10) Cody Johnson, running back
While Malcolm Brown could wind up being "the guy" by midseason, it's far more likely that Johnson and running mate Fozzy Whittaker will handle at least portions of the load while Brown gets ready. And if the end of last season is any indication, Johnson has the talent to hold off Brown for an even longer period.
But while any of that running back trio could make this list (and fellow running back D.J. Monroe did make this list, but more on that later), Johnson is the one who most needs to have a big season. For one, he's proven that he can provide the sort of power running presence than offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin covets. He topped the 100-yard mark in each of the last two games, and averaged an amazing 7.2 yards per rush (180 yards on 25 carries) in games against Nebraska and Texas A&M, two teams with top-notch defenses. He's a strong goal-line back with 30 career touchdowns as well.
But Johnson's value is even more than as a runner: he's also an able receiver and arguably the top fullback prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft. Harsin looks for backs with the versatility to fill a multitude of roles, and Johnson fits that model like an old set of jeans. Put him in the backfield and he could shift up to fullback, serve as a third-down pass protector, carry the ball or motion to a receiver position. And his ability to do all of those things means that, even if Brown emerges, Johnson will still likely have a heavy role in the offense. That's a big part of what makes him one of the team's most important players.
And finally, as an aside, Johnson's role could be a nice indicator of what freshman Joe Bergeron could do over the course of his career. While smaller than Johnson, Bergeron is faster and has more burst. But those differences aside, both are highly versatile players who could play a number of roles in the backfield.