The theme of this column, as I first pitched it to my editor, was going to be comeback players.
As I thought more about that, going the traditional route on that one would have limited us to guys who were injured last season. That’s why I decided to stretch the parameters on this one a bit. Yes, we’re going to include some guys who were injured last season. But we’re also going to include some guys who were limited by other things.
Whatever the circumstances, and we’ll detail them when we get to them, I wanted to examine five NFC South players who I think will be much more productive in 2010 than they were in 2009.
Steve Smith, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers. It may seem strange to include a guy who came up 18 yards short of what would have been a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in a conversation about comeback players. But, again, we’re stretching the parameters here.
I truly expect Smith to have a much bigger season than he did last year and there are several reasons for this. First off, we all know Carolina had major problems at quarterback last season as Jake Delhomme played his way out of a job. Smith still managed 65 catches and seven touchdowns, and his numbers could have been better if he hadn’t missed the final game with an injury.
With Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen, Carolina is making a fresh start on offense and the running game always will be the backbone of a John Fox team. But Smith is still the best player on this offense. He’s made some noise in the offseason about how he’s not sure he still wants to be a No. 1 receiver and might be ready to step into a secondary role.
If you believe that, call me because I’ve got 10 acres of swamp land in Florida I’d love to sell you. More than anything else, Smith is a competitor. I don’t think he has it in him to be a second or third receiver right now. Besides, who do the Panthers have who could move ahead of him?
Smith’s mind operates in unique ways. He’s also made references to people saying he's “losing a step’’ because he’s 31. I haven’t seen or heard anyone say that and I’ve seen no evidence of that. Part of the reason Smith has had such a great career is because he’s found ways to motivate himself with perceived slights.
He’s played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder and that’s worked well for him. It may be totally by his own doing, but it looks like Smith has added a couple chips this year. That’s why the little guy might come up bigger than ever in 2010.
Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember in coach Jon Gruden’s last season in Tampa Bay when he kept saying Ruud should be included in talk about the NFL’s best middle linebackers? Gruden had a point. Ruud was making plays and seemed to be ascending as fast as any player in the league.
Ruud seemed on the verge of being a true star and the face of the franchise when Gruden left and the new regime cut ties with Derrick Brooks and a bunch of older players. But Ruud never emerged as a difference-maker last season. He produced a career-best 142 tackles last season, but can you recall him making a single big play?
Not really. But let’s not put all of the blame on Ruud. There was chaos for most of Raheem Morris’ first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The Bucs tried to switch to a different defense under coordinator Jim Bates, who got fired midway through the season. Tampa Bay switched back to the old Monte Kiffin defense and things got a little better at the end of the year.
The Bucs went out and drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. That should make Ruud the happiest guy in town. He still doesn’t have that long-term contract he’s been seeking for more than a year. But his plays no longer will start with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims getting blown 5 yards off the ball. McCoy and Price should fill some space and keep blockers off Ruud.
That should allow him to start making the kind of plays that will get him a big contract.
I still don’t think a lot of people realize how significant this injury was to the Falcons. They had huge plans for Douglas in his second season. He was going to be the third receiver in this offense. The Falcons were planning on using him in the slot and bringing a whole new dynamic to their offense.
The injury prevented that and really kept Atlanta’s offense from ever hitting its stride last season. But Douglas should be back at full strength and that alone could change the complexion of an offense that’s loaded just about everywhere else.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White already are very good and wide receiver Michael Jenkins is dependable. Throw Douglas’ speed into the slot and Gonzalez, White and Jenkins immediately become even better. Quarterback Matt Ryan might even become great.
Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints. On a roster where a lot of guys had career seasons last year, it’s kind of difficult to find a guy who might be markedly better this year. But Ellis fits the profile. He didn’t have a bad year last season or as a rookie in 2008.
But Ellis is one of those guys who you look at and keep thinking there’s more than we’ve seen. He’s been very good at times, but not quite dominant. That’s mainly because injuries kept him out of six games last season and three in his rookie year. When he’s on the field, the New Orleans defense is noticeably better than when he’s not.
The only thing separating Ellis from the Pro Bowl might be staying on the field for a full season.
Thomas Davis, linebacker, Carolina Panthers. Ask scouts, coaches and players who is the best linebacker in the NFC South and the consensus is Carolina’s Jon Beason. If you talk to those same people, they’ll tell you Davis was having an even better season than Beason through the first seven games of last year.
But Davis went down with a season-ending injury that stopped what seemed to be a true breakout year. Davis switched to linebacker after playing safety in college and it took him a few years to adjust. But Davis had been pretty good the past couple of years and he was playing at an All-Pro level before the injury.
He’s expected back at full strength this year. With defensive end Julius Peppers gone, the Panthers need Davis and Beason to take over this defense.