Predictions Each 2012-13 NFL Team's Most Improved Player
The NFL offseason is a time of unfettered hope for both fans and organizations.
Every team thinks it got better through the draft and free agency, and every team expects its young players to get better while veterans continue to play at a high level. No coach plans for players to have a slow start, a sophomore slump or simply fall off the map, but players do, and some of those players never rise back to their former glory.
So, which players will put it together in Year 2, 3 or beyond? Which players will fight through last year's issues and find themselves back on top? Which players will benefit from a change of scenery or a change in the talent around them?
It takes a special player to overcome one season's failures to put together a successful season the next, but here is one player from each team that has the talent to do it.
Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson
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Patrick Peterson was drafted in the top five of last year's draft, and Arizona Cardinals fans couldn't be happier. However, Peterson's greatest impact in his rookie season was as a returner. If he's going to fulfill his draft slot, he needs to be better on defense.
It's hardly Peterson's fault that he was only average at cornerback last season. It's a difficult position to learn, and NFL receivers are head-and-shoulders better than anything in the SEC.
The minute details of the position will come to Peterson in Year 2 with a real offseason to learn the intricacies of the game.
Atlanta Falcons: Ray Edwards
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Coming off of two seasons with eight or more sacks, Edwards was a bit of a disappointment with only three-and-a-half in his first season with the Falcons.
It wasn't just the sack numbers that were a cause for concern. At times, Edwards disappeared in the run game. He also combined with John Abraham to field one of the more penalized tandems in the league.
Edwards, to some extent, was always a product of the system and talent around him in Minnesota, but he is better than he was last year. Expect him to creep back up to the 10-sack range in 2012 and reestablish himself as a consistent run defender.
Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith was a one-trick pony coming out of Maryland—a fantastic athlete who could get loose deep but wasn't polished throughout the entire route tree. Everyone knew he would have trouble transitioning immediately to the NFL, but no one told Smith that.
Smith exploded onto the scene with touchdowns on his first three receptions, and it looked like he was about to prove everyone wrong. However, he finished the season with 50 catches, 841 yards and seven touchdowns—a good rookie stat line, but nothing that screams "superstar."
As he heads into his second season, expect Smith to gain some more chemistry with Joe Flacco and be more than just a deep threat.
Buffalo Bills: Mario Williams
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Mario Williams was miscast in Wade Phillips' defense and injured in 2011. So, his move to Buffalo wasn't just about money, it was also about a measure of redemption. Williams is one of the most talented defensive ends of this era, and Buffalo is counting on him playing to that standard in 2012.
He'll have all the help in the world.
Next to Williams will be Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus—two of the better interior linemen in the entire league and maybe the best tandem. Mario will have plenty of one-on-one chances, and he will be able to capitalize.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
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What? How can Cam Newton get any better?
Newton was a patchwork player in his first year. The team knew what he did well, played to his strengths and let him pick up the game at his own pace. He wasn't so much an NFL quarterback as he was a phenomenal athlete who was able to have his way with defenses.
Moving forward, Newton will have time to work with his receiving corps and the offensive coaching staff to refine his game and make the Panthers a winner.
The NFL is on notice.
Chicago Bears: Gabe Carimi
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Gabe Carimi was injured for much of last year, but when he played, he (like the rest of the Bears offensive line) was nothing to write home about.
That will change in 2012.
Mike Tice is the best offensive line coach in the NFL, and Carimi is one of the more physically imposing offensive line prospects in recent memory. Coming out of Wisconsin, Carimi has all of the pedigree coaches look for, and he should pick up any scheme thrown at him almost immediately.
The Bears didn't do much to upgrade their offensive line this offseason, and Carimi is a big reason why.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton
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Like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton surprised many onlookers with how talented he could be in his rookie year. With Dalton in tow, the Bengals looked much more like a "reloading" team than a rebuilding one.
When one breaks down the numbers, however, Dalton was really nothing special. His QB rating (80.4) was only 20th in the league, and his yards per attempt (6.59) was a pedestrian 25th. With one of the more talented young receivers in the league in A.J. Green, those numbers should be higher.
In Year 2, they will be.
Dalton knew what he had to do to win games in 2011: hand the ball off and not turn the ball over through the air. In 2012, he will have to be better to get the Bengals even further down the rebuilding path.
With so much physical talent, so much command of the offense and such great help around him, Bengals fans shouldn't worry that Dalton will be anything less than stellar in the upcoming year.
Cleveland Browns: Greg Little
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When the quarterback is Colt McCoy, it's hard to expect a lot of dynamic play from any of the wide receivers. It wasn't just McCoy that kept Little down in 2011, though: His hands also failed him time and again as he dropped 14 passes—good for second in the entire NFL.
Interestingly enough, nothing from his college career showcased anything other than phenomenal hands—among the best in his draft class. His lack of production in college was thought to be nothing more than a byproduct of playing with T.J. Yates.
So, with Brandon Weeden, Little is getting his first real talented quarterback to throw him passes, and the NFL should be on notice. Now, the only thing standing between Little and being one of the best young receivers in the NFL is Little himself.
Dallas Cowboys: Doug Free
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Doug Free was a bit of a mirage in 2010—more of a speed bump than a brick wall, but he got the job done and was able to hold off Tyron Smith in his rookie season. It didn't do the Cowboys any favors that Free gave up 10 sacks and 34 hurries in 2011.
This year, over on the right side, Free's average run-blocking should be more than enough to spring the Cowboys' elusive running backs into the second level. His pass-blocking, the biggest detriment last year, should look a lot better when it isn't on Tony Romo's blind side.
Some are ready to give up on Free, but he's been good (even great at times) as a Cowboy, and he's only 28 years old. He's entering his prime and should solidify his spot as a right tackle.
Denver Broncos: Eric Decker
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With Tim Tebow out and Peyton Manning in, it's pretty logical to assume that the Broncos' receivers will have plenty of opportunities to improve this season. But why Eric Decker and not Demaryius Thomas?
Thomas is a great deep threat, but he's still got a long way to go before he is anything more than that. He ran the go almost exclusively at Georgia Tech, he's run it almost exclusively as a Bronco, and until he proves he can do more, he'll never be Manning's go-to guy.
Decker, on the other hand, was a fantastic prospect in college, falling only because he had an injury in his senior year. He's struggled to make a huge impact as a pro, but he has looked, at times, like an elite all-around receiver. He's got size, athleticism, polish and sure hands.
If Manning wants to succeed, he'll go to Decker early and often.
Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh
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If going only by sack numbers, Ndamukong Suh dropped off the map in 2011. However, going only by sack numbers is a stupid way to judge defensive tackles.
In truth, Suh's sack numbers masked his run-game deficiencies in 2010. In 2011, missing two games and being heavily penalized in others had as much to do with the lower numbers as did a decreased level of play.
So, Suh has the rare distinction of being one of the few players who can say he's been overrated and then underrated in consecutive seasons.
All that said, Suh needs to improve if the Lions defense is going anywhere, and he has all of the talent to do so. Because of the scheme, he'll never be the stud run defender that many wish he could be, but he'll also harass more quarterbacks than most tackles.
With all eyes on Suh in 2012, expect him to step up, clean up his play (for the most part) and make his critics forget his sophomore slump.
Green Bay Packers: Randall Cobb
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Much like Patrick Peterson, Randall Cobb excelled in making a name for himself in 2011, but he didn't do so at his natural position. Cobb is already one of the more dangerous returners in the league, but he needs to step up as a receiver in 2012.
Much of that depends on the Packers, who need to utilize Cobb more within the offense. He has a unique and tantalizing skill set that most teams would need to rely upon, but he could get lost in the Packers' already high-octane attack.
Expect the Packers to get innovative with Cobb and use him to keep opponents off-balance. He's too dynamic to keep off the field, and Aaron Rodgers will learn to love him as a target.
Houston Texans: Connor Barwin
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As good as the Texans defense was in 2011, there were some noticeable pieces that, if improved, could turn this great defense into one of the NFL's elite.
Statistically, Connor Barwin was already a stud last year. His 12 sacks led the team as did his 19 quarterback hits. He was a bit of a one-trick pony, though, and in 2012, he should be able to take a step forward in Wade Phillips' scheme.
With the selection of Whitney Mercilus, Barwin's career is going to go one of two ways after 2012. He will either put everything together and keep Mercilus on the bench, or he will become a situational pass-rusher.
Barwin has overcome so much in his career that it would be foolish to assume anything except him becoming one of the NFL's best 3-4 OLBs in the upcoming year.
Indianapolis Colts: Dwight Freeney
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Dwight Freeney was mostly overwhelmed last year, as the Colts offense couldn't keep up their end of the bargain. Freeney is at his best when being able to tee off against opposing quarterbacks, but teams were so often playing ahead that Freeney had to play outside of his comfort zone.
So Freeney, more than anyone else on this list, will be helped by a player on the other side of the ball. Andrew Luck may not be a top quarterback in 2012, but he will be worlds better than anything the Colts trotted out last year. Because of that, Freeney will have more of a chance to do what he does best.
Quarterbacks be warned: Freeney may not have been on your minds last year, but he will be in your face this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert
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To some extent, this is a difficult choice to make. I am not, in any way, saying that Blaine Gabbert will be a good quarterback in 2012. However, this list is about who will be most improved. Gabbert could be horrendous this season and still be vastly improved from last year.
No one had more in the way of his success than Gabbert. David Garrard was given starters reps in camp and then cut. Luke McCown was foolishly given another chance to fail in a league for which he is vastly unqualified.
Gabbert was finally given a trial by fire with flames that would've consumed any quarterback. He had no help from the talent around him and turned in one of the worst efforts from the quarterback position this generation has seen.
That said, Gabbert has great physical tools and can be average—repeat: average—moving forward as a full-time starter for the Jaguars. He's not the quarterback of the future, and he'll never be elite, but he was so bad in 2011 that he can't help but be one of the most improved players in the league in the upcoming year.
Kansas City Chiefs: Stanford Routt
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The Kansas City Chiefs put a lot of faith in Stanford Routt when they signed him to replace Brandon Carr (now a Dallas Cowboy). To some extent, it is difficult to believe that Routt will ever make fans forget Carr. However, that isn't the point of this exercise.
The Chiefs are going to put a tremendous defense on the field in 2012, and Routt, even if he is the weak link, will have the chance to get his hands on a ton of errant passes. Routt is dangerous when quarterbacks make mistakes, and quarterbacks will make plenty against the Chiefs.
Routt isn't the impact player Carr was, but he will look much better in 2012 than he ever did in a Raiders uniform.
Miami Dolphins: Davone Bess
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Ryan Tannehill (or whoever starts at quarterback for the Dolphins) is going to need a ton of help if he'll contribute anything worthwhile in 2012, and Davone Bess should be every bit the security blanket that the Dolphins need.
With the offense spreading opponents out, Bess will have more room to work in the middle of the field. In those conditions, Bess won't be asked to work down the field against lockdown cornerbacks, and he won't be asked to be much of a deep threat.
The new offense will naturally play to Bess' strengths, and he will re-emerge as one of the Dolphins' better offensive weapons.
Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder
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With zero weapons for much of 2011 and an offensive line that was offensive for all the wrong reasons, Christian Ponder wasn't able to put much of a season together. The Vikings drafted Matt Kalil to protect Ponder's blind side and added tight ends and receivers to give Ponder some help.
Ponder may have a low ceiling, but he fits perfectly in the Vikings offense and should be able to take advantage of the talent around him. If the rest of the O stays healthy, Ponder should be a fantastic facilitator.
It will be difficult in the NFC North, but there is no reason Ponder shouldn't be able to keep the Vikings competitive as they continue to rebuild.
New England Patriots: Nate Solder
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Nate Solder wasn't bad in 2011, but the sky is truly the limit in 2012.
Splitting time between right and left tackle, Solder took on a lot for a rookie and was still able to be an integral part to the Patriots' fantastic season. With all of the physical tools necessary, the only thing that needs to come together is Solder's understanding of the game, and the Patriots have a long history of turning good offensive line prospects into stars.
The scheme, too, plays to Solder's strengths and masks his weaknesses. Long and strong, Solder will be able to keep Tom Brady's blind side clean and not have to worry about firing off and run-blocking out of a three-point stance.
Look for Solder to ably fill the hole left by Matt Light and step into the upper echelon of NFL left tackles.
New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram
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Without a doubt, New Orleans was not an ideal landing spot for Ingram, and 2011 was not the perfect rookie season. Hampered by injuries and mired in a crowded backfield and pass-heavy offense, Ingram wasn't able to find his way.
That will all change in 2012.
Ingram has all of the tools to be an elite NFL running back. He's better at running and blocking than Pierre Thomas, and he is a good complement for multidimensional weapon Darren Sproles. If he's healthy, Ingram will always be hard to keep off of the field.
With a full offseason, Ingram will have a better chance to learn the offense, and the Saints coaches will have a better chance to integrate him into it. That should equal bigger and better numbers for Ingram this season.
New York Giants: Antrel Rolle
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Much like Blaine Gabbert, it's difficult to be as bad as Antrel Rolle was in 2011.
Still, Rolle showed promise against teams like New Orleans in Week 12, Dallas in Week 17 and in the Wild Card Round against Atlanta. Rolle, for the most part, was asked to do too much last year, as the Giants defense had been decimated by injuries.
This year, the defense should be back, and the talent around Rolle will allow him to play within himself and, hopefully, lead to him having to do less and thus having a better season doing what he does best.
New York Jets: D'Brickashaw Ferguson
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D'Brickashaw Ferguson was good in 2011, but good isn't good enough for him.
New York Jets fans expect Ferguson to be one of the NFL's best, and that just wasn't the case last year. For all the talk of Wayne Hunter's failings, Ferguson gave up eight sacks and 22 hurries. Mark Sanchez isn't an elite QB, but it's incorrect to think he was the only weak link on the Jets offense.
The Jets have brought in players to upgrade other important places on offense, but Ferguson will have to be better if the offense is going to be anything better than average. With so much physical talent, he should be able to step right back up to the plate.
Oakland Raiders: Aaron Curry
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Aaron Curry hasn't lived up to his draft hype, but on the Oakland Raiders, he's coming closer than ever before.
The Seattle Seahawks drafted Curry high and expected him to excel at whatever role they put him in. They tried to put his hand in the dirt on passing downs: fail. They tried to blitz him standing up: fail. He was always, to some extent, a square peg in a round hole.
After arriving in Oakland, it was like they said, "What can this guy do well?" and then let him do it.
In Oakland, Curry looks rejuvenated. They let him play primarily against the run and in coverage like he did in college. He's starting to look more natural, making plays on the ball (two fumble recoveries as a Raider).
This offseason should be huge for Curry. Watch for him to take a step forward as a Raiders' defensive cornerstone and make the Seahawks wish they hadn't squandered his talent.
Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick
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Michael Vick's entire career is filled with peaks and valleys—periods where he looks like the most unstoppable athlete this side of Tecmo Bo Jackson and can't help but do most of the defense's work for them.
If 2010 was Vick's best year as an NFL quarterback (it was, and it wasn't close), then 2011 was his most disappointing year. The Eagles fell off the map, and the play of Vick was a large reason why.
Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg know what they're doing when it comes to quarterbacks, and a humbled Vick should be soaking up lots of knowledge and retraining himself to be the pocket passer they helped him become two years ago.
With a refocused Vick, the Eagles will be right in the thick of the NFC East race in 2012.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Cortez Allen
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Cortez Allen didn't play a huge role in 2011, but he was starting to look like a core special teams player and a much-needed reserve before a shoulder injury kept him out of the playoff game against Denver.
Allen has all the tools to take another step forward in 2012, and Pittsburgh will need him to as they deal with the loss of William Gay (now with Arizona). Allen has been training with Ike Taylor and has impressed the veteran.
At worst, Allen will see a lot more reps backing up the outside cornerback positions and help the Steelers' special teams. However, Allen will not make it easy for either Taylor or Keenan Lewis and could end up starting Week 1.
Either way, Steelers fans should get used to hearing Allen's name a lot more this season.
San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers
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2011 was Philip Rivers' worst season since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006. With his completion percentage down and his interception total way up, Rivers looks more like the problem in San Diego than any part of a solution.
There is little reason, if any, to assume that that will be the case again in 2012.
The Chargers have brought in Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem to make up for the loss of Vincent Jackson—who, while talented, was never the most dependable teammate. Rivers will also know who his left tackle is for this season, as Jared Gaither is being brought back after filling in admirably as a street free agent last year.
Most importantly, Antonio Gates will be back at full strength, giving Rivers one of the best weapons in the entire NFL.
This season will show 2011 was just a fluke and put Rivers back in the mix as one of the best QBs in the NFL.
San Francisco 49ers: Randy Moss
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If we know anything about Randy Moss, it is that he plays when he wants to play.
Sure, teams can sign him or trade for him whenever they want, but if Moss isn't motivated, those teams are just wasting their time. The last time Moss was truly motivated (2007-2009 in New England), the NFL was reminded exactly how much talent he had.
Now, if you believe the reports out of San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh has him motivated again, and Moss is looking like the best receiver on the 49ers.
Moss has very little pressure in San Francisco. This was already a Super Bowl contender without him and Mario Manningham, but if Moss can contribute—extending the field and keeping defenses honest—the 49ers could be explosive on offense for the first time in decades.
Moss is still a fantastic athlete and can still catch the ball better than just about anyone. The redemption tour might not last long for Moss (it never does), but doubting him in 2012 is just setting yourself up to look foolish.
Seattle Seahawks: Sidney Rice
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Injuries and ineffective quarterback play stymied Sidney Rice's first season as a Seahawk. He never found a rhythm and, at times, looked like a huge free-agency mistake.
The argument could be made, however, that Rice is the second-most-talented receiver in the NFC West (after Larry Fitzgerald), and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knows exactly how dynamic Rice can be when he's fed the ball by someone who can actually pass it with accuracy.
With all of the other question marks on Seattle's offense in 2012, Rice will step up and be the player Seattle thought they were getting last season. He may never be one of the NFL's elite, but he will remember where the end zone is and be the best offensive weapon Seattle has.
St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford
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After a surprising rookie season, Sam Bradford fell back down to Earth, hard, in 2011.
He (along with most of the Rams offense) was dinged up, and his play suffered from the lack of talent around him. He was dealing with another new offense, and one that didn't play to his strengths or the strengths of the rest of the team.
This season, that will change. Jeff Fisher's new defense will keep Bradford from constantly playing from behind. and it will keep defensive ends from teeing off on him. Bradford will have more weapons this year and an offense that won't ask him to do too much too soon.
Don't expect the world from Bradford in the first year of the Rams' reboot, but look for him to get back on track and remind people why he was the first overall pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Dallas Clark
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Dallas Clark looked like a shell of his former self without Peyton Manning last year, and he was too expensive to be part of the Colts' rebuilding plans. So, he went to Tampa Bay as part of their free-agency bonanza.
Clark was not brought in to be the same Dallas Clark that helped redefine the tight end position. Instead, he was brought in to do one thing and one thing only: When things break down around Josh Freeman, be open.
Clark is still very good at that, and he should be a consistent checkdown target and red-zone threat for the Buccaneers. He won't be a 1000-yard receiver, but he could flirt with 10 or more touchdowns, which would be more than his last two seasons combined.
Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson
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Evan Silva of Rotoworld recently took a look at Chris Johnson's problems in 2011 and concluded that Johnson, "suddenly morphed into the league's least physical back in 2011." While that's a fair and accurate description, it doesn't necessarily portend the same in 2012.
Johnson's offensive line has never been very good, and he's suffered through a lot of bad quarterback play. After fighting with the Titans and finally getting paid, it is logical (even if it isn't acceptable by NFL standards) that Johnson eased up on the gas pedal. It isn't admirable, but it is more reasonable than many would like to admit.
2012 is a new year, and the Titans expect to have an offense more dynamic than in the past. Expect Johnson to be a big part of that. He's added muscle in expectation of that role and seems legitimately excited to get back on track.
It would be hard for Johnson to be much worse than he was last year, but a refocused Johnson could be one of the NFL's best.
Washington Redskins: Ryan Kerrigan
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Paired with Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan gives the Washington Redskins one of the best young pass-rushing linebacker tandems in the NFL. However, when you remember that Kerrigan was a defensive end in college and had to transition to his new position on the fly (with no offseason to work with), his immediate success is even more impressive.
Kerrigan suffered in pass coverage and against the run in 2011, and frankly, it's surprising he wasn't even worse. When asked to rush the passer, Kerrigan was an absolute monster, and it's easy to see why the Redskins didn't want to take him off the field.
It is only a matter of time until Kerrigan, a beast athletically, puts the missing pieces together, and NFC quarterbacks should be on notice.
Like the rest of the players on this list, Kerrigan should be the most improved improved player on his team in 2012.
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.