With so much focus given to the 2011 rookie class of Newton, Dalton, Ponder and the rest, I decided to look past the glitter and look for the gold. In the NFL, consistency and longevity are prized above the ability to flash in the pan.
There are dozens of players that have shined in this, their second, season. I want to take a look at the current crop of sophomore play makers and put the best up for debate.
The NFL is obsessed with the passing game in this era, so it is no wonder that so many young wide receivers and tight ends are excelling. Only three defenders made my list.
David Nelson is a solid number two receiver for the Buffalo Bills. Though not a household name, he is having a very productive year.
Nelson is on pace to have a 70 reception, 800 yard and six touchdown season. Most teams wish they had a number two receiver put up these kind of numbers.
Chan Gailey sure knows how to use his talent, because Nelson won't blow you away physically. He isn't particularly fast, with about a 4.5 40 time, but he knows how to use his height to his advantage. At 6'5", he provides a big target for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Man, if Dez Bryant could ever stay healthy, he really could challenge Michael Irvin as the greatest Cowboys receiver of all time.
Alas, he cannot. Bryant seems to be perpetually nursing a sore ankle, and his staggering physical abilities are being hindered as a result.
Still, Dez has managed to catch four touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys, and touchdowns are how you judge if a player is a playmaker or not.
Dez Bryant is a playmaker.
With a name like Angerer, NFL teams should have known he would be a stud middle linebacker. Pat Angerer is consuming tackles at an enormous rate.
Granted, he plays for a team that lacks offense, so he is on the field a lot. But you cannot deny that Pat Angerer is one of the league's up and coming special defenders.
Through nine games this season, Angerer has racked up 98 total tackles, while forcing one fumble.
This man is a beast.
NaVorro Bowman, for those of you who don't frequently watch 49ers football, is a pit viper in a jersey. The man is one of the quickest striking linebackers in the league.
Bowman has 62 solo tackles. By comparison, Pat Angerer has 48.
A typical game for Bowman includes a few plays where he crashes through the offensive line and destroys a running back for a four yard loss.
Accordingly, it might not surprise you to know that he is just as deadly in the passing game. He is the best I've seen all year at attacking a receiver that catches the ball in his zone. His strike is precise and forceful.
Bowman is making 49ers fans refer to him as "Willis 2.0."
Ben Tate is an explosive young running back for the Houston Texans. His mettle was put to the test early for the team, as Arian Foster injured his hamstring. Tate passed the test with flying colors, and now he and Foster are the best 1-2 punch in the NFL.
For a bigger back, Tate can really fly.
Right now, Foster and Tate are on pace to both eclipse 1,100 yards rushing. With Wade Phillips leading the defense, this team is starting to look dangerous come playoff time.
Eric Decker is an acrobat. He has a knack for making really tough catches.
So far this season, Decker has caught six touchdowns. He is on pace for 66 catches for just over 800 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He was extremely productive in college, and I believe that he will excel in the new "read option" offense that Fox is installing for Tebow.
I expect him and Tebow to develop more and more chemistry as they are given the reps to gel.
Victor Cruz is one of the most athletic young receivers in the NFL. He is quickly becoming one of Eli Manning's favorite targets.
Besides a couple of games where he disappeared, Cruz has been involved in big plays every game this season. With a 17.3 yard average, he pops some huge ones. He has caught three passes for 68 yards or more.
Cruz has caught four touchdowns this year, and I'm sure there will be many more to come.
Jimmy Graham is the offspring of Tony Gonzales, the first basketball player to make it big as a tight end in the NFL.
At 6'6" and 260 pounds, Graham is a tank. He is also fast for his size.
He is currently on pace to catch just under 100 passes for over 1,400 yards and ten touchdowns as a tight end.
He certainly is blessed to be receiving Drew Brees-thrown balls, but he is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Jason Pierre-Paul is a shadow lurking on the blind side. Do you remember the youtube sensation when he did all those back flips in a row? The man is an athletic freak of the highest order.
In eight games this season, Pierre-Paul has only struck out once. He has at least a half a sack in all the rest. In total, he has collected nine and a half sacks so far.
Now that teammate, Osi Umenyiora is back and healthy again, the two of them pose a difficult conundrum. With Justin Tuck wreaking havoc on the inside, the Giants have one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the NFL.
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are indubitably a two-headed safety slaying monster. The fact that Belichick managed to claim both of them in the same draft should put to rest any notion that the man has forgotten how to build a team.
Combined, they have caught 77 passes for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns. They have only played eight stinking games! Do the math, and the numbers are staggering.
There is no doubt that the Gronkowski/Hernandez monster is the best sophomore playmaker so far this season.