Declaring a Star For Every NFL Team

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Declaring a Star For Every NFL Team
As evidenced by his standout play in consecutive prime-time games, Pittsburgh outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is enjoying a breakout season in 2008.

Not that any of this surprises his defensive coordinator.

"The first day that we had him at practice, the tight end took off on a deep route and LaMarr jumped up and knocked the ball away," said Dick LeBeau, referring to Woodley's rookie campaign in 2007. "I was pretty sure that we were in good shape."

That's bad news for opposing offenses. Not only do his 5.5 sacks rank third in the NFL, Woodley's emergence has helped create pass-rush opportunities for fellow outside linebacker James Harrison (6.5 sacks).

Woodley's skills were on display in victories over Baltimore and Jacksonville that have lifted Pittsburgh (4-1) atop the AFC North. Following an eight-tackle, 1.5-sack effort against Baltimore, Woodley had six more stops while twice tossing Jaguars quarterback David Garrard for losses in last Sunday's 26-21 road win.

"I knew what type of player I was for a long time as far as getting to the quarterback," Woodley said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "That's one of the things I've always been best at in high school and (the University of Michigan). The thing now is going out and proving to everybody else what I can do."

A 2007 second-round draft pick, Woodley showed flashes as a rookie with six sacks (including the playoffs). But in making the conversion from college defensive end, Woodley wasn't well-rounded enough in coverage to assume a starting role.

Woodley's development gave Pittsburgh the luxury of allowing 2007 starter Clark Haggans to leave for Arizona via free agency during the off-season.

"It's a big transition," said Woodley, who received the Lombardi Award as college football's top defensive lineman his senior season. "At end, you can just rush the quarterback all day. At outside linebacker, you have a lot more responsibility. You have to know different offensive sets because if any type of motion comes your way, you might go from being a pass rusher to having to cover. Your assignments are always changing."

Looking back, the Steelers would have been justified taking Woodley in the first round of last year's draft rather than disappointing linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers, though, deserve credit for once again successfully identifying a college end with the athleticism to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 zone-blitz scheme LeBeau crafted in the 1970s.

"He fits us perfectly," LeBeau said.

Here is a look at 31 other players who have become emerging players for their respective teams:

AFC North

Cincinnati: SS Chinedum Ndukwe. The winless Bengals have sorely lacked impact defensive plays but Ndukwe has provided a few of them. Starting the past four games in place of the injured Dexter Jackson (thumb), Ndukwe is atop the team's defensive rankings in sacks (one) and interceptions (one) to go along with 26 tackles.

Baltimore: RB Le'Ron McClain. Injuries to Willis McGahee have given McClain the chance to prove he is more than just a blocking fullback. The 6-foot, 260-pound McClain has rumbled for 266 yards and four touchdowns.

Cleveland: LB Alex Hall. Although he comes from a Division II college (St. Augustine), this 2008 seventh-round pick is showing signs of becoming something the Browns desperately need: an impact pass rusher. One of Hall's two sacks this season helped preserve a 20-12 victory over Cincinnati.

AFC East

Miami: LB Matt Roth. More remarkable than his emergence is the fact 3-4 specialists Nick Saban and Dom Capers didn't recognize the alligator-armed Roth was better suited at outside linebacker than defensive end. Roth's successful conversion under the Bill Parcells regime has helped create more opportunities for fellow OLB Joey Porter (5.5 sacks).

New York Jets: WR Chansi Stuckey. Jets quarterback Brett Favre offered high praise by saying he "likes everything" about a second-year player who spent last year on injured reserve (foot). Stuckey, who impressed Favre with his hands and maneuvering in tight spaces, has scored on three of his 14 catches.

New England: LB Jerod Mayo. Yes, a Patriots linebacker under the age of 30 can flourish. A 2008 first-round pick, Mayo already ranks second on the Patriots in tackles with 34.

Buffalo: QB Trent Edwards. The second-year pro was enjoying a magical season before being sidelined with a concussion in last Sunday's loss to Arizona. Edwards has shown poise beyond his years, leading the Bills to fourth-quarter comebacks in three of their four victories.

AFC West

San Diego: RB Darren Sproles. Already a quality kickoff returner, Sproles is now making an impact on offense despite being undersized at 5-foot-6 and 181 pounds. Sproles already has generated a career-high 269 yards from scrimmage as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup.

Denver: K Matt Prater. Prater's improved accuracy on field goals has made him more than a kickoff specialist. Prater has made nine of 10 field goals this season, including kicks of 56 and 55 yards in Denver's past two games.

Oakland: RB Michael Bush. After spending his rookie season on injured reserve (leg), Bush is distinguishing himself in a crowded backfield that also includes Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden. The bruising Bush ranks second on the Raiders with 193 rushing yards and one touchdown on 44 carries.

Kansas City: P Dustin Colquitt. Further proving that every cloud has a silver lining, Kansas City's offensive struggles have bolstered Colquitt's Pro Bowl chances. Colquitt leads the AFC in punts (30) and attempts downed inside the 20-yard line (13) while also posting strong gross and net averages of 48.0 and 41.0 yards.

AFC South

Houston: RB Steve Slaton. Durability concerns caused the 5-foot-9, 203-pound Slaton to slip into the third round of April's draft. Slaton has responded by becoming Houston's top rusher with a 5.0-yard per carry average and three touchdowns.

Jacksonville: WR Matt Jones. Already considered a first-round draft bust, Jones' NFL career further spiraled after an off-season arrest for cocaine possession. But maybe that was the wake-up call he needed, as Jones' 23 catches for 269 yards put him on pace for career highs in both categories.

Indianapolis: WR Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez is starting to blossom like fellow Colts wideout Reggie Wayne did in his second NFL season. Gonzalez has 17 catches for 225 yards and should become even more effective once the Colts offense gets back in sync.

Tennessee: CB Cortland Finnegan. Pacman who? Finnegan's emergence -- he's tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four -- has helped the unbeaten Titans move past the Adam Jones debacle.

NFC East

New York Giants: DT Fred Robbins. Already known as a solid run-stuffer, Robbins has helped the Giants compensate for the loss of standout pass rushers Osi Umenyiora (injury) and Michael Strahan (retirement). Robbins has a team-high four sacks through four games.

Dallas: RB Felix Jones. Darren McFadden's college understudy has quickly emerged as one of the few NFL players who is a legitimate scoring threat on every touch. Jones has gotten into the end zone on runs or kickoff returns in four of Dallas' first five games.

Washington: QB Jason Campbell. No player on the 4-1 Redskins has improved more under first-year head coach Jim Zorn than Campbell. Along with six touchdown throws, Campbell has yet to throw an interception in 97 pass attempts.

Philadelphia: DE Juqua Parker. A new name isn't the only change for this eight-year veteran. The former Juqua Thomas is playing his best football at the age of 30 with 3.5 sacks in five games.

NFC North

Minnesota: S Tyrell Johnson. The only rookie starter on a veteran defense, Johnson is coming off his best game in Monday night's 30-27 win at New Orleans. Johnson had a fumble recovery, interception and quarterback hurry to go along with five tackles.

Chicago: QB Kyle Orton. If he played like this before, Orton wouldn't have spent the past two seasons as a backup. Orton (seven touchdowns, four interceptions) has provided a steadying influence on an improving offense.

Detroit: WR Calvin Johnson. With 19 catches for 292 yards and two scores, Johnson is finally starting to fulfill the high expectations that came with being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. The only problem is that Johnson's success is coming at the expense of disgruntled wideout Roy Williams, who could get traded before next Tuesday's NFL deadline.

Green Bay: QB Aaron Rodgers. He hasn't made Packers fans forget about Brett Favre quite yet, but Rodgers is off to a good start. In particular, Rodgers has shown toughness by playing through a shoulder injury and is the NFL's third-best passer on third downs (29 of 47 for 411 yards).

NFC South

Carolina: T Jeff Otah. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart wouldn't be off to such a good start if this fellow rookie weren't paving the way. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Otah already is showing signs of being a dominating right tackle.

Tampa Bay: DE Gaines Adams. He has two sacks and two interceptions, but personal statistics aren't the only way to measure how much Adams has grown in his second NFL season. The blocking attention that Adams is drawing has helped DE Greg White register a team-high 3.5 sacks.

Atlanta: Matt Ryan. In retrospect, maybe Miami and St. Louis shouldn't have snubbed Ryan with the first two picks in this year's draft. With only four turnovers in his first five NFL starts, Ryan has shown poise beyond his years for the surprising Falcons (3-2).

New Orleans: WR Lance Moore. A thumb injury suffered in the season opener by WR Marques Colston has given this third-year player the chance to shine. Moore (22 catches, 234 yards, two TDs) is the second-leading receiver for the NFL's top-ranked pass offense.

NFC West

Seattle: TE John Carlson. Finally, the Seahawks have a quality tight end that the offense has missed during the Mike Holmgren coaching era. Carlson, the second tight end chosen in this year's draft, has a team-high 11 catches.

Arizona: WR Steve Breaston. With WR Bryant Johnson having left via free agency during the off-season, Breaston has gotten the opportunity to show he can be more than an effective returner. The fleet Breaston has 16 catches for 199 yards in Arizona's past two games.

San Francisco: LB Parys Haralson. This third-year veteran has surpassed Manny Lawson as San Francisco's best pass rusher. Drafted four rounds lower than Lawson in 2006, Haralson has a team-high 3.5 sacks.

St. Louis: Chris Long. Long is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreadful season for the winless Rams. He is tied for the NFL rookie lead in sacks with two through four games.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.  To see a photo gallery of the players, click here.

More of Alex's articles can be found here.

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