With strong reason to believe a significant breakthrough could be imminent in the NFL's ongoing labor impasse, the time seems right to identify each team's top breakout candidates for the coming season (rookies not included).
The first of an eight-part divisional series begins with the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the AFC East.
WR Roscoe Parrish — The Bills had a breakthrough wideout last season (Stevie Johnson), and it's possible that Parrish could fit that description in 2011. He has been a steady slot receiver for six seasons in Buffalo, but 2010 was his best, and he played in just eight games, catching 33 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. A broken wrist cost Parrish the second half of the season. The Bills turned into a pass-happy offense last season, especially because they often played from behind. With more attention heading in the direction of Johnson after his 82-1,073-10 campaign, and with veteran Lee Evans' production steadily decreasing, the speedy Parrish is primed to have a bigger role. There is competition, as David Nelson had a solid season in the slot last season, and young WRs Marcus Easley and Naaman Roosevelt should see more time on the field. But Parrish is the veteran, and if the Bills' passing offense improves, he could be a big reason for it. If he stays injury-free, he could finally put it all together for a big season.
CB Sean Smith — Smith had an up-and-down season in 2010 after starting every game as a rookie in ’09. He lost his starting job in training camp to Jason Allen before regaining it when the team released Allen in midseason. Smith had only one pick, but if he showed better hands, he could have been a Pro-Bowl type corner. Smith tied for the league lead with five dropped interceptions, and he didn't start until Week Nine. Smith has the physical tools at 6-3, 214 pounds and is paired with one of the league's top young corners, Vontae Davis. Davis already has plenty of respect from quarterbacks around the league, meaning Smith is going to get targeted. Those close to the team believe he could take that next step in 2011, including head coach Tony Sparano, who said he was impressed with Smith's resilience last season. The Dolphins could have one of the league's best and most underrated defenses, and if Smith shows similar ball skills with an added ability of holding on to picks, teams will struggle mightily to throw the ball against Miami.
New England Patriots
SS Patrick Chung — Chung proved he was a special-teams playmaker in 2010, and the third-year pro could be primed for a big season in the Patriots' defensive backfield in '11. He started 13 games last season and had three picks, including an interception returned for a score. Chung might be ready to take his play to the next level, assuming he can improve in coverage. The Patriots need to improve upon last year's 30th ranking in pass defense, and a breakthrough campaign by Chung could help make that happen. He is generally better in the box and has been used on blitzes, but Chung could take the athleticism he has displayed near the line of scrimmage and on special teams to the passing defense as well. Chung's days of being overlooked by his Pro Bowl safety mate Brandon Meriweather could be over. Someone on New England's defense needs to take the next step to get New England back to the Super Bowl, and it could be Chung's turn.
New York Jets
RB Shonn Greene — It's not going out on too much of a limb but 2011 could be Greene's time to shine — and Rex Ryan has said as much. Drafted to be the team's top back, Greene has yet to reach 200 carries, let alone 800 rushing yards in his first two seasons. A big reason for that is that he has shared the load with a pair of veterans who proved they were far from finished — Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson. Many were surprised by Tomlinson's performance in 2010, but "L.T." already has said he is resigned to playing the third-down back role. Greene has showed the combination of power and speed at times to be a top back, but it has been sparse. He had only one 100-yard rushing game in '10, and it was against the Bills' last-ranked run defense. Ryan is giving the reins to Greene, and the Iowa product will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. And he runs on a team that wants to pound the ball to set up play-action. Greene needs to prove his durability, but this finally could be the season he gets 300 carries and 1,000 yards, leading the Jets' rushing attack.