There are a number of different ways that an NFL player can become an impact player for his team. Many are acquired through the draft and thrust into a starting role, while some may need to work their way through the depth chart, only seeing the field when a hole opens via trade or injury. Some just flat out show their abilities and leave the coaches no choice but to keep putting them out on the field.
The 2011 season provided great examples for all these scenarios: rookies playing phenomenally from the get go, players making “the jump” in their second or third year, and seasoned veterans finally breaking through.
2011 Top Rookies
The top of the 2011 draft has performed as well, if not better than drafts in recent memories, starting with No. 1 pick Cam Newton. Newton started off with such a bang, with back-to-back 400+ yard games to start the season and really didn’t slow down from there.
Von Miller also helped revitalize the Denver Bronco defense, forming a dynamic tandem with Elvis Dumervil, helping to provide the defensive effort that Tim Tebow needs to stay in the game.
AJ Green and Julio Jones are absolute studs and will be for years to come. Aldon Smith, the No. 7 pick in the draft, also had a phenomenal season for Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers defense, with 14 sacks, good for fifth in the league.
2011 Breakout Players
Yeah, he’s a rookie too, but DeMarco Murray had a hell of a year until he got hurt. He got his big chance in Week 7 when Felix Jones sat out with an ankle sprain, and Murray responded with 253 yards on 25 carries. He followed up that game with 508 yards in his next five games before breaking his ankle in Week 14.
On the other side of the ball, but staying in the same division, Jason Pierre-Paul had a remarkable year for the New York Giants. He helped revitalize the defensive line for the Giants, giving new life to Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck and adding a fearsome part to one of the toughest D-Lines in the league.
Antonio Brown also proved to be an excellent complement to Mike Wallace, giving Big Ben another vertical threat, adding almost 1,000 yards from his 2010 receiving total (167 to 1,108).
The players that were the real breakout players in 2011 were both at the wide receiver position, and they will be facing off against each other this weekend. Jordy Nelson showed glimpses of what he could do last season, especially in the Super Bowl where he hauled in 9 passes for 140 yards. In 2011, Nelson busted out to the tune of 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, benefitting from often only having single coverage in the Packers’ prolific offense.
Victor Cruz caught some attention last season, hauling in three touchdowns in the Giants’ preseason opener against the Jets, but did not catch a single pass in the regular season, spending most of it on the IR. This season, however, Cruz busted onto the scene with 1,536 receiving yards, which established a New York Giants record.
2011 Breakout Veteran
Justin Smith has been one of the best defensive players in the league this season, playing pretty much wherever he was needed on the 49ers defensive line. He’s made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons, but his play this season has allowed his excellent teammates, such as Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, and Aldon Smith to thrive, forming the best front seven in the league. Smith also got in on the action, chipping in 7.5 sacks on his own.
Potential 2012 Breakout Players
So who will be similar players that will break out in 2012? It’s impossible to say just yet, especially not knowing who could be where. But there are a couple of candidates that stand out as possibilities heading forward.
Desmond Bishop: Little bit of a homer pick here, but I’ve been very impressed with the way he’s played all season. I think he was deserving of Pro Bowl consideration, with 115 tackles on the season and five sacks, which was best among inside linebackers this season. I think the Packers are going to put some focus on the defense this off-season, and Bishop will be a big part of that, which will pay off next season.
Kendall Hunter: Hunter has been a great complement to Frank Gore all season, and with a full off-season, I think Jim Harbaugh will find ways to get him very involved in the offense. It will be necessary for Alex Smith to pass to his backs out of the backfield, and there’s no doubt that Hunter’s 14 receptions from this season will go up. More carries for him means less for Gore, which benefits San Francisco in both cases. I don’t think the 49ers are a one-year fluke, and Hunter should help them win the NFC West again next season.
Evan Royster/Roy Helu: It’s well known what Mike Shanahan can do with running backs, and the Royster/Helu really came on toward the end of the season.
Royster, the rookie out of Penn State totaled 401 yards over the last four weeks of the season and is a big back, standing 6-foot-1, 212 pounds, that could develop into the Redskins’ every down back.
Helu is not small either, at 6-foot, 220 pounds, but has shown abilities in the passing game, catching 49 balls this season.
It’s not inconceivable that the two could combine for 2,000 total yards, and that figure has a better chance of coming true if Washington shores up its offensive line and finds the quarterback it needs.
Jermaine Gresham: Having a freakishly athletic tight end is common among almost every single playoff team in 2011, and that includes the Cincinnati Bengals. Gresham stands 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and has had two consistent years in the league so far.
With Andy Dalton that much more comfortable under center next season and teams keying in on AJ Green, expect Gresham to see much more work over the middle, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Gresham came close to doubling the 596 yards and 6 touchdowns he had this season.
Demaryius Thomas: By now you’ve seen the 80-yard touchdown catch that he gets no credit for, despite the fact that he had to outrun three Steelers defenders, stiff-arming them along the way. Thomas is a thick 6-foot-3, 225-pound wideout who will make the jump to a bona fide number one wideout next season.
Tim Tebow’s not going anywhere, and the throws that Tebow can make play into Thomas’s strengths. They’ll have the off-season to work on rapport and timing, and with Eric Decker as a talented number two receiver, teams won’t be able to focus as much on Thomas as they’d like. Demaryius finished the regular season with 551 yards on just 32 receptions, and if Tebow progresses at all, it’s easy to see those numbers doubling in 2012.
JJ Watt: The other hero of the wild-card round, JJ Watt could see a monster breakout season in 2012. He was known for his non-stop motor that helped raise his draft stock coming out of Wisconsin, and has shown the same amount of effort as a pro. He’s just a rookie who gathered 5.5 sacks this season, and with Mario Williams back for the Texans next season, Watt is primed for an even better 2012.