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A breakdown of this year's potential breakthrough players

They aren't stars yet, but they could become stars this season — a look at 10 NFL players who should be popping up on everyone's radar soon, beginning this month at training camps.

July 10, 2010|Sam Farmer

You might not recognize them, but they line up alongside such NFL stars as Ray Lewis, Aaron Rodgers and DeMarcus Ware.

You might not see them in commercials, but they have caught the eye of such notable coaches as Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Mike Singletary.

These players don't have the big-money endorsements or household names — yet — but they could be on the verge of a career breakthrough.

Ten up-and-coming players to eyeball as NFL training camps approach:

TERRELL THOMASCornerback, Giants

Thomas, in his third year out of USC, was penciled into the starting lineup after fellow corner Aaron Ross suffered a hamstring injury. When Ross got healthy, he didn't slide back into his position but was moved to safety. That was a testament to how well Thomas played in relief.

Thomas, who had five interceptions and 13 pass breakups last season, is not only a fundamentally sound player with good instincts, but also a playmaker. He does a great job muscling slot receivers, so it's likely he'll move inside quite a bit.

STEPHEN BOWENDefensive end, Cowboys

The smiling, baby-faced Bowen doesn't look the part of defensive menace, at least in the locker room. He can create havoc, though, and good things frequently happen for the Cowboys when he's on the field.

Bowen is a dangerous third-down pass rusher who had three sacks and 33 pressures last season. His role could increase this year, as the Cowboys seem to be phasing out defensive end Marcus Spears. In an ominous sign for Spears, a first-round pick in 2005, his new deal will pay him $1.23 million this season, considerably less than the twin $1.75-million deals just received by backups Bowen (undrafted, 2006) and Jason Hatcher (third round, 2006).

DARIUS BUTLERCornerback, Patriots

When you play in the same division as receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, you need consistent play in the secondary. Butler will give that to the Patriots, who often struggled there last season.

Butler, a second-round pick in 2009 out of Connecticut, is an upgrade at right corner from Shawn Springs, 35, who's really showing his age. Butler also is a far more reliable option at the spot than Jonathan Wilhite.

Leigh Bodden is still New England's best corner, and first-rounder Devin McCourty is a promising rookie, but the opportunity is there for Butler to step into the spotlight.

JUSTIN FORSETTRunning back, Seahawks

Forsett, in his third season out of Cal, is everything LenDale White wasn't — undersized, dedicated, productive, and an instant Pete Carroll favorite.

The Seahawks had the league's 26th-ranked running game last season, but they might have been much more effective had they put the ball in Forsett's hands. The 5-foot-8, 194-pound back averaged 5.4 yards in 114 carries with four touchdowns, and caught 41 balls out of the backfield. He was far more explosive than Julius Jones, who was limited to fewer than 50 yards in more than half of his starts last season.

DASHON GOLDSON Safety, 49ers

If San Francisco is going to compete for the NFC West title this season, it's going to be on the strength of its defense. Goldson has Pro Bowl potential in a secondary that hasn't made a lot of big plays in recent years.

A fourth-round pick from Washington in 2007, Goldson needed some time to learn his angles and assignments, and got that as a backup to steady but unspectacular veteran Mark Roman. Now, it's the understudy's chance to step forward.

The Cardinals, for one, are very familiar with Goldson's potential. In a game against Arizona last December, he had an interception and forced two fumbles. A glimpse of things to come?

JERMICHAEL FINLEYTight end, Packers

Green Bay fans know Finley well, so it's not as if he's toiling in anonymity. But he should garner his share of national attention this season, especially with the continued rise of quarterback Rodgers.

After catching just six passes as a rookie, Finley beat veteran Donald Lee for the starting job last year and finished with 55 catches, one shy of Paul Coffman's franchise record for tight ends.

In the epic wild-card loss at Arizona, Finley turned in the second most productive game by a tight end in NFL playoff history. He caught six passes for 159 yards — seven yards fewer than San Diego's Kellen Winslow amassed against Miami in 1982.

CHRIS WILLIAMS Offensive tackle, Bears

Williams has moved from right to left tackle, where he'll protect the blind side of former Vanderbilt teammate Jay Cutler. Tackles don't get a lot of help in Mike Martz's offense, so the Bears have to put a lot of trust in the guys in those spots.

Williams is a good blocker with quick feet, and he probably picked up a few pointers from All-Pro Orlando Pace last season. A big test will come in Week 2, when the Bears play at Dallas, and Williams will be responsible for keeping Ware at bay.

LARDARIUS WEBBCornerback, Ravens

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