Every year in the NFL, there are players who outperform expectations by taking their games to the next level.
These are players who rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to showcase their talents, and oftentimes, they can carry a team to the postseason and beyond.
Sometimes, these players come out of nowhere, but just as often, the seeds are planted for a breakout in the previous season.
The Green Bay Packers had many of these players last season, including rookie corner back Sam Shields, who went from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl starter, and running back James Starks, who emerged in the middle of the season as the Pack's best rushing option after starting the year injured.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace showcased his breakaway speed and uncanny ability to find the end zone with a 39-catch, six-touchdown season as a rookie, which foreshadowed his breakout 60-catch, 1,257-yard and 10-score campaign last year.
Sometimes, all a player needs is a little opportunity to get the job done, which can come in the form of a solid training camp performance, a veteran under performing or simply an injury to the current starter.
Houston's Arian Foster came into a starting job last year due to an injury to Ben Tate and a subpar season from Steve Slaton the year before, and he quickly became the most explosive back in the NFL.
Players will break out this year, even if we're not sure exactly who. What follows is a list of every NFL team's player who is most primed for a breakout this year.
Knowshon Moreno could be in for a big season in 2011-12, and I'm not just saying that because I played against him in high school.
Knowshon came to the Broncos with high expectations after being drafted with the 12th overall pick out of Georgia in 2009 but hasn't yet lived up to his star potential.
However, with a new coach in John Fox, he could be in for a huge season. Fox has spent the last few years developing running backs as if they grow on trees with the Carolina Panthers.
Stephen Davis, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson all had terrific seasons in Fox's offense, and Moreno should have a similar opportunity this year.
The Broncos signed Willis McGahee to back him up, but Knowshon should get the first look in the starter's role and be able to take advantage of the opportunity.
The last time Steve Breaston was in a Todd Haley-coached offense, he had 77 catches for 1,006 yards.
In the past two years since Haley left Arizona to take over as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Breaston has totaled just 102 more catches for 1,430 yards.
Breaston's down year last year can be somewhat attributed to bad quarterback play, but he also became marginalized in an offense that wasn't as wide open as Haley's.
Even though Haley has shown much more of a commitment to the run in Kansas City than he did in Arizona, the opportunity is still there for Breaston to have a big year.
Dwayne Bowe will draw multiple defenders on the other side of the field, allowing Breaston single coverage to get deep on opposing secondaries.
With Tony Moeaki occupying the middle of the field and Jamaal Charles being a threat to catch the ball of of the backfield, Breaston should have a lot of space to get open.
Jacoby Ford didn't see much playing time at wide receiver at the beginning of last season, but his explosiveness in the return game forced the coaches to give him a look on the offensive side of the ball.
Ford responded with 25 catches over the last nine games of the year, for 470 yards and two scores.
He also took three kicks back to the house, further showcasing his breakaway speed and athletic ability.
Ford was one of the fastest players in the entire country in his time as a Clemson Tiger, and we all know how much Al Davis likes those speedsters.
He probably has even more natural receiving talent than former first-round pick Darius Heyward-Bey and could move into the starting lineup alongside Louis Murphy this year.
If Ford is given ample opportunity, he could see his numbers spike upward this year.
Nearly everyone was expecting a huge rookie season from Ryan Mathews last year, but thanks to injuries and the presence of the bruising Mike Tolbert, it didn't happen.
Due to Mathews' huge numbers at Fresno State and his coming into the season as the primary rusher in a Norv Turner offense, all signs were pointing to Mathews making a strong case for rookie of the year.
Instead, he carried the ball just 158 times for 678 yards in 12 games on the season. His average of 4.3 yards per carry was actually very respectable, and as his touches increase this year, so will his effect on the game.
Norv Turner likes to run the football when he gets down near the goal line, so Mathews will have plenty of opportunities to break the plane for touchdowns this season.
In a Week 17 win over the Denver Broncos, Mathews showed he was ready for the big time with a 26-carry, 120-yard and three-touchdown masterpiece, and that should give him added confidence going into the season.
Calais Campbell has gotten better in each of his three seasons as a pro, and his playing time and stats have increased as he has gotten better.
Campbell had a career-high 60 tackles last season, but his sack total dipped from seven to six.
Some of that can be attributed to the Cardinals being a bad team and not being thrown on as often last season as when teams needed to throw the ball to make comebacks against them.
Calais is a monster, an imposing figure along the defensive line, standing at 6'8" and weighing 300 pounds.
He seemingly can rush off the edge and get to the quarterback before an offensive tackle has even gotten out of his stance. He's also gotten much better at playing the run since he entered the league, hence the increase in his playing time.
As a starter for a full season this year, Calais could break out in a big way this year.
When Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks selected safety Earl Thomas out of the University of Texas with Carroll's former USC player Taylor Mays still on the board, many in NFL circles were surprised by the pick.
However, Carroll's faith and belief in Thomas paid off as he responded with an excellent rookie season.
Thomas had 76 tackles and five interceptions from the safety position for the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks.
As Thomas grows into the position and gains more confidence, he will only get better.
The Seahawks have brought in some players to help them on the offensive side of the football, but Thomas and linebacker Aaron Curry will be expected to lead the defense into the future.
Michael Crabtree was one of the best receivers in college football history during his time at Texas Tech, but the early part of his NFL career has been thrown off by a holdout that lasted five games into the 2009 season.
Crabtree has 103 catches for 1,366 yards over his 27-game career thus far, and if Jim Harbaugh can harness all the natural talent he has, Crabtree should be in for a big season.
He comes into the year No. 1 on the 49ers' wide receiver depth chart, and along with Vernon Davis and Braylon Edward, gives whoever becomes Harbaugh's starter three big, strong targets to throw the ball to.
Crabtree didn't always get along with former coach Mike Singletary, and it will be important for Coach Harbaugh to build a solid relationship with the mercurial wide receiver moving forward.
Sam Bradford took over a team that had won just one game in the season before he was drafted and started all 16 games and nearly led them to a NFC West Championship.
Bradford had all the appearances of a star in the making last season as he completed 60.0 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns.
While his 5.95 yards per pass attempt needs improvement, that should come with added development this season.
Danny Amendola was Bradford's No. 1 receiver for much of last year, and the team responded to that by signing Mike Sims-Walker and drafting tight end Lance Kendricks and wide receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas.
The Rams still have one of the league's best running backs in Stephen Jackson to shepherd along Bradford's development, but you can expect them to open up the playbook a bit more this year.
While so many other teams were busy obsessing over Nnamdi Asomugha, the Houston Texans quietly swooped in and nabbed the consensus second-best cornerback on the market in Johnathan Joseph, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Joseph isn't as well known or as flashy a signing as Asomugha, but he will make a huge impact on the Texans' pass defense this year.
His primary responsibility will be to prevent the big plays that plagued Houston last season, as they allowed a league-leading 18 pass plays of over 40 yards.
In Wade Phillips' man-to-man heavy schemes, Joseph will have to deal with wideouts like Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Kenny Britt on a game to game basis, so he'll have to bring his A-game every week.
If he and the Texans' defense can finally bring their games up to a respectable level this year, this could be the season that Houston makes its first trip to the playoffs in franchise history.
While Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis garner most—okay, all—of the attention along the Colts' defensive line, the yeoman's work done by Fili Moala and his defensive tackle partner Daniel Muir cannot go overlooked.
The Colts took Moala in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft hoping they would have a defensive tackle of the future on their hands.
Moala is entering his third season out of USC, and he has steadily improved in each of the previous two years.
After appearing in 10 games and making seven tackles as a rookie, Moala played all 16 last year and recorded 26 tackles and a fumble recovery.
There were many who felt the Jacksonville Jaguars reached to take Tyson Alualu with the 10th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Alualu showed them all who's boss by responding with a terrific rookie season.
He recorded 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Jaguars in his rookie year and was one of the better defensive rookies in all of football.
In fact, if it wasn't for Ndamukong Suh, he may have been the best rookie defensive lineman last season.
Alualu is a mammoth man at 6'3" and 304 pounds, which makes him a difficult guy to block for centers and guards in the league.
If he can continue his development this year, he is in for a big season for the Jags.
When you can find a starting cornerback in the sixth round, you know it is a job well done.
That is exactly what happened for the Tennessee Titans, who made a great find with Rutgers corner back Jason McCourty in the sixth round in 2009.
McCourty saw his tackle total rise from 29 to 47 last season despite playing three less games, and he also picked off the first two passes of his career in 2010.
Being that Cortland Finnegan can't seem to make up his mind on whether he wants to be in training camp or not, McCourty could be in for an expanded role in the Tennessee secondary this year, and he should be up to the task.
McCourty doesn't have prototypical size for a cornerback in today's NFL at just 5'10", but he makes up for it with his strong body positioning and fluid hip movement.
Thomas DeCoud is now entering his fourth NFL season with the Atlanta Falcons, and it's high time for him and the Falcons defense to make a leap to stardom.
DeCoud's tackle totals have gone up each of his three years in the league, steadily progressing from six to 68 to 74.
DeCoud is firmly entrenched as a starter and one of the leaders on the Falcons' defensive unit.
His ability to come down into the box and make plays in the running game as well as dropping back to make plays on the pass is what will allow him to take the next step this year.
If the Falcons defense stays strong and their offense can make a jump to the next level, the Falcons are dark horse Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
The Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the NFL last season and were able to land Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
It's unlikely that Newton and the Panthers' offense will be able to put up big numbers for head coach Ron Rivera's offense this season, but the defense should be able to do some pretty nice things.
Captain Munnerlyn has been a bright spot for Carolina over the past two seasons, recording 89 tackles and three interceptions, including one for a touchdown.
Munnerlyn, along with Chris Gamble, gives the Panthers two solid corner backs with which to thwart the opposition's passing offense.
If Jon Beason and his linebacking crew can keep opposing rushers in check, the Panthers D could improve drastically this season.
Although Jimmy Graham has just two years of college or pro football below his belt, he is as good a candidate as any to have a breakout year this season.
Graham is a big, imposing target for Drew Brees to throw to, standing at 6'6" and 260 pounds.
He also has terrific hands, which he showcased when given the opportunity last season. Graham recorded 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in 2010.
He'll likely enter the season as the starter at tight end for the Saints, a team that likes to spread the ball around to all of its weapons.
Graham can be an especially good weapon in the red zone where he can use his size advantage to out jump and out reach smaller defensive backs or his quickness to create separation from slower linebackers.
It took LeGarrette Blount a few games to get going last year, but once he did, he was excellent in his rookie season out of Oregon.
Blount rushed 201 times for 1,007 yards, good for a five yards per carry average. He is a huge physical specimen at 6'0" tall and a whopping 247 pounds, which makes him extremely hard to bring to the ground.
Multiple defenders are usually needed to bring him down, and he has also showcased the athletic ability—multiple times—to LEAP OVER oncoming tacklers.
Blount will now enter the year as the unquestioned starter on an offense that showed great improvement last season.
Fellow young guns Josh Freeman, the quarterback, and receiver Mike Williams had strong campaigns last year and will benefit from the breathing room Blount is able to provide in the running game.
A season where he racks up 1,200-1,400 yards and double-digit touchdowns is not out of the question for Blount this year.
Ed Dickson's 11 catches for 152 yards and one touchdown are not the kind of numbers that normally portend a breakout season.
However, it is important to note than Ravens' mainstay Todd Heap was playing in front of him last year, and Heap now resides elsewhere.
Joe Flacco lost two of his top targets in Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason, so other players will have to pick up the slack.
The Ravens offense also lost two of its backs in Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain.
The players who remaining on offense will all see an increase in both playing time and touches, so Dickson is due for a big uptick in numbers this season.
His ability to block in both the running game and the passing game will make him a valuable asset at tight end this year as well.
Whether or not Carson Palmer eventually returns to the Cincinnati Bengals, Jermaine Gresham is a player to watch this season.
Gresham built up a nice rapport with Palmer last year, Bruce Gradkowski likes to throw to the tight end and Andy Dalton will need a security blanket if he starts any games this year.
Gresham has excellent hands and is a precise route runner, which allows him to get open against almost any type of coverage.
The former Oklahoma Sooner had a strong rookie season with 52 catches for 471 yards and four touchdowns last year.
With Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens on their way out of town, Gresham could very well be the No. 1 receiving option in Cincy this year.
Joe Haden had a superb season in his rookie year out of the University of Florida for Rob Ryan's defense last season.
Hayden recorded 64 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and seven interceptions while proving himself to be one of the best players on an improved Browns defensive unit.
At one point last year, Haden became the first Browns player since 1968 to intercept a pass in four consecutive games.
He certainly proved himself worthy of the No. 7 pick in the draft after some questioned Cleveland's selection of the corner back.
He started the season as the nickel back for the Browns but was able to eventually work his way into the starting lineup by around Week 11 and will be holding onto that position for a long, long time.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace was a breakout star for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, and it's entirely possible that Emmanuel Sanders could follow that up with a big season of his own.
Sanders was the Steelers' fourth receiver behind Wallace, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El for much of last year, but he was still able to record 28 catches for 376 yards.
Sanders had a big game in the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens, catching four passes for 54 yards out of the slot.
Wallace will remain the Steelers' No. 1 option this year, but Sanders could possibly overtake both Randle El and the ageless Hines Ward on the Pittsburgh depth chart over the course of the season.
Sanders' breakaway speed gives Ben Roethlisberger a different option than Ward's more possession receiver profile.
Johnny Knox is one of the fastest players in the NFL, and in fact may even be faster than his wide receiver counterpart on the Chicago Bears, Devin Hester.
Knox has recorded 96 catches for 1,487 yards and 10 touchdowns in his two-year career thus far, and things seem to be looking up for him again this year.
Quarterback Jay Cutler spent much of the offseason working on his footwork, which should allow him to get the ball out to Knox on slants and deep patterns even more quickly than he already has.
Knox is a true burner who can get deep on just about any corner in the league—he was a sprinter at Abilene Christian.
If he can harness that speed and improve his route running, he'll have a big season for the Bears this year.
All the pieces are in place for Matthew Stafford to have a breakout season in 2011-12, provided of course that he can finally stay healthy.
Staying on the field has been a problem for Stafford in his young career as he has missed time with injuries in each of his first two seasons.
However, with all the weapons he now has around him in Detroit, this is his best chance yet to succeed.
He's already armed with one of the best wide receivers in all of football in Calvin Johnson, and he has an emerging tight end in Brandon Pettigrew to throw to as well.
When you add in an improved running game with Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, Stafford should get more time to throw the ball this season.
If he can stay upright, look out for Stafford, and the upstart Lions, to improve in a big way this season.
The Green Bay Packers injury problems of 2010-11 are well documented, and perhaps, no returning player is in a position to make as big of an impact as tight end Jermichael Finley.
Finley is one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL, and he has great hands to boot.
Aaron Rodgers loves throwing to him, and he—along with Donald Driver—provides a presence over the middle to complement the outside games of Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson.
Finley was on his way to another strong season last year before getting hurt, and he should be able to pick up right where he and Rodgers left off this year.
Finley's size gives him a big advantage over defensive backs, and his route running ability and quickness enable him to get separation from lurking line backers in the middle of the field.
The Packers like to spread the ball around to all their play makers, and Finley may just be the best of the bunch.
Asher Allen showed steady improvement from his first season to his sophomore stint as a Minnesota Viking.
Allen's 57 tackles were an improvement by 30 over his previous year's total, and he also picked off two passes in 2010 to just one in 2009.
The Vikings are already armed with an excellent defensive line—featuring Jared Allen and Kevin Williams—and if their secondary can pick up some slack in the passing game, that Vikings D will be mighty again.
Allen was a third-round pick two years ago who has shown that he can be a solid starter at the NFL level.
It also helps that his cousin is Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who may be able to give him some pointers.
Although Fred Jackson carried much of the load for the Buffalo Bills last season, C.J. Spiller could be in line for a breakout campaign this year.
After all, there is a reason that Buffalo drafted him with the ninth pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
Spiller's combination of size, speed and athletic ability was nearly unmatched while he was at Clemson.
He is able to score from literally anywhere on the football field and is a threat in the return game every time he touches the football.
Along with Brad Smith and Roscoe Parrish, he now gives the Bills three game-breakers who can contribute on both offense and special teams.
Brandon Marshall is the more high-profile wide receiver target for the Miami Dolphins, but it was often Davone Bess who showed the most consistency last season.
Bess developed into a reliable possession option for quarterback Chad Henne, who doesn't have the arm strength to always muscle the ball downfield to Marshall and instead often checked down to Bess underneath.
Bess's total receptions have gone up every year he has been in the league, from 54 to 76 to 79. He's also gained successively more yards through the air in each of his three seasons.
If that trend continues this year, he's looking at 80-plus catches and 900-plus yards—numbers nearly any receiver would be jealous of.
One thing Bess has to improve is his ability to find the end zone, since he has just eight touchdown catches in three seasons thus far.
Aaron Hernandez is just one half of the New England Patriots' new two-headed monster at tight end, teaming with Rob Gronkowski to form a super-weapon for quarterback Tom Brady.
Hernandez is the bigger playmaker of the two, while Gronkowski is more of a solid target underneath.
The second-year tight end from Florida has great size and speed, as well as the trust of both Brady and Bill Belichick to make plays in the passing game.
Hernandez had some big games against tough defenses last year that foreshadow a breakout season if he can put it together consistently: six catches for 101 yards against the New York Jets, five catches for 54 yards against the San Diego Chargers and five catches for 48 yards against an improved Cleveland Browns defense as well.
Hernandez's 45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns made him one of the best offensive rookies in the league last season, and he will only get better as he matures and learns the Patriots' complicated offensive system.
Shonn Greene's breakout season was supposed to come last year, but LaDainian Tomlinson got in the way as the best running back of the last 10 years added to his ever-growing legend.
Greene struggled out of the gate, failing to find holes and fumbling the football, and Tomlinson seized the opportunity.
Greene should get a second chance to make a first impression this year.
The Jets already know what he can do from his strong performances down the stretch and in the playoffs two years ago and know that Greene is the future while Tomlinson will not be around for much longer.
Greene will likely see an uptick in touches this year and should be able to turn them into more productive carried behind the Jets' strong offensive line play.
Kenny Phillips is looking to become the latest in a long line of fantastic safeties out of the University of Miami.
If he can play anywhere near the level of Ed Reed or the late Sean Taylor, the NFC East needs to look out.
After a strong rookie season in 2008, Phillips missed much of his second year with a degenerative knee condition.
He was cautious and careful for much of the 2010 season, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said Phillips looks better than ever in training camp this year.
Phillips has the versatility to play either safety position, and with Fewell's three-safety alignment, he'll see time all over the football field.
He's a ballhawk who can also make plays in the running game, and that makes him a very valuable player for the Giants.
While Michael Vick and the passing game received much of the attention last season, LeSean McCoy went somewhat overlooked.
That won't happen again this year as McCoy is primed for a huge season.
Defenses will be paying so much attention to Vick, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin that McCoy will have all kinds of rushing lanes to take advantage of.
"Shady," as he's know, is also a big threat in the passing game and gives Vick another option there as well.
McCoy had just 207 carries last season and still managed to rush for over 1,000 yards, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and crossed the goal line seven times on the ground.
Look for each and every one of those numbers to improve in his third season in Philadelphia.
Leonard Hankerson should have ample opportunity to prove his worth to the Washington Redskins this season because Santana Moss is getting up there in age, and Anthony Armstrong is too inconsistent to merit true consideration as a starting receiver.
Hankerson was one of the best route runners in all of college football as a Miami Hurricane last season, and his big, strong hands allow him to catch any football thrown in his vicinity.
Probable starting quarterback John Beck was impressed with Hankerson in player-organized workouts, saying that he was "the guy every single day that stuck out with me afterward."
Hankerson's work ethic is already impressing his quarterback, and that is the type of thing that builds trust moving forward.
When Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State, he was the best wide receiver in all of college football.
Now that he is a Dallas Cowboy, it is his aim to become the best receiver at the NFL level as well.
He certainly has the talent to do it, but he has to keep his head on straight and stay on the football field.
Bryant missed some time with injury in training camp and the preseason last year, and then broke his ankle during the regular season and was out for the remainder of the year.
Bryant is probably third on the receiving depth chart for the Cowboys after Miles Austin and Jason Witten, but he has more pure football talent than anyone else on the roster.
He has an uncanny ability to snatch the ball out of the air at its highest point and is so tough to bring down in the open field.
He makes for an excellent complement to Austin for quarterback Tony Romo. It will be up to Jason Garrett to find even more creative ways to get Dez the ball this season.
Bryant is also a factor in the return game, although the Cowboys may limit his touches there this year to protect against an injury.
Either way, Bryant is already one of the most explosive players in the NFL and is in for a gigantic season.