First-year pass rushers don't tend to do a whole lot. Especially not ends that miss weeks of practice due to multiple injuries and contract hagglement. Still, it'd be hard not to include Tech's second-highest draft pick of the past decade.
He's played well in his glimpses and whispers this preseason, including a four-play series against Carolina in which he had two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss, but has a long way to go to live up to his legacy as one of the NCAA's 70 best defenses of 2009 (GET IT?).
4. Michael Johnson, Bengals endbacker
Often criticized for his lack of motor (first Google Images result for lacks motor), it took lanky Michael Johnson a year to grow NFL meat on his six-foot-seven bones. Now that he's in condition and has earned a much larger role in the Bengals' defense, Johnson might
sextuple quadruple his three rookie-year sacks.
If the Bengals' mixed-front defense is going to improve in its second year, Johnson will be a key. Most NFL endbackers play outside linebacker on normal downs and put a hand in the dirt for passing downs. The Bengals plan to use him in even more tweenerly fashions, preparing him to play either linebacker or end on any down.
His pass coverage has reportedly been excellent; considering he often dropped into zone coverage at Tech, is faster than many wide receivers, and takes up about as much space as the Atlanta Hawks' Joe Johnson, that's only a slight surprise. He's becoming a defensive weapon, the kind of player you love to have in IDP fantasy leagues, racking up a potpourri of pass deflections, picks, tackles, and sacks. Bengals fans are excited.
3. Morgan Burnett, Packers safety
Before the NFL Draft, I wasn't alone in thinking Morgan Burnett was the only Jacket who was making a serious mistake by leaving college early. Shows what we know -- with Derrick Morgan and Demaryius Thomas battling various maladies while Jonathan Dwyer becomes the NFL's Kirby Puckett/Charles Barkley*, Burnett will be Green Bay's week-one starting strong safety.
Those who remember last year's Tech-Georgia game will not be astounded to discover his major weakness as a pro has been his overpursuit of runs up the middle, but Packers coaches claim he's figuring it out.
At least his ballhawk instincts are intact. His biggest claim to fame so far? Picking off Peyton Manning.
* Seriously, look at this image. How can that guy possibly outrun NFL athletes? And yet he does.
2. Calvin Johnson, Lions wide receiver
Calvin Johnson's pro career so far has disappointed box score bros and other casual sports fans. It's hard to fault a receiver who gets
sextuple- triple-teamed on every play (remember which team he plays for), but 1,023 yards per season isn't what anyone had in mind for one of the most physically imposing receivers ever. That's about to change.
As much as fellow Tech fans hate to admit it, Johnson has a soon-to-be great quarterback in Georgia legend Matthew Stafford. For the first time since high school (making that up, I have no idea who threw to him in high school), Johnson enjoys a passer with sufficient cannon, poise, and awareness. If the offensive line can hold up and both can stay healthy, expect Johnson's long-delayed first Pro Bowl.
Plus, opposing defenses won't be able to throw everything they have at Johnson this year. Newly acquired tight end Tony Scheffler and wideout Nate Burleson combine with sophomore tight end Brandon Pettigrew to give the Lions an improved crop of young playmakers on offense. And if Johnson is Megatron, is it too early to start referring to Cal gamebreaker Jahvid Best as Starscream?
SB Nation fantasy man [pause] Jack Decker picked Calvin to lead all Johnsons in receiving touchdowns -- significant since his primary surname competition is the league's best receiver.
1. Tashard Choice, Cowboys halfback
A running back hasn't won Super Bowl MVP since Terrell Davis in 1999, and I'm predicting Dallas' third-stringer to break the streak.
Let me back up.
The Cowboys are my Super Bowl pick this year. Their offense is loaded, DeMarcus Ware leads a swirling pass rush, and Tony Romo might somehow be the league's most underrated quarterback. Plus the Super Bowl will be played in Cowboys Stadium, a venue that's a story all by itself; considering [link to conspiracy theory forum rant about Saints' 2006 Monday Night victory over Falcons and 2009 title run], we have cause to keep tinfoil nearby.
So what makes Choice so special? Isn't he just a utility back?
His yards-per-carry average was 1.1 yards better than lumbering starter Marion Barber's last year. Choice and changeup man Felix Jones both averaged well over five yards on the season. Meanwhile, the sluggish Barber averaged fewer than four yards-per-carry in nine 2009 games.
Choice also fumbled three fewer times than Jones in 2009 (and nine fewer than Barber over the past two years). In fact, he has yet to fumble in 192 NFL touches. Jones has a reputation as a home run threat, yet Choice actually has a higher career yards-per-reception average.
Jones is the most talented Dallas back, and Dallas found his sweet spot -- about fifteen carries -- by the end of last year. However, that certainly leaves room for Choice to take over Barber's starting role once the big guy's wheels fall off again.
But we maligned stat bros earlier -- let's take another step. Choice is the best pass-blocker of the three. If Dallas finds itself in a crucial shootout, Choice is the only back they're going to leave on the field for all three downs, as Bob Sturm notes. And considering the deep-threat receiving corps Dallas has put together, they're going to be in three-and-four-wide sets more than ever.
He's also the kind of emotional leader who'll soon take over for fellow Jacket Keith Brooking as Dallas' Vice President In Charge Of Carrying On. He was huge in big games in college, leading Tech to an upset of number 3 Miami in 2005 and making ESPN's 2006 All-Bowl Team -- we'll just see if he ever gets a chance to carry through in the NFL.
The Cowboys have reportedly listened to trade offers for both Barber and Choice. For now, they're stuck with Barber, due to his amusing $14 million total salary through 2014. But, as we saw with Roy Williams last year, the Cowboys have no problem with letting money sit on the bench if wins result.
So here's how we get Choice to Disney World. Barber will lumber his way into Jerry's doghouse, Felix Jones will run out of gas, and it will be up to Deuce to carry the hammer.