As we get ready for Tuesday night’s "SportsCenter" NFC South preview (ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET), let’s take a look at four players from around the division that I expect to have breakout seasons in 2012.
Atlanta running back Jacquizz Rodgers: He had a minimal impact as a rookie, but the normally-quiet Falcons have talked openly about Rodgers taking on a bigger role. Michael Turner still will be the main ball carrier, but the Falcons have said they want to limit his number of carries. That’s where Rodgers can fit in. He’s an entirely different type of runner than the powerful Turner. Rodgers is about speed and elusiveness, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will try to utilize those skills as he attempts to add more explosiveness to Atlanta’s attack. Rodgers is at his best when running on the outside. He also has pass-catching skills and can make things happen in the open field. That’s why it’s a virtual certainty the Falcons won’t finish last in the league in screen passes attempted like they did the past two years. Rodgers has the perfect skills to make things happen on screen passes.
Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell: It seems like the Panthers have been trying to find a solid No. 2 receiver in the second round of the draft. They tried and failed miserably with Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett. I blame much of that on former coach John Fox and his staff. They were conservative in every way -- from their offensive scheme to their hesitation in allowing young receivers much of a chance to do anything. But Fox only had LaFell for one season and it’s time for Ron Rivera and his staff to turn LaFell loose. He seemed to slowly gain trust from Rivera’s staff last year. If those coaches put even more trust in LaFell in 2012, they could be rewarded in a big way. In a lot of ways, LaFell is similar to Muhsin Muhammad, the only wide receiver that ever has worked successfully in tandem with No. 1 receiver Steve Smith. LaFell is big and strong and could provide a nice target over the middle for Cam Newton.
New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins: The New Orleans defense had a lot of unflattering statistics last season, but this one might be the worst: neither starting safety had an interception. Yes, Jenkins and Roman Harper went through the entire season without coming up with an interception. Harper’s never been known for his pass-coverage skills. He plays the run like a linebacker and was a productive pass-rusher in the scheme used by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But the fact Jenkins went through an entire season without an interception was shocking. He has all the skills of a free safety that can be a true centerfielder, but he didn’t really have the chance to do that with Williams. Now that Steve Spagnuolo has taken over as coordinator, Jenkins should be allowed to sit back in coverage and use his intellect and physical skills to take advantage of mistakes by quarterbacks.
Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron: I’m going out on a limb and including a rookie as a breakout player. That’s because I’m very confident Barron will step in and have an instant impact. You don’t take a safety at No. 7 in the draft unless you’re pretty sure he’s going to be something like an Ed Reed or a Ronnie Lott. New Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano obviously has huge plans for Barron. A coach’s first draft pick is supposed to be a cornerstone of the team and Schiano has said the NFL’s transition to more passing in recent years has added value to quality safeties. Schiano has made it clear that Barron will be expected to play man coverage against wide receivers at times. But Barron’s biggest value could come in matching up with tight ends. In the NFC South, Barron will have to go against New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Carolina’s Greg Olsen and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez on a regular basis. A lot of linebackers and safeties have struggled against those guys. But Barron might have the right combination of size and speed to at least keep some tight ends in check.