NFL: Jay Ratliff and 6 Players Who Will Have Resurgent Seasons
The lockout has made it a little more difficult to accurately predict which players seem most ready to bounce back from disappointing 2010 campaigns.
The absence of free agency coupled with players working largely without specific direction has muddied the waters.
Usually if a quarterback is surrounded by a couple of proven free agent wide receivers, or if a running back has the benefit of his team investing in a blue chip offensive linemen, it's easy to predict an improved season.
But a team's draft picks and any additions made to the coaching staff can also be decent indicators that certain players are in line to do better. New coordinators bring new schemes. In some cases a change in style is just what a player needs to thrive.
Some elements of a particular draft class will inevitably ease the load on a particular player, helping them to perform at a much higher level.
With this in mind here are six players who can take the opportunity the new season is presenting to them and enjoy a resurgent year in 2011.
6. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
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New head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman heavily featured the tight end in the passing game at Stanford. The two should have no problem finding ways to utilise the receiving skills of a player like Davis.
A precise route runner with excellent hands, the 6'3" 250-pound Davis should take on greater responsibility in Harbaugh's vision for the offense. Although he had a decent 2010 season, under the new leadership Davis should aim to return to the Pro Bowl form that saw him snare 78 passes in 2009.
If he stays fully motivated Davis could break the 1,000 yard mark in 2011.
5. Shawn Merriman, Buffalo Bills
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If the Buffalo Bills opt against pursuing a potent edge rusher in free agency, it will be a massive endorsement of their confidence that Shawn Merriman can recapture his best form.
As dominant a pass rusher as any in the league on his day, Merriman must finally shake of his past controversies and injury problems. With the Bills committed to making their 3-4 scheme work, Merriman has the chance to be the focal point of the defense.
After Buffalo drafted Marcel Dareus with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, they made their intentions clear. Partnering Dareus with disruptive nose tackle Kyle Williams should give the Bills a defensive line capable of leaving the linebackers free to be playmakers.
From his position on the weak side and with Dave Wannstedt adding his expertise to the defensive coaching staff, Merriman has a legitimate chance to post 10-plus sacks if he remains healthy.
4. Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers
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With the franchise tag firmly placed on Jackson, the San Diego Chargers seemed determined to make sure that Phillip Rivers has his best receivers to call on in 2011.
After holding out for much of last season and then succumbing to injuries upon his return, Jackson was limited to just five starts and a paltry 14 receptions. If Jackson is available from the start of the season, then he and Rivers should have no problem rekindling the partnership which saw Jackson record 68 grabs in 2009.
When healthy and focused Jackson is a dangerous vertical threat in the passing game. The arm strength and accuracy of Phillip Rivers should ensure that with regular starts, Jackson once again surpasses 1,000 yards.
3. D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns
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Injuries have ravaged D'Qwell Jackson in recent seasons. When healthy the former Maryland standout is a tackling machine.
The decision to switch to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron should help to reinvigorate Jackson. Free from the shackles of Rob Ryan's 3-4, Jackson will no longer have to absorb the greater wear and tear endured by 3-4 inside linebackers who are often forced to take on and defeat linemen.
With huge tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin ticketed to occupy the middle of the defensive line, Jackson should be kept consistently clean from opposing blockers. This would leave the smart and quick mike linebacker free to log the 100-plus tackles he managed in both 2007 and 2008.
2. Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys
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When the Dallas Cowboys hired Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator earlier this year, their fans were instantly promised a more aggressive defense than the one they saw in 2010.
One player certain to benefit from Ryan's influence is elite nose tackle Jay Ratliff. The Ryan defensive brain trust has always excelled at getting the best out of defensive linemen. With his lethal combination of leverage, speed and power, Ratliff is the perfect weapon for Ryan to unleash.
During his days with the Cleveland browns Ryan coaxed dominant performances from hulking interior linemen like Shaun Rodgers and Ahtyba Rubin. Ratliff is the perfect player to spearhead Ryan's amoeba schemes which rely on a single lineman who can collapse the pocket up the middle.
Given the increased amount of ways Ryan will be likely to use him, Ratliff has a great chance to post numbers similar to those he put up in 2009. With Jay Ratliff back in form, the Cowboys defense should have no trouble returning to the ranks of the league's finest.
1. Mario Williams, Houston Texans
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The pressure to almost single-handedly carry the Texans' beleaguered defense finally caught up with Mario Williams and his numbers have steadily declined during the past two seasons.
With the arrival of Wade Phillips as new defensive coordinator, Williams has a great chance to replicate the stunning form that led to him recording 26 sacks in 2007 and 2008 combined.
The decision to move Williams to stand up outside linebacker generated a lot of skepticism. But Phillips has achieved great success getting to the passer utilising a standout pass rusher who can attack from either side of the line of scrimmage.
Phillips' plan to have Williams rushing on the vast majority of snaps and to move him around to keep him away from pass coverage responsibility, means the former 2006 first overall draft pick will certainly be given every chance to log double digit quarterback take downs for the first time in three years.
Teams eager to bounce back from sub-par campaigns or in a rebuilding mode are counting on their star players to rebound. They will do everything they can to put their finest athletes in the best position to lead the charge in 2011.