By Cody Swartz
25. Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans
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He broke his ankle in his first ever preseason game in 2010, missing the entire season with the injury. With 2011 being his initial taste of NFL action, Ben Tate broke out in a big way. He rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first two contests, finishing the year with 942 yards on the ground and four scores. Tate’s 5.38 yards-per-carry average was fifth best in the league among running back
24. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
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Rookies can be breakout players, too, and A.J. Green broke out in a big way in 2011. He teamed with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to help take the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs, stepping right in as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, becoming the only rookie offensive player to be voted onto the Pro Bowl squad.
23. Andre Smith, OT, Cincinnati Bengals
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Andre Smith missed the majority of his first two seasons in the NFL after the 2009 sixth overall pick broke his foot in consecutive years. In 2011, he broke out as the franchise tackle the Cincinnati Bengals had been hoping he would become. Smith played 14 games and allowed just one sack in the final 12 weeks. With Andrew Whitworth as the Bengals’ left tackle, the Bengals have a strong pair of bookend tackles for young quarterback Andy Dalton.
22. Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals
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After a promising enough rookie season, Beanie Wells regressed badly last year, seeing his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.5 to 3.4. He bounced back with 1,047 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011, finally proving his value as a first-round pick.
21. C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
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C.J. Spiller had an absolutely miserable rookie year in 2010, failing to establish himself at all as the starting running back the Buffalo Bills hoped he could be. Spiller totaled just 283 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per carry while failing to score a touchdown. Spiller’s 2011 production was still just 561 rushing yards and four scores, but when Fred Jackson went on IR with a broken leg, Spiller stepped right in as the feature back. Spiller ran for three touchdowns in his five starts, finishing with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average on 107 carries.
20. Erin Henderson, LB, Minnesota Vikings
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Before the season, the 2011 Football Outsiders book referred to Erin Henderson as a player who “may be E.J’s sister.” Erin Henderson went on to have arguably the strongest season of any guy on the Minnesota Vikings’ defense (except of course Jared Allen). Henderson was phenomenal against the run, finishing with 58 tackles and rating as the fourth-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
19. Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
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Ryan Mathews’ 2010 rookie season was a disappointment, as he dealt with an ankle injury and finished with just 678 rushing yards. He broke out this year, rushing for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. Mathews also caught 50 passes for 455 yards out of the backfield, finishing seventh in the league in total yards from scrimmage (1,546).
18. Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins
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The fourth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft struggled as a rookie, looking overmatched from the day he entered the league. Williams gave up a whopping 11 sacks, and let up at least one in eight different games. He made major strides in 2011. Williams allowed two sacks in the opener against the New York Giants, but then didn’t let up a sack for his final 11 games before a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs ended his year prematurely.
17. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders
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Anyone who knew anything about college football knew the Oakland Raiders took a huge risk when they reached for Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Heyward-Bey caught just 12 passes as a rookie and only 26 in 2010 before catching 64 balls for 975 yards and four touchdowns in 2011, showing promise as a potential No. 1 receiver for the Raiders.
16. Laurent Robinson, WR, Dallas Cowboys
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The fifth-year receiver spent two years on the Atlanta Falcons and two more on the St. Louis Rams, failing to make an impact with either club. He signed on with the Dallas Cowboys midway through the 2011 season and ended with more touchdown catches than Miles Austin, Dez Bryant or Jason Witten. Robinson caught 11 scores, and he also added 54 receptions for 858 yards.
15. Eugene Monroe, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
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Eugene Monroe was a highly touted offensive line prospect coming out of college who struggled as a rookie in 2009. He wasn’t much better in 2010, but he finally played to his potential in 2011. Monroe still lets up too many sacks, but he is a fine run blocker and was a key reason why running back Maurice Jones-Drew was able to lead the NFL in rushing yards.
14. Bryan Bulaga, OT, Green Bay Packers
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Like Eugene Monroe, Bryan Bulaga was a major liability as a rookie, and in fact, he was one of the worst players on the 2010 Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Bulaga started at right tackle and gave up more sacks (12) than any other offensive tackle in the league. He showed an incredible turnaround this year, yielding just one sack in 12 games while helping Aaron Rodgers turn in one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history.
13. John Sullivan, C, Minnesota Vikings
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John Sullivan took over as the starting center for the Minnesota Vikings when Matt Birk left for the Baltimore Ravens via free agency. Sullivan was mediocre for his first two seasons before establishing himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber player in 2011. Sullivan rated as the third-best center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
12. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Antonio Brown went from being a sixth-round draft selection in 2009 to being voted the Pittsburgh Steelers Team MVP in 2011. He caught 69 passes for 1,108 yards, pushing Hines Ward out of a starting spot. Brown teamed with Mike Wallace to give the Steelers two Pro Bowl wideouts.
11. Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins
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Reggie Bush never developed into the Pro Bowl running back the New Orleans Saints thought he would be when they picked him second overall in the 2006 NFL draft. The year the Saints went to the Super Bowl, Mike Bell and undrafted back Pierre Thomas received the bulk of the carries, with Bush getting just 70 in 16 games. A change of scenery in Miami sparked his career as the feature back. Bush rushed for 1,086 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry, totaling his first 1,000-yard season on the ground. He also ran for 100 yards five times after having done it just once in five seasons with the Saints.
10. Evan Mathis, G, Philadelphia Eagles
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For the first six years of his NFL career, Evan Mathis was a journeyman guard for the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and won a job as the starter in training camp. Mathis ended up having the single most dominant season of any lineman in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. He was phenomenal as a run blocker but also didn’t allow a sack the entire year. In fact, since PFF was founded in 2008, Mathis hasn’t allowed a sack in 1,846 snaps, although he played sparingly from ’08-10.
9. Lardarius Webb, CB, Baltimore Ravens
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He still doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but Lardarius Webb has quietly developed into one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the league. He picked off five passes and didn’t allow a touchdown, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 56.2 passer rating.
8. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco 49ers
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It may be unfair to say Alex Smith was a bust in his first six years with the San Francisco 49ers, especially considering he had six different offensive coordinators during that span and lacked a big-play wide receiver. New head coach Jim Harbaugh was able to coax a long overdue breakout season out of Smith, who set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), passing yards (3,150), yards per attempt (7.1) and passer rating (90.7). His five interceptions were the fewest of any quarterback who started all 16 games.
7. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
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He’s been almost scary good from the day he entered the league. Not only should Von Miller be the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he should also get some votes for Defensive Player of the Year. He picked up 12 sacks and 29 quarterback pressures while registering as the best 4-3 outside linebacker against both the pass AND the run, according to Pro Football Focus.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
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His breakout season was to be expected, especially after the rate at which he finished 2010, with four sacks in the final six weeks. But Jason Pierre-Paul broke out in a big way in 2011, totaling 16.5 sacks that earned him spots on both the Pro Bowl roster and All-Pro team.
5. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
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No one really knew what to expect from Cam Newton in 2011. Many draft experts felt he would be a bust, while still others felt he had the potential to be something special for the Carolina Panthers. Newton’s first game in the league was jaw-dropping: 422 yards, two TDs, 110.4 rating, plus another on the ground. When he followed it up with a 432-yard day against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, he became a household name. Newton finished the season with rookie records for passing yards (4,051) and total touchdowns (35) while setting an all-time quarterback mark with 14 rushing touchdowns.
4. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
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Jordy Nelson may have had his breakout game in last year’s Super Bowl, catching nine passes for 140 yards and one touchdown in Green Bay’s 31-25 win. His success carried over to 2011, as Aaron Rodgers to Nelson was a remarkably successful quarterback-to-wide receiver combination. Nelson totaled 68 receptions for 1,296 yards and 15 touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl selection in the process.
3. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
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Jimmy Graham showed flashes of brilliance late in 2010, catching four touchdowns in the final three games and establishing himself as a top red-zone threat. No one could have foreseen the success he enjoyed in 2011, though: Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, more receiving yards than any tight end has ever totaled in one season except for Rob Gronkowski (1,327 this year).
2. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
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After suffering three debilitating injuries in his first two seasons in the league, Matthew Stafford had loads to prove in 2011.It’s safe to say he silenced the critics who said he couldn’t stay healthy and couldn’t be the franchise QB for the Detroit Lions. Stafford passed for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, becoming only the fourth quarterback ever to top 5,000 yards in a season and just the seventh to throw for as many as 40 touchdowns.
1. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
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No one—not his teammates, not his college coach, not his agent and probably not even Victor Cruz himself—thought he could pull off the season he had with the New York Giants in 2011. Cruz embarked from relative anonymity to catch 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. His yardage total set a new franchise record, shattering the previous mark of 1,343 by Amani Toomer in 2002. Cruz’s breakout game came against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3, as he pulled in 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He finished the year with seven 100-yard receiving games, including a 6-178-1 performance against the Dallas Cowboys in a must-win Week 17 game.