Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
When it comes to spotting this year's breakout players, most are aware of the usual targets such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, or linebackers Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Keith Rivers of the Cincinnati Bengals. As former first-round picks, each has received plenty of attention from the AFC North blog and other national outlets despite their lack of playing time or starting experience.
But being a true NFL sleeper is a little different. Consider it a step or two below the label of breakout player.
Expectations aren't nearly as high for a sleeper. Unlike Quinn, Timmons and Rivers, a sleeper can avoid the hype and enter the season without much fanfare.
Although fans may not be talking about these players at the moment, here are the top 10 AFC North sleeper players you might be discussing by season's end:
10. Daniel Sepulveda, P, Steelers
Why: Most casual fans outside of Pittsburgh are not aware of how poor the Steelers' punting was last season. On a bad week, it was horrendous. On a good week, it was average. Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense last year overshadowed this issue. But help is on the way in Sepulveda, who averaged 42.4 yards a punt in 2007 (38.4-yard net). He missed all of 2008 with major knee surgery and has become a free-agent pickup of sorts for the Steelers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 16 games, 43.4-yard average, 21 inside the 20-yard line.
Why: One of just two rookies to make this list, Kruger is a second-round pick who appears to have an NFL motor and size. Also keep in mind that Kruger got extensive work with the first team this offseason as starting defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs missed minicamp and organized team activities. Now, Kruger gets to find his niche as a situational player while learning from some of the best defenders in the league.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 34 tackles, four sacks.
8. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens
Why: A little-known fact in Baltimore is that Landry was having an impressive offseason for the Ravens before the 2008 season. The coaching staff really liked the progress he was making, but it was cut short by an early season neck injury that sidelined him for the season. The Ravens are hoping Landry can gradually get back his confidence this season. The team was confident enough in Landry not to overpay for veteran safety Jim Leonhard, who followed coach Rex Ryan to the New York Jets. That should tell you something.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 55 tackles, two interceptions.
7. Brian Robiskie, WR, Browns
Why: The Browns aren't expected to air it out much this season, but Robiskie should be ready to make plays when the opportunity presents itself. Robiskie remains unsigned as of Wednesday, so it's important that he gets into training camp on time when the full team takes the practice field Saturday. Cleveland's No. 2 receiver job is wide open this season, and with Braylon Edwards currently sidelined with an unspecified leg injury, Robiskie will get plenty of early reps with the first team. If he is as polished as scouts and the Browns believe he is, Robiskie could earn a starting job with Cleveland at some point in his rookie season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 35 receptions, 484 yards, two touchdowns.
6. Tavares Gooden, LB, Ravens
Why: Entering his second year, Gooden has become the latest linebacker to fill the role next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Can he do it? The Ravens believe he can. Gooden is speedy, athletic and very high energy. But injuries during his rookie season prevented people from seeing his potential. Gooden enters training camp as the favorite to replace Bart Scott and could have a solid second season on a veteran unit stocked with playmakers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 64 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles.
5. Limas Sweed, WR, Steelers
Why: There is not as much pressure on Sweed as some may think. He is expected to fill a role as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver, so that doesn't require him to start. But the Steelers and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians love to use the trips package, which helped Nate Washington earn a big contract with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. It is much more difficult to get open in the NFL than it is to catch the football. So Sweed already has the difficult part figured out.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 39 receptions, 528 yards, four touchdowns.
4. Brodney Pool, S, Browns
Why: For four years, the Browns have been waiting for the light to come for Pool. He has above-average ability, but so far has been just an average NFL safety. Pool is arguably the best athlete Cleveland has on its roster. But to date no one has been able to get the best out of his abilities. Now that new coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have their hands on Pool, this sleeper could be primed for
his best season to date.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 85 tackles, three interceptions.
3. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers
Why: Can a former first-round pick be a sleeper? Yes, when you are a backup tailback coming off a major injury with the defending Super Bowl champions. Mendenhall is actually in a good spot. The pressure is on him to contribute, not to take over games. He didn't show much in his first season. But combined with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, Mendenhall should help Pittsburgh restart its ground attack.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 107 carries, 440 yards, four touchdowns.
2. Chris Henry, WR, Bengals
Why: Quarterback Carson Palmer is already calling Henry a mini version of Randy Moss. That is probably stretching it. But considering Palmer has played with his share of Pro Bowl receivers, his words carry some merit. Henry has always been a talent-in-waiting. He has size, speed and athleticism, but immaturity on and off the field have held him back. According to the Bengals, Henry has matured knowing he is down to his final shot in the NFL. A contract year also helps Henry's focus, as he is expected to produce for a full season in a pass-happy offense.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 44 receptions, 681 yards, five touchdowns.
1. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Why: How confident is Rice? He recently switched agents in anticipation of putting up good numbers in just the second year of a four-year contract. Part of the deep running back class of 2008, Rice often got lost in the mix of strong rookie seasons by contemporaries Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton. Rice showed flashes last season with 454 yards as part of Baltimore's three-headed monster. This year he is the favorite to start in Baltimore behind a solid and physical offensive line. With Willis McGahee returning from injuries and Le'Ron McClain playing more at fullback this year, look for Rice to get plenty of opportunities in his sophomore season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 170 carries, 710 yards, four touchdowns.