One quarter into the opening game of the 2011 NFL season, second-year wide receiver Victor Cruz watched helplessly as an easy third-down conversion slipped right through his fingertips. Auditioning to fill the hole as the Giants’ slot receiver, Cruz saw the team react quickly, bringing in veteran Brandon Stokley the following week.
Knowing his job was potentially on the line, Cruz went off on division rival Philadelphia two weeks later, catching his first two NFL touchdowns.
The rest, as they say, is history – and Cruz danced his way, salsa style, into the national spotlight and helped the New York Giants hoist their second Lombardi trophy in the last five seasons.
Every season, unheralded players come out of nowhere and become superstars. Kurt Warner went from grocery store stocker to Super Bowl MVP; Tom Brady and Tony Romo made careers for themselves after watching former No. 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe hobble off the field.
The ability to find talent, whether at the top of the draft board or on the practice squad, makes all the difference in building a successful franchise.
With so much at stake, the pressure is on to find the next Victor Cruz – the next breakout player.
In this piece, 13 NFL starters identify who fans should look for to be the next big thing. Some may contribute on offense, some on defense and some solely on special teams, but everyone on this list will have a role.
Who knows? Maybe these players will carry their teams to the top.
Arizona Cardinals – ILB Reggie Walker
WHO? Walker, originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009, made the ballot for Pro Bowl voting as a special teamer last season. The 25-year-old Alaska native should see more rotations on defense this season, after the Cardinals elected to release veteran Clark Haggans.
HE SAID IT: “Reggie Walker is a smart player. He plays both inside backer spots in our 3-4 scheme. I think he makes the Pro Bowl as a special teams player and makes a name for himself as needed on defense.” – OLB O’Brien Schofield
Atlanta Falcons – S William Moore
WHO? Nicknamed “The Missouri Hammer” by his college teammates, Moore shined in his return to the Show Me State on Sunday, recording seven tackles and an interception against the Kansas City Chiefs. He has started 27 games for the Falcons but has been largely overshadowed in the secondary by corners Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.
HE SAID IT: “He’s a ball-hawking safety. I love his physicality. He has that mindset that you’re not going to make a play on him. If he has to, [he will] stick his head in there and hit a fullback on 3rd-and-1, or he’s coming off the edge trying to be the tackler or get to the quarterback. I think everybody needs to get in tune to what he’s doing because I think they would know he has an opportunity to do some really good things. I think he can become an All-Pro player.” – OLB Sean Weatherspoon
Green Bay Packers – OT Bryan Bulaga
WHO? The Packers selected Bulaga in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Ten months later, he became the youngest player to start in the Super Bowl. A left tackle during his time at the University of Iowa, Bulaga has excelled on the right side of the line for one of the league’s most potent offenses.
HE SAID IT: “I think Bryan Bulaga will be one of the best tackles in the game. He was one of the best right tackles in the game last year. People will just notice it now. He’s more suited for the right side because he’s next to me, and I don’t want him to move.” – Packers OG Josh Sitton
Jacksonville Jaguars – WR Justin Blackmon
WHO? The Jaguars thought so highly of Blackmon that they trade up to the No. 5 pick in order to take him in April. A two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Blackmon caught 223 passes for 3,187 yards and 36 touchdowns during his time at Oklahoma State. The last time the Jaguars selected a wide receiver in the first round, they chose Matt Jones, a converted quarterback out of Arkansas, in 2005.
HE SAID IT: “The ability he has, playing the ball in the air and the physical style he plays with going after the football, is the same kind of thing you see in some of the elite wide receivers in the league now. On the field, the first thing that popped out to me was you watch him on TV and he looks like he’s 6-foot-4 and he plays like he’s 6-foot-4. But, he’s 6-foot-1. Seeing him [in OTAs] go up at the back of the end zone with two guys draped on him catch the ball with one hand reaching behind him, he snatched it down with one hand behind him and landed with both feet in the back of the end zone. That was the first time I had seen a receiver with the Jaguars have that kind of presence in the air. It looked like he was mad at the ball when he went to catch it.” – OG Uche Nwaneri
Miami Dolphins – DT Kheeston Randall
WHO? Randall made the team after being selected in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He started 35 of 47 games at the University of Texas. In his first career appearance for Miami, he recorded a pair of tackles against the Houston Texans.
HE SAID IT: “He’s willing to learn; very coachable. He has a high motor, and that’s something you can’t teach. I think he’ll make some plays and get better as the season progresses. When the opportunity comes for him to step up, he’s going to do that.” – DT Randy Starks
Minnesota Vikings – TE Rhett Ellison
WHO? No questioning Ellison’s toughness – he’s a descendant of the first captain of the New Zealand rugby team and son of two-time Super Bowl winner Riki Ellison. Upon being drafted in the fourth round out of USC, he became just the third New Zealander to play an NFL game. Team sources expect him to fill the H-back role left vacant by former captain Jim Kleinsasser.
HE SAID IT: “Just from our rookie class, I think Rhett Ellison will contribute a lot this year when it comes to special teams, catching and blocking. I like the fact that he’s a really hard worker and that he understands what’s going on. He’s a hard-nosed guy. I know he loves contact. He loves to block and hit, but at the same time, he’s a very good pass catcher.” – K Blair Walsh
New York Giants – RB David Wilson
WHO? A bit of a surprise by GM Jerry Reese, who found current starter Ahmad Bradshaw in the seventh round, but the Giants could not pass up on the speed and elusiveness Wilson showed at Virginia Tech. He has tremendous physical attributes, having posted a 4.49 at the combine and topping his class in the vertical jump, the broad jump and the shuttle run. But, his hands have come into question, especially after fumbling the ball on his second career carry.
HE SAID IT: “I’m looking for him to basically hop on that horse and ride. He’s shown that he can do it. It’s all about him having that confidence that he can go out there and do it. I don’t think [the fumble] has affected him. He’s taking coaching very well. He understands that’s a play he can’t let happen. He has kept his head high and been working extra hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” – LB Michael Boley
Oakland Raiders – WR Denarius Moore
WHO? Some may argue that Moore could have been the Raiders’ breakout star last season, where he caught 33 passes for 618 yards and five touchdowns. He figures to be a key piece in the Raiders’ youth movement at wide receiver along with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Rod Streater and Juron Criner. Moore was taken in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of the University of Tennessee.
HE SAID IT: “But, I think once he gets healthy, and once we get him and Carson [Palmer] back playing, I think he can be a top 10-15 receiver in this league. He has all the talent; he has all the ability. Whatever the offense needs at that time, he finds a way to make a play.” – S Michael Huff
Philadelphia Eagles – LB Mychal Kendricks
WHO? Kendricks was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, when he recorded 106 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions for California. The Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft and penciled him in as the starting SAM linebacker from day one.
HE SAID IT: “He’s going to be a heck of a linebacker, and he’s already showing it. He’s a smart player; he’s physical. He does all the right things on and off the field. He plays fast; he plays at 110 miles per hour every play.” – S Nate Allen
Pittsburgh Steelers – RB Chris Rainey
WHO? Rainey had a prolific career at the University of Florida on multiple fronts. He started at both running back and wide receiver in different seasons. He returned kicks, and blocked them too. In fact, he’s the Gators’ all-time leader in blocked kicks. His speed and versatility were contributing factors when the Steelers selected him in the fifth round, No. 159 overall.
HE SAID IT: “He’s a guy that can make an impact on special teams and on offense, can play different positions and will cause matchup issues. He’s a guy you have to be aware of, just like in the Carolina game. Even though there were some ‘holding calls’ on our return team, he returned two punts for touchdowns. I think he has explosive, big-play ability. He has a hungry personality. He wants to be on the field, and he wants to help his team win. Whatever capacity he can do it in, he will do his best.” – OT Max Starks
St. Louis Rams – CB Janoris Jenkins
WHO? Jenkins was projected to be a mid to high first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft after a sensational junior season at the University of Florida, but he elected to return to school. But, he was dismissed from the team following a pair of drug-related arrests in the span of three months before the start of his senior year. He transferred to North Alabama and slipped into the second round. Questions of his character still exist, but there’s been little question about his talents on the field.
HE SAID IT: “I didn’t know him beforehand, and you hear all the stuff about him, but when I met him and up until now, he’s been nothing but a good guy and a great teammate. He’s not out on the streets getting in trouble; he’s not doing anything other than being a professional. To be honest, he’s probably been the most mature and focused rookie that we’ve had so far. He’s shown every bit of the reason why we drafted him. Honestly, he should have went in the first round. We got a steal with him.” – S Quintin Mikell
Tennessee Titans – LB Colin McCarthy
WHO? McCarthy didn’t figure to see much of the field as a rookie in 2011, but he quickly supplanted prized free agent Barrett Ruud as Tennessee’s starting middle linebacker. On December 4 against the Buffalo Bills, McCarthy earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors when he recorded nine tackles and recovered two fumbles. Entering his second season, he has been named as one of the Titans’ team captains.
HE SAID IT: “I just love his playmaking ability. He’s a smart, instinctual player. He has a good feel for the game. He kind of knows where the ball’s going, and he’s going to give you 100 percent effort every game. That’s why we voted him as the captain for the team. I expect him to have a big, big season and I wouldn’t be shocked if he got voted into the Pro Bowl this year. I really think that highly of him.” – CB Alterraun Verner
Washington Redskins – FB Darrel Young
WHO? Young, a former linebacker during his time at Villanova, was released by the Redskins while attempting to make the team on defense. Head coach Mike Shanahan decided to bring him back the following season and convert him to fullback. Young scored his first career rushing touchdown last season in Week 15 against the New York Giants, after catching one the year before.
HE SAID IT: “You might know him, but a lot of people don’t notice the things he does for the team. He knows the whole offense, inside and out. He could tell me what I got on my routes. Last week, he got a key first down for us on 4th-and-1. Little things like that; when we need that extra yard, we can give it to him.” – WR Aldrick Robinson