Predicting the Biggest Breakout Stars of the 2012 NFL Season
Every year, players come out of nowhere to become stars. Sometimes they were supposed to have done so earlier in their careers, and sometimes nobody saw them coming.
These players have come from different backgrounds, but all of them will have monster seasons for their respective teams.
Earl Bennett: Chicago Bears, Wide Receiver
I can't think of a more under-appreciated receiver in the NFL than Earl Bennett. He's loads better than Devin Hester, but the Bears' brass are convinced Hester is God's gift to Jay Cutler.
Thankfully, Bennett will benefit from the addition of Brandon Marshall. Marshall is a legitimate No. 1 receiver who requires a double-team on most plays, and Hester's speed forces teams to account for the deep ball. That will leave Bennett with wide-open opportunities left-and-right underneath the coverage.
There's always the chance that Hester finally gets bumped out of the No. 2 spot, too, in which case Bennett will excel on the outside.
Whether he stays in the slot or finally takes over for Hester opposite Marshall, Bennett is set to break out for his biggest season as a pro.
Prediction: Bennett will catch 65 catches for 900 yards and eight touchdowns.
Greg Little: Cleveland Browns, Wide Receiver
It's hard to imagine this when you look at Greg Little, but he is a converted running back from his days at North Carolina. At 6' 2" and 220 pounds, Little has the prototypical size, speed and athleticism you look for in a No. 1 receiver.
As a rookie in 2011, Little managed to catch 61 balls for 709 yards and two touchdowns. This was despite dropping 14 passes (h/t Pro Football Focus) and having Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace behind center.
Brandon Weeden isn't going to be stellar as a rookie, especially if Trent Richardson can't stay healthy, but he's much better about getting the ball downfield to his receivers. Little will greatly benefit from this fact, and I expect him to have a monster sophomore campaign.
Prediction: Little will catch 80 passes for 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.
Robert Quinn: St. Louis Rams, Defensive End
I wasn't surprised in the least when Robert Quinn failed to crack the starting lineup for the St. Louis Rams in 2011. He was a 21-year-old rookie with raw skills, and it was ridiculous to assume he'd be ready to compete full-time against NFL offensive linemen.
Now, with a full year under his belt and a few extra pounds of solid muscle, Quinn is ready to take on that responsibility. He's going to thrive opposite Chris Long—a man who opposing teams will be forced to double-team or risk losing their quarterback.
Quinn showed flashes of what he was capable of in 2011, and I expect big things from this young man going forward.
Prediction: Quinn will register 10 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Demaryius Thomas: Denver Broncos, Wide Receiver
Watching Demaryius Thomas, I can't help but think about Terrell Owens. That's the kind of talent this young man possesses—not to mention he has TO's size and speed.
As Thomas continues learning the nuances of the wide receiver position, continues getting better at route-running and continues spending time with Manning in the film room, he's going to become a star.
Prediction: Thomas will catch 75 passes for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Brooks Reed: Houston Texans, Outside Linebacker
Brooks Reed is one of the reasons the Houston Texans didn't try too hard to re-sign Mario Williams this offseason.
He's set to explode with double-digit sack totals in 2012.
As a rookie in 2011, Reed tallied six sacks in 11 starts. He followed that up with a 3.5-sack total in two games during the playoffs, and he's just getting started.
SI.com's Peter King reported that Texans general manager Rick Smith says "Brooks is having as good a camp as anyone on our team."
Prediction: Reed collects 12 sacks and five forced fumbles in his sophomore season.
Rod Streeter: Oakland Raiders, Wide Receiver
Rod Streater has come out of nowhere this summer for the Oakland Raiders. He's the player I'm picking to become the next Victor Cruz of the NFL, and he's going to blow up this year—no matter who is behind center for the Raiders.
He was undrafted out of Temple after only catching 19 passes his senior season. The Owls don't run a pass-friendly offense, though, and the Raiders have caught lightning in a bottle with this young star-in-the-making.
The thing Streater does best is simple: He catches everything thrown his way.
Prediction: Streater will catch 85 passes for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns.
Bruce Carter: Dallas Cowboys, Middle Linebacker
I applaud Jerry Jones for bringing in Dan Connor to challenge Bruce Carter for the starting middle linebacker spot opposite Sean Lee. This move will do more for Carter's development that anything else the Cowboys could have done, and I expect Carter to emerge victorious.
He'll be the unquestioned starter from Week 1.
Carter's speed and athleticism rivals that of San Francisco 49ers' middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and if he learns the game the way Bowman has, he's going to be a special player.
Prediction: Carter registers 85 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception.
Alex Smith: San Francisco 49ers, Quarterback
Many people outside of San Francisco expect Alex Smith's 2011 season to be but an aberration. Heck, many 49ers fans feel the same way.
I'm here to tell you that Smith is set to have a monster year for the 49ers.
Smith has a ton of new weapons in his arsenal, and if the preseason is any indication, he's ready to start utilizing them all to great affect. So far, he's completed 13-of-19 passes for 134 yards with two touchdowns to zero interceptions.
The only problem we've seen so far this year is that his line has been shaky in pass-protection, but I expect that to work itself out once the season begins.
Prediction: Smith completes 64 percent of his passes for 4,000 yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
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