By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The light goes on at different times for players.
A player like Adrian Peterson came into the NFL with superstar talent and produced. He is unquestionably the best running back in football.
Arian Foster is most likely the second-best running back in the NFL, when healthy. While his back issues have been problematic this summer, he should be ready to start the season Sept. 8 when the Texans open the season at San Diego.
Foster was not a superstar when he came into the league out of Tennessee. He was not even drafted. Foster was signed by the Texans as a free agent and ran for 257 yards as a rookie.
While he only had 54 carries for the season, the Texans’ coaching staff saw something in him and decided to give him a bigger opportunity in 2010. Foster made the most of it and came through with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Goodbye, unknown status. Hello, superstar.
That kind of dramatic improvement from one year to the next is shocking. Most players are not going to show Foster-like improvement, but here’s a look at five NFL players who have an opportunity to show a great deal of improvement in 2013.
WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears – Jeffery had a taste of it last year as a rookie, and he came to the Bears with the reputation of having very good hands. Jeffery suffered through an injury-riddled 2012 season, catching 24 passes. While that’s not a huge number, six of his catches went for 20 or more yards and two were 40-yard-plus receptions.
Jeffery is in much better condition this year. His body-fat level has dropped, he gets open and he does not drop the ball. Since head coach Marc Trestman wants to spread the ball around much more this season, look for Jeffery to catch at least 60 passes if he stays healthy. He should be a solid complement to Brandon Marshall and a key playmaker in the Bears’ offense.
RB David Wilson, N.Y. Giants – The Giants are counting on Wilson becoming one of the best running backs in the NFL in 2013. His 358-yard rushing total in 2012 does not indicate that Wilson is about to join the elite, but he has become the Giants’ No. 1 running back and he will try to flash his game-breaking speed on a regular basis.
Wilson has a burst and explosiveness. He had five runs of 20 yards or more last year in just 71 attempts and he also demonstrated dominating kickoff return ability. The only issue for Wilson will be holding on to the football. If he can avoid fumbling – he had just one last year but his handle looked somewhat shaky – he has a chance to show Foster-like improvement.
LB Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans – This former Illinois stud opened eyes with his solid rookie performance last year and he has a chance to give the Texans the perfect complement to All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt.
Mercilus is all about effort and energy. Scouts called him a high-motor player in college, but that doesn’t always translate to the NFL when a player starts getting hit in the mouth on a regular basis. Mercilus more than held his own as a rookie and got better as the season progressed. He had 6.0 sacks last year and Mercilus should have 10 or more this season.
QB Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins – In the year of the rookie quarterback, Tannehill had to take a back seat to Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. However, he started all 16 games for the Dolphins, showed improvement in his understanding of the offense from the start of the season to finish and grew comfortable as the team’s offensive leader.
The Dolphins have tried to help Tannehill out this season by bringing in Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. Things would have been even better had Dustin Keller not suffered a season-ending injury last week, but Tannehill has the talent and ability to help the Dolphins become a winning team in 2013.
DT Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions – We are playing the odds with this selection. Fairley has dominating strength and explosive power and has shown the ability to work well with fellow DT Ndamukong Suh. All he needs to do is stay healthy.
Fairley has recovered from last year’s shoulder injury and nobody is happier than Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham, a screaming wild man on the sidelines on game day and in practice, has put in several stunts that should allow Fairley to come around the corner and put some overwhelming pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
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.