During the 2011 season, the Dallas Cowboys had a few players emerge on both sides of the ball. Most notably on offense, Laurent Robinson virtually came out of nowhere and went on to have a profound impact on the offense. He capitalized on his opportunity by producing 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. DeMarco Murray also seized his moment and displayed a glimpse of greater things to come.
Defensively, Sean Lee not only made his mark as an exceptional tackler, playmaker and leader, but he proved that he will be the floor general of this defense for years to come with his tenacious play. His grittiness and throwback style of play is just what this defense needs as it heads into the future.
Lee wasn't so much an under-the-radar player as he was a second-round pick in 2010, but his stellar play was hard to predict entering last season. As much as Robinson, Lee and a few other players were pleasant surprises during 2011, the Cowboys are looking to replicate those performances in 2012.
Who might some of those players be in 2012? I have a hunch these players will.
Sean Lissemore, DL
Lissemore's time has finally arrived to make an impact on an underachieving defensive line from a year ago. Last season, the defensive line struggled immensely to generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Because of that inability, the secondary gave up big plays and the defense, collectively, suffered as a unit.
Lissemore made the most of his opportunities when called upon last year, and I look for him to build on that in 2012. He was on the field for 283 snaps and compiled 28 tackles and two sacks. On the surface, the numbers aren't staggering, but he's a young player, he's versatile and athletic for his size and he will get more opportunities to play this season.
With the exception of Tyrone Crawford, the Cowboys did not address the defensive line that extensively. One of those reasons is because Sean Lissemore will assume a greater role in 2012. Sit back and watch him succeed.
Victor Butler, LB
The time has arrived for Victor Butler. Point blank, period. Drafted in 2009, Butler has shown flashes of his natural pass-rushing ability, but it's time to elevate his game and be more than just a situational player. In 2011, Butler registered three sacks and nine quarterback pressures while playing 210 snaps. He displays great quickness off the edge or when shooting gaps, and he can be disruptive.
With a full offseason to absorb Rob Ryan's scheme, 2012 will prove to be a breakout season for this young linebacker. If he can show some consistency and take pressure off of Ware and Spencer, this defense can reach new heights and be dominant.
John Phillips, TE
After learning the ropes from Jason Witten and showing great determination in his battle back from a torn ACL, John Phillips is ready for a breakout season as the No. 2 tight end. Although one might question how many opportunities he might get in this role, I wouldn't underestimate it for a second. If Phillips can excel in this role, the Cowboys' offense can run more two-tight end sets, create more vertical opportunities and help DeMarco Murray pound the football through more running lanes.
He has great size and athleticism and if he can regain the form he showed pre-injury, the Cowboys will have a valuable and trusted weapon in this offense. With Witten facing bracket coverage most of the time, the Cowboys need another tight end to step up and deliver. In 2012, Phillips will do just that.
Barry Church, S
His chances seem to get better due to some recent injuries at safety and also because of the fact that Brodney Pool failed his conditioning test. But Barry Church will challenge for a starting position at safety regardless of who's healthy or not. He has great athleticism and size and his versatility will allow him the opportunities he needs to prove he's ready for a breakout season.
Last season, Rob Ryan often played him at linebacker in certain packages, and that just shows you how versatile he can be. He's another young player who will benefit from a full offseason of learning Rob Ryan's scheme.
Ronald Leary, OG
I know he's only a rookie, but aren't most undrafted rookies under the radar? Either way, Leary is not a typical undrafted rookie, and he's starting to turn heads in training camp. He's been alternating between first- and second-team reps but has an excellent shot to stick with the first team. The concern all along has been his knee condition, but he has yet to show any ill effects.
With Bill Nagy tending to a high ankle sprain, Mackenzy Bernedeau recovering from hip surgery and depth a concern, Leary has inserted himself into a prime position. If he seizes control of one of the starting guard spots and excels, he may not relinquish it. I see big things for Leary in 2012, either as a starter or backing up. I see a valuable asset for this team.
Trying to predict breakout players is just as difficult as predicting the outcomes of games. The key in the entire equation is timing and opportunity. For these players, their timing is impeccable because there is either a need for depth or performance at the position or an opportunity to take position outright.
But regardless of the timing or opportunity, the Dallas Cowboys are looking to develop great football players to add to their existing core. The only way to achieve that is to find players who want to be great. The first step is finding those players in 2012 who are ready to break out and be on the radar.
Read more NFL news on BleacherReport.com