Second-Year NFL Players Ready to Take Leap into Stardom
They've wowed their team and fans but have also set the bar high for the following season's performance. A million different variables can impact each player's situation—injuries, changes in surrounding personnel or schemes, off-field issues—making it a unique challenge for budding stars to recapture the magic of a stellar rookie campaign.
Other rookies would love nothing more than to forget about their first dance with the NFL, failing to live up to high expectations that come with being a top pick. Their sophomore season is about shaking off the doubters who are ready to slap on the "bust" label and proving their team made a wise investment in spending a premium choice on them.
Which players will use their impressive rookie year as a catalyst to bigger and brighter things in their NFL career? Who is hoping to turn rags into riches in their second season? Let's take a look.
Chargers WR Keenan Allen
Once considered one of the top pass-catchers in the 2013 draft class, Keenan Allen's draft stock fell due to a nagging knee injury that kept him from putting up solid workout numbers.
But when he fell to the third round, the Chargers snatched up the receiver who had caught the eye of general manager Tom Telesco back in 2011, when the executive was in attendance to see Allen catch 13 passes for 160 yards against USC.
Allen rewarded the Bolts with 71 receptions, 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie season, emerging as Philip Rivers' new favorite target. Despite concerns about his ability to bounce back from the knee injury, the former Cal Golden Bear made 14 starts last year, going over the century mark in receiving yards five times.
Allen continued his impressive play in the playoffs, hauling in six passes for 142 yards and a pair of scores in San Diego's 24-17 loss to the eventual AFC champion Broncos.
Another offseason of building chemistry with Rivers should keep Allen's star on the rise, and if he can stay healthy, he should develop into one of the best young receivers in the NFL.
Jets DL Sheldon Richardson
After trading away Darrelle Revis for the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Jets used their original first-rounder to replace the Pro Bowl corner with Alabama's Dee Milliner.
But it was that 13th overall pick that netted them a future star defender in defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. The former Missouri Tiger racked up 78 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 15 starts for the Jets, eventually delivering on his confident claim that he should be the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Many expected Richardson to be drafted by a team running a 4-3 scheme, as Richardson most often lined up as a 3-technique in that front at Missouri. But the Tigers ran plenty of 3-man fronts as well, having Richardson slide out to defensive end. His experience in a 3-4 alignment showed in 2013, as he was as disruptive as any 5-technique end in the NFL.
Richardson is surrounded by talent elsewhere on the Jets defense, namely another disruptive linemate in Muhammad Wilkerson. As Richardson continues to feel more comfortable in Rex Ryan's scheme, he should become one of the premier interior defenders in the NFL.
Packers RB Eddie Lacy
Considered by some to be the top back in last year's draft, Eddie Lacy was the third runner off the board behind Giovani Bernard (Bengals) and Le'Veon Bell (Steelers). But it was the physical back from Alabama who walked away with the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
A toe injury reportedly scared off certain teams heading into the 2013 draft, but the Packers were handsomely rewarded for taking a shot on Lacy. The former bell cow for the Crimson Tide started 15 of the Packers 16 regular-season games in 2013, racking up 1,178 yards on 284 carries, adding 35 catches and finding the end zone 11 times.
Lacy rushed for 81 yards in Green Bay's narrow playoff loss to the 49ers.
Lacy heads into his sophomore season fully recovered and well-rested, and the Packers plan to manage his workload to keep the young workhorse from burning out too quickly. If he stays fresh and healthy, he should build on his rookie success to continue giving the Pack the offensive balanced they've needed.
Saints S Kenny Vaccaro
Heading into the 2013 draft, the Saints needed help at both corner and safety. In Kenny Vaccaro, they found a versatile playmaker who excels as a center fielder, but can also come down and cover man to man in the slot.
The Texas product wasted no time making his presence known, asserting himself as a young leader and backing it up with fantastic play on the field. Vaccaro racked up 79 tackles, one interception, one sack and one forced fumble on his way to finishing third in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
The former Longhorn's superb rookie season ended prematurely thanks to a fractured ankle in late December, but he should be fully recovered from surgery and ready to pick up right where he left off in 2013. With the addition of free agent Jairus Byrd, Vaccaro will have the benefit of lining up next to a Pro Bowler opposing teams will want to avoid.
If he doesn't show any lasting effects of the ankle injury, Vaccaro should elevate his play even further in 2014 and become one of the best young safeties in the league.
Lions G Larry Warford
Two offensive guards were drafted among the top 10 picks last year, but it was third-rounder Larry Warford who stole the show during the season, proving he's already one of the best young maulers in the league.
Thought to be one of the more obvious Pro Bowl snubs in 2013, Warford earned plenty of praise throughout his rookie campaign as one of the steals of the entire draft.
Routinely praised during predraft workouts for his run-blocking prowess, Warford proved his value as a terrific all-around blocker by not surrendering a single sack during his rookie season.
But despite being named Pro Football Focus' Rookie of the Year, Warford sees plenty of room for improvement in his sophomore season. And it's that kind of drive and attention to detail that should keep him among the league's best interior lineman for years to come.
Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell
A bruising runner out of Michigan State, Le'Veon Bell was the second running back off the board in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Steelers surprised some by taking Bell ahead of Alabama's Eddie Lacy, but the former Spartan put together an impressive rookie season in his own right. Despite averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, Bell joined Franco Harris and Bam Morris as the only players in team history to gain 1,000 yards from scrimmage in their first season.
After missing the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury, Bell started the final 13 games of the season, setting a Steelers' rookie record with 1,259 total yards and finding the end zone eight times on the ground.
Bell's injury kept him from getting in vital training camp reps last season, so being able to go through a full offseason completely healthy should allow the back to have an even greater impact in his second campaign. The Steelers signed LeGarrette Blount as a free agent, so Bell should be kept plenty fresh in 2014, hopefully decreasing his chances of another injury.
Steeler fans should be expecting big things from their starting running back this season, and Bell is primed to deliver.
Browns LB Barkevious Mingo
When you're a pass-rusher drafted in the top 10 overall, you're expected to get to the quarterback often.
Barkevious Mingo quickly got his NFL career moving in that direction, notching a sack in each of his first three games as a rookie. But he failed to keep that early momentum going, managing just two more sacks over the final 13 games of 2013.
The LSU product is part of a deep group of edge-rushers in Cleveland, with the likes of Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard keeping Mingo a rotational player at this point. But his raw athleticism is the best of any rusher on the roster, and he should still get plenty of chances to flash his big-play ability behind the line of scrimmage.
New head coach Mike Pettine guided the Buffalo Bills' defense to 57 sacks last season as defensive coordinator, good for second-best in the NFL. Mingo should benefit from playing in Pettine's system, and it shouldn't shock Browns fans to see Mingo flirt with double digits in sacks this season, even if he's not a full-time starter.
Vikings WR Cordarrelle Patterson
One of three first-round picks made by the Vikings in 2013, Cordarrelle Patterson brought his raw but electrifying skill set to the Twin Cities, making the NFC Pro Bowl squad as a return specialist in his rookie season.
But even with such accolades as a return man, the Vikings are expecting even bigger things from Patterson as a receiver in 2014. The University of Tennessee product scratched the surface as a pass-catcher last season, grabbing 45 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns in six starts.
Patterson also showed his explosiveness as a runner, carrying the ball 12 times for 158 yards, averaging 13.2 yards per carry and scoring three times on the ground.
The second-year standout is confident in his ability to rise to new heights this season, working to refine his route-running skills and claiming he'll be a "top-five playmaker" in 2014. Patterson is setting the bar high for himself, but he's got the natural talent to get there if he continues to develop the finer points of his game.
Rams WR Tavon Austin
Sporting a plethora of picks thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade the previous year, the Rams unsurprisingly used some of their ammo to move up into the top 10 in the 2013 draft. Their mission: grab an explosive playmaker on offense.
The former Mountaineer got involved in the offense fairly often at the start of the season, catching six passes in each of his first three games and finding the end zone twice in Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons. But Austin would not post six receptions in a game for the rest of the season, missing the final three weeks with an ankle injury.
Austin ended the season with 40 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns, but he made the most of his chances carrying the ball, averaging 16.8 yards on nine rushing attempts, including 65-yard score. A dynamic return man at West Virginia, Austin also returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts last November.
The Rams' top pick in 2013 showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, but for many St. Louis fans, the return was much less than they were expecting from a top-10 pick. Expect Austin to feel more comfortable and confident heading into his second season and to provide plenty more electrifying moments in 2014 as the team expands his role in the offense.
Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah
Many NFL players have been soaking up football knowledge since grade school on the way to a professional career. Ezekiel Ansah got a much later start on things, but the early survey says he's got limitless potential.
Extremely raw but with off-the-charts athleticism, Ansah was a surprise pick by the Detroit Lions at No. 5 overall in the 2013 draft. The BYU product delivered by leading all NFL rookies in sacks with eight, despite missing two games due to injury.
Though some could point to the dominant play of linemates Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley as the reason behind some of his success, Ansah also proved his balance and versatility by being of the best defensive ends in the league against the run last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ansah has spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery, but should be ready to roll when the season begins. With plenty of upside still left to unpack, Ansah is ready to keep proving doubters wrong and develop into one of the league's best young pass-rushers.