Wagner, LB
Russell Wilson, QB
Wagner and Toomer will have an interesting battle in training camp. They will be taking on Barrett Ruud and Leroy Hill for starting spots.
It is tempting to include Wagner as a breakout player, but 2012 will still pose a learning curve. He is likely to earn the starter role and will put up good numbers as a rookie, but 2013 is the time he can really make a mark in Seattle's middle linebacker-friendly defense.
Wilson may get an opportunity to play this season, but will likely be given a few years to acclimate to the NFL. But Seahawks fans should be excited to see him play in preseason games.
Yes, this is an obvious pick. However, it is far from a guarantee that Irvin can fill a role similar to what Aldon Smith did for the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Irvin's speed alone will make him disruptive for the Seahawks. But Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley aren't stopping there.
Irvin had a very good set of OTAs and mini-camp. But bettering Breno Giacomini during "non-contact" drills in shorts and helmets is hardly indicative of what he'll be able to accomplish during the season.
There are three things Irvin needs to prove the doubters wrong:
1. He needs to develop an inside push, be it a swim- or spin-move. When tackles can't simply push him past the play, it will open up the field.
2. Irvin needs to learn to defend the run. While not asked to do it much in college, he needs to hone those skills so he can be an every-down player in the future.
3. He needs Chris Clemons in camp. Irvin is expected to take over the Leo spot at some point in the future, and being able to work alongside Clemons and learn skills and technique will expedite his growth.
In the upcoming season Irvin will platoon with Red Bryant, one of the premier run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL. Sharing time will allow the rookie to focus on what he does best, which is harass opposing quarterbacks.
The Seahawks have taken a lot of heat for reaching on Irvin, but they do have the ideal position for him.
What isn't a reach is his ability to have 30 tackles with 12.0 sacks his rookie year.
Some will say K.J. Wright had his breakout year in 2011. I believe he was merely introduced.
The rookie fourth-round draft pick was good enough to make Aaron Curry, a fourth-overall selection, expendable. Wright also looked very good at middle linebacker when he filled in for David Hawthorne to start the season.
However, Wright is a player that looks like he's just getting ready to fire.
He showed steady improvement last season and will be well-versed in Seattle's defense for the 2012 season.
Wright won't be asked to rush the passer often, but he will get his share of tackles and be used in pass defense.
Richard Sherman was largely an under-the-radar player for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. Fans and analysts outside of Seattle actually knew little about him.
His anonymity is somewhat understood, as he was the only starter in Seattle's secondary not to make the Pro Bowl.
He began the season as a promising rookie but was buried at third on the cornerback depth chart. However, injuries to Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond pushed Sherman into the starting lineup in Week 8.
He made his mark in that game, harassing and shutting down star rookie receiver A.J. Green.
He finished the year with four interceptions, a forced fumble and 55 tackles. He was arguably a better corner than Browner and will make his presence known this season.
Football Outsiders had Sherman ranked as a top-10 corner last season. He was second in success rate at defending passes.
For 2012, Sherman has the potential to hit 75 tackles and seven interceptions.
If the Seahawks are able to generate a consistent pass-rush, that interception tally could grow...and the tackle figure could drop. As quarterbacks have less time to deliver the ball, Sherman could force even more incomplete passes, thereby reducing his tackle opportunities.
Sherman's personal goal for 2012 should be landing a Pro Bowl spot of his own.
The lack of offseason workouts hit this unit particularly hard. Not only were they instituting a new offense and blocking scheme, but the offense had seven new starters.
Even worse, none of the offensive linemen had played a regular-season snap together. This meant they had to try to build continuity during training camp alone, which was a near-impossible task.
The entire Seahawks offensive line was off to a slow start in 2011, but Moffitt showed steady signs of improvement. If not for his season-ending injury he might have had his breakout last season.
Moffitt isn't likely to be in Pro Bowl discussions anytime soon, but he should develop into a very good blocker this season.
The original intention of this article was to only list players in their first two seasons. I had also intended to omit players that have already played well enough to argue they'd already broken out.
Russell Okung will be an exception to both of these guidelines.
Okung has looked very good at times. He's simply manhandled defensive ends and linebackers on the field.
He's also drawn criticism from some analysts as a penalty machine and an underwhelming blocker.
Okung will erase those criticisms this season.
Julius Peppers has spent some long afternoons on the field with Okung, and Trent Cole was so frustrated with being manhandled that he hip-checked Okung when the Philadelphia Eagles visited Seattle last December.
Cole also ended Okung's 2011 season with his cheap shot.
Okung has the physical presence and skill to be a Pro Bowl offensive tackle. So far he just hasn't been able to stay healthy.
Ankle injuries had him off to slow starts his first two years, and we've already touched on how 2011 ended.
Another great offensive tackle had ankle issues early in his career. While I'm not making any other comparisons to Walter Jones at this point, he began to set a standard in his third season.
If Okung can stay healthy he's ready to break out in his own right.
This is definitely the most optimistic pick for this group. Durham was rarely active early in 2011 as a rookie and was then asked to have shoulder surgery and go on injured reserve to make room for Deon Butler.
Durham has great size and speed and can manage his body good enough in traffic. He also doesn't drop the ball.
Durham is often forgotten with the long list of receiving options on the roster. But he is a player to watch during camp.
Another body to watch will be Ricardo Lockette. While he doesn't have the developed route skills, the speedster creates matchup issues for most secondaries.
Should Durham crack the starting lineup, he can certainly surpass the stats posted by Doug Baldwin last season.