Remember when Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady weren't household names? Remember when the only Kansas City running back of note was Priest Holmes, and the only ball carrier in St. Louis that anyone knew was Marshall Faulk? In the cases of the Chiefs and Rams, now it's all about Larry Johnson and Stephen Jackson, both of whom used their predecessors' ailments and age as a stepping stone to NFL stardom. And just as was the case with Brady and Big Ben, Jackson and LJ, you can expect to see a whole new crop of NFL players emerge this season. While much of the focus in the early part of the 2006 NFL season will be on first-year stars like Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, and Vince Young, we've got our eyes on 10 more players--including a few rookies--that we expect to come up big in 2006.
Matt Jones - Wide Receiver - Jacksonville Jaguars
Even by NFL standards, Matt Jones is a physical freak. Standing at a towering 6'6", the guy looms over defenders and presents Byron Leftwich with a super-sized target with flytraps for hands. Nor does it hurt that the guy has great speed and is big enough to bowl over safeties as if they were made of papier-mache. Oh, and the former Arkansas quarterback has also been known to toss a ball or two in the NFL. Jones will see more balls tossed his way now that Jimmy Smith is retired, and we expect Jones to at least double his modest 2005 output.
Frank Gore - Running Back - San Francisco 49ers
While the terms "talent," "San Francisco," and "NFL" don't seem to go together very well lately, it's tough not to see Gore's tremendous upside in the 49ers' backfield. The former Miami Hurricane, in just his third year in the league, has taken over as the premier running back for the team. In a league where more teams seem to be splitting carries between one or more backs, the 49ers seem to have found their man and will be sticking with him, barring injury, all season long. One needs look no further than the trade of former 49ers running back Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets for what amounts to a handful of sticky candy wrappers and a glass of lukewarm water (read: an undisclosed draft pick) to see how much Mike Nolan and crew are banking on Gore.
D'Brickashaw Ferguson - Offensive Tackle - New York Jets
Here's the first clue we had that Ferguson was going to be something special in the NFL: Jets fans cheered loudly when his name was called during the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Considering Jets fans are among the most notorious of Draft Day boo-birds, this phenomenon stuck with us long after the draft was done. Now, of course, it's up to Ferguson (whose unusual first name comes from the novel The Thorn Birds) to prove he was worth the cheers and the first-round salary. Goodness knows the Jets need help up front. With the oft-injured Chad Pennington getting another chance at starting under center, we're sure he'll feel better having D'Brick helping to hold the line.
Chris Simms - Quarterback - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You could perhaps make the argument that the Bucs' quarterback broke through last year. Still, we're thinking that the Son of Phil has some surprises up his sleeve for the 2006 season. It doesn't hurt, of course, that he played in 11 games last season (up from five in 2004), or that he's got vets like Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton, and Ike Hilliard to throw to, or a standout running back like Cadillac Williams to shoulder the load. But, from all reports of the 2006 preseason, Simms sounds like he's becoming more like the kind of quarterback his dad was in the 1980s--an underrated talent with a knack for rallying a team around him, leading by example, and, best of all, making things happen.
Vernon Davis - Tight End - San Francisco 49ers
Two San Francisco 49ers on a list of breakout players in 2006? What in the sweet, sandy hell are we thinking? Well, check this out: Vernon Davis has got the physical size and hands to be on par with great receiving backs like Antonio Bryant and Alge Crumpler. And while it's easy to argue that his great abilities won't amount to jack squat with Alex Smith behind center, we look at it as an opportunity for Vernon to show what he's truly made of. After all, if he can reel in some touchdowns from Smith and help San Francisco win four or five games, he'll be a hero. If, on the other hand, the 9ers aren't able to stop the freefall, well, at least Davis can look forward to catching passes from Brady Quinn in 2007.
Antrel Rolle - Cornerback - Arizona Cardinals
Don't look now, but the Cardinals have talent, and not just on offense. While the lion's share of the attention has been on the Cardinals' offensive attack--with Matt Leinart, Edgerrin James, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald formulating a fearsome foursome--the defense should be much improved as well. Players like Karlos Dansby and Bertrand Berry are surely no slouches, but our eyes will be squarely focused on Antrel Rolle as he creates havoc in the secondary for receivers all season long. Rolle's 28 tackles and one interception in five games in 2005 didn't give us a complete picture of his talents--he tore cartilage in his left knee early in the season and missed the remainder of the year. Nonetheless, we're expecting big numbers from Rolle this year.
Shawne Merriman - Linebacker - San Diego Chargers
Why do we like Merriman in 2006? Well, beyond the 43 tackles, 10 sacks, and four passes he defended during the 2005 Chargers campaign, we like Shawne because...well...Shawne likes Shawne. Consider this recent quote from Merriman on his own skills:
"I have respect for Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, all the guys who did it for so long, and especially Junior Seau," Merriman said. "I enjoyed watching him as I was growing up. But I'm bigger and I'm stronger and I'm faster, and I can make more things happen... I respect what Junior Seau did for the game. No disrespect to Junior or the fans who love him, but I'm better than Junior."
We couldn't have said it better, Lights Out.
Brandon Lloyd - Wide Receiver - Washington Redskins
It seems like nearly every catch Brandon Lloyd makes is a circus catch. Ever since his rookie year in 2003, Lloyd has built a reputation for making impossible, one-handed grabs, and generally making the laws of physics look like mere suggestions. Unfortunately, Lloyd has also accrued a rep as a guy who doesn't like to get hit. It's not surprising--we're astounded his beanpole frame isn't snapped in half every time he's tackled. While nobody's going to doubt his superglue hands, what will set this year apart from his previous three will be Lloyd's willingness to make plays regardless of the cost to his body.
Philip Rivers - Quarterback - San Diego Chargers
Here's where we go out on a limb. Rivers, the perennial backup in San Diego ever since he was traded to the team from the New York Giants, has the vast majority of the past two seasons riding the pine behind Drew Brees. Now that Brees is with New Orleans, it's Rivers' time to prove he was worth trading Eli Manning to the Giants. So far in 2006, the news is good. In three preseason games, Rivers has looked pretty good, going 30 for 46 with one touchdown and one interception to his credit. Yes, those are preseason numbers, but there's no reason to think the string of successes can't continue into the regular season.
Roy Williams - Wide Receiver - Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions spent the last few years building up an offense that was centered on a trio of extremely gifted receivers, all of whom had dominated the field in college. Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams looked to form an unbeatable trio of talent; unfortunately, all three receivers lacked that special something--a quarterback worth his salt. Now, for better or worse, it looks like Jon Kitna will fill the QB void in Detroit and, while skepticism may remain about Kitna, the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator will surely add some zip to the Lions' attack. We look for Roy Williams to stand out and even help lead Detroit to more than a few victories.
So that's our list of breakout players in 2006. Agree or disagree? Care to add a name or two on the list, or dispute one of our choices? Let's hear what you've got to say in the comments section below!