Pro Football Weekly presents the third of an eight-part divisional breakdown of the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the AFC South.
SOLB Connor Barwin — The Texans had big plans for Barwin last season. Unfortunately, he suffered a devastating ankle injury in the first quarter in Week One, ending his season just as it was beginning. Expected back at 100 percent in 2011, Barwin, one of the team's best pass rushers, will be asked to convert to outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme. Following the selection of Brooks Reed in the second round of the draft, Barwin will find himself in a battle with Reed to start alongside DE-turned-OLB Mario Williams. One advantage that Barwin will have over Reed is that, while both players are changing positions, Barwin is ideally suited for outside 'backer and played the position in college. Barwin recorded 4½ sacks as a rookie before injuries spoiled his '10 campaign. Under the tutelage of Phillips and surrounded by a talented LB corps, don't be surprised if Barwin takes the next step in '11.
RB Donald Brown — A first-round selection in 2009, Brown is still trying to shed the dreaded bust label with more success than he has tacklers in his first two seasons. After a rookie campaign mired in injuries and inconsistency, Brown started eight games in '10 with mostly underwhelming results. He gained less than four yards per carry and found the endzone only twice. Still, the Colts' coaching staff has high hopes for Brown entering his third season. To his credit, Brown has improved as a receiver and blocker and flashed his big-play ability in a decisive Week 15 victory over the Jaguars last season, rushing for a career-best 129 yards and a score. The biggest knock on Brown continues to be his indecisiveness in hitting the hole. But with starter Joseph Addai and RB Mike Hart both potential free agents who are not guaranteed to be back, Brown could be the biggest beneficiary of a rebuilt O-line and offense that should be far healthier than it was in '10.
WR Mike Thomas — All Thomas has done since being selected by the Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2009 draft is make plays. A confident and explosive receiver, the 5-8, 198-pound Thomas has not allowed his size to hold him back. He has developed a solid rapport with QB David Garrard, raising his receiving yards from 453 to 820 and reception total from 48 to 66 from 2009 to ’10. But Thomas is not just a weapon in the passing game — he is also the club's No. 1 punt returner and a dangerous ballcarrier on end-arounds. Although Thomas already has established himself as the Jaguars' most trusted wideout, 2011 could be the season in which he becomes a star. With the imminent departure of free-agent WR Mike Sims-Walker, Thomas finally becomes the team's No. 1 option in the passing game. If he can find a way to consistently beat the opponent's top cover guy, his first 1,000-yard receiving season, as well as other accolades, could be on the horizon in ’11.
TE Jared Cook — The Titans were willing to part with a 2010 second-rounder in order to move back into the third round of the '09 draft to nab Cook because of his unique athleticism and pass-catching ability. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 248 pounds, Cook has speed to burn to go along with his 41-inch vertical leap. The '11 season will be a great opportunity for Cook to convert potential into production. After a quiet rookie season, he started to emerge late in his sophomore campaign — 15 of his 29 catches came in the team's final three contests. With longtime Titans TE Bo Scaife not expected to return, Cook is penciled in as the starter, and the club plans to feature the versatile tight end early and often. With rookie QB Jake Locker pegged as the new face of the franchise, Cook will attempt to develop chemistry with a new signalcaller and give the Titans another dangerous downfield threat.