2012 NFL Predictions: Predicting One Breakout Player from Each Division
With NFL training camp set to begin next week for all 32 teams, there will be plenty of young stars looking to make the next step towards becoming elite football players. Demaryius Thomas made headlines in a good way last year for the Denver Broncos, but was not close to living up to his potential.
There are many players trying to live up to their potential as first-round picks, while others were given more motivation to work hard and prove they can have a significant role on an NFL franchise.
Matthew Stafford finally lived up to the expectations of the number one overall selection by throwing for over 5,000 yards and leading the Detroit Lions to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown and Lardarius Webb finally gained respect from around the league after their brilliant seasons with AFC contenders.
What players will have breakout seasons in 2012? Here is one breakout player from each division.
1. AFC East- Buffalo Bills CB Aaron Williams
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Aaron Williams was quite a surprise with the Buffalo Bills during his rookie season. Williams struggled against division rivals, most notably the New England Patriots. However, aside from his two games against Tom Brady, Williams was successful against the rest of the league.
B/R AFC East Blogger Erik Frenz says that according to ProFootballFocus.com, Williams allowed just 12 receptions on 26 targets for 161 yards, while giving up two touchdowns and recording one interception.
With a year of experience against some of the elite quarterbacks in the game, Williams should improve as a cover corner against Brady. He should also benefit from the addition of Mario Williams to the defensive front, which will only help Williams and the young Bills secondary.
Williams will emerge as the most reliable corner back on the Bills roster.
2. AFC North- Cleveland Browns WR Greg Little
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There is a lot of optimism in the city of Cleveland about the potential emergence of this year's Browns. While a young defensive unit continues to grow, the Browns offense could finally make an impact with rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson at the helm.
However, it is crucial that Greg Little makes an impact in the passing game. He will be counted on by the Browns as the number one passing target despite only entering his second season in the league.
Little had a quality rookie season, recording 709 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but the expectations are much higher for the former UNC standout.
In 2012, Little will make huge strides and become a consistent threat for Weeden in the passing game.
With the dynamic Richardson in the backfield, Little will have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the single coverage from opposing defenses and Weeden's ability to be an accurate passer.
Little has played with the Browns for a full year now under head coach Pat Shurmur. He will be ready to showcase why he can be a future offensive threat for the Browns.
3. AFC South- Tennessee Titans DE Derrick Morgan
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Derrick Morgan has been a major disappointment for the Tennessee Titans in his two seasons there. Morgan has made headlines only for his off-the-field issues and a serious ACL injury suffered early in his career.
Luckily for the Titans, Morgan is no longer wearing a knee brace and could be a major contributor to the Titans defensive front.
Morgan was praised for his athleticism as a pass rusher, but he had limited explosiveness due to the remaining issues with his knee.
The competition for the starting positions are open, and Morgan is in line to receive a starting job if he performs well in camp.
Once a standout at Georgia Tech, Morgan could be one of the few surprising defensive players that significantly improve their game this season.
4. AFC West- Denver Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas
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Demaryius Thomas made headlines last year after his game-winning touchdown run knocked the Pittsburgh Steelers out in the first round of the playoffs.
However, Thomas has not come close to hitting his potential yet. He was limited due to the run-first offensive scheme that was orchestrated by John Fox and Tim Tebow becoming the starting quarterback mid season.
In 2012, he is fortunate to be playing with one of the greater quarterbacks in NFL history. Peyton Manning continues to gain all of his strength back after missing an entire season due to his neck issues.
Manning began working out with his young receivers in the off season, with Eric Decker getting most of the attention from the media.
However, Thomas could play a Reggie Wayne type role in Denver—a big, physical receiver who has shown the explosiveness to potentially become one of the top receivers in the game.
5. NFC East- Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant
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Dez Bryant has been a disappointment for the Dallas Cowboys because of his injuries and his off-the-field issues.
Bryant, a former Oklahoma State standout, has realized his struggles in these first two years, and is geared up for a major improvement in his performance this upcoming season.
He made a bigger commitment to working with the trainers in the off season, and says he is quicker, faster, and stronger entering a crucial year in his career.
In 2012, Bryant will become the consistent target for Tony Romo in the Cowboys offense. With Jason Witten and Miles Austin eliminating extra coverage on Bryant, the Cowboys will see Bryant emerge as one of the elite receivers in the game.
6. NFC North- Minnesota Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph
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Kyle Rudolph had a very quiet rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings, a team that suffered mightily in 2011 due to the amount of youth on the roster.
However, the former Notre Dame standout is poised for a big second season as the best offensive target for quarterback Christian Ponder besides Percy Harvin. With the departure of Visanthe Shiancoe, Rudolph will gain more opportunities to be productive in the passing game.
As Adrian Peterson continues to return from his ACL injury, the Vikings will have to rely on an improved passing attack in order to compete week in and week out.
Fortunately for Rudolph, he could very well emerge as one of the better tight ends in the game if he continues to improve his chemistry with Ponder.
7. NFC South- Carolina Panthers WR Brandon Lafell
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The Carolina Panthers could potentially become the biggest surprise of the NFL during the 2012 season. Led by Cam Newton, the young and explosive Panthers offense will only improve after a full year and off-season playing together.
And thus, it cannot be a surprise that a certain Panthers wide receiver could potentially make this Panthers offense a complete unit.
With Steve Smith continuing to garner most of the attention by opposing secondaries, the former LSU standout will be one part of one of the better receiving duos in the league.
If the Panthers have a chance of becoming the surprise playoff team this year, Lafell and the rest of the Panthers offense will need to improve their consistency this upcoming season.
8. NFC West- St. Louis Rams DE Robert Quinn
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Despite his recent arrest (via KSDK 5), Robert Quinn is a young defensive talent still trying to improve his consistency in the NFL.
With Jeff Fisher now calling the shots in St. Louis, this could be the perfect opportunity for the former first round pick to shine in a Rams uniform.
In the past, Fisher's defenses have always relied on plenty of depth at the defensive front. Quinn will definitely receive his fair share of defensive snaps on a fairly young defensive line.
The expectations have been set very high for Quinn and he has received a lot of confidence from his own teammates and coaches.
According to the Post-Dispatch, New Rams' defensive line coach Mike Waufle said of Quinn: "When you're a student of the game, you've got a chance to be able to progress faster. The second thing is that he has speed. He's 'God-gifted' like crazy from top to bottom, and this is a speed game."
Matt Miselis covers the National Football League for BleacherReport. Follow him on twitter: @MattMiselisNFL