July 7, 2003
By Pete Prisco
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
Kris Jenkins didn't go to the Pro Bowl last season, but he should have gone to Hawaii.
In his second season, Jenkins emerged as a powerful force in the middle of the Carolina Panthers defense. After starting 11 games as a rookie in 2001, Jenkins started all 16 games last season and had seven sacks to go with his solid run defense.
Chiefs linebacker Scott Fujita is a candidate to be this year's Kris Jenkins.(Getty Images)
Even if the fans didn't give him enough support to earn a Pro Bowl berth, the writers who vote for the All-Pro team noticed enough to put him on their first team.
Jenkins' jump from decent starter as a rookie to All-Pro was a big one. But players in their second or third seasons have made those types of jumps in the past -- from unknown outside the home city one year to star the next.
So to help prepare for this season, we present a list of potential breakthrough players. We came up with a list of 20, some of whom have already started, while others will be starting for the first time.
None of the 20 has been to a Pro Bowl, but all have the ability to do so. Some names you will know, such as Buffalo tackle Mike Williams, because they were high draft picks. Others, such as Denver defensive tackle Monsanto Pope, you might not recognize.
By this time next year, you will.
Pope started just one game as a rookie, but he had four sacks and showed the ability that made other teams wonder how he lasted until the seventh round of the 2002 draft. Pope is expected to start inside this season next to veteran Daryl Gardener, giving the Broncos two 300-plus pound players inside.
Pope's development has spurred speculation that the team might be willing to part with Lional Dalton, a 2002 free-agent signing from Baltimore. In Pope's lone start last season, in the Broncos' 15th game, Pope had three tackles and two sacks against a good Oakland line. He followed that with a two-tackle, one-sack performance against Arizona.
Is he this year's Jenkins? There's a chance, which is why he headlines the 2003 list of potential breakthrough players.
The other 19:
Scott Fujita, LB, Kansas City Chiefs: He started 14 games as a rookie fifth-round pick last season and showed he has the toughness to hold up against the run and the pass. He still needs to improve his pass coverage, but that will come with experience.
Reche Caldwell, WR, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers gave Tim Dwight a big contract before last season, but Caldwell will have his job this season. Caldwell played well as a rookie, and receivers always make big jumps in their second years. With David Boston on the other side, Caldwell should see his share of single coverage. That will lead to some impressive numbers -- if the Chargers throw more than they did last season.
Mike Williams, T, Buffalo Bills: This massive second-year player will be a perennial Pro Bowl player for the next decade. He is a powerful force in the run game, but he also has the good feet for pass protection. The Bills have the makings of a good, young line with Williams the foundation.
Derek Ross, CB, Dallas Cowboys: When he came out of Ohio State, the scouts all knew he had the ability to be a premier cover player. The knock was his off-field troubles. But he stayed clear of that last season as a rookie, and will team with 2003 first-round pick Terence Newman to give this team quite a cover duo for the next six or seven years.
Daniel Graham, TE, New England Patriots: Injuries slowed him as a rookie, but he has the tools to be an effective weapon for Tom Brady. The Pats moved up to take him last year, so they obviously feel he can become a Pro Bowl tight end. He had six starts last season, catching 15 passes for 150 yards. Those numbers should at least be tripled this season.
Ian Allen, T, New York Giants: The Giants wanted to re-sign right tackle Mike Rosenthal, but he took less money to sign with the Vikings. That will put a lot of pressure on Allen, a 320-pound second-year player who is expected to start on the right side. He has the potential to become a dominating right tackle, and his career will be molded by the best line coach in the league, Jim McNally.
Michael Lewis, SS, Philadelphia Eagles: When Blaine Bishop went down last year, Lewis was forced to start as a rookie and showed he has the range and ball skills to become an effective starter. Now in his second season, with Bishop gone, he will be even better. Lewis is also a big hitter, and once he learns the nuances of the position he has a chance to be a Pro Bowl player.
Will Overstreet, LB, Atlanta Falcons: He missed all last season with a shoulder injury, but is healthy again and penciled in as the starter at one outside linebacker spot in the Falcons 3-4 scheme. Outside linebackers can put up big numbers in that scheme, and the Falcons have those hopes for Overstreet. Before he was hurt, the coaching staff was raving about his toughness and ferocity.
Bryan Knight, OLB, Chicago Bears: The Bears could not afford to re-sign Rosevelt Colvin, so he signed with the Patriots. They believed Knight will be more than a capable replacement. Like Colvin, he was a down end in college and has had to make the transition to linebacker. He is athletic and should be able to get to the quarterback.
Jon McGraw, FS, New York Jets: Jets players are raving about McGraw. They call him "The Natural" because of his wonderful athletic ability. He actually played some corner in practice last season, which says something about his abilities. He is a big safety who can hit, too. The Jets were hit by some big plays because of the poor play of their safeties, but that should change with the rangy McGraw in the lineup.
Edgerton Hartwell, LB, Baltimore Ravens: He actually broke through last year when Ray Lewis went down. Hartwell plays the game with a ferocity one would expect of a linebacker playing with Lewis. He isn't in that class, but he has certainly become an effective playmaker inside. Look for him to put up even better numbers now that Lewis will be playing next to him after shoulder surgery in 2002.
Kendall Simmons, G, Pittsburgh Steelers: Alan Faneca, who plays the left guard spot for the Steelers, gets much of the praise on this line, and deservedly so. But Simmons has a chance to be even better. A former college tackle, he moved into the starting lineup at guard last season and showed he has the skills to be a Pro Bowl player. Don't be shocked to see him start to take away some of the attention from Faneca.
Larry Tripplett, DT, Indianapolis Colts: Quick, penetrating defensive tackles can become stars in Tony Dungy's defense. See Warren Sapp. Tripplett has the in-line quickness to be that kind of player. As a rookie he was slow to develop, but the team believes he is ready for a breakout year. He has always been a favorite of this spot, so look for him to emerge as more than just the other rookie lineman taken in the same draft with Dwight Freeney.
Travis Fisher, CB, St. Louis Rams: He won a starting job as a rookie last year because of injuries, but he's now in as the starter opposite Aeneas Williams. With Williams a solid veteran, teams will likely throw at Fisher. He has the speed to handle man coverage, and should see his share of balls coming into his hands. He could put up some impressive interception numbers.
David Thornton, LB, Indianapolis Colts: The Colts opted not to re-sign Mike Peterson because they think Thornton has the speed and range to excel in their defense. Thornton played in the nickel package last season as a rookie and showed the tools to be an effective every-down linebacker. He does need to be more physical in the run game.
LeCharles Bentley, G, New Orleans Saints: He will be a perennial Pro Bowl player for years to come. The guy is physically dominating and the Saints believe he was one of the best guards last season as a rookie. He handled Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland, which is saying something. He won't back down from anybody, either.
Bryan Gilmore, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Big-play speed is a coveted commodity and Gilmore has it. He was hurt last season, but the coaches think he has the tools to become the team's deep threat. The Cardinals lost David Boston and Frank Sanders, but Gilmore could make those losses easier to handle.
Robert Thomas, MLB, St. Louis Rams: This 2002 first-round pick was a disappointment as an outside linebacker last season, but he moves to the middle this time around. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith came from Tampa Bay, where middle linebackers don't have to be big but they have to run. Thomas can. If he can hold up against the power-run game, the Rams should be better in the middle of their defense.
Jerramy Stevens, TE, Seattle Seahawks: He had off-field issues when he came into the league, and that hasn't changed. But he will be on the field when the Seahawks open camp. The guy has big-play ability and should put up some impressive numbers in the Seahawks' wide-open attack. If he can resolve his off-field problems, he can be a Pro Bowl player.