Each NFL Team's Most Surprising Player

Rob ElmanContributor IIINovember 23, 2011

Each NFL Team's Most Surprising Player

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    Every season, teams enjoy the sudden breakout of a player, or seeing the gradual growth of a player pay off. This year has been no different.

    Although not every team is successful, or even competitive, they can at least look forward to watching these players during the season and in future years.

    In the following slides, I will examine the most surprising players of the 2011-2012 NFL season for all 32 NFL teams.

Indianapolis Colts: Pat Angerer, MLB

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    On a team with very few bright spots, Pat Angerer has been outstanding this year. Most of you probably don't even know who this is. If he were on a team that could even be considered competitive, he would get the recognition he deserves. 

    After a solid rookie year in 2010 out of Iowa, Angerer has followed it up in his second year. Through 10 games he has been a tackling machine, compiling 105 total so far.

    He always seems to be around the ball and shows no signs of slowing down. He should finish the year with over 150 tackles.

St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford, QB

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    Surprising? Yes. In a good way? No. Bradford has hit the sophomore slump—hard. After a convincing rookie year, he has really struggled this year with consistency and health. In eight games, he has thrown for just five touchdowns.

    Now, I know this team isn't exactly filled with talent, but with a decent running game led by Steven Jackson and the recent acquisition of Brandon Lloyd, Bradford shouldn't look this bad. A.J Feeley looked better than him in his two games.

    Remember, Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. It's his second year—by no means am I writing him off, but he has taken a big step back with his poor play this year.

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB

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    Not much debate on this one. Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, has looked like a seasoned veteran throughout most of this season. His last start against the Lions wasn't very pretty, but for a rookie whose quarterback ability was questioned this much, I think he has silenced everyone.

    He has excelled in both facets of the game, throwing for 12 touchdowns and running for another nine. He still has some work to do, but if the first 10 games of his career are any indication of how good this kid will be, then the rest of the NFL had better look out.

    He is the clear front runner for rookie of the year and has exceeded my expectations thus far, by a long shot.

Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder, QB

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    This one was tough. Adrian Peterson is running wild as usual, and Jared Allen is racking up sacks like he is known to. So I had to go with Christian Ponder. The Vikings' first-round pick of this year's draft has stepped in and done a decent job after the benching of Donovan McNabb.

    He has struggled to stay consistent, but that's what you'll get from a rookie quarterback in his first five games—two of which came against the Packers. He has done a pretty good job of managing the clock and keeping the Vikings in games.

    After being labeled a reach, I think Ponder has done a fine job, and I expect him to be a pretty good quarterback at this level.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert, QB

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    I wasn't very high on Blaine Gabbert when he came out of college. His play this year has bolstered my opinion. There are not many talented targets for him to throw to aside from Marcedes Lewis, but Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield should at least help him out a little bit.

    Gabbert is completing only 48 percent of his passes this year and has thrown for less than 140 yards in four different games.

    Though he is a rookie, he has looked bad against bad teams and awful against good teams. I don't know how Jaguar fans feel about Gabbert being the quarterback of the future, but I wouldn't be very excited about it.

Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, CB

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    Patrick Peterson has been everything the Cardinals could have hoped for and more. Not only is he handling his business over at cornerback, compiling 42 tackles along with two picks, but he has been electric in the return game.

    On punt returns, he has averaged 17.1 yards per return, trailing only the great Devin Hester. But he also has taken three to to the house, including a 99-yard return in overtime against the Rams.

    I don't know what was going through the minds of the coaching staff when he fielded a punt on his own one-yard line, but I'm sure a few seconds later, they weren't too angry. Peterson is going to be a stud in this league. Watch out.

Washington Redskins: Ryan Kerrigan, LB

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    Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo and London Fletcher have formed a very formidable linebacker trio. Kerrigan has really impressed me this year. A rookie out of Purdue, Kerrigan has made 45 tackles, six sacks, four forced fumbles and a interception TD.

    A few factors prevent this Redskins team from being competitive, but the defense, with the help of Kerrigan, is on the rise. He is on pace to finish with very respectable numbers and right now is the best rookie linebacker this year not named Von Miller.

Miami Dolphins, Matt Moore, QB

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    I know Dolphins fans are licking their chops at the chance to get Matt Barkley, Landry Jones or perhaps even Andrew Luck.

    But Matt Moore has not been that bad this year. No, he is not the quarterback of the future, but he is performing at a decent level and has ruined their "Suck 4 Luck" chances by leading the Dolphins to three straight wins.

    On the year, he has completed 64 percent of his passes and thrown just five interceptions. He may not be elite, but he has given Dolphin fans a reason to watch the games...without clawing their eyes out.

Cleveland Browns: Peyton Hillis, RB

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    Remember Peyton Hillis? Well, he stinks. His antics this year have raised many questions. The Madden 12 cover boy wants more money, so he has decided to run weakly, sit out with "injuries" and get married the day before a game. He has been terrible this year.

    Let's put it this way. DeMarco Murray ran for 42 more yards in his first career start than Hillis has rushed for all year. I highly doubt Hillis will be back in Cleveland next year, and I highly doubt that he gets the money that he is looking for.

Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin, WR

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    To be honest, I had no idea there was someone in the NFL named Doug Baldwin until I watched him torch the Giants in Week 5. He hasn't put up eye-popping numbers, but on a team with virtually no talent on offense, he has done a fine job. He has hauled in 32 catches this year for 544 yards and two TDs.

    But he does show great athleticism, and you have to believe with someone other than Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst throwing to him, he would have even better numbers. Look for him to break out next year when the Seahawks take a quarterback in the top 10 of the draft.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jackie Battle, RB

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    When Jamaal Charles suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 2 of the season, there was belief that Dexter McCluster and Thomas Jones would now be called upon. Instead, the Chiefs elected to turn Jackie Battle into the new starter, and he's done a good job filling in.

    Charles proved to be one of the best backs in the NFL with his electrifying 2010 campaign, so obviously Battle is a downgrade. But he has averaged 4.6 yards per carry this year and has given the Chiefs some sort of running game.

San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers, QB

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    For the past few seasons, Philip Rivers was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. This year, he is not. In just 10 games, he has turned the ball over 19 times. This includes the fumble in Kansas City that ultimately cost them the game.

    Rivers just can't seem to get into a groove—he is making a ton of mistakes, which is not common for him. The Chargers have dropped five games in a row after a 4-1 start to the season.

    Chargers fans shouldn't be worried, though. Rivers will bounce back either this year, or next season, but it is certainly not time for a regime change in San Diego.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Adrian Clayborn, DE

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    When the Buccaneers took Adrian Clayborn with the 20th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, they were hoping to solidify a young defensive line. Clayborn has not been bad by any means, but in 10 games he has registered just 21 tackles and four sacks.

    The Buccaneers were hoping for a little more production out of their young defensive end, but he still has a load of time to improve. In a few years, their line could be deadly, with the likes of Clayborn, Brian Price and Gerald McCoy.

    Clayborn tends to disappear at times and not be as much of a force as he can be. His play is surprising, but like many on this list, he is just a rookie.

Buffalo Bills: Fred Jackson, RB

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    In his five-year career, Fred Jackson has been a solid NFL back. He has rushed for 1,000 yards before, but he really broke out this year. Through 10 games he has rushed for 934 yards with six scores.

    But he is also a huge threat in the passing game. He has added 39 catches out of the backfield, making him one of the most complete runners in the game.

    If the Bills had followed through with their hot start, he would be getting a decent amount of MVP talk. But nonetheless, Fred Jackson has solidified his place as one of the best running backs in the league right now. He has shown no sign of slowing down either.

    He already has six games in which he has run for over 100 yards. Maybe his wife will draft him higher than the fifth round in her fantasy draft next season.

Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy, RB

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    McCoy is another player who probably won't get the MVP consideration he deserves. Right now, LeSean McCoy is the best running back in the NFL.

    He is the complete package. He has one of the quickest cuts in the league, he can break tackles and he can turn anything into a big play. He already has accumulated 1,019 rushing yards and 10 TDs to go with 34 catches and two TDs. Without McCoy, I really don't know where the Eagles would be.

    He is the type of player who can change the game in the blink of an eye. Watching him is extremely exciting, and his outstanding play this year has caught the attention of football fans everywhere. 

Denver Broncos: Tim Tebow, QB

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    Who else but Tim Tebow? There is so much talk regarding Tebow's ability to play quarterback at this level. I personally believe he can. He may not throw the ball as well as others, but he has some intangibles that many don't.

    Tim Tebow is a winner, and that's a simple fact. He did it in college, and he has done it in Denver. As a starter this year, he is 4-1, and three of those wins came on the road. That's not an easy thing to accomplish in this league.

    He has tallied seven touchdowns to just one interception—another thing he brings to the table. He does not turn the ball over. Tebow doesn't make mistakes. He gives his team a chance to win with his decision making, his instinct and his heart.

    Until he starts to falter or until teams begin to figure him out, I will stand behind him. His play this year has not been pretty, but it has gotten the job done. In the NFL, nothing matters besides winning.

    Tebow has surprised many, although most are quick to just point out his lack of passing ability.

Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson, RB

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    Chris Johnson is the Albert Haynesworth of offense. He got paid, so he quit caring. After holding out for most of training camp, his rust is showing.

    He was a very special player, but now his talent is useless because he doesn't need to showcase his ability anymore. After cashing in on a new $56 million contract, CJ2K is now CJ2YPC. Actually, he is averaging 3.2 yards per carry.

    Aside from the two games that he ran for 100-plus yards, his other eight games have resulted in performances of less than 65 yards. This is coming from a player just two years removed of nearly breaking the single-season rushing record.

    I doubt the Titans are going to keep him after his pitiful effort this year, but it will be interesting to see if he ever runs like he used to.

New York Jets: Plaxico Burress, WR

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    I'll be the first to admit that I did not think Plax would be this successful coming out of prison. But he has proven me wrong with his efforts this year. His numbers are not anything special, but he has found a way to get it done, given his age and time away from football.

    On the season, he has recorded 30 catches for 425 yards and six TDs. In October, he put together a three-touchdown performance against the Chargers. He very well could finish the season with 10 touchdowns.

    Plaxico's play is going to be very important as the 5-5 Jets push to make the playoffs once again.

Oakland Raiders: Michael Bush, RB

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    When Darren McFadden went down with an injury, Raider's fans did not know what to expect. But Michael Bush has stepped in and done a really good job.  In his four games as a starter, he has averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry with two scores.

    He broke out against San Diego two weeks ago with 157 rushing yards, 85 receiving yards and a TD. His play this year has given him a strong case for best backup in the league along with Ben Tate.

    He has helped keep the Raiders in the playoff hunt, and their past two wins are huge given their upcoming opponents (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit). Bush has been a pleasant surprise for Raider fans this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, QB and A.J Green, WR

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    Andy Dalton and A.J Green have been two of the best rookies this year. I had to pick both because you could argue that neither would be enjoying their current success without the other. The Bengals sit at 6-4 and in the playoff mix, largely due to these two newcomers.

    They look like they are going to be a deadly duo for years to come. Dalton has thrown for 15 touchdowns, and six of them were to Green. Both join Cam Newton in the rookie of the year conversation.

New York Giants: Victor Cruz, WR

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    When Steve Smith departed for the Eagles, the Giants had a big question mark as to who would fill in for him. Jerrel Jernigan? Domenik Hixon? But it turned out to be the preseason stud from 2010 who torched the Jets for three touchdowns.

    Victor Cruz has become a big threat in the Giants' offense and is one the best young receivers in the game. He has a knack for making big plays and being around the ball. Not even a lock to make the team out of training camp, he has erupted this year. So far, he has 800 yards and five TDs.

    He is a big play receiver, averaging 17.4 yards per catch. Cruz gives the Giants a long ball threat to go with Nicks' play making ability and Manningham's versatility.

    Victor Cruz went from a nobody to star, in just a few months.

Atlanta Falcons: John Abraham, DE

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    After a 13-sack season in 2010, John Abraham has not exactly shown up to play in 2011. This year, he has only four sacks.

    Falcons' fans were eager to see their deadly duo of ends in Abraham and Ray Edwards, but neither is playing to their potential.

    That is exactly Atlanta's problem. They have failed to put it all together so far. It's not too late for Abraham to step it up and get back on track; at this point I am very surprised with his lack of success in getting to the quarterback.

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, QB

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    Matthew Stafford has come back from a shoulder injury that shelved him for the year in 2010, torching opposing defenses.

    Being labeled as "soft" and "made of glass," he has really impressed everyone. He has thrown for over 2,800 yards and put up a remarkable 25 TDs to just 10 INT. He and Calvin Johnson have developed a rapport that seems to be more deadly than any other in the game.

    Stafford has taken a number of big hits this year but has proven he can hang in there and give his team a great chance to win. Stafford is one the best stories of the year, and he can definitely be considered a top 10 quarterback in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys: DeMarco Murray, RB

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    When Felix Jones went down with an injury, DeMarco Murray was given a chance to be the starting running back. He has taken complete advantage of that.

    Murray is averaging an astounding 6.0 yards per carry. In his first career start, he ran wild on the Rams. On just 25 carries he ran for 253 yards. He is quickly evolving into a true No. 1 back. He has helped the Cowboys to three consecutive wins and will be vital in the Cowboys' attempt to claim the NFC East.

    Murray wasn't expected to be a starter, but he took the opportunity and ran with it. He, too, is one of the most surprising new stars of the NFL.

Houston Texans: Ben Tate, RB

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    Ben Tate missed all of his 2010 rookie season with an ankle injury. However, he has come back with a vengeance. When Arian Foster went down with a groin injury, Tate stepped right in.

    He has four games of 100-plus yards and 686 rushing yards on 5.6 yards per carry. If the Texans lost Foster for an extended period of time, they would be in good hands with Ben Tate carrying the load. Ben Tate would start for about 15 other NFL teams, but unfortunately he is behind one of the best.

    Next year, the Texans actually could trade Foster for a boatload of picks and turn Tate into the starter, but that's a long shot. Ben Tate has really helped the Texans because they can take some work off of Arian's hands with a more than capable backup. Tate's play has thoroughly impressed me.

Chicago Bears: Matt Forte, RB

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    If the Bears don't give Matt Forte a long-term deal, they are going to regret it. Forte is the definition of complete. He runs hard, catches passes, blocks and plays hard. He puts his body on the line every play and gives his best effort all game long. He has put himself in the elite group of running backs. He only has four total touchdowns, but that's because Marion Barber gets the goal-line carries.

    Forte has 926 rushing yards, 465 receiving yards, and is one of the best blocking backs in the league. He undoubtedly deserves a lucrative deal for all that he has done for the Bears this season. He continues to be successful week in and week out.

New England Patriots: Wes Welker, WR

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    Wes Welker has been a top receiver in the NFL for the past few years, but this year he has been spectacular. He already has over 1,000 yards and six TDs. He is sure to pile on the stats in the team's remaining six games.

    Welker's best performance came against Buffalo where he caught 16 passes for 217 yards and two TDs. He is Brady's favorite receiver and safety blanket. He is always making big third-down plays and picking up yards after the catch. This is nothing new for Welker, but 2011 has been his best season through 10 games so far.

    It's not as surprising as it is amazing, but I still did not expect this good of a year from him.

Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith, WR

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    In the first two games of the year, Torrey Smith didn't catch a pass. In Week 3 against the Rams, he made 5 catches for 152 yards and three TDs. Not a bad stat line for his coming-out party.

    He is one of the best deep-ball receivers in the game and averages a stellar 20.3 yards per catch. Opposite of Anquan Boldin, he provides another threat for Flacco. He made a game-winning grab against the Steelers and continues to give defenses a tough match-up.

    Look for him to keep hauling in the long balls.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Troy Polamalu, SS

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    Troy Polamalu is amazing. He has been throughout his whole career, and that includes this year. I am just a bit surprised that he hasn't recorded an interception yet this year.

    He is still flying around the field and making plays like usual, though. Interceptions aren't everything. His presence on the field is the most important thing for this team. Polamalu does have 62 tackles and is the same leader he has always been.

    With Troy Polamalu out there, the Steelers always have a chance to win. Another Steelers playoff run is on the way.

New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham

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    Drew Brees has found his new favorite target—his name is Jimmy Graham. Graham, who played football and basketball for the Miami Hurricanes, is having a monster year for the Saints. With six games still left to play, Jimmy Graham has 873 yards and six TDs.

    He has quickly become one of the best tight ends in the entire NFL, and he is just 24 years old. The Saints have enjoyed his success on the way to their 7-3 record. He makes big plays over the middle and is quite the red zone target. Graham's size, speed and athleticism allow him to be more unique than perhaps any other tight end in the league.

    This 2010 third-round pick looks like he is on his way to having a very successful year.

San Francisco 49ers: Navorro Bowman, OLB

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    The 49ers are an unexpected 9-1, largely in part to their young linebacker, Navorro Bowman. Alongside Patrick Willis, one of the best players in the NFL, Bowman has built a name for himself.

    The second-year man out of Penn State is a tackling machine and trails only Pat Angerer and London Fletcher in tackles. So far on the year he has made 95 total tackles. He is a big reason why the 49ers have the No. 1 rush defense in the league.

    Bowman and Willis could be the best linebackers in the game for years to come, but right now they are just focused on the 2011 season and their future playoff run.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, QB

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    He is the best player in the NFL. Although an impressive season was expected, through just 10 games he has outperformed all predictions.

    Rodgers is on pace for 50 touchdowns with only six interceptions. That would be one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in NFL history.

    With virtually no run game, the Packers still roll through opponents with Rodgers under center. His arm strength and accuracy are unlike any other quarterback in the league.

    Rodgers is going to continue to perform at such an unheralded rate and should find himself playing in another Super Bowl this year. Right now he has thrown for 3,168 yards, 31 TDs and four INT. Rodgers is the clear cut MVP—his season has blown my mind.