My teammates and I easily have some of the best seats in the Georgia Dome to watch the Falcons play on Sundays. That being said, I've had plenty of time to watch some big plays go down – for better or for worse. As I watch most games, of course, I'm focused on my own performance as a cheerleader, but I also am able to observe and make note of some of the most exciting things that happen on the field. Naturally, when looking at the season in review, there's always a lot of talk and analysis of the team as a whole and the best plays of the season, who stood out and so on and so forth. There's something missing, though. No one has really touched on who really had a breakout year.
After some consideration, I came to my own conclusions regarding this topic. Here are my picks:
5) Rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers
Rodgers proved to be a consistent surprise for me — in a good way. Often used in special offensive packages, especially on the third down, his size and speed proved to be unexpected for many defenses. Not only that, he actually saw a good amount of the ball by way of the pass — he had 188 receiving yards and 21 catches. He ended the season with 205 total yards and one touchdown on the ground, not too bad for a non-starting rookie. I have a distinct feeling we will be seeing much more of this dynamic running back in the future.
4) Second-year defensive tackle Corey Peters
Peters had a heck of a season. I think it's safe to say he is better recognized for his ability to stop the run, but this year he showed up as a pass-rusher, too. He recorded three sacks and was able to consistently threaten opposing offenses by creating pressure with his defensive tackle partner, Jonathan Babineaux. Peters also finished ninth in tackles among all of the DTs in the NFL. Want more proof that he had a pretty incredible season? He was the only DT in the NFC with an interception during the regular season. With a breakout season like this, I think Peters has caught some much-needed positive attention for his standout talent.
3) Second-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon missed five games in 2010 year due to injury, but came roaring back in 2011. He proved he's a defensive powerhouse and registered four sacks and 115 tackles this season. He's got incredible speed and awareness, and is a powerful blitzer. I really believe he stepped up in a major way and made himself a serious asset to the defensive unit. He made such huge impact this year that he saw huge numbers when it came to voting for Pro Bowl, and quite frankly, got snubbed this year. The bottom line? He had a standout season, one that many perhaps didn't expect. The even better news? He's just getting started to fully realize his potential with this team.
2) Backup-turned-starting tackle Will Svitek
The offensive line saw a lot of changes this year and often held a lot of question marks because of new starters and injuries. Svitek jumped into the role of starter midway in the season when previous starter Sam Baker went down with a back injury and stepped up immediately. In his 10 starts, he allowed only 1.5 sacks. Clearly, he added an element of stability and was able to securely protect Matt Ryan's blind side. He added serious depth and protection in a role that is key to an offense's success. It's for this reason that Svitek has landed on my list of breakout players. Look for him to continue to improve and compete for a starting position next season, step up as a leader and continue to prove his worth as an offensive tackle.
1) Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones
I'd be remiss not to put this guy at No. 1. The rookie wide-out from Alabama showed up this year ready to play. Even with a nagging hamstring injury, he finished the season with 959 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Not too shabby for a first-year player. He had some heavy expectations placed on him and felt the pressure before he even stepped foot in Flowery Branch. Sure, he's got room to grow, but he is a serious talent to be reckoned with. I can't wait to see what he does on the field next year, especially after a full season under his belt.
- Rookie punter Matt Bosher - Bosher started off the season a touch shaky, but oh, man, when he got comfortable, he became great. I think a lot of people were quick to criticize Bosher, but had a lot more faith in him by the season's end.
- Rookie linebacker Akeem Dent - Dent, a former Georgia Bulldog and third round draft pick, ended up having a monster season on special teams. He made a serious impact with 19 special teams tackles. He proved to be an invaluable asset in coverage and I think we'll be seeing much more of him next season.
More Best of 2011