5 Second-Year NFL Players Set to Break Through in 2014
Every season, second-year players either do one of two things: they start or continue to solidify themselves as household names or they struggle, hitting what most people call the “sophomore slump.”
Last year, Buffalo’s Kiko Alonso, Chicago’s Kyle Long, Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and San Diego’s Keenan Allen established themselves as very solid NFL players, with each a possessing a ceiling that promises higher levels of individual achievement.
Now, lets take a look at some “sophomores” who could emerge as threats during the 2014 season.
Players are listed in order of the impact that I believe they will have this season.
All statistical analysis provided by Pro Football Focus.
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Dee Milliner, Cornerback, New York Jets
As a rookie cornerback out of Alabama, Jets cornerback Dee Milliner’s first NFL season was the very definition of inconsistent.
Starting 13 games, Milliner made things relatively difficult on opposing signal-callers, allowing them to complete just 51.5 percent on their pass attempts in his area, the 14th-best mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In addition, Milliner picked off three passes and recorded 11 passes defensed.
But, for as good as he was, he had his deficiencies.
Opposing receivers racked up 770 yards (14.5 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns on passes thrown in his direction. Only three players—former Vikings and current 49er Chris Cook, Cleveland’s Buster Skrine and Indianapolis’ Vontae Davis—allowed more touchdowns in coverage.
With most players, especially guys with the upside that Milliner possesses—and he has the combination of athleticism, size and strength to be a lockdown corner—that inconsistency gets corrected over time.
The departure of Antonio Cromartie now makes Milliner the face of the Jets secondary, which also added rookie free safety Calvin Pryor, a player who reminds me of a bigger Bob Sanders, in the first round of the NFL draft.
Milliner’s arrow looks to be trending upward, especially considering all three of his interceptions occurred in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Look for him to have an impressive second season, especially in a division with quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and EJ Manuel prone to making ill-advised throws.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
I’ve been very outspoken this offseason about the potential impact of Cordarrelle Patterson in Norv Turner’s offense, especially with a competent quarterback in rookie Teddy Bridgewater (possibly) under center.
Patterson is extremely athletic, possessing game-breaking speed and the ability to turn a small gain into a big play at the drop of a dime.
His 45 receptions, 469 yards and four touchdowns don’t exactly jump off of the page, but he was still efficient given the circumstances that surrounded the offense last year. On 72 targets, Patterson dropped just five passes, giving him a drop rate of 10 on Pro Football Focus’ rating scale.
Stats can be a bit overstated, but that’s still pretty impressive.
While he will still line up all over the field and be utilized on screen passes in Turner’s offense—similar to his role as a rookie—Patterson will have an opportunity to establish himself as a bigger vertical threat in 2014.
He has had an offseason to refine his route-running, and he will be playing under a coordinator in Turner who is skilled at using different formations to create mismatches against opposing coverages.
With Bridgewater likely to get the nod at quarterback, the presence of Adrian Peterson in both the passing and receiving game and Kyle Rudolph doing Kyle Rudolph things (if healthy), Patterson has as good of a chance as anybody to emerge as the next Percy Harvin.
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, Defensive End, Detroit Lions
When Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah entered the league from BYU last season, it was obvious that he was going to be a project, possessing fantastic athleticism but flawed technique as a pass-rusher.
Ansah's athleticism alone gives him an advantage rushing the passer on the outside, but he played in just 27 games in college, accumulating 4.5 careers sacks and 13 tackles for loss (all of which were in his last collegiate season).
He didn’t have much trouble catching on as a rookie in 2013, finding his way to the quarterback eight times and forcing two fumbles.
Although he is currently sitting on the PUP list, forcing him to miss a lot of offseason work, he likely won’t miss a beat when he returns to the lineup.
Playing alongside Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, both of whom are in contract years (although Suh has a player option for 2015), Ansah will see plenty of one-on-one opportunities while rushing the passer alongside two solid (and one star) defensive linemen playing with a chip on their shoulder.
Look for Ansah to approach the double-digit sack figure by time 2014 approaches its end.
Zach Ertz, Tight End, Philadelphia Eagles
Brent Celek still technically holds down the starting tight end spot in Philadelphia, but second-year man Zach Ertz is making a strong push to take that title from him.
Celek is known more for his blocking, but Ertz – while having improved as a blocker since his college days—brings the ability to stretch the defense and makes plays in the middle of the field in an offense that needs that out of the tight end position.
Ertz is a gifted athlete with reliable hands who will be sure to see his targets rise from the 59 thrown his way last season.
Despite starting just two games in his rookie campaign, Ertz hauled in 39 passes for 491 yards and five touchdowns while dropping just three passes.
That kind of reliability in the passing game is exactly what the Eagles need as they attempt to shrink the void left by former wide out DeSean Jackson.
Look for Ertz to be the starting tight end in Philly early in the 2014 season, providing the Eagles with the “joker” tight end they have been lacking for years.
Justin Hunter, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
Another receiver out of the 2013 class, Tennessee’s Justin Hunter could burst onto the scene this season.
The 6'4" Hunter has the height that you love in an outside receiver, but he also possesses the ability to line up in the slot and make plays in the middle of the field as well.
Last season, Hunter had just 18 receptions for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His numbers are a bit inflated as 223 of those yards came against the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos in Weeks 12 and 14.
Part of Hunter’s underwhelming numbers could be attributed to the instability at the quarterback position, mainly because of the injury to Jake Locker.
Kendall Wright still looms as a threat both in the slot and on the outside, and Delanie Walker can also create matchup problems against less-athletic linebackers—factors that will create more opportunities for Hunter.
Should the Titans get a full season from Locker in Ken Whisenhunt’s new offense, Hunter could quickly become one of the most dangerous receivers in the league.