Silverman: Wilson, Ponder Lead Early-Season Breakthrough Candidates
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By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The performances of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will grab headlines throughout the season.
The top two picks in the draft both appear to be on their way to sensational rookie seasons. Expectations were high for both of them and there has been no hint of disappointment.
However, this is a season when a number of players are emerging as impact players. Many players do so without having anywhere near the expectation levels of Luck and RGIII.
Some are rookies while others, like Victor Cruz did last year, emerge from obscurity.
Here’s a look at some players who are rising above expectations through the first two games of the season:
QB Russell Wilson, Seattle – Wilson does not rank with the top quarterbacks in terms of passer ratings – he’s at 81.1 thanks to his 61.1 completion percentage and his 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio – but he looks like an NFL quarterback. Wilson is throwing the ball extremely well, putting a lot of zip on his passes and he does a good job of reading defenses for a rookie quarterback. He has already established himself as a leader in Seattle’s locker room. What does that really mean? In Wilson’s case, he has impressed his teammates with his effort and personality. His teammates like to be around him. Look for steady progress from Wilson throughout the season.
QB Christian Ponder, Minnesota – It will be difficult for Ponder to continue with his hot start, but he has been sharp for the Vikings the first two weeks. He led fourth-quarter comebacks in both of the Vikings games – although Luck led one of his own in Week Two against Minnesota –and he has improved dramatically since last year. Ponder has a 110.6 passer rating and has completed 75.6 percent of his passes. Head coach Leslie Frazier appears to have a real quarterback on his hands.
RB C.J. Spiller, Buffalo – The Bills wanted to give the ball to Fred Jackson (sprained knee ligament) at the start of the season, but it has been the C.J. Spiller show in the first two weeks of the season. He has 29 carries in the Bills’ first two games and he has 292 yards. Even if the Bills have only played two games, any time you can average better than 10 yards per carry, you are a solid NFL running back. Spiller is small by NFL standards – 5-11 and 200 pounds – but he changes directions quickly and he is tough to bring down.
RB Stevan Ridley, New England – The Patriots may have dropped their home opener to the Cardinals, but they have strengthened their running game and improved their run defense. Bill Belichick knew his team suffered in both these areas last year and is no longer content to simply try to outscore opponents. Ridley won the starting running back job in training camp and has run for 196 yards in two games. The Pats are sure to be a strong contender throughout the season – although they are up against it this Sunday night when they travel to Baltimore – and Ridley will continue to run the ball.
WR Danny Amendola, St. Louis – Note to Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli: Keep your eye on Amendola this Sunday. He has already caught 20 passes and he’s the receiver that Sam Bradford looks for most frequently. He knows how to get open and he’s got 230 receiving yards with one 40-plus yard reception and one touchdown. Amendola will continue to be the Rams’ No. 1 receiver for the foreseeable future, but he is not usually a big-play threat. He’s also vulnerable to the ball punch, so he may be made to order for Charles Tillman.
TE Brent Celek, Philadelphia – Celek may turn out to be a true star at the tight end position and a player who can save Eagle quarterback Michael Vick from himself. Not only does Celek get open, he knows how to get key yards after the catch. He has caught 12 passes in the first two games and six of those receptions have gone for 20 or more yards. Vick likes to force the ball into double-coverage and that galls head coach Andy Reid. However, Celek not only runs well after the catch he gets open fairly easily. Vick can make the easy pitch-and-catch with Celek and that means he will be a prominent part of the gameplan for a long time.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.