NFL Players Ready to Make Huge 2nd-Year Leaps
A number of NFL rookies became standouts during the 2013 season, but many more only showed glimpses of how good they could be. Some of the players who fall in the latter category, such as Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter, should be in line for big leaps in production in 2014.
As players become acclimated to the professional level of football in their first seasons, most struggle. The ones who overcome those struggles to achieve stardom in year two will be the players who combine their natural abilities with improved technique, a better understanding of the game and the fruits of a year of experience and hard work.
None of the following players was consistently great as a rookie. Some were at times; others failed to seize any significant role at all. All of them, however, look to be in position for increased responsibilities and stronger performances in 2014.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
Ezekiel Ansah actually was quite productive in his rookie season—he led all rookies with eight sacks—but his game, both as a pass-rusher and run defender, was also rife with inconsistency and technical flaws.
That was to be expected. Ansah came into the NFL having only played three years of college football at BYU, before which he had never played the sport in an organized capacity. Still very green to the game but having rare physical tools that made him the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft, Ansah could be on the brink of second-year superstardom.
The 6’5”, 271-pound Detroit Lions defensive end has a rare combination of length, strength and speed. His first step is unspectacular, but he is aggressive with his upper body and accelerates like a sprinter. He is very dangerous in pursuit and is a solid edge-setter versus the run.
Ansah has already proved he can be a big-play defender; only consistency and discipline, which should improve greatly with another year of experience, stand in his way of being a Pro Bowl-level player. He needs continued development of his pass-rushing moves so that he can be a consistent source of pressure, and he has to learn to stop vacating gaps that leave running lanes wide open.
The BYU product has had a setback this offseason—he has yet to play this preseason and was on the physically unable to perform list until last week after undergoing shoulder surgery—but his development was needed more on the mental side of the game than physically. As long as he has continued to learn in his time on the sidelines, his rapid development should continue. He should be in line for a breakout 2014 campaign.
Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns
With all the hubbub surrounding Johnny Manziel this offseason, it’s easy to forget that the Cleveland Browns had the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft and used it to select a player who could blossom into a standout edge defender in 2014.
Barkevious Mingo’s rookie season didn’t go as planned. He suffered a bruised lung in the preseason and missed the season opener. From that point forward, his play was inconsistent. He recorded five sacks but was overly reliant on his athleticism and unable to beat blockers consistently.
His athleticism is abundant. The 6’4”, 240-pound linebacker ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, and it’s clear in his film that he can fly all around the field to make plays.
In his first two games this preseason, Mingo has displayed the continued need to improve on his hand techniques to break down blockers, but he has also shown the ability to cover a great deal of ground, bring heat off the edge and drop back fluidly in coverage.
Thus far, he has recorded one sack and six total tackles in approximately three quarters of preseason play.
Mingo’s development will extend into his second year, but the lightning-quick LSU product has supplanted Jabaal Sheard in the starting lineup and should only continue to improve and make plays. Opposing offensive lines will have to constantly account for Mingo this season, and he’ll probably make blockers look foolish at times.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Projected to emerge as one of the NFL’s next great receiving playmakers at tight end, Tyler Eifert had a somewhat underwhelming rookie season. The No. 21 overall pick caught just 39 passes for 445 yards and two touchdowns and was not among the Cincinnati Bengals’ top five pass-catchers.
Expect that to change in 2013. The former Notre Dame star has the size, hands, speed and route-running ability to be an excellent “move” tight end; he just needs to put it all together consistently and establish himself as one of the go-to weapons on a talent-laden Bengals offense.
He seems to be well on his way to doing so. According to Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle, Eifert was “nearly unstoppable in practice” early in training camp.
“He's beating corners deep for bombs, snagging contested passes over the middle and becoming a favorite target for Andy Dalton,” Marcum wrote on Aug. 2.
If Eifert can keep that up going into the regular season, his playing time and total targets should increase.
A foot injury suffered by Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones—which will likely sideline him for six weeks or more, according to Bleacher Report’s Will Carroll—should increase Eifert’s opportunities as a pass-catcher, especially as it means he is likely to spend more time lining up in the slot.
Eifert, however, has to get healthy himself to make good on the opportunity. A nagging shoulder injury kept Eifert out of Cincinnati’s most recent preseason game Saturday against the New York Jets.
Bjoern Werner, OLB, Indianapolis Colts
The transition to 3-4 outside linebacker is often difficult for a rookie who played 4-3 defensive end in college. It was a seemingly unnatural one for Bjoern Werner in 2013, but the former Florida State pass-rusher has looked much better this preseason for the Indianapolis Colts.
Werner played just 312 total snaps as a rookie, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he didn’t make much impact. He recorded 2.5 sacks and just 18 total tackles in his first year with the Colts while battling a foot injury.
His role should increase significantly this season. He has been a starter in Indianapolis’ first two preseason contests and is expected to continue starting in place of Robert Mathis while he is suspended for the Colts’ first four games of the season.
If Werner continues to play as well as he has in the first two exhibition contests of the summer, he might end up taking Erik Walden’s starting job after that. He has looked comfortable off the edge this summer, bringing pressure and making plays against the run while also looking more than competent when dropping back into coverage.
According to Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star, Werner was also a standout of training camp. “He's a more aggressive player,” Holder wrote. “He looks quicker, stronger and his instincts are becoming more obvious.”
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans
Justin Hunter showed the type of impact he could have for the Tennessee Titans in Week 12 of last season, when he caught six passes for 109 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown, against the Oakland Raiders. The second-round pick’s massive upside flashed through once again two weeks later, when he had four catches for 114 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown, against the Denver Broncos
The other 14 games of Hunter’s rookie season were a different story. Despite appearing in all but two contests last season, Hunter had combined totals of just eight catches, 131 yards and two touchdowns in his other 12 appearances.
The two bright spots in Hunter’s season are more likely a sign of things to come than a fluke. A 6’4”, 203-pound wideout with exceptional athleticism for his size, the University of Tennessee product has the physical tools to be an excellent outside receiver in the NFL.
Inconsistency in his play and effort, however, has been a serious problem for him thus far. Just last week, Titans coaches changed the nameplate on Hunter’s practice jersey to "JAG"—or Just Another Guy—to express their disappointment with the second-year player’s performance, according to Terry McCormick of 247Sports.
Hunter responded well in the Titans’ most recent preseason game Friday against the New Orleans Saints. He had four receptions, including touchdowns of 64 and four yards, for a total of 111 receiving yards.
It remains unclear whether Hunter can turn his moments of brilliance into weekly excellence, but it is evident how dangerous he can be when he is at his best.
He’s currently listed as the No. 3 receiver on Tennessee’s depth chart. It’s unlikely he’ll replace Kendall Wright or Nate Washington in the starting lineup this preseason, but he should see a significant increase in playing time if he continues to make plays.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
As the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 2 tight end last season, Zach Ertz made some impressive plays as a pass-catcher, but both his playing time and production were inconsistent.
Going into the 2014 season, the second-round pick from Stanford looks primed to become a major player in the Eagles offense.
A very good all-around athlete at 6’5” and 250 pounds, Ertz is a vertical threat who can stretch the field but also post up on smaller defenders and make contested catches. He projects as a go-to target in the red zone but has enough open-field playmaking ability to be dynamic at all levels of the field.
Ertz had 60 receiving yards—more than he had in all but one regular-season game as a rookie—on four receptions in just 23 snaps in Philadelphia’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears.
He had another impressive showing Friday against the New England Patriots. He muscled his way to a six-yard touchdown at the goal line and then made another impressive grab 20 yards downfield over a Patriots linebacker up the seam.
Ertz still hasn’t shown much to this point as a blocker, and he’s the backup to Brent Celek on Philadelphia’s depth chart for that reason. That said, Ertz can be moved all around the formation as a receiving threat, and the Eagles should be looking for creative ways to get him involved in the offense as much as possible.
Bleacher Report’s Michael Schottey is among those who think Ertz is “tailor-made to succeed in [Eagles coach Chip] Kelly's offense.”
Johnathan Hankins, DT, New York Giants
Buried on the New York Giants’ defensive tackle depth chart last season, second-round pick Johnathan Hankins didn’t see much playing time, but he was an effective run-stuffer when he was on the field. He only played 195 total snaps last year, according to Pro Football Focus, but had the NFL’s seventh-best run-stopping percentage among defensive tackles who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps against the run.
That should lead Hankins, the No. 49 overall selection from Ohio State, into a bigger role on the Giants defensive line in 2014, especially now that Linval Joseph, the team’s starting nose tackle from last year, is no longer with the franchise.
Hankins isn’t a particularly agile player or much of a pass-rusher, but he fills the nose tackle role. The 6’2”, 320-pounder is stout at the point of attack and generates strong pushes in one-on-one battles to drive offensive linemen backward.
He’s not currently listed as a starter on New York’s depth chart—Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson are the first-string defensive tackles—but expect Hankins to be a core piece of the defensive line rotation nonetheless. Hankins provides more bulk inside than either of them, and he has started all three of the preseason games so far while Patterson has battled a shoulder injury.
Hankins has performed well thus far in three contests, including the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game against the Buffalo Bills, and could end up completely overtaking Patterson on the depth chart if he continues to excel.
Jamie Collins, LB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots worked Jamie Collins into their defense very gradually last season, but the rookie’s star potential became clear down the stretch.
Collins had a breakout performance in the postseason last year, when he recorded six tackles, a sack and an interception in New England’s win over the Indianapolis Colts. In 2014, the expectation will be that the No. 52 overall pick out of Southern Miss will show that type of playmaking ability every week.
A terrific, all-around athlete with tremendous versatility, Collins is a perfect fit for the Patriots’ multifaceted, always-changing defense.
The 6’3”, 250-pound linebacker can be an explosive pass-rusher off the edge but also shows terrific feet and hips when dropping back into coverage against tight ends, running backs or slot receivers. He can play both inside and outside, has great playmaking range and is aggressive between the tackles.
The second-year player isn’t just expected to be one of the Patriots’ three starters at the second level; he’s also expected to emerge as one of the star playmakers of New England’s defense. If his impressive play in a multitude of roles last season was an indication of things to come, Collins could prove to be “the next great breakout linebacker” in his sophomore campaign.
Margus Hunt, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Like the aforementioned Ezekiel Ansah, Margus Hunt came into the NFL with limited football experience, but he is a freak athlete who is rapidly developing into a potential star.
Hunt, an Estonian-born athlete who initially went to SMU to participate in track and field, played football for the first time in 2009. He remained very raw after four years of collegiate play, but his measurables are jaw-dropping. At 6’8” and 277 pounds, Hunt ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash and posted 38 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
Selected with the No. 53 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2013 draft, Hunt’s impact was minimal in his rookie season. He played 165 snaps and recorded just three total tackles and a half-sack.
Hunt is one of the NFL’s most spectacular physical specimens, but his lack of technical skills rendered him completely ineffective as a rookie. In two preseason games this summer, however, it’s clear that he has improved significantly.
With five total tackles and one sack, Hunt has surpassed his numbers from last year in just two contests this August. He has been beating opponents with his burst and power at the line of scrimmage while using his speed to chase plays downfield and across the formation. He has recorded seven total quarterback pressures and is ranked by Pro Football Focus, halfway through the preseason, in a tie for the top spot among 4-3 DEs in the NFL this summer.
Hunt still needs to become better with his hands and play with more discipline, but it’s clear that his technique and instincts have improved to the point that he can take legitimate advantage of his physical tools and be a defensive playmaker.
On a Bengals defense that no longer has Michael Johnson at defensive end, Hunt should be a key factor in the team’s rotation on the edge.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
After a year of backing up Knowshon Moreno, 2013 No. 58 overall pick Montee Ball could be in line for a highly productive season as the Denver Broncos’ featured running back.
There was nothing special about Ball’s rookie season, but he started to put up some solid production as the No. 2 tailback down the stretch of the year. Overall, Ball had 704 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns on 140 total touches.
If Ball’s career at Wisconsin was any indication, he’s more than capable of emerging as one of the NFL’s top halfbacks in 2014. In his four-year collegiate career, Ball proved his durability and consistent ability to move the chains as he broke the NCAA record for touchdowns scored (83) and had 5,738 yards from scrimmage.
Ball does not have any one spectacular physical trait, but he is a smart, tough runner who has a quick start out of the backfield, great vision to find holes and the ability to churn through contact to extend plays. He is a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield, and at Wisconsin, he tended to improve over the course of a game as he wore out opposing defenses.
Playing for the Broncos gives Ball a distinct advantage, as the presence of quarterback Peyton Manning and a plethora of talented receiving weapons keep defenses spread out and give Ball room to run. Denver’s offense is pass-first, but Ball should have plenty of opportunities to rack up statistics.
In June, Bleacher Report’s Cecil Lammey wrote that he thought Ball “could be the best back the Broncos have had since the days of Terrell Davis.”
Ball has been unable to play this preseason after undergoing an appendectomy earlier this month, but he’s the clear-cut starter in Denver’s backfield. He should be able to pick up where he left off last season and pile up yardage in his sophomore campaign.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce was a highly touted tight end out of Cincinnati last year, but he never had a chance to put his skills on display as a rookie due to microfracture knee surgery that led him to the Kansas City Chiefs’ injured reserve list.
It was certainly a disappointment for the No. 63 overall pick to have his entire debut season wiped out by injury, but now that he’s healthy, it’s clear how dynamic a weapon Kelce could be for the Chiefs passing offense in 2014.
Athletically, it’s evident that Kelce has not suffered any ill effects of his injury. In each of Kansas City’s first two preseason games, he has burned opposing defenses deep for long touchdowns of 69 yards versus the Cincinnati Bengals and 43 yards versus the Carolina Panthers.
Possessing great speed for a 6’5”, 260-pound tight end, Kelce is a field-stretching vertical threat. He might not surpass Anthony Fasano on the depth chart this year, but he should see no shortage of playing time because he offers far more big-play ability than Fasano.
The Chiefs don’t have an impressive stable of wide receiver talent, but they can move Kelce all around their formation to create size and speed mismatches.
Pro Football Focus has given Kelce the highest grade among all NFL tight ends thus far this preseason. He has accumulated a total of six receptions for 136 yards.
Terron Armstead, LT, New Orleans Saints
Terron Armstead was thrown into a tough position late last season when the rookie replaced Charles Brown at left tackle in the Saints' starting lineup. He had some issues in pass protection, but the No. 75 overall pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff also showed the potential to emerge as a great offensive lineman in his sophomore campaign.
A rare athlete for his position, Armstead ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at 6’5” and 306 pounds at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
Armstead is at his best as a run-blocker, where he can take full advantage of his athleticism to pick up blocks all over the line of scrimmage. His game is a work in progress as a pass-blocker, but his quickness gives him a huge advantage over most offensive tackles in mirroring speed-rushers off the edge.
Early in training camp, ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett wrote that Armstead “looked outstanding at times, especially during run-blocking drills.” His impressive play has continued this preseason; through two weeks, he carries a plus-3.3 overall rating, the third-best of any offensive tackle thus far, from Pro Football Focus.
The Saints’ first-team offensive line has not yet allowed a sack this preseason, per Christopher Dabe of NOLA.com. Armstead’s play has been a big reason why.
Six offensive tackles were drafted ahead of Armstead in 2013, including three in the top four overall selections, but it’s looking quite possible that he could emerge as the best left tackle from his draft class.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
For the most part, Markus Wheaton was a non-factor for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in his rookie season. He had just six receptions for 64 yards, all of which came in just two games.
The fourth receiver on Pittsburgh’s depth chart last season, Wheaton missed four games with a finger injury, but his lack of production was largely due to the Steelers not needing him on the field. With a solid top trio in Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, Wheaton had few opportunities for legitimate playing time.
That’s changed for 2014. With Sanders and Cotchery no longer in Pittsburgh, Wheaton has emerged as a starter on Pittsburgh’s depth chart, and it seems likely that the 2013 No. 79 overall pick from Oregon State could be in for a breakout campaign.
Wheaton is only 5’11” and 182 pounds, but he is a tough receiver who doesn’t let defensive backs push him around. He has the speed to beat defenders and is also a skilled route-runner who can make defenders miss in space.
Through two preseason games, Wheaton has caught three passes for 43 yards, including an impressive toe-tap catch in the left rear corner of the end zone versus the Buffalo Bills on Saturday.
As Pittsburgh's No. 2 wideout last season, Sanders posted 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns. Wheaton already has enough skill to put up similar numbers in 2014.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.