Projecting 2011 NFL Rookies Who Will Make Major 2nd-Year Leaps
This fall, some 2011 rookies are primed to make a major statement in their second year in the NFL.
Cam Newton had a great rookie season, but he isn't one of the players who will have a major leap in his second season. This has a lot to do with how impressive he was as a rookie, but it's also because NFL defenses do a great job adjusting. Look for several defenses specifically designed to shut down the talented quarterback.
While Newton won't take a major step in his development, others are primed for a significant increase in production. A lot of the guys on this list appear because of new opportunities, but others, like A.J. Green, have yet to fulfill their potential.
Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
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Pernell McPhee will head into Baltimore Ravens training camp looking to lock down a starting role. His strong rookie season puts him in the driver's seat to take over for Cory Redding, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts via free agency.
The size and quickness combination of McPhee makes him a perfect fit at the 5-technique position. He does a good job keeping the edge while also generating pressure on the quarterback. Because of the injury to Terrell Suggs, McPhee's pass-rush ability will play an important role for the Ravens.
In limited time last season, McPhee tallied six sacks and 23 tackles. Expect to see better production with his increased playing time. Opposing offenses must commit blockers to neutralize Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody and Ray Lewis, which should provide McPhee with plenty of one-on-one opportunities.
McPhee might not top last season's sack total, but he'll be a more disruptive force with his increased playing time. A lot of times a defensive lineman's impact isn't measured by stats, but by how he impacts the timing of the offense.
Jeremy Kerley, New York Jets
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Jeremy Kerley has a great opportunity to win the New York Jets' No. 3 receiver role. His quickness and ability to create in space make him a perfect fit to play in the slot.
The Jets roster currently features receivers like Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill and Chaz Schilens, who all fit better on the outside. Other than Holmes, Kerley is the player most likely to create on his own.
Kerley isn't only a receiving threat, as he also brings value on special teams and in a possible Wildcat role. I expect to see him used in packages that feature Tim Tebow at quarterback. Having both players on the field at the same time will make it difficult for defenses to match up.
His special teams contributions shouldn't be overlooked. He does a good job on coverage teams and also is a threat to score on punt and kick returns. Kerley gives the Jets some versatility and someone who can produce big plays.
James Brewer, New York Giants
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The New York Giants did little to improve their offensive line this offseason. Adding Sean Locklear provides depth but does little to help the starting lineup. However, the unit could get a boost from James Brewer, who figures to push for playing time at both left and right tackle.
Ideally, Brewer lands on the right side, where his size and strength will allow him to effectively open running lanes. He does a good job in pass protection but might get taken advantage of by faster edge-rushers. However, the Giants lack a solid answer at left tackle, so there's an opportunity present.
Training camp will be interesting, as Brewer, Locklear, William Beatty and David Diehl are fighting to claim one of the two starting spots. I expect to see Diehl back at left tackle with Brewer holding down the right side. There's also a possibility that Diehl shifts inside to guard, leaving the tackle spots for Beatty and Brewer.
Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers
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Kendall Hunter has a lot of competition in the San Francisco 49ers backfield, but that doesn't mean he won't increase his production.
Hunter's quickness and balance allow him to gain yards in multiple scenarios. He's someone who can outpace the angles of the defense while also gaining yards between the tackles.
Hunter's reliable hands and development as a pass-blocker make him an excellent fit as the third-down back. He faces competition from LaMichael James, but James struggles protecting the quarterback, which won't help earn him snaps.
Frank Gore's injury history also increases the likelihood of Hunter seeing an increased workload. In the past seven seasons, Gore has only played an entire season twice.
Hunter doesn't need to be worried about Brandon Jacobs taking many carries. Last season, Jacobs averaged a disappointing 3.8 yards per carry. Hunter provides more consistency and big-play potential than Jacobs.
Roy Helu, Washington Redskins
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Roy Helu is slated to compete with Evan Royster and Tim Hightower to be the lead running back for the Washington Redskins.
At this point, Helu has the inside track with only a terrible training camp able to derail his starting hopes. He's the most consistent, explosive and reliable running back on the roster.
Earning the starting job in Washington will mean plenty of opportunities to produce. The addition of players like Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan will open things up for the running game.
Opposing defenses must respect Griffin's ability to deliver an accurate deep ball to the likes of Garcon. This threat will pull defenders out of the box and create better matchups for the offensive line.
Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals
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Heading into the 2011 draft, Sam Acho ranked as one of my top overall pass-rushers, and he was a major steal for the Arizona Cardinals. His ability to use his hands to complement his speed is what makes him so dangerous.
Acho's rookie season showed what type of potential he has as a pass-rusher. Look for him to build on that performance by increasing his sack total.
The one knock on Acho was his bulk and strength, which hurt his ability to play the run. However, he is in the middle of his first complete offseason, where players spend the majority of their time improving their conditioning and strength. Look for Acho to start this season with added weight and a better anchor against the run.
He also has the Cardinals' defensive line as an advantage. Players like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell demand attention, which opens one-on-one opportunities for Acho.
Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins
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Despite the additions of Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, I have Leonard Hankerson as one of my top breakout candidates. He was very underrated coming out of college and has the tools necessary to make a major impact. I expect him and Robert Griffin III to quickly develop a strong relationship.
The addition of Griffin will provide the Redskins receivers with a lot more pass-catching opportunities. There won't only be more passing attempts, but also more catchable footballs.
Garcon will be used as a deep threat to stretch the field, while Hankerson will work both the underneath and deep routes. The fact that Garcon has been more productive over his career should force defenses to pay more attention to his side of the field.
Josh Morgan is very talented but hasn't proven to be a consistent playmaker. Injuries and an inability to take advantage of opportunities make him someone who can't be counted on to produce.
Santana Moss can't be overlooked, but he has a more defined role in the offense. Moss isn't in any danger of being worked out of the game plan.
These factors give Hankerson a great chance to earn significant playing time. His top competition is Morgan, who has a similar skill set.
Jah Reid, Baltimore Ravens
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The departure of Ben Grubbs leaves a major hole along the interior of the Baltimore Ravens offensive line. He was arguably their top offensive lineman, and his loss will be felt if someone can't fill his shoes. Jah Reid figures to get the first crack at the starting job.
Reid is a big and powerful lineman with a good natural bend. His experience is at the tackle spot, but he has the skills needed to transition to guard. Actually, guard might be a better fit, as he struggled in space last season.
The strength of Reid's game is his ability to fire off the ball, get inside hands and drive the defender off the line. This and his strong leg drive will help open running lanes for Ray Rice. At guard, Reid will get assisted by the center and tackle, which helps his issues holding up in space.
However, he still has a future at offensive tackle if a spot should open up. This versatility is something that every team values, and it will lead to a lot of opportunities for Reid.
Stephen Paea, Chicago Bears
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According to Brad Biggs and Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Paea is in line for a larger role with the Chicago Bears this season:
The Bears continue to work him behind starting nose tackle Matt Toeaina and starting three technique Henry Melton. Paea should be in line for 30-to-40 snaps per game.
An injury limited Paea's ability to make an instant impact, but when on the field, he made his presence felt. His ability to both hold at the point of attack and penetrate the pocket makes him a fit at either defensive tackle spot. Don't rule out the possibility that Paea overtakes Matt Toeaina for the starting nose tackle spot.
The Bears want to generate as much pressure possible with their front four. This includes both defensive tackles collapsing the pocket or shooting the gap.
Paea has as much upside as any defensive tackle on the Bears roster. A completely healthy Paea is primed to have a stellar sophomore season.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
As long as the Baltimore Ravens feature a strong running game, Torrey Smith will have opportunities to strike down the field. Baltimore's run-heavy offense features a lot of play-action fakes, which help speedy receivers employ a double move. The only thing keeping Smith from becoming a star is consistency.
Smith has trouble remaining focused and consistently catching the football. At times, he takes his eyes off the ball, which results in a drop. However, he'll be more comfortable in the offense this season, which will limit the nervousness and lack of focus.
The more Joe Flacco and the Ravens trust Smith, the more he'll be worked into the game plan. Look for Smith to top the 1,000-yard mark and average over 17 yards per catch. His increased production might be the piece that pushes this team back to the Super Bowl.
Titus Young, Detroit Lions
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Titus Young had a rough start to the offseason but appears to have found his focus. In the past few weeks, Young has opened the eyes of everybody watching. Coach Jim Schwartz said the following about Titus Young (via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press):
He's worked hard, he's been a good teammate. He's probably looked the best that I've seen him look in this couple-week span. But we just need to keep him on this track because he's been outstanding.
The Detroit Lions' high-octane offense will provide Young with plenty of opportunities. He also benefits from the presence of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford does a good job spreading the ball around and finding the open target.
Because of Johnson drawing extra coverage, Young can expect plenty of one-on-one coverage. When focused, Young is talented enough to make game-changing plays.
Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis Colts
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Injuries limited Anthony Castonzo's impact as a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts, but this season he's being counted on to protect Andrew Luck.
Castonzo is a good athlete who plays with leverage and balance. He's quick enough to consistently protect the edge against speed-rushers and fluid enough to react to counter moves.
A healthy Castonzo will have a major impact on the success and production of Luck. He's expected not only to protect Luck's blind side, but to open running lanes as well. The more productive the running game, the better chance Luck has for success.
Chuck Pagano's plan to employ a two-tight-end-based offense (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk) should help make Castonzo's job easier. This set adds extra blockers in both the run and pass game.
Prince Amukamara, New York Giants
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When the New York Giants were able to land Prince Amukamara, it was seen as a major steal. However, an injury limited his ability to make a difference as a rookie.
According to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, Amukamara will be counted on to hold down the No. 3 cornerback role in 2012.
The NFL's continued push to a pass-heavy league makes having three or even four capable cornerbacks important. Amukamara's athleticism and physical play give him the versatility to cover in the slot or on the outside. He's capable of matching up with quicker wide receivers or bigger targets with size.
New York's questions at linebacker could also contribute to more playing time for Amukamara. In situations where it could feature either a linebacker or cornerback, New York is likely to put the cornerback on the field.
Don't be surprised if Amukamara finishes the season as one of the starting cornerbacks.
Nate Solder, New England Patriots
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The New England Patriots did a great job working Nate Solder into the lineup last season. This experience will help him take over for Matt Light at left tackle.
Heading into last year's draft, Solder was seen as a project with high upside. His size and athleticism allow him to protect the edge against speed-rushers. He also does a good job using his hands to engage and control the defender.
Solder's improved technique and footwork are what make him ready to take on the challenge ahead.
Tom Brady's football IQ and quick release help the entire offensive line. He knows when to get rid of the football, which masks some of the mistakes in protection. Solder will also benefit from lining up next to Logan Mankins. He can allow Mankins to communicate the adjustments and changes in protection.
Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
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The St. Louis Rams' decision to give Robert Quinn inconsistent play last season was a real head-scratcher. He needed playing time in order to shake off the rust of missing his final college season. However, despite not having a defined role, he was able to tally five sacks as a rookie.
So far this offseason, Quinn is turning heads and catching the eye of his defensive line coach Mike Waufle (via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch):
When you're a student of the game, you've got a chance to be able to progress faster. The second thing is that he has speed. He's "God-gifted" like crazy from top to bottom, and this is a speed game.
Quinn isn't only talented enough to make a major impact; he'll also get some help from his teammates. The presence of Chris Long will provide Quinn with plenty of one-on-one opportunities. Those situations will allow him to use his explosiveness to attack the edge and create pressure.
Don't be surprised if Quinn approaches the double-digit sack mark.
Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
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Mike Mularkey isn't holding a quarterback competition because Blaine Gabbert is his starting quarterback. He stated the following about Gabbert's development (via NFL.com):
I've seen improvement over the short time I've been with him, and (in the spring) you get coaching and teaching in a less stressful environment.
We're working on some of the fundamentals in his drops now. Not saying that he was taught it wrong, but every coach has their beliefs. None of them are wrong, but we need to be on the same page on some of those things, and we already started working on that in April. Primarily, it's his drops and balance in the pocket.
While Gabbert had his share of troubles as a rookie, he isn't to blame for his lack of development. The Jacksonville Jaguars rushed him onto the field and surrounded him with inadequate weapons. Adding Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans gives Gabbert a fighting chance to find some kind of success.
However, the most significant addition is the hire of Mike Mularkey as the head coach. His work with Matt Ryan shows that he knows how to develop young quarterbacks. Having a good coach in place and playmakers on the outside will do wonders for Gabbert's development. I expect to see major improvements from the young quarterback.
Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
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The majority of Tyron Smith's football career has been played at the right tackle position. However, this season the Dallas Cowboys shifted him to the left side.
Smith has all the tools necessary to develop into an elite left tackle. Via Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News, "offensive line coach Bill Callahan said Smith hasn’t had any hiccups in making the move from right tackle to left tackle this offseason, adding that the position is 'very natural' for him."
Heading into last year's draft, I had Smith rated as one of my top overall prospects. His combination of athleticism and sound technique showed his overall potential. The concerns about his size and strength were unwarranted, as his use of leverage overcame those issues.
Smith's performance this season will have a major impact on the Dallas Cowboys' playoff hopes. His ability to protect Tony Romo's blind side will help keep Romo healthy and provide time to find open targets. Everyone should keep an eye on Smith, as he's one of the future elite players in the NFL.
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
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As a rookie, Patrick Peterson made headlines with his elite return abilities, but expect to see a bigger impact on defense this year. His combination of size, quickness and fluidity gives him the ability to develop into a shutdown corner. He's capable of matching up with both smaller, quicker receivers and big-bodied targets.
Peterson will still have opportunities to make game-changing plays as a return man, but the Arizona Cardinals need his defense to develop.
As a unit, the Cardinals defense is underrated. They have plenty of talent with the likes of Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Adrian Wilson and Sam Acho on the roster. Acho, Dockett and Campbell's ability to pressure the quarterback will create opportunities for Peterson to utilize his ball skills.
Look for Peterson to find the end zone several times this season, both as a return man and on interceptions. This is a highly talented and high-impact player.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
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Julio Jones made an instant impact as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons but only showed a little of the upside he possesses. So far this summer Jones is turning heads, with coach Mike Smith saying (via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), "He made some very nice catches and he’s been making those types of catches all through camp."
All young wide receivers go through an adjustment period. The NFL game is faster and more complex than college. This is one of the reasons why players like Jones tend to show major improvement in their second season.
Jones also has the benefit of catching balls from a top-notch quarterback like Matt Ryan and having a game-breaking wide receiver like Roddy White on the opposite side of the field. Opposing defenses can't key on one player, which means both White and Jones will see one-on-one opportunities.
There's also the possibility that the Falcons transition into a more pass-heavy offensive attack. Michael Turner is 30 years old and appears to have lost a step. Running backs don't age well, especially those who have 1,189 carries over the past four years. An ineffective running attack will result in more opportunities for the wide receivers.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
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A.J. Green had a stellar rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals and turned a lot of heads. ESPN's Matt Williamson, who has a very high opinion of Green, stated the following:
I think [Calvin] Johnson and Green are the two most gifted wideouts in all of football right now. Green is going to be great. Actually, I am selling him short—he is going to be one of the very best.
The Bengals' recent roster moves also play a role in the future success of Green. This franchise is building a young and talented core. Green and Andy Dalton make up a key part of the roster, and their relationship could lead to great things. Having a quarterback you trust is a major factor in the success of a young receiver.
Offseason additions of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mohamed Sanu, plus a healthy Jordan Shipley, should help draw coverage away from Green. The more the surrounding weapons can make plays, the more favorable matchups Green will receive.