NFL 2011 Preview: Second-Year Players Poised to Break out Next Season

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2011

NFL 2011 Preview: Second-Year Players Poised to Break out Next Season

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    Some people are optimists, some people are pessimists. These days I've become a bit of an optimist. ... I know, it's annoying isn't it?

    My optimism has made me apathetic towards this NFL lockout. It's okay, football is too important a business—not a sport, a business—for it to not come back sooner rather than later.

    If there is one thing that I know we, the fans, can rely on, it's the greed of people. Especially people who are—by financial measures—rich. There is no question that a fascination with money makes you greedy so, Yay for greed!!!

    Anyway, there's an article going to be written here at some point ... oh yeah. ... Here are a few names you may want to watch out for next year in the National Football League.

Derrick Morgan

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    Hopefully, Derrick Morgan is an optimist also. He needs to be if his place on this list is to be validated.

    The Tennessee Titans defensive end tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in his rookie season. Having gone through that severe injury myself, I know how taxing the nine month rehabilitation can be. If Morgan has taken a Wes Welker-like approach to his knee and returned it to full strength there is no reason that he can't become a household name in the NFL next season.

    Morgan impressed instantly in his rookie campaign. The former Georgia Tech sack artist had 1.5 sacks after only two games. This was made even more impressive by the fact that he was still only part of the rotation and not starting for the Titans.

    His sack total didn't rise again as he played in one more game before being injured in the fourth. Nonetheless he had done enough work by that time to impress the then Titans' head coach Jeff FIsher. When you consider that Morgan hadn't received much playing time and had been hampered by various injuries throughout the preseason and training camp, his short stint at the professional level was definitely promising.

    At only 22 years of age Morgan could become the team's starter next season. The uncertain status of last year's leading sack artist, Jason Babin, in free agency means that there could be a chance for Morgan to start living up to his 16th overall selection.

Demaryius Thomas

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    A former teammate of Derrick Morgan at Georgia Tech also had some injury issues during his rookie season. Demaryius Thomas started only two games during his rookie season. Being a Josh MacDaniels draft choice generally isn't something to be proud of but this shouldn't be held against the talented receiver.

    Without putting too much emphasis on where he was drafted, you cannot deny Thomas' pure talent and physical gifts. He was compared to Randy Moss coming out of college; unfortunately that comparison stretches further than the Broncos wanted it to.

    Thomas had not run a route tree in college. As part of Georiga Tech's option offense he either ran deep or ran end arounds. Thomas's injuries prevented him from performing on the field in his rookie campaign but what will be more troublesome is the amount of practice he missed.

    Fortunately for him, his issues can be fixed.  Even if Thomas doesn't fully grasp the route tree he has enough physical gifts to make an impact in his second season. It's not like Randy Moss is the greatest route runner ever and Thomas won't be going against team's best cover corners because of Brandon Lloyd's breakout season last year.

    Unfortunately Thomas will need to overcome another serious injury suffered in February but he could still potentially be back for the start of the season.

    ...and yes that is Darelle Revis pictured.

Emmanuel Sanders

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    Much like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders' rookie campaign was curtailed by injuries.  Sanders had a minor injury before training camp but it was his injury in last season's Super Bowl that really stopped him from becoming a household name.

    Sanders was due to have a big game for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Green Bay Packers. According to this article, as well as what I believe myself, the Steelers were going to rely heavily on Sanders in the Super Bowl. The reasoning behind this is the reasoning why Sanders is going to be a brilliant NFL receiver.

    Matching up to the 5-11 receiver is much more difficult than it first appears.  Sanders is very fast and agile. He runs excellent routes after being taught by Jeff Reinbold at SMU. Sanders' speed makes it very difficult to match up to him because he plays with an even greater speedster in Mike Wallace.

    His speed is not what makes him so good however. Yes he can run away from you but the reason the Steelers were looking to him was because of his size. As mentioned, he is 5-11 which isn't overwhelmingly tall. However Wallace has very long arms and an unbelievable wingspan. He can snatch the ball out of the air from difficult positions with his soft hands.

    Not many corners will have the ability to win jump balls with him as well as stay with him if he looks to go deep. Sanders is a matchup nightmare.

    Sanders proved himself in clutch situations during his rookie season also. The only real reason he didn't have a huge statistical season was because of another rookie named Antonio Brown. Brown is not appearing on this list for the simple reason that Sanders is.

    (Oh look another Revis appearance, now I wonder why he would be trailing Emmanuel...)

Kyle Wilson

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    Darelle Revis may not be covering this guy in games this season but he will definitely be covering a lot with him. Kyle Wilson could become the team's starter next season depending on the contract situation of Antonio Cromartie.

    Honestly, I wasn't ever a huge fan of Kyle Wilson. He looks too short and slight to play Rex Ryan's man coverage based defense for me. However he showed flashes of his ability during his rookie season despite being inconsistent on the whole.

    The fact that the team has Revis to teach him better technique, as well as to allow him to avoid major matchup problems, will go a long way to allowing him to become a very good cornerback. The Jets drafted him for a reason and the more and more I watch him, I believe it was for one simple reason: Wes Welker.

    Kyle Wilson is possibly the only cornerback in the league that isn't completely out of his depth covering Welker in the slot. They are very similar in physical appearance and both possess great agility. Shutting down Welker is always going to be huge for the Jets when he resides in the AFC East.

    If Wilson can make a name for himself doing that job then Revis will be freed to cover any big receiver the Patriots may add.

Jermaine Cunningham

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    Now that you mention them, don't the Patriots have some sort of pass rushing problem?

    You may be wondering why Bill Belichick didn't draft a pass rusher in the most recent NFL draft. It's simple, they don't need one. As Bleacher Report's very own Erik Frenz alludes to here, the successful Patriots teams of the Belichick era never had great pass rushers.

    Nonetheless the team still has a problem in the area. Jermaine Cunningham was drafted in the third round last year in order to relieve this problem. He struggled as a rookie and was mostly outplayed by veteran Rob Ninkovich.

    Cunningham had a lot going against him however. For one thing he had to transition from a college defensive end to a professional outside linebacker. He also had to deal with the typical problems that most pass rushing players struggle with early in their career. Adjusting to playing against stud offensive linemen is more difficult for pass rushers because they can no longer just rely on one aspect of their game.

    What will make the biggest change for Cunningham though is the adjustments to the defensive line. The defensive linemen never get much credit in a 3-4 defense, but more often than not they are the reason the outside linebackers are able to get to the quarterback.

    With Ty Warren returning and Marcus Stroud being added to Vince Wilfork's other side, the defensive line play in New England should be much more reliable next season. This will give Cunningham every chance to replicate his college performances.

    Cunningham ranks 10th in Florida's school history, tied with the Bengals' Carlos Dunlap, with 19.5 career sacks.

Carlos Dunlap

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    (Anyone picked up on the trend yet?)

    Carlos Dunlap didn't start a game for the Cincinnati Bengals last season. He still tallied 9.5 sacks featuring in only twelve games. That's not exactly an unimpressive toll now is it?

    If Dunlap becomes a better all-around football player he could become a dominant defensive end in only his second season. When you consider that he didn't have his first sack until the 10th week of the season in his rookie campaign, and finished with nine, his talent is obviously unquestioned.

    What you must question is why he didn't start every game.

    Dunlap is only 22 years old so there is obviously still potential for him to develop even greater physicality than he already possesses. If he grasps the mental and disciplinary side of the game then he will be unstoppable.

    If Antwan Odom can ever get fully healthy then he and Dunlap have the potential to turn the Bengals' porous pass rush into a dominating defensive line.

Gerald McCoy

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    Another team hoping to have a dominant defensive line is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The highest drafted rookie on this list, Gerald McCoy, will be hoping for help from his fellow high draft picks this season.

    McCoy was solid if unspectacular in comparison to Ndamukong Suh during his rookie season. He will now be hoping to take advantage of the talent that the team has surrounded him with while also helping them with his own performances.

    The Buccaneers spent their last two first round selections and their last two second round selections on defensive linemen. Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers will likely bookend the pairing of Brian Price and McCoy starting this coming season. That is presuming that Bowers overcomes his injury issues.

    McCoy certainly has the talent and will look to be even more disruptive next season as the team looks to have lost its best cover corner in Aqib Talib, at least for the year if not for the rest of his career.  McCoy will be hoping to get the quarterback more than the three times he did during his rookie season.

    Especially with two elite quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan and Drew Brees playing in the Buccaneers' division, putting pressure on the quarterback will be essential.

Jimmy Graham

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    Speaking of Drew Brees, the quarterback will have a new toy to play with next season. The New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham looks set to step up into the spot voided by the release of Jeremy Shockey.

    The former Miami product showed flashes as a rookie. Graham is a pass catching tight end who perfectly suits the Saints' offense. Graham only started five games in his first season yet still managed to haul in five touchdowns.

    He finished last season with four touchdowns in the last four games but didn't feature in the playoff loss to Seattle. His size, and more importantly his speed, make him a matchup problem for opposition defenses. That speed, as well as his ability to consistently catch the football, will make him the full time starter next season for the Saints.

    He will obviously get his opportunities and the former college basketball player will likely take his chance to become another play making piece for Drew Brees' offense, which could make Brees' Saints the best receiving corp in the league once again.

Dez Bryant

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    One team that definitely has a legitimate claim to having the best pass catchers in the league next year is the Dallas Cowboys. With Tony Romo's return, the offense could flourish with better protection next year.

    The Cowboys' receivers will be led by tight end Jason Witten, as well as veterans Miles Austin and Roy Williams. However, Dez Bryant may be the most talented skill position player that the team has.

    Bryant has that unique mixture of size, strength, agility and speed without sacrificing any ball playing ability. Bryant has sure hands and unnatural explosion. He will remind Cowboys' fans of Terrell Owens, except for the fact that they will get to see him in a Cowboys jersey in his prime rather than as an aging player.

    Bryant may have to recover from a fractured ankle that ended his rookie season and could be a worrisome long term issue for a player of his bulk but nonetheless he should be able to return this season and have a major impact on the Cowboys' season.


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