Recently on the NFL Network's "Total Access" program, Jamie Dukes and Charles Davis broke down who they felt would be some of the breakout players of 2012. While no Bengals were mentioned on their list, the group did acknowledge that A.J. Green was a 2011 breakout player.
It's hard to pinpoint criteria to use when calling a player a breakout one. For instance, one could argue that Andy Dalton or Geno Atkins could have breakout 2012 seasons that push them into the league's elite at their respective positions. But, since they both participated in the Pro Bowl last year, some may feel that they've already "broken out" in the league. So, based on that, we'll give you five of our 2012 Bengals breakout candidates.
5.) Orson Charles, tight end, rookie: If you've been keeping up with my posts, you would have known that I'm very high on this kid. He was a bit of an unexpected pick for the team in this year's draft, but he could very well end up becoming a steal. He was pegged as a second round pick and the Bengals nabbed him in the fourth round. He's extremely well-built, will make tough catches and fight for extra yards. He should help the Bengals immensely in the red zone--an area in which the team struggled mightily in 2011.
What places Charles so low on the list is that he's destined to be the second-stringer behind Jermaine Gresham. We still think he'll have a heavy impact in his first year and help out Andy Dalton quite a bit, though. With Gresham and Charles, fans have visions of the Patriots' duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez dancing in their heads. We'll see if these two can have that type of impact--Lord knows that they have the talent.
4.) Michael Johnson, defensive end, fourth season: Remember the knock on Johnson when he entered the draft in 2009? He has all of the physical tools, but questionable motor. His motor hasn't been questioned here and he's played in every game in his three seasons, but some wonder exactly where his ceiling is at. Johnson has been the unfortunate subject of position-switching which hasn't helped his development and just now seems to be hitting his stride.
He amassed a career-best six sacks last season and that included a four-game stretch that he didn't have his linemate in Carlos Dunlap. Even with his career-best in sack totals, Pro Football Focus still rated him as one of the least productive pass rushers. He's added some bulk and moved his playing weight up to 280 pounds for 2012, so that could greatly hurt or help him this season. He's made the bold proclamation that he thinks that he and Dunlap are one of the league's best pass rushing tandems and they'll need to do a lot to prove that this season. He is another in a line of young Bengals players that could be looking at a contract extension, so he could be hungry to play well in 2012.
3.) Mohamed Sanu, wide receiver, rookie: The Bengals are desperate to find their No.2 wide receiver this year. Jerome Simpson provided many big highlights, but he just couldn't become the consistent answer they needed. The team drafted Sanu in the third round of the draft and despite being burned on a cruel joke on draft weekend, he was pleased that the team drafted him.
Let me throw out some stats from his last (junior) season at Rutgers: 115 catches for 1,206 yards. That screams No.2 possession receiver, doesn't it? He makes the tough catches seem routine and still put up those numbers with poor quarterback play. Though it appears that Armon Binns and Brandon Tate have an early upper-hand on Sanu for the job, we wouldn't be surprised to see him win it and excel at it. The most likely scenario with Sanu is that the team will use him in the slot as a chain-mover. It's very possible that Dalton could rely on his slot receivers and tight ends more than the actual No.2 receiver on the outside, so Sanu could benefit heavily in that respect.
2.) Taylor Mays, safety, third season: This honestly may be a make-or-break season for Taylor Mays' NFL career. He fell out of favor with then-new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh after he took over last season and was dealt to the Bengals for what amounted to a bag of Ruffles (a 2012 seventh-round pick). There were rumors that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer stood on the draft room table for the team to trade up in the second round of that draft to grab Mays. He didn't win out and ended up with Carlos Dunlap. Now he has both.
Had Mays entered the draft after his junior year in 2009, he would have been a top-ten pick. He is entering bust territory and will earn that label if he doesn't play well this season. He's currently slated as the starting strong safety but he'll need to prove that he's more than just a big-hitter who can play the run. He needs to shake the "can't cover" label and become a good all-around safety. Between Mays' physical measurables and Zimmer's penchant for getting big results out of reclamation projects, we could see the biggest dividends at the position since David Fulcher manned the spot over twenty years ago.
1.) Carlos Dunlap, defensive end, third season: Some may argue that Dunlap has already "broken out", but I disagree. Between Marvin Lewis being disenchanted with Dunlap's effort in his rookie season and fighting off a nagging hamstring injury last season, he's missed eight games. Though he's been dominant at times, we're still waiting for that "wow" season from him. It seems that the Bengals haven't had a consistent double-digit sack player really ever and Dunlap definitely has that potential.
This is a huge year for the former Florida Gator. He, along with players like Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and others, are seemingly in line for a possible contract extension. Dunlap may be a dominant player at times, but you can't pay a guy big money if he can't play a full season. If Dunlap plays all season and stays injury-free, we could see an All-Pro performance and a budding NFL star.