As an overnight sensation a year in the making, Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji posted 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010, elevated himself to one of the premier young interior linemen in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl XLV ring.
The big season for the onetime first-rounder came only a year after Raji started just one game as a rookie in 2009, registered only 25 tackles in 16 appearances, and had one sack. After a year as a reserve, a debut campaign in which Raji learned difficult lessons about production at the NFL level, the former Boston College star went from stand-in to standout.
"Things just clicked," Raji told The Sports Xchange after the Packers' victory over Chicago in the NFC championship game. "Defensive line is a tough position for most young guys. The second time around ... it just comes a lot more natural."
Most league observers agree that a player, regardless of his position, generally makes the biggest advancement of his career in his second season. That seems especially true on the defensive front, where first-year players often struggle, no matter the draft pedigree, and where the gestation period can be a painful one.
Guys like Ndamukong Suh of Detroit, who recorded 10 sacks as a rookie in 2010, the most by any interior lineman in the entire league, are exceptions. Defensive front players such as Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy, selected only one slot behind Suh, are more the norm. McCoy, a starter in all 13 of his appearances in 2010, was solid but not great, with 22 tackles and three sacks.
"You realize pretty quickly that it's not like college," McCoy said.
McCoy was hardly the lone first-round defensive lineman from the 2010 class to ride the performance roller coaster. Of the nine defensive linemen chosen in the first round in 2010, four started more than five outings, five had 25 tackles or more, and just three posted more than three sacks.
When it came to second-year defensive linemen in 2010, players like Ziggy Hood of the Steelers and Oakland's Matt Shaughnessy made quantum leaps. On the flip side, Robert Ayers (Denver), Peria Jerry (Atlanta), Aaron Maybin (Buffalo), Jarron Gilbert (Chicago), Everette Brown (Carolina), and Ron Brace (New England) failed to take giant steps forward.
The expectation is that all of the 2010 first-round choices will progress in 2011, assuming there is a season, but they are not the only sophomore linemen who could advance in prominence and production.
Here are a few linemen from outside of the 2010 first round, all of whom started fewer than three games in 2010 (which eliminates solid '10 rookies such as Corey Peters of Atlanta, Oakland's Lamarr Houston, or New England's Brandon Deaderick) who might create some buzz in the 2011 season:
*Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
A second-round pick in '10, the former University of Florida star didn't start a single game as a rookie, and appeared in just 12 games, missing two at the outset of the season because of a knee strain suffered during the exhibition slate and two more by coach's decision. But Dunlap, whose work ethic and attention to detail improved markedly as the season wore on, ended up with 9.5 sacks as a situational rusher, all in the final eight contests, and all but one in the last six games. He figures to start in 2011.
*Brian Price, Tampa Bay
Drafted in the second round and projected as an inside force to complement McCoy, the former UCLA star was limited to five games, and five tackles, by a hip/pelvis injury that he continues to rehabilitate. Even if a presumably healthy Price, who has not yet started to run, rotates with McCoy and third-year veteran Roy Miller, he should benefit from the addition of ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in this year's draft.
*Earl Mitchell, Houston
Although undersized at a listed 296 pounds, the former third-rounder is expected to contend for the starting nose tackle job in the 3-4 front that is being installed by new coordinator Wade Phillips. Mostly a three-technique tackle at Arizona, Mitchell will have to learn to better cope with the double-team blocking he will confront on the nose, but he plays with good leverage, and has been studying video of Phillips' non-conventional nose tackle in Dallas, Jay Ratliff. As a rookie, Mitchell had 28 tackles and no sacks in 15 appearances and no starts.
*Torrell Troup, Buffalo
His only two starts in 15 appearances as a rookie were in games where the Bills opened in a 4-3 front, so his progress could depend on how much Buffalo employs that defense, or how well he transitions to 3-4 nose tackle or perhaps to an anchor defensive end role. Like most young linemen, the second-round choice will have to learn better use of his hands. In 2010, he had 23 tackles, including 10 in his two starts, and no sacks.
*Terrence Cody, Baltimore
Injuries and a weight problem combined to limit "Mount Cody" to one start in 13 games, with just 13 tackles and no sacks, last season. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome recently suggested, though, the former Alabama star might be the team's most improved player in 2011. Cody looked like a steal when Baltimore snatched him in the second round last spring. He's got to keep his weight under control, a longtime problem, but can collapse the inside.
*Mike Neal, Green Bay
Looked to be a key rotation guy for the Packers until a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season after only two games. Finished with just three tackles and a sack, but demonstrated excellent energy, good hand skills and the ability to hang tough versus the run. The second-round choice is never going to be a big sack guy, because of Green Bay's 3-4, but he might provide the Packers a bit of upfield push in some early-down situations.
*Cam Thomas, San Diego
A prototypical, 335-pound nose tackle who can stuff the inside run, Thomas saw action in only six games as a rookie, and started none. The fifth-round pick from North Carolina logged seven tackles and no sacks, and his playing time should increase in 2011.
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