NFL's Biggest Breakout Players of 2012
Every year, the NFL sees new players introduce themselves into the consciousness of football fans. Some come with great expectations, beginning a promising career, while others come out of nowhere to captivate the league.
No matter their background, these breakout players are producing at levels they have yet to experience at the NFL level. Recent examples include Victor Cruz, Cam Newton, A.J. Green and Arian Foster.
Who are some who have followed suit in 2012?
10. Blair Walsh, K
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The sixth-round rookie from Georgia has hit 16 of 17 field goals this year, with three over 50 yards.
Walsh won NFL Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 1, when he sent the game into overtime with a career-long 55-yard field goal and won the game with a 38-yarder.
He ranks second in the league in field goals made and second in field goal percentage.
9. Christian Ponder, QB
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When the Vikings selected Christian Ponder 12th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, it was considered the most questionable decision of the draft's first day. As a rookie, Ponder had ups and downs, ultimately throwing for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In his 11 games started, he completed 54.3 percent of his passes and accumulated a QBR of 33.7.
In just seven games this season, he has already thrown for 1,492 yards, with a 352-yard performance against Washington. He has raised his completion percentage to 67 percent and raised his QBR to 59.4.
Maybe even more importantly, the Vikings are atop the NFL North with a surprising 5-2 record.
8. Stevan Ridley, RB
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The Patriots finally have a run game thanks to a second-year, third-round pick from LSU. Stevan Ridley has given the Patriots another dimension, taking pressure off of Tom Brady with his 524 yards on 118 carries.
Ridley came into the year with 441 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season. He has played a much bigger role this season, trailing only Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch in rushing attempts. He is currently ranked sixth in rushing yards in the NFL and has reached the end zone four times.
7. Josh Gordon, WR
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The last time Gordon played football was in 2010 when he caught seven touchdowns for Baylor. In July of 2011, Gordon was indefinitely suspended from the Baylor football team for failing a drug test and testing positive for marijuana. He transferred to Utah in August; however, he decided to enter the 2011 supplemental draft. Unfortunately, it was too late to enter, forcing him to sit out the entire year.
The 6'3", 224-pound receiver has been measured at a 36-inch vertical and 4.52 40 time. One NFL executive told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Gordon has “Randy Moss-like” talents.
While many were skeptical about the Browns coughing up a second-round pick to take him in the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon has turned into Cleveland's most dangerous weapon. On the year, Gordon has 14 catches for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
Most importantly, he's given the Browns a bona fide home run threat, hauling in 62-yard and 71-yard touchdown throws from Brandon Weeden.
6. Alfred Morris, RB
Morris was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft. The young rookie from Florida Atlantic beat out Roy Helu, Evan Royster and Tim Hightower for the starting running back position.
Morris is currently fifth in the NFL in rushing yards with 538 on 116 carries. He also has a nose for the end zone, ranking third in the league with five rushing touchdowns. He has been heavily relied on in the Redskins potent ground game, receiving the fourth most carries of all running backs.
5. Casey Hayward, CB
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Hayward was selected in the third round from Vanderbilt, a school beginning to develop a reputation as a cornerback factory.
Despite receiving just one start, the rookie has shined on the inside. After seven weeks, Hayward is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions. He also has seven passes defended. Hayward has been at his best against good quarterbacks. He intercepted Andrew Luck once, Matt Schaub twice and Sam Bradford this past Sunday for his fourth interception.
4. James Jones, WR
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While James Jones may have been somewhat of a known commodity throughout his first five NFL seasons, he is on pace for setting career-high numbers across the board in what has become a probable Pro Bowl season.
He put together two good seasons from 2010-11. In 2010 he caught a career-high 50 balls for 679 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, he caught 38 passes for 635 yards and seven touchdowns.
In just seven games this season, Jones has filled in nicely for the injured Greg Jennings, hauling in 29 passes for 323 yards. Currently, Jones leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with seven. At this rate, he's on pace for 66 catches for 738 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Even if Jones falls short of this pace, he clearly has made his mark as a top receiving option.
3. Kyle Rudolph, TE
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The Vikings are 5-2, and Christian Ponder is thriving as their starting quarterback. Much of the credit for this success should be given to second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph, who was a four-year starter at Notre Dame, was selected as the 43rd overall pick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. In his rookie season, he caught 26 passes for 249 yards with a 9.6 yard average per reception and three receiving touchdowns.
The 6'6", 258-pound tight end has 25 receptions for 225 yards and five touchdowns only seven weeks into his sophomore campaign. He leads all tight ends, including all-time leader Tony Gonzalez, in touchdown catches this season.
2. Robert Griffin III, QB
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Robert Griffin III didn't need much time to get on this list. Just seven games into his rookie season, the former Heisman Trophy winner has officially arrived.
The 6'2", 217-pound quarterback has thrown for 1,601 yards at a 70.4 percent clip with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been a force on the ground as well, rushing 64 times for 468 yards. He is second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns with six, trailing only Arian Foster.
In his debut, he passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Saints. Another notable performance was his 138-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance against Minnesota.
Griffin added another chapter to his budding legacy with an dazzling fourth-quarter drive on the Giants, foiled only by Eli's 77-yard connection with Victor Cruz to rescue New York in the final minute. Less than halfway into the 2012 season, Griffin is a sure lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1. J.J. Watt, DE
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Known now as J.J. "Swat," the young defensive tackle from Wisconsin has been an absolute terror for opposing offenses. Watt's nickname comes from his incredible ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.
He has eight passes defended, which is the same as CB Patrick Peterson, and he trails only names like CB Richard Sherman, CB Tramon Williams, and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. In fact, Watt is the only non-defensive back among the top 35 NFL players in passes defensed. And this is his impact when he doesn't get to the quarterback!
Through seven weeks, Watt has been nearly unblockable, registering a league-leading 9.5 sacks. Watt is on pace for 22 sacks, half a sack less than Michael Strahan's NFL record 22.5-sack season in 2001. Let's remember that Watt is putting up these numbers as a 3-4 defensive end taking on double teams, not a pass-rushing defensive end in a 1-on-1 situation.
The added run responsibilities Watt is charged with make his disruptions of opposing quarterbacks that much more impressive.
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