While I didn't waste my life watching the "Schedule Release Show" on NFL Network (...this year), going over my Bills' schedule on NFL.com has admittedly gotten me pretty excited about the possibility of a 2011 NFL season after all!
In an attempt to channel my giddiness, I figured I would share which players I feel are poised to make some noise this season.
Without further filler, here they are (in no particular order):
1. CB Crezdon Butler, Steelers
Butler is a guy with good ball skills and recovery speed. I feel he's a very good fit in Pittsburgh and will challenge for a starting spot this season. While the Steelers like to retain their homegrown players, Ike Taylor is poised to really cash in and may walk in free agency. I believe it's only a matter of time before Butler seizes a starting spot.
2. DE Brandon Graham, Eagles
I was very tempted to put S Nate Allen here, but he started most of last season and I feel he's already "out," so to speak. The Eagles' first-round choice in 2010, Michigan DE Brandon Graham, is ready to steal the spotlight. While starting in six games and appearing in 13, he recorded only three sacks last season before getting injured. If he can maintain his explosiveness despite tearing his ACL, Graham should beat out Juqua Parker for the starting spot opposite Trent Cole.
3. NT Dan Williams, Cardinals
It's tough for a NT to break out, in the sense that most don't really pay attention to the them. However, I want to give Williams a shout out. He underwhelmed his first season, not registering a start. However, Williams has the size and temperament to become an unheralded, effective starter in this league. He needs to play a bit more gap responsible at this point, but he'll get there.
4. DE Derrick Morgan, Titans
Morgan registered 1.5 sacks in four games before losing the season to injury. Heading into last year's draft, I viewed him as the complete package at DE. New DC Jerry Gray has stated that he'd like the defense to get bigger, which likely means that the surprisingly productive Jason Babin will not be in the team's plans next season. At 278 pounds, Morgan looks poised to step in and wreak some havoc on the AFC South.
5. S Reshad Jones, Dolphins
A physically gifted player, Jones was a complete steal in the fifth round. He nabbed only one pick last season, but that was in a limited role and only two starts. I would be very surprised if he wasn't manning one of the starting safety spots this season for the 'Fins.
6. QB Levi Brown, Bills
I've been high on this guy since I first watched him play two Octobers ago. Brown has all the tools and intangibles that a starting-caliber QB should have. Despite giving him a second-round grade last April, I did view the Troy product as a raw project that would need some time to catch up to the speed of the NFL game. Unfortunately, he was jerked around all last season, and I'm concerned it may have been a lost year for him. At any rate, given the opportunity (and some patience), this guy will make some noise in the NFL.
7. S Darrell Stuckey, Chargers
After only appearing in one game last season, expectations are pretty low for the 110th overall selection. At Kansas, Stuckey demonstrated leadership, instincts and determination. In short, he looked like a potential playmaker at the next level. With looming free agent Eric Weddle and his representation mystified by a lack of a big-time contract extension offer, someone should tell them to look no further than Stuckey. I'm not sure there is a GM out there that has more confidence in his picks than A.J. Smith.
8. WR Dezmon Briscoe, Buccaneers
Originally drafted by the Bengals in the sixth round, the team knew they had a talented player but didn't have the roster room to keep that many WRs (T.O, Chad, Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley, Andre Caldwell, Quan Crosby). They tried to sneak him through waivers at final cuts, but the Bucs offered him more money, and he signed on with their squad instead, infuriating HC Marvin Lewis. If Arrelious Benn cannot recover from his injury, don't be surprised if Briscoe is one of Josh Freeman's primary targets.
9. CB Alterraun Verner, Titans
I'm not sure if I can get away with this one, considering the UCLA product had 101 tackles and three picks last season in his 12 starts. I'm going to go for it anyways, because I'm a fan of Verner's and I'm writing the article. While he can be a bit overly aggressive at times, the guy has a knack for baiting QBs into making poor throws. He had playmaker written all over him heading into last year's draft, and I expect another solid season from him.
10. WR Malcolm Kelly, Redskins
Sorry, I realize he is the only non-2010 draft pick on this list, but he's really the only one that stuck out to me. I was so excited when he fell to the Bills second-round pick in 2008, only for the team to select Indiana's James Hardy! That point aside, he has struggled to stay healthy, which, amazingly enough, is a prerequisite for being productive.
Unlike the WR the 'Skins took before Kelly in Devin Thomas, the team has yet to release Malcolm, despite the frustration he's caused. It looked like his coming-out party was going to be in 2010 after posting his first career 100-yard game against the Chargers in 2009's Week 17. However, he missed all of last season due to a hamstring injury. If he's going to finally reach that potential with the team that drafted him, it pretty much has to be this year.