Second-Year NFL Stars Ready to Make the Biggest Leaps
An executive in the NFL once hailed the 2013 draft as the “worst in a decade," which may have been true because of the lack of unanimously regarded elite talent at the top of the class. That doesn’t mean there weren’t a number of players who made big contributions as a rookie or showed enough promise to warrant significant playing time during their second seasons.
On each slide, I’ll explore a second-year pro who may not have been a huge contributor last season, but will be in 2014. Some of these players were highly touted first-round picks, but others were Day 3 selections due to medical concerns, level of collegiate competition or an underappreciation of their talent.
Either way, these sophomores can help their franchise reach new heights in 2014.
I’ve covered a few of the standout second-year players before, so check out my previous work if your favorite young player isn’t listed in the following slides.
All statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons
After releasing cornerback Asante Samuel this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons have shown it’s Trufant time in Atlanta. The 2013 first-round pick certainly earned the opportunity to lock down the right cornerback position after a fantastic rookie season.
First-year cornerbacks rarely make big impacts because of the jump in receiver talent that greets them at the NFL level and the complexity of both their own playbooks and offensive schemes they encounter.
But after looking green in the preseason, Trufant became one of the top playmakers at the position in 2013. He recorded 17 passes defensed, which tied for second most amongst rookies and was 10th-most overall in the NFL. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the seventh-best cornerback in 2013, with a cumulative rating of 12.2 (subscription required).
If that wasn’t enough, Trufant was so good that he was named PFF’s defensive rookie of the year. Here is what PFF had to say about the former University of Washington standout: "He ended the year with a league-leading 15 pass break-ups to go with his two picks, allowing just 53.4% of balls thrown his way to be completed."
Those are numbers that indicate Trufant could develop into an elite cover cornerback, and the Falcons made multiple investments this offseason to the defensive side to help him reach his potential. By signing defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, the Falcons will play more of a hybrid front in an effort to confuse offenses. The resulting hesitation by the quarterback will give Trufant more time to jump more routes and create turnovers.
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals
The sixth-round running back split carries in 2013 with veteran Rashard Mendenhall, but he is ready to take the reins now that he’s the focal point of the Arizona Cardinals backfield in 2014.
Head coach Bruce Arians said he sees an expanded, more dynamic role for Ellington in 2014, as reported by ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss: "It’s easy to hand it to him but it’s throwing it to him, that [is where] he’s really dynamic...As the season progresses, it’ll depend on how they treat him as a receiver or a running back.”
Since no running back averaged more than 22.8 touches a game last year, it is unlikely Ellington actually averages that many opportunities over the course of the entire season, but the plan is for him to become a much bigger part of the offense.
As a rookie, Ellington showed why some draft pundits were high on him, exhibiting tremendous agility and ability to hit the open running lane with aggression. He’s also a valuable receiver, catching 39 passes for 371 yards.
Overall, he racked up 1,023 yards from scrimmage on just 157 touches.
With the expectation that Ellington gets more touches per game on a weekly basis—he didn’t have more than seven rushing attempts in one game until his 15-carry, 154-yard game in Week 8 against Atlanta—expect more electrifying results from the former Clemson Tiger.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
The 2013 second-round pick by the Broncos struggled to make an impact early as a rookie, playing behind starting running back Knowshon Moreno and splitting backup duties with Ronnie Hillman.
The former Wisconsin Badger began his rookie season as a tentative runner, opting to dance in the backfield rather than hitting the hole with authority. His lack of aggression led to an average of fewer than six carries a game through the first 12 weeks of 2013.
To be exact, 75 carries led to only 262 yards, averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry.
Ball’s breakout game happened in Week 13 against one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs. Ball posted a career-high 117 yards on just 13 carries.
From that game on, Ball was much more aggressive and productive when he was able to get on the field. In the final eight games of 2013, Ball registered 60 carries and 393 yards, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. ESPN's KC Joyner wrote on Ball's transformation over the second half of his rookie year (subscription required):
A more important upgrade could come via Montee Ball's advancement into a dominant NFL running back. Ball was a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in college but managed to gain only 559 yards in his rookie season.
That total belies how well he adjusted to the pro game as time progressed. In Weeks 1-12, Ball averaged a meager 5.1 yards per carry in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive a ball carrier is when given good blocking.
Ball shifted gears at that point, as his GBYPA shot up to the 8.8-yard level from Weeks 13-17. He also displayed much-improved pass-blocking ability, another aspect that says Ball's comfort level in Year 2 in this offense should make his latter performance level more par for the course. This may give head coach John Fox more confidence to lean on Ball and the Broncos' ground game as a way to help better protect the 38-year-old Manning.
As the playoffs approached, Ball also improved his pass-blocking and began to contribute more as a receiver out of the backfield. His PFF pass-blocking efficiency rating of 90.9 percent was better than star running backs Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and Doug Martin. That’s the type of help quarterback Peyton Manning will need to have if the Broncos' offense is to repeat its prowess from a year ago.
After notching only two receptions through the first nine games of the season, Ball hauled in 23 passes for 133 yards over the final 10 games, including the postseason. With his solid hands, vision and acceleration, Ball is a legitimate receiving option underneath for Manning when downfield targets are covered.
It's that kind of production that allowed Denver to let Moreno walk in free agency.
With Ball entering 2014 as the unquestioned starter, he’s going to have the opportunity to get around the same number of carries (283) that Moreno received last season. Playing behind Peyton Manning means he will face many defensive fronts with six or fewer defenders in the box, which often leads to opportunities to consistently gash the defense for big yardage on the ground.
Ball’s blend of quickness, size and vision will allow him this year to surpass the Moreno's production from 2013.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
The Lions gambled on the terrific athlete from BYU, and so far, Ansah has flashed an ability to dominate in spite of his technical limitations. Despite missing two games with injuries, he finished his rookie year with eight sacks and created a quarterback pressure on 10 percent of the passing snaps for which he was on the field. That’s a little low in terms of production, but considering where he is at in his development, it's a number that suggests that he can only improve.
Entering his second season, expect to see better technique along with an improved ability to defend the run—something that will always get a young pass-rusher more snaps in a team's base defense.
General manager Martin Mayhew talked about the Lions' new defensive scheme, and briefly discussed how Ansah will be used, per Justin Rogers of mlive.com:
We're going to play a closed end and open end this year...We'll have an end on the tight end side. He'll be on the closed side. He'll be a bigger, more-physical, Jason Jones-type of guy. Then on the open side, we'll have Ziggy (Ansah) over there, and we think Larry (Webster) has an opportunity to compete over there as well.
By lining up as the weak-side defensive end, Ansah will be less likely to face pulling guards and tight ends, meaning fewer double-teams and more opportunities to use his terrific bend and speed to rush the quarterback.
Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills
Robert Woods had a good rookie season for the Buffalo Bills in 2013, despite playing with three different quarterbacks and missing two games to an ankle injury. His 40 receptions led to 587 yards, which was fifth most amongst NFL rookies.
Now recovered from off-season ankle surgery, Woods is showing in OTAs the same chemistry with quarterback EJ Manual that they had last season. That bodes well for the Bills offense, which also added highly touted rookie Sammy Watkins in the 2014 draft. Watkins should create more opportunities for Woods than did former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, as Watkins will command more attention. The rolling safety should go to the side where Watkins lines up, leaving Woods with one-on-one coverage.
In other words, expect Woods to thrive as a number two receiver in this offense. His blend of quickness and footwork is difficult to cover every play. Possession receivers are sometimes thought of as slow and lumbering, but Woods is agile, crafty and has enough speed to make defenses pay for underestimating him.
Here is what ESPN.com’s Mike Rodak said about Woods’ performance at OTAs last week:
After being limited during the first week of practice as he recovered from ankle surgery, Woods upped his workload in the second week and didn't look back. The Bills' offense was at its best during OTAs when EJ Manuel was throwing to Woods. That is not entirely unexpected; with Stevie Johnson gone, Woods was Manuel's top returning receiver from last season. Woods was credited with zero drops last season and he kept that streak going, to the best of our memory, during OTAs. Woods and Manuel have a chemistry that has yet to develop between Manuel and Sammy Watkins, but that is to be expected at this point.
Receiver is always going to be dependent on quarterback play, so if Manual can continue his development in 2014, Woods should blossom into one of the better possession receivers in the NFL.
Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Cornellius “Tank” Carradine was selected in the second round in the 2013 draft, and now it is time for the 40th overall pick to pay dividends for the San Francisco 49ers.
2013 was a redshirt season after Carradine tore his ACL in 2012 as a senior at Florida State. But he was a talented prospect whom some draft evaluators, including myself, had ranked as a top-10 overall player when healthy.
While on 95.7 The Game radio show, he talked about his health and indicated that his knee is fully recovered:
I'm over the injury. When the injury happened, it's been over a year and four months since the injury. Recently I had another surgery where they scoped my knee. Took some scar tissue and fluid, but I always felt I was ready and healed. But there was a little scar tissue that they took out, which makes me feel 100 percent now. Back then I felt like I was 100 percent, but I could feel my right knee felt good, but when I got out there to run, it didn't feel like the other knee. But once they went in there and took out the scar tissue and fluid, both of my knees feel the same. I'm good to go, ready to go, and it feels like I haven't been hurt before
After adding about 20 pounds since his collegiate days, Carradine will need to retain his excellent speed to be effective as a pass-rusher, but moving to a 3-4 end required that he add more strength, so it’s a balancing act to find the perfect combination of weight and speed.
Playing across from All-Pro end Justin Smith will benefit Carradine, but the loss of Aldon Smith to a potential suspension could also be a positive development for the young pass-rusher. San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is known for being creative and aggressive in his defensive fronts, and having a deep defensive line could allow him to at times stand Carradine up and rush him off the edge as a linebacker. That’s similar to how Mario Williams was used in Buffalo as a 3-4 linebacker.
Considering the talent Carradine has and the talent around him, the second-year defender should have a significant impact in 2014.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
In Reed’s injury-shortened rookie season, he rewarded Washington for selecting him in the third round. His selection was surprising at the time, as the team was already three-deep at the position, but the sheer receiving ability that Reed possesses paid off early, as he caught 45 receptions on 60 targets, gaining 499 yards and three touchdowns.
After missing the final six games of 2013 due to a concussion, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske had this to say after speaking with Reed:
“Reed described himself as “all set” and said he has been cleared by doctors without restrictions on his on-field activities.”
If Reed is indeed fully recovered, he should be able to take advantage of mismatches created by the Washington offense, which added star receiver DeSean Jackson and slot receiver Andre Roberts in free agency. With Pierre Garcon, Jackson and Roberts, Reed will be the forgotten underneath option on many plays, and his ability to catch the ball and get up field quickly will lead to big gains.
According to ESPN.com’s Tom Carpenter (subscription required), head coach Jay Gruden agrees:
“He’s going to be a great guy to help in the middle of the field," Gruden said. "If people want to cloud DeSean and cloud Pierre, he’s going to be a guy that’s very much needed in the passing game, so we’ve got to get him healthy and keep him going.”
One thing is for sure at this point: the 2014 Washington offense should be more like 2012 than 2013 if Robert Griffin III is healthy, with all of these weapons to utilize.