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.
Here are 10 up-and-coming players to eyeball as NFL training camps approach:
CB Terrell Thomas, 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 was moved to safety. That was a testament to how well Thomas played in relief.
With five interceptions and 13 pass breakups last season, Thomas is not only a fundamentally sound player with good instincts, but also a playmaker. He also does a great job muscling slot receivers, so it's likely he'll move inside quite a bit.
DE Stephen Bowen, 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. 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).
CB Darius Butler, Patriots: When you play in the same division 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.
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 on 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.
FS Dashon Goldson, 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 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.
TE Jermichael Finley, 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 Aaron Rodgers.
After catching just six passes as a rookie, Finley beat out 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.
Then, 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 fewer than San Diego's Kellen Winslow amassed against Miami in 1982.
OT Chris Williams, 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 into the guys they have at 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 DeMarcus Ware at bay.
CB Lardarius Webb, Ravens: Webb, who's coming off knee surgery and probably won't be at full speed until late in training camp, is stepping into a high-pressure spot. Playing cornerback is tough anywhere, but it's especially difficult in Baltimore with the way the Ravens leave their corners isolated.
That doesn't seem to be a problem for Webb, a third-round pick from Nicholls State in 2009 who started the final four games of last season. He will likely get the starting job over Fabian Washington.
LB Cameron Wake, Dolphins: The Dolphins could have something special in Wake, who collected 51/2 sacks last season even though he wasn't on the field much. With Jason Taylor and Joey Porter gone, Wake, a two-time defensive player of the year in the Canadian Football League, should see his responsibilities increase in a big way.
DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals: The 6-foot-8 Campbell had seven sacks last season yet should have been in double figures. He let several quarterbacks wriggle away from his grasp, something that still sticks in his head.
This could be a breakout year for him, especially after Arizona got stronger at nose tackle with the addition of first-round pick Dan Williams. With Campbell and Darnell Dockett at the ends, the Cardinals figure to be a worrisome sight for quarterbacks.
Sam Farmer covers the NFL for the Los Angeles Times.
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