It isn't easy for rookie wide receivers to make a significant impact, but breakout sophomore seasons have been a common theme at that position for decades.
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only 12 rookie receivers have gone over 1,000 yards, but 53 players have accomplished that feat in Year 2. For the sake of comparison, 57 rookie running backs have hit the 1,000-yard mark during that span, with that number only increasing to 73 among sophomores.
|First-year success vs. second-year success: RBs vs. WRs|
|Since 1970||1,000-yard rookie seasons||1,000-yard sophomore seasons||% increase|
|Pro Football Reference|
Some recent examples of receivers who exploded in that second season...
|Recent second-year leaps from wide receivers|
|Receiver||Years||Year 1 yardage||Year 2 yardage|
|Pro Football Reference|
So what are the chances Terrance Williams of the Dallas Cowboys becomes the next name on that list? Will the 2013 third-round pick have an Alshon Jeffery-like second season in him? Let's forget about Gordon for now, since he's facing a suspension and was the top option in Cleveland. The comparison between Williams and Jeffery is better, simply because their circumstances are so similar.
This year, with Miles Austin gone, Williams will have a chance to spend the entire season in a near-identical situation. He'll be split out (neither he nor Jeffery spend much time in the slot) opposite Dez Bryant, with Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray at tight end and in the backfield. All three of those players went to the Pro Bowl in 2013.
Everything is in place for Williams to succeed in a major way. Experienced franchise quarterback Tony Romo has the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history. Murray is only getting better and should have a ton of support from one of the league's best offensive lines. And Bryant and Witten probably make up the best receiver/tight end duo in the game.
It's also no secret that, in addition to all that, the Cowboys love to throw the football. So Williams should be targeted plenty.
Of course, it's not completely circumstance-based. Williams himself will have to improve. His routes could afford to become more polished, and he did make a few notable mental mistakes in Year 1. There was that goal-line fumble that might have cost Dallas a win against San Diego, and less than 30 minutes into his career he had botched a route leading to an interception...
While also dropping what would have been a first-down pass...
But those three errors took place in September. Williams dropped only a single pass beyond Week 10 and was the intended receiver on only one other pick beyond that first-quarter gaffe from Week 1.
Williams' numbers improved over the course of that rookie campaign, which of course bodes well for 2014. But what really stood out when reviewing the tape from 2013 was that you could see Romo really begin to rely heavily on the 24-year-old as the season wore on—especially in big moments. All five of his touchdowns and all three of his receptions of 40 or more yards came in the third or fourth quarter.
|Terrance Williams, 2013 situational stats|
|Pro Football Reference|
Williams caught 61 percent of the passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which crushed Jeffery's rate of 50 percent from his rookie campaign. But the Baylor product was especially good in that area during the final five weeks of the year, pulling in 70 percent of the balls tossed his way. That's a rate that over the course of the year would have placed him in the top 12.
And realistically, doubting him now would be foolish. The guy wasn't given much love coming out of high school, but in his senior year at Baylor he had more receiving yards than anyone else in the country. And then, when he entered this league, many assumed Williams would struggle with the physicality of the game despite his 200-pound frame.
That was hardly the case during his rookie season. Williams was victorious time and time again in one-on-one battles, even against extremely physical cornerbacks such as Cary Williams...
Another prime example on a deep ball against Tony Carter...
And one more on a beautiful route versus Philadelphia...
As a result, he looks as though he'll continue to get plenty of looks inside the red zone. He's got the hops and the hands to pull in tight passes like these...
But while he doesn't blow by guys with 4.3 speed, he does have the explosiveness to hang in. Williams has never been known as a big yards-after-catch guy, but the 4.9 YAC per reception total he put up in 2013 actually ranked well above the league median.
An example of some hard-earned extra yards against Denver...
And more, along with some physicality, on a 60-yard touchdown against Detroit...
Williams caught all nine of the catchable passes thrown his way at a distance of 20-plus yards, according to PFF, which deemed him to be the sixth-most efficient deep receiver in the league among 80 qualifiers. Jeffery had just five deep receptions in 2012.
Jeffery doesn't appear to be much faster or much more physical, although he does have 10 or 15 pounds on Williams. But the two don't have to be the exact same receiver. All that matters is Williams is getting better, and his circumstances should give him favorable one-on-one battles like these all year long...
There's no rule saying more than one receiver can't bust out in Year 2. Jeffery and Gordon proved that in 2013. But if we are comparing Williams to his peers from last year's draft class, the odds are decent that he has the best sophomore campaign.
Sure, Keenan Allen had a hell of a rookie season in San Diego, but he'll be the top gun with all the pressure and an even higher standard in Year 2. DeAndre Hopkins has no idea what kind of support he'll get from Andre Johnson and may not have a competent quarterback on a consistent basis. Kenny Stills is still part of a crowd in New Orleans, and Tavon Austin has a lot of ground to make up in St. Louis. Cordarrelle Patterson and Robert Woods could flourish, but they don't have the same level of support.
It's also not a given that a second-year receiver becomes a star in 2014, but if it's going to happen to anyone, Williams might be the guy.