Predicting the NFL's Next Big Breakout Player at Every Position
The NFL continues to be the most competitive league in American sports, due to the many young players that elevate their game to the next level.
Players realize that it's a rare opportunity to play a critical role on an NFL roster and must take advantage when the time arises.
While the majority of breakout stars come from either the offensive or defensive side of the football, there are many special teams players who also make an impact each week.
Whether it's a rookie or a young veteran, there are plenty of players who are showing signs of promise in the first month of the 2012 NFL season.
Here are my predictions for the next breakout player at each position.
1. Quarterback: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
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Christian Ponder had plenty of obstacles to overcome after being selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings back in 2011. In his rookie season, the concerns about Ponder's entering the draft showed. He was uncomfortable in the pocket and wasn't accurate with the football or aggressive in his decision-making.
However, a year can certainly make a difference. Ponder has been extremely efficient with the football, as he is currently the only quarterback with zero interceptions in 2012.
He is benefiting from Percy Harvin's being able to stay on the field consistently, along with the improvement of tight end Kyle Rudolph.
His most dominant performance to date was against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, who were not prepared to defend against a young quarterback who has drastically improved over the course of an offseason.
2. Running Back: Jacquizz Rodgers (Atlanta Falcons)
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Jacquizz Rodgers continues to add a new dynamic to the up-tempo offense of the Atlanta Falcons under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Rodgers has been an effective change-of-pace running back with Michael Turner, as the former Oregon State Beaver is a much bigger threat in the passing game.
He is a perfect complementary back to the fast-paced offense that the Falcons like to play, especially when Matt Ryan is in his two-minute drill routine.
3. Wide Receiver: Brian Hartline (Miami Dolphins)
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Brian Hartline hasn't shown a capability of becoming anything more than the third best receiver on the Dolphins depth chart early on in his career.
With the lack of a no. 1 receiver on the roster, the question for 2012 was which receiver would deliver and become Tannehill's go-to receiver.
Hartline has answered the call and has taken the entire league by storm. He leads the league in receiving yards, and his dominating performance against a quality Arizona Cardinals secondary in Week 4 speaks for how much this receiver has improved this season.
4. Tight End: Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings)
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Kyle Rudolph is beginning to play up to his capability in the NFL, due in large part to his improvements in the offseason.
Rudolph has focused on working with quarterback Christian Ponder, as the duo look to form a chemistry that will eventually translate to success on the field.
As the Vikings allow Ponder to have more of an impact on the offense, Rudolph has proven to be a very good security blanket for the second-year quarterback.
Through the first month of the 2012 season, Rudolph is showing signs of promise for a great future in a Vikings uniform.
5. Offensive Tackle: Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville Jaguars)
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Eugene Monroe has been a pleasant surprise for the Jacksonville Jaguars after struggling early on in his pro career.
Monroe has anchored a young Jaguars offensive line that is giving Blaine Gabbert plenty of pass protection early on in the 2012 season.
Monroe's biggest performance came on the road against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, where he completely took control of his matchup against Jared Allen.
It's a positive sign for the Jaguars to have a young lineman who is developing into one of the more impressive pass protectors in the league.
6. Offensive Guard: T.J. Lang (Green Bay Packers)
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T.J. Lang has brought plenty of attention upon himself for his comments about the officiating from the Monday Night Football debacle against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3.
However, Lang's dominance through the first four weeks of the season has been clearly overlooked. Despite playing on a Packers offensive line that has struggled mightily, Lang has done his job in protecting Aaron Rodgers.
His performance on the field speaks for itself. If his teammates can perform at the same level, the Packers will ultimately benefit later on in the season, as a result of the improved pass protection for Aaron Rodgers.
7. Center: Max Unger (Seattle Seahawks)
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Max Unger has made quite a transition to the center position after having limited experience at the most crucial position on the offensive line.
However, the former Oregon Ducks lineman has flourished with the Seattle Seahawks. He has benefited from the coaching of Tom Cable, who is arguably the best offensive line coach in the game.
Unger has anchored a Seahawks offensive line that has provided great running lanes for Marshawn Lynch and currently boasts the sixth-best rushing offense in the league.
Under Pete Carrol, the Seahawks continue to benefit from developing their young players by watching them play at an elite level each week.
8. Defensive End: Chandler Jones (New England Patriots)
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It's rare to give a rookie the label of becoming a breakout player, but Chandler Jones is living up to all the Draft-day hype thus far in his first NFL season.
Jones has been making an immediate impact for the Patriots pass rush, recording three sacks and putting more pressure on opposing offensive lines to also account for Vince Wilfork and the Patriots defensive front.
He's an early favorite for defensive rookie of the year.
9. Defensive Tackle: Marcell Dareus (Buffalo Bills)
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Marcell Dareus was drafted in 2011 by the Buffalo Bills to help improve a defensive front that was one of the weaker units in the league at the time.
Despite the acquisition of Mario Williams and the emergence of Kyle Williams, Dareus has been the most consistent pass rusher during the slow 2012 start for the Bills.
Over the years, many defensive tackles in the first round haven't managed to elevate their performance to the pro level. This has not been the case for Dareus, who is primed to continue performing at a high level with the Bills defense.
10. Inside Linebacker: Lavonte David (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
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Rookie linebacker Lavonte David is arguably the most surprising rookie through the first month of the 2012 season. Although Mark Barron receives a lot of the accolades when discussing the Buccaneers draft class, David has significantly improved a defense that has struggled mightily over the last few years.
He began impressing back in training camp, when starting positions were up for the taking. Greg Schiano has developed many linebackers in the past that are fundamentally sound and rarely miss assignments.
David has emerged as the leader of this defense one month into the season, which is a positive sign for the future of this talented rookie.
11. Outside Linebacker: Bruce Irvin (Seattle Seahawks)
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Bruce Irvin was one of the more discussed prospects during the 2012 NFL Draft, in large part due to the concerns of his being selected too high as a first-round pick.
However, Irvin is making his presence known on this Seahawks defensive front by recording 2.5 sacks in his first four career games.
The rare athletic ability that Irvin possesses will allow him to evolve into one of the league's better pass rushers in Seattle.
12. Cornerback: Janoris Jenkins (St. Louis Rams)
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Janoris Jenkins was arguably the best cornerback in the 2012 draft, but questions about his decision-making off the field resulted in his falling to the St. Louis Rams in the second round.
Fortunately for the Rams, Jenkins is playing at an All-Pro caliber level early on in the 2012 season. Although Jenkins is known for his extreme athletic ability, he has benefited from being around Cortland Finnegan and has become more physical against opposing receivers.
He is primed to become one of the top cornerbacks in the league sooner rather than later.
13. Free Safety: Nate Allen (Philadelphia Eagles)
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Nate Allen has been very impressive in 2012, with an Eagles defense that had concerns about the safety position heading into the season.
Although the dynamic duo of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has made the Eagles secondary one of the better units in the league, it has been challenged often deep down the field and has lost many one-on-one battles as a result.
Fortunately, Allen has significantly improved his pass coverage, which has allowed Juan Castillo to be more aggressive with his play-calling for this elite defense.
14. Strong Safety: T.J. Ward (Cleveland Browns)
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T.J. Ward continues to show promise for a Browns defense that needs to build around its young play-makers.
After an impressive rookie campaign, Ward had a disappointing second season, in large part due to injuries.
Ward continues to be a hard-hitting safety who primarily has success against stopping the run and putting pressure on quarterbacks when the time comes.
However, he has made steady improvement in his pass coverage abilities, especially against some of the more elite passing offenses in the league.
15. Kicker: Greg Zuerlein (St. Louis Rams)
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Greg Zuerlein is already showing why he is one of the better kickers in the game despite being a rookie.
In his first four games of 2012, Zuerlein has made all 12 kicks, with seven of them being 46 yards or longer.
This includes kicking two field goals of at least 58 yards or longer in one game, which is an NFL record.
With the lack of quality kickers existing in the NFL today, the Rams struck gold on a sixth-round pick who could become the best in the business very shortly.
16. Punter: Brett Kern (Tennessee Titans)
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Brett Kern has been impressive early on with the Titans in his fourth season with the team.
Although the stats aren't exactly in his favor, Kern has displayed quality performances through the first four games of 2012, with seven of his 19 punts landing inside the 20.
He hasn't been put in the best position to succeed due to a struggling Titans offense that hasn't given Kern the best field position to work with.
When given the opportunity, Kern tends to deliver more often than not for a team that relies heavily on good field position.
Matt Miselis is a veteran NFL FC for B/R who has been featured on ESPN.com, CBS Sports and the L.A. Times. Follow him on Twitter: @MattMiselisNFL