All Signs Point to Success for These Unheralded NFL Sleepers

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

by Kevin Harrington

This week marks the beginning of the unofficial 20-week NFL season, and players across the league are hoping to break out in a salsa-dancing, Victor Cruz-like fashion. Who are the next players that will make the leap from obscurity to NFL stardom? That will be the subject of discussion in this edition of the Next Sports Star.

The first of my three breakout candidates is a backup running back who suffered a serious knee injury in 2011, but has all the tools to earn ample playing time as a third down back at the very least this season. However, when considering other factors dealing with the team, coaching staff, and the running back ahead of my candidate on the depth chart, I believe this former second round draft pick could duplicate his college success story in the NFL. After redshirting his first year at Virginia Tech, Ryan Williams became the starter when the incumbent, Darren Evans, suffered a torn ACL in summer practice. Everyone should remember what happened next; Williams set single season school records for rushing yards and total touchdowns. I believe Williams now has the opportunity to make a similar splash for the Arizona Cardinals, thanks to a certain running back allegedly made of glass (Beanie Wells) ahead of him on the depth chart. Beanie Wells has never had a completely healthy season and now, for the first time in his career, has a backup capable of stealing his job should he go down for any period of time. The Cardinals remain a passing team first, and would love to be able to employ the screen pass more than they did last season with a poor receiver like Wells. Williams is an improving blocker and an excellent receiver out of the backfield which will serve him well behind a subpar offensive line that will result in many dump-off passes from Kevin Kolb or John Skelton.  These factors will result in Williams receiving many chances to prove his worth, especially if Wells gives his backup a one or two game showcase at some point early this season.

The next candidate for a breakout year comes from the team who defeated Williams’ current team in Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite losing their starting running back (Rashard Mendenhall) with a torn ACL and possessing two of the league’s premier big-play receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the Steelers do not want to lose their identity as a power running team. Yes, Isaac Redman will initially hold down the fort while Mendenhall rehabs his knee, but as evidenced from last year at Kansas City, new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley gives every running back in his stable a chance to prove himself equally. After Jamaal Charles went down with a torn ACL in week 2 of 2011, Haley shuffled Thomas Jones, Dexter McCluster, and the unheralded Jackie Battle in and out of the lineup throughout the rest of the season.  If Haley maintains his inability to make a decision on a primary running back, he will assuredly give Jonathan Dwyer at least one chance to repeat his 107-yard performance from October 9th of last year.  Considering that impressive game against the Titans is the only game of Dwyer’s career where he received double digit carries, it is fair to say that the former 6th round draft pick from Georgia Tech has not fully revealed his potential to the Steelers coaching staff and management.

I am most confident about the success that my last breakout NFL star will have in 2012. While Robert Meachem had a spectacular career at the University of Tennessee from 2003-2006, he initially failed to live up to expectations after being drafted in the first round by the New Orleans Saints. He was inactive his entire rookie season due to preseason knee surgery, and failed to make a significant impact for the team until his third season. Meachem has been good but not great for the past three seasons in New Orleans (at least 600 yards and 5 touchdowns each year), but failed to progress enough to receive an extension this offseason to stay with the Saints. The San Diego Chargers, yet another pass-happy team, eagerly snatched him up after losing starter Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay. Although Meachem doesn’t possess Jackson’s huge 6’5” frame, he still has the size/speed combo to excel as a primary receiver for Phillip Rivers. What is even more important should be the fact that Meachem hasn’t missed a game in three years. While their returning primary target is the aging and injury-riddled Antonio Gates, this should be a major source of comfort. If Meachem can remain healthy for the fourth straight season, I see every sign pointing to a 2012 season featuring at least 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns from the 27 year-old wide receiver.

So there you have it. Three unheralded backups from 2011 who I believe have a very legitimate chance to break out and become the Next Sports Stars of 2012. The upcoming preseason will inevitably shut the door for many hopeful young athletes, but in the process will present a select few with the rare opportunity to prove what they are truly made of in the unforgiving business that is the National Football League.

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