After Further Review: Who's breaking out in 2012?
By: Kim O'Hara | Posted: September 05, 2012
With the NFL season mere hours away, here’s a breakdown of eight offensive players (in no particular order) who will break out over the next 17 weeks. Some have experienced small measures of success while others have dealt with injuries, but all will contribute meaningfully for the first time in 2012. And just to keep things from being too raindrops on roses, I’ll throw out one player who will have to wait until 2013 to start rolling.
Stevan Ridley, Patriots RB
Out with the old and in with the new. Since BenJarvus Green-Ellis packed up his many syllables and headed to Cincinnati, the Patriots rushing attack has been looking for a new number one. Ridley has answered the call this preseason by leading all RB’s in rushing yards and demonstrating a surehandedness that was in question after fumbles in Week 17 and the AFC Divisional playoff game last season. Second year back Shane Vereen could potentially challenge for the role, but I expect Ridley to expand on his pre-fumble successes late in the 2011 season.
Greg Little, Browns WR
Poor Cleveland. If one team needs a breakout player this season, it’s this perennial straggler. The Browns have the highest of hopes for Trent Richardson, the rookie running back out of Alabama for whom they traded up in the draft, but I think Greg Little will be the most pleasant surprise of the team’s offense. If a healthy Richardson, poised to start this week after arthroscopic knee surgery in early August, is able to make the immediate impact the Browns anticipate, the passing game should open up decently for fellow rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. Despite exhibiting a proclivity for dropped passes at times this preseason, which is certainly a red flag, Little should establish himself as Weeden’s go-to guy. He was second only to Cincinnati’s AJ Green in receptions among rookies last season and has the size and speed to expand on a successful first year.
Jared Cook, Titans TE
Thanks to the Grahams and Gronkowskis of the world, tight end is the new NFL glamour position. Evolving from a heavy blocker that is targeted occasionally, tight ends now serve as offensive stalwarts for many teams around the league. And I anticipate Cook to be quarterback Jake Locker’s safety net in his first career starts. Kenny Britt, the team’s number one receiver, spent time on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from surgeries in both knees and a season-ending ACL tear last September. He will also serve a one-game suspension this week in response to legal woes. With Britt unavailable this preseason, Locker developed comfortable chemistry with both Cook and rookie receiver Kendall Wright. I considered Wright as a breakout player, but think Britt will likely take over early in the season, if not immediately. Cook, on the other hand, will continue to build his Locker rapport and serve as a vital part of a reinvigorated offense.
Jon Baldwin, Chiefs WR
I think we will see a considerable improvement for many underperforming 2011 rookies, as these talented players will surely benefit from a full offseason program, something unavailable to them during the lockout last season. I believe Jon Baldwin will be a poster child for this type of progression. The best receiver out of University of Pittsburgh since that Fitzgerald fellow, Baldwin was mildly underwhelming in his rookie campaign, but has already begun making strides to a more successful second year. He has looked sharp in preseason training and will be playing behind Dwayne Bowe, who will be entering free agency and likely wearing a different uniform this time next year. Baldwin should be motivated this season to prove he is capable of being a receiving leader, and the Chief’s offense will surely benefit.
Ramses Barden, Giants WR
Why have I selected a fourth year receiver as the breakout player on a team carrying six WR’s? Because I think Barden is due. The talent he demonstrated at Cal Poly (and for which the Giants traded up in the 2009 draft) has been overshadowed by injuries; he was on the PUP list when Victor Cruz repeatedly salsa danced his way to the end zone and the spotlight in 2011. This preseason, Barden has shown that, when healthy, his 6’6 frame and solid mechanics could offer a Plaxico Burress-type presence in quarterback Eli Manning’s offense. Veteran Domenik Hixon will fill the third receiver slot behind Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, but he’s had two consecutive seasons end with knee issues. Look for Barden to be presented with an opportunity to take the field and proceed to make the absolute most of it.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings TE
Much like Jared Cook at Tennessee, I anticipate Rudolph to demonstrate his continued importance in second year quarterback Christian Ponder’s development. After dropping just one pass last year, Rudolph will embody the safety net sentiment used to describe Cook by becoming Ponder’s number one target. Rudolph’s size and hands will be significant in both creating matchups and capitalizing on them. Although I expect the Vikings to struggle in this season’s hypercompetitive NFC North, Ponder to Rudolph will be the first non-Adrian Peterson bright spot its offense has seen in years.
Brandon LaFell, Panthers WR
LaFell, a third year receiver, deserves a pass for underproducing in his first NFL season; Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen were throwing to him against strong NFC South secondaries. Last season, Legadu Nanee stepped in as the number two receiver behind perennial number one guy Steve Smith. 2012 will be LaFell’s year. A full offseason of workouts with second year quarterback Cam Newton will help LaFell benefit from Newton’s gifts; his ability to extend plays with his feet or to launch deep balls with his monster arm should set up LaFell for a successful season and as Smith’s potential successor, since he will be hitting 34 years next May.
Brian Quick, Rams WR
Remember how scary the Rams were going to be last season? And were they ever; just not the brand of “scary” most pundits were anticipating. Quarterback Sam Bradford had very little to work with and, much like the 2012 Jaguars with Maurice Jones-Drew, not even mega-talented running back Steven Jackson could carry the dead weight of St. Louis’s offense. Enter Brian Quick. Aside from a perfectly appropriate football name, Quick could finally offer Bradford an offensive weapon in the way Brandon Lloyd never did and Danny Amendola is simply too small to. A rookie receiver out of Appalachian State, Quick should make an impact early in the season; his long, strong body should be able to shake defenders to get open and establish position for significant yards after the catch.
Better luck next year:
Robert Griffin III, Redskins QB
Disclaimer: I am in NO way intimating RGIII will be a bust. He’s way too physically and intellectually gifted to fail on a massive level for Washington this season. But hopes are unbelievably high, with a front office, teammates and a whole city depending on his immediate impact. There’s just no chance of RGIII breaking out under the weight of those expectations, especially with the support of a running back carousel that will be middling, at best. Throw in head coach Mike Shanahan’s unnecessarily complicated offensive system of preference and twice facing both the Eagles and Giants, two of the most quarterback-hating defensive fronts in the league, and any instant Griffin success seems even less likely.
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Kim O'Hara is the Assocate Editor of TheFootballGirl.com. She is an avid fan of sports in general, but the NFL in particular. She has also been a contributor to ESPN the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @arahomik
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