2012 NFL Predictions: Projecting the NFL All-Sophomore Team
NFL players usually make quite the leap in their understanding of the game between their rookie and sophomore seasons. This often leads to an improvement in performance, and with a shortened offseason last year, this should be even more true for the 2011 NFL draft class.
That means players like Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Von Miller and Patrick Peterson are going to be even better this year than they were last year—a frightening thought for their opponents.
Here's a look at which players we predict to make that leap during their sophomore season. Here is the 2012 NFL All-Sophomore Team.
Selection: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
This selection was quite easy, as Newton proved last year that he will be a top starting quarterback in the NFL for years to come.
While Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton deserves major respect for getting his team to the playoffs in his first year under center, Newton is the clear choice here.
There simply hasn't been a sophomore quarterback as exciting to watch as Newton in a long time. He'll need to improve his efficiency as a passer in 2012, but a full offseason to work with will certainly help him.
While the signing of Mike Tolbert will take away from Newton's 14 rushing touchdowns as a rookie, he is still a threat to break a big play with his legs every time a play breaks down. In fact, his legs are nearly as deadly as his arm in the Panthers offense.
Look for Newton to not only separate himself as the best sophomore quarterback in the league, but also to establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
Selections: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys and Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals
While Murray was able to show flashes of his potential last year before suffering a fractured ankle in December, Williams was never able to see the field as a rookie due to a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee suffered before the start of the season.
However, both Murray and Williams have the potential to be every-down backs in the NFL when healthy.
Murray will enter the season as the No. 1 running back in Dallas and will certainly be a major part of the offense for the Cowboys. His ability to make plays as both a running back and wide receiver helped him gain just under 1,100 total yards in only 13 games.
Despite Williams having to initially split carries with Beanie Wells in Arizona, it shouldn't be too long before he's getting the majority of the carries for the Cardinals. Wells has been inconsistent since entering the league in 2009, and Williams was drafted to bring stability at running back for Arizona.
With both Murray and Williams expected to be a major part of their respective offenses, they should provide plenty of exciting plays during their sophomore campaigns.
Selections: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals and Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
As much as I'd love to put players like Doug Baldwin, Randall Cobb or Denarius Moore on this team, they simply aren't in the same league as either Green or Jones.
The Bengals and Falcons struck gold when they drafted receivers that will be top players in the NFL for many years.
Both Jones and Green showed last year that they're ready to enter the conversation as premier receivers in the league. Their combination of sure hands and elite playmaking abilities make them threats on all levels of the field.
Jones and Green will continue to perform at a high level during the 2012 season, and they will distance themselves even further from the rest of the 2011 draft class.
Selection: Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Playing behind Visanthe Shiancoe and having a rookie quarterback throwing him the ball wasn't good for Rudolph's numbers. He only managed 26 receptions, 249 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season.
However, with Shiancoe gone and Christian Ponder a year more experienced, Rudolph is in for a breakout season for the Vikings in 2012.
His overall size at 6'6" and 258 pounds combined with his route-running ability and athleticism will make him one of the more difficult tight ends to slow down for opposing defenses.
Playing in the pass-happy NFC North means the Vikings will need to put up points in a hurry in a good portion of their games. That will give Rudolph plenty of opportunities to show just how talented of a player he is.
Selections: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys and Gabe Carimi, Chicago Bears
Carimi was billed as one of the most NFL-ready rookies and lived up to that billing during the first two games of his professional career.
Unfortunately, Carimi suffered a knee injury during Week 2 and missed the rest of the season.
While Carimi was considered extremely NFL-ready, Smith was supposed to be a major project for the Cowboys. However, Smith started all 16 games for Dallas as a rookie and proved that he is one of the best young offensive tackles in the NFL.
Both the Bears and Cowboys should be thankful that they have such talented youngsters holding down their respective offensive lines.
Selections: Danny Watkins, Philadelphia Eagles and John Moffitt, Seattle Seahawks
Both Moffitt and Watkins played only a portion of the 2011 season, but they showed enough potential to be key components of their respective teams' success this season.
Whereas Moffitt was a starter from Week 1 for the Seahawks and had his season cut short, Watkins didn't start his first game until Week 5.
Neither Watkins nor Moffitt will become All-Pro players this year, but they should still have solid years for two teams hoping to make a run at the playoffs.
Selection: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
This was probably the hardest position to decide, because both Wisniewski and Rodney Hudson of the Kansas City Chiefs are great choices to start at center.
However, Wisniewski started every game his rookie season, and even though he played left guard last year, his transition to center should be fairly smooth.
Wisniewski was a huge reason why the Raiders' ground game was one of the most successful units at the start of the 2011 season. He consistently opened huge holes for Darren McFadden and Michael Bush to run through.
The Raiders will once again count on Wisniewski to make room for McFadden to run, and he certainly won't disappoint.
Selections: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans and Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
While Watt is a pretty clear selection due to his dominant play from day one for the Texans, McPhee might seem like a surprise choice to some.
However, McPhee was a key component of the Ravens defense, notching six sacks in limited playing time.
His production will increase in 2012 due to the offseason injury Terrell Suggs suffered. He'll need to beat out Arthur Jones for a starting spot, but he is the more talented player and should begin the season as the starting left defensive end.
As for Watt, if he continues to improve during the offseason, he should enter the season as one of the best defensive ends in football. In fact, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller already considers Watt the seventh-best defensive end in the NFL.
These two should continue to anchor the defensive line for their respective teams and excel at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Selections: Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills and Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
With the Bills bringing in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in the offseason, Dareus will make the move from defensive end to defensive tackle this year.
This is a more natural position for him, so he should see plenty of success in his second year in the league.
As for Casey, he started the majority of his rookie season for the Titans and proved to be quite the steal as a third-round draft pick. He was one of the best defensive players for Tennessee last year as he made a habit of making plays in the opponent's backfield.
In fact, he had the most tackles for any defensive lineman on the Titans roster.
Another year for both of these players will mean they'll be stronger and smarter, which will make them even more dangerous and constant headaches for whoever they're playing.
Selections: Von Miller, Denver Broncos and Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
There should be absolutely no shock with these selections, as Miller and Smith were easily the two best rookie outside linebackers last year. That's why they finished No. 1 and No. 2 in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Both Miller and Smith excel at getting pressure on the quarterback, which was evident by their 25.5 combined sacks as rookies. The possibility of that sack total increasing is extremely likely, especially when you consider that Smith was mostly used as a third-down pass-rusher.
He'll likely see more time on the field in his sophomore season, and that should mean even more sacks.
Whereas Smith was sort of a one-trick pony as a rookie, Miller was a more complete player. Not only could he rush the quarterback, he also caused turnovers and played well against the run. In fact, he played such a dominant all-around game that he was voted to the 2011 All-Pro team.
With Smith and Miller at outside linebacker for the All-Sophomore team, quarterbacks should be scared for their lives.
Selection: Bruce Carter, Dallas Cowboys
Middle linebacker was the hardest position to pick a player for, simply because there weren't many to choose from.
Mason Foster of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was really the only other option, but his play dropped off dramatically during the second half of the season, which usually doesn't bode well for a sophomore campaign.
Despite playing mostly outside linebacker in college, Carter will likely start the season at inside linebacker for the Cowboys this year. While his instincts aren't nearly as good as you'd want for an inside linebacker, his athleticism and ability to make plays against both the run and pass should make him a valuable asset to Dallas' defense.
Look for Carter to make the most of his opportunity as a starter this year and learn his new position rather quickly.
Selections: Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens and Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Cornerback is going to be another strong point of this team because both Smith and Peterson have the talent to become shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL.
Despite seeing limited time as a rookie, Smith's presence was still felt on the field for the Ravens. This year, he should see the majority of snaps at right cornerback, and he should make the most of his time on the field.
His size and physicality make him capable of lining up against and shutting down any type of receiver.
While Peterson may not be as talented a pure cornerback as Smith right now, he is certainly a better playmaker. His play on defense was often overshadowed by his dazzling punt returns, but he showed vast improvements in his cover skills over the course of the season.
A full offseason should do wonders for the play of both Smith and Peterson.
Selections: Chris Conte, Chicago Bears and Quinton Carter, Denver Broncos
Neither Conte nor Carter were expected to be key parts of their teams' plans last year, but they both stepped up in a big way during their rookie seasons.
They'll be relied on even more during their sophomore campaigns if their respective teams want to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Both Conte and Carter play extremely well against the run, but they'll both need to improve in their second year against the pass. During the regular season, they combined for only one interception, a number that will need to drastically improve as the league becomes more pass-oriented.
If they can make that leap in the passing game, they should both be vital members on two of the better defenses in the league.
Selections: KR/PR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers, K Alex Henery, Philadelphia Eagles and P Matt Bosher, Atlanta Falcons
Had Patrick Peterson not made the roster as a cornerback, he would have made it as the return man. However, Cobb is just as dangerous, as was evident by his two return touchdowns during his rookie season.
At kicker and punter, both Henery and Bosher solidified themselves as starters as rookies, with Henery setting an NFL rookie record for field-goal accuracy.