In the middle of last season, when Packers general manager Ted Thompson was watching so many of the young pieces on his football team blossom, it was hard not to look at one player in particular and marvel at the strides he'd taken.
Of all the Packers' success stories, Greg Jennings was the beacon. Stepping into a void left by Javon Walker in 2006, Jennings posted a solid rookie season, showcasing a sneaky-fast style and toughness that made him a go-to weapon for the Packers. One year later, he planted his flag as a legitimate threat, tying for fourth in the league with 12 touchdown passes.
"That's what you hope for," Thompson said in January. "Whether it's free agency or the draft, your plan is about adding pieces that can grow into your system. And that's what Greg did."
Every year, new pieces like Jennings emerge across the NFL – some players finally developing into consistent playmakers; some thriving following a change of scenery; and others taking advantage of increased opportunities created through free agency or trade departures. The 2007 offseason was littered with players blossoming in new surroundings, or finally reaching their potential with the team that drafted them. From Jennings to New England's Wes Welker to Atlanta's Roddy White and countless others, a new throng of players took center stage.
With that in mind, here are 32 players – one for each team – that should have a chance to star in 2008.
New England Patriots: Jabar Gaffney, WR
With Donte' Stallworth gone via free agency and Chad Jackson still a complete enigma, Gaffney appears poised to put a hammer lock on New England's always lucrative No. 3 wideout spot. It might be a bit of a stretch to say Gaffney is finally going to blossom at the ripe age of 27, but he's got the tools to put up career highs in receiving yardage and touchdowns if he can stay healthy.
Buffalo Bills: Paul Posluszny, LB
We might already be talking about Posluszny as a star if he hadn't broken his forearm in the third game of his rookie campaign last season. But after racking up 22 tackles in his first two games, he was already looking like a tremendous second-round steal. Health permitting, he could be one of the NFL's best middle linebackers by the end of the 2008 season.
New York Jets: Brad Smith, WR
With Justin McCareins' release by the team last month, Smith should finally be able to focus on developing a capable option next to Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Smith made healthy strides between his rookie season and last year's sophomore campaign while continuing a transition from playing quarterback in college. Like most players making the move, Year 3 should showcase his biggest jump forward.
Miami Dolphins: Ted Ginn Jr., WR
Like fellow Ohio State product Santonio Holmes, Ginn appears to be poised to make a big leap between Years 1 and 2. Also like Holmes, he needs to improve his overall strength and grasp of the offense. He became a far more consistent receiving option the second half of his rookie season. And with Marty Booker back in Chicago, that should open the door for Ginn to claim the No. 1 wideout spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LaMarr Woodley, LB
The Steelers have all but given Woodley the keys to the starting spot of outside linebacker Clark Haggans, who is on the free-agent market. Woodley has all the skills to be Pittsburgh's next great pass rusher. Now he's healthy, in better shape and has a better understanding of his assignments in the 3-4 defense. He could easily double the four sacks from his rookie season.
Cleveland Browns: D'Qwell Jackson, LB
Jackson has already developed into a solid middle linebacker after only two seasons. But with the offseason pickups of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, Jackson has something he's never had: beef on the defensive line that can tie up blockers and give Jackson plenty of space to rack up tackles. This time next year, Jackson's tackle numbers could be near the top of the AFC.
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin White, FS
It was tempting to put Ahmad Brooks here, but with the Bengals' history of injuries at linebacker, who knows what will happen with him. White showed vast improvement down the stretch of his rookie season and showed he was capable enough of carrying the load at safety. He's an aggressive hitter and should improve in coverage by leaps and bounds in his second year. With Madieu Williams signing with the Vikings, he should be starter from day one in 2008.
Baltimore Ravens: Demetrius Williams, WR
Last season was supposed to be Williams' big jump in production, but that was scuttled by injuries and problems at the quarterback spot. While the quarterback situation has yet to improve, Williams is spending the offseason working on his upper body strength and should come back more prepared to fight for a bigger role. With Devard Darling gone via free agency and Yamon Figurs pushing Williams, this should be the season he eats into the production of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.
Indianapolis Colts: Quinn Pitcock, DT
Pitcock was outplayed by Ed Johnson last year, but he acquitted himself well down the stretch, playing a very solid role in Indianapolis' rotation the last seven weeks of the season. If Anthony McFarland isn't brought back, Pitcock will be in line for a larger role in the Colts' rotation. He's just the kind of high motor defensive tackle that typically thrives in Tony Dungy's defenses.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Justin Durant, LB
Durant locked onto a starting job the final six games of his rookie season in 2007 and isn't likely to give it up for a long time. His pursuit angles will get better, and the coaching staff loves his speed. He's one of the most talented young linebackers in the AFC. As a full-time starter, his tackles should soar into the triple digits next season.
Tennessee Titans: Chris Henry, RB
Yes, Henry clearly has some issues. There was the four-game suspension last season when he tested positive for a banned substance, and the fact that he hasn't been in touch with new running backs coach Earnest Byner. But the Titans are casting their lot with Henry, letting go of Chris Brown in free agency. Henry is going to get every opportunity to fail, and considering the punishment LenDale White takes, he'll get ample carries if he's healthy and on his best behavior next season.
Houston Texans: Jacoby Jones, WR
It looked like Jones had a chance to be another Marques Colston after last year's superb preseason, but his transition was steeper than Colston's. Injuries and Jones' upper body strength left something to be desired, and he's working on that this offseason, as well as polishing his familiarity with the offense. With improved strength and more comfort in the scheme, he should surface as the multidimensional threat the Texans were looking for last season.
San Diego Chargers: Eric Weddle, S
The Chargers released Marlon McCree for the specific purpose of giving Weddle his job. Weddle played a very strong role as a rookie backup last season, and looks like he might finally be the answer to San Diego's inconsistency at the safety spot the last few seasons. He looks like the total package of coverage and hitting ability. This time next year, people will have forgotten that general manager A.J. Smith used a package of four picks to move up in the draft and take him.
Denver Broncos: Marcus Thomas, DT
Thomas would be a no-brainer as the Broncos' best young defensive line talent, but he's brought his college issues to the NFL. A first-round talent who slipped to the fourth because of character (he was dismissed from the Florida Gators for conduct), Thomas was arrested recently on a drug charge. It may ultimately be dismissed, but the Broncos have to be frustrated with the distraction. He started five games last season and appeared to have the makings of a young franchise defensive tackle.
Kansas City Chiefs: Devard Darling, WR
With an 18.1 yards per catch average, Darling showed he could be a dangerous deep weapon for the Ravens last season. The Chiefs don't have a lot of receiving options when you get beyond Dwayne Bowe and Tony Gonzalez, so Darling should be able to jump right into the mix and command enough attention to set career highs in catches, yardage and touchdowns.
Oakland Raiders: Zach Miller, TE
Running back Michael Bush gets some consideration here, but he's got a crowded backfield to deal with at this point. Meanwhile, Miller quickly rose to the cream of the rookie tight end crop. He'll be a big, reliable option that JaMarcus Russell will be able to pick out easily. And considering the crop of pass catchers beyond Ronald Curry, Miller should be able to get into the 60-catch, 600-yard range in his second year.
Dallas Cowboys: Anthony Spencer, LB/DE
Spencer held his own when he was filling in as a starter for the injured Greg Ellis, but he was never able to find a comfort level. The coaching staff likes his athleticism and would like to find a way to rotate him into the linebacker mix even more, as well as get him up on the line of scrimmage. With Ellis turning 33 in August, Dallas will be looking to keep him fresh, which should translate into a platoon situation with Spencer, who will be his eventual replacement.
New York Giants: Steve Smith, WR
The Giants have been perpetually looking for another option at wide receiver beyond Plaxico Burress and an aging Amani Toomer. Smith appeared to finally surface as that player in the postseason, stringing together four straight solid games, including a five-catch, 50-yard effort in the Super Bowl. He should enter 2008 entrenched at the No. 3 wideout spot, with an opportunity to take catches away from both Toomer and Burress.
Washington Redskins: Jason Campbell, QB
Working with head coach Jim Zorn should be a very good thing for Campbell. Zorn is expected to tailor the offense with more of the shorter, quicker routes that should help keep Campbell consistent and improve his turnover ratio. After taking a solid step last year, Campbell should be poised to push his touchdown passes into the 20s.
Philadelphia Eagles: Victor Abiamiri, DE
The Eagles love Abiamiri's combination of size, strength and speed. He only saw six games of action last season, but the coaching staff believes he has the ability to develop into their most complete defensive lineman. He'll have to fight with Juqua Thomas for snaps, but he'll get the opportunity in training camp to win the starting job across from Trent Cole.
Green Bay Packers: Justin Harrell, DT
Harrell was anything but impressive until the final month of the season. However, he gets a mulligan for still being out of shape and rebounding from college injuries. Harrell flat out looks like a dominant defensive tackle. Now, he just has to play the part. Green Bay's trading of defensive tackle Corey Williams shows the Packers have confidence in Harrell. Now, he'll get the starting opportunity to justify being a first-round pick in 2007.
Minnesota Vikings: Sidney Rice, WR
After posting an impressive November and early December, Rice was desperately missed in Minnesota's final two games (both losses). He showed he's got the size and speed to be a prototype wideout, and he should thrive next to Bernard Berrian – even with the quarterback issues. Health permitting, he could double last year's catches (31) and receiving yardage (396).
Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson, WR
The second overall pick in last year's draft put up decent numbers (756 receiving yards and four touchdowns), but the Lions envision him as a 1,400 yard, 10-touchdown type. And now that Mike Martz is gone, Johnson will get far more opportunities to be a go-to option, rather than guys like Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey. Roy Williams will still be featured, but it's not inconceivable that Johnson pushes to wear Detroit's receiving crown next season.
Chicago Bears: Greg Olsen, TE
Despite catching 39 balls last season, Olsen looked like an underutilized piece for the Bears. And now that Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad are gone, he should become a more favored target, even with the increased roles of Devin Hester and Mark Bradley in the receiving corps. In fact, it might be Olsen – and not Hester – who develops into the toughest matchup in the passing game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gaines Adams, DE
After a slow start, Adams flashed the ability that made him the 2007 draft's elite defensive end. In Tampa Bay's final seven regular season games and one playoff contest, Adams racked up 5½ sacks. With an offseason of adding strength, he looks like he could post a double-digit sack total in 2008.
Carolina Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett, WR
Jarrett got sporadic opportunities last season, but Carolina's coaching staff appears dedicated to giving him a shot this year. Keary Colbert and Drew Carter are both gone via free agency. Even with the pickup of Muhsin Muhammad and the expanded role of Jeff King, Jarrett should get plenty of chances. But he's got to show better practice and study habits first.
New Orleans Saints: Robert Meachem, WR
The first-round pick lost all of last season to injury, but Meachem will be given ample opportunity to win the No. 3 wide receiver spot from Devery Henderson, who returned to the team this offseason on a one year deal. Prior to his injury, Meachem’s best assets were speed and athleticism, and New Orleans could have used both last season
Atlanta Falcons: Michael Turner, RB
Turner, a free agent addition from the Chargers, is the no-brainer. He's making starting running back money, and his blend of power and solid speed should do well on Atlanta's turf. In five seasons, Turner has never eclipsed a season rushing total higher than 502 yard or scored more than three touchdowns. He'll get enough touches to top both of those numbers by midseason in 2008.
Seattle Seahawks: Brandon Mebane, DT
Mebane stepped in as a starter last season when Chuck Darby went down with a knee injury. The Seahawks were very happy with Mebane's ability to hold his position and disrupt opposing running games. He made Darby expendable and should be a strong staple at defensive tackle for years to come.
Arizona Cardinals: Steve Breaston, WR
Breaston showcased his explosive ability in the return game last season, and now that Bryant Johnson has moved on in free agency, Breaston will get a shot at the No. 3 wideout spot. His speed makes him a frightening option out of the slot. The only question is whether the Cardinals can find a way to consistently transition Breaston's talents into the receiving game – something he was never able to do in college.
San Francisco 49ers: Dontarrious Thomas, LB
Thomas has great tools – size, speed and athleticism. But he had trouble with Minnesota's scheme after looking like he was going to be a star early. His role steadily diminished in Minnesota. Now entering his fifth year and with a change of scenery, he's got a shot to rekindle the lightning in a bottle he delivered in 2004. Playing next to Patrick Willis, he could rack up tackles in bunches.
St. Louis Rams: Adam Carriker, DT/DE
The Rams think Carriker has star written all over him, and he debuted with a very respectable rookie season. He's got the frame to get stronger, which will be the focus of his offseason. He shows all the signs of being a franchise anchor on the defensive line. And he makes guys who play next to him better (see: Clifton Ryan).