2011 NFL Predictions: Mike Wallace, Knowshon Moreno and the All-Breakout Team
Last year, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans led the National Football League in rushing yards, and Brandon Lloyd of the Denver Broncos led the league in receiving yards. With the 2011 NFL season quickly approaching, fans are asking themselves, "Who will be the guy this year?"
Players from under the radar burst onto the scene each year, becoming key components for their respective teams. In this slideshow, I compiled an entire team with players at each position that should have breakout seasons.
If you have any disagreements, or players you think I missed on, feel free to let me know in the comments section!
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
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In his rookie season, the Georgia standout played in 10 games, with a 13-to-20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. After getting the first season under his belt as a pro, Stafford began the 2010 season looking like the franchise quarterback that the Lions needed; he decreased his touchdown-to-interception ratio to 6-to-1.
However, Stafford suffered another shoulder injury, which sidelined him for the remainder of the year. The Lions have made efforts to bolster their offensive line with the addition of tackle Tony Ugoh, as well as upgrading their wide receiving corps through free agency and the draft.
The Lions added Nate Burleson, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, and selected Titus Young, a promising wideout from Boise State.
If Stafford can stay healthy, he has the arm strength and accuracy that could allow him to become one of the top quarterbacks in the league—in time.
Running Back: Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos
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Running back Knowshon Moreno of the Denver Broncos hasn't exactly been too far under the radar, but he definitely hasn't played up to the standards of a first-round draft pick. In his first two years as a pro, Moreno has carried the ball 429 times, gaining 1,726 yards and finding the end zone 12 times.
While those numbers are respectable, he has been highly inconsistent and hasn't been given enough opportunities to carry the ball, as the Broncos were near the top of the league in pass offense.
With new head coach, John Fox, who led running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to 1,000-plus-yard seasons in the same year with the Carolina Panthers, Moreno will have the potential for more carries, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was to gain 1,200-1,400 yards.
Wide Receiver: Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers
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I know, I know. Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Mike Wallace was an absolute beast last year and was considered one of the many breakout players of the 2010 NFL season. However, with the increase in age combined with the decline in production by fellow wide receiver Hines Ward, Wallace has the opportunity to put together even more explosive plays this season.
Last year, Wallace caught 60 passes, while gaining an incredible 1,257 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns. He is one of the best deep-threat receivers in the league, proven by his 20.3 career yards-per-reception average.
Hines Ward is declining, and Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have the relationship or confidence just yet with another young Steelers wideout, Emmanuel Sanders, who started showing strong play toward the end of the year.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
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While Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are known for their pass-happy attack with receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and many others, second-year tight end Jimmy Graham is looking to become a marquee player in the "Who Dat Nation" offense.
While failing to contribute much of anything in the first half of the 2010 NFL season, Graham began to develop a rapport with Brees, catching 31 passes for 356 yards.
Graham grew to become one of Brees' top red-zone targets, as the former Miami Hurricane reeled in five touchdowns in the second half of the year.
Look for Graham to improve on his 2010 play, as Saints coach Sean Payton always finds a way to get the ball to his key players, and Graham seems to be one of them.
Defensive End: Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals
However, the rookie out of Florida managed to rack up 9.5 sacks and 24 tackles. By the way, he didn't start a single game for the Bengals in the 2010 season, which makes those 9.5 sacks even more impressive.
While he is still young and raw, expect to see him on the field a lot more this year and continue to develop as a successful pass-rusher.
Defensive End: Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
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The New York Giants took a flyer on Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2010 NFL Draft, selecting the former South Florida back-flipping phenom with the No. 15 overall pick. With Osi Umenyiora's displeasure with the organization, and Pierre-Paul's outstanding preseason play, he should see a lot more playing time in the 2011 season.
As a rookie, he appeared in all 16 games, making 30 tackles and racking up 4.5 sacks, while forcing two fumbles and deflecting six passes.
Pierre-Paul has had a full year to learn the playbook, and aside from sidelining fellow cornerback Terrell Thomas for the rest of the year, he should be on his way to having a productive career.
Defensive Tackle: Terrence Cody, Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens took former Alabama Crimson Tide nose tackle Terrence Cody in the 2010 NFL Draft, with the hopes of him being a dominant force next to fellow 350-pounder Haloti Ngata. With the Ravens' release of defensive lineman Kelly Gregg, Cody has a chance to see some significant reps this season.
Last year he only made 13 tackles and didn't record a sack; however, if he can keep his weight in check and stay healthy, "Mount Cody" will be able to make an impact on an already stout Ravens defense.
Defensive Tackle: Tyson Alualu, Jacksonville Jaguars
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There weren't many high expectations for Jacksonville Jaguars rookie defensive tackle Tyson Alualu in his first season. Scouts didn't see him as highly as the Jags front office did, yet the 6'4", 304-pound lineman will have a much easier time applying pressure to opposing offensive lines this year.
Defensive ends Austen Lane and Aaron Kampman will bolster the pass rush from the outside, while Terrence "Pot Roast" Knighton will be assisting the second-year starter on the inside.
In his rookie year, Alualu showed signs of potential, recording 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The Jaguars also signed defensive end/outside linebacker Matt Roth in hopes of creating more competition on the defensive line.
Linebacker: Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons
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Sean Weatherspoon of the Atlanta Falcons was another first-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, yet a series of injuries led him to appear in 11 games, starting five of them.
Weatherspoon is expected to start at strongside linebacker over Stephen Nicolas, due to his athleticism. He has the speed, instincts and strength needed to keep up with tight ends and key in on tailbacks, which is why he will definitely increase on his 42-tackle, one-sack rookie campaign.
Linebacker: Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders
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The Oakland Raiders actually made an intelligent decision when they selected inside linebacker Rolando McClain with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. McClain was the leader of the Alabama Crimson Tide's 3-4 defensive scheme.
Like many rookies, he struggled to adapt to the speed of the league, but he still has huge upside to become a premier middle linebacker in the National Football League.
Listed at 6'4" and 255 pounds, McClain has prototypical inside linebacker size, and he managed 85 tackles, half a sack, a picked-off pass, six deflections and six tackles for loss.
The Raiders have a decent defense, despite losing Nnamdi Asomugha to the Philadelphia Eagles, and McClain will have to step up this season to make up for that loss.
Cornerback: Sean Smith, Miami Dolphins
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Sean Smith was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, after the 'Fins grabbed fellow corner Vontae Davis in the first round to shore up their secondary. There is no question about Smith's measurables, as he is one of the biggest and strongest cornerbacks in the league, standing 6'3" and weighing in at roughly 215 pounds.
However, Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano wasn't happy with Smith's work ethic and benched him for the 2010 season opener—the only game Smith hasn't appeared in during his two years as a pro.
Smith realized that he needed to mature, has reportedly spent the offseason doing all the right things and is looking to build on his promising career.
In his two seasons as a Dolphin, Smith has made 89 tackles, deflected 21 passes and caught one interception. He possesses both man and zone coverage skills, and he has the ability to become one of the premier cornerbacks in the National Football League.
Cornerback: Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans
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Alterraun Verner was a fourth-round selection out of UCLA by the Tennessee Titans in the 2010 NFL Draft, and he proved to be a great pick. He played in all 16 games, starting 12 of them, and he made a major impact opposite cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
The Titans coaching staff has raved about his instincts and football IQ, which make up for his lack of top-notch athleticism. However, that "lack of athleticism" still allowed Verner to rack up 101 tackles, three interceptions, a forced a fumble and 11 pass deflections.
Verner is perfect for the zone defense Tennessee runs, and his future couldn't be brighter.
Safety: Louis Delmas, Detroit Lions
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Louis Delmas of the Detroit Lions is a vastly overlooked safety in terms of potential and talent. In two seasons with the lowly Lions, Delmas has 178 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, a pair of interceptions, nine pass deflections and eight tackles for loss.
The Lions had a terrible secondary last season, but adding veteran cornerback Eric Wright to go along with Chris Houston will allow Delmas to play in more space.
Furthermore, the Lions beefed up their front seven by adding Nick Fairley in the 2011 NFL Draft and signing Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant via free agency. The increased pass-rushing potential and better coverage across the board should allow Delmas to play like the top-end safety he can be.
Safety: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
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After earning a Pro Bowl appearance, it's pretty tough to say that a player will have a "breakout" year. However, safety Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs has a chance to improve on a stellar rookie campaign that earned him high praise throughout the league.
The No. 5 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft played every single defensive snap for the Chiefs last season, gathering 92 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions and a forced fumble. Now, according to ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, the second-year safety wants to focus on his coverage ability:
“I didn’t want to get complacent,” Berry said Tuesday. “There are great tight ends in the NFL. So, I have to work on coverage. I take as much pride in it as tackling, but I want to get better...Covering the tight end here is not like in college. Getting better in coverage is important.”
Many analysts see Berry as the second coming of Ed Reed, the Baltimore Raven' ball-hawking safety and surefire Hall of Famer.