NFL Players Primed for Huge Second-Year Leaps

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IFebruary 15, 2013

NFL Players Primed for Huge Second-Year Leaps

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    Successful follow-up or sophomore slump?

    It was a big year for rookie quarterbacks and rookies in general in 2012. From Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, there were some outstanding debuts this past season.

    But in today’s world, what really matters is the answer to the question: What have you done for me lately?

    So we’re taking a look at some players who may make a quantum leap (or even a hop, skip and a jump) and make an even bigger impression in 2013.

    In compiling this list, we took into account last season’s performance and combined that with potential and opportunity. And while there may be a surprise or two, some of this forecasting is done on a right-place-at-the-right-time basis.

    Obviously, we are leaving out numerous qualified candidates when you consider that there were 253 players drafted last April. And that’s obviously not counting the rookie free agents that are scattered throughout the league right now.

    As for those omissions per se, feel free to add or suggest who you feel is due for a sensational second season in the NFL.

Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    How do you improve on a season in which you inherited a team that won two games in 2011 and helped transform it into a playoff participant?

    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was the first overall pick in 2012 and by the end of the season, he had established himself as the leader of a squad that won 11 games and earned an unlikely postseason berth.

    Luck threw for an NFL rookie-record 4,374 yards this past season, totaling 23 touchdown passes while running for a team-high five scores. He also earned a reputation for being undaunted and was able to bring his team back from behind.

    But those 23 scores through the air were matched by 23 turnovers, including 18 interceptions. Luck also fumbled 10 times in 16 games and lost five of them. In the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he threw one interception and lost a fumble in the 24-9 loss.

    Ball security figures to be Luck’s No. 1 offseason priority.

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    In 2012, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and led his team to a division title.

    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led his club to 11 victories and a playoff win.

    So why are we talking Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill here?

    While the aforementioned youngsters could equal or surpass many of their accomplishments, Tannehill is at the control for a new-look team that despite its 7-9 record opened a few eyes this past year.

    The former wide receiver made just 19 starts as a quarterback at Texas A&M but nearly equaled that last season in the pros (16). Tannehill completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 3,294 yards and a dozen touchdown throws. He also threw 13 interceptions, part of 17 total turnovers on the season, and was sacked 35 times.

    But look for the talented up-and-comer, with a little help from his teammates, to up his touchdown total and improve on that completion percentage. With that and an assist from a very solid defense, the Dolphins could be very intriguing to watch in 2013.

Daryl Richardson, RB, St. Louis Rams

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    St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 10,135 yards.

    Jackson will also become an unrestricted free agent in early March if the team doesn’t re-sign him.

    And that’s where Daryl Richardson could fit in prominently.

    The seventh-round pick from Abilene Christian saw his share of action last season, finishing second on the team with 475 yards rushing on 98 carries. He also caught 24 passes for 163 yards. However, Richardson is still looking for his first NFL touchdown.

    If the Rams opt to part ways with Jackson, don’t be surprised to see Richardson, the next-to-last player selected in the 2012 NFL draft (252nd overall), elevated to the top spot on the depth chart. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher knows that a strong ground attack is a must in the NFC West these days and the youngster may very well be up to the task if so called upon.

    In any case, look for his 2013 workload to increase.

David Wilson, RB, New York Giants

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    It’s only natural to assume that David Wilson, the final pick in the first round last April, takes over as the main man in head coach Tom Coughlin’s backfield.

    And that may have been coming even if 1,000-yard rusher Ahmad Bradshaw was still on the roster.

    Wilson finished third on the team with 358 yards and four touchdowns while one of his four receptions also went for a score. But where he did the most damage was on special teams, leading the NFL with 1,533 yards on kickoff returns.

    More significant was his protection of the football. Wilson lost a fumble in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, but he did not fumble the remainder of the season.

    He will add a very interesting full-time dynamic to the Giants’ attack.

Mohamed Sanu, WR Cincinnati Bengals

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    Last season Calvin Johnson had at least 154 receiving yards in four separate games.

    So how can you get excited about a player that had only 154 receiving yards during all of 2012?

    Second-year Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had just started to find his groove as a pass-catcher before he was lost for the rest of the season in late November.

    And while earning any attention as a wideout in the Queen City unless your name is A.J. Green may be difficult, don’t be surprised if the former Rutgers product picks up where he left off in 2012.

    Despite seeing action in only nine games last season, Sanu totaled 11 of his 16 catches and all four of his touchdowns in his final three appearances as he eased his way into the starting lineup. Up until then, he was best known for throwing the longest scoring pass of the season for Cincinnati in 2012, a 73-yard strike to Green in a Week 3 win over the Washington Redskins.

    Now with a year under his belt, you can look for Sanu to take a significant step forward this fall.

Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans

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    Insert nicknames or puns here.

    When you have the last name of Wright, it makes life easier for writers and fans in their attempt to show their appreciation for your skills and production.

    Just make sure you don’t get it wrong.

    The former Baylor standout did just that in 2012 as Wright led the Tennessee Titans with 64 catches this past season and tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions. What he needs to improve is his big-play ability.

    Wright’s catch total resulted in just 626 yards, a disappointing 9.8 yards per reception for a wide receiver. Consider that teammate Nate Washington caught 18 fewer passes (46) but for 120 more yards (746), averaging 16.2 yards per grab.

    With quarterback Jake Locker taking his lumps last season, the Titans’ passing attack was inconsistent at best.

    Look for that to change in 2013 and for Wright to be a big part of that improvement.

Kelechi Osemele, OL, Baltimore Ravens

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    Life is good when your first season in the National Football League results in a Super Bowl championship.

    Safe to say it’s good to be Kelechi Osemele, whom the Baltimore Ravens selected in the second round in 2012.

    What was even better was the consistency of the former Iowa State product. The versatile Osemele started all 16 games during the regular season at right tackle for John Harbaugh’s team. And when the team decided to overhaul the entire offensive front prior to the start of the playoffs, the 6'5", 335-pound performer opened at left guard for all four of the Ravens’ postseason contests.

    Harbaugh’s decision was certainly somewhat of a gamble, especially when you consider that Osemele was situated next to veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who hadn’t started a game all season.

    You have to figure the Ravens won't mess with success, and they could have themselves a star at guard that bears watching...or avoiding.

Derek Wolfe, DE, Denver Broncos

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    Some perhaps thought it was strange that last April the Denver Broncos, a team that won just eight regular-season games, would trade out of the first round.

    But John Fox and company got just the man they were looking for in Derek Wolfe.

    The second-round pick out of Cincinnati helped Jack Del Rio’s unit finish second overall in the league in total yards allowed in 2012, including third against the run. The Denver defense held 13 of its 16 opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground.

    Wolfe started all 16 games for the 13-3 Broncos in 2012, totaling 40 tackles and finishing third on the team with 6.0 sacks. 

    Unfortunately, the Broncos defense did give up 155 yards rushing in the team's double-overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    That should be incentive enough for Wolfe, who hopes to spend a little more time in opposing backfields come September. Don’t bet against it.

Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks

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    With the 15th overall pick, the Seattle Seahawks selected Bruce Irvin, defensive end, West Virginia.


    If there was indeed a curveball in last April’s first round of the 2012 NFL draft, it was the Seahawks’ selection of Irvin, who wasn’t lacking talent but certainly wasn’t expected to be selected so early in the process.

    Well, it’s safe to say head coach Pete Carroll rolled the dice on a few picks last season. In the case of Irvin, it was a pair of fours as in 8.0 sacks, the second-highest total on the team.

    But instead of craps, Carroll is hoping he can play a little Yahtzee in 2013. Irvin played in 16 games (despite not starting one of those) and totaled only 17 tackles. And his eight sacks came in a total of six contests.

    Irvin added a sack in the playoff win over the Washington Redskins but was held to one tackle in the loss to the Atlanta Falcons, his lone start of the season.

    You can look for all of his numbers, from tackles to sacks, to increase across the board in 2013.

Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    In one season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from the worst rushing defense in the league to the best.

    While some of that improvement was due to the team’s deficiencies against the pass, you have to give credit where credit is due for such an extraordinary jump.

    And while defensive tackle Gerald McCoy went to the Pro Bowl last season, you can’t ignore the contributions of rookie Lavonte David in 2012.

    Last April’s second-round pick from Nebraska led Greg Schiano’s team with 139 tackles (112 solo), 34 more stops than fellow linebacker Mason Foster. David also totaled 2.0 sacks, five passes defensed and an interception.

    The Buccaneers won six of their first 10 games before slumping down the stretch. And there are still some issues on the defensive side of the football.

    After one very productive season, David doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans

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    For the second season in a row, the Houston Texans finished the season with 44 sacks, a franchise record.

    Of course, we know nearly half (20.5) came from 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

    But where did the rest of those sacks come from? Defensive end Antonio Smith was second on the team with 7.0 sacks.

    And rookie outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus got to the quarterback a half-dozen times. The former first-rounder totaled 25 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles in 16 games, four of which he started.

    In defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme, linebackers have rolled up some impressive sack totals over the years (witness Connor Barwin’s total of 11.5 sacks in 2011). And you can look for the former Illinois standout to up his totals in 2013 now that he has a little experience under his belt.

    While expecting Watt to duplicate his amazing performance would be extremely difficult, it may indeed be Mercilus who picks up any “slack” this fall.

Harrison Smith, FS, Minnesota Vikings

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    While no one was shocked that the Minnesota Vikings selected USC tackle Matt Kalil early in Round 1 last April, there was a bit of a surprise when the team grabbed Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith later that evening.

    It was certainly a move that paid off. Harrison finished second on the team in both tackles (103) and passes defensed (11) and tied for the team lead with three interceptions, returning two of those thefts for scores.

    The play of Smith was one reason the Vikings allowed 348 points in 2012, 101 fewer points than the previous season (449) when the Purple Gang won just three games.

    All told, Smith totaled four of the team’s 25 takeaways and that’s where you could see the most noticeable improvement this fall. Leslie Frazier’s club totaled just 10 interceptions this past season and gave up 28 scores through the air. In 2011, Minnesota surrendered a league-high 34 touchdown passes.

    If Smith can up his ball-hawking totals, this could be a very intriguing Vikings’ defensive unit this upcoming season, one that has its work cut out for itself in the NFC North.