NFL: 7 Wide Receivers Most Likely to Break out in 2011
In the 2008 NFL season, it was Antonio Bryant.
In 2009, it was Sidney Rice.
Last season, it was Brandon Lloyd.
Without fail, every season in the NFL brings with it a lesser-known wide receiver who manages to put it all together and explode for a career year.
In some cases, the wide receiver is well into their career before they are ready to have their coming out party. In others, the break-out season is the best season of his career.
And every once in awhile, the break-out season is just the beginning.
The 2011 season will be no different, as there are a number of promising receivers poised to enter the spotlight and post some illustrious numbers. Whether it is due to talent, ideal placement or a combination of the two, the following seven pass-catchers are the most likely candidates to improve their numbers and break out this year.
Cornerbacks better start memorizing these names.
7. Brandon LaFell, Carolina Panthers
Saying the Carolina Panthers’ passing game was bad last season is an understatement.
Under the ineptitude of quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore, the team finished last in both points (12.2) and passing yards (143.1) per game.
Needless to say, changes have been made, which means the arrow is pointing up for second-year receiver Brandon LaFell.
A third-round draft pick coming out of LSU, LaFell was unable to make much of an impact last year. But with rumors of wide receiver Steve Smith likely to be traded, LaFell has the chance to impress new head coach Ron Rivera and earn a starting role.
It also doesn’t hurt that throwing to him will be last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Cam Netwon, a quarterback with the pedigree of having been selected first overall in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Still, it doesn’t matter who is throwing to you if you don’t have the talent to make the catch.
Fortunately, LaFell has plenty of it.
As a big-bodied receiver (6'2", 211 lbs.), he knows how to consistently get open and is an obvious red zone threat.
With a solid running game already in place, both the Panthers' aerial attack and LaFell have nowhere to go but up.
Projection: 60 catches, 730 yards, three touchdowns
6. Earl Bennett, Chicago Bears
Entering last season, the Chicago Bear on everyone’s sleeper list was Devin Aromashodu.
That didn’t quite pan out.
This year, the wide receiver to keep an eye on is Earl Bennett.
After playing much of last season as Chicago’s primary slot receiver, Bennett will be looking to improve upon his 561 yards and three touchdowns.
That shouldn’t be hard to do on an offense that includes a bunch of no-names at the receiver position.
And if my word isn’t good enough, then maybe you all will listen to someone very close to the organization. Recent reports have offensive coordinator Mike Martz saying Bennett is in for a much larger role in the Bears' pass-happy offense.
Chicago desperately needs someone to step up in the passing game if they want to move past the Green Bay Packers in the tough NFC North—look for that someone to be Bennett.
Let’s just hope he isn’t the next Devin Aromashodu.
Projection: 65 catches, 800 yards, five touchdowns
5. Andre Roberts, Arizona Cardinals
But once the season starts, don’t be surprised if the name Andre Roberts starts garnering more attention.
As a rookie, Roberts was forced to spend much of last season in the shadow of both Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. That quickly changed, however, after Roberts was instrumental in taking down the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16; he went for 110 yards and one touchdown in that game, proving he deserved a larger role on the field.
With Breaston likely headed for greener pastures this offseason, Roberts is expected to use the experience he gained last season and turn it into a starting role as the No. 2 receiver.
Assuming they bring in a veteran quarterback like Kevin Kolb, Arizona’s offense should be more productive this season. That can only mean good things for Roberts, who will be looking to make a name for himself.
Projection: 65 catches, 830 yards, five touchdowns
4. Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
After a sluggish start to the season, the Steelers' passing game began to take off following their Week 5 bye.
While most will say it was due to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s return from suspension, there is someone else who deserves some of the credit as well.
After riding the bench for the first four games of the season, Emmanuel Sanders stepped up and accounted for 376 yards and two touchdowns throughout the rest of the season.
As Roethlisberger’s trust in Sander’s grew, so did his targets. Over the final eight games, the rookie wideout was targeted 40 times. In comparison, star receiver Hines Ward saw 48 targets.
Sanders proved be a receiver capable of working well in spaces and, despite his smallish stature, someone willing to fight for the ball.
Assuming he is fully recovered from his broken foot by the time the season starts, Sanders could very well be on his way to a more prominent role in the Steelers' offense.
Projection: 60 catches, 800 yards, six touchdowns
3. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Following his impressive performance in last season’s playoffs, Jordy Nelson has been nominated as a popular candidate to break out in the 2011 season—and rightfully so; he made Steelers cornerback William Gay look like an amateur in the Super Bowl.
Nelson not only has the ability to get open against cornerbacks, but once he does have the ball in his hands, he is able to fight for those extra yards.
If there is a flaw in his game though, it is his tendency to drop some of the balls thrown his way.
If Nelson works on developing his catching ability, he has a real chance to create fits for defenders next season. He still remains behind Greg Jennings on the depth chart, but it looks as though he could move past Donald Driver and become quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ second or third favorite target in the highly-productive Packers' offense.
Projection: 70 catches, 900 yards, seven touchdowns
2. Mike Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars
Known mostly for his miraculous catch against the Houston Texans in Week 10 of last season, Mike Thomas plans on adding to his highlight reel in 2011.
Although he was productive in 2010 (820 yards, four touchdowns), both head coach Jack Del Rio and GM Gene Smith believe the third year wideout is in store for an even bigger season in 2011.
Thomas lacks the ideal size for a receiver, but can slice through an opposing defense on his way to getting open and has sure hands. With Mike Sims-Walker likely leaving, Thomas is also expected to become the No. 1 receiver for the Jaguars.
Regardless of whether he is being thrown passes from veteran David Garrard or rookie Blaine Gabbert, expect Thomas to improve upon last year’s statistics.
Projection: 90 catches, 1,100 yards, eight touchdowns
1. Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati Bengals
For most of the three years he had been in the league, Jerome Simpson was a nobody.
After posting 277 yards and three touchdowns in the final three games of last season, it looks as though that might change.
Simpson has the size and speed of a true No. 1 wide receiver, which it looks like he will be now that both Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are unlikely to return to the team. Simpson can stretch the field, as well as fight for the ball across the middle, making him multi-dimensional and a nuisance to opposing cornerbacks.
Although he will have to fend off rookie A.J. Green for targets, Simpson has the advantage of knowing the Bengals' offense. He has spent this offseason memorizing new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s playbook and appears ready to take on a much larger role.
The biggest obstacle for Simpson might be that the Bengals stand a very good chance of having rookie Andy Dalton starting at the quarterback position. But with his talent and understanding of the offense, Simpson is poised to post some big numbers.
Projection: 80 catches, 1,100 yards, nine touchdowns