6 Players, Teams and Coaches Who Will Make the Biggest Leaps from 2011 Season
The NFL offseason is the opportunity for each franchise to move itself forward to develop players, improve coaching personnel and generally reload for a better season the next time around.
Every offseason, there is significant coaching turnover as front offices lose faith with the incumbent regime and search for greener pastures. Free agency then allows teams to add talent from the veteran pool of players already proven at the NFL level before the draft rolls around.
Each franchise gets several opportunities over the course of an offseason to revamp their fortunes, increase both playing and coaching talent and hope to start the new season in a far better place than they ended the previous one. However, the biggest leaps often come not from the influx of talent, but from the talent already in place taking a big step forward.
I'm going to look at some players and coaches that are poised for that step, as well as the teams that will do the same by benefiting from those steps.
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It's easy to think that Patrick Peterson is already an elite, shutdown corner, but it just isn't so.
The Arizona Cardinal certainly has elite physical tools, and the Cardinals play him like he's another Darrelle Revis, asking him to track receivers across the field to shut them down. As a rookie, though, he was never able to do it consistently.
He had very good games—particularly against A.J. Green late in the season—but he also had some very ugly games where he was beaten more than most corners out there.
Peterson had a lot of work to do to adjust to the NFL game. LSU asked him to play a lot of aggressive press-man coverage, where he would literally attack the receiver off the line of scrimmage, lunging forward rather than waiting for the receiver to make his move. The coaches were obviously confident enough in his ability to get the jam or otherwise recover.
You never see that technique at the NFL level because if the corner fails to get the jam, he is toast.
The good news is that all his best games came late in the season, and he was showing signs of mastering his craft at this level. With a full offseason under his belt, Peterson could take a step forward and become the shutdown player the Cardinals hope he can be.
If Peterson plays all season the way he ended last season, he will be a legitimately great player. That upgrade would be huge for this Cardinals defense.
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When Kyle Rudolph was drafted, NFL Network put up a graphic comparing his measurables to those of Rob Gronkowski. Rudolph is about half an inch taller, a few pounds heavier, jumps an inch or so higher and edges the Patriots player in the 40. He also has similarly exceptional hands.
Gronkowski just broke all-time records for a tight end performance in a single season, records that have stood since Kellen Winslow (the original Kellen Winslow) 32 years ago. I'm not expecting Rudolph to challenge those records next season, but he has the ability to do things similar to Gronk.
Watching his rookie tape, you see much of the same tape you saw from Gronkowski, just from far fewer snaps and opportunities. He has multiple circus catches and some impressive runs after the catch. He can block, too, which is something all too rare amongst tight ends today.
I don't expect Rudolph to put up Gronkowski numbers; the Vikings don't have the offense for it. But I do expect him to become Christian Ponder's favorite target pretty quickly.
Tight ends have become all the rage in the NFL, and the Vikings are stockpiling them. Rudolph is the big talent amongst the group, and he is poised for a breakout season.
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Dareus is another player that one may think has already arrived.
Dareus had a big profile before hitting the NFL as the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, but he was inconsistent as a rookie. He tended to either have huge games or pretty poor ones, with little in between. The big games showed the massive potential in the rookie and hinted at what could be in store this season.
The Bills will be getting Kyle Williams, arguably the NFL's most underrated player, back from injury, while they've also added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency. That defensive line has the potential to be frightening, and Dareus could be the player to benefit the most, as he'll receive far less attention from opposing blockers than he ever saw as a rookie.
His physical skills are there for all to see, but physical skills are only part of the story. If he can iron out the negative games, Dareus will undoubtedly have a breakout season and make the Bills' defensive front virtually unstoppable.
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Rob Ryan's defense has always seemed a little like a cheap imitation of Rex Ryan's defense. Both schemes share a lineage, just as the twins do, back to their father, Buddy Ryan, but Rex has always had the leg up in talent over his brother.
While Rex has been able to rely on some elite players in New York and hang his Jets defense off the unmatched skills of Darrelle Revis, Rob has had far fewer linchpins.
This offseason, however, Dallas has made some moves that could be huge for its defense. Brandon Carr came over in free agency to join Mike Jenkins in the secondary. Jenkins has played hurt in the past and struggled at times, but he also has some top-level tape in his past.
To those two, the Cowboys added Morris Claiborne in the draft. The LSU product has some of the best man-coverage skills for a rookie, and he plays the ball like no corner since Deion Sanders. That may sound like lofty praise for a guy who hasn't seen the field in an NFL uniform yet, but if he comes even close to justifying that kind of hype, that gives Rob Ryan the kind of playmakers in coverage to allow him to match up in man schemes and blitz creatively up front.
Ryan likes to attack with numbers and from strange angles, but if those rushes get picked up, the back end has to be able to hold up. It hasn't been up to the task yet, but with the additions the Cowboys made, it just might be able to now.
If that is the case, then we might finally see Rob Ryan put out a defense that puts Rex's to shame.
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Mike Shanahan's reputation has taken a severe beating since he was fired from the Broncos after a pair of Super Bowl trophies and an incredibly successful tenure. The Broncos fell to pieces after he left when his replacement, Josh McDaniels, swiftly dismantled the roster.
Shanahan's time in Washington hasn't been nearly as successful thus far, thanks largely to lacking an answer at quarterback, the league's most important position. Without one of those, you're hopeless.
Shanahan's Redskins traded the farm to move up to the No. 2 pick in the draft and select Robert Griffin III out of Baylor. Griffin is a ridiculous athlete and may have a far better arm than Michael Vick, a similar athlete, ever had.
The prospects of RGIII in the Shanahan offense of old is a truly mouthwatering one. It could turn the Redskins from an afterthought in the cutthroat NFC East to contenders in a heartbeat.
People have been quick to forget what a good coach Mike Shanahan is and how effective his offense can be under the right direction. John Elway was the pinnacle of that offense; even Jake Plummer looked like a stud at times.
Griffin has the ability to far surpass the level of Plummer, and it could make people remember why Mike Shanahan has a pair of Super Bowl rings.
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The Minnesota Vikings are a far better team than people want to give them credit for. There is more stud talent on this roster than many teams can boast, even with Adrian Peterson a question mark.
Percy Harvin is one of the most electrifying players in football on both offense and special teams. Jared Allen was half a sack shy of the all-time single-season sack record last year, while John Sullivan, Erin Henderson, Kevin Williams and Peterson all enjoyed excellent years.
Their problem is at quarterback, where Donovan McNabb was not the answer and rookie Christian Ponder looked like a rookie that was asked to play without an offseason under his belt. Ponder struggled badly at times, but he also made some throws into tight windows and was one of the league's best quarterbacks statistically in the red zone, throwing eight touchdowns to just a single interception.
Ponder should get help from top draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle, who will be locking down his blind side and allowing Charlie Johnson to slide inside and replace the declining Steve Hutchinson at guard.
The Vikings also drafted young playmakers to patch up a problematic secondary that also figures to get Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook back. With the various additions, they now have a roster that is not nearly as ugly as it looked at the tail end of 2011.
Given the improvements and Christian Ponder coming off a full offseason in the program, don't be surprised to see the Vikings take a significant leap forward from their three-win total of 2011. They may not be challenging for postseason honors, but they could easily more than double that win total.