2011 NFL Predictions: Projecting the Biggest Breakout Candidate on Each NFL Team
Once a free agency or trade rumor originates, fans are quick to salivate at the lure of a star joining their favorite squad.
Moreover, they are quick to dismiss and neglect the incumbent players on the roster, many of whom are raring to breakout and become stars of their own.
So before you continue pressuring your team to dish out invaluable draft picks and hefty contracts to foreign players, delve into the depth chart and seek out a soon-to-be star. The next Arian Foster, Brandon Lloyd, or Jamaal Charles might be there.
Every team has at least one.
Arizona Cardinals: Dan Williams
Initially pinned as a sure-fire top ten draft pick in 2010, University of Tennessee nose tackle Dan Williams slipped all the way to the Arizona Cardinals at 26.
Even though the Cards already have franchise defensive tackle, Darnell Dockett, locked up in a long term deal, the team utilizes both a 3-4 and a 4-3, opening the door for other players to receive plenty of reps. More importantly, Arizona has three defensive tackles—Gabe Watson, Alan Branch, Bryan Robinson—slated for free agency.
The door will be wide open for Williams to become a focal player on the Cardinals defense in 2011. He racked up 27 tackles in a backup role last season, and assuming he progresses, he could become a force.
Atlanta Falcons: Kroy Biermann
Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann is recognized for two things: his incredible interception return for a touchdown last season and his role on Real Housewives of Atlanta.
But by the end of the 2011 season, America might know Biermann as the Falcons' relentless pass rusher. Biermann has been slowly piecing together a very nice career (10 sacks in 16 starts), and 2011 will be his chance to breakout and shine.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrence Cody
Terrence Cody is already a household name. Legions of football fans can recall watching Alabama University's 400-pound blob rumble onto the field to monstrous cheers.
The Ravens took a second round flier on the chronically overweight "Mount Cody" during the 2010 NFL Draft, but he sparsely saw the field last season. Rather than toss him onto the field right away, it appears as though Baltimore was busy shaving Mount Cody into "Hill Cody."
He is now listed at a slim 350 pounds, and Ravens G.M. Ozzie Newsome said he believes Cody is the Raven likeliest to breakout in 2011.
Buffalo Bills: Arthur Moats
Bills running back C.J. Spiller might seem like the obvious choice here (and he will probably have a huge year in 2011 also), but linebacker Arthur Moats might be Buffalo's true budding star.
As a rookie in 2010, Moats started four games and recorded three sacks and 33 tackles. His stats aren't meant to impress, and they are not the reason Moats figures to breakout in 2011 (although they are solid numbers). Instead, it's a matter of opportunity.
The Bills seem to have given up on Aaron Maybin, and rather than pursue a pass rushing outside linebacker in the 2011 Draft, the team appears prepared to hand Moats the starting role.
His sample size is small, but if it's a valid indication, Moats is in line for future success.
Carolina Panthers: Brandon LaFell
The Carolina Panthers offense has one of the bleakest outlooks in recent memory.
Their Pro Bowl running back and wide receiver may bolt town, and they will host a quarterback competition between two unproven, prima donna youngsters.
Fortunately, not all hope is lost. Last summer, the Panthers used a third round draft pick on LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell. The pick didn't make any headlines, and neither did LaFell during his rookie season. However, he did catch a respectable 38 passes.
If Steve Smith is traded, LaFell might assume the No. 1 receiving role.
Chicago Bears: Israel Indonije
Once the Chicago Bears signed Julius Peppers, one of their other defensive lineman figured to reap great benefits of favorable matchups and single coverage. Although he didn't fully break out in 2010, that player will be Israel Idonije in 2011.
Playing on the opposite side of Julius Peppers allowed the previously anonymous Idonije to rack up 49 tackles and eight sacks, four and a half more than his previous career high.
With another year to hone his newfound skills, Idonije will be a force to be reckoned with in 2011.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jermaine Gresham
For some unsubstantiated reasons, people tend to believe that rookie tight ends are prone to make immediate impacts.
However, the opposite is true. Recent first round draft picks like Marcedes Lewis, Vernon Davis, and Dustin Keller all had to overcome a learning curve before blossoming into lethal offensive weapons.
The Cincinnati Bengals spent a first-round draft pick on tight end Jermaine Gresham in 2010, and considering the speed bumps that tight ends recently tend to endure, his 52 receptions look quite impressive.
The likely departure of Carson Palmer could hurt or help Gresham. Rookie Andy Dalton might favor a safety blanket option like Gresham. Either way, expect him to emerge as a top ten tight end in 2011.
Cleveland Browns: Carlton Mitchell
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Carlton Mitchell may be the deepest sleeper on this entire list. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft by Mike Holmgren, Mitchell dressed for only five games and caught just one pass all season.
However, Cleveland suffers from a severe lack of depth at wide receiver, opening the door for virtually anybody to jump in and steal targets. Mitchell's uncanny combination of size (6'4", 212 pounds) and speed (4.44 40) gives him the physical skill set to thrive in the NFL, so this is now just a matter of opportunity.
Mitchell will compete with underachievers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi for a chance to become a focal point in Cleveland's offense.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee
They don't call Penn State "Linebacker U" for nothing. Joe Paterno has a tendency to churn out great NFL linebackers, and Sean Lee might be his latest success.
The Dallas Cowboys snatched Lee up in the second round of the 2010 Draft, hoping to groom him as Keith Brooking's successor. When Brooking's play began to slip, Lee received some playing time and ended the season with 20 tackles and two interceptions.
Even though the Cowboys drafted linebacker Bruce Carter with a second-round selection in April, Lee should have every chance to start in one of the league's best front sevens.
Denver Broncos: Robert Ayers
When the Denver Broncos used a first round pick on Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers in the 2009 NFL Draft, great expectations predictably followed. However, Ayers has been a complete bust thus far, posting a combined 46 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 11 starts.
Fortunately for Ayers and the Broncos, not all hope is lost. Denver plans on reverting to a 4-3 defensive scheme in 2011, which will allow Ayers to step down from outside linebacker and play his natural position: defensive end.
With offenses forced to focus on Elvis Dumervil, Ayers should be able to thrive with favorable matchups and a return to his comfort zone along the defensive line.
Detroit Lions: Louis Delmas
Despite trotting out one of the league's weakest cornerback corps, the Detroit Lions boasted the league's 16th ranked passing defense in 2010—an astronomical leap from their last place finish in '09.
So, how did they turn things around so quickly? Partly because of a vastly improved pass rush, but more importantly because of sophomore safety Louis Delmas' progression.
Delmas, the Lions' 2009 second-round draft pick, has anchored the team's secondary for both of his two seasons in the league.
Heading into his third season, Delmas will only get better, and he soon may join Ndamukong Suh as the young faces of a blossoming Lions teams.
Green Bay Packers: Tramon Williams
While Packers' cornerback Charles Woodson continues to cement his status as one of the game's all time great defensive backs, another Green Bay defensive back is slowly creeping into elite territory.
Tramon Williams intercepted six passes during the 2010 regular season but didn't garner any recognition until the postseason when he picked off another three—including two against the Falcons in the divisional round.
Williams should begin to work against oppositions' number one receivers, which should allow him to emerge from Woodson's shadow.
Houston Texans: Ben Tate
Had Ben Tate not suffered a season ending ankle injury during the first game of the 2010 preseason, he might have seized the Texans' starting running back role. Instead, the 2010 second round pick watched from the sidelines as Arian Foster became a star.
But the NFL is now a "running back by committee" league. Foster recorded 327 carries last season—a troubling high number that the Texans will surely want to lower. Houston will probably allot plenty of carries to Tate in order to keep Foster fresh.
Expect Tate to make the most of his workload and become an integral piece in the Texans' annual playoff push.
Indianapolis Colts: Jerraud Powers
The Colts' defense has long been the team's Achilles' Heel—the rushing defense, at least. Indy's secondary has been surprisingly consistent throughout the years, finishing in the top 15 in each of the past three seasons.
Bob Sanders' departure won't do much to affect the Colts, but it does open the door for a defensive back to emerge as the leader of the defense. The likeliest candidate may be third-year cornerback Jerraud Powers. Although the former Auburn Tiger has struggled with injuries, he has been very solid when healthy.
Powers figures to start for the Colts in 2011, so the chance for a breakout is there.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Terrance Knighton
The Jaguars absorbed exorbitant amounts of criticism for drafting defensive tackle Tyson Alualu with the 10th pick in the 2010 Draft. But by the end of 2011, that criticism may mount even further.
Just one year earlier, in 2009, the Jags drafted Temple defensive tackle Terrance Knighton in the third round.
Apparently not impressed by his rookie campaign, the team decided to draft Alualu, and Knighton responded by racking up 4.5 sacks and 24 tackles—a great progression from '09.
If Knighton's progress from '09 to '10 is any indication, he should be a leader on the Jaguars defense in 2011.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tyson Jackson
Chiefs fans knew this one was coming. Drafted by Kansas City with the third overall pick in 2009, defensive end Tyson Jackson has been a monumental bust thus far, recording just one sack in 28 games.
Chatter of his impending breakout has been persistent, but Jackson is yet to produce any actual results. The 2011 season will be essentially be his judgement day.
Jackson might actually have to fight for a starting spot over Glenn Dorsey and Shaun Smith, and there is little guarantee he will win the job. Regardless, Todd Haley will be eager to give his first draft pick ample opportunity to shine next season.
The physical tools are there, now Jackson must find a way to adjust to the NFL before it's too late.
Miami Dolphins: Sean Smith
There is only one petty issue preventing Sean Smith from reaching elite stature: hands.
According to Football Outsiders, Smith dropped five interceptions in 2010. Had he held onto those errant passes, he could have easily earned a Pro Bowl nod.
Smith has freakish athletic ability for his 6'3" frame, and his hands are the sole factor restricting him from stardom. So long as he can actually catch the football in 2011, Smith should be Pro Bowl bound.
And if he continues progressing into his third season, he could become a household name.
Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin
Percy Harvin might be a household name stemming from his days at the University of Florida. But since he entered the NFL in 2009, Harvin's name has not been synonymous with "star." That might change in 2011.
The Vikings wide receiver has been marred by a series of migraines that have severely restricted his availability and overall effectiveness. Yet he has still managed to post great numbers during his first two years in the league (131 catches, 1,658 yards, 11 TDs).
Harvin's potential remains largely untapped. He possesses a lethal skill-set that could propel him into stardom, perhaps as a DeSean Jackson-like threat. If Harvin can dodge migraines next season, he could be Pro Bowl bound.
New England Patriots: Brandon Spikes
Bill Belichick's relationship with Urban Meyer has been heavily publicized, so when the Patriots drafted former Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, it came as no surprise.
Spikes was a superstar for the Gators, but a 5.0 40 yard dash time hammered his draft stock. However, Belichick had no hesitations scooping up a first round talent at the end of the second round.
Despite missing the last four games of the 2010 season (while serving a suspension for abusing a banned substance), Spikes racked up 61 tackles, and he figures to play a much larger–perhaps starting—role in New England's linebacker rotation in 2011.
If he earns such a role, Spikes could easily eclipse the 100-tackle mark.
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham is the latest converted college basketball player making an impact in the NFL, but he is yet to surface on the league's radar.
The New Orleans Saints drafted Graham with a third round pick last season, and the former Miami Hurricane forward dominated down the stretch of the 2010 regular season.
He caught a combined four touchdowns during the Saints' final three regular season games. With Jeremy Shockey gone, Graham will likely assume the number one tight end role in a very pass-happy offense.
He and Drew Brees already appear to have great chemistry, and it should only improve over the course of the off-season.
New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul
Even with Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka already on the roster, the Giants decided to use their 2010 first-round selection on a defensive end.
New York grabbed South Florida product Jason Pierre-Paul with the 15th overall pick, but the rookie slipped into oblivion until Week 12.
Pierre-Paul posted a combined four sacks in back to back games, reigniting the hype that had previously surrounded him. Although he finished the season with only sub-par numbers (4.5 sacks, 17 tackles), Pierre-Paul showed glimpses of what his future might hold.
The Giants figure to get Pierre-Paul into the rotation early and often in 2011. If he can hone his pass rushing skills and display some consistency, he could become a feared sack-master.
New York Jets: Sione Pouha
When Jets' All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins fell victim to a devastating knee injury, New York's interior defense quickly became a looming concern.
But Rex Ryan has an incredible knack for turning no-names into studs, and last year, Sione Pouha proved to be his latest success.
Pouha stepped in for Jenkins and exceeded all expectations. The 6'3", 330 pound tackle racked up 41 tackles and two sacks, yet hardly received even the slightest recognition.
With a full year of starting experience under his belt, Pouha should be a potent force along the Jets' defensive line. And because he's playing under the microscope of the New York media, expect to hear plenty about Pouha in 2011.
Oakland Raiders: Jacoby Ford
Surprise—one of, if not the fastest player in the NFL currently plays for the Oakland Raiders. Al Davis' "speed kills" draft strategy is extremely outdated and futile, but Oakland did strike gold with the fastest player in the 2010 Draft.
The Raiders drafted Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft after he posted a 4.28 40 time at the combine. Ford didn't even record a reception for the first five games of the season, but came on strong for the rest of it, finishing with 25 receptions for 470 yards and two touchdowns.
He averaged an absurd 18.8 yards per reception and also returned three kicks for touchdowns. Ford could easily emerge as the Raiders' No. 1 receiver in 2011, and he could also establish himself as one of the league's most lethal returners.
Philadelphia Eagles: Antonio Dixon
Lacking depth at defensive tackle prior to the 2009 season, the Eagles picked up undrafted free agent Antonio Dixon. At 6'2" and 325 pounds, Dixon projected as a worthwhile developmental project behind Broderick Bunkley.
However, Dixon has developed faster than anybody could have anticipated, and he even garnered 10 starts last season.
Not only did Dixon start 10 games in 2010, he shined. The sky is now the limit for the former Miami Hurricane, who will almost definitely start for Philly in 2011.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Emmanuel Sanders
As Hines Ward and Antwan Randle El digress into the final stages of their careers, the Steelers are slowly ushering in a new era of wideouts.
First, there was rising superstar Mike Wallace. Next on the list might be 2010 third-round pick Emmanuel Sanders. The former SMU Mustang quietly caught 28 passes last season and saw his role in the offense steadily increase throughout the season.
Sanders has lightning speed, and playing opposite Mike Wallace should provide him with more than ample opportunities to showcase his talents.
San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews
During the 2010 NFL Draft, Chargers G.M. A.J. Smith traded up from 28 to 13 in order to ensure that San Diego got their hands on Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews.
Soon after the draft, Norv Turner said that he expected Mathews to "have 250 carries and 40 catches," setting lofty expectations for the rookie.
However, Mathews received only 170 combined touches—120 less than anticipated. It's tough to figure out exactly why Mathews fell so far by the wayside, but two explanations are the emergence of Mike Tolbert and a pair of lingering injuries.
Mathews missed four games last season, but still finished with an admirable 4.3 yards per carry average and racked up seven touchdowns.
Norv Turner will likely allot plenty of carries to Mike Tolbert, but that shouldn't prevent Mathews from becoming the focal point of San Diego's offense.
San Francisco 49ers: Michael Crabtree
Everybody loves to pinpoint Alex Smith as the scapegoat for the 49ers' woes, but the absence of a great wide receiver may also be at the root of their problems.
San Francisco used a top-10 draft pick on Michael Crabtree two years ago, and while he hasn't lived up to his first round billing yet, he displayed promising improvements during his sophomore season.
Now entering his third NFL season, Crabtree might be poised to make the leap into stardom. He made great statistical strides in 2010, but still didn't pose a significant threat to defenses.
With another year to hone his skills, however, 2011 could be Crabtree's breakout season.
Seattle Seahawks: Aaron Curry
Heralded as a "safe bet" by hordes of analysts prior to the 2009 draft, Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry has been a massive disappointment.
Through his first two seasons, Curry has totaled only 110 tackles and 5.5 sacks—solid numbers, but not for a fourth overall pick.
Now entering his third NFL season, Curry will be under immense pressure to succeed. He has been able to dodge the media tucked away in Seattle, but he won't be able to hide for much longer.
Curry seems to have the physical and mental make up of a star, and he simply needs to put it all together to emerge as one.
St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola
Danny Amendola is best known for his time on Hard Knocks with the Dallas Cowboys, but the scrappy wide receiver has quietly put together an impressive stint in St. Louis.
Last season, Amendola emerged as Sam Bradford's most trusted and reliable target, catching 85 passes. Even though the Rams drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2011 draft, Amendola's role as the team's top receiver should remain secure.
Amendola might only become a poor man's Wes Welker (still a great compliment), but he will be a primary receiver on a playoff contender.
The nation will definitely begin to take notice on this scrappy, undersized wideout in 2011.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Arrelious Benn
When Tampa Bay drafted wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the 2010 NFL Draft, one of them figured to step in as a starter and make an immediate impact.
Popular opinion tipped Benn as the favorite. After all, he was drafted two rounds higher than Williams and enjoyed a fantastic career at Illinois.
However, Williams won the battle and Benn soon became an afterthought in the Buccaneers' passing attack.
But Benn still managed to show glimpses of the player Tampa Bay hopes he will become, including a four reception, 122 yard performance in a nail-biting Week 15 win.
Benn is more gifted than anybody else the Bucs can throw next to Mike Williams, and he will have plenty of opportunities to breakout in 2011.
Tennessee Titans: Jared Cook
Recent NFL history suggests that in order for a team to possess a truly lethal passing attack, they must possess a great tight end.
Last season's top five passing offenses all had a noteworthy tight in their arsenal: Colts (D. Clark), Chargers (A. Gates), Saints (J. Graham), Texans (O. Daniels), and Packers (J. Finley).
Slowly but surely, teams league-wide seem to be investing more time and patience into tight ends. The Tennessee Titans used a 2009 third-round pick on South Carolina tight end Jared Cook. After a year on the bench, Cook caught 29 passes for 361 yards in 2010.
With Bo Scaife slated for free agency, Cook will likely inherit starting tight end duties. Based on his the great strides he made from 2009 to 2010, Cook is primed for a breakout in 2011.
Washington Redskins: Robert Henson
How does a former sixth round pick with one career tackle qualify as a breakout candidate? Well, loose criteria for one—but also a mixture of past glimpses and opportunity.
The Redskins drafted former TCU linebacker Robert Henson in the sixth round of the '09 draft.
After a year of bench-warming in 2009, Henson figured to see an increased role in 2010, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale.
Ironically, that preseason game is one of the primary reasons Henson could breakout. He enjoyed a dominating performance against the Cardinals, racking up seven tackles and one sack in just one half.
There's plenty of room for competition in Washington's linebacker corps, and Henson could maneuver his way into a major role.