NFC's breakout players

ESPN.com's NFL experts have teamed up to examine "The State of NFL Nation," a weeklong look at the biggest questions facing the league. In this installment, we take on 2009 breakout stars.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cardinals

By Mike Sando

Arizona gave up 36 touchdown passes last season, most in the NFL.

Do not blame Rodgers-Cromartie.

The 2008 first-round choice became a full-time starter in Week 9 and immediately established himself as an ascending player. The trend has continued this offseason.

"The one guy who continues to impress me is DRC," quarterback Kurt Warner told reporters in June. "I see improvement there. He's the guy standing out to me, more than anybody in this camp."

The 6-foot-2 Rodgers-Cromartie combines unusual length with athletic ability generally associated with smaller cornerbacks. Scouts have clocked the former Tennessee State standout at 4.29 seconds in the 40.

"This guy was a long, leggy athlete that had a tremendous amount of suddenness to him," Steve Keim, the Cardinals' director of college scouting, said during the playoffs last season.

"His downfield speed was rare, to say the least. His ball skills, anticipation and playmaking ability with ball in his hands is uncanny. Those guys are impossible to find."

Though unfailingly polite and modest in his dealings with reporters, Rodgers-Cromartie had enough faith in his raw ability, even as a rookie, to issue a standing challenge to any teammate willing to race him. Receiver Steve Breaston was the only known taker. The two have yet to settle the issue, but it's difficult to envision Rodgers-Cromartie losing a footrace with just about any NFL receiver. His outstanding makeup speed has helped him break up passes even when opponents appeared to have him beat.

Questions about the Cardinals' pass rush could influence Rodgers-Cromartie's success. Opposing quarterbacks also figure to have a better read on him this season. An abundance of talent should carry him through.

"The great Hall of Fame-type corners are not Tampa 2 corners; they were guys you could put on a man," said Hall of Famer Darrell Green, who has worked with Rodgers-Cromartie. "You cover number one, you cover number two, you tackle number three. His success is not Cover 2. His success is being able to get on that receiver and handle his business."

Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys

By Matt Mosley

Before a toe injury ended his 2008 season, Cowboys rookie running back Felix Jones had already become a dynamic presence in the offense. Questions still remain why offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wasn't using Jones more, but he'll be able to make up for that in 2009.

The Cowboys selected Jones No. 22 overall in the '08 draft because they thought he'd be a better complementary player to starter Marion Barber than Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall. Jones had to play second-fiddle to Darren McFadden at Arkansas, but he was still one of the most explosive players in the nation.

Jones made the most of his limited playing time in '08, averaging 8.9 yards on 30 carries and returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. He also had three touchdown runs of 20 yards or more, including a 60-yarder at Lambeau Field.

The Cowboys are toying around with the idea of starting Jones and letting Barber return to the closing role that he filled when Julius Jones was still on the roster. The thought is that Jones and Tashard Choice could hurt defenses with their speed and quickness, allowing Barber to come in and punish defenders with his battering style.

Jones is an instinctive back who could easily reach 800 yards rushing with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 carries a game. And I also think he can help make up for the loss of Terrell Owens by contributing to the passing game. With LeSean McCoy (Phil
ly) and Andre Brown (New York) entering the division, you have some talented young backs. But Jones has a chance to make a major breakthrough now that he's completely healthy.

In fact, let's make him my breakout player of the year in the NFC East. Now we're anxious to see what SportsNation thinks.

Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings

By Kevin Seifert

First, let's get through the "Big If."

With a history of injuries and off-field issues, Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin represents a measured risk. But if he stays on the field in 2009, Harvin will be one of the NFC's brightest new stars in 2009.

It didn't take long this spring to see why NFL scouts considered Harvin one of the top playmakers available in the draft. Some players are looking for positive yardage when they get their hands on the ball. Harvin? He's looking to score every time. A vertical, north-south runner, Harvin sprints to the goal line the moment he tucks away the ball.

On an offense that already includes tailback Adrian Peterson and receiver Bernard Berrian, Harvin should benefit from some favorable matchups in the defensive backfield. The expected addition of quarterback Brett Favre would only add to Harvin's opportunities.

Vikings coaches seem prepared to load him with as big of a role as he can handle -- using him at all three receiver positions in spring drills, as well as a kickoff returner, punt returner and at quarterback in a new Wildcat formation.

In fact, Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has added some 15 plays to the Vikings' playbook in anticipation of Harvin's unique skills. "We are up there [in meeting rooms] trying to diagram everything we can," Bevell said.

Based purely on skills, Harvin would have been a top-10 pick in the April draft. His stock sank after he reportedly tested positive for marijuana at the scouting combine. This spring, Harvin missed two events -- the Vikings' rookie minicamp and the NFL's rookie symposium -- after falling ill. He also missed six games because of injuries during his three-year career at Florida.

So there are some "ifs." But the sky is the limit -- if Harvin can stay on the field.

Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints

By Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

This time last year, Pierre Thomas was behind Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker and Deuce McAllister on the Saints' depth chart. He isn't buried now, and considering that Bush is as much wide receiver as he is running back, Thomas is in line for a large number of carries in 2009. Playing in an exceptional offense with his skill set, Thomas will be the NFC South's breakout player.

It could be argued that Thomas already broke out in his first real stint as a regular. Thomas had 677 total yards and nine touchdowns over a six-game stretch at the end of 2008. Showcasing his soft hands and natural receiving ability, he also had 19 receptions during that span. New Orleans needs to become more balanced on offense and Thomas could help with that.

Thomas is only 25 and has very little mileage on his body. He has decent size and runs with power. Very rarely is he stopped behind the line of scrimmage and he's an extremely consistent ground gainer, as his career 4.8 yards per attempt average indicates. He probably will get most of the goal-line work and he should succeed in that role. He isn't a burner, but he can break off long runs and is adept at making people miss in space. The Saints chose not to add a high-profile running back to compete with Thomas, showing great faith in his abilities. Also, who is to say that Bush will have the same big-play ability and speed that he had early in his career after yet another injury?

There are a few concerns in choosing Thomas for this distinction. First off, he eclipsed the 16-carry mark only once last year. Also, while he runs hard, he is not the ideal pile-moving power back who will wear defenses down. A fair amount of his production came from running out of passing sets and not in a traditional personnel grouping. And the Saints face the AFC East and NFC East this year, which provides for a very difficult rushing schedule.

Still, expect Thomas to see about 15 carries a game and be targeted four to six times a game as a reliable pass-catching option. With his skills, supporting cast and that number of touches, Thomas will be a household name in no time.