Colin Kaepernick led his team to the Super Bowl after being a backup to start the year.
Alfred Morris, Russell Wilson and Doug Martin were some of the biggest names in the NFL this year. What made their respective seasons even more impressive were the low expectations that were set for each of them at the beginning of the year.
From rookies taken late in the draft to players just struggling for a starting role, the league provided some pretty incredible stories this year. With so many pleasant surprises, it’s quite difficult to pick the 10 most exciting ones.
Here are the 10 players that made the cut, and a quick prediction of how they will do next season.
Blair Walsh had quite an impressive first year, making 35 field goals.
The Minnesota Vikings found their kicker for the future in Blair Walsh.
Walsh had an incredible rookie season, making kick after kick. After a successful college career at the University of Georgia, he stepped it up big-time, making 35 of his 38 field goal attempts. Those 35 made field goals were the most in the NFL.
Confidence is a big key for kickers in the NFL, and Walsh has more confidence than anyone. When you make 92 percent of your field goals, including an amazing 10-for-10 from 50+ yards away.
Expect more big things from Walsh in 2013. His leg will continue to be one of the best in the league for quite some time.
Brian Hartline became a solid option for a young quarterback.
The Miami Dolphins have a lot to things to be excited about for next year, and the emergence of Brian Hartline is one of the big ones.
Ryan Tannehill may have found a consistent option this year in Hartline, who finally had his breakout season. After three years of mediocrity, he was finally able to be a consistent target, catching 74 balls for 1,083 yards.
As Tannehill improves, Hartline will find himself with better numbers. The Dolphins will also continue to work on improving the running game, which will likely give Hartline some big plays off of play action.
While he only had one touchdown this year, he will surely find himself in the end zone more frequently in 2013.
Rudolph was the Pro Bowl MVP this year.
The Minnesota Vikings were happy to have Adrian Peterson back, but Kyle Rudolph was one of the unsung heroes on the team. While the team was ranked second to last in the league in passing, he was the one bright spot through the air.
While Percy Harvin was out due to injury, Rudolph was able to step up. With a depleted group of receivers, he was able to become a safety blanket for Christian Ponder, especially in the red zone. He had 493 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, which was good enough to put him in the Pro Bowl.
Ponder is showing signs of improvement in the NFL, and will hopefully get a few more options to throw to next season. With the return of Harvin and the likely arrival of another receiver, Rudolph's numbers may slip a little. It seems unlikely that he will score nine touchdowns again, but he will still be an important part of the passing game.
Richard Sherman developed quite a reputation this year.
The Seattle Seahawks went under the radar for quite some time this season, but Richard Sherman certainly did not.
Sherman developed a reputation for being one of the most physical defensive backs in the NFL this season, pressing and frustrating big names like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. Besides containing these receivers, he was also able to make some terrific plays, grabbing eight interceptions on the year.
People were questioning Sherman at the end of the season due to troubles with the league's banned substance policies, but Sherman will make everyone forget about that next year. At just 24 years old, he has a long career ahead of him, and next year will likely be just as exciting as this one was.
Casey Hayward is a real contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Ted Thompson has proved year after year that he is one of the best at drafting in the NFL. He proved this once again this year, taking Casey Hayward in the second round.
The Green Bay Packers have to be thrilled with how well Hayward played in his first season. After injuries depleted the secondary, he was able to fill in, proving to be one of the better defensive players on the team. His six interceptions were the most by any rookie this season, and he is a leading candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
With a struggling defense, Hayward proved to be one of the brighter spots. As Charles Woodson continues to age, expect Hayward to be a much bigger part of the defensive scheme. He will likely have another big year, as he proved that he could run with some of the best receivers in the league.
J.J. Watt is the likely winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.
After an impressive 2011 postseason performance, the Houston Texans knew that they had something special in J.J. Watt.
But even the Texans couldn't have predicted the incredible season that Watt had. He led the NFL in sacks with 20.5, nearly breaking the sack record held by Michael Strahan. Besides giving opposing quarterbacks nightmares, he was also able to deflect passes at the line. He had 16 deflected passes on the year, a number that's simply unheard of for a linemen.
Watt will struggle to keep up those kinds of sack numbers for a second straight year. He will likely draw a lot more double-teams, which will keep him from getting to the quarterback as often. However, this will give other players on the team opportunities to pressure the passer. Don't expect another 20-sack season from Watt, but he will still get more than a few.
Beware of the Muscle Hampster.
More commonly known as "The Muscle Hamster," Doug Martin had quite an electrifying year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Martin started the season off pretty slow, but then exploded in his eighth game against the Oakland Raiders. He ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns, officially putting him on the map. He ended the season at fifth in the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns, with 1,454 yards and 11 scores.
Martin was a bit overworked by the end of the year, racking up the fourth most carries in the league. If he continues to be used this much, injuries may start to occur. He will likely have another solid season, but be on the lookout for any signs of fatigue.
Russell Wilson proved to Pete Carroll that he made the right decision starting him over Matt Flynn.
When coming out of Wisconsin, a lot of teams were skeptical about Russell Wilson due to his height.
They were definitely wrong about him.
The Seattle Seahawks decided to take a chance on him, taking him in the third round. After an impressive training camp, Pete Carroll decided to go with him as the starter.
Wilson had a fantastic year. He threw 26 passing touchdowns, tying Peyton Manning's rookie record. He also led his team to an 11-5 record and the NFC divisional round, falling just short to the Atlanta Falcons.
Wilson showed everyone that he is a good dual-threat quarterback. With the read-option developing in the NFL, Wilson could be one of the better pass-oriented quarterbacks to run it in the league next year. With an entire offseason to keep learning, expect Wilson to be one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL for the next decade.
Morris almost overshadowed RG3 this year....almost.
While Robert Griffin III was getting all of the attention on the Washington Redskins, Alfred Morris was making a name for himself the hard way.
The Washington Redskins selected Morris in the sixth round, and he worked his way up from there. He was named the starter at the beginning of the year after a great training camp, edging out Roy Helu and Tim Hightower.
Since then, Morris has never looked back. He ended the season with 1,613 rushing yards, putting him at second in the league behind Adrian Peterson. He also had 13 touchdowns, only two behind Arian Foster for the league lead.
Morris had a great season, but next year may be a problem. The read-option helped Morris greatly, but with the injuries to RG3, the Redskins might have to change the way that they play. Morris will still be a productive back again, but the defense will be focused on him more than they were last year.
Just like everyone predicted, Colin Kaepernick is leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
The San Francisco 49ers went into the season with Alex Smith, and are now in the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is by far the most surprising player in the NFL this year. Smith was playing great at quarterback when a concussion sidelined him. After an amazing game by Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh made a tough decision at the time and decided to stick with the young player out of Nevada.
Now, Harbaugh looks like a genius. Kaepernick was able to take control of the team, burning defenses through both the air and the ground. He has been sensational through the playoffs so far, including running for a record-breaking 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers. Now, he is looking to bring the 49ers yet another Lombardi Trophy.
It is quite clear that the 49ers will stick with Kaepernick as their starter for next season. With such a solid team around him, it is likely that he will lead his team to another deep playoff run next year. Expect Kaepernick to be a scoring machine next year, and maybe even a Pro Bowl selection.