Who Will Make Huge Second-Year Leaps for Each NFL Team?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 17, 2013

Who Will Make Huge Second-Year Leaps for Each NFL Team?

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    It's fun to predict things, right? That's why we love the NFL draft, and that's why we love mock drafts, yearly projections and everything filed under that category.

    So now that we have the ability to reflect on what the 2012 NFL draft class was able to do, let's participate in an annual tradition by attempting to prognosticate which second-year players will take big leaps on every team in 2013.

Arizona Cardinals: Michael Floyd

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    I hate to give you an incredibly obvious breakout candidate right off the bat, but having a legitimate starting quarterback in Arizona could work wonders for the team's entire receiving corps in 2013.

    Combine the addition of quarterback Carson Palmer with what new head coach Bruce Arians can bring to the table, and just imagine what Michael Floyd should be able to do after his first full NFL offseason. It's easy to presume that he'll overtake Andre Roberts as the team's No. 2 receiving weapon in 2013.

Atlanta Falcons: Lamar Holmes

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    Lamar Holmes will take over at right tackle for the Falcons following the release of longtime starter Tyson Clabo. Although the Southern Mississippi product took only seven snaps as a rookie, it's a very good sign that the organization felt strongly enough about him to cut ties with Clabo. 

    The 2012 third-round pick definitely has the body type to excel as a starting tackle, and he'll be supported well in his first season as a starter.

Baltimore Ravens: Gino Gradkowski

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    With so many veterans leaving this offseason, several Ravens sophomores could have a chance to break out in 2013, including 2012 second-round picks Courtney Upshaw and Kelechi Osemele.

    But there's still quite the crowd at linebacker, and there's a decent chance that Bryant McKinnie still returns, which would force Osemele to the bench. With Matt Birk retiring, though, the center job belongs to nasty 2012 fourth-round pick Gino Gradkowski. 

    The Delaware product was solid in limited snaps as a rookie, and he could be primed to take a big step forward in 2013.

Buffalo Bills: Stephon Gilmore

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    Cordy Glenn doesn't make the cut here because he already had a strong rookie campaign at left tackle. Also, T.J. Graham would seem to be a strong candidate, but I still don't feel comfortable enough about the quarterback situation in Buffalo. 

    So we'll go with Stephon Gilmore, who did a solid job in coverage as the team's No. 1 corner in 2012 but also was also flagged for 13 penalties, which was more than any other corner in football. There's room to make a leap, and he has the talent to do so. 

    Another second-year starter to keep an eye on is linebacker Nigel Bradham.

Carolina Panthers: Josh Norman

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    Luke Kuechly can't possibly make a "huge" leap after a superb rookie campaign, and I can't go with Amini Silatolu after such a terrible 2012 season. Instead, let's roll the dice on Josh Norman, who was consistently abused in coverage as a rookie but is likely to get another shot with Chris Gamble now gone.

    I can't say that I'm extremely confident in Norman, but the circumstances are there for improvement. Plus, life ain't easy on rookie corners. 

Chicago Bears: Alshon Jeffery

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    Shea McClellin wasn't able to do a whole lot as a situational pass-rusher behind Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije last year, and the 2012 first-round pick could see his role increase with Idonije's future up in the air as a free agent.

    Yet I'm still going with 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery because I think bad luck factored into his disappointing rookie season.

    Jeffery has what it takes to be a great starting receiver, but hand and knee injuries ruined his 2012 campaign. If the health gods are on his side this year, he should excel as a starter in an offense that appeared to get better with the addition of left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett in the offseason.

Cincinnati Bengals: Mohamed Sanu

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    Dre Kirkpatrick is essentially entering his rookie season due to the fact that he missed the entire season due to injury after being drafted last year, which doesn't give me enough of a feel to draw conclusions in his regard. Also, Kevin Zeitler and Vontaze Burfict already took big leaps as rookies.

    That leaves Mohamed Sanu.

    Sanu outproduced Andrew Hawkins and tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches during the five-week stretch that he was healthy as a rookie. If the third-round pick out of Rutgers can stay on the field in his second season, he'll be a great second option for Andy Dalton. 

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson

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    Josh Gordon, Brandon Weeden and Mitchell Schwartz are also quality sophomore breakout candidates in the Cleveland offense, but the ridiculously talented Trent Richardson has the most room to leap. He certainly has the greatest ability to do so after falling short of 1,000 yards while averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt as a rookie.

    The 2012 No. 3 overall pick revealed at the conclusion of the season that he had been playing with severe pain and broken ribs for a large chunk of the year, and don't forget that his knee wasn't 100 percent at the start of the year either. 

    If Richardson stays healthy in 2013, he could explode. 

Dallas Cowboys: Morris Claiborne

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    Again, life ain't easy for rookie cornerbacks.

    Morris Claiborne knows that after having some real ups and downs during his first year in the league. Still, look for the 2012 No. 6 overall pick to step it up after a full offseason to prepare under Monte Kiffin's direction.

    One honorable mention here is Cole Beasley, who went undrafted last year but could see an increase in snaps in the slot after looking very good in limited reps as a rookie. 

Denver Broncos: Omar Bolden

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    The Broncos brought in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to replace Tracy Porter opposite Champ Bailey, but DRC is unreliable and Bailey will be 35 next season, so look for 2012 fourth-round pick Omar Bolden to fight for serious reps.

    It'll be a tough fight, because Tony Carter and Chris Harris are also there to compete, but John Elway seems to feel strongly about Bolden, even though the Arizona State product barely participated as a rookie.

Detroit Lions: Ryan Broyles

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    Nate Burleson is there, but there's still a great opportunity for someone to emerge and become the No. 2 target in the Lions offense. With Titus Young gone, Ryan Broyles can be that guy. 

    The 2012 second-round pick out of Oklahoma already has a 126-yard performance under his belt, despite playing in only 10 games last year. But in order to get back into that groove, he'll have to recover swiftly from the torn ACL that ended his 2012 campaign in early December. 

Green Bay Packers: Nick Perry

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    With Erik Walden gone, there's a clear opening for Nick Perry in Green Bay. The 2012 first-round pick struggled to catch fire early as a rookie before a knee injury ended his season in October. He'll have a full offseason to recover while also adjusting to life as a 3-4 outside linebacker. 

    Look for Perry to break out as part of a top-notch pass rush in 2013.

Houston Texans: Whitney Mercilus

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    The Texans didn't fret losing Connor Barwin in free agency this offseason because of how good 2012 first-round pick Whitney Mercilus looked while relieving the injured Brooks Reed on the opposite side of the linebacking corps in 2012. 

    In December, the Illinois product had three sacks in his first two starts. He'll step in for Barwin full-time in 2013, and he might have a chance to become a star in that stacked front seven. 

Indianapolis Colts: Coby Fleener

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    So many rookies played key roles in Indianapolis last year that it's hard to predict who might make the biggest jump in Year Two. Yet we're going with Coby Fleener because of how much better this Colts offense could be.

    Yes, that means Andrew Luck should continue to turn into a star in 2013, but he already had a fantastic rookie year. Fleener's rookie campaign was derailed by a shoulder injury, and because he spent so much time as a blocker, he couldn't excel as a receiver. With the offensive line adding two quality starters in Donald Thomas and Gosder Cherilus, a healthy Fleener could become a a force next season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Harris

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    Justin Blackmon is an obvious candidate here, but with the Jaguars still dealing with major question marks at the quarterback position, Blackmon's breakout year could have to wait.

    That's why we're taking a flier on Mike Harris.

    A sixth-round pick out of Florida State last year, Harris held his ground in six late-season starts at cornerback. With Derek Cox and Aaron Ross gone, he'll have a chance to start from the get-go in 2013. I wouldn't be surprised if he became a solid contributor on the Jacksonville defense.

Kansas City Chiefs: Donald Stephenson

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    We're going out on a limb here and guessing that if the Chiefs draft an offensive tackle early, they will trade Branden Albert. This is a team that was confident enough in Donald Stephenson to release veteran right tackle Eric Winston this offseason, so watch for Stephenson to excel if he's able to start from Week 1 in 2013.

    The third-round pick out of Oklahoma had some decent spot starts as a rookie, so I feel better about him as a breakout candidate than Dontari Poe or Jeff Allen.

Miami Dolphins: Lamar Miller

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    Ryan Tannehill should take a step forward in 2013, and things can only get better for Jonathan Martin in place of Jake Long, but I have an especially good feeling about 2012 fourth-round pick Lamar Miller.

    The Miami (Fla.) product averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and with Reggie Bush gone, he only needs to beat out the unreliable and unexciting Daniel Thomas to win the starting job in the Dolphins backfield. 

Minnesota Vikings: Jarius Wright

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    Defensive backs Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson are both good candidates here, but Smith was already solid as a rookie and Robinson has a lot of improving to do in his first year as a full-time starter (assuming that's the case).

    Thus we're going with Jarius Wright, who will have a lot of opportunities with Percy Harvin gone.

    It could help having another deep threat in Greg Jennings, but it also could work to Wright's personal advantage if Jennings has to miss more time in 2013. Wright had three games with 50-plus yards receiving during the second half of his rookie campaign in Minnesota. Not bad for the 118th overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft.

New England Patriots: Dont'a Hightower

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    Four New England rookies—Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard—stood out at various points on defense last year, and there's no reason to think that all four won't keep progressing in 2013.

    But we're expecting Hightower to take the biggest leap, mainly because he was the more consistent and versatile defender and was a pretty strong closer as a pass-rusher, too. That said, I'd imagine that he will become a stud in his second year.

New Orleans Saints: Akiem Hicks

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    Akiem Hicks didn't have a chance to make much of an impact as a rookie third-round pick in New Orleans, but he's expected to be utilized in a variety of fashions in the Saints' revamped 3-4 defense. This is especially true now that Sedrick Ellis is gone.

    Hicks, who played his college ball in Canada, will likely start the 2013 season as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's nose tackle.

New York Giants: David Wilson

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    With Ahmad Bradshaw gone, 2012 first-round speedster David Wilson is primed to become one of the league's top backs in his first full season as a starter. The Virginia Tech product averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 43 attempts during the final four weeks of his rookie campaign, scoring four touchdowns (one on a return). 

    Second-round wide receiver Rueben Randle should also have a chance to take a leap, but there's still a crowd at the receiver position in New York.

New York Jets: Stephen Hill

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    I'll let Jets head coach Rex Ryan relay how I feel about wide receiver Stephen Hill, who was a second-round pick last year out of Georgia Tech (via ProFootballTalk): 

    His ceiling is really high. Like many guys as rookies, many receivers coming into this league as rookies, a lot of inconsistency. Some weeks he was outstanding, other weeks not so much, but I expect him to improve by leaps and bounds going into year two.

    Regardless of who's starting at quarterback, look for Hill to shine as a starter in 2013.

Oakland Raiders: Rod Streater

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    The Raiders didn't have a pick until late in the third round last year, so they didn't have much of a rookie class in 2012. But undrafted rookie Rod Streater had some nice moments in a backup role, and with Darrius Heyward-Bey gone, the Temple product has a chance to start from Week 1.

    I wouldn't be surprised if he became one of Matt Flynn's favorite targets, both in the slot and on the outside. 

Philadelphia Eagles: Brandon Boykin

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    Fletcher Cox was great as a rookie and should only get better, but I have a good feeling about 2012 fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin, who was quietly the team's best corner in 2012. The Georgia product surrendered receptions on only 54 percent of his targets, despite facing some real good receivers in the slot. 

    Cox is already solid, plus I don't trust Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry to get enough work, so Boykin makes the most sense here. Cornerbacks often take big steps forward in their second season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: David DeCastro

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    The Steelers are expected to have two second-year starters on the offensive line this year, and we're betting that David DeCastro makes up more ground than Mike Adams, who struggled at right tackle and now might be moving to the left side. 

    DeCastro missed almost all of his rookie season, and he struggled in three starts to conclude the year. A full offseason should help, though, and a healthy DeCastro should begin to live up to expectations in 2013. 

St. Louis Rams: Isaiah Pead

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    While second-year receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens are both candidates to take big steps forward in 2013, the leap in St. Louis might come from Isaiah Pead, who was out-rushed by seventh-round rookie Daryl Richardson in 2012. Still, he has the talent to beat out Richardson for the the starting job left vacant by Steven Jackson.

    A second-round pick out of Cincinnati, Pead's career with the Rams started slow, but he still averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 10 attempts as a third-stringer. He could emerge as the best of those four second-year skill-position players set to play larger roles in St. Louis this season.

San Diego Chargers: Kendall Reyes

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    I wanted to go with third-round safety Brandon Taylor, who could have a chance to do some damage in place of Quentin Jammer, but Taylor is recovering from a torn ACL, so that's too risky.

    Thus, it came down to Kendall Reyes and Melvin Ingram.

    Reyes gets the nod because he showed more flashes as a rookie and looks like a better all-around defender. Yes, that means that Ingram has more space to improve, but Reyes' role could be much larger, despite the fact he was the lower pick. He's pretty much locked in as a starter with Antonio Garay, Vaughn Martin and Aubrayo Franklin gone.

San Francisco 49ers: A.J. Jenkins

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    If A.J. Jenkins barely played as a rookie because he didn't know the offense, a full offseason could work wonders for the 2012 first-round pick. Randy Moss and Ted Ginn are out of the way and Anquan Boldin will spend a lot of time in the slot, meaning Jenkins merely has to beat out Mario Manningham for significant reps in his second year.

    There's no doubt he has the ability, so if Jenkins is committed to getting the playbook down in 2013, he could finally start making some plays. 

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson

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    Seattle's 2012 rookie class was so good that it'll be hard for everyone who exceeded expectations to provide encore performances. Expect Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin to continue to get better, but Russell Wilson could reach superstar status in his second season, so we're going to select him as the biggest sophomore leaper on the Seahawks. 

    Wilson, it's easy to forget, wasn't exactly tearing it up during the first half of his rookie year. But the third-round quarterback posted a 120.3 passer rating during the final eight weeks of 2012, which was the highest mark in the league by a huge margin. During that span, Wilson had a 16-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and averaged nine yards per attempt as the 'Hawks won seven of eight. 

    Expect him to pick up where he left off.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mark Barron

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    Doug Martin had an insane 1,926 yards from scrimmage last season, and Lavonte David had an unreal 20 tackles for loss. So I suppose that puts the pressure on 2012 No. 7 overall pick Mark Barron, who had a lot of ups and downs as a rookie. 

    Barron missed 13 tackles while registering only two takeaways in 16 starts. He's too good not to improve on those numbers and make more of an impact as a sophomore. 

Tennessee Titans: Kendall Wright

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    I was tempted to go with Zach Brown here after he quietly had a phenomenal rookie campaign in Tennessee, but it'll be hard for Brown to build on his rookie season as much as Kendall Wright could. 

    Wright, the 20th overall pick in 2012, had 64 catches, 626 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie campaign, but those numbers should improve as he gets more chances to cut into Nate Washington's reps in 2013.

Washington Redskins: Richard Crawford

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    Pick your no-name second-year cornerback. Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield both could be diamonds in the rough with a chance to earn serious reps this year in Washington. 

    We're taking Crawford, a seventh-round pick last year, over Minnifield, who went undrafted and has some serious knee problems to get over. Crawford had his moments last summer and wasn't too bad in a reserve role as a rookie, but the state of the Redskins secondary could give him a chance to leap in 2013.