NFL 2007: Players who are ready for breakout seasons Print
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Thursday, 06 September 2007 11:52
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 Baltimore has two of them, one on each side of the ball.
Green Bay has a pair on defense, while San Francisco could have two on offense.
They are players ready to have breakout seasons in the NFL, just as Kellen Winslow and Aaron Schobel did in 2006.
Nearly ever team has a youngster primed to establish himself as an NFL force. The Ravens' potential budding stars are defensive end Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Demetrius Williams.
For the Packers, it's linebacker A.J. Hawk and defensive end Cullen Jenkins. The Niners have tight end Vernon Davis and guard Justin Smiley.
It could be a season of emergence for Arizona's Matt Leinart as a passer and New Orleans' Reggie Bush as a runner. A pair of Heisman Trophy winners and national champions from the same backfield at Southern California just might become stars in their second pro seasons.
So could Cleveland linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, Jacksonville running back/kick returner Maurice Jones-Drew and Denver wideout Brandon Marshall.
Ngata is strong, relentless, a huge presence on the defensive line. Surrounded by such a strong cast, his progress should remain rapid.
``I think Haloti should be All-Pro by Year 3, if not sooner,'' says veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce, a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
``Haloti is just a beast out there,'' says guard Ben Grubbs, the Ravens' top draft pick this year; Ngata was a first-rounder in 2006. ``You look at him and you think he's slow, but he's swift on his feet.''
Nobody thinks teammate Williams, who played in college at Oregon with Ngata and was a fourth-rounder in 2006, is slow. In fact, he's shown an ability outrun the swiftest defensive backs and, at 6-foot-2, 200, he has size to complement his speed.
An even more dangerous receiver could be San Francisco's Davis, the sixth overall pick in '06 who missed six games with a broken leg. He finished with 20 catches for 265 yards last season.
Davis might be the league's fastest tight end and has good hands. He isn't much of a blocker, but is so dangerous as a receiver that the Niners won't require him to block too often.
In turn, Davis won't be taking plays off. He's too wound up for that.
``I don't want to take any of the passion, the excitement that he has, because Vernon isn't going to back down from anybody,'' coach Mike Nolan says. ``That's what you love about him.''
What the 49ers love about Smiley is his agility and solid technique as a blocker. Watch for Frank Gore to gain much of his yardage behind veteran guard Larry Allen and 25-year-old Smiley.
For Green Bay to push Chicago in the NFC North, it will need some brilliance from Hawk and Jenkins. Both are capable of it.
Hawk, the touted linebacker from Ohio State taken fifth in last year's draft, had a decent rookie year, but not nearly what he's capable of. Look for him to be far more disruptive this year as a tackler, in coverage and even as a pass rusher - he should be a sensational blitzer.
But Jenkins could be even more of a factor. He had 6 1/2 sacks a year ago, and with NFC sacks leader Aaron Kampman on the other side, Jenkins will be tough to hold under double digits as he permanently moves from tackle and tries to justify his rich new contract.
``There weren't any concerns about him not 'justifying' (the contract),'' Packers general manager Ted Thompson says. ``Cullen's been a good football player here for a long time. We feel like the move to defensive end helps put a little brighter spotlight on his abilities.''
The spotlight always has shined brightly on Leinart and Bush. Neither was an award winner as a rookie, but both could wind up in the Pro Bowl if they break out in '07.
And each has plenty of help. In Arizona, Leinart has Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Edgerrin James to pass to. Bush works in a backfield with QB Drew Brees and RB Deuce McAllister.
``He's not somebody who acts like he's bigger than everybody else,'' James says of Leinart. ``I've been around someone who's probably going to be the greatest quarterback of all time, that's Payton Manning. (Leinart) has some of those same characteristics. It's just a matter of having a system that he can get settled in.''
He should get settled this year.
No one can settle back when Bush is on the field. And the Saints will find more ways to get him the ball, including lining up along with McAllister in the backfield.
``I'm focused so much this year on becoming a better pro, focusing on becoming a complete running back and bettering myself as a player and in my all-around game,'' Bush says. ``Just knowing what to expect mentally when I come out there.
``I remember at this time last year, I was physically and mentally drained. Now I have a year on the book. ... coming in this year, I feel fresh. I feel really good and it's definitely a huge difference for me this year.''
Bush has a counterpart for excitement in the Jaguars' Jones-Drew, who was overshadowed at UCLA by his crosstown rival. Last year, Jones-Drew had 941 yards rushing and 46 receptions for 436 yards. He scored 15 touchdowns. He added a score on a 93-yard kickoff return.
Yet he's capable of much more considering Jones-Drew is a backup, for now, to Fred Taylor.
Wimbley moved from college lineman to pro linebacker without much trouble. He pursues the ball better than most linebackers and knows how to get to the quarterback.
Best of all, he had 11 sacks even without being a major cog for the Browns early in the season.
``I thought it was a pretty good year for a rookie year,'' said Wimbley, who set a rookie franchise record for sacks. ``I'm not satisfied. I think there are some things I could have done better.
``Last year I had 11 sacks so I think I did pretty good with the move that I had. This year they're probably going to pay more attention to it, so I'll change it up. I want to get to the quarterback, so I'll do whatever it takes to get there.''
Marshall could be just what the Broncos need badly: a young replacement for Rod Smith, who seems to be wearing down. With Javon Walker as the No. 1 receiver, the 6-4 Marshall won't draw many double coverages. So he might draw loads of attention from quarterback Jay Cutler.
``It's more pressure, but that's what we play for and all the great ones step up to the challenge,'' Marshall says.
Others capable of making a huge leap in performance are Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller; Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard; New England running back Laurence Maroney; Carolina tackle Travelle Wharton; Detroit linebacker Ernie Sims; Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears; Giants guard Chris Snee; Philadelphia linebacker Omar Gaither; and Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph.

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