5. Asher Allen, Vikings cornerback
Second-year cornerback Asher Allen should follow his solid rookie effort with a heftier workload. Though listed as the third CB on Minnesota's roster, he'll see plenty of playing time for a couple of reasons.
First, starters Antoine Winfield and especially Lito Sheppard have seen their share of injuries, and are a combined 62-years-old. Second, the Vikes face a seemingly unending dose of three and four-receiver sets, opposite the Saints, Packers (twice), Cowboys and Patriots, among others.
This season, the Tucker, GA native will get the chance to prove himself as an NFL player.
4. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back
Knowshon Moreno enters his second season as Denver's undisputed starting running back, despite not playing a down of the 2010 preseason. With injury-addicted Correll Buckhalter and "wait, who?" free agent Lance Ball as his back-ups, the team's success will live and die with his explosiveness and, potentially, gimpy hamstring.
The good news is Moreno is no longer the media-encompassed first round draft pick. He'll be able to do his thing while former nemesis (and hopefully current one, at least a little) Tim Tebow takes the spotlight - and that might be all Moreno needs to start living up to expectations.
(And is it too much to ask for one, just one, all-media Tebow pantsing from Moreno and Champ Bailey?)
3. Mohamed Massaquoi, Browns wide receiver
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will kick off with the seventh starting quarterback of the last eight years. And unless Mohamed Massaquoi can develop into a legitimate number one receiver, it may be Jake Locker under center in 2011. (Heck, it might be anyway.)
In his rookie year, Massaquoi led the Browns in receiving - a nice stat for a rookie, but one that crumbles upon further inspection. His 34 receptions, hurled by the one-and-a-half-headed monster of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, landed him at #121 among all NFL receivers. Think about that: a team-leading receiver had only the 121st most catches in the NFL season, behind even a host of B-level running backs (Kevin Faulk, Julius Jones, Ricky Williams). Ah, Cleveland sports.
In fact, the Browns are so inept Jake Delhomme looks like a white knight riding into town. Though he may complete more passes to the opposing team, Delhomme can still get the ball deep - and that's where Massaquoi will have to come in. There were times last year he looked like a legitimate deep threat, but he'll have to be able to lasso wayward balls. Because there will be a few of 'em.
His so-so rookie year can legitimately be blamed on the hurlers. This one is up to him.
2. Hines Ward, Steelers wide receiver
If there was any doubt about the Steelers' team leader, it was quashed this offseason.
Entering his 13th year in the league, wide receiver Hines Ward may have slowed a step, but he'll have to carry Pittsburgh through the four Big Ben-less games. Listed as a starter opposite Mike Wallace, Ward will not only be counted on in the passing game, but his now-legendary blocking should pay dividends for mobile QB Dennis Dixon.
Even for a team as talented as the Steelers, it's no exaggeration to say its entire season relies on Ward.
(Side note: I was a student at UGA in the Ward days. It recently occurred to me that my then-fuzzy memories of Herschel Walker are about the same fuzzy memories today's freshmen have of Ward. Bizarre.)
1. Matthew Stafford, Lions quarterback
Matthew Stafford, for my money, provided the best moment of the 2009 NFL season. A play after separating his shoulder, the then-rookie forced his way back into the huddle, soon throwing his fifth TD pass of the day with 0:00 on the clock. Sure, it was a Lions-Browns game, but it showed the bloodthirsty grit I'd always longed to see in his UGA days.
Now Stafford's offense becomes even better, with rookie running back Jahvid Best behind him, and the continued maturation of himself, receiver Calvin "71 Yards In 3 Years Vs. UGA" Johnson and second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
Every year, there's one team that rises from the ashes for a startling playoff run. Stafford has the tools, and the ability, to make Detroit 2010's phoenix.