Campbell, Lawson, Turner ready for breakout seasons
Who is going to breakout in 2008 from the NFC?
Every year new players burst onto the scene and surprise everyone, and Scouts Inc.'s Jeremy Green studied the tape to see who will be the breakout stars in the NFC this season.
Dallas Cowboys RB Marion Barber III
Though Barber is already a household name, his fourth NFL season is a new start of sorts: It is his first as the Cowboys' indisputable starter. Barber has been the 1A back in Dallas since his rookie year, but now he gets a chance to carry the majority of the load. His running style suggests he can be a workhorse back capable of 25 carries a game in this offense, and first-round pick RB Felix Jones should help keep him fresh. Barber is a punishing inside runner who does an excellent job of lowering his pads on contact and pushing the pile forward. He has legitimate feature back ability and can wear down a defense, which is exactly what he's expected to do in 2008.
Philadelphia Eagles LB Omar Gaither
The Eagles have revamped their linebacker unit over the past few seasons, and one of the most important developments has been Gaither's rise in the lineup. Though he piled up solid tackle numbers last season (102 total), his inability to provide more big plays was apparent (only one forced fumble and one interception). Gaither sometimes appears to lack natural football instincts, but a year of experience as the starter should improve his reaction time. Expect Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to put more on Gaither's plate in '08, resulting in the athletic linebacker being in position to come up with more explosive plays.
Washington Redskins QB Jason Campbell
In his first full season as the Redskins' starter, Campbell had a quarterback rating of 77.6, 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. Now, this isn't a knock on Joe Gibbs (a Hall of Fame coach) or Al Saunders (widely regarded as a great offensive coordinator), but Washington's new offense suits Campbell best. New Redskins coach Jim Zorn has installed a West Coast offense, a version of which Campbell played his senior year at Auburn. As a former NFL quarterback, Zorn also should help Campbell work through some of his mechanical and footwork problems. With an improving group of pass-catching weapons and a system that plays to his strengths, Campbell should take the next step and at least be deserving of the label "solid NFL starter."
Chicago Bears DT Dusty Dvoracek
Last year Chicago's defense slipped into the bottom third of the NFL, mainly based on one reason: injuries. But one of the least discussed absences was that of Dvoracek, who after an excellent rookie preseason suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 1. The loss of Dvoracek left a void at nose tackle and cost the Bears a high-motor lineman capable of keeping double-teams off DT Tommie Harris. The success of the Bears' scheme hinges on the line's ability to protect the linebackers, and Harris struggled to occupy blockers without his running mate. Dvoracek's value won't be measured in stats, but his presence should positively influence Harris' play and help improve the entire defense.
Green Bay Packers RB Ryan Grant
During the first half of the 2007 season, the Packers had the worst run offense in the NFL. But by the end of the year, the team had a runner on its hands in Grant who had outgained every NFL back but one -- Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson -- over the last eight games. One of several NFL teams to recently install a zone-blocking scheme, Green Bay initially had trouble finding the right back to complement the system. It wasn't until they discovered Grant, a one-cut runner with excellent vision and run instincts, that the Packers nailed it. It's no coincidence that he was the forgotten man in the NFC Championship Game and that the Giants -- not the favored Packers -- represented the conference in Super Bowl XLII. With a new long-term contract freeing him from distractions, Grant should pick up where he left off at the end of the regular season. Expect him to rank among the NFC's top runners in '08 despite playing in a pass-oriented offense.
Minnesota Vikings WR Sidney Rice
Because the strength of Minnesota's offense is the run game and not the arm of QB Tarvaris Jackson, it's dicey to predict a breakout season for any Vikings receiver. But as a rookie in 2008, Rice used his height (6-foot-4) and ability to go get the ball at its highest point to make plays in the vertical passing game. Opponents will continue to stack the box, however, until Jackson proves he can make more of those types of plays. With so much attention from defenses sure to focus on stopping RBs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, Rice should get chances to use his size and jump-ball skills against single coverage on the outside.
Atlanta Falcons RB Michael Turner
Turner has been one of the league's "What If?" players over the last few seasons. As in, What if he got a chance to start? He was considered the best backup running back in the game, and now he has a chance to break out of that category in Atlanta. Much of Turner's success will depend on the Falcons' ability to stay in games and get him enough touches, but he has the skills to be a No. 1 back. It's hard not to love the way he hits the hole and his big-time breakaway speed. Assuming the Falcons provide him a proper workload, Turner -- along with WR Roddy White -- will be one of the few bright spots for Atlanta's offense this season.
New Orleans Saints DT Sedrick Ellis
Ellis wasn't the first defensive player (or even the first defensive tackle) selected in the 2008 draft, but he could make the biggest impact of any rookie defender. His numbers may not stand out, but Ellis has the ability to better the Saints at every level of the defense. New Orleans has long needed a big body to plug up the interior against the run and protect the linebackers, and the team found one in Ellis. More importantly, his ability to eat up double-teams should free up DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant. Facing more single blocks on the edge, Smith and Grant should create more pass-rush pressure and take some heat off of a shaky Saints secondary.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers FS Tanard Jackson
Jackson turned in an excellent rookie season (56 tackles, one forced fumble and two interceptions), stepping in to fill a void in the back end of Tampa Bay's defense. He spent most of the year trying to get comfortable in his role, but Jackson has a chance to develop into a safety in the mold of Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu or Indianapolis' Bob Sanders. Jackson has great range, hitting ability and athleticism (he's able to step down into the slot and cover an opposing No. 3 receiver). Jackson sometimes did more thinking than reacting in his first season, but he should be more comfortable in the system in 2008. Expect him to make a ton of impact plays this season.
Arizona Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby
Dansby has been a productive playmaker in Arizona, but he has yet to suit up for all 16 games in an NFL season. The Cardinals, not surprisingly, are hoping for improved durability and a little more consistency. And after signing a one-year contract as the team's franchise player, Dansby will be intent on delivering a monster season he can parlay into a long-term deal. He is an excellent athlete who has a solid combination of speed, range and strength. He's versatile in coverage, on the pass rush and in run support. He's poised for his best season as a pro.
San Francisco 49ers LB Manny Lawson
Headed into his third NFL season, Lawson finally is on the verge of a breakthrough. After a rookie season spent adapting to a new position and San Francisco's 3-4 scheme, he missed all but the first two games of his second season because of an injury. The 49ers are desperate to find an outside pass-rushing threat to pair with ILB Patrick Willis, and Lawson appears to be that missing piece. He is a solid athlete who had another offseason to refine his pass-rush technique. With improved hand use and an excellent motor, Lawson will spend plenty of Sundays harassing opposing quarterbacks and will push for double-digit sacks.
St. Louis Rams DT Adam Carriker
Statistically, Carriker didn't set the league on fire as a rookie last season (30 tackles, two sacks). Keep in mind, however, that he is a former college defensive end who was moved inside to play tackle. With an offseason to build up his body and refine his techniques at a new position, he should boost his numbers, especially his sacks. In April, the Rams drafted DE Chris Long, who should attract enough attention to allow the high-energy Carriker to face more single blocks inside. Big things could be on the way in 2008.
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