With half of the regular season in the books, certain players are beginning to separate themselves from the pack.
Aaron Rodgers appears to be MVP material. Matt Forte is getting overworked and underpaid. Calvin Johnson already has 10 touchdown catches and requires attention on every down. As always, Tom Brady is Tom Brady. These stars and many more have brightened highlight reels and won the affection of their ravenous fanbases.
But with a new half of the season comes new players poised for breakout performances. For most of the year, they have flown under the radar, be it on a couch or bench. Now as injuries shift the depth charts of many teams, these hidden diamonds are being unearthed and given their chance to shine.
Here are five players to keep your eye on as the schedule progresses.
Through the season's first six games, the Minnesota Vikings' passing game was in trouble.
Brought in from Washington to help balance the offense, Donovan McNabb aimed to prove his critics wrong and lead Minnesota back to the postseason. Unfortunately, his play never matched the lofty expectations set before him. Before their annual meeting with Green Bay, his Vikings ranked near the bottom of the league in passing offense.
In six starts, McNabb went 94-of-156 for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns, completing just over 60 percent of his passes while getting sacked 16 times. Averaging only 171 yards per game through the air, McNabb could not draw attention from Adrian Peterson and the running game, making the Vikings one-dimensional offensively and diminishing the effectiveness of Peterson in the process.
Leslie Frazier's men needed a better aerial assault, and with McNabb failing week after week to get it done, a change had to be made. In a Week 7 showdown with the Packers at home, Frazier rolled the dice on his untested rookie backup Christian Ponder, choosing to start the Seminole over McNabb.
Ponder repaid his coach's faith with a performance any rookie QB would be proud of. Going against the defending champs, Ponder went 13-of-32 for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While the kid did toss two picks, he kept the 1-5 Vikings close before Aaron Rodgers pulled the Pack away.
Despite losing 33-27 to the Green Bay Packers, Ponder showed promise for the season going forward. He handled the defensive pressure well and made a few impressive throws, including a 73-yard bomb to Michael Jenkins on his first play from scrimmage.
In what will now most likely be a rebuilding year for the Vikings, Ponder will have the opportunity to develop without the weight of expectations too soon on his young shoulders. He has the luxury of Adrian Peterson in the backfield, so rarely will he need to carry the offense himself. Defenses will constantly have to respect AP on the ground, which should make Ponder's life easier.
The Vikings' next set of four games will test the young QB as they travel to Carolina, Green Bay and Atlanta while getting Oakland at home. Despite the fact that all four squads give up over 225 yards through the air per game, their offenses will continue to put points on the board. Ponder might often find himself playing well without getting the win.
While it might be too early to expect Ponder to lead Minnesota to a winning season, he will without a doubt make the Vikings a better team offensively than if they had stayed with McNabb. Ponder will continue to get better as the season goes along and might surprise some teams that underestimate him.
When starting QB Jason Campbell went down for the season, the Oakland Raiders were in trouble. Suddenly without a starting quarterback or a real backup, the organization boldly traded a first and second-round pick (which could become a first-rounder) to Cincinnati for the services of Carson Palmer.
So great was his distaste for the Bengals' organization that the former Heisman trophy winner and two-time Pro Bowler had been sitting at home all season rather than don the orange and black. Palmer had been demanding a trade for months, and finally Cincinnati got an offer for him it couldn't refuse.
When Palmer finally arrived in Oakland, expectations were sky-high for a man who had not played a down of professional football in months. Despite the sheer amount of depth to the playbook, many expected the Raiders to go with Palmer against the Kansas City Chiefs the following weekend.
Instead, Hue Jackson gave Kyle Boller the starting nod, and that didn't work out so well. Boller threw three picks in the first half and was replaced by the still-learning Palmer in the second. Palmer's lack of timing with his receivers was on full display until the end of the game, as he too threw three picks and scored no points. The Chiefs went on to win 28-0, and the Raiders limped into their bye week.
After that kind of performance, why on earth would Palmer be set up for a breakout second half?
What the nation saw last Sunday against Kansas City was not an accurate reflection of Carson Palmer's skills. At the professional level, any QB needs time to both learn the playbook cover-to-cover and develop a rapport with his receivers. Completions in the NFL rely on timing almost as much as accuracy, and Palmer struggled with both.
While Palmer did suit up for duty Sunday, you had to believe that Hue Jackson would not have played him had Kyle Boller played even halfway decently. Jackson knew better than anyone that Palmer was not fully ready to go, yet Boller's performance was so awful that he had to give the new acquisition a try.
With a valuable bye week to look forward to, expect Palmer to come out against the Denver Broncos a better QB. The Broncos should not be able to contain a revitalized Palmer in vintage-Cincinnati form. If he can get his timing back quickly, look for the former Trojan to have a fantastic second half of the season through the air. If Oakland still has playoff dreams, they had better hope he does.
Part of the reason the New York Jets struggled to win early in the season was their lack of a consistent running game. Rex Ryan's rushing offense stumbled through the first five games, managing only 76.2 rushing yards per game during their 2-3 start.
Much of the blame fell to RB Shonn Greene, who only managed to gain 240 yards in 72 carries, a stunning number for a man who helped the Jets' reach the AFC title game twice. Greene has since struggled to make it to the second level on almost every carry, with his longest run stretching only 15 yards in his first five games of 2011.
The second half of the season might be a different proposition for Greene. The Jets' starter ran for 112 yards against a decent San Diego rushing defense en route to a 27-21 win in East Rutherford. Could Greene be poised for a breakout second half?
With the schedule as it is, Shonn Greene could be in store for a big second half. Of their final nine regular season games, the Jets play only one with a rushing defense ranked 15th or higher. The Giants, Bills, Eagles and Chiefs are all allowing over 120 yards per game on the ground.
As New York fights desperately for a playoff berth in a competitive AFC East, look for Greene to be succeeding on the ground if the Jets start to win. Mark Sanchez will have to step his play up as well, but Greene will be the key to the offense's long-term success. If Greene is always a threat to tear off a huge chunk of yards, Sanchez should have better opportunities in the secondary.
Greene has the ability to break out from his lackluster first half, but only time (and his offensive line) will determine if he will.
In search of a running game to complement Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys may have finally found their man.
After boldly trading away Marion Barber in the offseason, the Cowboy organization put their faith in Felix Jones to get it done on the ground. Jones played inconsistently for Dallas before picking up a knock in the second quarter of their Week 6 match against New England. Jason Garrett gave second-string tailback Tashard Choice a handful of carries, but when he proved ineffective the head man turned to DeMarco Murray.
Murray, a third-string rookie running back out of Oklahoma, did little to distinguish himself against the Patriots. Finishing with 10 carries for only 32 yards in a 20-16 loss, Murray nevertheless impressed coaches enough to give him another shot against St. Louis the following week. He did not let them down.
Last Sunday, Murray exploded for 253 yards on 25 carries, breaking Emmitt Smith's franchise record for rushing yards in a game. While it did come against one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, Murray did catch the eye, giving the Cowboys a dimension they have most certainly lacked in 2011.
While it's one thing to rough up the winless Rams, can Murray continue to be productive for Dallas going forward?
With Felix Jones predicted to be sidelined for at least two weeks with a high ankle sprain, look for DeMarco Murray to get his shot at becoming the Cowboys' starter for good.
Murray lends an explosiveness on the ground that has been sorely lacking for Dallas in 2011. He showed power against the Rams, but also an elusiveness that allowed him to turn short gains into first downs. Murray has the makings of an every-down back, and expect Dallas to use him as such.
The Cowboys head to Philadelphia next week to tackle the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Philly ranks 23rd in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 123.8 rushing yards per game, so Murray should be set for another big day. Looking forward at the rest of the schedule, Dallas will not face a top-10 rushing defense the rest of the regular season, giving Murray every chance to shine.
If Murray can prove last week's performance against St. Louis was no fluke, then Dallas will have gained a valuable deterrent to opposing pass rushers. With defenses now having to respect the ground game, Tony Romo should have more time to throw and fewer defenders waiting for him in the secondary. Finally, the responsibility to produce offensively will not lie solely on his shoulders.
In ending his drawn-out holdout over the offseason, Chris Johnson became the highest-paid running back in the league, inking a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension of which $30 million is guaranteed. In six starts since, he has yet to play worth half that amount.
Johnson has looked a shadow of his record-breaking 2009 self as missing training camp and virtually all of the preseason have taken its toll. As Carson Palmer proved again Sunday, you simply cannot expect to play at a high level in the NFL after missing significant practice time (unless you're Brett Favre).
To date, Johnson has had only one 100-yard rushing game 2011, and broke the 50-yard mark only two other times. Johnson's last game against Houston was an exercise in futility, gaining only 18 yards on the ground in 10 carries. In 93 attempts this season, he has only scored one touchdown.
With all this in mind, it is safe to say the Johnson got his money and no longer cares about performing well? While it's possible, I disagree. In fact, I think he's poised for a breakout second half.
While the accusations of taking the money and not running have some merit, I think Johnson is suffering more from poor form than lack of desire.
Considering the caliber of rushing defenses he's had to go up against, it's little surprise that a guy who didn't practice in the offseason would struggle early. Jacksonville, Baltimore, Pittsburgh (sort of) and Houston all have decent if not superb run stoppers, and Tennessee has had to face all of them. Their other two opponents so far (Denver and Cleveland) aren't exactly slouches themselves at stopping the run. Both Broncos and Browns have only given up slightly more than 700 yards on the ground.
The rest of the schedule seems more manageable for Tennessee's rushing attack. The Titans close out the season facing only three teams with top-10 rushing defenses, two of which they've played before (Texans and Jaguars). If you believe the argument that Johnson is slowly playing himself into shape, then he will get significantly better as the year goes on. Expect the Nov. 6 game against Cincinnati to be very telling as to where he is skill-wise.
The Titans are 3-3 but have already lost games to division foes Houston and Jacksonville. Despite Johnson's lackluster start, Tennessee has a shot at making a second-half playoff run. Their offensive line is still one of the best in the league, and will continue to open holes for CJ2K. All he has to do is run through them.