An NFL season is always full of surprises, and 2011 was no different. 2011 saw an age old record (Dan Marino's passing yards in a season) broken by two quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Tom Brady) and it saw a rookie, Cam Newton, begin what looks like a Hall of Fame career. At any time NFL players can surprise and disappoint fans. So, what does 2012 have in store? Which players that are entering new roles as starter or learning new schemes are on an "upswing"? Which 2011 rookies will have more success as sophomores, and which will fall on the dreaded sophomore slump? Here is a list of five players that I feel are on an upswing, moving into the sophomore spotlight, and falling into the sophomore slump.
1. Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders
Carson Palmer did not have a great 2011 season. After holding out on the Cincinnati Bengals, Palmer found former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson all but selling the Raiders to Bengals owner Mike Brown for his services after Jason Campbell was injured in week 6. The next ten games would prove to be rather difficult for Palmer. Having no training camp or even a week of practice with the Raiders, Palmer was thrown into their week 7 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs. Palmer would end the game throwing for a mere 116 yards and 3 INTs, 2 that were returned for touchdowns. Raiders fans had to temper their expectations a bit, but Palmer's season wasn't all bad. Once he settled into the program, Palmer proved he can be an effective quarterback. In the final five games of 2011, Palmer completed 128 of his 192 attempts for a completion percentage of 67%. Palmer also threw 7 of his 13 touchdowns, but 8 of his 16 INTs (4 against Green Bay). Palmer also threw for 1,541 yards, and had it not had been for some very questionable coaching decisions (particularly against the Detroit Lions in week 15) he may have taken Oakland to their first divisional title in 8 years. Palmer finished 2012 a lot better than he started, and now that Oakland is operating with a new coaching staff and front office Raiders fans should be pretty optimistic. In 2012 Palmer will have a full off-season program and training camp to build on the chemistry he developed with the other Oakland players in such a short time in 2011. I think Palmer is on the upswing, and should have a great 2012 season.
2. Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Donald Brown is a bit of a wild card player in 2012. The Colts are at the beginning of rebuilding their franchise, and Brown could be their best option as a starting running back in 2012. There is tons of speculation on whether or not Brown can handle a full season as a lead back. In Brown's defense, in three years with the Colts, he has never been given the chance to be the lead back. In 2011 Brown appeared in all 16 games, but the Colts had anything but an effective offense. Brown finished the season with 134 attempts and 645 yards (4.8 yards per carry), and 5 touchdowns. Those stats, though not impressive when compared to other top tier running backs in the league, marked career numbers for the third year back. In fact, Brown's 4.8 yards per carry were good enough to tie him for 16th best in the league with Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. Brown showed some explosion at the end of the 2011 season in week 15 against the Tennessee Titans when he ran for 161 yards on 16 carries, including an 80 yard touchdown run. Brown may not be the prototypical running back, but with a new quarterback that has the whole league in a stir and taking the focus off of him, he has his golden opportunity to prove he can be a franchise running back. I think Brown will have a break out year in 2012.
3. Julio Jones , WR Atlanta Falcons
How excited are the fans of the Atlanta Falcons? Not only have they had the opportunity to watch wide receiver Roddy White become one of the more dynamic players in the league, they get to watch Julio Jones develop into a super star. Jones started the season out as a typical rookie wide out, amassing a few catches for a few yards. Then in week 3 against their division rival the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones seemed to just catch on. He gained 115 yards on 6 catches. The next few weeks would be up and down for Jones as he was slowed by an injury after he blew-up for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns on 3 catches against the Indianapolis Colts. The last four games of the 2011 season is where I could see Jones really break-out and separate himself from the rest of the rookie pack. In those final four weeks, Jones amassed 20 catches for 393 yards and 6 of his 8 touchdowns. I expect Jones to continue to build on his outstanding rookie performance during the 2012 campaign, and finish as a top ten wide receiver.
4. A.J. Green , WR, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green didn't finish the 2011 season in the explosive fashion that Julio Jones did, but Green did have a more consistent year than Jones. Green appeared in all 16 games during the 2011 season and finished with the best stat lines of the rookie wide receivers; in fact his 1,057 yards were good enough to finish 17th in the NFL. Green also played a pivotal role in Cincinnati as he helped them reach a wild card playoff berth. Andy Dalton could be one of the luckiest quarterbacks in the NFL, as he has the chance to develop with one of the most dynamic young receivers to enter the NFL in years. A.J. Green may not have the blazing speed that some other league wide receivers possess, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for in play making ability. Green's ability to run precise routes and disguise them makes him a threat on every snap. Green should build on his great rookie season in 2011, and have an even more successful 2012.
5. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Let me say this first, I think Cam Newton is going to have a very successful career. I think Cam Newton is a great quarterback that will be one of the top performers at the quarterback position for years to come. The only reason I have him as the Sophomore Slump candidate is that it is unreasonable to expect him to repeat his record breaking performance from 2011. Newton set the bar so high, that repeating some aspects of his rookie season will be tough. In week 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Newton rushed for three touchdowns breaking the rushing touchdowns by a quarterback record set in 1976 by former New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan (12). Teams now know what to expect from Newton, and I can envision a lot more QB spy formations by opposing defenses. I can still see Newton eclipsing the 30 touchdown mark in 2012, but I think it will be through the air rather than on the ground. Newton will also now be compared fully to every other quarterback in the league. I know he had a great performance in 2011 (good enough to be named rookie MVP), but I don't think he was as good as Aaron Rodgers (2011 MVP), Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Matt Stafford. Again, I think Cam Newton will have a great year, but I don't expect him to have the same record breaking performance he had in 2011. If I'm wrong, crow season is right around the corner and I will gladly go out, harvest some crows at my ranch and dig in! I know a good recipe anyway!