For every player who takes the NFL by storm, there are twenty who make their mark through incremental progress.
They toil season after season, offseason after offseason, to prove themselves worthy.
Count Sean Jones among those players. The Browns strong safety has improved steadily in each of his four years in the league and is now considered by some a Pro Bowl-caliber talent.
He ventured no easy path. Jones lost his first season in the NFL to a knee injury, then played sparingly in 2005. But he landed a starting spot in 2006, intercepting five passes along the way, and matched that total a year ago. He played the best football of his career in the second half of 2007.
"It was kind of rough having that injury my first year," he admits. "Sometimes people come into the NFL and have tremendous rookie years or tremendous second years, then fade out. I don't want to be that guy. I want to play for a while."
Jones has already played for a while, at least in comparison to his peers in the depleted Cleveland secondary. With Leigh Bodden traded to Detroit and Daven Holly sidelined for the season, Jones is now the veteran of the defensive backfield who will be depended upon greatly to bring stability and a consistent performance. Young cornerbacks Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright will certainly need his help.
Jones and his teammates will be challenged by what appears to be a brutal schedule and challenging offensive tests throughout the season. He realizes that it's time to rise to the occasion.
"We're a team that can't just run over and look past opponents," he says. "We're going to have to go out there and prove that we belong. It's in that type of atmosphere where we're going to have to show what kind of players we really are. But if you don't set goals for yourselves, then what are you really playing for?
Jones' goals in 2008 are both team-oriented and individual.
"We came one game short of the playoffs last year and we would be remiss if we didn't come out this year and strive to make the playoffs and take it to the next level," he says. "And I want to play in the Pro Bowl. I think as long as your teammates jell together, they have your back and you have theirs and everything is going to be fine."
Jones will certainly be tested this season, greatly because opposing offenses will try to pick on the young Browns cornerbacks. That could lead to interception opportunities, but it could also result in long touchdown passes if he and his teammates in the secondary take too many chances.
He understands that. But he also doesn't feel the lack of experience in the defensive backfield places any extra weight on his shoulders.
"I don't think there's really any added pressure," says Jones, who has racked up 212 tackles in the last two seasons combined. "We're going to miss Daven this year, but we all get paid to do this and we have guys like Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald coming back and the additions to the defensive line (Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams) are going to alleviate some of that pressure with that pass rush.
"You just can't come out and play scared in the NFL, especially if you're a defensive back. You have to come out loose and just play."
Jones has been doing that since taking over the starting strong safety spot. And Browns coach Romeo Crennel has been quite pleased with his progress. He simply hopes it continues because a strong effort from Jones will take on added importance in 2008.
After all, not only will the secondary be playing short-handed, but a woeful defense prevented the Browns from competing for a Super Bowl berth last season. For that weakness to be transformed into a strength, a strong and steady Jones is a must.
"We're expecting Sean to be a very solid player for us," Crennel says. "We was very productive the last half of the year and he was productive for us the previous year as well, so we expect him to be a productive safety."
The key word is obviously "productive." If Jones isn't this year, the Browns defense likely won't be either. And if it isn't, the giddy thoughts of a playoff spot dancing in the heads of the players, coaches and fans will be dancing out of their heads by midseason.