YOUNG PLAYERS WORKING TOWARD NFL SUCCESS
The future is bright for a cast of young NFL players around the league.
"I think we have a solid group of young prospects that come into the league every year because of the good things that they do in high school and college," says NFL.com senior analyst GIL BRANDT, the former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel.
Last year, the Jets' MARK SANCHEZ joined Baltimore's JOE FLACCO as the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to an AFC Championship game. This year, Sanchez has guided the Jets to a 5-1 record.
Sanchez now knows that consistency is key for success in the NFL.
"Last year, I got a perception of this league like, 'Yeah, this is easy,'" says Sanchez. "And it's not. I think maybe I started to buy into all the praise a little bit last year. You start feeling good about yourself and then you go out and get hammered."
Several other AFC players are also enjoying increased production in year two, including Houston running back ARIAN FOSTER, who ranks second in the AFC and fourth in the NFL with 635 rushing yards and is tied for second in the league with six rushing touchdowns, and wide receiver AUSTIN COLLIE of the Colts, who is tied for second in the AFC and is fourth in the NFL with 44 receptions.
A closer look at some of the AFC's outstanding young players:
TE ROB GRONKOWSKI (Round 2, No. 42 overall, Arizona) & TE AARON HERNANDEZ, New England (Round 4, No. 113 overall, Florida):The Patriots' rookie tight end duo has been a welcome addition.
At 6-6, 265 pounds, Gronkowski uses his imposing size to present problems for opposing defenders. Through Week 7, Gronkowski is tied for a team-high and NFL rookie-best with three touchdown receptions.
With two more TD receptions, Gronkowski can surpass RUSS FRANCIS (4 in 1975) and DON HASSELBECK (4 in 1977) for the most touchdown catches by a rookie tight end in Patriots history.
Hernandez, who ranks second among NFL rookies in receiving yards (355) and third in receptions (27), presents a big target for quarterback TOM BRADY. He can challenge franchise records for most receptions (GREG BATY, 37, 1986) and receiving yards (RUSS FRANCIS, 636, 1975) by a rookie tight end in Patriots' history.
"I have watched both tight ends, and they are rookies so they are still learning this game," says Falcons All-Star tight end TONY GONZALEZ. "I do see a future for them. Hernandez has the receiving part down and he can keep improving on that. With Gronkowski, I think he has a pretty good receiving game and he has got the blocking pretty good."
LB KOA MISI, Miami (Round 2, No. 40 overall, Utah):Misi has started four of six games for the Dolphins this season, registering 14 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a team-high two fumble recoveries.
Misi has certainly applied his pass rushing skills. He ranks second among NFL rookies with 3.5 sacks and is on pace to surpass LORENZO BROMELL (8 in 1998) for the most sacks by a rookie in franchise history.
"I think he's doing a really good job, he works hard every single day," says Dolphins All-Star tackle JAKE LONG. "He's a good pass rusher. He's got power, he gets up underneath you (with) good hands…he definitely comes to work every single day."
Miami defensive end CAMERON WAKE, who leads the Dolphins with six sacks, says Misi is a mirror of himself when he first entered the NFL last season.
"Having a young guy out there who's hungry and eager every time they get on the field," says Wake, "kind of reminds me of myself last year trying to get out there and just have a chance to make plays. He's definitely doing well for himself and I obviously expect much more in the future."
C MAURKICE POUNCEY, Pittsburgh (Round 1, No. 18 overall, Florida):Responsible for making line calls and audibles, Pouncey has become a leader for the Steelers' offensive unit. On Kickoff Weekend, Pouncey became the first Steelers rookie center to start his first NFL game since JIM TAYLOR in 1956.