Breakout Players for Each NFL Team in 2011
There's no perfect science for who will take the NFL by surprise each year, but one thing is always certain—there will be a handful of players who will step up and become fan favorites for the league and their team's faithfuls.
Last year introduced the league to several new solid performers, including LeGarrette Blount, Josh Freeman, Peyton Hillis, Tramon Williams and the revival of the ever-so-exciting Michael Vick.
The most pleasant surprise for Houston and fantasy owners everywhere was league-leading rusher Arian Foster. In just his second year, Foster rushed for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Journeyman Brandon Lloyd also proved that the glimpses of talent he showed during his days in San Francisco were no joke, as he lead the league in receiving yards (1,448) and tied for third in receiving touchdowns with 11.
So who are the players with the potential to break out this season? Here is each team's player with opportunities to win over the league.
Please feel free to comment and tell me how much of a moron I am.
Arizona Cardinals: Chris "Beanie" Wells
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One word can sum up Beanie Wells' NFL career thus far: pain.
That word can be applied to the physical angst that holds Wells out of games week after week and to the headaches he causes his team.
"Durability" is a word that has eluded the former Buckeye since his college days. It wouldn't be a surprise if Wells missed time because he suffered a laceration to his leg from kicking up a blade of grass.
His injury issues aside, Wells' playing time was also limited due to the recently departed Tim Hightower. With Hightower now ready to be the next great Mike Shanahan product in the nation's capital, it's time for Wells to dispel his critics and win over the Arizona Cardinals.
With the preseason injury to highly-touted second-round draft pick Ryan Williams, Wells has nothing holding him back other than his injury-prone body. He has shown flashes of his natural ability, but this season he has to prolong that type of performance to hold off the ball-hungry LaRod Stephens-Howling.
If Wells can stay healthy, he should have a Pro Bowl-caliber 2011.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones
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Julio Jones was a star even before he stepped on the field in Tuscaloosa. His time spent there only made him more of a well-rounded threat at receiver, which is why the Falcons had to have him at the No. 6 overall pick in this past April's draft (even if they had to give up their first, second and fourth-round picks).
Now Jones has an opportunity to make his name a household one in his first year for an Atlanta team that isn't deep at the receiver position.
Jones had a very good Week 1 in an otherwise embarrassing outing by the Falcons in Chicago, as he recorded 71 yards on five catches.
This was only the beginning for the Alabama product who consistently made big catches on Saturday's at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Baltimore Ravens: Sergio Kindle
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It was hard not to go with Tom Zbikowski or Bernard Pollard here, but when he is finally able to be on the field, Kindle will prove to be a disruptive force across from Terrell Suggs.
Kindle proved in his final two years at the Texas that he has incredible strength and block-shedding, matched with good pursuit and determination. He doesn't give up trying to get around his blocker, and in his junior season, that was reflected by his 10 sacks followed up by six more his senior year.
Kindle is still struggling to get on the field following his hairline skull fracture suffered prior to his rookie training camp last summer. When he finally does reach the playing field, opposing blockers will have their hands full trying to throw a wrench in Kindle's high motor.
Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller
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The Buffalo Bills landed a very talented running back when they selected C.J. Spiller out of Clemson with the ninth pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
However, first-round playmakers must not mean much to Chan Gailey, as Spiller has had very limited opportunities his first 15 games in the NFL.
Following an underwhelming rookie season where Spiller only carried the ball 74 times for 283 yards, the Bills continued to favor Fred Jackson this past Sunday, only handing the ball off to Spiller five times.
Now, while Jackson is a very talented running back, it makes no sense to spend a No. 9 overall pick on a running back to not use him in any aspect of the game. Spiller has great speed and can make cuts that very few running backs can. If he's not going to be featured in the running game, he should at least get some opportunities in the return game.
If Gailey decides to let Spiller showcase his talents, Spiller should be in for a big year. He may not eclipse 1,000 yards yet because Jackson will still be getting his share of carries, but there is no reason Spiller shouldn't get to 10 touchdowns in his second season.
It's your move, Gailey.
Carolina Panthers: Brandon LaFell
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2010 was an absolutely ugly year for the Carolina Panthers, a team that isn't that too far removed from earning the No. 2 seed of the NFC in the 2008 NFL playoffs.
Even from Carolina's Week 1 matchup against the New York Giants, it was plain to see they were in for a long year.
Yes, they had two terrific options at running back, but no offensive line and no threat passing the ball.
But one bright spot on the 2010 Panthers was rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
The young receiver didn't put up great numbers by any means, but when the quarterback of choice could get the ball to him, he showed he can be the real threat the Panthers are looking for to help out Steve Smith.
LaFell's play this season will again rely on the play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton—and the only reason Newton isn't the choice here is because he is too well known to be considered for a breakout year; he's too obvious of a choice.
And his Week 1 performance has already made Newton too well-known in the NFL.
Newton will have his growing pains like any young quarterback, but his versatility will certainly help open up the passing game and help LaFell have some big games in Carolina.
Chicago Bears: Johnny Knox
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For his first two seasons in the NFL, Johnny Knox has been hyped like few other receivers.
His rookie season was average, as Knox posted 545 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 45 receptions. Then in his sophomore season, Knox's yardage greatly improved to just shy of the 1,000-yard mark with 960, but his touchdown number remained at five.
Now with Chicago entering its second year under Mike Martz's offense and third year with Jay Cutler under center, the Bears look like they have found a rhythm, and that can only be good for Knox, who is widely regarded as the most talented receiver on the Bears.
With Cutler's risk-taking way of playing quarterback, Knox should continue to get many opportunities to make big plays. And despite Cutler's past interception problems, he is a good quarterback.
Knox will improve his third year in the league, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark and reaching the end zone at least eight times.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jordan Shipley
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Entering his second year, Shipley is better known for his college years at Texas catching passes from Colt McCoy and raking amongst the top of the Longhorns' school receiving records, but 2011 is his year in the NFL.
The former Longhorn did have a good rookie season, leading all AFC rookies with 52 receptions (along with teammate and fellow rookie Jermaine Gresham) and 600 receiving yards.
However, the second-year wideout will have to improve in his sophomore season to help his team and his rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton.
Rookie receiver A.J. Green out of Georgia may be the popular pick to lead the Bengals' receiving corps,—and deserves the right to be based on his raw talent—but Shipley has a very good opportunity to showcase his talents as well.
Lining up in the slot, Shipley will be the safe option for Cincinnati's new play-caller. While slot receivers outside of Wes Welker don't have the same opportunities as the primary receivers, Shipley is a different breed and has the talent to put up eye-popping numbers.
Look for Shipley to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Bengals.
Cleveland Browns: Colt McCoy
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Yes, back-to-back teammates from college.
This might be too obvious of a selection, but everything is in place for McCoy to prove his doubters wrong in 2011.
He's not off to a good start, but it has only been one week.
The second-year quarterback has good options to pass to, most who are in the same situation as McCoy: They have shown glimpses of their talent, but need to prolong that for an entire season.
McCoy also has a very capable tight end in Benjamin Watson.
McCoy had a bit of a rough start against a Bengals team that surprised many this past weekend, but it is still early in the season. McCoy will finish much better than his 47.5 completion percentage in the opener and will have between 20-25 touchdown passes this season.
Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant
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Second-year receiver Dez Bryant began to establish a name for himself last season, but inconsistent play by the Dallas Cowboys' backup quarterbacks, plus preseason and late-season injuries stunted his chances of becoming elite in his rookie season.
Now Bryant is healthy and hungry, along with his starting quarterback, Tony Romo, feeling the same way. Bryant has proven at times that he is a physical machine and is highly capable of making any catch possible—and that was when he was battling his healing body and the subpar passing attack.
Bryant showed even more signs of a top-tier receiver in the season-opener, going up for the touchdown with Antonio Cromartie trying to pull him down by the jersey the entire time.
And despite what many people might think with Romo's late interception, Bryant played very well when lined up against Darrelle Revis.
Barring injuries, expect Bryant to put up big numbers this year and be a staple in the Cowboys' passing game for many years. He will be considered an elite receiver by the end of the year.
Denver Broncos : Eric Decker
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Eric Decker had a quiet rookie season to say the least, but in Denver's season-opener, Decker showed he is ready to be a serious threat in the Broncos' passing and return games.
Even with Orton's struggles, the second-year receiver out of Minnesota managed to eclipse 50 yards on three catches. Not the most impressive numbers, but Decker showed he is a sure-handed receiver and will get a lot of targets this year.
The only thing that could hinder him this year is if the Broncos take Orton out. I would love to see Tebow get his share of snaps, but he isn't nearly as good of a passer as Orton.
And that fact that Brady Quinn is on an NFL roster is astonishing. He was overrated at Notre Dame and hasn't proven he deserves to play in the NFL.
But I digress...
Decker also showed he has the speed to take back returns for touchdowns. His 90-yard punt return for a touchdown looked to be allowed by over-pursuit, but it will not be the last special teams touchdown you will see from Decker this season.
Expect him to have at least 70 receptions, 800 yards and eight touchdowns to go along with many more impressive special teams plays.
Detroit Lions: Jahvid Best
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Best has shown time and time again that he has speed unparalleled by others.
His only problem in his short career has been staying healthy.
Best hasn't reached Beanie Wells-level, as this is only his second season, but even in his college days at California, Best was known for an unfavorable injury history.
So far, however, Best is healthy in 2011 and showing the threat he can have on any given down with his speed. Best had an OK Week 1, rushing for 72 yards on 21 carries and caught four passes for 42 yards and no scores.
That won't continue to be the case though; Best has too much talent to be held scoreless and under 100 yards (or even 150 total yards a game).
As the Lions continue to develop, expect Best's numbers to progress right along with the team.
There's no reason Best can't reach 2,000 combined yards and 15 total touchdowns this season.
And by the end of the season, his stock should sky-rocket across the league.
Green Bay Packers: James Starks
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I really don't understand why the Packers are still giving Ryan Grant as many opportunities as they are.
Yes, Grant had a tremendous breakout year of his own, but that was four years ago.
Grant did have arguably his best season in 2009 when he had 1,253 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, but the year in between, Grant only reached the end zone five times. There is no excuse for a featured back to score five times in 16 games, even if he is on a pass-happy offense.
So that brings us to James Starks. Starks had a quiet rookie regular season, only playing in three games at the end of the year, but in the playoffs, he showed he wasn't in Green Bay to be a backup.
Starks just looks like a better back than Grant. While the latter option looks a bit slow when attacking the hole in the offensive line, Starks makes quick cuts and just looks more lively than Grant.
Starks had 12 carries in the opener compared to Grant's nine, but expect that difference to be much greater by the end of the year—even if both backs stay healthy—and expect the NFL to take note of Starks as early as late October.
Houston Texans: Connor Barwin
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Barwin had an interesting college career at Cincinnati. He started his career as a tight end who never won the starting position, then made the move to defense.
This move proved to be the right one, as Barwin immediately improved, recording 10 sacks in his senior season and earning himself a second-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Barwin continued his high level of play his rookie season, recording 3.5 sacks despite not starting any games. He then missed the entire 2010 season with an ankle injury.
With the Texans' change to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Barwin should flourish with the pass-rushing opportunities he'll have at the outside linebacker position.
Indianapolis Colts: Delone Carter
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Austin Collie immediately came to mind, but it's hard to say he would break out this year after he already did last season. If Peyton Manning were healthy, there is no doubt in my mind that Collie would have been the top receiver for the Colts, surpassing 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
But Manning is out at least for two months, if not the entire season, and knowing the Giants like I do, I have no faith whatsoever in Kerry Collins. Collins had a strong arm, but he is nearing the end of his career and is not a good quarterback. Collins solely lost Super Bowl XXXV for the Giants and fell victim again to the Ravens in the Titans' first playoff game after Tennessee earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2009.
The Colts' passing game is going to be ugly as long as Collins is running it.
That being said, the Colts' running game will have to step up, and the player with the most promise is the rookie Carter.
Joseph Addai has had opportunities since 2006, but has only managed to have two good years—his first two in the league. These were the only two years he rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and 2007 was the only year Addai had more than 10 rushing touchdowns with 12 (he did have 10 in 2009).
As for Donald Brown, he has also had his opportunities his first two years in the league, but has been plagued with injuries and has had trouble picking up blocks.
Both of these backs will have their opportunities, but it looks like this year will be Carter's time to prove his worth.
Carter is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons with 20 TDs over that span. The rookie out of Syracuse had a quiet preseason, only amassing 92 yards on 22 carries (an average of 4.2); however, that was more productive than both Addai and Brown.
Then again, it is only preseason.
Look for all three backs to get plenty of opportunities, but Carter has the best upside of the three.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert
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Luke McCown's Week 1 performance has bought him some time, but he has been in the league for eight years now and hasn't proven much. One average game isn't going to guarantee him the starting gig for the entire season.
By mid-October at the latest, I fully expect to see Blaine Gabbert as the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
During his time at Missouri, Gabbert proved he could make the passes and was quite mobile. He finished his college career with average numbers and didn't win critics over with his preseason numbers, which consisted of a completion percentage of 50, one touchdown and one interception.
Gabbert will get his time sooner than later, however, and he will have the chance to prove he was deserving of the No. 10 pick overall.
Kansas City Chiefs: Steve Breaston
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Breaston began making a name for himself in Arizona, but was stunted by two separate factors: the combination of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and the disaster that was the Cardinals' quarterback situation last season.
Now he is in an arguably more promising situation with the Kansas City Chiefs, headed by former Cardinals offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. The breakout didn't start out well this past week, as the Chiefs were manhandled by the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday, but Breaston did lead the pathetic passing performance with two receptions for 26 yards.
The Chiefs clearly have a lot of problems to address this week and this season moving forward.
I highly doubt Week 1 is a preview of how things are going to work moving forward though, because they have a lot of talent on their team—even if Eric Berry is lost for the year. Matt Cassel won't continue to throw for 119 yards on 22 completions, and once he finds his groove, Breaston will be a big piece of the offense moving forward.
Breaston has shown he is capable of surpassing 1,000 yards receiving, now he needs to add the touchdowns to that.
Once he does, he will prove he can be a premier threat in this league.
Miami Dolphins: Chad Henne
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Chad Henne took a lot of heat this preseason following the rumors that the Dolphins were looking to acquire Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton.
Henne answered right back with an impressive opening-night performance against the New England Patriots, completing 61 percent of his passes with three touchdowns (one rushing), one interception, 416 yards passing and 59 yards rushing (more than any previous season total).
Now Henne has to consistently perform at that level, and it should be easier already having a full season with Brandon Marshall under his belt. I don't believe Henne will ever be an elite quarterback in the NFL, but I do believe he can perform well enough to lead the Dolphins to the playoffs a few times—even in the tough AFC East.
Again, I'm not saying Henne will break out to elite status, but he will improve and be regarded as a solid starting quarterback, something that has eluded him his first three years in the league.
Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder
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Let's be honest here, Donovan McNabb is done. He looked atrocious this past Sunday.
A quarterback, no matter what he has done in the past, will not last long if he's only completing seven passes for 39 yards.
It won't be long until Ponder is under center for the Minnesota Vikings
Ponder was one of the more interesting draft picks this past April, as many thought the Vikings panicked and picked Ponder because of the rate quarterbacks were going in the first round; his college stats don't exactly warrant his No. 12 draft selection.
During his three years as the starter for the Seminoles, Ponder put up average numbers, at best. Ponder never reached 3,000 yards passing and maxed out at 20 touchdown passes during his senior season, but did show some mobility, rushing for 833 yards and nine touchdowns in his four seasons in Tallahassee.
Ponder got very fortunate landing where he did and has nowhere to go but up. I don't expect him to become a top 20 quarterback this season, but by this time next season, more than just the average football fan should know his name.
New England Patriots: Danny Woodhead
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Now, putting Woodhead here might be questionable because some may argue last year was his breakout season, but I don't think he's even scratched the surface with his talent.
The former New York Jet put up nice numbers last season, rushing for 547 yards on 97 rushes, an average of 5.6 yards per carry. You could look at that and figure every other attempt would result in a first down, but let's be realistic.
I was going to put Stevan Ridley here until I saw the Patriots play Monday night. Everyone is talking about Tom Brady, as he did put up 517 passing yards which is just ridiculous,—to be fair, 99 of those yards came on one fortunate play—but I was truly impressed with what I saw from Woodhead.
I had forgotten how special of a player he is.
Woodhead fights for every inch he can get out of his 5'8" frame on every single attempt. Looking at his numbers won't impress you, as stats leave out a lot (even though I use them a lot), but just watching this guy run is a real treat.
Woodhead will lead all Patriots rushers this season. I don't care what BenJarvus Green-Ellis did last season, the halfback position in New England belongs to Woodhead.
He will rush for at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Mark it down.
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham
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A lot has been said about the running backs who come out of the University of Miami,—rightfully so—but what about the tight ends who have come out of "the U" lately?
In the past decade, we have been introduced to names like Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr., Greg Olsen and now Jimmy Graham.
Graham has already shown, at times, that he has what it takes to be a starting tight end in the NFL, which he is now.
Graham put up solid numbers for a rookie tight end in 2010 with 356 yards and five touchdowns on 31 receptions. And he's already off to a good start in 2011, catching four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the high-scoring opener against the Packers.
He clearly has big-play ability on every snap—just look at his one-handed TD grab against the Ravens near the end of last season.
Given the offense he is on, this second-year tight end will put up numbers that will rival the best tight ends in the league. By the end of the season, Graham will be considered a top-tier tight end.
New York Giants: Mark Herzlich
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Most people know of Herzlich from his time wreaking havoc at Boston College and his well-known battle with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, that forced the linebacker to sit out the entire 2009 season.
A year prior to his missed season, Herzlich had his best season, putting up 110 tackles, six interceptions and two touchdowns, which earned him first-team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
Upon returning to football last season, Herzlich looked like a different player, which affected his draft potential costing him a selection in this past April's draft.
Every team that passed on him will soon regret it.
The former Golden Eagle didn't let that slow him down, however, and opted to wait and sign with an NFL team—which he did, signing with the Giants on July 26.
Herzlich didn't waste any time either, finishing the preseason with six tackles, a sack, one interception, a forced fumble and a touchdown. He capped all that off with a spot on New York's final 53-man roster.
With the plethora of preseason injuries on the Giants' defense, including linebackers Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim, Herzlich will have an opportunity to show that his junior season at Boston College was a true testament his ability.
Expect Herzlich to have a huge 2011 season once the Giants realize they need to play him, and expect him to be a staple in the Big Apple (and the NFL) for years to come.
New York Jets: Shonn Green
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It is amazing that this guy hasn't become the premier running back for the Jets.
LaDainian Tomlinson is part of that reason, but that's not an excuse; Greene has to perform this season.
I'm not saying this is a make-or-break year, but Greene has shown too much talent in short spurts to just be another average running back.
Greene had a quiet rookie season in 2009 when he was also behind another running back, Thomas Jones, but in the first round of the playoffs, Greene went off for 135 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries with multiple 30-plus-yard runs.
When the 2010 season rolled around, Greene went back to his average self, only surpassing the 100-yard mark once all season and only scoring two touchdowns all year.
He hasn't started out well this season, either only managing to gain 26 yards on 10 carries; not the type of numbers a No. 1 back should have.
The only reason Greene is the selection for the Jets is because he has shown what kind of talent he possesses, but like many others on this list, he doesn't show it consistently.
Oakland Raiders: Jason Campbell
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This was honestly one of the hardest teams to pick a breakout player for, because the team revolves around Darren McFadden.
I don't believe Jason Campbell can ever be a top quarterback in the NFL, but I can see him doing enough damage to make a name for himself.
I saw moments in Washington where he has made very impressive throws,—granted, most of them were to Chris Cooley—but consistency is a theme in this slideshow. Campbell just hasn't shown he can be consistent.
With McFadden drawing so much attention to himself and the disaster that is Oakland's receiving corps—it has to be terrible if Darrius Heyward-Bey is still starting—Campbell only has room to improve.
He didn't start the season off very well, only completing 13-of-25 attempts (52 percent) and throwing for just 105 yards in the process. I just have to believe that will change.
It's very possible it won't with Al Davis still running that organization into the ground, but who else will step up on that team?
Philidelphia Eagles: Casey Matthews
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While the Raiders were hard to pick somebody from, the Eagles were nearly impossible. With all the talent they signed this offseason, there are very few players left to be considered for a breakout season.
The player with the best opportunity though is rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews. The first-year linebacker and younger brother of Green Bay's Clay Matthews will have a lot of opportunities in the seemingly-weak linebacking corps the Eagles possess.
Casey will be the center of attention, both figuratively and literally. Teams are going to be running at the young linebacker all season, especially after Steven Jackson's easy 47-yard jog to the end zone on the Rams' first play from scrimmage in Sunday's matchup against the Eagles.
Again, the Eagles have too much talent that will perform this year. This was a hard choice.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Emmanuel Sanders
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The Pittsburgh Steelers looked awful Sunday to say the least, but there is no way they will be that bad throughout the season.
One reason for that will be the play of Emmanuel Sanders.
It is clear Mike Wallace is the go-to receiver in the Steel City, but ever since Week 6 of last season, Sanders has made himself known, having his best performance in a loss to the Jets with seven receptions for 78 yards.
2011 will prove to be a much more productive year for the second-year receiver, as Hines Ward continues to age and becomes less of a threat. I'm not saying Ward is done, but the Steelers will have to start looking for his replacement.
That man is Sanders.
He has already recorded his first touchdown, the only touchdown the Steelers were able to muster in their opening day embarrassment.
As the Steelers start to play to their talents, so too will Sanders. Expect Sanders to reach 800 yards receiving and six touchdowns, only to add to that total in the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews
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Ryan Mathews' rookie campaign didn't go as he, the San Diego Chargers and fantasy owners had planned.
Like many others on this list, injuries have prevented the Fresno State product from reaching his potential, but he is healthy and ready for 2011 (so far).
While losing some ground to fellow tailback Mike Tolbert last season, Mathews is still the man in San Diego. Tolbert will still get his carries, but by the end of the month, expect the Chargers to use Mathews more heavily, while most likely using both backs lined up in the backfield at the same time.
Mathews and Tolbert remind me a lot of Bradshaw and Jacobs in New York, but the West Coast duo could use 2011 to prove they are nothing to mess with. Mathews may not be as elusive as Bradshaw, but Tolbert is far more of an all-around back than Jacobs; that should benefit Mathews a lot.
It is yet to be seen where Mathews is in his NFL career, but this season will be a name-making season for the second-year back. Mathews showed why the Chargers selected him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft with his final game of the season, rushing for 120 yards and three touchdowns.
Although he began 2011 slowly, rushing for just 45 yards on 12 carries, that won't last.
Expect more consistency, such as that game from the versatile Mathews, throughout the rest of the season.
San Francisco 49ers: Ahmad Brooks
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Brooks had a slow start to his NFL career in his initial years with the Cincinnati Bengals, but has seemed to find a comfort with the San Francisco 49ers.
Despite only starting one game over the past two seasons, Brooks has still managed to record 11 sacks in that time. His forced fumbles number did drastically drop from five in 2009 to zero last year, but that's nothing to worry about.
Now he is the starter in San Francisco and will definitely have a big role in the Niners' defense this season. Brooks had a slow start in what is going to be a long season in the Golden City, recording just two tackles Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Regardless, when Brooks is on the field, he always seems to be in the backfield or around the ball. With the opportunities he will have, Brooks will become a solid linebacker this season and an elite outside force in the next two years.
Seattle Seahawks: Aaron Curry
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The Seattle Seahawks drafted Aaron Curry out of Wake Forrest in 2009 as the fourth overall selection with expectations that he would dominate opposing offenses, but that hasn't quite worked out yet.
With the surprising departure of Lofa Tatupu (and even more surprising fact that he hasn't been picked up yet), Curry has an even bigger role to fill in Seattle this season.
Curry's numbers haven't been bad during his time in the Emerald City, but the Seahawks were definitely expecting more production than an average of 67 tackles per season. He has had four forced fumbles in his career, but this season is the year Curry becomes a top outside linebacker in Seattle.
With the decision to use some 3-4 formations in longer-yardage situations, Curry will have more opportunities to cause trouble in the backfield. I fully expect Curry to reach his potential this season, finally reaching the 100-tackle mark.
Also expect more sacks and, therefore, more forced fumbles; Curry is too talented of a player not to.
St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola
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Even though Danny Amendola is already dealing with an injury after Sunday's game, I fully expect him to have a huge year in St. Louis.
Amendola started to come around last season in his second year, catching 85 passes for 685 yards and three touchdowns.
Bradford clearly looks for Amendola in the slot, and once the receiver comes back from his injury—which reportedly could be Monday—he should have a huge year. The Rams have a good receiving corps with Mark Clayton (who isn't eligible to play until Week 8) and the addition of Mike Sims-Walker, but Amendola is Bradford's go-to guy. He is the safe choice for Bradford and performs when he gets his chances.
Regardless of how many games the receiver misses, Amendola will be the top receiver for the Rams and will surpass the 1,000-yard mark in 2011.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Arrelious Benn
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't start off the season they way they had hoped by losing to the up-and-coming Detroit Lions, but they still have a lot of positives to build off of from last season.
Quarterback Josh Freeman vastly improved from his rookie season, throwing 25 touchdowns to six interceptions, compared to the respective 10 and 18 the season before. In the improvement, he found himself a reliable target in one of his rookie receivers, Mike Williams, who caught 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Lucky for Freeman he also has another second-year receiver with a lot of promise in Arrelious Benn. While only catching 25 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games, Benn looks to improve in his sophomore season, in which he'll be starting opposite of Williams.
As the Buccaneers and Freeman continue to improve, expect Benn to have a huge improvement in 2011; Benn will exceed 800 yards and seven touchdowns.
Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker
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Perhaps nobody has hurt themselves more in recent draft history than Jake Locker.
Following his 2009 season, many draft experts had him listed as the best quarterback prospect in college football despite never completing more than 58.3 percent of his passes in a single year. What saved him was his mobility, which allowed Locker to rack up 1,939 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground in his four years at Washington.
The Titans were sold, however, selecting him with the eighth overall pick in this past April's draft, and Locker performed better in his preseason efforts, completing 65.3 percent of his passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
The only thing he has holding him back now is Matt Hasselbeck, but that won't last long. Hasselbeck is on the last leg of his career, and Locker will be starting by November at the latest. The Titans spent the eighth pick on Locker to have him play, not to have him sit his first year.
I'm not expecting Locker to have a great year by any means, but he has the best shot at having a breakout year for the Titans.
Washington Redskins: Tim Hightower
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This was the easiest choice.
Sure names like Anthony Armstrong, John Beck and Rex Grossman came to mind, but the person with the best chance to make a league-wide name for himself in Washington is Tim Hightower.
First of all, Mike Shanahan is known for introducing the league to lesser-known running backs such as Clinton Portis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and future Hall of Famer, Terrell Davis.
Now it's Hightower's turn. Hightower has shown he has what it takes to be a starting running back in the NFL, but has always had someone ahead of him or a high draft pick taking away carries.
In Washington, it's time for him to shine.
Hightower had a rough start in the season-opening destruction of the New York Giants, only averaging 2.9 yards per carry, but he did score his first touchdown of the season.
Grossman played well for the first time in his career, but that was against the mess that is the 2011 Giants. I fully believe Grossman will return to his former, struggling self in the weeks to come, putting more focus on Hightower.
Despite his average performance this past Sunday, I fully expect Hightower to surpass 1,100 yards and eclipse 10 touchdowns for the second time in his short career.