As part of the natural ebb and flow of the National Football League, a number of good players fall off cliffs annually, while a number of unknowns ascend to the mountaintop. We’ve already speculated on the former. Here are 11 candidates for the latter…
1. Cardinals cornerback A.J. Jefferson
Gagnon’s take: Despite going undrafted and spending much of 2010 on the practice squad, the Cards love him. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gone and Greg Toler hurt, a great preseason has sent Jefferson to the top of the cornerback depth chart in Arizona.
Tomlinson’s take: My only fear with Jefferson is that once games become meaningful this week, the hype machine could make teams shy away from Peterson, leaving an undrafted rookie exposed.
2. Jaguars running back Deji Karim
Tomlinson’s take: This one comes with the obvious caveat of Maurice Jones-Drew being slowed by his knee injury. Rashad Jennings was Jones-Drew’s backup, a role now inherited by Karim following Jennings’ own knee injury that ended his 2011 season before it began. With Luke McCown or possibly later Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in Jacksonville, the running game will be leaned on heavily. Fullback Montell Owens could also receive additional carries.
Gagnon’s take: And even if MoJo doesn’t suffer an injury, there have been murmurs out of Jacksonville that he’ll begin to receive a lighter load this season and beyond. Karim might be a surprise candidate to emerge in a very good run game.
3. Colts running back Delone Carter
Tomlinson’s take: Trying to gain some kind of insight from the Colts’ running back depth chart this year will be a fruitless task. Joseph Addai will be the lead man, but both Donald Brown and Carter will be the two smaller heads this three-headed monstrosity. Brown has done little to impress, so Carter should get the call and muddle things further after Addai’s inevitable injury (Addai has missed 12 games over the last three years).
Gagnon’s take: And again, even if Addai stays healthy Carter is expected to become a red-zone force in 2011. The offense will be less effective through the air and might take fewer chances with Peyton Manning out, and Carter will be the big body they want near the end zone. So expect him to score a lot in his rookie campaign.
4. Patriots safety Josh Barrett
Gagnon’s take: The Patriots must see something in Barrett, because his play in training camp and the preseason made New England comfortable enough to get rid of James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather while keeping just four starters. The former seventh-round pick will start with Patrick Chung. He has all of the physical attributes necessary to become a superstar safety.
Tomlinson’s take: There’s a lingering but mild injury concern after Barrett spent the last year on injured reserve while recovering from shoulder surgery. But he has indeed impressed in training camp, and the ability to earn Bill Belichick’s trust in the secondary shouldn’t be underestimated.
5. 49ers running back Kendall Hunter
Gagnon’s take: The rookie beat out Anthony Dixon to earn the backup job in San Francisco, but there’s a belief that Hunter could challenge an aging Frank Gore for carries. In an offense that lacks weapons, he could emerge quickly.
Tomlinson’s take: Gore was mentioned as one of elite players set to spiral yesterday. Glen Coffee was once next in line before he chose religion over football, which is sacrilegious. Now Hunter will benefit from Gore’s brittleness, and quickly accelerate his career.
6. Browns receiver Brian Robiskie
Tomlinson’s take: Mohammad Massaquoi has been officially moved to the top of the depth chart for an unpredictable position in Cleveland. The three-year rule for wide receivers may not apply to Robiskie since he’s entering a new system under Pat Shurmur, but he should still have plenty of opportunities to emerge as a prime target.
Gagnon’s take: I’ll give you Robiskie, who has the ability but has yet to make it happen at the professional level. But watch out for Evan Moore and Greg Little as well.
7. Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph
Tomlinson’s take: Even if a 31-year-old Visanthe Shiancoe remains healthy after struggling with a groin injury throughout the preseason, Rudolph will still be utilized in two tight end sets. In a league filled with imitators, many offenses are looking to duplicate what the Patriots did in 2010 with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Gagnon’s take: I’m still not comfortable with anyone but Adrian Peterson in the Minnesota offense.
8. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton
Gagnon’s take: The versatile defensive lineman out of Texas takes over for Tommie Harris. He reportedly added a bunch of weight in the offseason and could be poised to become the team’s top run-stuffing presence in 2011.
Tomlinson’s take: Melton will have plenty of support with Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije drawing attention on the outside.
9. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee
Gagnon’s take: Keith Brooking has no business starting alongside Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Lee, a sophomore out of Penn State, should overtake Brooking if he can stay healthy. The former second-round pick has the ability to become a star.
Tomlinson’s take: Lee was used sparingly during his first season last year, but his 138 tackles for Penn State in 2008 show his potential and upside.
10. Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds
Gagnon’s take: The 52nd pick of the 2010 draft might earn a lot of extra snaps with James Harrison’s health a question mark headed into the season. He proved at Virginia Tech that he has the talent. In the Pittsburgh offense, he could bloom quickly.
Tomlinson’s take: Harrison was fatigued and sluggish throughout the preseason despite never playing in more than one half of any game. After back surgery he still has a lockout hangover, and Worilds should get plenty of opportunities.
11. Cardinals receiver Andre Roberts
Tomlinson’s take: This Kevin Kolb character sounds like he knows how to throw a football, and Steve Breaton is gone. Todd Heap will draw some looks, but we’re only about five games away from his first injury of 2011. Roberts beat out Early Doucet for the No. 2 receiver spot in the desert, and will now benefit from the double coverages drawn by Larry Fitzgerald.
Gagnon’s take: If he can do the kind of things he did against Dallas in Week 16 last year, he’ll become an ideal complement to Fitzgerald. The Cards could have kept Breaston — I think they let him walk because they’re confident that Roberts can become a legit starter.