Which players will surprise in 2011?
Colt McCoy leads a class of young stars who may be poised for their breakout seasons
The start of a new NFL seasons brings with it all sorts of questions. The hardest ones to answer usually revolve around the topic of growth. It's not much of a challenge to predict whether players such as Tom Brady or Troy Polamalu will remain on top of their games. It is a problem when you have to determine whether a young talent is ready to blossom into the asset his team always hoped he would become.
Last year, as usual, there were a few breakout players who blew everybody away. Houston running back Arian Foster came out of nowhere to lead the NFL in rushing. Denver wide receiver Brandon Lloyd went from being a journeyman to a Pro Bowler. A trio of pass-rushers -- Miami's Cameron Wake, Carolina's Charles Johnson and Kansas City's Tamba Hali -- also vaulted into stardom. Nobody saw those guys going as far as they went in 2010.
So now it's time to determine which players have the potential to make huge leaps this season. Some of them are already on their way to success, while others seem to just be in the right place at the right time. They're all capable of shining much brighter this season.
1. Colt McCoy, QB, Cleveland: McCoy was supposed to be too small and too weak-armed for the NFL, and the former Texas star slid into the third round of the 2010 draft. Now he has the look of a man ready to put those knocks far behind him. McCoy's strengths -- his accuracy and his mobility -- will fit perfectly into the Browns' new West Coast offense. He's also shown a much greater comfort level on the field this preseason, including an impressive showing against Philadelphia when the Eagles were playing several defensive starters. Of course, this isn't to say McCoy is going to shatter passing records this season, mainly because the Browns still need to get him more weapons. But he appears ready to make the kind of progress that will leave few people wondering whether he can make it at this level.
2. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay: Finley would be a star by now if a torn meniscus in his right knee hadn't landed him on injured reserve five weeks into last season. The four-year veteran came on strong in the 2009 playoffs, and he's the kind of big-play weapon who can thrive as a tight end in the West Coast offense. Few defenses have the personnel to match up with his size and athleticism in the red zone. Fewer still have defenders who can keep up with his speed in the open field. Add in the other weapons on the Green Bay offense -- including a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in Aaron Rodgers -- and you get the idea. Finley is ready to take his place among the game's top tight ends.
3. Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets: Greene finally gets his chance to be a featured back after spending his rookie year behind Thomas Jones and last season splitting carries with LaDainian Tomlinson. The move couldn't come at a better time. Greene knows he'll be running behind one of the league's best offensive lines, and the Jets should be more willing to put a greater burden on their passing game with quarterback Mark Sanchez entering his third season as a starter. Greene also should benefit from having a greater appreciation for this opportunity. He couldn't beat out Tomlinson as the lead runner after a strong postseason showing in 2009. This time around -- after gaining 766 yards last season -- he should be ready to show why head coach Rex Ryan has so much confidence in him.
4. Brandon Gibson, WR, St. Louis: Gibson caught 53 passes last year, and he's poised to increase that production in his third season. The Rams released speedster Donnie Avery -- the first wide receiver taken in the 2008 draft -- over the weekend. They also put Mark Clayton on the physically unable to perform list, which means he won't be on the field for six weeks. That leaves Gibson, Danny Amendola, Mike Sims-Walker and Danario Alexander as the primary targets in an offense that should be super-charged by the play-calling of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Gibson was good enough to start 12 games in 2010. He should be improved enough to be the most productive receiver in what is likely to be a pass-happy system.
5. Patrick Chung, S, New England: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stunned some people around the league when he dumped two-time Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather over the weekend. Anybody who watched Chung play last season might understand why Belichick could make such a move. Chung was the better player in 2010 and should be even stronger this season. He has the versatility Belichick loves in his defenders, and the third-year veteran also has a knack for the big play. Along with producing nice overall numbers last season -- 89 tackles and three interceptions -- he also had a monster performance in an early-season win over Miami (a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a 51-yard interception return for a touchdown). In short, this guy should be playing in the Pro Bowl very soon.
7. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco: Smith may be a rookie, but this pass-rusher has the look of a quick study. His position on defense affords the best chance to make an immediate impact for somebody who blends quickness with size (he's 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds). He's already been disruptive -- Smith had seven tackles and 2.5 sacks in a recent preseason game against San Diego -- and should be even more dangerous once he finds a comfort level in the 3-4. (He played as a 4-3 defensive end in college.) Many people were surprised the 49ers used the seventh overall pick on a talent this raw. Now it seems he could have the same impact that Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews had in their first seasons in the league.
8. Mario Manningham, WR, New York Giants: The Giants don't have to worry about letting Steve Smith walk this past offseason. Manningham was ready to surpass him in the New York offense anyway. He ended 2010 with three straight 100-yard games, and eight of his nine touchdown receptions were 25 yards or longer. Those are the kind of big plays the Giants need in a division where top cornerbacks seem to be everywhere. Hakeem Nicks had his breakout year last season. After catching 60 passes in 2010, it's time for Manningham to go from solid to scary.
9. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay: Anybody who watched Nelson in last year's postseason had to know his time was coming soon. He nearly doubled his regular-season production -- he caught 21 passes in the playoffs compared to 45 over the first 16 games -- and displayed an eerie chemistry with Rodgers. That kind of bond will only grow as Nelson and Rodgers spend more time together. Yes, the Packers aren't exactly hurting at receiver. But Donald Driver is old and James Jones isn't nearly as dependable. After Finley and wide receiver Greg Jennings, Nelson should be the most dangerous target in the Green Bay passing attack.
10. Tim Hightower, RB, Washington: This fourth-year veteran certainly has the characteristics of a back Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan would love: unheralded, hungry and a staunch believer in the one-cut-and-go style of running. Hightower arrived in Washington after Arizona traded him this past offseason. All he's done since is torch defenses through the preseason (averaging 6.8 yards per carry) and pull away from a cluttered competition for backfield time. It helped that last year's top runner (Ryan Torain) was injured early in camp and that Roy Helu is a rookie (albeit a promising one). But that doesn't take any credit away from Hightower. He knows that Shanahan wants to improve a feeble running game from last season and that the team's zone-blocking scheme plays to Hightower's strengths. As long as he can avoid the fumbles that have plagued him in the past, Hightower should enjoy his first 1,000-yard season.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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