Russell, Gonzalez, Joseph among those ready for breakout years
Who is going to breakout in 2008 from the AFC?
Every season new players burst onto the scene and surprise everyone, so Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd studied the tape to see who will be the breakout stars in the AFC this season.
Miami Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown
Brown was highly productive last season before tearing the ACL in his right knee in Week 7 against the Patriots. It might take some time for Brown to regain his mental toughness (and possibly to overtake RB Ricky Williams on the depth chart), he is an undeniably talented running back. The Dolphins rely heavily on their smashmouth approach and, when healthy, Brown has the tools to be an effective inside runner with the deceptive speed to bounce off-tackle plays to the perimeter. Plus, he is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, which increases his value as a three-down back.
New England Patriots LB Jerod Mayo
Under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have always done a great job of mixing up their defensive game plan. Mayo has all the traits you look for in developing linebackers and he fits well in the Patriots' multiple 3-4 systems. He is smart, instinctive and versatile. He should contribute as a three-down player in both regular and sub defensive packages. Plus, he has the opportunity to lean on a corps of experienced players that includes LB Tedy Bruschi, LB Mike Vrabel and SS Rodney Harrison, which should accelerate his understanding of and impact within the Patriots' defensive system.
New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis
The Jets have done a nice job of slowly building a young secondary that enhances the defense's ability to match up outside on the perimeter. Revis has an outstanding combination of size, speed and athleticism. He also has excellent quickness, balance and burst to play out on an island in man-to-man coverage. Revis routinely matches up with the opponents' No. 1 receiver because he is at his best in press coverage, using his long arms to get an effective jam in off the line of scrimmage.
Baltimore Ravens DT Haloti Ngata
Without a doubt, the Ravens are one of the toughest teams to run against in the NFL because Ngata is the immovable object on the interior. He is a big, powerful player with an excellent combination of strength and quickness. He is effective at occupying blocks and allowing linebackers to fill gaps quickly. He is a powerful upfield pass-rusher who can collapse the interior pocket with enough edge quickness and speed to close on the quarterback. With continued growth and development, he has all the makings of a future Pro Bowler.
Cincinnati Bengals CB Johnathan Joseph
One of the few strengths on the Bengals' defense is the corner position. Joseph is bursting with talent and finished last season playing at a very high level. He is an instinctive player who does a great job of anticipating routes. He is light on his feet and wastes very little motion when planting and driving on underneath routes. Joseph has the speed to stay in phase downfield against vertical routes and is natural with his back to the quarterback. Joseph provides new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer a true No. 1 corner on the back end.
Cleveland Browns LB Kamerion Wimbley
Wimbley is an explosive player who has tremendous three-down value and versatility in the Browns' 3-4 system. He has ideal size for the position and is a fluid, explosive linebacker who loses little speed while bending the edge and closing on the quarterback. He is an excellent player and probably the best defender on the Browns' roster. With the new additions along the defensive line (DTs Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams), Wimbley is on the verge of becoming an impact player.
Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub
Schaub played in only seven full games last season and just a small portion of four others. He managed to throw for 2,241 yards and averaged 264 yards through the air in the games that he played start to finish. He is an accurate passer with the arm strength to attack all levels in the passing game. He can quickly process information at the line of scrimmage and has the field vision to go through his progression. He is a talented player who must find a way to stay healthy this season. Under coach Gary Kubiak, and with a healthier Andre Johnson at wide receiver, Schaub could have a monster season.
Indianapolis Colts WR Anthony Gonzalez
Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and QB Peyton Manning put a lot of pressure on opponents' defensive schemes with a spread formation that incorporates a lot of three-wide packages. Gonzalez, headed into his second NFL season, is expected to thrive and continue to ascend while playing around an outstanding supporting cast. He has a good understanding of the Colts' system and can be highly productive when aligning in the slot and attacking the short and intermediate areas in the passing game. He is a natural route-runner with size, athletic skills and good hands.
Jacksonville Jaguars CB Rashean Mathis
He should excel in the Jaguars' new high-pressure schemes under defensive coordinator Greg Williams. Mathis is one of the best ball-hawking corners in the NFL and can be effective in zone or man schemes. He is a physical player with long arms and the size to match up with opposing No. 1 receivers. Williams likes to mix up zone and man concepts, which should put Mathis in position to make a lot of game-changing plays.
Kansas City Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson
Johnson has yet to reach superstar status, but he's slowly turning into an excellent outside linebacker. He is a three-down linebacker with an outstanding combination of size, strength and athletic ability. He has excellent range, great speed and quickness, with enough agility to close on the play in the box and out in space. However, he is at his best in space pursuing the ball.
Oakland Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell
After missing all of training camp last season and playing in only four games (including one start) as a rookie, Russell should show significant improvement in 2008. He showed only flashes of his potential last season and still has a long way to go, but he should develop into the Raiders' franchise quarterback. Russell is a big quarterback who has good athleticism and is hard to bring down. He has the big-time arm to attack all levels in the passing game, but he still needs a lot of work reading coverage concepts. His decision-making will improve with playing time. He is an extremely talented player with a lot of potential.
San Diego Chargers DE Luis Castillo
If it weren't for injuries over the past few seasons, Castillo would have already cemented his status as a dominant Pro Bowl-level defender. The Chargers' defense is far better when he's on the field. He has good size and functional play strength. Castillo is a sound technician with powerful hands. He plays with good pad level and understands leverage and gap responsibility. He is a smart three-down player in defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's scheme.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
NFL PREVIEW 2008
The Giants defeated the Redskins, 16-7, in the NFL opener Thursday night. Which teams will complete the journey to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII?
NFL preview index | Playoff dates
Predictions/Power rankings• Power rankings: Champs start season No. 8
• Gene Wojciechowski: Another run at perfection?
• Bristol's picks: We love Bolts-'Boys
AFC emerging stars• Williamson: Broncos' Cutler ready for stardom
• Kuharsky: Titans' Finnegan never satisfied
• Walker: Steelers' Holmes has lofty goals
• Graham: Bills' Whitner maturing on, off field
• Scouts Inc.: More emerging AFC stars
NFC emerging stars• Seifert: Lions' Johnson poised for monster year
• Sando: Seahawks' Hill seeking consistency
• Mosley: Giants' Tuck no longer under radar
• Yasinskas: Beason takes lead in Carolina
• Scouts Inc.: More emerging NFC stars
Commentary/features• Chadiha: Replacing big names
• Clayton: NFC East reigns supreme
• Kuharsky: AFC South is toughest division
• Chadiha: Merriman a marked man
• Clayton: Gonzalez is a Chief asset
• Football Outsiders: Under-the-radar prospects
• Clayton: Cards' James likes latest trends
• Joyner: Brady among true big-game players
SportsNation• Vote: How will your team fare?
NFL fan base rankingsBest fans in the NFL? We think they wear black and gold. So who's Nos. 2-32? And was there a method to our ranking madness? Matt Mosley explains. ESPN.com fan base rankings
• Yasinskas: The Panthers' garage band
• ZOOM gallery: Carolina's Garage Mahal
• 32 NFL fans you need to know
AFC team previews• North: Balt. | Cincinnati | Cleve. | Pittsburgh
• South: Houston | Indy | Jax | Tennessee
• East: Buffalo | Miami| New England | NY Jets
• West: Denver | K.C. | Oakland | San Diego
Scouts Inc.From Boldin's best crossing route to Addai's bread-and-butter running play to Washington's pressure defense, watch the signature plays unfold for every NFL team. Play animations | Team schemes
NFC team previews• North: Chicago | Detroit | Green Bay | Minnesota
• South: Atlanta | Carolina | New Orleans | Tampa
• East: Dallas | NY Giants | Philly | Washington
• West: Arizona | St. Louis | San Fran. | Seattle
NFL blog network• NFL Nation blog | Contact our bloggers
• AFC: North | South | East | West
• NFC: North | South | East | West
ESPN The Magazine• On newsstands Aug. 29: How control-freak Peyton Manning and laid-back little bro Eli channeled each other to become the NFL's biggest winners. Plus, our experts join NFL scouts and players for a 3-D preview of all 32 teams.
• The Mag: Season preview | The 'It' Team 2008
• Mannings: Madmen | Watch: Sklars | Williams
• Injuries: We're all just day-to-day | Fitzgerald
• Watch: Mario Williams | Matt Hasselbeck
• More: Marion The Barbarian | Colleges vs. Pros
• NEXT: Five NFL rookies to watch