Philadelphia, PA – Last season, it was Victor Cruz. Arian Foster and Cameron Wake earned the mantle the one before, a year after Miles Austin followed the lead of previous trailblazers like Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Terrell Davis, Tony Romo and Wes Welker.
There's at least one over the course of an NFL season, a player who rises out of obscurity and into the rarified ranks of superstardom with an meteoric ascension that even the most insightful of experts couldn't have seen coming. It's just one aspect of America's most popular professional sport that makes it such a captivating adventure for fans throughout the season.
As teams begin to gear up for training camp during this generally uneventful period of the league calendar, here's a look at a dozen potential candidates who could be ready to amp up their production in the coming season:
RYAN MATHEWS, RB, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Mathews has hardly been anonymous over his first two seasons, with the 2010 first-round choice delivering his first 1,000-yard campaign in addition to catching 50 passes as a sophomore. With former caddy Mike Tolbert now out of the picture, Mathews' numbers look to be in line for a generous spike as San Diego's clear-cut featured back if he can stay healthy and work out some ball- security issues that have plagued him at times as a pro. Coach Norv Turner has a history of relying on a single backfield workhorse (see Emmitt Smith, LaDanian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore), so fantasy players take note.
ROBERT MEACHEM, WR, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
The talented 27-year-old never had more than 45 catches or 722 receiving yards in four seasons as part of a spread-it-around New Orleans offense loaded with quality weapons, but he may be ready to take off in a long-awaited opportunity to be a No. 1 guy with his new team. The Chargers have ranked no worse than seventh in the NFL in passing yards for four straight years.
TITUS YOUNG, WR, DETROIT LIONS
Young is one of a few Detroit players who's encountered a turbulent last few months, with the speedy second-year man barred for a portion of offseason training activities after fighting with teammate Louis Delmas. However, he's gotten back in the good graces by shining in drills since his return and appears poised to supplant declining vet Nate Burleson as the top secondary option opposite Calvin Johnson in the Lions' potentially lethal aerial attack.
PAUL KRUGER, OLB, BALTIMORE RAVENS
No player may be more essential to Baltimore reaching its Super Bowl aspirations than Kruger, who's being counted on to fill the pass-rushing void created by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs' unfortunate Achilles' tear. After amassing 5 1/2 sacks in spot duty last season, it wouldn't be surprising if the Utah native had an impact similar to one of 2011's breakthrough performers, Houston's Connor Barwin, on a Ravens defense that still has plenty of bite.
ISAAC REDMAN, RB, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Redman will be looking to take advantage of an opening provided by injury, with leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall likely to miss at least some of 2012 after tearing his ACL in January. The former practice squad member has averaged 4.5 yards per pop as Mendenhall's backup the past two years and ripped off 121 yards in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Denver, so a big season is certainly well within reach.
BRANDON LAFELL, WR, CAROLINA PANTHERS
LaFell demonstrated a lot of promise by averaging 17 yards per catch in his second pro season and has drawn raves from the Panthers' staff this spring. With continued improvement, the 25-year-old could lend another shot in the arm to a Carolina passing game that's on the verge of elite status with Cam Newton fully expected to take a major step forward from his sensational rookie year.
JUSTIN HOUSTON, OLB, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
A first-round talent who fell to the 70th overall pick of the 2011 draft mainly due to off-field concerns, Houston looked like a possible steal after racking up 5 1/2 sacks over the final five games of his debut season. More familiarity in coach Romeo Crennel's defense and the presence of All-Pro Tamba Hali on the opposite side should have Houston primed to build off last year's furious finish and give the Chiefs one of the league's fiercest duo of pass- rushing linebackers.
MARCELL DAREUS, DT, BUFFALO BILLS
The third overall selection of last year's draft didn't disappoint as a rookie, notching 5 1/2 sacks and playing solid against the run despite interior mate Kyle Williams missing most of the season with an injured foot. With Williams nearing full strength and the Bills bringing in pass-rushing terrors Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency, Dareus could be ticketed for a Pro Bowl-caliber performance as one of the anchors of arguably the best defensive line in the AFC.
DERRICK MORGAN, DE, TENNESSEE TITANS
Morgan's brief career has been mostly a dud to date, with the 2010 first- rounder having recorded a mere 3 1/2 sacks in 19 games over his initial two seasons. But he will be nearly two years removed from an ACL tear that cost him nearly all of his rookie campaign. Better health and the addition of proven pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley should increase his chances of reaching his considerable ceiling in what's shaping up as a make-or-break season.
KELLEN DAVIS, TE, CHICAGO BEARS
The 6-foot-7 Davis has only 28 catches totaling 300 yards in four seasons in Chicago, but has the skills to be far more than just a bit player in an offense that's getting a major makeover in 2012. Departed coordinator Mike Martz often neglected the tight end position in the game plan, and having Mike Tice now calling the plays figures to bode well for the big target's prospects of emerging into a dangerous option for Jay Cutler.
LESTAR JEAN, WR, HOUSTON TEXANS
Jean is easily the most unknown player on this list, an undrafted free agent out of small-school Florida Atlantic who spent his entire rookie season of 2011 on injured reserve with a shoulder problem. The good-sized youngster (6-3, 215 pounds) was having a strong preseason prior to getting hurt, however, and has been wowing onlookers at the Texans' OTA sessions with his hands and athletic ability. Houston doesn't have much alongside Andre Johnson at wide receiver, making Jean the early favorite to become this year's Cruz.
AARON MAYBIN, OLB, NEW YORK JETS
Maybin hasn't shed his bust label just yet, but the 2009 11th-overall pick and Buffalo castoff finally showed signs of living up to his advance billing in a 13-game trial run with the Jets last season, registering six sacks and forcing four fumbles as a situational reserve. He's being ticketed for a more prominent role in coach Rex Ryan's defense this year, and Ryan has a knack for maximizing the available personnel on that side of the ball.