As countless rookies pile into training camps across the NFL, several veterans—and even those just entering their sophomore campaign—become forgotten men.
I call them the "who's" of the NFL.
And each season, a number of those "who's" blossom into household names. Celebrated figures. Think Miles Austin in 2009, Arian Foster in 2010 and Navorro Bowman in 2011.
It's the classic who-to-hoot journey, and here are 10 candidates to make the trip in 2012.
Fans in Baltimore are familiar with Kruger, a second-round draft pick in 2009, but only as a pass-rush specialist. They’ll see the whole package this year, as he is expected to replace an injured Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker.
Fresh off a season with a career-high 5.5 sacks—again, in limited duty—Kruger should see an increase in stats as his playing time increases.
Currently a No. 2 corner for his team, Brown is gunning to be the No. 1 corner—in the entire NFL.
There’s this bold prediction, that friendly wager with teammate Carlos Rogers, and the way he ended last season—four interceptions in the final five games—that have me thinking he has a real chance. It may be tough, though, as quarterbacks exercise caution when throwing his direction.
WR Denarius Moore, Oakland Raiders
Moore was a pleasant surprise—collecting 33 receptions for 618 yards and five touchdowns—as a rookie in 2011. The numbers will only inflate as his chemistry with quarterback Carson Palmer grows.
Don’t get me wrong—the Raiders still rely on the ground game, but Moore provides plenty of big-play potential. He has top-end speed, reliable hands and runs crisp routes.
A 1,000-yard season is very possible.
LB Stevenson Sylvester, Pittsburgh Steelers
Sylvester hasn’t exactly been sitting around, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for a shot on defense. Instead, he’s made a name for himself as a special teams standout, delivering jarring hits and forcing fumbles.
While still not entrenched as a starter—after the departure of veteran James Farrior—Sylvester is expected to get plenty of reps with the first-team during camp.
He’s an athletic, aggressive inside linebacker who fits in nicely in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4. What has always separated Sylvester, even back to his days in college, is the ability to elevate his game on the big stage.
And this may be his biggest stage yet.
CB Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Count Sherman among the rare breed of 6'3" corners with exceptional fluidity. He has the foot-speed and length to stick with the bigger receivers in the NFL and is physical enough to step up and stop the run.
Look for him to be a valuable member of an up-and-coming Seahawks defense.
RB Roy Helu, Washington Redskins
I was very impressed with the patience and poise Helu displayed throughout his rookie campaign. As defenses stacked the box—with Rex Grossman and John Beck under center, you can’t really blame them—Helu was able to amass 640 yards and the ground and 379 more through the air.
He’s a complete back who can run inside, bounce it outside and be a weapon in the passing game. The addition of Robert Griffin—and talented receivers—will open things up for Helu to have an even more impressive sophomore campaign.
WR Eric Decker, Denver Broncos
And you thought John Elway was happy to land Peyton Manning?
Decker probably cheered, cried a little and cheered again when he heard the big news: Tim Tebow—who, in all fairness, did a tremendous job leading the team to the playoffs—was to be replaced by a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Manning has a history of getting the best out of his receivers, and I see history repeating itself here.
OT Jeff Otah, Carolina Panthers
Two reasons make Otah a likely candidate to make the who-to-hoot journey this season:
1. After missing 28 of 32 starts, he is finally healthy.
2. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013. That means he's playing for a paycheck. And the higher the on-field production, the higher the sum.
A load to handle, Otah is a powerful run-blocker who has the mobility to compete in pass-protection.
DE Junior Galette, New Orleans Saints
Leave it to the Saints to discover another undrafted gem. Galette had his fair share of flashes last season as a pass-rusher but must improve against the run. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a track record for developing some of the league's best ends.
Galette has the talent to continue the trend.
LB Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals
Five sacks, 107 tackles and two interceptions—his numbers in 2011—are hardly pedestrian, but Washington remains often omitted in the discussion of the game's top linebackers. That is soon to change.
Washington has adjusted to the pace of the NFL and appears much more comfortable in Arizona's scheme. He can get after the quarterback in a hurry and has the athleticism to drop back in coverage.
He, along with the others listed, is set to generate plenty of "hoots!" and a lot less "who's?" in 2012. If you have more additions, feel free to add them to the comment section below.
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