Every year certain players take that leap, either as a young veteran putting it together for the start of something big or a rookie bursting on the scene with his feet running. Below are the guys I see taking the biggest steps this coming season:
1) Matt Schaub – He’s my favorite breakout candidate for the ’09 season. He threw for over 3,000 yards in 11 games last year after offseason shoulder surgery and is entering his third year behind the wheel of the Texans’ offense. He has plenty of weapons in Steve Slaton, Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels to help him make the jump to the next level. IMO, the only thing that will hold him back is injury. I look for Schaub to gain recognition this season as one of the better passers / offensive leaders in the league.
2) Greg Olsen – Here’s another guy entering his third year with a team. QB has been the Bears’ glaring weakness for some time, and they address that by bringing in one of the best young arms in the game. A reliable TE is a QBs best friend, especially a QB entering his first year in an offense. Chicago’s receivers are still junk, although I expect to see Cutler and Earl Bennett renew their Vanderbilt chemistry. Olsen is a tremendous asset in the middle of the field with the smarts and ability to make both the routine and not-so-routine catches. He’s a mismatch for defenders, and I look for him to catch at least 70 passes this season (FYI – only 5 TE reached that mark in the ’08 season).
3) Ronnie Brown – The Wildcat wreaked havoc on the NFL last season, and while teams will be better prepared to defend it, I don’t see the Dolphins making Ronnie Brown a lesser part of the offense in ‘09. I expect the split in carries between he and Ricky Williams (Brown’s 215 vs. Williams’ 160) to be noticeably more in Brown’s favor this year. He’s a legit 3 down back; he’s entering his second season after an ACL injury; he reportedly has his college speed back; Jake Long’s entering his second year at LT; and they signed Jake Grove to greatly improve at center. Maybe he won’t replicate his 4 TD performance against the Patriots, but I look for a consistently better season. He was 19th in the league in rushing in ’08, and I expect him to be a lot closer to the top 10 at the end of this season.
4) Lawrence Timmons – Here’s that third year thing again. Timmons steps in for the departed Larry Foote, joining James Harrison, James Farrior, and LaMarr Woodley as probably the toughest group of LBs in the game. Having those guys around Timmons will allow the Steelers to let him play loose this year. He’s tremendously athletic and should do a much better job getting in the backfield than Foote did (Timmons had 18 TFL in his last year as a Nole). Expect to hear his name a lot this season.
5) DeSean Jackson – In a fine, yet spotty, rookie season, Jackson demonstrated the skills that justified his high pre-draft ranking. Many may not realize that he was third in his division in both receptions and yards (behind Santana Moss and Terrell Owens in both categories) at the WR position in ’08. Given Brian Westbrook’s age and health, I expect the Eagles to feature Jackson even more in ’08. He has the speed to break nearly every play and should benefit from having a year with McNabb under his belt. He’ll make more than his share of highlight plays this season.
6) Clay Matthews – The rookie is already the starter at ROLB in the Packers’ new 3-4 defense. The Packers didn’t have a ton of players who translated well to the new scheme, but Matthews should make an early mark on the league. At USC he frequently demonstrated his ability to get into the backfield and make plays at the point of contact. I think Matthews has a ton of potential and is going to be a formidable NFL defender for many years. I expect him to outplay fellow GB first rounder BJ Raji and battle Aaron Curry and USC teammate Brian Cushing (two other players worthy of mention in this topic) for NFL Defensive ROY honors.
7) Ray Rice – The man has made strides this offseason and looks to be the early leader for the role of primary ball carrier after spending the majority of ’08 on the sidelines. His receiving skills are well documented, and although the Ravens claim to once again be going with a committee approach, I think they’re going to feed the ball to the versatile Rice a lot. Willis McGahee is still in the picture, but I expect his role to be reduced. The Ravens didn’t do much to address the passing game, Derrick Mason waffled on retirement, and Mark Clayton’s already hurt. Flacco needs someone to throw to.
8) Brian Robiskie –Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt were the heralded receivers in the ’09 draft class, but Robiskie might be the first one to make an impact in the league. The 7th receiver off the board is the most polished of the bunch and brings an impressive route running ability that usually is lacking in rookie receivers. Growing up in and around the NFL will no doubt benefit Robiskie and help to eliminate the deer-in-headlights look a lot of rookies display. Braylon Edwards is no sure thing to bounce back from a really down year, and there’s no Kellen Winslow to take away targets. There’s also very little competition for the starting spot opposite Edwards, and I expect the rookie Robiskie to be a bright spot on the Browns’ offense in the ’09 season.
9) Aqib Talib – The second year man from Kansas was tied for the NFL rookie lead with 4 INT, a figure that also tied him for the team lead in Tampa. That as a 3rd corner behind Barber and Buchanon. With Buchanon out of the picture and a switch to a more aggressive coverage scheme, Talib should be able to demonstrate his playmaking ability on a regular basis. He’s never going to be the most physical corner in the league, but he’s got great ball skills and wins more battles than he loses. Charles Woodson led all NFL corners with 7 INTs last year, and I expect Talib to challenge that mark. Working against him is a weak pass rush up front and a 34 year old Barber playing opposite him.
10) Dwayne Bowe – You’ll see his name mentioned in most “breakout” writeups, but it’s hard to ignore him. He was 6th in the AFC with 86 receptions last year, and in Todd Haley’s new offense, those numbers should only go up. The lack of receiving talent around him won’t help, but I think the Chiefs are going to work away from that weakness by featuring quick strikes and taking advantage of mismatches. Bowe’s the best weapon they have, and they’ll lean heavily on him. I expect him to prove that ’08 wasn’t a fluke and that he’s locked in as one of the AFC’s best pass catchers for the foreseeable future.
Others receiving votes:
Paul Posluszny – Another 3rd year guy, Posluszny got hurt early in his rookie season after an impressive first camp and played sound/aggressive ball in ’08. Expect him to continue developing as the leader of that defense.
Quincy Black – This 3rd year thing is catchy. Angelo Crowell’s slow recovery from a chronic knee problem will allow Black to take Cato June’s vacated LB spot virtually uncontested. That’s not to say Black isn’t up to task. Coaches think he’ll wreak havoc all over the field for the Bucs, but he’ll have to show consistency and discipline as a starter. If he can do that, Black will be a beast for the Bucs.
LeSean McCoy – The rookie runner from Pitt may not have a true “breakout” season, but I expect him to see the field quite a bit in his rookie season. Again, Brian Westbrook isn’t getting any younger or healthier, but even if he is able to avoid a significant injury, I think the Eagles are going to get McCoy on the field early and often. He’s wowed everyone in camp by, among other things, demonstrating a willingness and ability to pass protect, which was a documented area of weakness coming out of college.
Jamaal Charles – Here’s a guy I liked as a draft prospect for the Bucs in ’08: “This guy has insane explosiveness and a great ability to get to the corner…I believe Charles is an underrated receiver... Talk about a gamebreaking talent...Charles is probably the best open field runner in the draft.” Larry Johnson is still around (for now), but the Chiefs will do all they can to get Charles’ playmaking skills on the field.
Josh Morgan – He was hyped last preseason, but a bad offensive system and instability at QB squelched his breakout season. Things aren’t terribly better system or QB wise in San Francisco, but while all the media attention is on newly drafted Michael Crabtree, it’s Morgan who’s again drawing raves in camp. I’m buying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Morgan led the team in receiving; especially if Crabtree’s holdout gets uglier.
Calvin Johnson – I can’t call it a breakout season because the guy is already among the best in the game. Seeing as how he’s my favorite NFLer, I’m admittedly biased, but I predict that at the end of the season, Calvin Johnson will have the title of best consensus receiver in the game.
5 Who Won’t
Here are 5 guys I don’t see meeting expectations this season:
1) Vince Young – Wow, he still sucks. Think the Texans regret passing on him for Mario Williams? He’ll be lucky to hold off Patrick Ramsey for the backup job.
2) Devin Hester – Now that he has a QB that can throw the ball, Hester is being hyped as a potential breakout candidate for ’09. Having Cutler will help, but that won’t fix Hester’s sloppy routes and inconsistent hands. His numbers may increase, but I still don’t see a “go to guy” there.
3) Jason Campbell – I’m not falling for it again. Whether it’s the system, surrounding talent, or Campbell himself, I don’t see him making the jump that most have grown tired waiting for. This could be his last hurrah in Washington.
4) Glenn Dorsey – An epic disappointment so far, the switch to a 3-4 defense isn’t exactly playing to Dorsey’s strength. No feel good story here.
5) Trent Edwards – Here’s a 3rd year guy I’m not buying. I liked him coming out of college, despite his inability to stay on the field, and while I’m not calling for an awful season, I just don’t expect him to make the jump that others are predicting. Terrell Owens doesn’t ruin teams in his first year, so he’s got that going for him.