Popular expectations of NFL players often do not turn into reality. The players who are most discussed in December are rarely the ones who were discussed in August.
Expectations come from many places—mostly past success, media hype and sometimes general controversy and noise. Yet usually top game-changers are not recognized until well into the season.
Looking past the noise and past the hype, I will talk about six NFL players who are going to drive their teams' success and playoff hopes in 2013. Exceeding expectations means two things. The first is having on-the-field success that results in individual production and wins. The second is how much these guys are currently flying under the radar or even facing unwarranted criticism.
By definition, many of these guys are currently being criticized or written off. It may take until October or even November before they see any real media love.
Nonetheless, here are six guys who—come December—will be basking in NFL success.
New York Giants running back David Wilson was drafted with the last pick of the first round in 2012. His rookie year was somewhat of a disappointment. He got off to a rough start in Week 1, losing a fumble on his first touch in a season-opening loss to the division-rival Dallas Cowboys.
It took Wilson time to earn the trust of the Giants' coaching staff. In each of the first 13 weeks of the season, Wilson received less than 10 offensive touches. One of the big roadblocks for Wilson was starting back Ahmad Bradshaw, who has recently been cut. However, Wilson also lost snaps to Andre Brown, the Giants' backup running back.
Expect to see Wilson not only take over the starting role in 2013 but also excel in it. He is significantly faster than the other backs the Giants had in 2012 and has promise as both a kick returner and a full-time back.
Wilson demonstrated his potential in the game where he got his biggest workload. In Week 14, with the Giants playing host to the New Orleans Saints, Wilson ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. That performance also earned him a C.J. Spiller-esque game rating from Pro Football Focus.
Heading into 2013, Wilson has all the obvious signs of a breakout player. He is young, athletic and talented, and he is going to moving up from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chart. Expect to see some interesting things from him this year.
Also do not be surprised to see his name start coming up in fantasy discussions.
The combination of an ACL injury and a looming contract situation have (incredibly) pushed future Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis into trade rumors. Countless rumors have flown around, including the suggestion that the Kansas City Chiefs might offer packages including their No. 1 overall draft pick.
Whether Revis will be a Jet or not in 2013 is unknown. However, wherever he ends up, he will dramatically exceed expectations.
His ACL injury kept him off the field for most of 2012, and the tidal wave of negative attention hitting the Jets has distracted many writers and fans from just how historically unique and great Revis is, to the point that some are actually comparing Revis to the young and relatively unproven Richard Sherman.
There is always the possibility that the ACL tear will not fully heal. However, the probability of that has decreased in recent history. Many NFL players—most notably running back Adrian Peterson—have been able to recover to top form from ACL tears (Revis' 2013 situation bears many similarities to Peterson's situation in 2012).
Assuming Revis is healthy for 2013, then any expectation other than for him to go right back to being one of the most dominant players in the league is too low. In Revis' last healthy season—2011—he had one of the all-time great seasons by a cornerback. Revis graded out at Pro Football Focus with an overall rating of 24.6. The next closest cornerback was Brent Grimes of the Atlanta Falcons at 17.2. That jump of 7.4 points is astronomical compared with the small fractions that usually separate top-level players.
Revis went all 17 weeks of the 2011 regular season without having anything less than an outstanding performance. He easily out-classed every wide receiver he faced. 2011 also included a particularly unique first half to the season, where Revis went half a year giving up only 10 total catches and an opposing quarterback rating of 2.9. As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus put it:
[Revis] is raising the bar for the position and giving renewed spirit to the phrase ‘shutdown corner,’ something only recently thought to be extinct as a species... He has yet to give up a touchdown, though he has scored one of his own. Opposing quarterbacks are just as likely to have the ball picked (four times) or batted down (another six times) as they are to have it caught by their intended receiver when they challenge Revis’ coverage.
Revis is the only shutdown cornerback left in the modern NFL and is arguably the only cornerback who dramatically impacts every snap of the game, including running plays. Barring injury, he should be a lock for the All-Pro team and one of the early favorites for Defensive Player of the Year (along with defensive end J.J. Watt).
Like his team as a whole, Chicago Bears rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey had a disappointing season. He was only able to get on the field for 10 games due to injuries. In those games, he garnered only 24 receptions and three touchdowns.
Similar to fellow second-round draft pick Stephen Hill, Jeffrey was unable to stay on the field long enough to get fully integrated in his team's offense.
Nevertheless, with his skill-set, it is much too early to be writing off Jeffrey. Jeffrey will likely have less hype heading into his second season than he did heading into his rookie year. Yet his 2013 season will be far more productive.
I'm excited because this kid has the potential to be an All-Pro one year. If he just changes some little things, the way he approaches the game as far as physically and mentally, he's going to be a beast. Because he has that dog in him, he has that in him, that you want in a receiver ... a guy who is going to make plays for you.
With his health and ideally a healthy Jay Culter throwing to him, 2013 looks to be a big year for Jeffrey.
One way to look at the Denver Broncos' 2013 playoff run would be to say they were defeated in the second round.
Another way would be to say they lost in double overtime to the Super Bowl champions. The 13-3 Broncos are going to be among the favorites headed into the 2013 regular season, and a big part of that should be wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
A first-round draft pick in 2010, Thomas remained somewhat under the radar until this past season, in part due to the Broncos' Tim Tebow-led offense that involved hardly any passing. As soon as Peyton Manning came to Denver, Thomas began putting together one big game after another.
Awareness of Thomas rose in 2012, but not as much as it should have. He deserves plenty of credit for standing out as the clear No. 1 target for Manning. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas had more total impact on the Broncos than Calvin Johnson did on the Detroit Lions, despite Johnson having a record-breaking season.
A key part of Thomas' impact is in the two areas of a wide receiver's game that go largely unnoticed: run blocking and avoiding penalties. He is one of the best in the NFL at both of those important skills. His receiving numbers—1,434 yards an 10 touchdowns—are only part of the picture.
As Manning and Thomas get another offseason to work with each other, expect that tandem to become one of the most elite tandems in the league.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has received more unwarranted criticism than any other NFL player in recent memory. For that reason alone he deserves to be on this list.
After being a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl halfway through the 2012 season, Smith suffered a concussion and lost his starting job. Despite being a legitimate MVP contender before the injury, Smith has now become primarily the butt of a plethora of jokes.
Sitting on the bench for his replacement (Colin Kaepernick) has tarnished Smith's entire image. However, in 2013 he will again get the opportunity to start, assuming he gets traded. The Kansas City Chiefs are the front-runners right now, but the trade situation is still up in the air.
Wherever Smith goes, he will be a huge success and a contender for Comeback Player of the Year. To see this, one only has to look at the first half of 2012, when Smith consistently put up MVP-caliber numbers.
With a completion percentage greater than 70, a 2.6 touchdown to interception ratio, 11.4 yards per completion and a 104.1 quarterback rating, Smith was right up there with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Granted it was only for half a season, but there is no reason to think that at age 28 he cannot keep it up.
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of Smith's national image is that he is a game manager who only throws short passes. His yards per pass in 2012 were equal to that of Peyton Manning. To quote fellow quarterback and fellow MVP-candidate Aaron Rodgers:
I think [game manager] is a condescending term for quarterbacks. I don't think [Alex Smith] is a game manager. I think he's a guy who takes care of the football and makes a lot of plays. I don't think he got the respect that he deserves. I've been friends with him since we were 21 and I've followed his career. I definitely pull for him and enjoy watching him play.
New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson tops this list for two reasons. The first is that he has shockingly little name recognition, despite being one of the best individual players in the NFL. The second is that he is primed to dominate his position in 2013.
It is not hard to understand why Wilkerson is so unrecognized. He plays defensive end in a 3-4 defense, perhaps the least noticed position in the NFL. Furthermore, in spite of his production the Jets went 6-10 and failed to reach the playoffs in 2012.
Nonetheless, Wilkerson's individual play and improvement in his second season was astonishing. With teammate Darrelle Revis injured for most of the year, Wilkerson stepped straight into the role of best player on the Jets and developed into a complete player who kept his team's defense prominent, despite the failings of their offensive counterparts.
For the year, Wilkerson was the second-rated 3-4 defensive end, behind Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. He is most dominant against the running game, where he ranks only slightly behind Watt as the best in the NFL. His 57 tackles tie him with Watt for the most in the NFL at the position.
Where Wilkerson remains the most underrated nationally is as a pass-rusher. He is fifth out of 3-4 ends in the league with 22 quarterback hurries, but he is not often mentioned as one the premier NFL pass-rushers. He is tied with Haloti Ngata and ahead of Justin Smith, both of whom received comparable amounts of snaps.
A key reason that Wilkerson has stayed under the radar is that he has had multiple sacks turned into intentional-grounding penalties. Despite having the same effect as a sack, an intentional grounding penalty deprives defensive players of the credit for a sack. He has also not had quality linebacker play around him to help turn his pressures into sacks. With the Jets likely to draft an outside linebacker at No. 9 overall in the 2013 draft, that situation could change drastically in 2013.
Regardless of how the Jets fair as a team in 2013, Wilkerson is in prime position to earn the Pro Bowl bid he deserved this past season and become a dominant All-Pro. If the Jets can find team success, then Wilkerson will find himself thrust into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
Without a doubt, Wilkerson will vastly exceed the expectations of anyone who has never heard his name before.