2011 NFL Predictions: Identifying Breakout Players for Each Team
These lists are always difficult because "breakout" can mean a lot of different things to different people.
Some of the players on this list saw little or no playing time in 2010, thus "breaking out" for them means becoming a major contributor to the team. For others, though, it can easily be argued that 2010 was their "breakout" year, as they've already demonstrated their abilities to produce on the field.
This list contains both types of players and everything between. I simply want to identify NFL players who I believe will demonstrate significant improvement in 2011, which will mean extended playing time for some and Pro Bowls for others.
Feel free to disagree; I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Buffalo Bills: Stevie Johnson, WR
One could easily argue that 2010 was Johnson’s breakout year, as he finished the season with 82 receptions for 1,073 yards and 10 TDs.
Well, yeah. That qualifies as a breakout year.
But 2011 will be even better for Johnson, who is unfortunately best known for his dropped game-winner against the Steelers and his subsequent comments about it afterward.
What stood out to me then and now about his comments were—with exception of "blaming" God (which he didn’t really)—he took full responsibility for the play and it was obvious that nobody was taking the loss harder than he was. Despite his unfortunate Tweet, Johnson handled the situation with surprising maturity.
All of that aside, the kid can play. He reminds me of a young Chad Johnson: great speed, crisp routes, excellent hands and a little bit of flare.
Bills WR coach Stan Hixon has talked about moving Johnson around this year so as to create more one-on-one situations, thus allowing Johnson to break big plays. This may prove difficult with the departure of Lee Evans, or it could open more opportunities for Johnson to become Ryan Fitzpatrick's main target (who could enjoy a fairly productive year himself).
Honorable Mention: C.J. Spiller, RB
Miami Dolphins: Sean Smith, CB
When Sean Smith entered the league as a second-round pick in 2009, nobody questioned his size and athleticism, but an admitted lack of maturity held Smith back the first year he spent in the NFL.
Coach Tony Sparano benched him for the opening game of the 2010 season because of his off-field behavior; Smith was late to meetings, didn’t give full effort during practice or full attention during meetings.
But Smith speaks of it now as a "wake-up call," and his on-field play showed the difference in 2010.
At 6'3" and 214 lbs, Smith is one of the biggest corners in the league, and he has developed the cover skills necessary to match up against the league’s biggest receivers. I fully expect him to take the third-year leap this season and become one of the NFL’s elite CBs before the season’s end.
Combined with his draft-mate—and now close friend—Vontae Davis, the Dolphins' young secondary could prove to be one of the biggest surprises of 2011.
Honorable Mention: Brian Hartline, WR
New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley, RB
The rookie RB was one of the Patriots' third-round picks from the 2011 draft and has begun his ascent toward the top of the depth chart. This has been due in part to the injury of second-round pick Shane Vereen, but also due to the fact that Ridley weighs 225 pounds and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder to deliver the hit.
The LSU product didn’t waste much time before making his case for the starting job; in the Patriots' first preseason game, Ridley took advantage of extended reps, which amounted to 16 carries for 64 yards and two TDs, as well as seven receptions for 47 yards and another TD.
Granted, it’s preseason, so let’s not get carried away—but that’s about as impressive a debut as one can hope for in this league.
If Vereen can stay healthy and Danny Woodhead continues to produce, don’t expect Ridley to replicate his preseason performance on a weekly basis. But if he can manage to win the majority of the playing time, I think Ridley has as good of a shot as anyone to be the AFC Offensive ROY.
Honorable Mention: Sebastian Vollmer, T
New York Jets: Dustin Keller, TE
A fourth-year player and former first-round pick, Dustin Keller is poised to become one of the top receiving TEs in the NFL in 2011.
Keller has always been able to run routes and catch passes, but he has been a liability in the run game for a lack of size and toughness when it comes to moving around DEs and getting in the way of LBs. Keller has put on weight in the offseason, and the verdict so far in camp is that his run-blocking is slightly better than it was before.
If Keller can manage to stay on the field without being a liability, he could quickly become a Dallas Clark-like weapon for the Jets’ offense. Keller led the team in receptions in 2010, and with the addition of offensive consultant Tom Moore—the mastermind behind the Colts' TE-reliant passing attack over the last few years—Keller could quickly become the team’s primary target and one of the league’s most effective pass-catching TEs.
Honorable Mention: Jamaal Westerman, OLB
Dallas Cowboys: Felix Jones, RB
This one is sort of obvious.
Ever since Jerry Jones spent a first-round pick on the younger Jones (no relation), he has shown an uncanny affinity for the big play. Unfortunately, he’s been hampered by injuries and, thus, still flies under the radar for lists of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.
Marion Barber is gone, and while Tashard Choice is a promising complement, Jones is the guy in Dallas, and if he can stay healthy, he might surprise everyone and become this season’s Arian Foster.
Everyone knows he’s got speed to burn, but what most don’t realize is that Jones can run between the tackles and, occasionally, lower the boom. He’s also a fantastic receiver out of the backfield who can make guys miss in the open field.
Jones is a lot like his former Arkansas teammate Darren McFadden, who in 2010 demonstrated how big of a difference a healthy season can make for an up-and-comer—only Jones is even better at catching passes and might even be a bit more elusive.
Nine months from now everyone will be saying, "I should have seen this coming."
Well, now you do. Get ready.
Honorable Mention: Dwayne Harris, WR
New York Football Giants: Terrell Thomas, CB
Terrell Thomas is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the league. Determining whether or not a guy has a "breakout" season has largely to do with public perception, which is why he’s on this list.
The guy is a stud. Flat-out.
The Giants know this. Thomas most definitely knows it (and will tell you to your face).
But despite playing in New York, the media have largely missed the boat on this guy.
In 2011, Thomas will emerge as one of the toughest, most explosive playmaking corners in the league. He, along with safety Kenny Philips, makes the Giants’ secondary surprisingly dynamic.
While Philips has finally started to get the attention he deserves for being a playmaker, Thomas is really the heart of this defensive secondary. Expect big things from him this year.
Honorable Mention: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
Philadelphia Eagles: Trent Cole, DE
Trent Cole has been one of the most under-the-radar sack artists in the league over the last few seasons. He hasn’t racked up gaudy numbers yet, so the national media haven’t really paid much attention to him.
But Cole’s demonstrated how effective he can be, both against the pass and the run.
What makes 2011 different—and even better for Cole—are two things.
First of all, he has a new line coach, Jim Washburn, who considers him the most important guy on the line. Expect Washburn to go out of his way to create matchups for Cole that are advantageous and sack-inducing.
Secondly, have you looked at that secondary lately? Holy cow!
With Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie as the nickel-package corners, don’t expect many receivers to get open very quickly. Opposing quarterbacks will either have to settle for short dumps or stand in the pocket and hope somebody comes open down field, because between 5-15 yards, it’ll be nearly impossible to find a guy to throw to.
Inevitably, this will bode well for the entire Eagles defensive line in terms of rushing the passer, and Cole will often be the first one to sink his teeth into opposing passers.
2011 will finally be the season Trent Cole gets his gaudy numbers and much-deserved Pro Bowl bid.
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Maclin, WR
Washington Redskins: Ryan Torain, RB
Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of optimism about the 2011 Redskins.
However, when given the chance in 2010, Ryan Torain showed he’s capable of being a reliable, every-down back.
Despite breaking his hand last week, Torain is still considered the leading candidate to be the main guy out of the Redskins' backfield, assuming he heals quickly.
And why shouldn’t he be? In just 10 games last season, he rushed for 742 yards and four TDs, as well as 18 receptions for 125 yards and two TDs. If these numbers were to be prorated over a 16-game season (unlikely for any RB, but still), you’re talking about 1,158 yards rushing yards and nine combined TDs.
Not a bad stat-line.
But the real variable here has less to do with Torain and more to do with Mike Shanahan, whose career has produced nothing but 1,000-yard seasons for running backs who would barely make the depth chart on other teams.
If Torain can stay healthy, I think he’ll have a strong season. Tim Hightower is worth keeping an eye on as well.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Armstrong, WR
Baltimore Ravens: Paul Kruger, OLB
When the Ravens drafted Kruger in the second round of the 2009 draft, they expected him to play the ever-important DE role in their 3-4 scheme, something he had never done at the University of Utah.
His first two seasons have been extremely disappointing for Kruger, which is why new Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has been trying him out just about everywhere. At the moment, Kruger isn’t listed as a starter, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take over the OLB position opposite Terrell Suggs (currently held by veteran Jarret Johnson), as his change of position appears to have made a significant difference for the third-year player.
Kruger has seen reps at both OLB positions, as well as his old DE spot on rushing downs. He has the speed to beat most OTs around the edge and has developed the strength to bull-rush opponents when necessary.
Even if Kruger isn’t named an opening day starter, expect him to have a lot of sacks in 2011 and become one of the major components of the ever-talented Ravens front seven.
Honorable Mention: Jameel McClain, ILB
Cincinnati Bengals: Carlos Dunlap, DE
Yes, I know he’s not currently projected as a starter—but the second-year beast of a pass-rusher won’t spend too much time on the Bengals’ sideline, even if he’s technically listed as the backup for Robert Geathers for the time being.
Dunlap set a Bengals rookie record in 2010 with 9.5 sacks, and he wasn’t exactly a pushover against the run. The man is an absolute monster at 6'6" and 285 lbs, and would have easily been a Top 15 selection had it not been for the ever-difficult-to-predict "character concerns."
As long as his "character" keeps Dunlap from suspension or Marvin Lewis' doghouse (which, let’s face it, is pretty tough to get into), I don’t see any reason why Dunlap won’t lead the team in sacks in 2011 and make a push for his first Pro Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Shipley, WR
Cleveland Browns: T.J. Ward, S
When the Browns took T.J. Ward early in the second round of the 2010 draft, many called it a reach.
Nobody would say that today.
As a matter of fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone out there to say that the kid from Oregon was anything but a steal.
As a rookie in 2010, Ward led the team in tackles with 105 (which also led all rookies) and though sketchy at times in coverage, was solid.
This year Ward will only get better, as the defensive scheme under Dick Jauron will be much simpler and more straightforward than the mangled, pop-quiz-riddled scheme of Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan. This will allow both Ward and fellow rookie phenom Joe Haden to spend less energy worrying about complicated coverage assignments and more simply making plays.
Ward showed in 2010 he knows how to lay the lumber. In 2011, we’ll see better cover skills from the kid as he begins to receive the recognition he deserves as one of the most talented young defensive backs in the NFL.
Honorable Mention: Joe Haden, CB
Pittsburg Steelers: Emmanuel Sanders, WR
As with many players on this list, one could easily argue that 2010 was actually Sanders’ breakout season. Though he didn’t rack up gaudy stats, this was largely because he didn’t get a chance to contribute until late in the season.
But when he got his chance, he was fantastic; Sanders simply knows how to make plays.
Unfortunately, Sanders has already received a setback to his 2011 campaign, hurting his foot and needing surgery a few weeks ago. He’s already out of his boot, though, and barring any setbacks in rehabilitation, should win the job as the Steelers' No. 3 receiver.
Given an entire season to produce, Sanders could put up some big numbers and prove himself to be the aging Hines Ward’s long-term replacement.
Honorable Mention: Ziggy Hood, DE
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler, QB
Look, I know this is a strange pick. Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you either think I’m being ridiculous or stating the obvious.
Again, like so many of these picks, so much depends upon our definition of "breakout."
The reason I’m putting Cutler here is because the Bears’ success begins and ends with him.
Mike Martz has orchestrated an offense that depends entirely upon his consistency and accuracy, the two black spots in Cutler’s career. But I really believe this year will be the year he not only gets back on track to where he was in Denver, but he actually takes a step forward.
It’s no secret Cutler's arm is a rocket, both powerful and unpredictable. And I can’t promise he won’t throw his share of interceptions.
But Cutler showed signs of definite growth toward the end of last season, and his second year under Martz will only be better. The Bears brought in Roy Williams to provide a large, veteran target to complement the many young, small, speedsters at Cutler’s disposal. Even if he can’t minimize the interceptions, Cutler can be good enough that it might not make a difference.
I think this is the year Bears fans have been waiting for—at least on the Jay Cutler front.
Honorable Mention: Chris Harris, S
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, QB
Sure, he’s not an under-the-radar kind of guy; Stafford has played well when healthy, so expectations for him are fairly high.
But if he can stay healthy, he will exceed them.
I believe Stafford is going to have a phenomenal year and catapult himself into Pro Bowl consideration. I really don’t have a whole lot more to say about it—I think Stafford is the real deal, and I think this is the year he proves it.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Pettigrew, TE
Green Bay Packers: Desmond Bishop, ILB
Though he started 2010 as a special teams player, Desmond Bishop finished the year as a key part of Dom Capers’ defense.
The Packers were quick to re-sign him to a four-year contract, and Bishop starts 2011 as one of the most important players for the defending Super Bowl champions.
He’s incredibly stout against the run and can drop into coverage when necessary. While most people who don’t follow the Packers week in and week out have probably never heard of the guy, Bishop is quickly becoming one of the premier 3-4 ILBs in the entire league. It’s not a flashy position, but it’s incredibly important, and the Packers demonstrated that by extending his contract.
Honorable Mention: Morgan Burnett, S
Minnesota Vikings: Brian Robison, DE
Robison has been an above-average backup DE ever since joining the Vikes, though he’s never really had a chance to start because of the Vikings’ defensive line depth.
This year will be different.
With the departure of Ray Edwards, Robison is expected to start opposite Jared Allen. And while the Vikings also lost Pat Williams in the middle, they still have perennial Pro Bowler Kevin Williams and signed the dependable Remi Ayodele to replace "Fat Pat."
The result will be Robison enjoying the rare luxury of consistent man-to-man blocking throughout the season, as any and all blocking reinforcements will be committed to Allen and Williams.
Just as Edwards was able to "break out" because of matchups, so will Robison, who has a great motor and a quick first step. Expect a lot of sacks from him this year.
Honorable Mention: Jaymar Johnson, WR
Houston Texans: Connor Barwin, OLB
Much has been made of Mario Williams’ transition from DE to OLB in the 3-4.
One thing is for sure: He’s still going to be Mario Williams, and it’s still going to pay to play alongside him.
Connor Barwin was expected to be a big-time pass-rusher before missing the entire 2010 season with an ankle injury. He’s now slated to start at OLB opposite Williams, and assuming he can stay healthy, Barwin should have a lot of chances to get after the QB.
Even Gary Kubiak said he believes 2011 will be a "breakout year" for Barwin, so expect big things.
Honorable Mention: J.J. Watt, DE
Indianapolis Colts: Anthony Gonzalez, WR
Peyton Manning can make anyone look good, but Gonzalez was good to begin with.
The former first-round pick out of Ohio State has been hampered by injuries ever since joining the Colts, and should he find a way to stay off the IR, Gonzalez could have a phenomenal year as the Colts’ slot receiver.
It’s hard to say much about him since he’s seen so little time on the field, but we know he’s fast, smart and has great hands.
And his QB is pretty good—did I mention that?
Honorable Mention: Pat Angerer, LB
Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Thomas, WR
One could argue that 2010 was Thomas' "breakout" year, but I think he has yet to really reach his potential. Thomas is about as small as an NFL WR can be at just 5'8" and 198 lbs, but the speedster actually plays much bigger than that. Thomas finished 2010 with 66 receptions for 820 yards and four TDs.
With Mike Sims-Walker out of the picture, Thomas will be the focal point of the Jaguars’ passing game in 2011, and he’s ready for it.
Matt Williamson of ESPN.com’s Scouts Inc. loves Thomas in 2011, stating that, "He might not ever be as good as either Wes Welker or Steve Smith in their prime, but he’s kind of a mixture of both." He also cites Thomas’ explosiveness, great routes and hands as reasons why Thomas should have a big 2011.
Obviously, I don’t disagree. If he and David Garrard can manage to get on the same page, Thomas could easily finish with more than 1,000 yards and close to 10 TDs. Aside from MJD, he’s the Jags’ most dangerous offensive weapon, and 2011 could be the year he establishes himself as one of the most exciting playmaking receivers in the league.
Honorable Mention: Tyson Alualu, DT
Tennessee Titans: Alterraun Verner, CB
Verner was selected out of UCLA in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. By Week 4 he had earned a starting spot opposite Cortland Finnegan, and by season’s end was one of the Titans’ best defenders. Verner finished the year with a team-leading 15 passes defensed, second on the team with three INTs and fourth in tackles with 103.
He is not an elite corner and never will be; Verner is not exceptionally fast and lacks the man-cover skills to become a shut-down corner. But his instincts and reliable tackling make him a perfect fit for the zone packages Tennessee relies so heavily upon.
Verner is a good player, and 2011 might be the season he takes the next step to become very good.
Perhaps even great.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Britt, WR
Atlanta Falcons: William Moore, SS
Moore took over the SS spot from Erik Coleman in Week 2 last season and spent the rest of the year playing like he’d been doing it for years.
What’s so shocking when you watch Moore is that he never looks confused, either in coverage or against the run. He always knows where he needs to be in order to make plays, and when the opportunity arises, he knows how to take advantage.
Moore finished last season with 71 tackles, five interceptions and a forced fumble. Expect nothing but more of the same from him in 2011.
Last year was Brent Grimes’ year to step from relative obscurity into the national spotlight. Now it’s Moore’s turn.
Honorable Mention: Julio Jones, WR
Carolina Panthers: Charles Godfrey, FS
Since drafted as a third-round pick in 2008, Charles Godfrey has been a reliable FS for the Panthers' defense. He is very reliable in coverage, has above-average ball skills and is also a very good tackler.
Panthers fans know these things—not many others do.
I think 2011 could be the year Godfrey finally gets noticed outside of Carolina.
Of course, it’s hard to get noticed as a safety without putting up freakish stats, but interceptions are often a simple matter of taking advantage of opportunities, and some players get fewer opportunities than others.
But Godfrey has learned over the last couple years what it takes to put himself in position to make those plays, thus creating more opportunities for himself and his team. If he can manage to add some eye-popping INTs to his already-reliable skills in coverage and against the run, Godfrey just might take a step into the upper-tier of NFL safeties.
Honorable Mention: Captain Munnerlyn, CB
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham, TE
This is a pick I have seen made on just about every list like this one on the Internet.
I’d like to pick someone else here just for the sake of originality, but this guy is a near-lock for a breakout year.
Now that Jeremy Shockey is gone, the starting TE spot is all Graham’s, and you can bet Drew Brees will love throwing to him.
Some sources indicate Graham as only being 6'6", though others say 6'8". He played four years for the Miami Hurricanes’ basketball team and has no issue bringing his power forward skills to the gridiron.
Needless to say, Graham will win just about every jump ball thrown his way.
He has the makings of a young Antonio Gates, and in an offense as dynamic as the Saints’, he will be a nightmare to game plan for. And while this will be Graham’s first season as a starter (and only second in the league), he finished last season as one of Brees’ favorite targets, catching four TDs in the Saints’ final three games.
Honorable Mention: Malcolm Jenkins, CB
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman, QB
This is another one of those, "Can you really call it a breakout?" situations.
In reality, 2010 was Freeman’s big breakout—but 2011 will be even better.
Freeman is what JaMarcus Russell was supposed to be: a giant man with a giant arm and no ceiling whatsoever above his giant head.
Freeman can make all the throws in every situation. He can throw fastballs when he needs to or drop it over the LB in the seam. Though he’s certainly not in the same league, Freeman has spent a lot of time in the offseason learning from Peyton Manning, and his poise on the field shows it.
Will Freeman ever become what Manning is? No—but that’s a lot to ask of anyone.
What Freeman does give you is genuine leadership, remarkable poise, more experience than you’d expect from a guy this young, endless talent, a great attitude and proven performance in clutch situations.
2011 will be the season Freeman goes from a talented young guy to one of the top 10 QBs in the league, regardless of age.
Honorable Mention: Brian Price, DT
Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno, RB
Moreno has been considered a major disappointment over his first two injury-plagued seasons, but if he can manage to stay healthy, 2011 will be the season he finally shows why the Broncos drafted him so high in 2009.
Moreno has the ability to catch passes out of the backfield, run between the tackles and just enough speed to get outside every once in a while.
Of course, nobody has ever questioned his ability; it’s his durability that scares us.
But John Fox’s top priority with the Denver offense this year is establishing the run. Moreno will share reps with offseason acquisition Willis McGahee, but it’s fairly clear at this point that McGahee is insurance as opposed to the other half of the thunder/lightning shared role that has become so fashionable. Moreno should get the bulk of the carries, and if he can manage to stay on the field, he will get plenty.
I expect Moreno to take us back to the days when the Broncos turned out 1,000-yard backs like it wasn’t a thing.
Honorable Mention: Eric Decker, WR
Kansas City Chiefs: Tony Moeaki, TE
Now, I don’t want to get ahead myself here and start comparing Tony Moeaki to one of the greatest (perhaps the greatest?) TE to ever play the game.
But until two seasons ago, Kansas City enjoyed the luxury of having an elite pass-catching TE for longer than most of us can remember.
While this Tony isn’t exactly the other one, I’m confident that as long as he can stay healthy, Moeaki will be an elite TE for the Chiefs over the next decade or so.
Moeaki battled injuries throughout his collegiate career, but was always a star when on the field at Iowa. He’s got phenomenal hands and has the ever-elusive "it" factor for a TE: He just knows how to get open. And beyond his promise in the passing game, Moeaki is a superb run-blocker.
He had to undergo knee surgery in the offseason, so Chiefs fans should be cautious about Moeaki's long-term prospects. But when he’s on the field, you will know it.
Barring injury, Tony Moeaki is going to have a big 2011.
Honorable Mention: Eric Berry, S (If you don’t already consider him one of the best safeties in the AFC, which he is.)
Oakland Raiders: Lamarr Houston, DE/DT
Lamarr Houston is going to have a HUGE 2011.
He showed promise as a rookie in 2010, but still managed to fly beneath the national media radar.
He won’t for long.
Houston is one of the most versatile linemen in the league. He has incredible hands, a great first step and can get up the field to collapse the pocket or work underneath to force pressure up the middle. Houston can also chase QBs or stuff RBs.
The kid can frankly do it all, and when he does it, he just dominates.
Watching him reminds me of another No. 99 who used to wear the Silver and Black—only of the days when that 99 wore a depressing shade of orange.
(If I’m not being clear enough here, I’m talking about Warren Sapp.)
And while Houston plays a different position (part of the time), his skills are quite similar. Sapp had more of a natural pass-rushing instinct than Houston does, but Houston is more reliable against the run.
Is Houston the second coming of Sapp? No—but he just might be that good.
Honorable Mention: Tyvon Branch, SS
San Diego Chargers: Malcom Floyd, WR
The obvious pick here would be Ryan Matthews, a guy who was supposed to have a great rookie season in 2010, but never managed to break through.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Mathews managed to have a stellar 2011, but I’m going with a less-obvious but equally likely candidate in Malcom Floyd.
Last year, Philip Rivers only further cemented himself as one of the elite QBs in the league despite a maddening change of receivers throughout the season.
Rivers’ first two giant targets in 2011, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates, are well-known and widely-recognized as being two of the best in the league at their respective positions.
But what most don’t realize is that Floyd, at 6’5" and 225 lbs, is just as big as both of them, except he doesn’t have the injury history of the other two.
Floyd will be Rivers’ third option in the passing game, which may equate to a 2011 similar to 2010. But my guess is that defensive backfields will game plan for Jackson and Gates, thus leaving the underappreciated Floyd with smaller defenders trying to manage him one-on-one. The result will be more big plays for Floyd than most would anticipate.
I think he’ll actually have a better year than Jackson and will surprise many with elite statistics despite his lack of name recognition.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Mathews, RB
Arizona Cardinals: Daryl Washington, LB
Second-year player Daryl Washington has done nothing but make plays since forcing the coaching staff to give him playing time early in 2010. He has since won the starting weak-side ILB position, and new defensive coordinator Roy Horton has stated publicly that he has "big things planned" for Washington in 2011.
Washington isn’t flashy; he’s not going to rack up a ton of sacks anytime soon. But he’s going to bring the Cardinals’ defense exactly what they need from him: reliable toughness and the ability to initiate contact with opposing runners near the line of scrimmage.
Washington's closing speed is remarkable, and he has an uncanny talent for fighting through blocks in order to impede opposing backs. He is establishing himself as not only a centerpiece in this new Cardinals defense, but as a leader as well. The coaches can’t say enough about him, which is an indication that Washington’s probably found a home for years to come.
Honorable Mention: Calais Campbell, DE
San Francisco 49ers: Mike Iupati, G
OG might be the least-sexy position on an NFL team; there is no glamour, only head-to-head contact with the fattest guys in the league on every single down. At least centers make line calls and are expected to be smart; guards are bulldozers who go unnoticed—or rather, if they do get noticed, it’s rarely a good thing.
But Mike Iupati has taken no time at all in establishing himself as one of the NFL’s toughest guards, regardless of age (but he’s only 24, in case you were wondering).
At 330 pounds, he’s easily one of the largest linemen in the league who's able to match up against even the thickest DTs.
But what makes Iupati such an incredible talent is his gracefulness in motion.
That’s right—this 330-pound lineman has the feet of a ballerina.
Not only is he excellent in pass protection and a beast in the power-run game, but he pulls as well as anyone in the league.
No, playing guard isn’t sexy, but Mike Iupati is about as close as you’ll get in the NFL. He’s one of the few guards that I can honestly say I enjoy watching.
Honorable Mention: Aldon Smith, LB
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas, FS
Earl Thomas is one of the most impressive rookies of the 2010 class. His ceiling frankly does not exist, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t someday develop into the league’s best FS.
But Thomas’ greatest strength, his instincts, is also his greatest flaw.
As a rookie, Thomas had an impressive five interceptions. He was also reliable against the run, his ball skills are excellent and his closing speed is second-to-none.
But there were many times in 2010 when Thomas simply found himself out of position. He played like a wild stallion in the Seahawks' secondary; free roaming, seemingly everywhere at once, but without the maturity to know how to harness his talent to play within an overarching defensive scheme.
Perhaps more importantly, Thomas is quite humble. Although he was listed as a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie, he simply assessed his season as "up and down." I think it would be hard for even the harshest critic to merely refer to his stellar rookie year as "up and down," but that’s how Thomas feels.
Perhaps that’s because only Thomas truly knows how great he can be. He spent the majority of the offseason studying tape from last season trying to improve his reliability in coverage, and he trained at his alma mater in the scorching Texas heat in order to make 2011 even better.
Clearly Thomas has the talent to be elite in the league; we knew that when he was drafted.
But he’s also demonstrated that he has the work ethic and humility necessary to truly maximize his potential.
I think Earl Thomas, along with Eric Berry, will become the NFL’s new prototypical FS—which, really, isn’t a huge departure from the last prototype (Ed Reed) to whom they both have been (appropriately) compared.
Honorable Mention: Golden Tate, WR
St. Louis Rams: Rodger Saffold, LT
When the Rams spent high draft picks on Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold in 2009 and 2010 respectively, they envisioned them as bookend tackles on their offensive line for years to come. It seems that the Rams chose wisely, and Smith and Saffold will in fact develop into one of the best tackle duos in the league.
Only there’s a twist: Smith, the man they spent the No. 2 overall pick on to play LT, was beat out for the position by the 2010 second-round pick Saffold.
And for the duration of 2010, Saffold was incredibly dependable on Sam Bradford’s blindside, while Smith adjusted nicely to playing RT.
All signs indicate that Saffold is the better player of the two talented young linemen. 2011 will be the first season in which he holds down LT from the outset, and thus will be given the opportunity to prove himself to a wider NFL audience.
The Rams may surprise some people in 2011. Bradford has lived up to his draft position so far, which is no small feat for anyone, let alone someone playing for a team with so many holes.
Saffold has played an integral role in Bradford’s development, and I expect big things from both of them from 2011 forward.
Honorable Mention: Danny Amendola, WR