NFC West: Predicting Players Due for Breakout Years
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Several players in the NFC West broke upon the scene last season and made themselves household names.
San Francisco had several of them—a big reason the 49ers found themselves in the NFC Championship Game. Rookie Aldon Smith finished the year with 14 regular-season sacks and two more in the playoffs; quarterback Alex Smith had his best season as a pro; NaVorro Bowman equaled the play of fellow linebacker Patrick Willis and earned a Pro Bowl berth; and wide receiver Michael Crabtree busted out for 72 catches for 874 yards.
St. Louis defensive end Chris Long continued to improve and ended the season with a career-high 13 sacks. His three sacks of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees helped lead to an upset of the Saints—one of just two St. Louis wins on the year.
Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson had an immediate impact as a rookie in the return game. Peterson had four returns for touchdowns, including one punt return in each win over the Rams.
Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner made the most of his first season in the great northwest. After five seasons playing in Canada, Browner made the Pro Bowl after picking-off six passes. Rookie cornerback Richard Sherman blew up with four interceptions and exceeded all expectations for a fifth-round draft choice.
Here are some players for each NFC West team that will have breakout years in 2012.
Patrick Peterson could have a bigger impact on defense this season.
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CB Patrick Peterson
Peterson burst onto the scene as a dynamic playmaker on special teams and can get even better as a cover corner. Peterson has all the tools and played well in spurts last year on defense. He made some rookie mistakes, but those were expected, especially for a rookie without the benefit of offseason programs because of last year’s lockout.
With a full offseason this year, Peterson should become one of the league’s best cornerbacks.
RB Ryan Williams
Williams missed his rookie season because of a knee injury. The Cardinals had high hopes for Williams last year and those expectations carry over into 2012. If Williams, a second-round pick from Virginia Tech, lives up to the hype, the Cardinals will have a very good one-two punch with Beanie Wells.
Williams probably won’t be a 1,000-yard running back this season, but five or more touchdowns and over 500 rushing yards would be great numbers for a backup running back in his first full NFL season.
TE Rob Housler
Housler started to make waves last year and should only get better. He had just 12 catches last season for 133 yards, but those numbers should improve. He is a very good blocker and could begin the season as the full-time starter.
OLB O’Brien Schofield
There is already talk of Schofield as a double-digit sack guy. He was one of the nation’s best pass rushers while at Wisconsin and lived in the backfield on running plays as well, racking up a boatload of tackles for a loss.
After earning defensive MVP honors at the East-West Shrine Game, Schofield likely would have been a first-round draft pick until a knee injury at the Senior Bowl dropped him to the fourth round, where the Cardinals gambled on a rehabbing player with a ton of upside.
That gamble could pay off big this season.
Schofield played sparingly as a rookie in 2010 and then had 4.5 sacks last year while appearing in all 16 games. He had a two-sack game in Week 15 against Cleveland. Those numbers could improve exponentially this season if Schofield wins a starting job as is expected.
San Francisco 49ers
Rookie LaMichael James should have an immediate impact on offense and special teams.
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RB LaMichael James
The Niners had their breakout seasons last year and nobody really stands out as poised to make a big leap. San Francisco already has established stars in tight end Vernon Davis, defensive lineman Justin Smith, linebacker Patrick Willis and the players mentioned in the opening slide.
James, a rookie from Oregon, is a speedster who can have an impact as a third-choice back and as a return man.
While it’s hard to say that a rookie will have a “breakout year” because the term is more relevant to young veterans who have yet to live up to their potential, James may be the team’s rookie of the year.
He will be a nice change-of-pace complement to starter Frank Gore and can help Ted Ginn Jr. in the return game.
New quarterback Matt Flynn should find success in Seattle.
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QB Matt Flynn
Flynn was Seattle’s big free-agent signing this year and, if his spot duty in Green Bay is any indication, Flynn should do well.
In two NFL starts, he threw for over 700 yards with nine touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 124.8. Those are insane numbers. While it’s only two starts and some critics would caution others to consider other flash-in-the-pan quarterbacks like Scott Mitchell or Derek Anderson, Flynn appears to be the real deal.
He went to an SEC school and won a BCS National Championship for LSU. He then sat behind a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers. Flynn should be ready to start and, with pass catchers like Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, Kellen Winslow, Ben Obomanu and Golden Tate, that should be enough to find success.
RB Robert Turbin
With starter Marshawn Lynch facing a possible suspension for a DUI arrest, the rookie fourth-round pick from Utah State could take over without the Seattle running game missing a beat.
Turbin averaged 6.1 yards per carry for the Aggies and has good speed. But it’s his punishing running style and amazing upper body strength that got his new Seattle teammates to dub him, “SeaHulk.”
Morrah has had a modest three-year career. He’s caught 16 passes for 194 yards without a touchdown and has been used primarily as a blocking tight end. The Seahawks added Kellen Winslow to the tight end group and still have Zach Miller, who was signed last season.
What stands out about Morrah is his ability to find a hole on third-down passing situations. He averages better than 12 yards per catch and it seems like each of the 16 receptions results in a first down. Morrah has a knack for making the clutch catch and, if given the opportunity to blossom with Flynn throwing the ball, he is poised to have a good year and maybe even find that end zone.
St. Louis Rams
Robert Quinn, right, sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees for one of his five sacks as a rookie.
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DE Robert Quinn
Quinn, the team’s first-round pick last season, started to find his groove midway through the year. His breakout game came against New Orleans, when he blocked a punt that led to a key Rams’ score to help them spring the upset. Quinn finished the season with five sacks and two blocked punts while playing backup to James Hall.
Hall was let go by the team, making way for Quinn to step in as the starter. Quinn revealed during the offseason that the coaching staff has set a goal for the Rams to break the NFL’s all-time sack record of 72 set by the 1984 Chicago Bears. If the Rams are going to go from 39 to 73 sacks, Quinn and other end Chris Long, who had 13 sacks last year, will each have to get about 20 and then hope for help from their teammates.
WR Brian Quick
The Rams drafted Quick with the first pick of the second round in hopes that the 6’4” wideout from Appalachian State can be the team’s top receiving option. During minicamps and organized team activities, the coaches and quarterbacks raved at Quick’s quickness (pun intended) and his hands. He wowed the Rams at his private workout at the App. State campus in Boone, N.C.
Quick has all the tangibles to succeed in the NFL—size, speed, hands—it’s just a matter of him adapting to life in the NFL from a Division I-AA (FCS) school.
TE Lance Kendricks
Kendricks, a second-round pick last season, had an incredible preseason as the Rams went 4-0 in their exhibition games. Unfortunately for Kendricks, that success did not translate to the regular season and he became inflicted with a bad case of the dropsies for most of the season.
He did show flashes of why the Rams surprised many by selecting him in the second round. His best game came in his home state when he grabbed four passes for 71 yards, including a 45-yarder at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers. Kendricks finished the year with 28 catches for 352 yards and zero touchdowns.
Those numbers would have been much better had it not been for his drops. Expect that to be remedied this season.
CB Jerome Murphy
Murphy was expected to compete for a starting job last year before a broken ankle early in training camp shelved his sophomore season. The 2010 third-round pick from South Florida was a special teams stud as a rookie and got his first career interception at Oakland. He had shown improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 despite last year’s lockout.
Murphy is hungry to get back on the field and showcase his skills. He’s cut off the long dreads and is more focused on football. With a crowded secondary that includes new free-agent signee Cortland Finnegan and top draft picks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, Murphy may not start, but will make some game-changing plays on special teams and in nickel situations.