- Bill Williamson, ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter
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It happens every year. Players come out of nowhere to become NFL household names.
Did you know much about Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan a year ago? You surely do now, after his Pro Bowl season in 2008. The same goes for the Giants' Justin Tuck and the Panthers' Jon Beason, two players who ascended in 2008 to become key contributors for Super Bowl contenders.
As this season winds to a close, we're taking a look at young NFL players who showed enough in 2008 to make us believe they can take the next step in 2009. The following is a look at the potential next star from each division, based on observations and reporting from ESPN.com's NFL bloggers:
Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens spent the entire 2008 season learning on the job. Therefore, expect the rookie quarterback to be a major force in 2009.
Flacco, a former first-round pick from Delaware, improved as the season progressed and finished with 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Had it not been for fellow rookie quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, Flacco would have earned more adulation for helping the Ravens (11-5) to a six-game improvement from a year ago.
But Flacco never has been one to seek the spotlight. He'd rather stay in the background and let his play do the talking. Eventually, Flacco will no longer be able to lie low, as he is expected to have a breakout second season in Baltimore.
Look for the Ravens to continue to add talent around Flacco to take advantage of his tremendous arm strength. With more experience and weapons, Flacco and the Ravens should soar even higher in 2009.
-- James Walker, AFC North blogger
And he certainly wasn't rooting against Sanders, the NFL's defending defensive player of the year, or Bethea, a 2007 Pro Bowler. But a knee issue for Sanders opened the door for Bullitt, who started eight games in his place and a ninth as the Colts' fifth defensive back.
Bullitt might not be most naturally a nickel or dime, but he played awfully well in his chances, grabbing four interceptions while playing soundly in the Colts' scheme and spending time in those roles when the safety positions were otherwise occupied.
Where is there room for him going forward? It's hard to say. But as Colts president Bill Polian, coach Tony Dungy and the staff plan for 2009, they're going to be looking for ways to allow Bullitt to contribute.
-- Paul Kuharsky, AFC South blogger
Impatient Buffalo Bills fans -- and let's face it, they have a right to be edgy -- weren't too keen on Leodis McKelvin for much of 2008.
The Bills drafted the cornerback and kick returner 11th overall out of Troy, but he didn't play as if he was much worth it.
McKelvin was beaten for two touchdowns in a Week 7 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Although he was fielding kicks, he didn't start at cornerback until Week 10 -- and that was only after injuries forced it.
"Leodis, he took a lot of scrutiny early because he really wasn't on the field," Bills safety Donte Whitner said.
But McKelvin finished with a flourish. While New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo established himself as the AFC's top defensive rookie, choosing him as the division's breakout performer for 2009 would be improper. Mayo already has arrived.
McKelvin hasn't quite.
He eventually started six games. He snatched two interceptions, returning one 64 yards for a touchdown, in a Week 12 blowout over the Kansas City Chiefs. McKelvin made 23 solo tackles and defended five passes. He forced and recovered a fumble.
His 28.2-yard average on kickoff returns ranked third in the NFL, and his franchise-record 1,468 yards ranked second. He brought one back 94 yards for a touchdown.
"He is only going to get better," Whitner said. "Right now he is playing off of raw ability, because anytime you come in on your first year, you don't really know what's going on. You are just out there playing. I believe you will see some amazing things from him."
-- Tim Graham, AFC East blogger
The Oakland Raiders, a team that has made more than its share of poor personnel choices in recent years, might have unearthed a gem in Trevor Scott. He looks like the real deal.
Expect the sixth-round pick in the 2008 draft to have a major role in Oakland in 2009. Scott is one of the most intriguing young pass-rushers in the NFL.
Through 14 games, Scott, a Buffalo product, had five sacks. That was only four fewer than the entire Kansas City defense had at that point in the season.
Scott was a surprise to make the Oakland roster, and his play during the season has been even more unexpected. He is a very active player who has a great burst. He consistently puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Scott has a classic pass-rusher's build. While he might be a situational player now, Scott has the look of a player who could develop into a Pro Bowl pass-rusher and become one of the league's most dynamic sack artists into the next decade.
-- Bill Williamson, AFC West blogger
For all its struggles, the NFC West managed to produce more than one high-impact rookie and potential future star. We'll give the Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a slight edge on Seahawks tight end John Carlson based on sheer athletic ability and big-play potential.
A first-round draft choice, Rodgers-Cromartie has the range, speed and athleticism to hold up in coverage, get his hands on the football and become a scoring threat with the ball in his hands. He scored on a 99-yard interception return against the Rams. He blocked a field goal against the Vikings, leading to a 68-yard touchdown return for teammate Rod Hood. He picked off Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck twice to secure a rare road victory at Seattle.
Rodgers-Cromartie finished his first NFL season tied for the league lead in interceptions among rookies despite starting only 11 games. He led the Cardinals in passes defensed with 23.
-- Mike Sando, NFC West blogger
Before suffering a season-ending injury in a Week 5 loss to Minnesota, Porter was off to an excellent start. He was displaying the kind of confidence and attitude that's essential for a good cornerback.
A second-round pick out of Indiana, Porter also displayed a nose for the ball and solid tackling ability. That was missed badly as the Saints went through a series of injuries in the defensive backfield. New Orleans almost certainly will overhaul its defense after a disappointing season.
But Porter is one guy who is in the plans for the future. With veteran Mike McKenzie perhaps done because of a severe knee injury, the Saints need a shutdown corner, and Porter could fit the bill.
Porter's expected to make a full recovery and should be ready for the start of training camp. He got some good experience before the injury and showed signs he can be an impact player. The Saints have plenty of defensive needs, and having Porter coming back might allow them to focus on other spots.
-- Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blogger
Yes, Quintin Mikell is a bit of a late bloomer at age 28, but he's about to break through and make the Pro Bowl next season. Veteran Brian Dawkins says Mikell's the best safety he has played with, and that's saying something. Mikell finished the regular season with 93 tackles and three interceptions. Not sure what it is with former Boise State defensive backs (the blue field?), but they seem to be flourishing in this division. Cowboys fifth-round pick Orlando Scandrick also was superb this season.
Mikell became a starter in 2007, and no one's going to knock him out of the lineup at this point. He has learned a lot from watching Dawkins force turnovers, and he'll be right up there with Kenny Phillips of the New York Giants and LaRon Landry of the Washington Redskins over the next couple of seasons. Mikell also has emerged as a vocal leader for Jim Johnson's defense. The ball seems to find him, which is a great thing for a safety.
Mikell served his time as a special-teams ace. Now he's becoming a force as a starter.
-- Matt Mosley, NFC East blogger
As a nickelback and part-time starter, Williams intercepted five passes, knocked away 14 more and seems ready to start full-time for a defense that -- at least for now -- plays to his strengths.
Williams is a solid cover man and is willing to take risks to make big plays. Not all coaches like that approach, but it paid off for him in 2008. The big question for Williams is whether he will be as effective if the Packers change their scheme in the offseason.
At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Williams isn't really built to be a physical cornerback in a Cover 2 system. But in a man system like the Packers have played for the past three seasons, Williams can display his man-to-man cover skills. He has good hands and instincts, and is a good open-field runner once he gets his hands on the ball.
One option for the Packers is to trade veteran Al Harris, a possibility that Harris openly speculated on during the season. If they do that, Williams would slide into a starter's role and be poised to maximize his big-play ability over 16 games.
-- Kevin Seifert, NFC North blogger
These eight young players should be the NFL's breakout stars in 2009.