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50 Best NFL Backups Heading into 2012

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IJune 24, 2016

50 Best NFL Backups Heading into 2012

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    Depth is key to winning in the National Football League, especially in the salary cap era. One player goes down on a Super Bowl contender, and you can pretty much kiss their chances goodbye.

    We saw this with the Houston Texans and Matt Schaub, who had to rely on a late-round rookie to be their starting quarterback in the postseason.

    The Kansas City Chiefs saw their entire 2011 season thrown into the scrapheap after losing both Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry before October football began. This story has been repeated over and over again throughout the league.

    Today's article is going to focus on the 50 best backups in the National Football League today.

     

    Some Housekeeping: I am defining a backup as someone that doesn't see the field nearly as much as the starters. While Osi Umenyiora is considered a "backup" behind Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, he belongs nowhere near this list. I am also going to stop short of predicting serious training camp battles in this article.

    All depth chart information courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services.

50. Taiwan Jones, Running Back, Oakland Raiders

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    Taiwan Jones will make an impact as a Darren Sproles-type player for the Oakland Raiders. He has one of the most amazing first bursts off the line that I have seen in a long time. While the second-year player will never be a starting running back in the league, he provides an extra oomph for a Raiders team that already possesses tremendous speed on offense.

    Jones only gained fewer than 100 total yards last season but will be asked to play an important role in both the running and passing game for Oakland.

    You can expect him to tally over 600 yards and multiple scores in 2012.

49. Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Dre Kirkpatrick would have been much higher on this list if it weren't for a report on Tuesday that indicated the rookie injured his knee and will be placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP) and could miss all of training camp. 

    This is a major setback for the first-round pick.

    That being said, Kirkpatrick can still make a strong impact as a slot guy playing to his strengths in press coverage. Look for him to come on strong when healthy.

48. Bradie James, Linebacker, Houston Texans

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    Bradie James did see his level of production drop a great deal with the Dallas Cowboys last season. The nine-year NFL veteran failed to record triple-digit tackles for the first time since the 2005 season.

    With the emergence of Sean Lee and signing of Dan Connor and 2011 second-round pick Bruce Carter on the roster, Dallas just didn't have room for James anymore.

    The Houston Texans will be asking James to back up Darryl Sharpton at the right inside linebacker position. If Sharpton gets injured or doesn't perform up to to level, Houston will be in good hands with James. He has the experience and a little bit more tread left in those tires to be a solid performer in 2012.

47. Toby Gerhart, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

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    Toby Gehart quietly had a solid second season with the Minnesota Vikings. The bruising running back tallied over 700 yards and four scores on just 132 touches.

    No matter what happens in regards to Adrian Peterson, you can expect the Stanford product to be an important contributor for the Vikings in 2012.

    If nothing else, Gerhart will give them that short-yardage stud that teams envy in the NFL.

46. D.J. Smith, Linebacker, Green Bay Packers

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    If all things were equal, I would submit a wager that D.J. Smith could be the Green Bay Packers' starting inside linebacker over A.J. Hawk. However, as most of us know, the NFL is a business above all else and the Packers have a lot invested in Hawk moving forward.

    That being said, Smith was tremendous in part-time action last season for Green Bay. The Appalachian State product recorded 35 tackles and an interception in limited play on the defensive side of the ball. In three starts, Smith looked like someone that could handle the run extremely well and showed excellent field vision dropping back into coverage.

    Definitely someone to watch out for in 2012 if Hawk doesn't get his act together.

45. Dave Tollefson, Defensive End, Oakland Raiders

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    Dave Tollefson might not have received a great amount of press for the New York Giants in 2011 due to their absolutely stacked front seven, but he performed quite well in limited action.

    The veteran defensive end and former seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers recorded five sacks and started two games for the defending champs last season.

    Tollefson now comes to the Oakland Raiders to back up Lamarr Houston at the left defensive end position.

44. Jason Snelling, Running Back, Atlanta Falcons

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    Jason Snelling is one of those all-around running backs that you don't hear a whole lot about. While he isn't tremendously gifted at one thing, the veteran is good at pretty much everything he does.

    The former seventh-round pick didn't have a defined role in the Atlanta Falcons offense last season. As a result, we saw his number drop dramatically from 2010. Snelling accumulated just over 300 yards and scored one touchdown as their primary lead-blocker.

    This comes on the heels of two seasons in which Snelling recorded a total of about 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns.

43. Demario Davis, Linebacker, New York Jets

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    There is one player in every draft that "experts" are illegitimately high on. That player for me was Demario Davis from Arkansas State. The former small-school linebacker stood out to me on tape probably more than any other player that this position in the draft.

    Davis possesses a rare combination of speed and physicality. He can close off the edges in the beat of a heart and has no problem going up against the run at the line.

    Couple that with the fact that Bart Scott regressed a great deal in 2011, and you have the makings for an immediate impact from Davis.

    One thing that could hold Davis back as a rookie in 2012 is the fact that he was just placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List by the New York Jets yesterday. However, it does look like the rookie linebacker is just day-to-day with a strained hammy.

42. Daniel Thomas, Running Back, Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins seem to have a really good problem in the backfield. The selection of Lamar Miller in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft adds more talent to a unit that already consisted of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas.

    Thomas, a second-round pick from Kansas State last year, had a really solid rookie campaign.

    While his 3.5 yards per attempt were alarming, Thomas did put up over 600 yards and proved to the Dolphins that he could be relied on consistently.

    Look for the talented young running back to improve on those totals and show Miami that he could be their running back of the future.

    That being said, there is also a strong possibility that Thomas is pushed for the backup running back position by the aforementioned Miller.

    Time will tell!

41. Dan Connor, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

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    Dan Connor wasn't exactly a major force as a starter for 19 games with the Carolina Panthers over the course of the last two seasons. While he did put up some solid tackle numbers, the Penn State product did struggle drawing out the runs and dropping back into coverage.

    He was brought in by the Dallas Cowboys to compete with Bruce Carter for the starting inside linebacker position opposite former collegiate teammate Sean Lee.

    While I don't envision Connor winning the starting job, he is going to be a tremendous backup in Dallas. After all, those 19 career starts do come in handy.

40. Ronnie Hillman, Running Back, Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos appear to be set at starting running back with Willis McGahee, who put up nearly 1,200 rushing yards in his first season with the franchise last year.

    This is just on the exterior.

    There is a reason why Denver went out there and drafted former San Diego State star Ronnie Hillman in the third round of April's draft. First, they are obviously not happy with what Knowshon Moreno brings to the table as a backup. Second, they were looking for a running back to shoulder the load in the future.

    Hillman possesses a rare combination of speed and elusiveness, two things that made him one of the most productive running backs in the country last season. He also seems to fit the Broncos' offensive scheme to a T.

    You could be looking at this youngster starting before the 2012 season comes to an end.

39. Jason Worilds, Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers love to utilize multiple pass-rushers in their 3-4 defensive scheme. We have seen this in the past with the likes of Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans rotated in as part-time outside linebackers. 

    Mike Tomlin and Co. sure hope that former second-round pick Jason Worilds fits this mold.

    He recorded 36 tackles and three sacks in limited action last year for Pittsburgh. That being said, there do seem to be indicators that the Virginia Tech product can become more of a consistent threat. While sack numbers might not have shown it in 2011, Worilds was able to get into the offensive backfield multiple times throughout the end of last year.

    Look for his production to spike in 2012.

38. Brandon Boykin, Cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles

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    For the purposes of this conversation, I am going to assume that Brandon Boykin wins the Philadelphia Eagles nickel cornerback position.

    The rookie from Georgia progressed each season in college and was a dominating figure in the defensive backfield in 2011. He seems to have the physicality and back-peddling ability to fit in really well as a slot guy for the Eagles as a rookie.

    Look for great production out of him in 2012.

37. Felix Jones, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys

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    Make no mistake about it, DeMarco Murray is going to be the Dallas Cowboys' primary running back in 2012. This doesn't mean that Felix Jones will be unable to make in impact.

    In fact, this is a role that seems to fit the former first-round pick extremely well. He excelled as a change-of-pace guy for Darren McFadden in college at Arkansas.

    Due to his elite speed and solid receiving ability, there is no reason to believe that Jones cannot be one of the best third down backs in the entire league. He has recorded a total of 81 receptions in 28 games over the course of the last three seasons.

36. Larry Grant, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

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    Some people might question me having Larry Grant this high on the list, but that would be absolutely absurd. The backup linebacker recorded 26 tackles in the three games that starter Patrick Willis missed towards the end of the 2012 season.

    Moreover, the San Francisco 49ers' defense did not fall off the map without their five-time Pro Bowl performer as Grant did an admirable job replacing him. The 49ers gave up less than 14 points per outing with Grant in the lineup.

    Despite this, no team made overtures to the restricted free agent in the offseason. You can now expect Grant to play out the string in 2012 with San Francisco and find a starting job somewhere next March.

35. Prince Amukamara, Cornerback, New York Giants

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    It is a crying shame that Prince Amukamara missed nine games as a rookie in 2011. The Nebraska product was widely considered an elite prospect heading into the draft last April, but somehow fell to the New York Giants at No. 19.

    The talented young cornerback has everything you look for in a shutdown type of guy on the outside. His physical tools were actually comparable to Patrick Peterson entering last year. That being said, there were some issues in regards to technique and getting beat on double moves.

    Pure conjecture here, but it seems that a full offseason in the Giants system and learning the nuances of the NFL will do Prince a world of good.

    I envision a breakout campaign from him in 2012.

34. Vincent Brown, Wide Receiver, San Diego Chargers

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    Yet another young player that makes this list, Vincent Brown was quite good as a rookie for the San Diego Chargers in 2011.

    Brown recorded 19 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns while starting four games. While the Chargers did add both Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem in free agency, Browns figures to play a larger role in their passing game this season.

    It isn't out of the realm of possibility that he doubles up on those 2011 numbers. Long term, I project the 2011 third-round pick to be a starter in San Diego.

33. Ryan Williams, Running Back, Arizona Cardinals

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    There is a chance that Ryan Williams actually beats out Beanie Wells for the Arizona Cardinals starting job here. After all, Wells is starting training camp on the PUP list. This gives the 2011 second-round pick an opening for the primary running back duties in the desert.

    Following an unfortunate injury during the 2011 preseason, Williams was forced to watch from the sidelines for the remainder of the year.

    Now that the Virginia Tech product appears to be raring to go, the league should take notice. He was one of my favorite running back prospects heading into 2011, and that doesn't change due to a freakish injury last August.

32. Tim Tebow, Quarterback, New York Jets

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    I have previously refrained from the Tim Tebow "hype" throughout this offseason and for good reason. He isn't a starting-caliber quarterback in the National Football League.

    What Tebow does bring to the table fits perfectly into what the New York Jets have planned for him heading into the season. He can come in and run the Wildcat formation, both in the red zone and on short-yardage situations. This is Tebow's true calling card. He has the ability to get that yard or two between the hashes from under center.

    Moreover, Tebow disguises plays extremely well and can actually find open receivers on the outside when defenses stack the box against him.

    If the Jets utilize Tebow correctly, he could have a real big impact in these types of situations. If they jump the gun and push him in as a starter due to a struggling Mark Sanchez, all bets are off.

31. Randall Cobb, Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers

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    I could have easily gone with James Jones or Donald Driver here and would have been 100 percent correct with either one. Instead, I decided to go with the upside of one Randall Cobb. The 2011 second-round pick from Kentucky was a dynamic player on both offense and special teams as a rookie last year.

    While Cobb recorded just 25 receptions for fewer than 400 yards, he was a consistent force when actually on the field. You have to remember that the Green Bay Packers' receiving group was absolutely stacked.

    Driver will be further demoted down the depth chart, and Cobb should challenge Jones for the slot receiver position.

    At this point, I would have to give the advantage to Cobb. If he does win the job, Green Bay is going to see some pretty huge pass plays between the hashes.

30. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Yet another rookie makes the list. Bobby Wagner was one of my favorite selections in the 2012 NFL draft. He has a tremendous amount of upside as a speedy and physical inside linebacker at the next level.

    In watching tape of Wagner in the lead up to the draft, I noticed him flying to the ball with reckless abandon. That being said, Wagner was able to read the offensive formations and keep himself in the play a large majority of the time. This is something you just don't see from young linebackers entering the National Football League.

    The Seattle Seahawks signed Barrett Ruud in an attempt to upgrade their middle linebacker position next to the up-and-coming K.J. Wright. I am not entirely sure if Ruud is the actual upgrade here. Rather, a case could be made that Wagner wins the starting job out of the gate.

    Either way, the Utah State product is going to be a Pro Bowl performer at some point in the near future.

29. Josh Morgan, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins

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    Josh Morgan was off to a stellar start for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 before breaking his leg in an October game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This came on the heels of a breakout 2010 campaign that saw Morgan lead all 49ers receivers with nearly 700 receiving yards.

    Morgan now joins Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. The Virginia Tech product will be lining up in the slot, a more natural position for him. You can definitely expect RGIII to look his way early and often.

    In fact, the combination of Morgan and Fred Davis between the hashes could be lethal.

28. Chris Kelsay, Defensive End, Buffalo Bills

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    For someone that has started 116 games over the course of the last eight seasons, Chris Kelsay is much maligned among Buffalo Bills fans.

    While Kelsay has not lived up to the four-year, $24 million contact extension he signed during the 2010 season, he has been a solid overall performer.

    The veteran defensive end is now being asked to take a reserve role after the additions of both Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency this offseason.

    It remains to be seen how he will react to the demotion.

27. Dave Ball, Defensive End, Tennessee Titans

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    Dave Ball is the type of player you don't want starting for the team when he is actually on the field, but you kind of miss him when you see what he can actually bring to the table.

    As fans, we get caught up in the sexy statistics such as sacks and forced turnovers. While Ball doesn't really provide this (11 sacks since start of 2010), he is solid against the run and can be an interrupting force in the offensive backfield.

    The veteran will be backing up Derrick Morgan at left defensive end in 2012.

26. Mark Ingram, Running Back, New Orleans Saints

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    Mark Ingram was hampered by various injuries as a rookie for the New Orleans Saints in 2011, but he was still able to come through with over 500 yards of offense and five touchdowns in 10 games.

    The Saints are expecting more from Ingram, who had minor surgery on his knee in the offseason.

    I still don't expect the Alabama product to be the Saints' starting running back to start the 2012 season. They have Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles ahead of Ingram, both of whom do much different things than the talented young 'back.

    What I do expect is an increased workload and more production from Ingram.

25. Lance Moore, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints

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    Lance Moore has accumulated 118 receptions for 1,390 yards and 16 touchdowns as the New Orleans Saints' No. 4 receiver over the course of the last two seasons. That is mighty impressive if you ask me.

    Moore will now be asked to take on an added role with the departure of Robert Meachem to the San Diego Chargers in free agency.

    We could easily be looking at a 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown campaign from Moore in 2012.

24. LeGarrette Blount, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    LeGarrette Blount really didn't do anything to lose his starting job and was the victim of horrendous coaching last season. That being said, it does appear that the former 1,000-yard rusher will be replaced by rookie first-round pick Doug Martin in the starting lineup.

    This doesn't mean that Blount is just going to be sitting on the sidelines looking for the next security guard to attack. Instead, you can expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to utilize him on a semi-regular basis with Martin.

    While it is hard to imagine Blount repeating his rookie performance, there is no reason to believe that he cannot improve on his 2011 campaign.

23. Dunta Robinson, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons

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    As a physical cornerback, Dunta Robinson is a much better fit to play the nickel position. This is one of the primary reasons that the Atlanta Falcons went out there and traded for Asante Samuel prior to April's draft.

    Although Robinson has struggled a great deal since coming over from the Houston Texans on a massive free-agent contract prior to the 2010 season, he still has the capability to be a pretty damn good player.

    Expect to see Robinson's passes defended and interception numbers to increase a great deal in that new role this year.

22. Colt McCoy, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns

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    Colt McCoy got a raw deal with the Cleveland Browns when they refused to surround him with talent and then selected Brandon Weeden in the first round of April's draft.

    While it is too early to tell if McCoy has what it takes to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League, there is no doubting his capabilities as a backup in the league.

    Now it just depends on where he is going to be calling home come September. For his sake, I hope it isn't with the Browns.

21. Chris Culliver, Cornerback, San Francisco 49ers

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    Many people were surprised that the San Francisco 49ers "reached" for Chris Culliver in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. After all, they were selecting him to play a position, cornerback, that he had played only a handful of times in college with South Carolina.

    The skeptics couldn't have been more wrong.

    Culliver, after somewhat of a rocky start, came on strong as the 2011 season progressed and was playing a majority of the nickel snaps for one of the best overall defenses in the league as the regular year drew to a close.

    Now Culliver, with a full offseason under his belt, is looking to make an even greater impression on the 49ers and the rest of the league. He is entrenched in as their nickel guy and possesses an upside nearly unlimited for any cornerback his age.

20. Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals are planning to bring Michael Floyd along slowly as a rookie in 2012. I am not too sure what that means, but we will be get feel once preseason starts.

    It is my feeling that the Notre Dame product and 2012 first-round pick will not give the Cardinals a realistic option when all is said and done. He already possesses an intimidating frame on the outside and has the necessary skills to be a consistent player on the outside as a rookie.

    Even if Floyd is forced into the slot as a rookie, there is no reason to believe that he cannot tally 800 yards and six or seven scores.

19. C.J. Spiller, Running Back, Buffalo Bills

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    What can I say about C.J. Spiller? I was not a big fan of his entering the 2011 NFL draft and still don't believe he has what it takes to be a starting running back in the league.

    That being said, Spiller did a tremendous job replacing Fred Jackson, who went down to injury last season.

    The former first-round pick tallied about 850 yards and six touchdowns on only 146 touches. He has the breakaway ability and field vision to be a dynamite change-of-pace guy for Jackson.

    Expect much of the same this upcoming season.

18. Kellen Winslow, Tight End, Seattle Seahawks

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    Kellen Winslow, Jr. might be an enigmatic figure in the locker room, but the tight end has a tremendous amount of talent. In fact, it was somewhat of a surprise to see him traded to the Seattle Seahawks, who are going to utilize him as a backup behind Zach Miller.

    The former first-round pick amassed 218 receptions for over 2,300 yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the course of the last three seasons.

17. Dexter McCluster, Running Back/Wide Receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Dexter McCluster has to be considered one of the most versatile players in the entire league. He ran the ball 114 times and accumulated another 46 receptions as a supposed "wide receiver" for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.

    In fact, I have absolutely no idea where to put him in terms of a position on this list.

    What I will say is that the former second-round pick from Mississippi is hell-bent on putting up 1,000 total yards and multiple scores in 2012.

    What a nice piece for Kansas City.

16. Alan Branch, Defensive Tackle, Seattle Seahawks Was

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    Alan Branch was an enigma of sorts for the Arizona Cardinals after being selected in the second round of the 2007 draft. The Michigan product started a total of three games and recorded just four sacks in four seasons in the desert.

    His production level increased a great deal in his first season in the Pacific Northwest. Branch started 15 games, recording three sacks and plugging the middle for the Seattle Seahawks.

    That being said, Seattle did add Jason Jones from the Tennessee Titans to team up with Brandon Mebane along the interior of the defensive line. This pushes Branch into a rotational/reserve role.

15. Brian Quick, Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams

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    As with some of the other rookies on this list, Brian Quick will start training camp further down on the depth chart than where he is going to finish the season.

    Some of my regular readers know full well how high I am on the 2012 second-round pick from Appalachian State. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Quick will provide a tremendous amount of matchup problems against smaller cornerbacks in the NFL.

    Considering that the St. Louis Rams are looking for big things from the rookie, I can easily assume that he will be on the field a great deal in 2012. Even if Quick is forced to play the slot, there is no reason to believe that he won't produce. Quick is solid against press coverage and uses that elite physicality to break the jam.

    Expect huge things this season. 

14. Rashad Jennings, Running Back, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Rashad Jennings is definitely someone to watch this season. The Jacksonville Jaguars' backup running back will not be a starter anytime soon with that franchise. He is, however, a free agent following the 2012 season and will be getting looks from myriad of different scouts around the National Football League.

    Jennings, who missed the entire 2011 season due to a knee injury, has the looks of the next Michael Turner. By this, I mean someone that was an unheralded backup behind a Pro Bowl player before breaking loose once he got his chance.

    The former seventh-round pick from Liberty tallied over 700 yards on just 110 touches in 2010 as a change-of-pace guy for Maurice Jones-Drew.

    If Jennings is able to duplicate this type of production, he will be starting somewhere in the NFL next season. 

13. Jason Avant, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Consistently good, but never good enough to be a regular starter. This is a term that I would best use to describe Jason Avant.

    The veteran receiver has tallied over 500 yards in each of the last three seasons as a spot starter for either Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson. Overall, Avant has a total of 19 starts during that span.

    He figures to play a similar role in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012.

    Expect much of the same.

12. Kyle Orton, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

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    Kyle Orton would be the starting quarterback on a handful of NFL teams this season. We are talking about a player that threw 26 more touchdowns than interceptions in 43 starts between 2008 and 2010.

    While Orton might not be that sexy quarterback that will give you 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, he does know how to handle an offense and win games.

    This is what the Dallas Cowboys are going to be asking of the veteran should Tony Romo go down to injury.

11. Roy Helu, Running Back, Washington Redskins

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    Roy Helu is officially going to start training camp as the Washington Redskins' backup running back. How long that lasts is a completely different story.

    Helu, a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, amassed over 1,000 yards on just 200 touches as a rookie last season and appears ready to take over the Redskins' No. 1 running back duties.

    There is no reason to believe that the former Nebraska standout cannot improve on his 49-reception rookie season either. Robert Griffin III is going to be relying a great deal on his running backs out of the backfield as safety valves.

    Look for a breakout season from this young 'back.

10. Richard Marshall, Cornerback, Miami Dolphins

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    According to a report by The Palm Beach Post, it appears that free-agent acquisition Richard Marshall will not be challenging incumbent Sean Smith for the starting right corner job opposite Vontae Davis.

    This seems to work well for both parties involved.

    Marshall, a physical defensive back, seems to work better in the slot and playing press coverage. This will enable him to push receivers off their routes early and disrupt the timing of plays consistently.

    The Arizona Cardinals' secondary seemed to get much stronger the more Marshall played in 2012. I expect this to be the case with the Miami Dolphins this season.

    The trickle-down effect should be enormous for their previously struggling pass defense.

9. Melvin Ingram, Linebacker, San Diego Chargers

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    Melvin Ingram was the best pure pass-rusher in the 2012 NFL draft. So, it was pretty surprising that he fell all the way to the San Diego Chargers midway through the first round.

    I am pretty sure the Chargers' brass, led by A.J. Smith, aren't complaining.

    Ingram is going to add another dimension to a Chargers front seven that was already stacked with talent. He is going to be a situational pass-rusher, spelling run-stuffer Jarret Johnson, as a rookie.

    It wouldn't surprise me to see Ingram have an Aldon Smith-type of impact for San Diego in 2012.

    He is simply that good.

8. Mario Manningham, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers

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    Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss are firmly entrenched in as the San Francisco 49ers' starting wide receivers heading into training camp.

    This fits what Mario Manningham brings to the table that much better. The former New York Giants Super Bowl hero seems to excel in the slot and should provide an emerging Alex Smith with a solidly consistent player at that position for the first time in a long while.

    Manningham did struggle throughout the 2011 season, but you have to remember the production that we saw from the former third-round pick in the previous two seasons.

    The veteran receiver accumulated 117 receptions for nearly 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns combined in 2009 and 2010.

7. Cary Williams, Cornerback, Baltimore Ravens

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    Cary Williams played just five games in fewer than two seasons for his original team, the Tennessee Titans, before getting shown the door. The former seventh-round pick looked to be nothing more than a journeyman-type of player at that point.

    It wasn't until 2011, Williams' fourth season in the league, that the cornerback made an impact. He started all 16 games for the Baltimore Ravens, recording 16 passes defended and 84 tackles. Despite the fact that Williams didn't record an interception, he was extremely solid in man coverage.

    Now that 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith is healthy and prepared to start, it looks like Williams will be getting play as the Ravens' nickel guy.

6. Michael Bush, Running Back, Chicago Bears

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    Michael Bush gained nearly 1,400 yards and scored eight touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders last season. Despite that success, no teams came calling in regards to a starting position. Instead, Bush had to settle for being the primary backup to Matt Forte with the Chicago Bears.

    While there is no way that Bush matches his 2011 numbers this year in Chicago, you can definitely expect him to be a standout performer on offense when asked to spell Forte.

5. Deion Branch, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady has to be considered the BFF of one Deion Branch. The veteran receiver fell off the map when he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks prior to the 2006 season, but he has since returned to form with the New England Patriots upon his return a couple years back.

    Branch recorded 51 receptions for over 700 yards and five touchdowns last season with the defending AFC Champions.

    While these numbers might be hard to duplicate, you can expect a consistent performance from the Patriots' "No. 3" receiver.

4. Jonathan Stewart, Running Back, Carolina Panthers

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    Based on statistics alone, Jonathan Stewart had the worst season of his four-year NFL career in 2011. He recorded a career-low in attempts and rushing yards.

    Stewart's lack of production was due solely to him not seeing the ball a great deal.

    The talented young running back averaged a career-high 5.4 yards per attempt and brought down 13 more receptions than he did in his first three seasons combined.

    Stewart is a starting running back in the National Football League, just not in Carolina with the Panthers. Expect him to walk in free agency following the 2012 season.

3. Mike Jenkins, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

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    After the acquisitions of both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, the Dallas Cowboys appear to be set at both their starting cornerback positions. This left Mike Jenkins, who isn't happy with his current deal, out in the cold.

    Dallas made the decision not to trade Jenkins after fielding several calls this offseason. While there is still a chance that Jerry Jones and Co. trade the disgruntled defensive back during training camp, he appears set to take over their nickel corner position.

    Jenkins is just two years removed from a Pro Bowl season and still possesses the talent to be a difference maker in the defensive backfield. He accumulated 28 passes defended and six interceptions in 2009 and 2010 combined.


2. Ben Tate, Running Back, Houston Texans

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    Ben Tate would be a starting running back on a handful of NFL teams. He recorded over 1,000 total yards and averaged 5.4 per attempt last season.

    The primary reason that Tate doesn't get starter touches is due to the fact that the Houston Texans have this guy called Arian Foster on the roster.

    If Tate continues to progress in 2012, there is no reason to believe that the Texans won't look to trade him to a running back-needy team next offseason.

1. Darren Sproles, Running Back, New Orleans Saints

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    As a 5'6" running back, Darren Sproles has never and will never be asked to be a starting running back in the National Football League. He just doesn't possess the size or durability to shoulder the load in the offensive backfield.

    What Sproles does bring to the table is a tremendous change of pace and someone that thrives on making the big plays.

    The New Orleans Saints saw this first-hand in his first season in the Bayou. Sproles accumulated over 1,300 total yards and nine touchdowns on just 170 touches from scrimmage.

    Overall, Sproles put up a whopping 2,706 all-purpose yards.

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