NFL Football: Top Soaring, Not Slumping, Sophomores

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NFL Football: Top Soaring, Not Slumping, Sophomores
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You want to talk rookies, I get it. 

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are as NFL-ready (and likable) as they come; Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram are instant stars on defense; Luke Kuechly and Kendall Wright are guaranteed to fly around and make plays; Bruce Irvin and Janoris Jenkins are high-risk, high-reward prospects; Derrick Shelby and Rod Streater lead a list of undrafted free agents worth checking out.

But what about the sophomores, those old geezers?

Lost in the new season scent is the second-year pro, often discarded and counted among the ocean of "veterans."

I get it, there's no such thing as "Offensive/Defensive Sophomore of the Year" or "Second-Year Stud of the Season"—or any other such award.  

And when they are finally discussed, the word "slump" invariably sneaks its way into a sentence or two. Like, "That Cam Newton is definitely headed for a sophomore slump" or "Boy, that Sam Bradford sure knows how to do the Slumpty Dance."

For this article, I choose not to focus on the slump, but rather the jump; The jump in production that often occurs once a player is up to speed and has a year of experience under his belt.   

The following second-year players—some produced as a rookie, some didn't—will see a jump in their production this season. I call them the "Soaring Sophomores."

 

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

You know the old advice about not putting all your eggs in just one basket? Well, don't, unless you're the Atlanta Falcons and that basket is a 6'3" wide receiver who runs a 4.39 forty-yard dash—a.k.a. Julio Jones. 

Atlanta traded away an abundance of picks (five total) to move up in the 2011 NFL Draft and select Jones. The bold move, though questioned by many at the time, worked. Jones caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games during his rookie year. Now healthy and more comfortable in the offense, those numbers will swell.    

 

RB Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers

Hunter, not LaMichael James or Brandon Jacobs, is Frank Gore's primary backup and eventual successor. In fact, don't be surprised to see Gore and Hunter split carries in 2012. 

After a solid but not spectacular rookie season—112 rushing attempts for 473 yards and two touchdowns—Hunter has had a spectacular offseason and preseason. On Saturday against the Texans, he had six rushes for 46 yards.

Though slight in stature (5'7", 199 pounds), Hunter is a capable North-South runner and possesses the burst to bounce it outside.   

 

CB Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Larry French/Getty Images

The physical tools have always been there for Smith, who dropped to the bottom of the first round (27) because of character issues. On the field, he's everything you want in a corner: big, fast, physical and athletically gifted. He tracks the ball well in the air and has the size/speed combo to keep up with any receiver in the NFL—really. Off the field, he's matured and no longer a concern.

As the regular season nears, Smith finds himself in a battle to start. Regardless, he'll be a major contributor in the secondary this year—and for several years to come.  

 

OT Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys

Top rookie offensive lineman a year ago makes the switch from right to left tackle—and he'll be fine.

The move to protect Tony Romo's blindside is a move Smith can handle. His technique is sound, movements swift and he is equally strong in both run support and pass protection. Good, cohesive line play could be what propels the Cowboys back into the playoffs.

 

OLB Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

A lot is expected of Houston after a strong finish to 2011. 

The rookie outside linebacker started slow but emerged late in the season to collect 5.5 sacks over the final five games. Houston, alongside Tamba Hali, give the up-and-coming Chiefs defense a component they've missed for years: a consistent pass-rush. Last season, the Chiefs tallied just 29 sacks. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

An increase in playing time for Houston will fix that.  

 

Others Considered:

 

WR Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins

A big, athletic target for RG3. Healthy and listed as the team's No. 3 receiver, Hankerson will see the field (and plenty of throws) this season. 

 

CB Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals

No longer a special teams one-trick pony, Peterson is ready to step up as an elite cover corner. Teammate and All Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald thinks so, as well, even going so far as to label Peterson, "Revis 2.0."

 

DE Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams

Quietly, the Rams have put together an impressive defense. Quinn is to start at end, opposite Chris Long, and the two—combined for 18 sacks in 2011—should terrorize quarterbacks on a weekly basis. 

Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE

 

RB Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots 

Even with the recent signing of Jeff Demps, it's Ridley's job to lose. The departure of free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis has opened the door for the second-year back to start. And he's sprinting through it, literally. 

 

OLB Brooks Reed, Houston Texans

The loss of Mario Williams is easier to swallow knowing Reed returns at outside linebacker. Reed had a solid rookie season, but really took off in the playoffs—3.5 sacks in just two games. He's back, ready to ride the wave of momentum. 

 

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