NFL Predictions 2011: 6 Second-Year Pros Poised for Breakout Season
In the NFL offseason each year, we all take a shot at predicting how the newest draft class will fare in their first season as professionals.
Some will mesmerize us with their seamless transition to the next level, while others will crumble under the pressure of being a top draft selection.
For the most part, we won't see a great deal of contribution from the majority of the 2011 rookies right away. So why not glance at the 2010 class, guys with one year of pro football behind them?
They've experienced the game for a season, and go into their second year with more confidence, a better plan and a hunger to reach superstar status.
It's not a make or break season for any of the "sophomores," but it is one in which we've seen many players break out in the past.
Here's a look at six NFL-ers who'll make themselves household names with a huge 2011-2012 season.
6. Ryan Mathews: Running Back, San Diego Chargers
Many analysts had Ryan Mathews and the San Diego Chargers as a match made in heaven.
Because of his aggressive running style, great lateral quickness and speed to the outside, there was no way Mathews wouldn't have a monster, 1,000-plus yard season.
Unfortunately for Mathews and Chargers fans everywhere, he missed four games due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 3.
Sure, he still scored seven touchdowns and almost ran for 700 yards, but next season, a healthy Mathews has the ability to bust out.
After Phillip Rivers' career year in 2010, expect opposing defensive coordinators to focus their game plans around the Chargers aerial attack.
That'll give Mathews less men in the box to deal with, and should give San Diego's offensive line an easier time blocking for the run.
If he doesn't break the 1,000-yard mark and doesn't score more than 10 touchdowns, I'll be shocked.
Keep your eye on Mr. Mathews. He's bound to break out.
5. Rolando McClain: Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
Heading into the 2010 NFL draft, Rolando McClain was receiving praise from nearly every talent evaluator because of his size, speed and mainly his football IQ as the leader of Alabama's defense.
In his rookie year, he wasn't disappointing, totaling 85 tackles with a half sack and one interception. But the Black Hole was certainly expecting more out of their No. 8 overall pick.
If anyone will benefit from the year of experience at the pro level, it's McClain. He's a true student of the game, and will be faster on his reads, which should get McClain to the ball much faster.
He doesn't make his mark on a game with a lot of sacks, but he'll be called upon more often to get to the quarterback.
McClain is too talented, too instinctive and too punishing not to break out next season.
I envision a stat-line like this: 130 tackles, 85 solo, three sacks and two interceptions. This will go with a reputation across the league that you don't want to meet Rolando McClain head on in the running lane or you'll suffer dearly.
He's that kind of ferocious thumper from his linebacking spot.
4. Brandon Graham: Defensive End, Philadelphia Eagles
Brandon Graham is one of those rare individuals that gives it his all on every single down. Time remaining in the game or score mean nothing to him. He's exactly the type of player you want on your team: an overachiever.
Graham certainly isn't the most physically intimidating defensive end in the league at 6'1'', 268 pounds, but he'll stun you with a great bull rush and dip his shoulder to get to the outside.
With only 13 tackles and three sacks last year, he's got a long way to go. However, I see him on the field more in his second season, and with his work ethic, he'll get to the quarterback far more often.
He lived in opponents' backfields while at Michigan, even when he was the lone impact player on some horrible defenses.
After a year learning how offensive tackles will play him, Graham should break out.
Expect a big increase on that sack total.
3. Brandon Spikes: LB, New England Patriots
When Brandon Spikes ran a 5.01 official in the 40-yard dash at his Florida Pro Day last March, he all but ran himself out of the first round.
An extremely productive linebacker at U of F was seeing his draft stock drop before his eyes.
Well, the draft genius Bill Belichick watched the tape on Spikes and make him the Patriots second-round draft pick, No. 62 overall.
He had 61 tackles and one interception before he was suspended for the final four games because of a banned substance found in his ADD medication.
Spikes, obviously, isn't the fastest straight-line runner on turf. But he's got all the instincts to become a fantastic linebacker in Foxboro for years to come.
He stands out on tape, and after he got the chance to feel things out last year alongside Jerod Mayo, Spikes should be in for a huge 2011.
2. Jimmy Graham: Tight End, New Orleans Saints
I tried going a little outside the box here, but when you look at Jimmy Graham, what he did as a rookie and the situation he's in, it's hard not to believe he's primed for a breakout 2011 season.
Graham instantly became the starter the moment Jeremy Shockey was shipped to Carolina.
He caught 31 passes for 356 yards, and had a respectable five touchdowns last year as the backup. You know how Drew Brees loves to get the ball to all his receiving targets.
Graham is an opposing tight end at 6'6'' 260 pounds with basketball abilities, having played hoops for the University of Miami along with football.
We're all fully aware of what Antonio Gates has done in the NFL after his time as a college basketball player.
The Saints grabbed Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft, which will force opposing defenses to load the box more frequently.
That'll open up the middle for Graham, and believe me, Brees won't miss him often.
1. Sam Bradford: Quarterback, St. Louis Rams
The 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Sam Bradford has already had his breakout season right?
I'm not trying to take away from the hardware he took home last year—he deserved it—but with Bradford's abilities, we've just scratched the surface.
He finished the year throwing for just over 3,500 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions at a completion percentage of 60.
Bradford did all this with hardly any downfield targets.
Danny Amendola was his leading receiver.
You think the front office doesn't realize the potential in Bradford, and that they need to add weapons?
They drafted tight end Lance Kendricks and wide receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas to help make things easier.
Oh, and quarterback guru Josh McDaniels is now calling the shots on offense.
What's not to like?