NFL Players Ready to Make Huge Second-Year Leaps

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVAugust 10, 2013

NFL Players Ready to Make Huge Second-Year Leaps

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    For many players, their first season in the NFL can be rough. From learning new offensive or defensive schemes, to adjusting to the pace of the game or simply sitting behind veterans during their rookie season, there are many reasons why members of the 2012 draft class didn't live up to expectations last season.

    However, some are now sitting on the precipice of a breakout season, ready to show the league the talent that made them draft picks in the first place. Here are 10 second-year players ready to make a leap in 2013.

RB David Wilson, New York Giants

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    When the New York Giants drafted David Wilson with the final pick of the first round in 2012, he was expected to be the perfect addition to the Giants running back corp following the departure of Brandon Jacobs. However, it was Andre Brown who broke out alongside the veteran Ahmad Bradshaw.

    Now Bradshaw, too, is gone, opening the door even wider for a breakout season for Wilson. In 2012, Wilson rushed just 71 times, for 358 yards and four scores. He'll still be splitting time with Brown this season, but Wilson seems primed to get the most carries, due to his explosiveness and ability to make tacklers miss. 

    Granted, Wilson needs to prove he's stronger than Brown in pass protection, but his talents almost demand that he get more carries than Brown this year. Wilson averaged five yards per carry last year; a running back like that won't be taken off the field very often, even if he isn't the best pass-protector.

TE Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts

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    When the Indianapolis Colts drafted tight end Coby Fleener after taking fellow Stanford alum Andrew Luck first overall, it was a very "I-see-what-you-did-there" moment. Take a talented passer, pair him with one of his favorite collegiate targets and watch the magic happen, right?

    Well, it's not that simple. Fleener's transition to the NFL was a bit more difficult than Luck's. He had receiving as well as blocking duties to handle, and generally it takes a year to feel comfortable doing both. But now, Fleener has both Luck and his offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton, working with him and that's been enough to make Colts general manager Ryan Grigson take notice of Fleener's progress this offseason. 

    Last year, Fleener was targeted 48 times, with 26 catches, 281 yards and two scores. This season, his targets will increase, and the number of caught passes will also go up as a result. He'll finally become Luck's perfect weapon. 

LB Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles' 4-3 defense and wide-nine formations kept rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks from doing what he does best—going after the ball. Instead, he spent a lot of time in coverage. This year, with a switch to the 3-4, the inside linebacker will have ample opportunities to bring pressure as a blitzer, presenting him with the opportunity for a breakout year.

    Kendricks had 75 combined tackles in 2012 but only one sack. He had no interceptions, though half of his time was spent in coverage according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    This year, he'll be the Eagles' fifth or sixth pass-rusher in blitzing situations while remaining involved in both run-stopping and coverage. A more aggressive defensive approach should only help Kendricks show off the explosiveness he exhibited as both an inside and outside linebacker at California.  

RB Daryl Richardson, St. Louis Rams

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    When the St. Louis Rams let longtime starting running back Steven Jackson leave this past offseason, the first thought was that they'd opt for a committee of backs this year. After all, the Rams had Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead returning and also drafted Zac Stacy this April. These three all offer different skills and talents, and could combine to become an effective three-headed monster out of the backfield. 

    Now that training camp is well underway, however, the tune has shifted. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher had this to say about the so-called running back battle: 

    "I think Daryl comes back as our starter." - Fisher on the #Rams running back competition #RamsCamp

    — St. Louis Rams (@STLouisRams) August 6, 2013

    Richardson, who had 98 carries for 475 yards and 24 catches for 163 yards with no scores last year, seems primed to at least double his production as a ball-carrier this season. He's reliable, can run between the tackles as well as outside and has clearly impressed his coaches in camp.

    Though Richardson was a seventh-round pick in 2012 (and one away from being Mr. Irrelevant), while Pead was taken in the second round, the edge clearly goes to Richardson for taking a major leap this season.

WR Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals shuffled around their wide receivers, trying to find the perfect complement to A.J. Green on the outside. The rotation included Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, Marvin Jones and third-round 2012 draft pick Mohamed Sanu. Though Jones ultimately saw the most action at the position, the most successful was Sanu. 

    Sanu broke out in Weeks 10 through 12, pulling down 11 of his 16 total receptions for 98 of his 154 yards and all four of his touchdowns before breaking his foot in practice and missing the rest of the season. Now, fully healthy, Sanu looks primed to spend a lot of time on the field this year, both as the No. 2 wideout as well as in the slot.

    If anything, the Bengals need to add variety to their passing game to allow their star receiver Green to be freed up in coverage. Sanu is perfect for this job as a possession receiver, and his job should only be made easier thanks to tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

    Sanu could certainly top the 600-yard mark this year and have some of the strongest scoring production on the team.

     

CB Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills

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    Last year, rookie Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore played more defensive snaps than any of his teammates, at 1,082 (subscription required), but didn't entirely look like a top-10 draft pick until later in the season. He gave up three touchdowns in his first six games, and quarterbacks throwing in his direction completed a large number of their passes during that span.

    Gilmore improved with time and experience, never giving up another touchdown and ending the year allowing only 56.3 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught. Considering his progress in the 2012 season, Gilmore could emerge as one of the preeminent young cornerbacks in the league this year.

    A physical style of play alongside strong coverage instincts are two of Gilmore's best traits. If Buffalo yet again struggles to field an effective pass rush, its secondary is going to be even more important to the team's pass defense. Gilmore will be the star of this effort, covering opposing offenses' top receivers and making plays on the football. 

QB Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns

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    In 2012, the Cleveland Browns' Brandon Weeden was the forgotten rookie quarterback among a class that included Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, who all helped lead their respective franchises to the playoffs. While Weeden broke his team's rookie passing yardage record, his first year was considered mostly a disappointment.

    Weeden completed 297 of his 517 passes last year, for 3,385 yards and 14 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. His less-than-stellar season can be blamed on a combination of his rookie status, an offensive system that didn't suit him and a slow build of chemistry with his receivers. This year, he has a better shot of turning things around, for himself and for the Browns. 

    Under new head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Weeden should have plenty of opportunities to show off his strong arm in a passing game that is a better fit to his talents. Add in a heavy dose of running by Trent Richardson, and Weeden can be more efficient when he does throw the ball. 

    A confident, comfortable Weeden can help the Browns to a significant improvement in the win-loss record. And based on the offensive system and the emerging talent around him, he can make that leap this season. 

RB Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

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    In his rookie season, Lamar Miller ran the ball in only nine games, stuck on the depth chart below Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. Now, Bush is gone, and Thomas has been pushed down to a reserve role, leaving Miller wide open to break out in 2013.

    Last year, Miller had just 51 carries for 250 yards and one touchdown and caught a mere six passes for 45 yards. With Miami's offensive line struggling in pass protection, it's not hard to imagine Miller having exponentially higher yardage totals—including receiving yards—this season. He's got "every-down back" written all over him.

    Miller is fast, explosive and shifty, but he needs to remain healthy (he was banged up in a recent practice and had his right foot heavily taped) to reach his full potential this year. If he can, then Miller will likely go from a back who had just 295 yards from scrimmage in 2012 to one with well over 1,000 in 2013. 

WR Stephen Hill, New York Jets

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    With Santonio Holmes potentially out for at least the first four games of the regular season as he continues to heal from a Lisfranc injury in his foot and the rest of the New York Jets receiving corps a jumble, second-year wideout Stephen Hill seems ready to make his big break.

    Rich Cimini of ESPN New York says that Hill has been the most improved player in training camp this year, showing progress in his route-running and shaking off some of the rawness that resulted in his marginal rookie season. Last year, Hill caught just 21 of the 47 passes thrown to him, for 252 yards and three touchdowns. 

    Hill's production will be in the hands of whoever wins the quarterback battle playing out between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, which will do as much to affect his season as his own actions. However, based on the Holmes situation and how he's stood out during training camp, Hill seems to have a good 2013 ahead.

OT Mike Adams, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    When the Pittsburgh Steelers took two offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the 2012 draft, it was clear they were taking the necessary steps to shore up their injury-plagued and underperforming line for both the short and long term.

    However, their first-round pick, guard David DeCastro, suffered a severe knee injury in the preseason, while Adams was moved to right tackle to make way for Max Starks on the left before suffering an ankle injury later in the year. Now, Adams is back and starting at his natural position at left tackle, hopefully to the benefit of his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    Beyond pass-protecting, Adams will have to take a major role in the team's run-blocking scheme this year, especially after their switch to an outside-zone blocking scheme. Though Adams gave up seven sacks and 19 additional quarterback pressures last year according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the move back to the left should produce better results.

    At the very least, he'll be an upgrade over Marcus Gilbert (now on the right), which should make him a standout second-year player even if offensive linemen generally get little credit or attention.