Every season, a host of relative unknowns and no-names burst on to the scene and shake up both the NFL and your fantasy football league.
Last year, Arian Foster led the league in rushing. Though he’s a household name now, people forget he was quite recently an undrafted free agent that entered Texans camp third on the depth chart last July.
LeGarrette Blount led all rookies in rushing in 2010. He, too, was undrafted, and wasn’t even with the Buccaneers at the start of the 2010 season, having only ended up there after being waived by the Tennessee Titans last September.
Which players are primed for big, breakout years in 2011?
Here are the 32 guys — one for each team — that we’re insisting you keep an eye on this upcoming season. Print this list out, paste it to your cubicle wall, and start learning these names.
And if you don’t? It’s OK.
You’ll be hearing all about these studs soon enough.
Arizona Cardinals: Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver
With Anquan Boldin in Baltimore for the second season and Steve Breaston now in Kansas City for his first, there’s a strong chance Andre Roberts, a graduate of The Citadel, will be the guy lining up across Larry Fitzgerald as the starting No. 2 wideout in Arizona on opening day.
Who?! Yes, Andre Roberts.
After struggling mightily in camp last season and taking a few weeks to actually get on the field in the regular season, the 2010 third-round pick began coming around in practices and making some plays down the stretch last season.
He’s had an outstanding camp, "tearing it up in practice," according to Darren Urban, the Cardinals’ reporter on AZCardinals.com.
You might not be familiar with his name now, but everyone’s talking about the frontrunner for the “Z” receiver role down in the desert this month.
Sure, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones will sell the most jerseys and get the most love in your fantasy football drafts this month. But Harry Douglas, Atlanta’s No. 3 wideout, could be the guy who catapults the Falcons offense from very good to great in 2011.
Douglas has had a tremendous camp down in Flowery Branch this summer and appears to finally be healthy. If his 76-yeard touchdown against Jacksonville last Friday evening was any indication, he’s got big-play ability and Matt Ryan’s trust.
Douglas has been with the Falcons for years — 2011 is when he should finally put it all together.
Baltimore Ravens: Sergio Kindle, Defensive End
It’s been an awful past 18 months for Sergio Kindle. An All-American out of Texas, the Longhorns star unexpectedly slipped to the middle of the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft and then suffered from a fractured skull, causing him to miss his entire rookie season.
Finally healthy, back on the field, and finally making an impact, Kindle’s been turning heads — in all the right ways — in Ravens camp this summer.
In his first action ever on an NFL field last Thursday night, Kindle looked like a terror in the special teams game, nearly blocking two punts. He also rushed the quarterback twice, nearly recording a sack. There’s a learning curve, here, sure. But Terrence Cody’s not the only 2010 draft pick getting Ravens fans excited this summer.
Look for big things out of the 23-year-old Kindle, too.
Too obvious a pick for this one? My apologies for the lack of creativity and shock value here, but as someone who’s been a fan of Newton’s game since his Florida (pre-laptop) days, I think the kid’s primed to have a surprisingly solid rookie year.
Sure, there will be growing pains. And yes, he’ll struggle against those defenses in Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans. But with a veteran offensive line protecting him, good coaching in his ear, and a cupboard full of healthy weapons at skill positions, Newton could be a lot better than most are expecting him to be this year.
He’s defied his critics before. He’ll do it again in 2011.
Filling in for Tommie Harris at defensive tackle in Chicago’s 4-3 defense, Melton knows he has big shoes to fill this season.
"He sent me a text that read, 'The ball's in your court now. You just have to go get it.' I appreciated that," Melton said of his exchange with Harris after the longtime Bear was released in March.
There are some in Chicago that expect Melton to do more than just “get it”, though; they expect him to excel.
A converted running back at Texas, the three-year veteran possesses great quickness, speed, and strength for a defensive tackle. He’s gotten his weight up this offseason and is a rapidly improving pass rusher up the middle.
He may not receive the same media attention as fellow NFC North defensive tackles B.J. Raji, Kevin Williams, Ndamukong Suh, and Nick Fairley this season — but he may play just as important a role.
If the first two preseason games are any indication, Bengals fans could be in for a looooooooooooooooooooooooooooong season this year.
Though the offense may be an eyesore, the defense could be surprisingly solid. One reason to be excited is second-year defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
A pass-rushing terror at Florida, Dunlap showed flashes of brilliance in 2010, racking up 9.5 sacks in limited action last year.
Though he’s missed the first two games of the preseason nursing a sore knee and still might not be an every-down starter come opening day, there’s reason to believe the second-year man could be one of the league’s next great pass rushers.
In 2010 first and second-round picks Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, the Browns boast two of the most dynamic young defensive backs in the league.
Ward, the lesser known of the two up-and-coming stars, led the Browns and all NFL rookies with 105 tackles as Cleveland’s starting strong safety, last season.
He also laid out punishing hits and improved over the course of the season in pass coverage. This year? The sky’s the limit.
Making the move from Rob Ryan’s complicated 3-4 scheme to a less complex 4-3 system under new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron this year, Ward will have a bit more confidence and likely a bit more freedom.
Troy Polamalu won’t be the only safety wearing number 43 in the AFC North making the highlight reels this year.
With both Roy Williams and Sam Hurd now in Chicago, the Cowboys' wide receiver depth chart boasts two stars — Miles Austin and Dez Bryant — and a string of question marks.
One of those question marks, third-year veteran Kevin Ogletree, is ready to make the most out of his moment.
Though he has just 10 career receptions, the Dallas coaching staff has confidence in the former Virginia star. With Miles Austin out of the lineup Sunday night versus the Cowboys, Ogletree caught three balls for 24 yards, including a nifty little move on a 14-yard gain.
Against Houston, he hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass. Austin waited a bit of time on the sidelines before making a splash in Big D two years ago.
A third-round pick in 2010, Eric Decker’s rookie season was slowed by the lingering effects of playing on a surgically repaired foot.
The former star at Minnesota is finally back to full speed and making an impact.
A star in camp thus far, Decker’s currently slated as the third receiver in Denver, behind Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal. This is no surprise to his quarterback. Back in May, Decker flew to Denver to join Kyle Orton in private passing sessions, and Orton later flew to Minnesota to join Decker for more.
There’s certainly a chemistry between the two former Big Ten stars.
No one was as high on Randall Cobb back in April’s pre-draft period as me. I'm beyond excited to see how he'll be used in Green Bay’s already loaded offense this season.
As I said last week, “Take out your pen and write this name down: Randall Cobb. OK, now put your pen down and take out your phone and text yourself this name: Randall Cobb. Finally, go to your computer and email yourself this name: Randall Cobb.”
A do-everything wideout/return man out of Kentucky, Cobb can run the Wildcat (he played quarterback at Kentucky), be an underneath guy, or burn opposing cornerbacks long.
Thanks to the Eagles, Saints and Patriots, the Packers are somehow, some way sliding under the radar this summer.
Your first “sleeper” defending Super Bowl champions? Apparently, so. Cobb will wake everyone up, fast.
The Houston Texans defense — annually one of the biggest running jokes around the league — will look awfully different in 2011.
In addition to signing free agents Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph to solidify the defensive backfield, Wade Phillips was brought in as defensive coordinator.
With Phillips comes his 3-4 defensive scheme, the move of Mario Williams from defensive end to outside linebacker, and an opportunity for second round pick Brooks Reed to make an impact right away.
Compared to Clay Matthews throughout the 2010 college season because of his long hair and fearless pursuit, Texans fans are hoping Reed can contribute the same kind of way Matthews did for Green Bay in his rookie campaign back in ’09.
Reed notched two sacks in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Saints. Expect plenty more this year.
In Terrance Knighton, Tyson Alualu, and Aaron Kampan — there are far bigger names on the Jaguars defensive line this season than Jeremy Mincey.
But Mincey’s been an absolute pass-rushing menace this preseason, turning heads on seemingly every passing down.
Though Mincey wasn’t credited with any sacks last Friday night against Atlanta, the six-year veteran was all over the field and in Matt Ryan’s face. He hurried the Falcons quarterback four times.
Mincey’s been lingering in Jacksonville since 2006, when he was picked up off the scrap heap after being cut by the 49ers. He was there in 2007 when the Jags traded up in the draft to take Derrick Harvey as the “defensive end of the future”.
He was there for the historically bad 2009 season in which the team recorded just 14 sacks. He’s still there. Only this year, he’s one of the young pieces everyone’s excited about down in North Florida.
By all accounts, Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki had a big rookie season in Charlie Weis’ offense last year in Kansas City. Talk to anyone who’s been to Chiefs camp this summer and you’ll hear the same refrain, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.
Coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, Moeaki is expected to play an even larger role in the Kansas City offense this year. No one’s talking about the Chiefs in the AFC West this year, but the defending division champions quietly made some solid moves this offseason.
Moeaki’s more than your garden variety “fantasy sleeper” this year — he’s a big time performer.
Dolphins linebacker Cam Wake came out of nowhere (well, Canada) to nearly lead the league in sacks in 2010. Who’ll be Miami’s big breakout star in 2011? Look no further than the other side of that 3-4 defense and at Koa Misi, the second-year outside linebacker.
In his rookie campaign, Misi played in all 16 games, notching 4.5 sacks and 41 tackles.
With both Jason Taylor (back in Miami for a third time) and Bryan Cox (working with Dolphins linebackers this year) teaching him the nuances of the position and showing the ropes, look for Misi to have a big 2011 campaign.
Ridley wasn’t the first running back taken in the 2011 NFL Draft. Hell, he wasn’t the first running back taken by the Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft (that would be second-round pick Shane Vereen). But, of all the rookie runners selected in April, New England’s third-round pickup from LSU could make the most immediate impact.
In two preseason games, Ridley has already shown that he can fill the downhill runner role in Bill Belichick’s backfield. At 5-11, 225 pounds, Ridley’s built like a brick and will be hard to stop in short yardage situations.
It’s a crowded backfield, sure.
In addition to Vereen, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing campaign and Danny Woodhead proved his worth last season.
Ridley’s done too much this summer to not find himself some carries, too.
With bright, shiny new additions all over the Saints roster, there are plenty of reasons for Saints fans to be excited about the squad down in the Big Easy this summer. But the guy who’s got everyone the most pumped is a cat who was with the squad last season — second-year tight end Jimmy Graham.
A four-year basketball player at Miami, Graham stuck around Coral Gables for a fifth year, playing one season as tight end on Randy Shannon’s Hurricanes football squad.
After wowing at the combine, Sean Payton took a gamble on the 6-4 physical specimen in the third round.
After spending the first half of the season watching and learning, Graham caught 23 balls and scored four touchdowns over the final seven weeks of 2010.
Jeremy Shockey’s gone, Drew Brees loves Graham’s ability and Sean Payton’s never been accused of a lack of creativity with the playbook.
Expect huge things from the former hoopster this season.
With Mr. Umenyiora out at least until the end of training camp and potentially until October recovering from knee surgery, Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants' 2010 first round pick, will be opposite Justin Tuck on the Giants defensive line on opening day.
The 6-5, 280 pound athletic pass-rushing freak out of South Florida racked up 4.5 sacks in the final six games of the season in 2010 and recorded two sacks in New York’s preseason tilt with Carolina.
Pierre-Paul’s currently most known by fans for his pre-draft YouTube clip of doing 13 back flips in a row. He’ll show he’s far more than just the next great gymnastics star this season.
I’m admittedly biased on this one. Having followed Watkins, his Canadian firefighter buddies, and his gregarious father around on draft weekend for a FOXSports.com column, there may be no more likeable personality in the NFL right now than the 27-year-old rookie from British Columbia.
A former professional firefighter, Watkins discovered football while taking summer school courses in “fire science” at Butte College four years ago.
After transferring to Baylor and dominating the Big 12, he was plucked in the first round in April by Andy Reid.
There are a lot of big names and flashy games in Philly this season. Watkins is neither, but he could be an integral part in bringing the Eagles to just their third Super Bowl in franchise history.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Evander “Ziggy” Hood, Defensive End
The Steelers defense — the No.2-ranked defense in the league in 2010 — returns every starter from their 2010 AFC champion squad.
Eight of the 11 returning starters are experienced veterans over the age of 30. One of the young guns waiting in the wings who showed flashes of brilliance last season? 2009 first-round pick and 2011 surefire breakout star, Evander “Ziggy” Hood.
Thrown into the starting lineup when starter Aaron Smith went down with an injury in the fourth game of the 2010 season, Hood emerged as a reliable run-stuffer for the AFC champions.
The sky’s the limit for this kid; he should be even better in 2011.
During that wild free-agent bonanza over the last week of July, the Chargers quietly brought in longtime veteran Takeo Spikes to play one inside linebacker spot in their 3-4. The other inside backer?
Look for Donald Butler, a second-year pro out of Washington, to be the starter come opening day. Not familiar with that name? It’s because Butler lost his entire rookie season to a torn Achilles last August.
Now fully recovered, Butler’s been one of the stars of Chargers camp, flying all over the field and working well with the elder Spikes up the middle.
With Frank Gore’s contract still being worked out in San Francisco, rookie Kendall Hunter has seized the opportunity to stand out in camp and preseason action.
Against the Raiders Saturday night, the former Oklahoma State star racked up 105 yards on nine carries and scored a touchdown.
On the 49ers’ first drive of the second half, Hunter broke off an electrifying 53-yard touchdown score. Perhaps even more impressive has been Hunter’s pass-blocking this summer, often picking up blitzes and giving the San Francisco quarterbacks more time in the pocket.
Gore’s contract situation should be settled, one way or the other, by the start of the regular season. No matter how it ends up, look for Hunter to continue to play a role in Jim Harbaugh's offense.
If being a 6-4, 221 pound cornerback didn’t make Brandon Brower stick out like a sore thumb on the line of scrimmage already, his unique path to the NFL surely checks the box.
For the past four seasons, Browner starred in somewhere even more Pacific Northwest than Seattle: Calgary.
A two-time CFL All-Star for the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL, Browner, 27, is looking to follow in Miami Dolphins star Cameron Wake’s footsteps and make the smooth transition from playing north of the border to the NFL.
The Cinderella story of Seahawks camp this season, the former Oregon State Beaver, could become a fan favorite in Seattle this season.
Sam Bradford didn’t only get offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Mike Sims-Walker, and Cadillac Williams to work with this offseason, he also got an athletic, 6-3 pass-catching tight end out of Wisconsin in second-round pick Lance Kendricks.
In his Rams debut, the former Badger caught five passes for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Expect several different offensive formations in St. Louis this fall, including a two tight end set with both Kendricks and 2010 rookie Michael Hoomanawanui on the field at once.
The “Baby Bucs” roster is loaded with young stars under the age of 25. The youngest team in the league a season ago, there are more than a few young pups ready to burst on to the scene in 2011.
Briscoe, waived by the Bengals last fall, has been turning heads in Tampa Bay all summer.
With four catches for 60 yards in Tampa Bay’s first preseason game versus the Chiefs, Briscoe’s getting a lot of looks as fellow young gun receiver Arrelious Benn recovers from ACL surgery. One of many, many “youngry” (Raheem Morris’ term, not mine) kids in Tampa this year, look for big things out of Briscoe and the rest of the “Baby Bucs” in 2011.