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 second of an eight-part divisional series begins with the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the AFC North.
NT Terrence Cody — The 6-4, 349-pound Cody flashed intriguing potential as a rookie last season. In addition to boasting rare size, Cody moves well. If he is ready for a bigger role, he'll strengthen a stout defensive line in need of some youthful reinforcements. Veteran Kelly Gregg has been a productive starter, but he turns 35 in November, and Cody is viewed as his successor. Running on the Ravens is a chore, and Gregg has played a major role in those run-stuffing efforts; if Cody plays to his potential, he can help ensure that will continue to be true in 2011 and beyond. He's one of several young Ravens defenders to watch this season, including CB Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' first-round pick.
TE Jermaine Gresham — Pop quiz: Who led NFL rookie tight ends in catches a season ago? The answer is Gresham, who snagged 52 passes for a mere 471 yards in a WR-dominated scheme. Gresham's average catch came just 2.1 yards downfield, as the Bengals fed him a diet of short passes. However, Gresham could surprise this season. For starters, he has the speed to stretch the field. Also, the Bengals have changed offensive schemes, with Jay Gruden replacing Bob Bratkowski as coordinator. Moreover, with WR Terrell Owens unlikely to be re-signed and Chad Ochocinco no sure thing to be on the roster in 2011, Gresham could become a bigger part of the passing game. Overall, Gresham's 52 catches in a scheme where he was far down the list of options is a positive sign — and perhaps a signal of better things to come.
QB Colt McCoy — Conditions aren't entirely favorable for McCoy to thrive in 2011, but give him credit — he has taken ownership of the offense. He has organized several player workouts as Cleveland transitions to new head coach Pat Shurmur's version of the West Coast offense. Ideally, the Browns would be learning the offense under the watchful eyes of Shurmur, his coaching staff and team president Mike Holmgren, but the lockout has shelved those plans. Nonetheless, McCoy, acting as the leader of the offense, is doing his part to stay sharp. The Browns' revamped offensive scheme should suit McCoy well. He's a precise passer, which makes him a nice fit. Moreover, McCoy could get a chance to attack downfield more in the offense, which figures to target the wide receivers more frequently. McCoy showed potential in Year One. The Browns were at their best when he was in the lineup, and he should be able to build on that.
DE Ziggy Hood — Hood received valuable experience last season, starting 11 games (nine regular-season, two postseason) after Aaron Smith left the lineup with a triceps injury. Even if Smith returns to the starting lineup in 2011, Hood figures to play quite a bit, considering the promise he showed a season ago and the need to reduce the wear and tear on Smith and fellow DE Brett Keisel, who are in their 30s. Hood, who notched three sacks in 2011, is one of the better pass rushers among the defensive linemen, and that is his strength. Even if he returns to a complementary role this season, he could have a material impact on the Steelers' defense.