Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 10/4/12

RB Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots

Ridley was selected in the third round of the 2011 Draft by New England, and did not do much for the Patriots in 2011.

On 87 attempts, Ridley had 441 yards and only one touchdown.

Through four games in 2012, Ridley has almost matched his carries and yardage from a year ago, and has already surpassed his touchdown total. So far this season, Ridley has 74 carries for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

That means he is on pace for over 1,000 yards, and that's while sharing a backfield with rookie Brandon Bolden and fellow second-year player, Shane Vereen. Although he was a third round pick, expectations were high for Ridley and he is finally paying dividends for Belichick.WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Jones was drafted in 2011, when the general manager of the Falcons, Thomas Dimitroff, made the big move to trade up to the sixth overall pick and draft the highly touted receiver from Alabama.

Jones, who was considered one of the safer picks in the Draft, immediately paid off as he played in 13 games last season, tallying 54 catches for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns. This season, he has continued that success, and has stepped up his game. Jones has reached the level where opposing defenses must plan for him.

Through four games this season, Jones has 16 grabs for 219 yards and a trio of touchdowns, he is on pace for a career-best in catches and touchdowns. Jones may very well  be the next great receiver in this league, after all he is learning from one of the best in the game, Roddy White.

LB Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals

The former Texas Longhorn was drafted in the fourth round by the Cardinals in 2011, and has since become one of their very best defensive players. In his rookie season, Acho had 40 tackles, seven sacks, and four forced fumbles.

Pretty good for a fourth-rounder, considering some first and second round picks couldn't put up numbers like that last year. So far in his second season, Acho has become an integral piece of the fierce Cardinal pass rush.

The Cards have one of the leagues best defenses, and it is in part due to the play of Acho. Through four games this season, Acho has 10 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble.

Considering he plays in a front seven with stars such as Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, Acho has had a bigger impact than most would expect. Probably one of the best draft picks the Cardinals have had in the past decade.

RB Mikel Leshoure, Detroit Lions

After missing the entire 2011 season due to injury, and serving his two-game suspension this season, Leshoure has come in and been the back that the Lions so desperately needed. Although they have Jahvid Best, he has struggled with a handful of concussions dating back to his career at Cal, and there are questions as to if he can be an every down, between-the-tackles tailback.

Through two games this season, Leshoure has 39 carries for 126 yards and a touchdown. Now, these may not be eye-popping stats, but consider this: Leshoure did not get a chance to go through training camp or OTAs last year due to the lockout, then missed the whole 2011 season with injury, and this year had to serve his suspension.

Technically, this is his rookie season, if you see where I'm coming from. For his first two NFL games ever, he has played well. He has shown good ability and burst through the hole, and I am excited to see what he can do down the road.

LB Bruce Carter, Dallas Cowboys

Bruce Carter was drafted with the 40th overall pick last year out of North Carolina, and failed to even come close to expectations. In a disappointing rookie season, Carter only tallied eight tackles. For someone who was expected to possibly be defensive rookie of the year, Carter failed miserably.

However, Carter has since redeemed himself. In this young 2012 season, Carter has 22 tackles and has displayed the talent that made him a top pick in the Draft. He is slowly but surely becoming a leader on a star-studded Cowboys defense.

The Cowboys have not had a really great linebacking corps since the 90s when Aikman was still throwing the ball, but with Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, and Bruce Carter, they may be close to having a dominant front seven once again. Only time will tell how great this defense will be, but Carter is surely playing at the level the Cowboys need him to.

QB Christian Ponder, Minnesota

Christian Ponder's story is an interesting one. Coming out of Florida State, Ponder was considered an early second, maybe late first round pick. Everyone was surprised when Minnesota nabbed him 12th overall in 2011.

In the beginning, the plan for Ponder was for him to sit behind veteran passer Donovan McNabb for a season or two before handing him the keys to the franchise. Many did not think that Ponder was ready. Well, they were wrong. Once McNabb had proven he was not going to get it done for the Vikings through five games, head coach Leslie Frazier decided to go with the rookie earlier than planned.

On Ponder's first career pass, he hit Michael Jenkins on a 74-yard play-action pass, and two plays later threw a touchdown to Visanthe Shiancoe. Although they ended up losing that game, Ponder had justified the decision to start him as opposed to a struggling McNabb.

Coming into the 2012 season, not much was expected of Minnesota. With Adrian Peterson coming off an ACL injury and an unproven defense, the Vikings weren't expected to win many games this season. Well, wrong again.

Through four games this season, the Vikings are 3-1, largely due to the play and leadership of Ponder. Ponder has thrown for four touchdowns and no interceptions, and had a rushing touchdown. The Vikes are atop the competitive NFC North and have a real chance at earning a playoff berth if they keep playing like they do. Ponder has played beyond his years, and I expect good things from him in the future.


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