Predicting the NFL's Next Big Breakout Player at Every Position

Marc Lillibridge@NFL_BridgeContributor IAugust 22, 2012

Predicting the NFL's Next Big Breakout Player at Every Position

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    Each year in the NFL, new faces litter every roster in all the NFL cities. Players are acquired via free agency, the NFL draft or trades. With every move, a reactionary move must be made to fill that position. 

    Quarterback Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. Thusly, quarterback Tim Tebow was shipped to the New York Jets, and the Indianapolis Colts filled Manning’s spot by drafting quarterback Andrew Luck.

    Some players get “Wally Pipped.” That is a reference to the first baseman for the New York Yankees who missed a start due to illness only to never get his spot back from Lou Gehrig. Some players just get beaten out for the position. Whatever the case may be, NFL rosters are constantly changing. 

    Here are predictions from each position of a player who may or may not currently be a starter, but by the end of the 2012 season, barring injury, he will be a household name.

Quarterback: Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

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    Bradford’s 2011 season was marred with poor offensive line play, injury and a lack of self-confidence. The former Oklahoma Sooner was skittish in the pocket and made poor reads and decisions. The fact that he had inconsistent wide receivers did not help.

    Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put in a new offense in 2011, and that scheme did not work well with Bradford’s skill set. With the hiring of Jeff Fisher as head coach and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to run the offense, look for Bradford to get back on track with his career. 

    Bradford will be passing out of more three- and five-step drops and will be able to get the football into the hands of his playmaking teammates quicker. With a healthy receiving corps and the emergence of tight end Lance Kendricks, Bradford will put up career numbers in 2012.

    Honorable Mentions:

    Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles

    Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

    Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

    Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans

Running Back: Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Falcons have bruising running back Michael Turner as the starter, but Turner is heading into his ninth year and has 300-plus carries in three of the last four seasons. Rodgers is an excellent change-of-pace runner who is a better receiver out of the backfield than Turner. 

    Head coach Mike Smith has openly talked about limiting Turner’s workload in 2012, and the beneficiary will be Rodgers. The smaller backup is also the Falcons' primary kickoff returner, so look for the speedster to get ample opportunities on special teams as well.

    Honorable Mention:

    Alex Green, Green Bay Packers

    Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Mike Goodson, Oakland Raiders

    Shane Vereen, New England Patriots

Wide Receiver: Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens

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    Smith came out of nowhere last season against the St. Louis Rams and scored touchdowns on his first three career receptions. Smith finished the 2011 season with 841 yards and seven touchdowns. 

    Smith’s development allowed the Ravens to let Lee Evans walk, and Smith has overtaken Anquan Boldin's role as the go-to receiver in the offense.

    Look for Smith to have a Pro Bowl-type season in 2012. With quarterback Joe Flacco becoming more comfortable with the second-year pro, Smith will lead the Ravens in receiving yards and touchdowns.

    Honorable Mention:

    Eric Decker, Denver Broncos

    Brandon LaFell, Carolina Panthers

    Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

    Stephen Hill, New York Jets

Tight End: Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins

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    Clay is not even listed as the starter in Miami, but he is the best receiving option at the position. The West Coast offense uses the tight end as a safety valve and as the short-to-intermediate receiving option. 

    With a rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, just learning to play the professional game, throws to the tight end are the easiest and safest passes to complete. The fact that the Dolphins, outside of wide receiver Davone Bess, do not have many other receiving options bodes very well for Clay. 

    Look for the second-year player to become Tannehill’s go-to receiving option in 2012 and for Clay to lead the Dolphins in receptions.

    Honorable Mention:

    Dustin Keller, New York Jets

    Ed Dickson, Baltimore Ravens

    D.J. Williams, Green Bay Packers

Offensive Tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys

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    Smith played right tackle last season for the Cowboys, and this year he is entrusted with blocking quarterback Tony Romo’s blind side. With an offensive line in shambles right now, Smith is becoming the leader of the unit and is by far the best player in only his second season.

    Smith has Pro Bowl talent, and his ability to kick slide and punch is one of the best in the NFL. Smith can handle the best pass-rushers in the NFL by himself.

    In the NFC East, where he will face the likes of defensive ends Trent Cole, Jason Pierre-Paul and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, Smith will show he is the best tackle in the division.

    Honorable Mention:

    Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers

    Bobby Massie, Arizona Cardinals

Offensive Guard: T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers

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    Lang recently signed a contract extension to stay with the Packers for the near future. The NFL hierarchy rarely pays big money to offensive guards, but Lang is worth every cent. Lang is one of the more vocal leaders on the Packers, and his teammates look up to him.

    Lang is very versatile and can play center if need be. He helped offensive left tackle Marshall Newhouse get acclimated to the NFL when Newhouse was forced into the starting role last season. 

    Look for Lang to get Pro Bowl consideration in 2012.

    Honorable Mention:

    Clint Boling, Cincinnati Bengals

    Amini Silatolu, Carolina Panthers

Center: Rodney Hudson, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Hudson replaces one of the greatest Chiefs of all time, Casey Wiegmann, who retired after a 16-year career. Hudson played in all 16 games in 2011, but his only start came at left guard. Hudson is a smaller offensive player, but he uses good footwork and technique to hold the point of attack.

    The former Florida State center will be asked to make offensive line calls and direct traffic for new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. Hudson is very smart and will not have any issues becoming a leader for the Chiefs. 

    Look for Hudson to be manning the center position for the Chiefs for years to come.

    Honorable Mention:

    Max Unger, Seattle Seahawks

    Joe Hawley, Atlanta Falcons

Defensive End: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots

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    Jones steps into a position, as a rookie, that allowed former Patriots defensive end Andre Carter 10 sacks in 2011. Jones is raw, but his natural talent and length fits perfectly into head coach Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme.

    Jones has already been dubbed a starter and has had a solid impact in training camp thus far. Jones will benefit greatly by lining up next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He should register double-digit sacks in 2012.

    Honorable Mention:

    Willie Young, Detroit Lions

    Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland Raiders

    Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns

    Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams

Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton, Chicago Bears

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    Melton is one of the best interior pass-rushers in the NFL. The former Texas Longhorn registered seven sacks last season and is poised to add to that total in 2012. In 2011, Melton started 15 games and recorded 24 tackles. 

    Melton is constantly in the backfield and is a very disruptive player for the Bears. His push up the middle forces quarterbacks to slide laterally, which allowed defensive end Julius Peppers to record 11 sacks in 2011.

    Honorable Mention:

    Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals

    Ahtyba Rubin, Cleveland Browns

    Derek Landri, Philadelphia Eagles

    Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Inside Linebacker: Perry Riley, Washington Redskins

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    Riley only started the last eight games for the Redskins in 2011 and still finished the year with 68 tackles. The third-year professional will look to capitalize on last year’s success and take over for teammate London Fletcher as the Redskins' top linebacker.

    Riley is very good at attacking the line of scrimmage and is a sure tackler. He is improving as a coverage linebacker, and with more playing time, he should become the Redskins’ nickel linebacker. Riley is very good at tackling in the open field.

    Honorable Mention:

    Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals

    Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys

    Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers

    D.J. Smith, Green Bay Packers

Outside Linebacker: Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens

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    With the injury to outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and former Raven outside linebacker Jarret Johnson moving to San Diego, Kruger is the veteran presence at the position for the Ravens. 

    Kruger had five-and-a-half sacks in spot duty in 2011. As a starter in 2012, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need for Kruger to at least double that total.

    The interior defensive line of Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody will press the pocket. Kruger, using an array of pass-rush moves, will get ample chances to bring the quarterback down. 

    Look for him to finish the 2012 season with career highs in tackles and sacks.

    Honorable Mention: 

    Russell Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Chris Carter, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

    Miles Burris, Oakland Raiders

Cornerback: Prince Amukamara, New York Giants

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    Amukamara, the former first-round selection for the Giants, will be asked to start opposite cornerback Corey Webster. Amukamara will be tested early and often, but the former Nebraska Cornhusker has the strength and length to be a solid press man coverage cornerback.

    The Giants have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, and this will force quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hand early. Amukamara has good ball skills and should be in good position for many interception chances.

    Honorable Mention:

    Cary Williams, Baltimore Ravens

    Dwight Bentley, Detroit Lions

    Josh Robinson, Minnesota Vikings

    Kareem Jackson, Houston Texans

Safety: Eric Hagg, Cleveland Browns

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    Hagg did not start a game for the Browns in 2011 but is listed as a starting safety for Cleveland this season. The second-year pro from Nebraska has had a very good offseason in which looked very comfortable directing traffic in the Browns secondary.

    Hagg is a physical tackler who plays with good range. Hagg has good ball skills, and when matched with T.J. Ward, Cleveland has the making of a solid safety tandem for years to come.

    Mike Adams, now with the Denver Broncos, paced the Browns safeties with three interceptions in 2011. Look for Hagg to eclipse that number.

    Honorable Mention:

    Kurt Coleman, Philadelphia Eagles

    Chris Conte, Chicago Bears

    Barry Church, Dallas Cowboys