NFL 2011 Season: 10 Players Who Are Rising Stars and You Should Keep an Eye On

Ryan CookFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2010

NFL 2011 Season: 10 Players Who Are Rising Stars and You Should Keep an Eye On

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    If there's one thing that the 2010 NFL season has proven so far, it's that you don't have to be a first-round draft choice to make an impact in this league.

    Prior to September's opening kickoff, the usual abundance of talent was showcased in the NFL's front window, as the league's fan favorites stole headlines and occupied the spotlight in typical preseason manner.

    Yes, Peyton Manning was the questioned man following the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl loss. Tom Brady was queried on his return back into the MVP discussion. And, of course, Brett Favre lingered in the background after caving in to the Minnesota Vikings quarterback plea.

    Through it all, though, somehow the NFL's young guns have taken over the tabloids a little this season, thanks to the likes of Miles Austin, Clay Matthews and Mark Sanchez, who capped off a brilliant 2009 campaign in unexpected fashion.

    What did that leave for this year?

    A new-found demand on the league's up-and-coming stars that hasn't been seen in, well, forever.

    Here's a look at 10 NFL players you should keep an eye on next season and, strangely enough, most of them are rookies heading into their second seasons.

10. John Kuhn

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    The Indianapolis Colts are famous for winning Super Bowl XLI with little-to-no run game and when the Green Bay Packers found themselves without Ryan Grant after the opening week of the season, they too were left with no other choice but to attempt this seemingly impossible feat.

    How has it all turned out for Mike McCarthy and the Packers coaching staff?

    To keep it short, reasonably poor, as both Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn have struggled immensely this season to provide Green Bay with a two-headed running attack that they so desperately desired over four months ago.

    Fortunately for the Lambeau faithful, though, the last two weeks have seen a new look John Kuhn, equipped with a brash running game and a hard head for piling over defenders on his way to the goal line and six Packers' points.

    The 2011 season is unpredictable for Green Bay right now, pending what occurs should they make the postseason. In all likelihood, No. 1 running back Ryan Grant will return from a lengthy layoff and bounce back in superb form.

    With this all being said however, don't be surprised to see the Packers utilize John Kuhn on a weekly basis next year. Green Bay fans have labeled Kuhn as the third most valuable player to their offense and his 281 yards and four touchdowns certainly paint the picture for a fullback who is fast becoming a well-built running back.

    It's a stretch of the imagination, but maybe, just maybe, the Packers will have a much different running game next season thanks to Kuhn.

9. LeGarrette Blount

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    Just like the Packers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have experienced a severe shot in the arm to their running game this season, thanks to the brilliant draft selection of LeGarrette Blount earlier in April.

    Looking past Blount's pretty play this past Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay's main rushing man has managed to outmuscle Cadillac Williams for the starting role, mostly due to his 941 yards and six touchdowns on the season.

    Better than Blount's single effort, though, it is the third dimension that the rookie runner has added to the Bucs offense as a whole. Last season quarterback Josh Freeman was decent during his rookie year, throwing for 1,855 yards. But by providing him with an extra running back option, already Tampa Bay has experienced a near-playoff season.

    It's painfully obvious to say that Tampa Bay is going places in the very near future. If it wasn't for the competition in the NFC South, the Bucs may have been destined for a long run in the postseason if they were to maintain their dominance.

    Aside from what may lay ahead however, the future of LeGarrette Blount is bright. Second-year player Arian Foster underwent a huge 2010 season as the Houston Texans runner, so you can expect the very same from Blount's part.

8. Jermaine Gresham

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    After capping off a fantastic career at the tight end spot in Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, expectations were always high for Jermaine Gresham entering into his rookie season.

    Kicking off his NFL career as a Cincinnati Bengal, Gresham wasn't exactly dominant early on. In the opening month Gresham's yard totals varied and although he managed to catch a big touchdown during Week 1s clash with the New England Patriots, the next few weeks weren't all that memorable for No. 84.

    Sticking with the theme of the Bengals entire season, things went from bad to worse for Gresham, quickly. The Bengals began to throw games away. Chad Ochocinco looked raw in comparison to Terrell Owens. And Gresham struggled to post over 30 yards in several fixtures.

    However, coming out strong at the end, overall Gresham has wound up with 471 yards and four touchdowns with one week remaining.

    Are these considerably fantastic stats for a rookie tight end?

    Not exactly, but they could be much worse considering the Bengals are ranked 22nd in overall offensive yards.

    Perhaps with a few solid draft picks and a change at the head coaching spot, the Bengals can return back to their 2009 winning ways. In the meantime, look for Gresham to push toward a better season next year, depending on how the Bengals wind up as a whole.

7. Jahvid Best

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    Jahvid Best was labeled as one of the most promising aspects for the Detroit Lions season behind Ndamukong Suh, as Jim Schwartz finally seemed to have found a running game that he could rely on for years to come.

    Not to say that all of Schwartz's plan has fallen through, but Best's season has been up-and-down at best this year.

    Early on No. 44 was nearly unstoppable, rushing for up to 78 yards prior to the Lions' Week 7 bye week. With a Rookie of the Year nomination potentially on the line, Best was quickly becoming one of the most recognizable rookies in the league.

    Somehow, someway, things went wrong.

    Towards the end of the year, Best has begun to struggle in the Lions unimportant games. The term "hot and cold" is the best adage to describe Best right now, as it appears one week he is capable of rushing for 65 yards, while the next only 12.

    Consistency is the obvious problem for the Lions entire team, but Best needs to work on this issue himself. This is a clear case of rookie jitters at the moment, an issue that Best needs to overcome if he is to have a breakout year in 2011. 

6. Tim Tebow

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    As far as incredible seasons go, Kyle Orton's 2010 effort is certainly up there. As far as favoritism goes, though, Tim Tebow's stardom has been enough to slide Orton down the bench toward the end of the season and see No.15 step in under center.

    To say that this move was unpredictable would be a total lie. From Florida to Denver, Tebow was always expected to be given a shot sometime this year, but no one anticipated an absolute collapse from the Broncos this season.

    Luckily for head coach Eric Studesville, this move has worked out thus far for Denver.

    Since taking over for Orton in Week 15, Tebow has led the Broncos to a close loss against the Oakland Raiders and a win over the Houston Texans last weekend. More importantly, Tebow has also thrown for 449 yards and three touchdowns—a favorable effort as far as his future is concerned.

    Whether or not another team will pick up Tebow is questionable, considering that Kyle Orton has earned the right to start in Denver. At the same time, though, another Broncos collapse in 2011 will definitely spur on another round of Tebow chants from Mile High supporters if this scenario should play out yet again.

    Tim Tebow is the man everyone is watching right now and something just feels different in Denver. If things keep rolling along nicely at a steady pace, Tebow may find himself top dog in no time.

5. Colt McCoy

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    The Cleveland Browns have hit a rough patch in what looked to be an extremely promising season, after slipping up in the later half of the year and now undergoing some serious head coaching questioning heading into next season.

    Amidst all of the chaos that is once again affecting the Dawg Pound, Colt McCoy is acting as the shining light for this franchise.

    Fresh from Texas, McCoy's 1,367 yards and five touchdowns this season somehow inspired the Browns to a winning attitude—significant in the team's wins over the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots earlier this year.

    The best part of McCoy's world, though, is the fact that he is a true franchise quarterback. 

    Longhorns head coach Mack Brown rallied around McCoy during Texas' glory years and if the Browns can implement that same style of offense, McCoy should be as good as gold in the years to come.

    Unfortunately, from a fan perspective we haven't seen as much as we may have liked from McCoy this year.  An injury sidelined No. 12 after the Browns scheduled bye week and with Jake Delhomme still lingering, McCoy's starting role is still far from solid.

    Should everything go to plan, McCoy will be the Browns go-to guy next season. Looking past any head coaching issues, McCoy is ready to experience a breakout second season, rather than some second-year blues.

4. Mike Wallace

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    Pittsburgh's second-year wide receiver, Mike Wallace, earns himself a spot on this list following a big-time year in black and gold, as he looks to take the postseason head-on come January.

    In all reality, Wallace's 2010 season could be labeled as fantastic. With one week remaining, Wallace has caught for 1,152 yards and nine touchdowns, leading the Steelers receiving corps ahead of Hines Ward this year.

    But one has to ask the question: What does next year have in store?

    If this season is anything to brainstorm off of, Wallace is in for another huge year.

    Pittsburgh can count its blessings for stumbling upon a receiver who has managed to replace Santonio Holmes in the passing game. Not only that, Wallace is also young and vibrant, a huge quality if the Steelers are to push for a seventh Super Bowl ring anytime soon.

    Next season is a scary thought for opposing defenses and you get the feeling that Wallace is the type of player who will only get better with age. 

    We can't call him DeSean Jackson just yet, but learning from one of the leagues best—Hines Ward—he is on the right path. 

3. Rob Gronkowski

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    New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been one of the main reasons for his team's offensive success this season. Still in his rookie year, Gronkowski has caught 36 passes this season for 444 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Next season?

    It appears that Gronkowski is set for the future in New England. Tom Brady wasn't exactly in need of another target, but the fact that he has shared the ball around extremely well this year has padded Gronkowski's rookie stats immensely.

    In 2011, the only sane prediction is to say that Gronkowski is in for bigger and better things. By the looks of it, Gronkowski may be in for a Super Bowl ring fairly early if all things going according to plan. But if that scenario falls through, he is in safe hands with the Patriots.

    Tom Brady has boosted New England to the first-ranked scoring offense in the entire league this year and it would only be typical to expect the exact same outcome next year. 

    Gronkowski is a huge factor for an already dominating franchise.

2. Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Unlike many of the candidates already on this list, Jason Pierre-Paul was a major question looking into 2010, as many folks questioned his discipline, maturity and overall skill when converting into the NFL this year.

    On the positive side, all of that worrying has amounted toward a very promising looking player.

    Currently sitting with 4.5 sacks on the year, Pierre-Paul has been a force all season long for New York, constantly piling on the pressure behind Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck on the defensive line.

    One of Pierre-Paul's most unnoticed attributes, though, is his pass blocking.  Constantly trying to swat balls down, Pierre-Paul's 6'5" NBA-like frame benefits Big Blue's defense as his career continues to draw on.

    No interceptions have been recorded from No. 90 just yet and with one week remaining, that stat column may still go unnoticed. 

    Still, next year is Pierre-Paul's time to really shine and after such a noticeable rookie year, it's hard to bet against him.

1. Joe Webb

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    It's easy to argue with Joe Webb being on top of this list. Yet again, the Vikings new starting quarterback had a big-time performance on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, passing for 195 yards and showing some legitimate speed in the Vikings 24-14 win.

    Sticking with the theme of the Eagles, recently Joe Webb has been compared to Michael Vick, for his quick-footed ways yet often-inaccurate passing ability. 

    Is this comparison really fair?

    Perhaps it is a little harsh towards Vick, but in all reality, rookie Joe Webb really does display the same qualities as No. 7 under center.

    For all of the Vikings' woes this season surrounding Brett Favre, it would be nice to see Webb really accelerate next season. Barring some kind of remarkable Favre comeback or Tarvaris Jackson's rise to the top, the starting role is Webb's for the taking if he chooses to take full advantage of this opportunity.

    Vikings fans appreciated his effort on Monday night and maybe some youth at the helm is what Minnesota is in need of.

    If one thing is for sure, Webb is the man everyone will be watching next season. The pressure is on in one of the biggest NFL cities, but if Aaron Rodgers can excel when following up a legend, there is nothing to say Joe Webb can't do the same.