Positive Production: Why 8 NFL Stars are Better in 2011

Zachary Stanley@@SFLeaguesCorrespondent ISeptember 27, 2011

Positive Production: Why 8 NFL Stars are Better in 2011

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    Each year in the National Football League, there are solid players that manage to either top themselves, or come back into the realm of conversation.

    It happens in all sports, but none like the NFL, where players rely upon their teammates for numbers unlike any other.

    It might be a new team, an improved aspect of their game, personnel changes, a new mindset to reach their full potential, or a combination.

    Naturally, this season has been no different.

    Here are some players that fit the bill.

Steve Smith

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    As I passed over Steve Smith in the 8th and 9th rounds in some fantasy drafts, I couldn't help but think that I might be doing something wrong.

    Despite the fact that I saw Cam Newton's intent to target Smith in the preseason, the brief stint in questioning myself was quickly overtaken by my repeated proclamation that Newton would average somewhere under 200 yards passing, bolstering his effectiveness with his legs.

    It only took me two weeks to remember that no matter what I get right, I will always get some things wrong.

    Despite putting up a dud in Week 3, the 32 year-old Smith has 349 yards receiving and two touchdowns in three games. Smith had 554 in 14 starts all of last season. I guess that's what you get when you have Jimmy Clausen throwing you the ball.

    Smith has proven that he is not beyond his best years, and is benefiting from a quarterback that would love nothing more than to get the ball in his hands.

    Currently on pace to break multiple career-bests, Smith tops the list of fantasy draft steals.

    Be honest, you're probably kicking yourself too.

Tony Romo

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    This one has nothing to do with stats.

    After a Week 1 collapse that, once again, made us think the Dallas Cowboys would never get over the hump, Tony Romo decided that enough was enough, pulling off two of the gutsiest performances that the NFL has seen in quite some time.

    Once I found out Tony Romo had played the remainder of Week 2's win against the San Francisco 49ers with not only a fractured rib but a punctured lung, I immediately relinquished Romo's pretty boy status that I had been preaching for years.

    It wasn't that I disliked Romo—as much of the Cowboy hating world did—I just didn't know if he had the strength to reach rightful superstar status—the one that isn't gained just by playing in Dallas.

    One of the unique things about the quarterback position is that intangibles can take you almost anywhere.

    I can't say with certainty that it was the rib injury that led Romo to become the type of player that wouldn't let pain hold him back. What I can say is that the rest of the Cowboys have become tougher by rallying behind what can't be described as anything other than leadership through will.

    Would Dez Bryant and Felix Jones have been on the field Monday night if Jon Kitna was starting for Dallas? Who knows.

    Regardless, the Cowboys are now tied atop the NFC East because their quarterback refused to let pain lead his team toward another season of lost potential.

Tim Hightower

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    Tim Hightower has never rushed for more than 600 yards in his career.

    This is largely contributed to the fact that he had to deal with essentially equal timeshares during his four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, splitting time with both Edgerrin James and Beanie Wells.

    Who knew the Washington Redskins could make intelligent roster decisions?

    Though Hightower is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry, he has been the perfect back for the Mike Shanahan offense.

    Shanahan has gained a reputation for making strong running backs look good—think Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns and Mike Anderson.

    Hightower is a smart and extremely effective blocker, and he has finally gained an opportunity to carry a team.

    With rookie Roy Helu showing promise and gaining increased opportunities, Hightower will have to keep up his play and avoid injuries. If he can do that, a 1000-yard season may be well within his reach.

    Consider Washington's acquisition of Hightower one of the best moves of the offseason.

Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald

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    Even with Shaun Hill and Derek Anderson behind center, both Johnson and Fitzgerald managed 1000-yard seasons.

    Pure and simple, Johnson and Fitzgerald are instantly seeing the fruits of having solid quarterbacks throwing to them.

    While Fitzgerald is a third of the way to his touchdown total of last season, Johnson is already halfway—leading the league with six TDs.

    The Arizona Cardinals have managed to get out of the post-Kurt Warner era, taking advantage of the Philadelphia Eagles' tricky situation of having two starting quarterbacks on the roster—both deserving of more money.

    The Anderson experiment was a flop waiting to happen, and with a little luck, the Cardinals got out of the woods. Well, sorta.

    With the return of Matthew Stafford—along with some defensive improvements—the Detroit Lions are now 3-0, tied with the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North.

    If the Detroit Lions can avoid losing Stafford for a third consecutive season, Johnson will likely end up posting career numbers.  

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson

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    I know. You've probably heard enough about the Buffalo Bills since pulling off the “upset” in Week 3 against the New England Patriots.

    Unless, of course, you live in Western New York like I do.

    Not too long ago, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, and Stevie Johnson were three players that you may not have paid much attention to. Hell, you might not have even known their names.

    Well, now you do.

    All three players currently rank in the Top 10 at their positions for touchdowns, while Jackson is currently tied with Oakland's Darren McFadden for most yards per carry.

    The success of the Buffalo Bills can be contributed to an improved offensive line, a young group of skilled receivers, a strengthened defense, and finally finding a quarterback.

    What is often overlooked is probably the most important part of the whole equation.

    Since Chan Gailey arrived as head coach in Buffalo, the Bills have instilled the kind of creativity on offense that can win ball games—think Sean Payton in New Orleans.

    Gailey likes to mix up the deception on offense, and the components the Bills have in place allow for just that.

    Jackson is an elite blocker that has had no problem getting out in front in a fullback-type situation for speedy backup C.J. Spiller, and the acquisition of Brad Smith from the Jets has allowed Gailey to run a few different wildcat formations.

    Despite the loss of receiver/returner Roscoe Parrish, the Bills sit at 3-0, alone atop the AFC East.

    I will be the first to admit that I didn't think this would be a fun offense to watch anytime soon. Buffalo can thank Gailey for a return to relevance.