Players to Watch in 2011
Not many teams in the National Football League (copyright Ron Jaworski) have had anything at stake over the past few weeks, so coaches were more willing to play the young backups in order to evaluate them as potential starters. This has allowed the fans to get a look at some possible up-and-coming players poised to make bigger impacts in 2011 and beyond. A few of the notables include…
Jerome Simpson - WR - Cincinnati Bengals
Along with Andre Caldwell, Simpson forms one half of the heir apparent receiving tandem to the tired TOcho sideshow that is more about generating individual attention than winning games. That’s going to be a good thing for the Bengals and their fans, as it’s time to move on anyway. Simpson, a second round pick in 2008 (Caldwell was taken a round later) out of Coastal Carolina, has never had any shortage of natural talent. Coming into the draft, he was touted for his blend of rangy athleticism, ideal size, massive hands, elite leaping ability (tied for second highest vertical at the combine) and 4.4 speed. There was no doubt that the guy had all the physical tools to be a successful wide receiver in the NFL, but there were questions about whether he’d ever be able to put it all together. How a prospect with this much raw talent did not consistently dominate FCS/D-IAA competition was one of the major knocks against Simpson, which inevitably led to the dreaded questions about his desire and love for the game. Still, Simpson’s enticing package of size and athleticism was attractive enough for the Bengals to take a chance on him with the 15th pick in the second round — the Eagles took DeSean Jackson two spots later. One thing for certain was that he had to get on an NFL weight training program and become physically stronger in order to hold up at the professional level. As a tradeoff, Simpson got the special opportunity to learn from one of the best wide receivers of the past decade in Chad Ochocinco for two seasons, and then got a double dose when Terrell Owens joined the team in 2010. For all their flamboyant, look-at-me antics that make you disrespect them off the field, you can’t deny what Ochocinco and Owens have accomplished on it. Hopefully Simpson learned a little bit about what it takes to be a great player in the NFL.
After not recording a single catch and not even playing in most of the Bengals’ first 14 games of the season, Simpson’s first two games as a starter (after he played sparingly and had only two catches against the Browns in Week 15) have yielded ridiculously impressive results:
Week 16 vs. San Diego: 6 catches, 124 yards (20.7 average), 2 touchdowns
Week 17 at Baltimore: 12 catches, 123 yards (10.3 average), 1 touchdown… and 2 lost fumbles
Alright, so the two lost fumbles are a detriment and gravely inhibited Cincinnati’s chances to beat the Ravens, but look at everything else. 18 total catches for 247 yards and 3 touchdowns?! Wow. Remember, it’s not like those are two bad defenses, either (although the Ravens’ secondary isn’t anywhere close to what it used to be — except for the fact that Ed Reed is still doing his thing). Statistically, both teams are top-10 defenses (Chargers are first, the Ravens tenth) overall, even though the Chargers ranked first against the pass and the Ravens were 20th. If we extrapolate Simpson’s numbers over the course of a 16-games season — which, as we know, is definitely the most prudent way to predict future performance — it comes out to 144 receptions for 1,976 yards and 24 touchdowns (we’ll just ignore the 16 lost fumbles). So, as you can see, he would have recorded the best season for a wide receiver in NFL history. All unsupported hyperbole aside, Simpson has proven over the last two weeks that he has loads of potential and is now a legitimate candidate for a breakout 2011 season.
I’m not sure if anyone reading this saw Jerome Simpson’s amazing catch from four years ago while a junior in college, but it was #1 on SportsCenter’s top plays that day and will give you a glimpse of the breathtaking athleticism that intrigued scouts. Here’s the video clip:
(Yes, that’s Tyler Thigpen throwing him the ball.)
Rashad Jennings - RB - Jacksonville Jaguars
A big, bruising back with deceptive speed, Jennings has served as Maurice Jones-Drew’s backup the past two seasons and quietly made his mark as a young player on the rise. If he continues to progress like this over the next few years, Jennings will go into free agency very similarly to the way Michael Turner did in 2008 after serving an apprenticeship to LaDanian Tomlinson in San Diego. Make no mistake, teams in need of a starting RB will be very interested in signing him. He’s the quintessential back for an offense that likes to control the clock, pound the ball 25-30 times a game, and wear down a defense.
Jennings started college as a backup at Pittsburgh and topped out at 265 pounds before transferring to Liberty, a FCS/D-IAA program, to revive his career. After dropping 35 pounds and posting three consecutive 1000+ yard rushing seasons as a starter for the Flames, he emerged as a sleeper prospect in the 2009 draft; a lot of NFL draft analysts and websites had Jennings ranked among the top-10 players at the RB position. Most of the projections I remember seeing had him going in the mid-rounds. Perhaps between questions about his speed (4.60) and level of competition, Jennings fell to the end — literally — of the seventh round, where the Jaguars snapped him up with the seventh-to-last pick of the entire draft and have found themselves quite a steal. While still mainly a between-the-tackles runner who relishes getting the tough yards, Jennings has also displayed the ability to run away from defenders and break off big plays (something scouts didn’t think he would be able to do coming out of school). He’s currently averaging nearly 5.5-yards per carry (123 career carries for 661 yards) and has shown off a surprisingly soft set of hands (42 catches in two seasons with the Jaguars after recording only 48 receptions in four years at Liberty). Like I said, assuming Jennings’ career arc continues at its current pace, he’ll be a hot commodity on the free agent market when his rookie contract expires after the 2012 season. Remember his name going forward.
Michael Bush - RB - Oakland Raiders
Probably the most recognizable name of anyone I’m going to write about, it’s amazing that Bush is even playing football at all after suffering one of the more gruesome injuries you’ll ever see during his senior year at Louisville in 2006. Coming into that season, Bush was regarded as one of the best overall prospects for the 2007 draft and a surefire first round pick. Unfortunately, in the opening game against Kentucky, Bush managed only 17 carries (for 128 yards and three touchdowns) before a routine tackle turned disastrous and his leg bent in a way that should never, ever happen. The severity of the injury was immediately apparent, and the replay certainly isn’t for the squeamish (look it up on YouTube if you’re the morbidly curious type); Bush suffered a shattered right tibia that required two surgeries and the insertion of a steel rod to stabilize the bone. As someone who watched the injury occur on television, I never believed he’d play a down in the NFL. Regardless, the Raiders took a chance on Bush in the fourth round of the 2007 draft and placed him on injured reserve so he could fully recover.
Bush didn’t start his NFL career until 2008 and has served as the primary backup to Darren McFadden. He has steadily improved in his first three seasons, culminating in a 2010 campaign that saw him gain 655 yards and record eight touchdowns on 158 carries. In today’s final game of the season, he gashed the Chiefs to the tune of 25 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown, to go along with four receptions for 34 yards. Now, consider that Bush’s contract is expiring and he will be a free agent in 2011, pending what happens with the labor situation. Like Michael Turner once was (and Rashad Jennings will be), Michael Bush is going to be a highly sought-after free agent who will garner serious interest from multiple teams looking to sign a potential starting RB. With an ideal combination of size, speed, and power, don’t be surprised if Bush puts together a 1000+ yard rushing season for his new team next season (if he can stay healthy, of course) — actually, you should expect it. Bush is certainly on the cusp of becoming a household name in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders - WR - Pittsburgh
One of my favorite players in the 2010 NFL draft (just ask my roommate, who is a diehard Steelers fan), Sanders was highly productive at Southern Methodist and showcased top speed (4.4) at the combine. While some concerns about his size were certainly warranted, you could not deny that he’s one tough son of a bitch and an indefatigable competitor. There were never many doubts about Sanders’ raw skills, however, which were definitely professional caliber. He runs crisp routes, has sure hands, and always seems to make a play at critical moments (i.e. third downs) — the defender better tackle him when he gets the chance, too, because he’ll burn guys if he gets a step.
After first making his mark on special teams, Sanders was a steady part of Pittsburgh’s offense by the middle of the season and seemingly always on the field for passing downs. He made some fantastic catches, but also had a few goofs; regardless, it’s obvious the Steelers are believers and see him as an integral part of the offense going forward. With Hines Ward soon to be on his way out, it looks like Sanders is poised to pair with the electric Mike Wallace to form Pittsburgh’s next duo of starting wide receivers. Expect him to take on an even more substantial role in the Steelers offense next season.
PS - Keegan, if you’re reading this, be a trendsetter and get his fucking jersey already.
Cliff Avril - DE - Detroit
The second-leading sacker (with 8.5) on what was one of the more disruptive defensive lines in all of football, 2010 marked a breakout season for Avril. A converted OLB with 4.51 (!!) speed who was marginalized as a “tweener” coming out of Purdue, his first two seasons (10.5 total sacks) indicated the potential was there; in this, his third season, Avril took his game to the next level. His explosiveness and burst off the ball are second-to-none, and there isn’t an OT in the league who he can’t beat around the edge. What makes Avril so difficult to block, however, is the fact that he’s not purely a speed rusher and is strong enough to physically attack opposing tackles, so it becomes a matter of picking your poison. Teamed with Ndamukong Suh, the two young guns terrorized quarterbacks all season, and they should only continue to make life miserable in in the backfield for opposing offenses in 2011 and beyond. Look for Avril to record double-digit sacks next season and make a strong push for the Pro Bowl, as the Lions make an equally strong push for a playoff spot (the time is coming).
Arthur Moats - LB - Buffalo
In addition to being a player on the rise, Arthur Moats was also close to being the answer to the following trivia question: “Which player delivered the hit that ended Brett Favre’s career?” Oh well, I guess he’ll just have to settle for making a name for himself with his on-field performance. A sixth round pick out of James Madison in the 2010 draft, Moats started the season buried on the Bills’ depth chart as he learned to play OLB after spending his entire college career at DE. Coming into the draft, I liked Moats’ explosiveness, athleticism, and relentless motor and felt comfortable enough giving him a 3rd/4th round grade — he did dominate FCS/I-AA competition and capture the Buck Buchanan Award (Defensive Player of the Year) in 2009, after all. I kept hoping the Eagles would take him (I’m always a proponent of picking players who win player of the year awards at the lower levels), but they elected to go with guys like Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (can barely get on the field) and Ricky Sapp (multiple knee injuries in college and currently on IR with, shockingly, a knee injury) instead. I couldn’t figure out why Moats was sliding, as he had everything you looked for in a player coming out of a small school, namely eye-popping production (90 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, and one forced fumble recovery returned for a touchdown) and the height/weight/speed (6-0/250/4.64) combination to handle the physical rigors of the NFL. I can only imagine that teams were wary of whether he could successfully make the transition from DE to OLB, which I’d be able to understand more if he wasn’t such a fantastic athlete. Whatever, all that matters now is that Moats is getting a chance to play for the Bills and making a major impact. He’s ferocious on the rush and always seems to end up around the football; the explosiveness and athleticism that made him an intriguing prospect to me are all on display when he goes full force at an offensive lineman charged with preventing the quarterback from getting decapitated.
Despite not becoming a regular contributor in Buffalo’s base defense until mid-season, Moats made an immediate impact on his head coach, Chan Gailey, who on December 21 remarked, “In the last four or five weeks, he might have made as much progress as anybody on our football team.” (http://www.buffalonews.com/sports/bills-nfl/article289711.ece) Those comments came two days after the rookie notched 5 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 quarterback hurries/hits in a Week 15 win against the Dolphins. Moats finished the season with 33 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 7 quarterback hurries/hits. Those are very respectable numbers for any rookie, let alone one picked in the sixth round from a FCS/I-AA program who also had to learn a new position (even though he’s playing as an OLB edge rusher in the 3-4, which is basically just a standing DE). Anyone who has watched Arthur Moats play understands that he can develop into a difference-maker in this league, which is good news for a Bills team that hardly receives any. He should be the full-time starter at OLB next season, at which point we’ll see if he can join Dexter Coakley, Edgerton Hartwell, Rashean Mathis, and Jared Allen as Buck Buchanan Award winners who went on to shine at the professional level.
Carlos Dunlap - DE - Cincinnati
If Carlos Dunlap wasn’t such an irresponsible and incorrigible asshole, he would’ve been a definite top-10 overall pick in this past April’s draft. Instead, he decided to drive after a night of drinking and was found by the police passed out at the wheel — with the engine still running — at an intersection in the wee hours of the morning. I should also mention that this happened the week of the 2009 SEC Championship game. Add that DUI charge to the persistent questions about his character and effort on the field and, well, Dunlap’s stock started to really plummet. He’s a classic case of a prospect with all the talent in the world but none of the common sense. Based on pure ability alone, it’s not a stretch to say that Dunlap was probably the best defensive player in the entire draft.
So, which team decided to take a chance on a highly talented player with serious character concerns? The Cincinnati Bengals, of course. Dunlap rewarded the Bengals’ leap of faith with a monster rookie season, in which he recorded at least one sack in six of the team’s last eight games and finished with a total of 9.5 — despite not getting regular playing time until Week 7. It seems as if, for the moment at least, Dunlap has gotten his head out of his ass and started to realize his superior talents as a pass rusher. If he stays out of trouble and continues to do things the right way, the sky is the limit because he has as much ability as any defensive end in the league.