The goal: Pick one player on each team to have a breakout year and see where they end up at the end of the season. No rookies. No established veterans. No former Pro-Bowlers (minus special teams). Here was the logic for all 32 players. And below are the results.
New York Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson
In his 2nd year in the league, Wilkerson was a huge bright spot in the Jets’ season. He didn’t have huge sack numbers, but he did apply more than adequate pressure for his position and was the best run stuffing defensive lineman in the game after JJ Watt. Only Watt graded out better overall among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus.
Philadelphia Eagles DE Brandon Graham
Graham struggled with injuries in his first two years in the league and when he finally got healthy he was out of shape from not playing for so long and had gained 20 pounds. He got himself into shape this year and did so well as a reserve that he got veteran Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks the year before, benched and cut. When Jim Washburn was fired and Graham took over as a starter, that’s when he really flourished, with 5 sacks, 3 hits, and 17 hurries in 6 starts, while providing solid run support as well. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end despite only 6 starts and was by far the most efficient pass rusher in the league among players who played as many snaps as he did.
San Francisco 49ers G Mike Iupati
Freakishly talented, but raw as the 17th overall pick in 2010, Iupati was solid in his first two years in the league, but this year he really showed why he was drawing Larry Allen comparisons in the pre-draft process. He still hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations, but he made his first of probably many Pro-Bowls this season and was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked guard.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy
McCoy was very impressive in limited action in his first two years in the league as the 3rd overall pick in 2010, but was often hurt. This year, he played all 16 games and showed exactly why he was such a high draft pick, having a better year than Ndamukong Suh arguably ever has had, impressing as a pass rusher and a run stuffer and grading out as the best defensive tackle other than Geno Atkins on ProFootballFocus. He also led the way for Tampa Bay’s #1 ranked run defense, a unit that had ranked 31st in 2010 and 2011.
Tennessee Titans DE Derrick Morgan
I think the theme is always bet on former 1st rounders who had hard luck in their first 2 years in the league. Like Graham and McCoy, Morgan finally was healthy this season, after tearing his ACL as a rookie and being out of shape in his 2nd year in the league. Morgan played all 16 games and had 9 sacks, 21 hits, and 42 hurries and was decent against the run as well. All in all, he was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked 4-3 end.
Chicago Bears DT Henry Melton
Melton was always a solid player in limited action in his first 3 years in the league, but this year he was given more responsibilities than ever and produced his best year as a pro. He wasn’t great against the run, but you’ll take 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 24 hurries every year from a 4-3 tackle, especially one who plays in a one gap, penetrating scheme like the Bears’. ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated defensive tackle, the Bears franchised Melton this off-season and are currently working on making him a big part of their future.
Denver Broncos WR Eric Decker
Decker was actually Denver’s leading receiver in 2011, but struggled with injuries down the stretch and really didn’t have good chemistry with Tim Tebow once he took over. Fully healthy and with the switch from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning at quarterback, Decker seemed poised for big numbers. Not only was Manning the traditional quarterback Decker worked better with, he’s one of the best traditional quarterbacks of all time and Decker is the exact type of receiver he likes, so much so that he recommended the Colts draft him in the 3rd round in 2010, before the Broncos snatched him up a few spots earlier. Decker didn’t disappoint me, catching 85 passes for 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Kansas City Chiefs OLB Justin Houston
Houston was a first round talent in 2011 before a failed drug test dropped him into the 3rd. The Chiefs drafted him and he was very impressive in 6 starts down the stretch in 2011. Houston carried that over to 2012, starting all 16 games and excelling in all 3 areas of the game, rushing the passer, stopping the run, and dropping in coverage. Only Anthony Spencer, Clay Matthews, and Aldon Smith graded out better among 3-4 outside linebackers this season.
Baltimore Ravens WR Torrey Smith
Smith carried over a strong 2nd half of his rookie season into 2012, catching 60 passes for 1088 yards and 10 touchdowns in 20 games en route to a Super Bowl victory and of course he had an amazing 12 catches for 224 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2 games in a 5 day span following the sudden death of his younger brother.
Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones
Like Torrey Smith, Jones carried over a strong 2nd half of his rookie season in 2012 and put up monster numbers, catching 79 passes for 1198 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season and then another 17 catches for 241 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 post-season games. Jones’ presence in the Falcons’ deadly downfield passing game was a big part of the reason why the Falcons won 13 games and made the NFC Championship game.
New England Patriots RB Stevan Ridley
The Patriots aren’t known as a running team, but they were 7th in the NFL in rushing yards this year and this guy is a big part of the reason why. Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries, finishing the season 7th in the NFL in rushing. Unlike former Patriot running backs, Ridley wasn’t just a product of the talent around him, gaining 2.5 of his 4.4 YPC after contact.
Carolina Panthers DE Greg Hardy
Hardy still isn’t a big name, but he played just as well as big money bookend Charles Johnson in Carolina this season. Hardy was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated 4-3 defensive end, while Johnson was 8th and the duo combined for 27 sacks. Johnson had better overall pass rush numbers as Hardy wasn’t as good as his 13 sacks suggest, but Hardy was also the significantly better run player.
New York Giants DT Linval Joseph
Again not a big name and only ProFootballFocus’ 21st rated defensive tackle, but Joseph was still well above average this season and I’m still counting this one as a win.
Arizona Cardinals TE Rob Housler
This one was tough to count as a win. Housler caught just 45 passes for 417 yards, but I’m blaming that one more on the quarterbacks. His 1.07 yards per route run were just a touch under Larry Fitzgerald’s 1.18.
Cincinnati Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap still hasn’t emerged as an every down player, but he reached a career high in snaps played, playing 601. Though he had just 5 sacks, he played very well overall when given a chance and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th rated 4-3 defensive end, despite still limited playing time.
Oakland Raiders WR Denarius Moore
Moore didn’t quite have the season I was expecting, but you can blame that some on Oakland’s generally terrible season. Moore still led the way among Raider wide receivers catching 51 passes for 741 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Washington Redskins MLB Perry Riley
Riley was a very good player in the 2nd half of the 2011 season, but that didn’t carry over in his first full season as a starter. While he played all 16 games and was an every down player, Riley still graded out below average overall this season.
St. Louis Rams DE Robert Quinn
His 11 sacks might suggest this was a win, but only five 4-3 ends graded out worse than him on ProFootballFocus as what he did on the rest of his snaps, not just the 11 he had sacks on, was not impressive. He got washed against the run, had very low hits and hurries totals from someone with his sack total, and did all this despite getting very little attention from the defense with Chris Long tying up blockers opposite him.
Jacksonville Jaguars CB Derek Cox
Cox has always flashed when healthy and was very good before getting hurt in 2011, but he didn’t stay healthy in 2012, missing 4 games and playing through injury in countless others, grading out as a below average player overall.
San Diego Chargers DL Cam Thomas
A talented defensive lineman who played limited snaps in 2011, Thomas was due for an increase in playing time in 2012, but ended up playing just 9 more snaps than 2011 and his level of play dipped.
Miami Dolphins DL Jared Odrick
Odrick was another former 1st round pick who had a rough first 2 years that I was expecting to breakout in his 3rd year, but he did not do that. At the end of the day, as talented as he is, he just couldn’t adjust to a position change to 4-3 end and only three 4-3 ends graded out worse than him on ProFootballFocus.
New Orleans Saints CB Patrick Robinson
Robinson is another former 1st round pick, but was an embarrassingly bad choice as a breakout player. A league average player in his first 2 years in the league, Robinson was among the most torched corners in the league in 2012, allowing 9 touchdowns and over 1000 yards and finishing the year as ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible.
Cleveland Browns WR Greg Little
Little got better as the season went on, but couldn’t kick his drops habit, dropping 6 passes to 11 catches in his first 5 games, including a game winner that would have likely led to a massive upset in Baltimore. He finally regained his quarterback’s trust, dropping just 3 passes the rest of the way and finishing with 53 catches for 647 yards and 4 touchdowns, but I’d hardly call that a breakout year.
Minnesota Vikings LB Erin Henderson
Henderson was arguably the best run stopping linebacker in the league in 2011 and that earned him an every down role in 2012, after coming out in obvious passing situations for a 5th defensive back in 2011. That didn’t last long. After playing every snap week 1, Henderson was done in by injuries and issues in coverage and did not regain the every down role until week 16, when Jasper Brinkley’s issues in coverage became way too glaring. To make matters worse, he wasn’t quite the run player he was in 2011 and overall graded out as just an average player on 767 total regular and post-season snaps. A free agent this off-season, he’s not expected to be retained and will have to settle for two-down work on a one year deal elsewhere.
Buffalo Bills MLB Kelvin Sheppard
Sheppard was solid as a rookie in a limited role and lost weight in an effort to stay on the field on passing downs in 2012. That didn’t help. He played just half of the Bills’ snaps and while he was decent in coverage, he made a below average impact against the run and overall graded out negatively. The Bills are expected to pursue competition for him through the draft.
Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Flynn
In my defense, Seattle didn’t have an obvious choice for a breakout player. Rookies don’t count and neither do established players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, or Max Unger. Russell Okung was probably the closest thing to one, finally staying healthy for the first time in his 3 year career. I picked Flynn before the season because I didn’t see an obvious candidate and I figured I might as well go with the first time starting quarterback. Flynn lost the job in the pre-season to Russell Wilson and the rest is history.
Indianapolis Colts WR Austin Collie
I thought Collie and Andrew Luck could put up big numbers if Collie could only avoid concussions. Turns out concussions weren’t his biggest issue. Once he finally got on the field this year after sustaining a concussion in the pre-season, Collie tore his patellar tendon and was done for the season. He’s not expected to be brought back by the Colts as a free agent this off-season.
Green Bay Packers MLB DJ Smith
DJ Smith was a talented reserve for the Packers in 2011 and when Desmond Bishop went down for the season in the pre-season with a torn hamstring, Smith took over as the starter and looked like a solid bet to do good things. The problem: Smith tore his ACL mid-season and was replaced by Brad Jones, who played well and had the type of season I was expecting from Smith.
Detroit Lions WR Titus Young
Well, he’s plenty talented, but he’s apparently also a little crazy. Young felt he wasn’t getting the ball enough so he started purposely sabotaging the Lions by lining up in the wrong spot. He also had numerous verbal and at times even physical altercations with teammates and coaches in practice. The Lions made up an excuse to put him on IR late in the year and then cut him after the season after he went on a tirade on Twitter. The self-proclaimed receiver more talented than Calvin Johnson, Young lasted just 9 days in St. Louis in February and is now an unrestricted free agent generating minimal to no interest.
Houston Texans CB Brice McCain
McCain was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL in 2011 and looked like he had a chance to leapfrog struggling former 1st round pick Kareem Jackson on the depth chart at some point this season. Instead, McCain was the weak point in Houston’s secondary this year and Jackson was the one with the breakout year, proving once again, always bet on former 1st round picks in their 3rd year in the league.
Dallas Cowboys DL Sean Lissemore
Lissemore played very well in limited action in 2011 for the Cowboys and seemed poised for a bigger role. He got one, but not by much as injuries and inconsistencies limited him to being a well below average player on just 329 snaps.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Isaac Redman
I thought Redman was talented enough to take the lead back job and run with it after Rashard Mendenhall got hurt. Mendenhall came back quicker than expected, though he was not very good, but Redman’s own injuries limited him to 3.7 YPC on 110 carries on an overall disappointing Steeler offense.