2011 NFL Predictions: 10 Most Intriguing Players of the 2011 NFL Season

Dan Israeli Contributor IIIAugust 10, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions: 10 Most Intriguing Players of the 2011 NFL Season

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    So, what makes a player intriguing heading into the 2011 season? By definition, the player should “arouse the curiosity or interest” of his intended audience, and considering the blood-thirsty mentality of the average NFL diehard right now, heck—almost any player seems intriguing.

    The 10 players that make up this list each have something to prove this season, the impact of which could be huge for their teams—not to mention the cities they represent. Whether it’s two RBs that came out of nowhere to take the NFL by storm last season, three rookies that can play major roles for their teams this season or two young QBs that can lead their postseason-deprived teams to the playoffs, this list has a little bit of everything. 

10. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    When Atlanta traded up for the sixth pick in April’s draft, they coughed up a total of five picks to Cleveland (including two first-rounders) to acquire the services of one Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones. It was a major haul for Cleveland—a team that clearly could have used help at WR, but opted to turn the prospect of a future Pro Bowl receiver into the prospect of multiple rebuilding chips.

    The Falcons, on the other hand, are not in rebuilding mode. They are a team poised to win now, after finishing an NFC-best 13-3 last season, only to go one-and-done against the eventual Super Bowl champs (Green Bay Packers) in the Divisional Round.

    Nonetheless, 2010 was a huge step forward for the Falcons, with emerging third-year QB Matt Ryan leading an offense matched by a sound defensive unit. The defense should only get better with the addition of its big free-agent signing, DE Ray Edwards, who will serve as bookend to four-time Pro Bowl DE John Abraham.

    It is Jones though, the rookie phenom out of Alabama, who can truly push Atlanta to the next level. Already turning heads in camp with his all-around grasp of the WR position, Jones (who has been working out with Ryan since April) is making everyone in the Falcons organization a believer of his first-year potential. Jones is an explosive athlete, as his college tape will show, but also a polished route-runner and physical blocker.

    When you consider that Jones is lining up across the field from WR Roddy White, the league-leader in receptions from a year ago, there is little doubt on just how high the Falcons’ passing game can soar in 2011. If the rookie is as good as advertised, Atlanta has to be added to the discussion of Super Bowl favorites.

9. Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    2010 was a painful year for Cleveland sports fans, who watched their prodigal son, LeBron James, take his talents to South Beach, leaving the city’s perennially bleak title hopes in the cold. More than just losing games, Cleveland lost its sports identity, and was in desperate need of a new iconic athlete—a savior. Enter the 2010 NFL season, and RB Peyton Hillis.

    No athlete can instantly fill the void LeBron—a homegrown, once-in-a-generation talent—has left in Cleveland, but for at least one season, Hillis was a regular on ESPN highlight reels and one of the most improbable RB success stories in league history. “The Avalanche” rolled his way to 1,654 yards from scrimmage and 13 TD. He was a beast in short yardage, and a surprisingly effective receiver out of the backfield, catching 61 passes.

    It’s true that Hillis slowed down in the season’s final five weeks, during which he went scoreless, and was pretty much held in check outside of a 108-yard rushing day at Buffalo in Week 14. Nonetheless, the former fullback became the “Great White Hope” of RBs, and his nationwide popularity was evident as he beat out several other star players to become the Madden 2012 cover boy.

    Cleveland won only five games last season, but have a promising sophomore QB in Colt McCoy, and an offensive line anchored by the NFL’s premier left tackle in Joe Thomas. The Browns clearly have warts (the league’s weakest WR corps and a miserable run defense), and will have to overcome a lot to make any noise in the AFC North, where the Steelers and Ravens reign.

    If the team stands any chance, however, it will need its breakthrough RB to prove that last year was not a fluke. The Avalanche needs to keep rolling, or the void left by LeBron will continue to linger in Cleveland. 

8. Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints

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    The second Crimson Tide rookie on this list, Ingram—just like Jones for Atlanta—can pay huge dividends for New Orleans during his first year. In a classic “rich getting richer” move, the Saints traded up with the Patriots to acquire the 2009 Heisman-winner with the 28th pick of the draft, five years after they drafted another Heisman-winning RB, the now-departed Reggie Bush, with the second pick overall.

    While Bush is widely considered a bust from his time with New Orleans, Ingram has a chance to become the physical, early-down chain-mover the Saints haven’t had since the Deuce McAllister days. He also has a chance to become the biggest steal of the draft, as the RB position almost slipped out of the first round entirely for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. While the modern-day draft strategy may persuade teams to wait on the oft-injured position, there is no doubt that the special ones—the Tomlinsons, the Petersons—can have a great impact on a team’s success.

    Ingram—at 5’9", 215 lbs—is in the same mold as Emmitt Smith: a strong undersized back, with a perfect blend of power, quickness and speed. He missed the first two games of his junior year at Alabama following left knee surgery, and the mystery surrounding the minor arthroscopy clearly weighed on some teams this past draft, namely the RB-needy Dolphins who passed on Ingram with the 15th pick (and later took Kansas State RB Daniel Thomas at 62nd overall).

    Since I’m not an orthopedic surgeon, there’s very little I can claim about Ingram’s surgically repaired knee, only that the procedure was minor, and that Ingram went on to average 5.5 yards per carry and score 14 touchdowns in his Heisman encore at Alabama.

    Now in New Orleans, Ingram joins a team in need of stability at the position, following a season where an exploited Drew Brees threw a career-high 22 picks. Already turning a lot of heads in camp, Ingram has a chance to produce a rookie season similar to Adrian Peterson, if all the pieces fall into place. 

7. Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets

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    Last year was supposed to be "the year" for Shonn Greene. Veteran starting RB Thomas Jones was out of town, and Greene was coming off a rookie year where he did little in the regular reason, but completely took over in playoff wins vs. Cincinnati and San Diego. On a team with a run-first emphasis, and arguably the best O-line in the league, Greene was poised to become one of the league's true and few "workhorses."

    But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2010 regular season: LaDainian Tomlinson, signed by the Jets to battle Greene in training camp, did all that and then some, stealing the starting job away from the sophomore. LTD became "vintage LTD" (or close to it), and the Jets featured the future Hall of Famer ahead of Greene as the season progressed.

    As a backup fighting for carries, Greene struggled to get anything going, fumbling away opportunities and losing almost all goal-line carries to Tomlinson. It was tough love for a player who stampeded the Jets into the 2010 AFC title game, with a 53-yard touchdown romp against the very team (Chargers) that gave up on Tomlinson. 

    But as the season reached its second half, the timeshare at RB evened out. After getting 87 carries to Tomlinson's 123 in the season's first eight games, Greene edged the veteran 98 to 97 over the final eight contests. Neither back ran especially well, but Greene proved he wasn't an afterthought, and looked like the better back against Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. Now entering his third year, it feels like deja vu all over again for Greene—once again at the top of the depth chart, on a team dedicated to the run, poised to win a Super Bowl. 

    Unless Tomlinson discovers the fountain of youth yet again, this should be the year that Greene truly breaks out. The goal-line work may still be there for LTD, along with his secure 3rd-down gig, but Greene will get the bulk of early-down snaps. Coach Rex Ryan has already promised a "heavy dose" of Greene this year, and while he also promised he'd be his "bell cow" prior to last season, the path finally seems clear for Greene to run wild. 

6. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    While it may seem illogical, for the better part of 20 years now, winning a Heisman Trophy has become the kiss of death for new NFL QBs. Being drafted first overall hasn't had the same horrific track record, but is only a 50-50 proposition in its own right. (For every Peyton Manning there is a JaMarcus Russell, or even a David Carr.)

    This season, Cam Newton has the ambiguous distinction of being both, the first time since Carson Palmer hoisted the 2002 Heisman and went first overall in 2003. (For technicalities' sake, Sam Bradford won the 2008 trophy, but returned for a Heisman-less junior season at Oklahoma before being drafted first overall in 2010.) 

    But really, that was all for the sake of a fun opener. I don't buy into things like "curses" or "kisses of death," because in the end, it will be the outright ability and health of Newton that determines the path of his pro career. Following much scrutiny over where he'd go in the draft, the QB-starved Panthers decided to start from the top in April, and draft who they hope will be their franchise QB for many years.

    Newton enters the NFL following a chaotic college career that saw him transfer schools twice, finally settling at Auburn in his junior season. He threw for 30 TDs (and ran for 20 more) during his Heisman year, which was also marred (slightly) by an eligibility controversy.

    In Carolina, Newton will clearly have his work cut out for him. For starters, it will be hard for him to be anything greater than the fourth-best QB in a division that includes Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. The Panthers are in a tough spot to improve, coming off a brutal 2-14 season, and lacking talent just about everywhere. The team's strength is supposed to be the running game, and with Newton at the helm, along with big-name RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers will do their best impersonation of the 2004 Falcons—when Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett formed a three-headed monster that led the league in rushing. 

    Expectations are tempered for first-year QBs, and Newton, still learning how to be an accurate passer, will be no exception. Still, some positive signs—similar to Vince Young's rookie year—will do a lot in keeping Cam on the straight-and-narrow path. 

5. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Every season there's a big free-agent signing, or traded player, with so much hype surrounding his courting and ultimate destination, that the player can't help but feel pressured once the games actually start. Kevin Kolb could be considered that guy this year—but moving from the scrutinizing surroundings of Philadelphia to the deserted...desert of Arizona is not the toughest of transitions.

    On the other hand, Nnamdi Asomugha is being thrown right into the Philly fire, leaving a city (Oakland) where losing has been the norm for eight years now, despite the Raiders' respectable 8-8 finish last season. 

    Mental pressure is not welcoming for any NFL position, but it's especially problematic for a CB. It is a position that requires great concentration and focus, especially for a shutdown corner the likes of Asomugha. The pressure may have been relieved for Nnamdi if he signed with the Jets, and played across from CB Darrelle Revis, who has a habit of shadowing the opposing team's best receiver. (Yes, this may sound like obvious Jets fan bias. Call it what you like.)

    Instead, Nnamdi will be looked at as the top corner on the Eagles, whether it's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Asante Samuel or some combination of both, lining up across the field. The former "Black Hole" was brought to Philadelphia to be the face of its defense.

    Asomugha broke out in 2006, his second season as a starter, with eight interceptions. He totaled only three picks in the four seasons that followed—for the sole reason that teams simply stopped throwing in his direction. Unlike Revis, Asomugha doesn't roam around the field, but instead, makes the entire right side of the opposing passing game vanish (hence the "Black Hole" nickname). A theory that this strategy masks Asomugha's true ability is foolish, as many of the league's top wideouts, including Larry Fitzgerald, have praised Asomugha's ability, especially using his size to disrupt opposing pass-catchers from head to toe. 

    The questions now remains whether Nnamdi will be able to wrap up and disrupt the likes of Hakeem Nicks in New York, or the duo of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in Dallas. Will the "pressure" finally get to him? My bet is no, and for a team with all the pressure in the world to contend for a Super Bowl title, one concern they shouldn't have is the all-world skills of their new starting CB.

4. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    The depths of NFL purgatory is a hard place to emerge from—just ask the Cleveland Browns. The team has made the playoffs once in the past 17 years, back in 2002, with a 9-7 record and the benefit of several regular-season tie-breakers. Outside of Cleveland's fluky berth, the two teams with the longest standing playoff droughts (1999 and counting) are the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions.

    In Buffalo, playoff hopes remain dim for a team with no offensive or defensive identity, that's also dealing with relocation rumors. In the Motor City, however, there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel. 

    The player that can lead Detroit to the light, i.e. playoffs, is third-year QB Matthew Stafford. Drafted first overall out of Georgia in 2009, Stafford has dealt with plenty of hype over his first two pro seasons. Unfortunately he's had little to show for it, dealing with injuries (to his right knee and shoulder in '09, followed by season-ending shoulder surgery last season) that have resulted in 13 games played out of a possible 32.

    Analysts worried about the young QB (still only 23) and his ability to stay healthy. The truth is, Stafford's pocket presence is what did him in these past two seasons, as blindside sacks led to his injuries, constantly keeping the franchise QB off the field. 

    Going into this season, Stafford is reportedly fully healthy, and is practicing with zero limitations during this shortened training camp. Coming off an improved 6-10 campaign last season, highlighted by the play of rookie DT Ndamukong Suh, the Lions are starting to remove the stench of their imperfect 0-16 season in 2008. The defense is no longer a joke, especially against the rush, and the offense is loaded with talent at every position, namely WR Calvin Johnson. Without a healthy Stafford at the helm for an entire season, the full potential of Johnson, already considered one of the league's best, remains untapped. 

    A playoff berth this season may be asking a little too much, but in a league where surprises happen on a year-to-year basis, the Lions are a better candidate than most to at least contend for a spot. Their success is heavily dependent on Stafford, who is poised for a breakout year if he can just stay healthy. 

3. Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans

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    Peyton Hillis was one thing last season, and WR Brandon Lloyd was another. Two players entering the season with undetermined roles, emerging as top players at their respective positions—not to mention fantasy gold mines.

    But even their accomplishments pale in comparison to Texans RB Arian Foster, who made a two-year transition from undrafted free agent, to practice squad call-up, to Opening Day starter and finally, the NFL's leading rusher.

    After exploding onto the scene with a 231-yard, three-TD performance in Week 1 against the Colts, Foster became his own "big act to follow" for the remainder of the season. He proved to have plenty left in the tank as the season rolled on, tallying seven more 100-yard rushing days and 15 more TDs for a combined 18 on the year. Foster was the perfect fit in Houston's one-cut, zone-blocking scheme, and ran with authority all year, while also being a great receiver out of the backfield.

    It was a truly special season for a player that probably wouldn't have had the opportunity if rookie RB Ben Tate didn't go down in the preseason, or if third-year RB Steve Slaton wasn't such a disappointment the year before. 

    While everything seemed aligned for Foster's breakout in 2010, this season has had somewhat of a different aura. For starters, he lost his starting FB Vonta Leach (an All-Pro selection last season who paved the way for many of Foster's big runs and TDs) to Baltimore. More recently, Foster pulled his left hamstring during his first practice of training camp, an injury being referred to as a "tweak." Whether Houston is trying to downplay the injury or not, Foster is missing reps, after already being behind (along with the rest of the league) for the quickly approaching season. 

    The Texans may also return to their pass-happy ways this fall, after another disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs, despite some lofty expectations. With a much-improved defense, in a division that is truly up for grabs (due to the aging Colts, and the question mark that is Peyton Manning), 2011 may finally be the year for Houston to take the AFC South.

    And no matter what the style of play is, when given the rock, Foster will be asked to do his best 2010 impersonation. 

2. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams

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    The term "learning on the job" applies to starting rookie QBs, probably better than any other profession in the world. Or maybe it's just the most fascinating example.

    Nonetheless, it doesn't matter how high your pedigree is, or how many analysts stamp your Hall of Fame ballot before you ever take a snap; the first year for an NFL signal-caller is always a huge learning experience. The special ones learn better than others, and last season, Sam Bradford had a rookie campaign comparable to Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan, as far as poise and leadership are concerned. 

    It's best to throw individual statistics out the window, as even Manning threw 28 picks in his rookie year to go along with a 71.2 QB rating. Ryan was the sharpest in his first season, compiling an 87.7 rating and only 11 picks. Bradford threw 18 TDs to 15 picks, completing 60 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards, and finished with a respectable 76.5 rating. What Bradford did best last year was win, improving a 1-15 trainwreck of a team into a 7-9 squad that fell one game short of winning the NFC West.

    As historically horrific as the division was, the fact that a team with a rookie-led QB came so close to winning it, proves how bright (and favorable) a future the Rams have with Bradford at the helm. 

    This season, Bradford is expected to take his game to the next level, and if the addition of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is any indication, the training wheels will be taken off for the second-year QB. After coordinating the most prolific offense in NFL history with the 2007 Patriots, McDaniels proceeded to turn Kyle Orton into a respectable starting QB in Denver.

    The expectations for the Rams passing game are high this season, who added former Jaguars WR Mike Sims-Walker to the receiving corps during the free-agency rush. Sims-Walker is known for being dramatic, but is also a talented athlete that can emerge as Bradford's No. 1 guy in the passing game. 

    For someone that is one-sixteenth Cherokee, Bradford has already proven he is a warrior on the playing field. Unlike Cam Newton, he is in a division currently devoid of star QBs (unless you're drinking the Kevin Kolb Kool-Aid) and has all the skills to be the face of the NFC West—and with time, possibly the face of the whole league. 

1. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Two years ago, when I first wrote this list, I made a special note not to include Michael Vick in the top 10. Half of my reasoning was being a huge dog lover, not quite ready to welcome my former favorite player back into the league with loving and open arms. The other half was the part actually relevant to the game of football: Vick was returning as a backup to Donovan McNabb, and didn't exactly go out on top when he left the league in 2007 to begin his prison sentence.

    I actually had hoped that his comeback attempt would fail, and that the NFL (and world) would never hear from Vick again. 

    While his 2009 season went close to what I expected (and hoped), Vick did not disappear. Instead, the Eagles exercised his second-year option, bringing him back to serve as an understudy for new starting QB Kevin Kolb. Enter Week 1 of the 2010 season, Kolb getting concussed by Clay Matthews, Vick entering the game and the rest is history.

    Vick had a truly historic season last year, despite missing three games (and the better part of another) with injury. In 12 games, he posted a 100 QB rating, throwing 21 TDs to six picks, to go along with 676 rushing yards and nine TDs on the ground. His stats don't even do him justice; Vick was the most unstoppable player in the league. 

    When Vick threw four TD passes and ran for two more during the "first half" of a MNF game against the Redskins in Week 10, I officially acknowledged the return of the NFL's most exciting player. I wasn't ready to call him my favorite player again (and at 28 years old, the novelty of picking favorites has worn thin), but simply couldn't kid myself anymore by living in an NFL world where Michael Vick didn't exist.

    The Eagles went on to win the NFC East, but lost in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs against the Packers. The game ended on a Vick interception to Green Bay CB Tramon Williams. 

    With the season on the horizon, no team has more hype than the Eagles, who made the biggest splash in free agency by signing Nnamdi Asomugha, as well as adding fellow CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Jason Babin and DT Kullen Jenkins. Vick, leading an explosive offense to complement a reloaded defense, is poised to win his first Super Bowl.

    It should be an interesting journey for the league's most polarizing player, and the most intriguing storyline of the 2011 NFL season.