10 NFL Sophomores Ready for Breakout Seasons in 2013
For whatever reason, every sophomore on this list has yet to really establish himself as a big-time player in the NFL.
Most of them failed to lock up a starting position, while the few who have done so have significantly lacked in production relative to expectations based on draft position, especially considering their opportunities to impress right out of the gate.
Each player who made the list was given their own unique prediction for 2013, which qualifies them as having a breakout season. The contrast between their rookie and sophomore seasons in terms of production is what makes these guys the 10 most noteworthy second-year players primed for a big showing in 2013.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans
Even though Whitney Mercilus finished second among rookies in sacks last year with six, he has yet to really breakout as a star—or even as a full-time starter for that matter. Last year, he was limited to spot duty as a backup to Conner Barwin, who is now out of the picture in Houston after signing with Philadelphia this offseason.
This addition through subtraction personnel decision clears the way for Mercilus to finally take his rightful place in the starting lineup.
NFL offenses heed this warning: do not ignore Mercilus while you’re busy overcompensating to get J.J. Watt under control. The sophomore from Illinois happens to be one of best pure pass–rushers from the entire 2012 draft class. His natural ability to react and counter an offensive lineman while demonstrating superb refinement with hand technique are reminiscent of a pretty decent NFL playmaker named Demarcus Ware.
Mercilus was listed as my top-rated defensive player available in the 2012 draft class. That’s high praise coming from a self proclaimed “draft guru” and former NFL pass-rusher.
Expect at least 12 sacks and a constantly disruptive force out of No. 59 this season. I suppose it’s fair to say that he will indeed be "merciless"—yeah, I had to.
Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
It’s hard to blame an anemic first year entirely on Michael Floyd, considering that the Cardinals were barely classified as an offensively capable NFL team last season.
By definition, an offense is technically supposed to have some degree of blocking, and I’m not even sure Arizona qualified as respectable in this area in 2012. It also helps to have a quarterback who can make completions when given at least enough time to look up.
This motley crew in the desert was so inept that even one of the best receivers in the league, Larry Fitzgerald, was made to look like a journeyman. If Fitzgerald couldn’t surpass 800 yards and four receiving touchdowns last season, how much were we really to expect from a rookie who was just trying to understand the speed of the game?
Perhaps Floyd’s true potential was demonstrated in the season finale against the 49ers, when he racked up 166 receiving yards and one touchdown. Maybe this momentum can carry over into 2013, when he could amass over 850 yards in a supportive role.
Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts
The 6’6”, 246-pound tight end was supposed to be the best available player at his position heading into the 2012 draft. Unfortunately, he wasn’t even the best rookie TE on his team last year once Dwayne Allen stole the show. Coby Fleener eventually saw a reduction in reps as Allen continued to surprise.
This year, however, Fleener should be ready to step his game up, and he’ll have every advantage in order to succeed, which includes his friend and college teammate Andrew Luck throwing him passes. We can only assume that Luck will do everything within reason to help his favorite collegiate target find his groove.
Given Fleener’s astounding measurables, he should be playing with a stacked deck in 2013.
Fleener’s breakout 2013 season should see him exceed 700 yards receiving and at least five touchdowns—both respectable numbers for a tight end.
Nick Perry, OLB, Green Bay Packers
Nick Perry was all set and ready to have a highly productive rookie campaign as an immediate starter, unfortunately a knee and ankle injury ended his season prematurely.
During his brief cameo in a Packer uniform, Perry showed the type of explosiveness and athleticism that caused Green Bay to draft him with their first pick, roughly one year ago. Few guys in the NFL over 270 pounds are faster than this USC alumni—that alone is worth something.
Last year he was asked to learn a new position as he made the switch from a DE to an OLB in the 3-4 system before going down. This year he should be healthy and ready to take the next step in his NFL transition. While most offenses are sending help to the opposite end to slow down All-Pro Clay Matthews, Perry should see a ton of one-one-ones where his speed and power will put him in the quarterback’s lap frequently. A 10-sack season is well within reach this year.
Brandon Boykin, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
When studying Brandon Boykin’s game, the two elements that pop out the most are his exceptional agility and his coveted ball skills.
Boykin is one of those rare talents in the secondary that NFL teams are highly attracted to. His ability to turn into a receiver and snag the ball away from the offense is one of the main reasons why he makes this list. Although he failed to snag a single interception during his rookie year, he was quite efficient at picking off passes during his time as a Georgia Bulldog.
Last year, Boykin was the only bright spot in an Eagles secondary that often looked undisciplined and out of place. He consistently flashed solid man-to-man skills and made several nice plays on the ball. He also rarely gave up big plays while in coverage.
Before the season is over in 2013, Boykin will have earned himself a spot in the starting lineup. With the opportunity for more playing time this season, he’ll be primed for a breakout campaign, and he will soon become a household name in the City of Brotherly Love over the next few years.
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants
Fast, strong, powerful and even possessing the ability to do a standing back flip—what else do you need from a star running back in the NFL?
Well, according to head coach Tom Coughlin, you better hold onto the ball and you better be able to pass-protect.
David Wilson has worried some in these areas, but his big play ability has been hard to ignore. Wilson even received 2012 All-Pro Second Team honors as a rookie for his return abilities.
As the third running back on the Giants last season, Wilson managed to average five yards per carry on only 71 touches.
This year, former first-string RB Ahmad Bradshaw is no longer a New York Giant, which means the starting role is Wilson’s to lose. He should do well as the primary back for the G-men in 2013, especially considering his dangerous home run potential on any given play. If nothing else, his presence definitely makes their offense more explosive.
This fiery youngster should be able to surpass the 1,000-yard mark this year while averaging at least 4.3 yards per carry.
David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers
Those who saw this bulldozer of a man play at Stanford probably understand exactly why David DeCastro was the first offensive guard taken in the draft last year. Unfortunately, DeCastro suffered a knee injury in the 2012 preseason and was unable to make much of an impact in his rookie season, even when he returned in Week 15.
With the benefit of a full offseason to recover and with a little taste of NFL competition under his belt, DeCastro is primed and ready for big things in his sophomore season.
DeCastro will plug in immediately at right guard and shouldn’t look back. He’s a great athlete for a guard and has the physical blocking style the Steelers look for. His presence in the middle will certainly help young guys like rookie RB Le’Veon Bell find daylight.
Juron Criner, WR, Oakland Raiders
Juron Criner is a big, physical receiver who has surprising skills after the catch. His rookie year was relatively successful for a fifth-round pick, but he was nowhere near reaching his complete potential last season.
Criner should be given more options this year, as he will be competing for a second or third receiver spot behind Denarius Moore and possibly Rod Streeter. He’ll also be receiving passes from new free agent QB Matt Flynn, who should fit in nicely with Criner's skill set as a guy who thrives on short to intermediate routes, where he’s able to use his size advantage and agility to gain yards after the catch.
With more opportunities and more experience against NFL talent, Criner is ready to be a major part of the Raiders’ offense, and he should be able to put up at least 700 yards receiving in 2013.
Josh Chapman, DT, Indianapolis Colts
For those who may not know—or simply just forgot—Josh Chapman is a nose tackle from the University of Alabama who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL and meniscus. Apparently, he’s fully recovered and ready to compete for a starting position this offseason. I suspect he wins the job early.
Chapman had this to say, via Colts.com:
It has been a long time coming. I haven’t been away from the game this long ever in my life… it’s an anxious kind of feeling. Just being able to put the pads on again and feel that extra thump is good.
I understand the system very well. I kind of really understand my role, the more reps I get, the more I become confident with it.
Last year, I already studied the playbook, and it kind of came back to me like that (snaps fingers). You still can’t get enough study, though. You put that book down for a day or two and you lose a lot of stuff. I stay at it a lot and try to learn more than my position. I try to learn more to know what guys are doing around me.
Shoring up the middle of the defensive line may not come with eye-popping stats, but the value of a dominant anchor in a 3-4 front is critical. Chapman is perfect for that role, and he should make the Colts significantly better against the run this year.
Last year, the Colts gave up 5.1 yards per carry on the ground, which was the second-worst mark in the league. I predict Chapman will not only start at nose tackle, but he’ll help the defense improve toward giving up less than 4.5 yards per carry as a unit.
Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns
Even though Trent Richardson finished third in rushing among rookies behind Alfred Morris and Doug Martin in 2012, he still has yet to really breakout relative to what he is capable of doing. As a rookie, he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry, which isn’t very good.
With that said, Richardson is by far the most talented sophomore running back, and his skills will be on full display with Norv Turner now calling plays. Also, having a full training camp to improve his craft will benefit him quite well.
Expect a new superstar to be born in Cleveland once Trent Richardson explodes in 2013 and runs for more than 1,500 yards while averaging 4.4 yards per carry—throw in double-digit touchdowns as the icing to this rising star’s cake.