Even the most casual NFL fan is more than aware of the young superstars like Desean Jackson and Chris Johnson. These players have dominated both opposing teams and post game highlight reels very early in their careers. These superstars are not the only young players that are changing games on Sundays, however. The NFL is a rich with young talent, and much of goes largely unnoticed.
For the next few weeks, we’ll be writing about the top young talent that you may or may not have heard of in each division. The focus is going to be on players that under 26 years old, and haven’t yet been named to the Pro Bowl, though many have developed into Pro Bowl level talents. The AFC West is a division that has invested several draft picks in RBs over the past few off seasons. Some of those investments have paid big dividends, and some teams are still waiting for their young talent to develop. Which investments are finally ready to pay off? And who else is primed to impress in 2011?
1. RB Darren McFadden, Oakland- It took him three years, but McFadden finally lived up to the expectations placed in him when he was drafted by the Raiders in 2009. After running for less than 900 yards combined in his first to years, McFadden went over 1,100 in 2010, and also added 500 receiving yards. Many felt his season was worthy of a Pro Bowl appearance, and a repeat performance in 2011 could likely earn him a trip to Hawaii.
2. DE Glenn Dorsey, Kansas City- Dorsey began his career in Kansas City as a DT, but when the Chiefs switched to a 3-4 alignment they elected to kick Dorsey out the DE position. Played DE seemed to suit Dorsey well, as he had a career season in 2010 by piling up 69 tackles in 16 starts. Dorsey, who played twice as many snaps as any other Chief DL, needs to keep that kind of performance up to prove he was worth the #5 pick in the 2009 draft.
3. LB Rolando McClain, Oakland- The Butkus Award winner made an immediate impact for the Raiders as rookie in 2010. McClain started at MLB in week one and never looked back, finishing the year with 85 tackles. McClain made highlight reels with brutal hits and greatly improved the Raiders run defense. He needs to improve his work in the passing game, but his rookie campaign has to leave Oakland feeling optimistic about the young leader of their defense.
4. CB Antoine Cason, San Diego- Cason had a great first season as a starter in 2010. With 67 tackles, 17 passes defended and 4 interceptions, the young CB began to make a name for himself. He allowed only a 51% completion rate to passes thrown to his man, and another solid season will have Charger CB Quinton Jammer feeling some pressure for the #1 spot on the depth chart.
5. LB Jovan Belcher, Kansas City- As an undrafted free agent out of Maine, GM Scott Pioli saw Belcher as a guy who could possibly be a contributor on special teams, and he was right. Belcher lead Kansas City in special teams tackles in 2009. What no one saw, however, was Belcher starting 15 games at LB in 2010, and recording 84 tackles. Belcher has proven to be a great fit in the 3-4 system and has given the Chiefs a surprising but solid starter.
6. CB Brandon Flowers, Kansas City- Fellow DB Eric Berry gets all the media attention, but he isn’t the only talented young DB in the Kansas City secondary. Flowers, who is heading into his 4th year, has already started 43 games in his career. He has been very consistent, recording 65+ tackles in each of his three seasons. It’s too early to herald Flowers as a shutdown corner, but his future is certainly very bright.
7. TE Tony Moeaki, Kansas City- A third round pick in 2010, Moeaki came in to Kansas City with relatively low expectations. The former Iowa Hawkeye surprised everyone, however, and is quickly becoming one of the better TEs in the league. He started 15 games in 2010 and had over nearly 600 receiving yards. In the fairly conservative offense the Chiefs run, TE will continue to be a position that is a focal point, and Moeaki should continue to thrive in that role.
8. RBs Mike Tolbert & Ryan Matthews, San Diego- The Chargers went into the 2010 expecting rookie Ryan Matthews to be the breakout RB that would carry the load on offense. But with Matthews’ struggles throughout the year to stay healthy, it was Tolbert who put up surprising numbers. Tolbert, listed originally as a FB, averaged 4 ypc while on his was to over 700 yards rushing and scoring 11 times. When he was on the field, Matthews had a decent year, but will need to show much more before becoming the feature RB in San Diego. The Chargers hope that Matthews will stay healthy, but can rest assured they have a solid back up plan in Tolbert.
9. RB Knowshon Moreno, Denver- The time is now for Moreno. While at the University of Georgia, the RB was known for making big plays. He flashed that ability in 2009 as a Bronco, but 2010 was a disappointment. He has the talent to be a solid RB, but with rumors that the Denver front office is losing faith in him, he will need to prove he can be an every down back in 2011.
10. WR Eddie Royal, Denver- The pass happy offense the Broncos ran in 2010 was a dream come true for any WR, and while Brandon Lloyd benefitted the most Royal wasn’t left out. He bounced back from a disappointed 2009 season by catching nearly 60 passes for over 600 yards. Royal will have to continue that improvement in 2011, as he will have to hold off second year WR Demaryius Thomas, who also showed promise in 2010.
K Ryan Succop, Kansas City
WR Jacoby Ford, Oakland
CB Perrish Cox, Denver
WR Demaryius Thomas, Denver