NFL

Ranking the Top 25 Sophomores Heading into the 2014 NFL Season

Dan HopeContributor IIIJune 24, 2014

Ranking the Top 25 Sophomores Heading into the 2014 NFL Season

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    The 2013 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy ranks as one of the top second-year players in the NFL.
    The 2013 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy ranks as one of the top second-year players in the NFL.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    For as much emphasis as there might be on the incoming rookie classes of each NFL team, most franchises will be impacted more profoundly in 2014 by the development and progression of their second-year players.

    Paring down the sophomore class to its 25 best players is no easy task. While there are already some players from the 2013 draft class who have emerged as standouts for their team, virtually all second-year players are expected—at least by their own team’s fans—to get significantly better in 2014.

    Keeping that in mind, the following slides focus mostly on the former.

    In order to rank players who have already spent time in the NFL, no matter how short that time has been, one must look at what those players have already done at the professional level. The following 25 sophomores weren’t necessarily the 25 best rookies from the 2013 season, but all of them have already shown potential in the league that make them their draft class’ most likely players to be great in 2014.

    One could easily come up with a long list of honorable mentions for this slideshow; indubitably, a fan of just about every NFL team will feel as though at least one of their team’s second-year players is primed for a breakout season and therefore belongs within these rankings.

    With that being said, each of those players still has to prove themselves worthy of being considered one of the league’s best to come out of their draft class, just like many of the following players have started to show—and must continue to prove—that they should have been drafted higher.

25. Jamie Collins, OLB, New England Patriots

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    Jamie Collins didn’t see much playing time until late in his rookie season, but the Southern Mississippi product made it clear that he has the potential to break out as a stud for the New England Patriots defense in 2014.

    A second-round pick in the 2013 draft, Collins is a perfect fit for New England’s multifront, always-changing defensive scheme. A 6’3”, 250-pound linebacker with tremendous athletic fluidity for his size, Collins is a combination player who can do everything from rushing the passer to dropping deep in coverage.

    Collins had just 43 tackles, four passes defensed and no sacks during his first regular season, but he had a coming-out party of sorts in New England’s divisional playoff game versus the Indianapolis Colts. His stat sheet for that game included six tackles, one sack, four total quarterback pressures and an interception.

    While Collins still has to prove that he can cut it week in and week out as a starter, it became clear down the stretch of his first season that he has immense potential and versatility. As he steps into a crucial role on the Patriots defense in his second year, he can create confusion for opposing offenses and make them pay for it.

24. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams

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    The NFL doesn’t value workhorse backs the way it once did, but grinding out the tough yards as a runner remains much easier said than done. So although Zac Stacy doesn’t have many eye-popping qualities to his game, that shouldn’t take away from what he has accomplished and can continue to make happen in professional football.

    A fifth-round draft choice, Stacy went on to be a consistent source of offense for the St. Louis Rams in his rookie season, rushing for 973 yards and seven touchdowns on 250 carries while adding 141 yards and a touchdown on 26 receptions.

    You won’t see Stacy making many big plays—he averaged only four yards per touch in 2013 and had just six plays of 20 yards or more—but he is a reliable, strong ball-carrier who has great vision, cuts smoothly and catches the ball cleanly out of the backfield.

    Despite his impressive efforts as a rookie, Stacy’s not a sure starter for the 2014 season. The Rams selected Auburn running back Tre Mason in the third round of this year’s draft, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has said that Mason and the team’s other running backs will get a shot to push Stacy for his job, according to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner.

    It’s probably unlikely that Stacy will lose any competition to be the feature back, but it’s also likely the Rams might try to split up carries more than they did last year, when Stacy had more than 25 rushing attempts in five of the team’s last 10 games. If that’s the case, Stacy will have to keep running hard and break off some bigger gains in order to remain as productive as he was in year one.

23. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have an offense that features no shortage of playmakers, but one of the most dynamic players who opposing defenses must account for is running back Giovani Bernard.

    Possessing a combination of vision, agility and strength that gives him the skill set to be special, Bernard can be a weapon as both a runner and receiver. He combined for 1,209 yards from scrimmage this past season, the third-most among all rookies, and scored eight touchdowns.

    When he is running between the tackles, Bernard can find holes with precision and can keep firing through contact. In space, Bernard has the quickness and cutting ability to make defenders miss.

    What keeps Bernard from being higher on that list is that he is probably never going to see a great deal of carries as a ball-carrier. He sometimes struggles to get out of the backfield as a runner, and Cincinnati’s second-round selection of Jeremy Hill in this year’s draft signals that the Bengals plan to keep Bernard in a rotational situation, which will likely lead to Hill getting most of the team’s between-the-tackles workload.

    As a situational piece, Bernard is a key component of the Bengals offense, providing some serious playmaking ability out of the backfield. His diverse skill set makes him more likely than most running backs to have an extended run of NFL success, but he may never be in a situation where he racks up huge numbers.

22. Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets

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    Most of Dee Milliner’s rookie season didn’t live up to the expectations that usually accompany a top-10 draft pick, but the New York Jets cornerback made the kind of promising progress down the stretch that could lead him to a breakout sophomore year.

    Milliner, the No. 9 overall selection last year, got picked on throughout the 2013 campaign. Opposing quarterbacks targeted him once every 4.3 coverage snaps, the most of any NFL cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while he also allowed 1.75 yards per coverage snap.

    By the end of the season, however, the Alabama product made it clear that he had gained confidence and wasn’t going to be such an easy target anymore. He recorded five passes defensed and had three interceptions combined in the Jets’ final two games.

    It was clear in his first year that Milliner still had a long way to go in his development. The rookie often displayed sloppy coverage techniques and was burned on a multitude of occasions for big plays.

    However, few positions put rookies through the wringer like cornerback. If Milliner can build momentum off his strong conclusion to his rookie campaign, learn from his mistakes and become a more fundamentally sound player, he has the tools to emerge as a strong No. 1 cornerback for the Jets in 2014.

21. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers

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    Despite being the second defensive tackle selected in last year’s draft, and only the second-best rookie player at his position on the Carolina Panthers in 2013 (more to come), Kawann Short emerged to have a highly productive and promising debut season.

    Short didn’t get to start any games in his rookie year, but he was a key rotational player as an interior pass-rusher. Displaying the quickness and hand skills to penetrate between blockers and bring heat into the backfield, Short was credited by PFF with 36 quarterback pressures last season.

    Although the Panthers apparently don’t see him as an every-down player yet—he’s currently behind Colin Cole on the team’s depth chart, according to Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer—he more than held his own as a run-stopper in 2013. He finished the season with 30 total tackles and overall, he was graded by PFF as the NFL’s 14th-best defensive tackle for the year.

    It’s evident that Short, an explosive athlete with the great size and strength to play the interior, has the potential to do everything well as an NFL defensive lineman. After playing roughly half of Carolina’s defensive snaps in 2013, one would expect Short’s role and impact to concurrently increase in his sophomore campaign.

20. D.J. Fluker, RT, San Diego Chargers

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    No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher (Kansas City Chiefs), No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel (Jacksonville Jaguars) and No. 4 selection Lane Johnson (Philadelphia Eagles) might all have more athleticism and potential, but among the offensive tackles selected in the first round of last year’s draft, D.J. Fluker of the San Diego Chargers was surprisingly the most impressive in year one.

    That could easily change in 2014, as Fluker had the distinct advantage of familiarity—playing right tackle with San Diego after having played right tackle at Alabama—while the tackles drafted ahead of him had to switch sides of the line. Nonetheless, Fluker deserves a great deal of credit for solidifying the right edge of the San Diego offensive line as the Chargers offense improved significantly this past season.

    Fluker’s rookie year might have proved that he only belongs on the right side, as he struggled mightily in the four games that he filled in for King Dunlap at left tackle. But when playing at his more natural position, Fluker used his length and power to win battles as a run-blocker while he made steady progress as a pass protector.

    Offensive tackle is another tough position to succeed at as a first-year player, so it’s no surprise that all of the top picks had ups and downs in 2013. But that should leave the Chargers pleased with Fluker, the No. 11 overall selection last year, who looks as though he can be a long-term fixture opening holes and keeping rushers at bay on the right side.

19. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    The NFL only saw glimpses of it in his rookie season, but the big-play ability that made Tavon Austin the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 draft could make the St. Louis Rams speedster a star in 2014.

    Although Austin did not have a single offensive play of more than 25 yards in his first nine games, he began to show his immense upside in a four-game stretch between Weeks 10-14. During that span, Austin had five plays of 50-plus yards (two receptions, two rushes, one punt return) and four touchdowns.

    A season-ending ankle injury in Week 14 stopped him from sustaining his momentum into the Rams’ final three games, but expectations should be lofty once again going into his second year. A dynamic athlete who has a tremendous combination of straight-line speed and lateral agility, Austin has the potential to leave defenders in the dust any time he has the ball in space.

    The biggest hurdle Austin and the Rams must clear, in addition to him staying healthy, is getting him as many big-play opportunities as possible. At 5’8” and 176 pounds, Austin’s tools as a receiver are somewhat limited, but if St. Louis can be creative and put the West Virginia product in the right positions, he has shown that he can do serious damage to an opposing defense or return coverage unit.

18. Paul Worrilow, ILB, Atlanta Falcons

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    The only undrafted player to make these rankings, Paul Worrilow unexpectedly emerged as a standout for the Atlanta Falcons defense this past season, and he’s expected to be a key player once again in 2014.

    An explosive athlete with terrific instincts, Worrilow was consistently around the ball in his rookie year. Despite playing sparingly in Atlanta’s first four games, he finished the year with 127 total tackles, the second-most among all NFL rookies.

    Already expected to retain his starting role in the Falcons’ hybrid defense this year, Worrilow must continue to be a leader and a hub of activity after veteran linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles earlier this summer. If his rookie season was any indication, he’ll do just fine.

    As he’ll almost certainly be an every-down player for the Atlanta defense this season, Worrilow needs to become more adept in coverage, but the Delaware product should be expected to stand out with his range and tackling ability.

17. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Like Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes experienced the typical ups and downs of a rookie season for an NFL cornerback, but when he was at his best, he showed the potential to be a star for the Minnesota Vikings secondary.

    The big, fast and physical defensive back out of Florida State was credited with only six starts as a rookie, but was a regular on the outside in defensive sub-packages, as Minnesota’s No. 3 cornerback, before a Week 14 ankle injury brought his season to an early end.

    Although he got burned for a few big plays in year one, Rhodes was relatively consistent. He allowed just 1.02 yards per coverage snap and recorded 10 passes defensed, although he did not intercept any passes in year one.

    A healthy participant in spring workouts, according to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, Rhodes is set to become a full-time starter for the Vikings this year.

    He has displayed the capability of going up against some of the league’s top receivers and holding his own in man-to-man coverage, and he should only improve in that capacity as he gains experience and confidence. Rhodes has the tools to emerge, possibly as soon as this year, as a true shutdown cornerback.

16. Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    It wasn’t until the second half of last season that Andre Ellington began receiving a significant share of touches in the Arizona Cardinals’ backfield, yet he still posted 1,023 yards from scrimmage for the year despite getting only 157 total touches.

    Going into his sophomore season with a clear hold on the top spot on Arizona’s running back depth chart, he could be in for a huge 2014 season if he can continue to produce at the same rate.

    A shifty back who explodes into holes and is a good receiver out of the backfield, Ellington took advantage of his opportunities as a rookie. He had a league-best average of 5.5 yards per carry (652 rushing yards on 118 carries) while he also added 39 catches for 371 receiving yards.

    As a sixth-round pick in the 2013 draft, Ellington certainly wasn’t expected to be a key player for the Cardinals offense right off the bat, so he started out his career as a backup to Rashard Mendenhall. He’ll have far more pressure on his shoulders this upcoming season after Mendenhall decided to retire this offseason.

    This gives Ellington a clear opportunity to put up big numbers in his second year, but it’s also a dangerous proposition. A smaller back who is more disposed to break off a big play than grind out yardage between the tackles, he might not be able to perform at the level Arizona grew accustomed to if he is overworked.

    That said, it’s hard to doubt Ellington considering how far he exceeded expectations as a rookie. He’s taken full advantage of his chances to make plays thus far, and that could allow him to be a breakout star now that he is a feature back.

15. Alec Ogletree, OLB, St. Louis Rams

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    Alec Ogletree’s rookie season was met with mixed reviews, but what was clear in his rookie season is that the St. Louis Rams linebacker has a knack for making big plays and the potential to be a star.

    A rangy athlete who flies to the football, Ogletree proved in his first year that he can be both a highly active defender and a game-changer. He had a team-leading 117 tackles, including 12.5 for loss, while he tied for third in the entire NFL with six forced fumbles.

    As Ogletree goes into his second NFL season, he needs to become a more disciplined football player. He often looks lost in space and takes some very poor angles as a tackler.

    Ogletree’s inconsistency resulted in 19 missed tackles in 2013, while he was also shaky in coverage despite recording 10 passes defensed. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of plays he made—and highlight-reel plays on top of that—shows how much he can impact a game.

    He must continue to improve fundamentally, but Ogletree has demonstrated as much upside as just about any other second-year player in the league.

14. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    After firmly establishing himself as the feature running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers in his rookie year, Le’Veon Bell should have a good shot at putting together a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2014.

    Despite missing the Steelers’ first three games last year with a foot injury, Bell finished 2013 with 1,259 yards from scrimmage, the second-most among the rookie class. He had at least 80 yards from scrimmage in each of Pittsburgh’s final nine games.

    The Steelers will want to see Bell improve upon his 3.5-yard-per-carry average in 2014, but his versatility out of the backfield makes him a valuable asset for the Steeler offense. While he is a 244-pound back who can run through tackles between the hashes, he also has enough speed to make plays on the edge, is a skilled pass-catcher and is very good at picking up blitzes as a blocker.

    Bell, who received 289 total touches in his first year, could lose some playing time this year to free-agent addition LeGarrette Blount and rookie Dri Archer, but there’s no question he’ll be the lead guy in the rotation. If he can continue to be as consistent and multifaceted as he was down the stretch last season, he should once again put up some of the biggest numbers of the 2013 draft class.

13. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys

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    The pick left most analysts head-scratching when it happened, but one year later, it’s already evident that the Dallas Cowboys made a smart decision by selecting Travis Frederick with the No. 31 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

    In his first season, Frederick quickly solidified the middle of an offensive line that was a team liability one year earlier. A 6’3”, 311-pound mauler with great functional strength, Frederick was rated by PFF as the league’s best run-blocking center last season.

    Frederick still needs some work as a pass-blocker, an area in which he gave up 24 total pressures as a rookie according to PFF. He can be beaten by quicker defenders at times but rarely gets pushed back once he gets his hands on an opponent.

    Altogether, Frederick was a huge upgrade for the Cowboys at center in year one, and he should continue to be a fixture who anchors the middle of the Dallas offensive line for years to come.

12. Tyrann Mathieu, FS/CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    After an entire year away from football and a slide to the third round of the 2013 draft, Tyrann Mathieu wasn’t expected to be a top-12 player from his class after just one season, but he’d be even higher on these rankings if he wasn’t still recovering from a torn ACL and LCL.

    The Arizona Cardinals defensive back might miss the start of the upcoming season—head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t expect him back until after the team’s Week 4 bye—but in just 13 NFL games, Mathieu has already begun to emerge as a secondary star.

    A hybrid player who lines up at free safety in the base defense then moves to slot cornerback in sub-packages, Mathieu’s versatility proved to be a huge asset for Arizona in his first season. Whether he was dropping back into coverage or being aggressive around the line of scrimmage, the rookie consistently made plays and committed far fewer mistakes than expected.

    Overall, Mathieu recorded 68 tackles, nine passes defensed (two interceptions), six tackles for loss (one sack) and one forced fumble in his first year. He also allowed just 0.90 yards per coverage snap, according to PFF.

    It’s never safe to assume that a player will return completely from a major knee injury, but Mathieu blew away all reasonable expectations for his first year. Once he is back in the lineup for Arizona, he should become a key player of its defense once again.

11. Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons

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    It’s not atypical for a rookie cornerback to look like a fish out of water and give up big plays, but Desmond Trufant had no such troubles. Selected No. 22 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in last year’s draft, Trufant met and exceeded all expectations in his first NFL season.

    A starting outside cornerback in all 16 of Atlanta’s 2013 games, Trufant was both consistent in coverage and in making plays on the ball. He allowed just 1.03 yards per coverage snap, finished second among all rookies with 17 passes defensed and was graded by PFF as the NFL’s seventh-best player at his position.

    Firmly in position to be Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback in 2014, he should emerge as the star of the Falcons’ secondary if his rookie season was any indication. He’s not the biggest or strongest cornerback you’ll find, but he has great speed, fluid hips and good ball skills.

    The Falcons have a number of reasons to be concerned about a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL in both yards and points allowed this past season, but they need not worry about Trufant. He held his own against some of the NFL’s best receivers in 2013, and chances are good he’ll only make their lives more difficult in his sophomore year.

10. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints defense took a massive leap from being one of the NFL’s worst units to one of its best in 2013, and one factor that played a big role in that turnaround was the immediate emergence of rookie Kenny Vaccaro as a playmaker.

    While most first-year players gradually take on more responsibilities as their progress allows, the Saints put Vaccaro’s versatility on display right off the bat. In 14 starts for New Orleans last season, Vaccaro saw playing time at both safety spots, as a slot cornerback and as a linebacker.

    Perhaps as a result of the many roles he had to learn right away, Vaccaro struggled somewhat early on in his rookie season, but made steady improvement until a fractured ankle in Week 16 cut short his season. He made no shortage of plays throughout the year, finishing the 2013 campaign with 79 total tackles, six passes defensed (one interception), five quarterback pressures, six tackles for loss (one sack) and one forced fumble.

    A full participant in spring workouts, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, Vaccaro will likely have a more defined role in 2014. Following the departures of safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper this offseason, Vaccaro will be the full-time starting strong safety alongside free-agent addition Jairus Byrd who will line up at the free safety spot.

    But that doesn’t mean that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan won’t continue to take advantage of Vaccaro’s diverse skill set and move him around. An impact player who makes highlight plays both from inside the box and in deep coverage, he’ll be one of the most important players on New Orleans’ blossoming defense in 2014.

9. Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers

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    It’s not often that you let an All-Pro walk in free agency and end up upgrading at the position, but that’s arguably what the San Francisco 49ers did in 2013 when they drafted Eric Reid with the No. 18 overall pick to replace Dashon Goldson at free safety.

    Inarguably younger and cheaper than Goldson, San Francisco already looks smart for their decision to trade up with the Dallas Cowboys to secure Reid. A 16-game starter for the 49ers as a rookie, Reid was a consistent playmaker who recorded 77 tackles, 11 passes defensed (four interceptions) and two fumble recoveries.

    His rookie season came with the growing pains you expect from a first-year safety, as he was beaten for a number of big plays over the course of the year. Despite some occasional miscues, PFF ranked him as the 16th-best safety in the NFL last year, in part thanks to his ability to be a difference-maker on the back end.

    An athletic defensive back who hits hard and has a nose for the ball, Reid is a 22-year-old with a Pro Bowl berth already under his belt and all the tools to be one of the top safeties in the NFL.

    Reid will certainly be tested in 2014, as he’ll be expected to step up as a leader for a secondary that lost strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers this offseason. His rookie season, on one of the NFL’s most high-profile teams, suggests that he should handle the pressure just fine.

8. Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions

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    There might not be any second-year player primed for a bigger breakout season than Ezekiel Ansah. While many of the players who have preceded him in these rankings were more productive than him as rookies, Ansah had flashes of brilliance that demonstrated his potential to emerge as a superstar.

    Physically, Ansah is a freak whose superb traits stand out even at the professional level. The 6’5”, 271-pound Detroit Lions defensive end has prototypical length and strength for the position, while he also has rare closing speed for a player of his size.

    He translated those tools to the tune of eight sacks—the most among all first-year players in 2013—while he was also did a great job in defending the run, holding the edge on plays run at him and/or tracking down ball-carriers from the back side.

    Ansah’s game lacked consistency and discipline this past season, but that was to be expected, as his rookie season with the Lions was only the fourth year in his life in which he played football.

    Still incredibly new to the game relative to his NFL peers, Ansah still has sky-high potential. Even as he adjusted to playing at a higher level of football this past year, he continued to rapidly develop his fundamentals.

    A player who needs every opportunity for refinement he can get, Ansah has dealt with a minor setback this offseason as shoulder surgery kept him out of spring workouts, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. But if Ansah can continue to build upon his progress once healthy, he could emerge as one of the NFL’s most disruptive defensive ends.

7. Kiko Alonso, WLB, Buffalo Bills

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    How important did Kiko Alonso immediately become to the Buffalo Bills defense? He played every single defensive snap for the Bills—1,176 to be exact—this past season.

    The middle linebacker in Buffalo’s hybrid defensive scheme under then-coordinator Mike Pettine in 2013, Alonso was a tackling machine. Consistently showing athletic range and a nose for the football, the rookie from Oregon tallied up 159 total tackles, the third most in the NFL.

    Despite his immediate success, the Pro Football Writers of America’s choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year will be changing positions in 2014. As the Bills switch to a 4-3-based defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Alonso is moving to weak-side linebacker.

    The transition might result in a lower tackle total for Alonso as a sophomore, but it should also put him in a more natural position for his game. While he is great at using his speed to track down ball-carriers and is very good at dropping into coverage, he had some issues as a rookie when teams ran straight at him.

    What shouldn’t change in Alonso’s transition is his importance to the team. He’ll still be the star of the Bills’ linebacker corps and an every-down defender, and it will be a big surprise if he doesn’t continue to show up around the football.

6. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers

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    The No. 14 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Star Lotulelei has already started to live up to his first name. Possessing all the traits to be an elite 4-3 nose tackle, Lotulelei made an immediate impact that went a long way for a stout Carolina Panthers defense in 2013.

    A 6’2”, 315-pound defensive lineman who can beat his opponents with both power and quickness, Lotulelei was dominant as a run-stopper in his rookie year. He had 42 total tackles, the second-most among rookie defensive linemen, while he also consistently freed up the players around him to make plays by occupying double-teams.

    As a pass-rusher, Lotulelei’s game remains more of a work in progress, but he has shown that he can overpower an opponent with a bull rush or burst through a gap to get into the backfield. He had three sacks and 23 total quarterback pressures last season.

    Lotulelei played only 60.6 percent of defensive snaps for Carolina over the course of his first year, but he started all 16 games and was a consistently imposing presence when he was on the field. Assuming he continues to assert his physical dominance in his sophomore season, his role should only continue to grow, and he should establish himself as one of the NFL’s best players at his position.

5. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Despite not finding a consistent role in the Minnesota Vikings offense until the final quadrant of his rookie season, Cordarrelle Patterson finished second in the NFL this past season with 2,020 all-purpose yards. Going into the 2014 season, he’s on the brink of becoming a superstar.

    Possessing outstanding athleticism for a 6’2”, 220-pound player, Patterson can make big things happen any time he touches the ball, which he showed in a trio of capacities as a rookie.

    As a receiver and gadget-play runner on offense, Patterson averaged 11 yards per touch in 2013. He scored seven touchdowns, including six in Minnesota’s final five games, of which four came on plays of 33 yards or more.

    Where Patterson was truly extraordinary as a rookie was on kickoff returns. He was the only player in the NFL to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2013, and he had a league-leading 32.4-yard return average.

    It’s already clear that Patterson is a dynamic difference-maker who must be accounted for wherever he lines up on the field. It’s also evident that Patterson, a junior college transfer who played only one year of major college football at Tennessee before he turned pro, might only be scratching the surface of his potential as an offensive player.

    The Vikings already had one game-changer on offense in Adrian Peterson, arguably the NFL’s best running back. It appears they now have two thanks to the emergence of Patterson, the No. 29 overall pick from the 2013 draft.

4. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    There were a number of reasons to doubt Keenan Allen’s ability to excel in the NFL, and those concerns caused him to the fall to the third round of last year’s draft.

    The San Diego Chargers wide receiver proved his doubters decidedly wrong in his rookie season.

    Allen doesn’t have as much explosive athleticism or big-play ability as first-round products Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson, but it was clear, at least for year one, that Allen is the most complete wide receiver to come out of the 2013 draft class.

    If you were to explain why the Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers made a resurgence that put the team back in the playoffs this past season, you can’t do it without pointing to Allen as a factor. With 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year Award winner led the Chargers in receiving yards and rookies in all three of those categories.

    Fortunately for the Chargers, Allen has a skill set that sets him up well for sustained success in the NFL. A 6’2”, 211-pound receiver who has great hands and runs crisp routes, Allen is very good at navigating his way open, can beat physical coverage and has great body control.

    Although he came into the NFL with injury concerns, he played in all but the Chargers’ first game of the season last year. As long as he can continue to stay healthy, Allen should continue to be Rivers’ go-to target—and perhaps one of the leading receivers in the league—in 2014.

3. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    No one would have expected going into last season that the Green Bay Packers could lose star quarterback Aaron Rodgers for seven games and still make the playoffs, but a big reason they were able to survive was the emergence of running back Eddie Lacy in his first NFL season.

    Bruising between-the-tackles runners like the 5’11”, 230-pound Lacy can wear down over the course of a season, but the Packers rookie seemed to keep getting stronger as the 2013 season went on.

    Lacy led all rookies with 1,178 rushing yards, 284 rushing attempts, 11 touchdowns (all rushing) and 1,435 yards from scrimmage. Following the Packers’ Week 4 bye, Lacy had at least 80 yards from scrimmage in all but two of Green Bay’s remaining games.

    There is legitimate reason to question whether Lacy can keep up that level of production, as inside runners who take a great deal of hits often wear down more quickly than players at other positions. That said, the 24-year-old is Green Bay’s clear-cut No. 1 back for the upcoming season, and he should continue, at least for 2014, to be one of the NFL’s premier rushers.

    Assuming Rodgers can stay healthy, the Packers won’t need to rely on their running game as much as they did in the second half of last year. Still you should expect Lacy, who ranked fifth among all NFL rushers with 61 first-down conversions in his rookie year, to play a key role in helping Green Bay set up its passing offense and in converting short-yardage and goal-line situations.

2. Larry Warford, RG, Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Unless you’re a Detroit Lions fan, chances are good you weren’t expecting to see an offensive guard in the No. 2 spot on this list. However, if you were among those who followed the Lions closely last year, you already knew that Larry Warford, a third-round pick, is already looking like one of the biggest steals of the 2013 draft.

    Most offensive linemen get exposed regularly in their rookie seasons, but not Warford. Throughout the 2013 season, Warford was one of the NFL’s best guards and looked as though he could be a dominant force on the Detroit offensive line for many years to come.

    Listed at 6’3” and 333 pounds, Warford consistently bullies defenders with his strength and power. With strong hands and a propensity to play with proper leverage, Warford can bulldoze opponents off the line of scrimmage but rarely ever gets pushed into the backfield himself.

    There aren’t any official statistics for an offensive lineman, but according to PFF, Warford was responsible for zero sacks and just 15 total pressures allowed on 668 pass-blocking snaps in 2013. Combining his consistency in pass protection with his ability to clear space for runners out of the backfield, Warford was already playing at a Pro Bowl level in his debut year.

    Because of the position he plays, Warford might never become the household name he already should be, but he’s already played a big role in helping to solidify the Lions offensive line. He isn’t as long or athletic as most of the 10 offensive linemen drafted ahead of him last year, but so far, he looks as though he could be the best of the bunch.

1. Sheldon Richardson, DT/DE, New York Jets

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    No rookie was more consistently excellent this past season than New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who became an immediate star as a hybrid 3-technique defensive tackle/5-technique defensive end in the Jets’ 3-4 defensive front.

    Displaying an exceptional burst but also great point-of-attack strength, the 6’3”, 294-pound wrecking ball wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines in 2013.

    The Associated Press’ choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Richardson had 77 total tackles, the NFL’s second-most among interior defensive linemen, while he also recorded 15.5 tackles for loss (3.5 sacks) and 33 total quarterback pressures. Yet in addition to having some of the most impressive statistics of the rookie class, his impact also went far beyond the box score, as he regularly opened up playmaking opportunities for his teammates by occupying blockers.

    Richardson even made a surprise impact offensively, scoring two touchdowns from the fullback spot in goal-line rushing situations.

    There’s no reason Richardson shouldn’t continue to dominate in his second season. Per Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger, he recently scoffed at the notion of a “sophomore slump.”

    “That sounds like a rookie wall, something I never hit,” Richardson said.

    Rated by PFF as the NFL’s fifth-best 3-4 DE last year, it should come as no surprise if Richardson contends for All-Pro recognition in 2014.

     

    Standard statistics courtesy of NFL.com and ESPN.com. All advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

    Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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