Tuesday, January 5, 2010

NFL Breakout POY

This isn’t an NFL award, but I’m substituting it for Comeback POY, which will most likely go to Tom Brady for returning from last year’s knee injury. Another player I’d mention would be Andre Carter (DE, Washington Redskins). Carter finished the year with 11 sacks compared to the 4 he accrued in 16 games last year. He also nearly doubled his tackle total from ’08 finishing with 62, a noticeable increase from 37 last season. All this while playing through a biceps tear late in the year.

With the Breakout POY award, I’m looking at non-rookies who took huge steps forward this season and really made the league take notice. I couldn’t get this list down to 5 or even 10, so we’ve got a top 11 here.

11) Brent Celek (TE, Philadelphia Eagles)
Some worried how the Eagles would replace the veteran LJ Smith at TE, but Celek finished the year with 76 receptions, 15 more than Smith put up in his best season. His 8 TDs were 4th best at his position, and he scored in 3 straight games (vs. NYG, vs. DAL, and @ SD) in the middle of the season. With deep threats DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin outside able to stretch defenses, Celek ate up the middle of the field. The consistent Celek had at least 2 receptions in every game this year and figures to be one of Donovan McNabb’s primary targets next year as well.

10) Tyvon Branch (S, Oakland Raiders)
The second year defender from Connecticut was one of the few bright spots on a chronically bad football team. Branch led all DBs in tackles with 124 and added two forced fumbles and solidified himself as one of the few building blocks on the Oakland roster. Look for him to make the Pro Bowl next season.

9) Sidney Rice (WR, Minnesota Vikings)
The 3rd year player from South Carolina easily benefited most from the addition of Brett Favre. Finally having a QB who can stretch the field allowed Rice to break out in a big way. His 83 receptions were 5th best among NFC receivers, and his 1,312 yards nearly doubled the total of the 2nd leading receiver on his team. Although I’m sure Rice would settle for a Super Bowl title, watching Favre ride off into the sunset for a final time probably won’t help his numbers for next season.

8) Elvis Dumervil (OLB, Denver Broncos)
Dumervil made the DPOY list but deserves to be mentioned here as well. Yes, he did have 12.5 sacks in ’07, but what’s impressive about his 17 QB takedowns from this year, in addition to leading the league in the category, is that he did it while learning a new position. Even though he stands at only 5-11, it’s not like Dumervil was hard to notice on a Bronco defense whose second leading sack artist weighed in with only 5.

7) Cedric Benson (RB, Cincinnati Bengals)
Wow, talk about resurrecting your career. Benson had never eclipsed 800 yards in his career, but he easily overcame that number this year. His 1,251 yards were 8th best in the league, but what’s more impressive is that he finished 2nd in the league with a 96.2 yards per game average. If there was a downside to his ’09 season, it would be that he failed to reach the endzone a single time after week 9. Had he totaled more TDs, he’d have finished a bit higher on this list. His 23.2 carries per game led the league and showed that, given a decent set of blockers, he’s a guy who can carry an offense on his shoulders and be productive. A rejuvenated Benson and a much improved defense are the biggest reasons for Cincinnati’s turnaround.

6) Steve Smith (WR, New York Giants)
While the Giants may have been the NFC’s most disappointing team in ’09, it certainly wasn’t Mr. Smith’s fault. The receiver labeled as “the other Steve Smith” finished 2nd in the NFL with 107 receptions (or 42 more than that dude in Carolina). Whenever Eli Manning needed a big play, he looked Smith’s way more often than not. His 1,220 receiving yards were the best by a Giant since Amani Toomer totaled 1,343 in ’02. The least heralded of the NFL’s top receivers is as sure-handed as they come.

5) Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco 49ers)
I guess Mike Singletary can win with Vernon Davis. In his 4th season, Davis easily put up his best year in receptions, but he found the endzone 3 more times than he had in those previous 3 years combined. His 13 touchdowns was tied for the league lead with Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss. While the two All Pro receivers were catching passes from Super Bowl winning QBs, Davis was running routes for the enigmatic Alex Smith. Yeah, Davis can play.

4) Miles Austin (WR, Dallas Cowboys)
After entering the season as the 4th passing option in Dallas’ offense, Austin exploded for 81 receptions, more than doubling the combined production of the horribly disappointing Roy Williams (38) and Patrick Crayton (37). Austin’s 1,320 yards were good for third in the league behind studs Andre Johnson and Wes Welker, and only 3 receivers reached the endzone more times than he did. In addition to being a receptions hog, Austin was also good for the big play, hauling in 8 catches of 40 yards or more. While Jason Witten still lead the Cowboys in receptions, Austin gives Tony Romo the legit #1 receiver that Jerry Jones thought he was getting in the trade for Williams.

3) Jamaal Charles (RB, Kansas City Chiefs)
Despite not being given the rock until the 10th week of the season, Charles exploded with four consecutive 100+ yard rushing performances to close out the season. (Credit Adam Schefter) Charles became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,100 yards on less than 200 carries. Averaging a staggering 7 yards a carry in your last four games will help you get there quickly. I’m really anxious to see how Coach Haley schemes to get the explosive Charles varying looks next season. If he can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have no problem improving on a 4 win season with him toting the rock all year. I’ll toot my own horn here as I thought the former Longhorn could be an offensive force prior to the ’08 draft.

2) Matt Schaub (QB, Houston Texans)
Told you so! As I said, a healthy Matt Schaub would put up numbers with the best of them. He shook off the fragile label, playing through a shoulder injury and throwing for more yards than any other QB in the league by a wide 270 yard margin. Schaub got the shaft as far as Pro Bowl nominations go, as he was certainly more deserving of the honor than Tom Brady. The Texans may have only won one more game this year than in ’08 (9-7 vs. 8-8), but Schaub’s performance is even more impressive when you consider that the Texans game crumbled this year. After ranking 13th in the league with a 115.4 average per game in ’08, the Texans finished a poor 30th this year with 92.2 rushing yards per contest. If the Texans can find a running back and improve on the defensive side of the ball, the sky is the limit with Schaub behind center.

1) Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore Ravens)
The second year man from Rutgers finished as the leader in yards from scrimmage per game among non-QBs with a whopping 127.6 yards per contest. That average was over 10 yards more than what stars Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson were able to muster. Rice took over the Ravens’ offense this year as second year QB Joe Flacco struggled with injuries and inconsistency. In addition to being the workhorse in the backfield, Rice was Flacco’s leading target, catching 78 passes, a total that led all running backs and was 15 receptions higher than the next closest back (Tim Hightower). Willis McGahee may have vultured a lot would be rice touchdowns, but there’s no question that Rice is the central component of Baltimore’s offense heading into the playoffs and next season.

(Just missing the list: Aqib Talib, Vince Young, and Mike Sims-Walker)

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