We had records tumbling, incredible plays, and a memorable Super Bowl that made you forget about all the distaste that came with the lockout.
However, it wasn’t great for everyone. There were some out there who were denied the opportunity to show off their skills after suffering injuries that prematurely ended their seasons. Instead of lamenting that now, let’s look forward to 10 guys healed up and ready to show the NFL that they’ve got it.
Welcome back guys. I missed you.
10. Jon Beason, LB, Carolina Panthers
Carolina were set to welcome back a few guys who missed most (if not all) of last year. None of them figures to make as big an impression as Beason. Jeff Otah has now been traded away (though there was as much chance as me started a 16 game season as the former 1st round pick) while Thomas Davis is trying to do the impossible in recovering from a third ACL tear. Still the point stands, with Beason set to return to the lineup and the only question is where he lines up. The truth is I’m not as high on the heavy hitter as some, with his actual play not matching his tackle numbers. You can’t deny that he brings some energy to a Panthers defense that sorely missed him last year. The trio of Beason, Luke Kuechly, and James Anderson could form one of the league’s better linebacker groups.
9. Geoff Schwartz, OG, Minnesota Vikings
Under John Fox in 2010 Schwartz emerged as not just a talented, but versatile lineman. Manning both right guard and right tackle spots at various points, his play didn’t drop off at all and it led me to doing this quite superb Secret Superstar piece on the big guy. Alas, injury would befall Schwartz and without having seen him in action a new coaching staff didn’t think he even warranted tendering. Yet, they’ll start Byron Bell at right tackle? Weird. Heading to Minnesota and battling for a starting spot, Schwartz is my nominee for the “Evan Mathis Breakout Linemen Award.” This is our award for a guy you haven’t heard much about before the season, but will know his name come the end of it.
8. Jason Jones, DT, Seattle Seahawks
I don’t care what you say, that guy wearing No. 91 for the Titans last year wasn’t the Jason Jones that wowed me in 2010. Made to play defensive end, Jones had a horrible year. In reality he’s a defensive tackle whose greatest assets were wasted when he was shifted outside. So I’m looking forward to seeing the real Jason Jones next year, even if that means the creative Seahawks only use him as a situational tackle. Because in that role, he’ll cause so much havoc they’ll have to find extra ways to get him on the field.
7. Tony Moeaki, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
You have to feel bad for Moeaki. He came out of 2010 with almost as much momentum as touchdown machine Rob Gronkowski. While “The Gronk” has gone on to notoriety, Moeaki had to sit the year out with a torn ACL. One of the few complete tight ends who can contribute on every down, the Chiefs’ successor to Tony Gonzalez proved a reliable target for Matt Cassel while doing a fine job helping Jamaal Charles to a huge year. Simply put, there aren’t many tight ends that can look that competent in all elements of the game, and he did it as a rookie.
6. Matt Shaughnessy, DE, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders right defensive end saw some action in 2011, but being limited to just 144 snaps was something of a tease after his breakout sophomore season. The former third round pick but up some good sack numbers even if his pressure per play wasn’t elite. It’s work in run defense that really caught the PFF eye. Showing the kind of motor offensive tackles hate, Shaughnessy makes them work on every down. His teammate Richard Seymour said he was best defensive end in the league at stopping the run, and if he’s not the best, he’s certainly in the ballpark.
5. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
You wouldn’t say that Eric Berry had the most consistent of rookie seasons. At times he got caught out in coverage and missed a few more tackles than you’d like. Yet, for every bad play there was a good one which hinted that Berry could step up and help fill the void of true difference-making NFL safeties. Comfortable in the box or matching up with tight ends and running backs, he has flashed the ability to be something special in this league.
4. Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee Titans
There are some huge question marks about Britt on and off the field. It’s hard enough coming off multiple knee surgeries, but the talented Titan made life harder for himself with another arrest. I’ve lost count how many that is, have you? A suspension is likely coming, but hopefully it’s the reality check he needs and doesn’t ruin his entire 2012 because if he’s healthy there are few receivers with the ability to dominate defensive backs like he does.
3. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
He didn’t do much as a rookie, but when he was handed the starting spot for the Chiefs in Week 9 of 2009, you suddenly started to see a very rare and special talent. For the next season a half, Charles would take what little the Chiefs’ offensive line gave him and turn it into something as he squeezed through gaps, cut past defenders and out-sprinted everyone. It was as if rushing the ball became an art and Charles was delivering master classes week after week. Sure, Arian Foster did have more yards but just look at that 6.3 yards per carry. There are times when numbers lie, but this wasn’t one of them. If he’s anywhere near back to his best, prepared to be wowed.
2. Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo Bills
He plays in a small market and was mistaken by many as playing as a nose tackle on one of the league’s worst run defense units. To some, that meant Williams wasn’t worth the contract the Bills gave him. To those people I say: maybe you should watch the guy, because if you did you would see as dominant a defensive tackle as there is in the league. The relentless Williams rarely comes off the field, but shows little signs of tiring as he simply mauls guards and centers who try to get in his way. I can’t help but look at the 2010 defensive tackle rankings and see he was +17.5 points better off than the man in second place and think, “was that all?” His demolition of the Steelers in Week 12 remains one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
It really couldn’t be anyone else could it? Let’s be honest, as good as the 2011 season was, it was lacking for having just one superb Manning throwing passes. Sure, Eli put forth a stellar year, but watching the Colts crumble without Peyton made you appreciate his brilliance all the more. This was a woefully built roster that lacked talent all over the place, but the brilliance of their quarterback carried them to divisional title after divisional title. When that same franchise cut him loose, the race for his signature was interesting, but things will get a whole lot more so when he steps on the field. Manning versus Brady, Manning versus Brees, Manning versus Rivers…we get all this and more again.