10 NFL Unknowns Who Are Ready to Make a Name for Themselves in 2012
At this time last year, nobody knew who Victor Cruz was.
Demarco Murray, D'Qwell Jackson and Jordy Nelson were names familiar only to fans of their respective teams, and Denarius Moore was just a wide-eyed rookie hoping to land a roster spot.
Every NFL season gives birth to a new wave of stars, but not even the most advanced statistics or sharpest scouts can predict when these players will achieve their potential and shine bright. But one way to forecast the next cluster of breakout stars is to dig through minicamp and training camp reports and highlight names you've never seen before.
So, which unknowns will be household names by the end of the 2012 season?
Here's an educated guess.
Dorin Dickerson, H-Back, Buffalo Bills
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The Houston Texans drafted Dorin Dickerson in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft, but the team never treated him like a late-round camp body. Weeks after his arrival, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak proclaimed, "[Dickerson] has got the body and the tools to be a (number) one or two (receiver) in this league."
Those are lofty expectations for any draft pick, let alone a seventh-round selection who, at 6'2", 227 pounds, is oversized for a wide receiver. Just when Dickerson began to fulfill Kubiak's prophecy, his play rapidly declined, and Houston cut him just prior to the 2011 season.
Dickerson spent most of 2011 on the Pittsburgh Steelers' injured reserve list, but he recently resurfaced in Buffalo, where he's turning heads once again. The H-back ran with the Bills' first team during minicamp, and the coaching staff is gushing about his skills.
Considering Stevie Johnson is the only well-established receiving threat in Buffalo's offense (David Nelson and Scott Chandler aren't "established" yet but might make the leap this year), there's room for Dickerson to achieve the potential Houston once saw in him.
Charles Clay, Tight End, Miami Dolphins
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Another AFC East H-back who's making noise this summer is Miami's Charles Clay.
The Dolphins drafted Clay in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft, and he spent the majority of his rookie season at fullback. Now, Clay is moving to tight end where he can fully utilize his unique blend of size, athleticism and soft hands.
Clay generated buzz during minicamp, and expectations are growing by the day. Joe Philbin is excited about Clay, who he called an "emerging guy." And Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote, "Make no mistake: Clay will be a valued weapon in this offense."
Despite a limited role last season, Clay still managed to reel in 16 receptions and three touchdowns (including a four catch, 90 yard, one TD game against Buffalo). Now that he's in line for a prominent role—and moving from fullback to tight end—his numbers should skyrocket.
Vick Ballard, Running Back, Indianapolis Colts
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Every year, a handful of late-round draft picks turn heads in training camp, but few ever translate offseason hype into regular-season success (i.e. Dorin Dickerson).
Indianapolis Colts' fifth-round pick Vick Ballard isn't just generating hype, however. He's pushing Donald Brown for the No. 1 running back job. The former Mississippi State star made a great impression on Indy's running backs coach David Walker, who suggested that Ballard may push Donald Brown for the featured role.
Head coach Chuck Pagano believes Brown, whom the Colts drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, is an every-down back, and he sounds quite confident in him. Then again, Bill Polian and Tony Dungy also thought Brown was an every-down back when they drafted him, but he hasn't delivered despite ample opportunity.
If Ballard maintains this momentum, then he should, at the very least, earn a substantial role in the Colts' offense.
Emmanuel Sanders, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
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All eyes will be on Pittsburgh's dynamic duo of wide receivers—Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown—in 2012, but there's another Steelers wideout who also warrants attention: Emmanuel Sanders.
The Steelers drafted Sanders in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, and he projected as a better player than Brown, who was selected in the sixth round.
However, injuries have forced Sanders to watch from the sidelines as his draft classmate rises to stardom. He's struggled with knee, ankle and foot injuries, but he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he's "100 percent" recovered from offseason knee surgery.
With a clean bill of health, Sanders can easily get back on track. He was Pittsburgh's leading wideout in its AFC Wild Card loss to the Broncos. If Roethlisberger trusts Sanders in the playoffs, then he'll definitely trust him during the regular season.
Sanders just has to stay on the field.
Taiwan Jones, Running Back, Oakland Raiders
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How does a small-school prospect get 50 NFL personnel men to attend his private workout?
By running a 4.27 40, of course.
Former Eastern Washington star Taiwan Jones ran this legendary 40-yard-dash prior to the 2011 NFL draft. On top of that, he ran a 1.45 10-yard split, which would've been the fastest time at last year's combine.
Naturally, the (formerly) speed-obsessed Oakland Raiders grabbed Jones in the fourth round, but he barely saw the field, recording just 18 touches. That should change in 2012, though. Jones is currently competing with Mike Goodson for the right to backup the oft-injured Darren McFadden—and he's not letting the opportunity go to waste.
Raiders reporter Steve Corkran said Jones had an "impressive three-day showing" at minicamp and called his speed "otherworldly."
Given McFadden's chronic injury issues, Jones could see exponentially more action this season.
Rob Housler, Tight End, Arizona Cardinals
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According to ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando, the Arizona Cardinals "thought all along [Rob] Housler would emerge in his second season."
Will Arizona's prophecy come to fruition? So far, it looks like it might.
Although Housler struggled with injuries and caught only 12 passes in 2011, Ken Whisenhunt is seeing progress: "Last year, it seemed like he would take two steps forward and one step back. He's making some of those plays that you really like to see in what we've been doing the last couple weeks."
With a 6'5", 248 pound frame and 4.5 speed, the Florida Atlantic alum is a serious mismatch for opposing defenses. Housler has to share the field with veterans Todd Heap and Jeff King, but he offers a different skill set than both, so he can still see plenty of action.
The window of opportunity is wide open for Housler, and he'll have every opportunity to capitalize.
Lestar Jean, Wide Receiver, Houston Texans
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Wait. Another Florida Atlantic alum is turning heads in the NFL?
The university is yet to produce a successful pro player, and Rob Housler is the logical favorite given his physical gifts, third-round selection and praise from Arizona's coaching staff.
Don't look now, but Texans wide receiver Lestar Jean is quickly gaining ground.
Jean, who signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2011, is currently competing for the No. 3 wide receiver job, and his competition isn't particularly steep. In training camp, Jean must fend off rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, but his experience gives him a sizable edge.
Houston boasts one of the league's most efficient and explosive offenses, so if Jean can secure that No. 3 role, then he can most definitely make a name for himself in 2012.
Bobby Wagner, Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
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When the Seahawks lost David Hawthorne to free agency, they lost a starting middle linebacker who racked up 338 tackles in three seasons. Replacing such a productive player is a horribly daunting task, but second-round pick Bobby Wagner is already easing the pain.
Seattle drafted Wagner, a former Utah State standout, in the second round of April's draft and he's slated to start at middle linebacker.
At minicamp, Wagner ran with the first team defense and even called out plays. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley believes Wagner has the physical skills to thrive in the NFL (per ESPN's Mike Sando):
What we watched about him [at Utah State] was just his speed -- he had real good speed. That is something like we felt we needed in that spot. He was also really, really effective with his hands. And in the spot we have him, at the Mike, you have to have really good hands, explosiveness, and he had those traits.
If Wagner can handle the mental demands of playing middle linebacker, then he'll be in position to make a run at the defensive rookie of the year award.
Josh Norman, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
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Cam Newton has the Carolina Panthers on the fast track to contention, but until the team's defense improves, they won't go far. Rebuilding a defense can take years, but the Panthers are getting help from an unexpected source: fifth-round pick Josh Norman.
ESPN NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas reports, "Coaches and even veteran wide receiver Steve Smith have been raving about Norman's performance. There's growing optimism that Norman might be able to contribute right from the start of the season."
If Norman convinced Carolina's staff that he's starting caliber in minicamp, then imagine what he'll do during training camp.
Of course, there's no guarantee Norman will maintain this momentum—in fact, it'd be surprising if he did—but the Panthers clearly see something very special in the Coastal Carolina product, and we'll hear his name aplenty if he can harness his talent.
Preston Parker, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Bucs
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Hoping to rejuvenate their slumping passing attack, the Tampa Bay Bucs spent $55.55 million on Vincent Jackson this offseason.
It turns out the answer to their woes may have been on the roster all along.
Both quarterback Josh Freeman and head coach Greg Schiano praised third-year wide receiver Preston Parker for his minicamp performance. If Parker's play persists through training camp, then he has a legitimate shot at winning the starting job opposite Vincent Jackson.
Parker was a four-star recruit who played three highly productive seasons at Florida State, but after racking up three arrests in three years, he was kicked off the team and finished his collegiate career at North Alabama.
Parker's legal troubles and dismissal from FSU may have simply delayed his emergence. He was a standout at the highest level of high school and college football, and now that he's years removed from his checkered past, Parker may finally emerge as a standout in the NFL.