Kansas City Chiefs OLB Justin Houston
Every year, there are players who emerge from obscurity to become household names in the NFL. Players such as New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner were among the players who went from unknowns to league stars in the 2011 season, and more players should follow in their footsteps this upcoming fall.
Looking through the 16 AFC teams first, I have highlighted players across the conference who could emerge from relative obscurity and become very important players for their franchises, all of which must start by making a strong impression in their team’s training camp this summer.
The Buffalo Bills have two solid veterans starting at their outside linebacker positions in Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, but rookie fourth-round pick Nigel Bradham should find his way onto the field sooner rather than later.
Bradham is a talented, athletic and well-rounded linebacker who has the skill set to be a starting strongside linebacker for the Bills.
Morrison is the current starter at that position, but he is somewhat of a wild card after not starting a single game and only recording seven tackles last season. Bills beat writer Joe Buscaglia believes that Bradham’s biggest role this season should be on special teams, but that he is likely to be the Bills’ fourth linebacker and next man up if any of the three starting linebackers, including Kelvin Sheppard, gets injured.
Bradham is a playmaker who should take advantage of the time he gets on the field as a rookie, and should position himself well to emerge as a starter by the 2013 season.
The Miami Dolphins are so desperate for help at the wide receiver position that they signed Chad Ochocinco, who had by far the worst season of his career last year with only 15 receptions, to a one-year contract. The Dolphins may still not have a big, athletic wide receiver capable of filling the shoes of Brandon Marshall, but one sleeper to emerge in that role is Roberto Wallace.
Wallace will have to fight just to make a roster spot, as he has only made six receptions in two NFL seasons. That said, he has a very impressive combination of size and athletic ability, and as reported by the Palm Beach Post, potential starting quarterback David Garrard has been impressed with his performance in minicamps.
The Dolphins drafted Clyde Gates as a 2011 fourth-round pick hoping that he could become the dynamic receiver they lack, but according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, he is “firmly positioned” behind Wallace on the depth chart. Wallace is certainly a wild card, but if there is an unknown player likely to emerge and make the impact that the Dolphins need in their passing game this season, he is the likely candidate.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been a productive starting running back over the past four years, but the Patriots made little effort to re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent, allowing him to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals. The likely reason why they felt it unnecessary to re-sign the “Law Firm” was the pending emergence of Stevan Ridley.
Ridley was impressive in limited action as a rookie last season, averaging over five yards per carry by gaining a total of 441 yards on 87 attempts. Ridley is a big, powerful running back with deceptive speed, and he looks like a player who can be a very effective asset even in the Patriots’ pass-first offense.
In a running back-by-committee offense where passing is the main source of yardage, no running back receives a heavy load of carries in New England’s offense, but expect Ridley to emerge as the feature back this season assuming he has a strong training camp.
Aside from Santonio Holmes, the Jets have very little in terms of proven talent at wide receiver. Fortunately for the team’s young wideouts, this opens a big window of opportunity for them to have a breakout season, and Jeremy Kerley could be just the guy to jump through that window.
Kerley, a 2011 fifth-round pick, had a solid rookie season by catching 29 passes for 314 yards. Kerley will continue to line up as the Jets’ slot receiver in his sophomore year, but is expected to make a bigger impact this season.
Kerley is a small but quick and shifty playmaker who also provides value as a punt returner. He made a name for himself to Jets fans as a rookie, but as he will likely become a more focal point of the team’s offense this year, he could become a household name league-wide.
The Baltimore Ravens will enter the 2012 season without both of their starting outside linebackers from last season. Courtney Upshaw was drafted in Round 2 of the 2012 draft to replace Jarret Johnson, but a torn Achilles tendon suffered by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs leaves an opportunity wide open for the other outside linebackers on the Ravens’ roster.
Suggs is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2012 season, which leaves the team without its best pass-rusher. Paul Kruger is a solid player who should be in line for the starting job in Suggs’ absence, but the player with a chance to emerge is Sergio Kindle.
Kindle is an athletically gifted outside linebacker who proved during his collegiate career at Texas that he can be a dynamic pass-rusher. Unfortunately, since Kindle was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, his career has been derailed by injuries. The 2012 season could be his last chance to prove his worth to the Ravens, but he certainly has his best chance if he stays healthy.
If Kindle can perform up to his ability, he could emerge as the Ravens’ best pure pass-rusher from the outside linebacker position aside from Suggs, and if so, he should at least earn a vital role as a situational pass-rusher. As the team will be without its biggest defensive difference-maker, the potential for Kindle to emerge is crucial.
When A.J. Green was selected with the No. 4 overall pick by the Bengals in the 2011 draft, he was expected to come in and have a big rookie season. He certainly lived up to, and exceeded, that expectation. This year, it could be a rookie drafted much later, fifth-round pick Marvin Jones, who emerges in training camp.
Following the free-agent departures of Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, the Bengals have a wide-open roster battle for the No. 2 starting receiver spot. The Bengals drafted another receiver, Mohamed Sanu, in Round 3, but he is better suited to line up as a third or fourth receiver. Jones has higher upside than Sanu, and could emerge as the solid second receiving option they need.
In addition to Sanu, Jones could also face competition from Andrew Hawkins, Armon Binns and Brandon Tate for the second starting spot. In reality, any of those players would fit the bill of emerging from unheralded status if they become key players in the Bengals’ passing offense, but with his combination of size, athletic ability and route-running skill, Jones has the best chance to become an impact player.
Looking for more production from their passing offense, the Browns used the No. 22 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft to select quarterback Brandon Weeden. But in order for the Browns’ passing offense to take the strides that the team hopes to see, they need one of their wide receivers to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 weapon. Greg Little has the chance to do so this year.
In fairness to Little, he started to emerge as the Browns’ top receiving weapon last year, and ended up leading the team in receptions and receiving yards as a rookie. He has yet to become a household name outside of Cleveland, but this year could be his chance to do so.
Little is a big, strong wide receiver and is fast enough to be a deep threat, but he struggled with inconsistency and drops last season, and only had more than 100 receiving yards in one game. In his sophomore season, the Browns will hope that Little can emerge as a consistent receiving weapon and a star of their offense.
Following the departure of William Gay via free agency, the Steelers have an open competition for the second starting cornerback spot across from Ike Taylor. Keenan Lewis, who played as a nickel cornerback last year, is the favorite going into the season, but 2011 fourth-round pick Cortez Allen has the most potential to emerge as a long-term starter.
Allen had to make a tough transition as a rookie from playing FCS football at The Citadel to the NFL, but he contributed in dime packages and has high upside. Allen has a tremendous combination of size and athleticism for a cornerback, and displayed against lower competition that he can be a very challenging pass defender.
Allen is likely to either earn the second or third cornerback spot on the Steelers’ depth chart, and he could soon emerge as the best player the team has at the position if he continues to progress smoothly.
The Texans are very thin at the wide receiver position outside of star Andre Johnson, especially after releasing Jacoby Jones, so they are looking for a young wideout to break out and make an impact on their passing offense. Lestar Jean spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, but entering his second year in the NFL, he is a sleeper who just might work his way into a major role in the Texans offense.
Kevin Walter should remain the Texans’ No. 2 wide receiver, but he is not a dynamic weapon at the position. Texans wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey told the Associated Press that Jean is the frontrunner to be the Texans’ third receiver, and that he has impressed in training camp.
Jean was a 2011 undrafted free agent, so he is a definite sleeper who may not even certainly have a spot on the final 53-man roster. That said, if he continues to make a big impression in training camp, Jean could emerge as the Texans’ second receiving weapon and go from a complete unknown to a breakout player.
Fili Moala has been a starting defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts in each of the past two seasons, but he has not been an impact player in any way. Entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Colts, Moala will making a transition to playing defensive end in the Colts’ new 3-4 scheme, and needs to take advantage of an opportunity to establish himself in a new role.
Moala is a talented defensive lineman who has the athletic ability to penetrate from the defensive end position. He will face competition from another potential breakout player, Drake Nevis, for his starting job, but if Moala can assert himself with a strong training camp, this could be the year that Moala starts to make a name for himself aside from simply being part of the lineup.
As the Colts make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, they need playmakers to emerge in their defensive front seven, and Moala is a young and skilled player with the potential to be the player they need.
The Jaguars drafted defensive end Andre Branch in the second round of this year’s draft, and while he is the favorite to start across from Jeremy Mincey, he is best suited to play as a situational pass-rusher, at least early in his career. At the very least, there should be plenty of opportunity for a third defensive end to receive significant repetitions in run-stopping situations, which is where Austen Lane comes into play.
Lane, a 2010 fifth-round pick, has started ten games in his first two seasons with the Jaguars, but he spent the last 10 games of last season on injured reserve after a shoulder injury. He has great size for a run-stopping end, while he is also a very good athlete. He has yet to prove much of anything in the NFL, but he has potential if he can remain healthy.
Of any defensive end outside of Mincey and Branch likely to make a name for himself on the Jaguars this season, that player would be Lane.
The Titans lost star cornerback Cortland Finnegan via free agency this offseason, but head coach Mike Munchak told the Associated Press (via NFL.com) that they “feel comfortable with the guys we have.” Second-year cornerback Alterraun Verner is a major reason why Munchak is confident with his team’s personnel in place to replace Finnegan.
Verner, a 2010 fourth-round pick, was the Titans’ third cornerback last year. Jason McCourty emerged as a standout cornerback last season, but this year could be Verner’s turn. According to ESPN’s Paul Kuharsky, Verner will take on Finnegan’s defensive role from last season, playing outside across from McCourty in the standard defense, but covering the slot receiver in nickel situations.
Verner has great instincts, covers effectively and tackles well. These traits have served him well in the developmental stages of his career, and could now enable him to have a breakout season in his third year.
Matt Willis only caught 18 passes last season, but that was 17 more than he had ever caught in any of his first four NFL seasons. Willis’ surprising rise to production last season helped the Broncos’ passing offense, and with Peyton Manning coming in at quarterback, he could be poised for a breakout season.
Although Manning has been best-known for his connections with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, he has also done a tremendous job over the years of making less talented receivers into very productive players with his tremendous vision and ability to spread the ball around to open targets. Willis could be a beneficiary of that this season.
The Broncos have two set starting wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but will have many players contending for playing time after them. Free-agent signee Andre Caldwell has the inside track on the No. 3 spot on the receiving depth chart, but Willis worked his way into playing time last season, and showed the skills to earn playing time yet again.
Around Manning, the Broncos offense should utilize a multitude of targets in its passing game, so even if Willis is only the fourth receiver, the 2012 season could be his time to shine.
Justin Houston slipped to the third round of the 2011 NFL draft due to character concerns, but he was known to have high upside as a pass-rushing linebacker. His upside really began to show through late last season, and if he can carry that into the start of next season, he could make teams regret not drafting him in the first two rounds.
Houston had 5 1/2 sacks last season, all of which came in the final five games. He has shown the skill set to be a difference-maker across from Tamba Hali on the Chiefs’ defense, and if he can put it together consistently, he can become the team’s breakout star of the 2012 season.
This offseason, the Raiders released both of their starting cornerbacks from last season, Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson. Lito Sheppard, who filled in following a season-ending injury to Johnson, was also not brought back. That leaves a wide open spot for a young cornerback to emerge, and Chimdi Chekwa could be just the guy.
Chekwa, a 2011 fourth-round pick, did not play often in his rookie season, but he was a very good cornerback at Ohio State with the skill set to be a solid NFL starter. The Raiders signed two veteran cornerbacks this offseason in Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell, but both are beatable in training camp, and Chekwa could very well win a starting job.
Whether Chekwa lines up as a starter, or ends up as the team’s nickel cornerback, he is a gamer who should be productive when he gets on the field. He may not become a star in his sophomore season, but expect him to make big strides.
The San Diego Chargers signed two quality free agent wide receivers this offseason in Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, but also lost their leading wideout, Vincent Jackson. With Jackson now in Tampa Bay, the door is open for other receivers to catch more passes, and one of the beneficiaries could be Vincent Brown.
Brown, a 2011 third-round pick, had a solid rookie season as the Chargers’ slot receiver, catching 19 passes for 329 yards. Meachem should take over Jackson’s role as the No. 1 receiver, but even with Meachem and Floyd, Brown should be in line to make a bigger impact in his sophomore season if he holds down the slot receiver position.
Brown’s career got off to a solid start as a rookie, and he could really start making a name for himself in 2012.
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