NFL Rookies Poised for Breakout Sophomore Seasons in 2018

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 2, 2018

NFL Rookies Poised for Breakout Sophomore Seasons in 2018

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    Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff taught everyone an important lesson this season: Don't give up on talented rookies after only one year. 

    Not every young man is ready to become a professional football player, and an adjustment period is needed before he can establish himself at the highest level.

    Situations often change, too. Goff wouldn't be as successful today if the Rams decided to keep former head coach Jeff Fisher. Different circumstances often create opportunities.

    Some players deserve more playing time after showing promising signs. Successes in small sample sizes often lead to much bigger expectations for a second campaign.

    Some players who struggle at first needed that experience to realize their potential, while others have to overcome injury issues.

    Whatever the case, there will be rookies from this year's class who explode next season. Their performances will be a surprise to some but not others who paid attention to each and their situations.

    Who will be the next Goff? Bleacher Report identified 10 candidates.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The NFL got a taste of what the future holds for the Kansas City Chiefs during their final regular-season contest Sunday.

    Quarterback Patrick Mahomes made his first start in a 27-24 victory over the Denver Broncos. The rookie completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 284 yards with an interception. He also had a rushing touchdown called back after review.

    The performance itself didn't make the Chiefs rethink their postseason plan to start veteran Alex Smith. But Mahomes flashed and showed exactly why the franchise decided to trade up in the first round of April's draft to select him.

    "I thought he ruined a couple of great plays," head coach Andy Reid joked, per the Associated Press' Pat Graham. "Listen, he did a nice job. He did a great job. You saw that in college, right? You saw that same thing in college, and for him to be able to transfer it here to this level, and you've [a Denver player] draped on you, and you make a throw like that, there's not a lot of guys that can do that."

    Mahomes' arm talent is something to behold. The former baseball player can accurately make a 25-yard throw over the middle for a completion even with a defender hanging on his legs.

    Smith's contract status will have a profound effect on the Chiefs' 2018 plans. Kansas City is nearly $3 million over the projected salary cap, and the veteran holds a $20.6 million cap hit, per Spotrac. Reid and Co. will have to make a decision to keep, trade or release him. The latter options are far more realistic with Mahomes on the roster.

    Once handed a starting spot, the young gunslinger can be unleashed to realize his immense potential.

Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Frank Gore is counted among the greatest running backs to ever play the game. His run is coming to an end, though, and the Indianapolis Colts can't enter next season with a 35-year-old as their lead back.

    Marlon Mack deserves an opportunity to become a much larger part of the Colts offense. The 2017 fourth-round pick finished his rookie campaign with 93 carries for 358 yards. More importantly, he led the Colts with six rushes of over 20 yards. Gore provided one.

    Mack's explosiveness was evident coming into the draft. Yet he struggled at times to run between the tackles. USF's all-time leading rusher needed to learn and develop behind Gore.

    "I want to make sure he's ready once I leave here," Gore said, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "One thing I really love about him is that he really listens to me and our running back coach [Jemal Singleton]. When you tell him something, he tries his best to get it done. That's a plus to him. As long [as] he keeps working, pays attention to detail, he has a chance to be a special kid in this league."

    The rookie showed his patience and toughness this season.

    This doesn't mean Gore won't return to the Colts. Yes, he's a free agent, but general manager Chris Ballard once said "no way am I letting this guy off this football team," per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. Gore and Mack's roles need to be reversed, though.

Chris Carson, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Quarterback Russell Wilson finished the 2017 campaign as the Seattle Seahawks' leading rusher with 586 yards. No one else gained more than 240 yards.

    "It just amazes me that we can't find any consistency with any of our guys [at running back]," head coach Pete Carroll said on 710 ESPN Seattle (via the News Tribune's Gregg Bell).

    But Chris Carson provided a fleeting glimpse of potential during his four games. The seventh-round pick ran for 208 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry before suffering a broken ankle against the Indianapolis Colts in October.

    As long as his recovery goes according to planThomas Rawls' didn't after he suffered a similar injury—Carson should enter the 2018 campaign as the Seahawks' lead back. He's already shown some progress, via SeattlePI.com's Michael-Shawn Dugar.

    "He's the real deal. He's the real deal," wide receiver Doug Baldwin said in September after Carson's second appearance, per ESPN.com's Brady Henderson. "I've been telling you that since training camp. He is the real deal."

    Seattle's problems begin with the offensive line, and its backs have to contend with creating much of their own yards. Carson is a physical, downhill runner who excels running between the tackles and pounding the football. His decisiveness is exactly what the Seahawks need.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers had a plan for 2017, and it never came to fruition. 

    Both Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel were supposed to revolutionize the team's offense. Instead, McCaffrey became the focal point, and Samuel never developed his niche. 

    Injuries bookended Samuel's rookie campaign. A sore hamstring slowed the explosive target to open the season before he landed on injured reserve for the final six games with an ankle injury. 

    Samuel didn't become the matchup nightmare the Panthers organization envisioned. One lost season doesn't mean the plan changes, though. 

    "With Curtis we have oh-my-gosh speed," former general manager Dave Gettleman said in May shortly after the NFL draft, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "We feel we've really added a playmaker with him."

    The wide receiver/running back runs a 4.31-second 40-yard dash and totaled 1,636 yards from scrimmage during his last season on campus at Ohio State. Samuel managed only 19 touches in his first professional campaign and never looked comfortable. 

    He and McCaffrey are supposed to be interchangeable. They will be once Samuel is healthy. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula had a plan, and it'll be implemented in 2018 with Samuel working out of the slot, threatening defenses deep and getting a few carries, too.

Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills

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    The NFL is filled with underachieving wide receivers from the 2017 draft class. One or two of them are bound to break through next year. 

    The Tennessee Titans' Corey Davis and Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Williams dealt with injuries, which slowed their progress. The Cincinnati Bengals' John Ross could barely even get on the field before being placed on injured reserve. 

    Zay Jones wasn't chosen among the Top 10 picks like the aforementioned receivers. However, the Buffalo Bills expected a lot from the FBS all-time leader in receptions after making him a second-round selection. The player who arrived in Buffalo looked nothing like the one who registered 399 receptions at East Carolina. Early in the season, he appeared lost running his routes and dropping passes. 

    Jerry Rice experienced similar issues as a rookie. Granted, Jones shouldn't be compared to Rice in any form other than first-year growing pains, but the analogy works because even the greatest of all time started slowly and it didn't signal the death of his career. Jones finished his first regular season with 27 catches for 316 yards and two touchdowns. 

    "Our confidence in Zay has not changed," head coach Sean McDermott said Friday, per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak

    Jones started to play better during the middle of the season before dealing with an ankle injury. Inconsistency at quarterback hasn't helped the rookie, either. However, steadier play behind center, coupled with Jones being more comfortable in his role next season and Kelvin Benjamin's presence, should create a better atmosphere for the once-prolific pass-catcher.

Gerald Everett, TE, Los Angeles Rams

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    The Los Angeles Rams are flying high on offense with Sean McVay calling the plays and Jared Goff as the unit's triggerman. The group is also loaded with skill-position talent. 

    Although, one position remained underutilized. Tyler Higbee started all 16 games at tight end after the organization used its highest pick in the 2017 draft to select Gerald Everett. Higbee finished fifth on the squad with 25 receptions, while Everett managed 16. 

    Both can be on the field and add something different to the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense. Higbee is more of an in-line option, because he's bigger and more physical. Everett, meanwhile, has the potential to turn into McVay's Los Angeles version of Jordan Reed. 

    "Me and Tyler, we want to be that two-headed monster," Everett said this past summer, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "... Just be a pick-your-poison type of deal and be an every-down tight end. Whoever gets plugged in, we know they're going to make plays."

    Everett needed time to develop this season. He made mistakes, dropped passes and had to work on his blocking.

    After early struggles, McVay should expand Everett's role next season to take full advantage of the tight end's athleticism. The 6'3", 245-pound target with 4.62 40-yard-dash speed is an instant mismatch lining up at numerous spots. His maturation should make the Rams offensive scheme even more deadly.

Forrest Lamp, C, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Forrest Lamp's rookie season ended before it truly began. The Western Kentucky product tore the ACL in his right knee on Aug. 2. Lamp was well on his way to earning a starting job in his first season before the injury. 

    "He was playing so well," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after the injury, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "He was really coming along at that right guard position. He was playing really well, so it will definitely hurt this team."

    The Chargers considered starting Lamp at guard and center, but the staff never got a chance to really explore his skill set after making him the 38th overall pick in April's draft. 

    Out of sight doesn't keep the talented blocker out of mind, though. 

    Lamp was arguably the best offensive line prospect among his draft class. He dominated against the Alabama Crimson Tide defense—no, that's not hyperbole. Shorter-than-ideal arm length kept him out of the first round and forced him to switch from left tackle, but he was, by far, the most technically sound and consistent prospect in the 2017 draft. 

    As such, his transition into the lineup should be relatively smooth, and the Chargers can expect a major boost along their offensive interior.

Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns roster features so many recent draft picks that one or two are bound to develop into standout performers. 

    Myles Garrett is the obvious choice as the 2017 No. 1 overall pick, but he's already played well despite being limited due to an ankle injury. Jabrill Peppers should flourish once he's no longer stuck at deep safety. Tight end David Njoku is one of the team's top offensive weapons, too. 

    However, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi outplayed 2015 first-round pick Danny Shelton in limited opportunities. Shelton is the starter, but he won't be for long if Ogunjobi continues to manhandle opponents at the point of attack.

    The 2017 third-round pick is too much for most centers to withstand. He's a far more explosive defender overall. Ogunjobi consistently penetrates the backfield and disrupts offensive plays, yet he's powerful enough at the point of attack to hold up against double-teams. 

    The Browns have a decision whether to pick up Shelton's fifth-year option on his rookie contract this offseason. Ogunjobi may force the organization's hand if it wants to give him more snaps than the recent 12th overall pick.

Sidney Jones, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Sidney Jones made his much-anticipated debut Sunday for the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    "It's awesome, man. It's a blessing," Jones said afterward, per Eagles Wire's Turron Davenport. "It's been exactly a year since I played my last football game, so that was amazing right there. I can’t even describe it. There’s a whole bunch of nerves and good juices going."

    Jones returned after suffering a torn Achilles during Washington's pro day workout. Prior to the injury, the talented cornerback projected as a first-round pick and a possible top-15 selection. Instead, he had to wait to hear his name called until the second round. 

    The Eagles knew Jones' long-term potential could make him into a draft steal, but the organization had to be patient with the defensive back. 

    The cornerback's aggressiveness and ball skills stood out during his time with the Huskies. Jones showed a strong jam to re-route receivers and snagged nine career interceptions. The 6'0" defender then ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. 

    A quartet of Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and a healthy Jones has a chance to develop into the NFL's best. Don't be surprised if Jones is the Eagles' top cover corner soon.

Cameron Sutton, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns may be playing on borrowed time. The 2016 first-round pick has been highly inconsistent during his first two seasons, and he'll be pushed by Cameron Sutton next season. 

    The coaching staff sent a message two weeks ago when the rookie took first-team reps away from Burns. 

    "I'm doing the same thing every week, getting the reps with the 1s and 2s and the scout team," Sutton said, per the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo. "It's pretty much the same every week. I'm just getting where I fit in."

    Whether Sutton takes over for Burns or serves as the team's primary nickel corner next season, he'll have a place within the rotation. The entire unit could look much different with Sutton and Mike Hilton developing into reliable options. 

    Hilton made numerous plays this season—including a three-sack performance against the Houston Texans. Sutton hasn't played nearly as much, but he's only biding his time. 

    "Every man in that room can make a play, and Cam will fall in that group somewhere," safety Mike Mitchell said, per Penn Live's Jacob Klinger. "Where, we don't know, but we know he can ball."

    Burns and William Gay's current roles are good places to start.