10 of Last Year's NFL Breakouts and Evaluating If They Are the Real Deal
Every year there are players who come out of nowhere to take the league by storm and cement themselves as some of the best at their positions in the whole game.
At the start of the next season all eyes on these players to see if they continue to ascend the ladder of stardom or are simply one year wonders.
Here I will take a look at 10 of last year's breakout players and evaluate whether they are the real deal or will take a huge steps back this coming season.
*Note - I included rookies from last year into the equation because there were expectations on them and those included on this list surpassed them last year.
As Madden 12 is being released in a few days, it's fitting to start with the cover boy.
Hillis came to Cleveland from the Denver Broncos in a low-key trade last year and immediately shone using his tough style of running to rush for 1177 yards and 11TDs.
However as much as I like Hillis, I don't see him being anything but a one-and-done.
For a start, Browns' QB Colt McCoy looks like a very capable starter if his preseason is anything to go by and with a decent starter behind center, the Browns will be passing the ball much more in 2011.
The Browns also have 2010 second round draft pick Montario Hardesty back after a season-ending torn ACL and he figures to be getting a sizeable chunk of Hillis' carries. Remember, Hardesty was the back the Browns wanted to begin with, Hillis was the insurance policy as it were.
Finally, Hillis doesn't have great speed or a fantastic ability to break or evade tackles; he uses himself almost as a human wrecking ball.
Whilst it's nice to see a unique type of play, this certain type of play isn't one for running backs who hope for long careers. It's a playing style that asks for injuries and Hillis won't be able to stay healthy for the whole season. In fact, he's already been struggling with a few nags this preseason.
Oh and there is the "Madden curse" if you believe in those sorts of things.
Kong, as he's known, is the real deal.
The No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft was an absolute beast for the Lions last year.
He recorded 10 sacks, 66 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. Not only that, he earned an invitation to the Pro Bowl and was named an All-Pro as a rookie.
Suh is legitimately one of the best defensive prospects since the great Warren Sapp and with a year of his experience under his belt and college standout Nick Fairley lining up next to him this year, Suh will only get better.
Another rookie from last year, Eric Berry could easily become the next Ed Reed.
That should be as good as hint as any that Berry is for real.
Berry played every single down for the Kansas City Chiefs last year and racked up 92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions and a forced fumble.
He went to the Pro Bowl and got a spot on the NFL Network's 2011 Top 100 Players List.
Berry took to the NFL like a fish to water last year and despite his youth, he already appears to be the next great leader for the defence at Arrowhead stadium.
Jaguars' Tight End Mercedes Lewis has actually been playing at a high level for a few years but it was only last season that he gained the attention of the national media.
Lewis caught 58 passes for 700 yards and 10 TDs and named to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Those numbers have propelled into the discussion of the top five or six Tight Ends in the league.
It seems that Lewis will only continue to improve. He has great hands, runs routes well and has a nose for the end zone - all attributes that the best Tight Ends have.
With the QB situation in Jacksonville as it currently is, whoever is lining up behind center will be looking for Lewis early and often this season as he will act as a safety blanket for Garrard/Gabbert.
Another good season and Lewis will be right up there with Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley and Antonio Gates for best Tight End in the league.
Arian Foster was the biggest breakout story of last year.
The undrafted running back out of Tennessee appeared from thin air to lead the NFL in rushing last season with 1,616 yards on the ground and 16 TDs.
His numbers last year were phenomenal but like Hillis, I can't see his success continuing.
He still has a decent offensive line blocking for him and if anything the team as a whole has gotten considerably better, but he has lost the blocking prowess of Vonta Leach (more on him later).
Also Foster's career could be like a sparkler. He flashes bright for a while but then fades off into the background.
Foster took teams by a surprise a lot last year but he won't catch them off guard again. Opposing coaches will know all about Foster and plan how to stop him.
Also like the Browns, the Texans now have Ben Tate available after injury and used Derrick Ward to back up Foster. This means both backs will be taking carries away from Foster making a repeat of his 2010 numbers very unlikely.
Foster may be a good back for Houston and could even have a number of 1,000+ yard seasons in The Lone Star State.
He won't be what people are expecting after last season - an elite back who will rack up a large number of yards every year and be in contention with Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson for the league's top running back.
Speaking of Arian Foster, his backfield partner fullback Vonta Leach also had a breakout year last season.
Fullback is one of the most unheralded positions in today's NFL and there aren't many stats that prove how good Leach was last year.
The best I can do is attribute a lot of Foster's excellent year to the fantastic blocking put in place by Leach.In fact he was so good, he was named to the Pro Bowl and the All Pro first team.
Now the highest paid fullback in the league after signing with Baltimore, Leach has established himself as the best fullback in the league as well.
He's now blocking for Ray Rice (A player I rate more than Foster) and is playing behind Baltimore's solid O-Line. These factors mean Leach shall continue to make a name for himself in the League's running game without actually rushing the football.
Another former No. 2 overall draft pick (this time in 2008) defensive end Chris Long finally burst out last year showing why he was so highly rated during the draft weekend.
Moving to left end last season, Long finished the year with 8.5 sacks, 29 tackles and 67.5 quarterback disruptions (a combination of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries).
Like with most lottery picks, Long had a solid first 2 years in the league with a total of 9 sacks and 83 tackles but it was in his third year (at a slightly different position) that he really began to shine.
It's no mistake that Long was taken No. 2 overall back in 2008 as he has an immense amount of talent and it now seems that the DE out of Virginia is finally putting it all together. Long will be an anchor on the Rams D-Line for years to come.
Stephen Tulloch appeared right from under the radar to have a monster year for the Tennessee Titans last year going for 160 tackles, a sack, an interception and a recovered fumble.
In fact, he was so unknown that a quick Google search for "Stephen Tulloch" provides a number of news stories of him signing for the Detroit Lions, an ESPN Player profile and a Wikipedia stub which only has details of his college career.
I must admit I rather like the Detroit Lions and when I heard of Tulloch's move I was very excited taking a look at his stats from his days as a Titan, however despite having a good couple of years I don't see him being the next Patrick Willis or Jon Beason.
Similar to Buffalo's Paul Posluszny, many of his tackles were the results of the Titans' not having a particularly dominating D-Line and with the Lions having a great defensive line, Tulloch will have a lot less opportunities to record tackles.
After that, his sack and interception numbers are very pedestrian and without having more than 100 tackles, Tulloch isn't much more than a (capable) role-player.
Continuing the Titans theme, Babin, like Tulloch has moved onto newer pastures.
Babin is back in Philadelphia, now a member of Philly's dream team and picked up after a 13.5 sack season.
However Babin is the definition of a one-hit wonder.
He has bounced around a number of teams for the majority of his career before having his breakout year last season and used that to get himself a nice, big contract with Philly.
Despite his placement in a great situation, Babin won't come close to last season's numbers and will stutter after receiving his guaranteed money.
Babin has the talent, but he isn't the real deal - look for about four to six sacks next year.
There are always huge expectations for a No. 1 overall draft pick, yet Sam Bradford rose to it and eventually exceeded them last year.
Highly rated out of Oklahoma, the Rams took a chance on Bradford amid injury concerns about his shoulder and Bradford repaid them spectacularly.
Bradford became only the third QB in history after Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning to throw for over 3,000 yards as a rookie, setting the NFL record for most completions by a rookie and he threw 18 TDs with 15 interceptions.
Bradford took immediate control of the team in a matter of games and looked like a true field general, leading the Rams from a 2-14 record to 7-9 (and one loss away from the playoffs) in only one season.
With concerns over Peyton Manning's neck and even Tom Brady getting older and nearing the end of his career, look for Bradford to establish himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the whole NFL in a matter of seasons.
For more insights in the sporting world of Lewis Hughes, follow him on twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/lah_8