Miami Dolphins' Koa Misi and 9 Other NFL Players Ready to Break out
It's kind of a shame actually. Fans and the media (myself included) always put so much stock in the rookies who are going to make an impact that we forget about the arguably more important second-year players.
After all, these sophomores have had the benefit of two training camps and endured the longer and more grueling NFL schedule.
They have had a chance to acclimate to the speed of the NFL game and are beginning to understand their team's offensive or defensive scheme. While rookies likely still have their collective heads spinning, especially at more difficult to learn positions such as, but certainly not limited to quarterback, receiver or linebacker.
So which of these second year players will be "Super Soph's"?
Here's one prediction of 10 players who could be ready to burst out.
1. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
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Rob Gronkowski caught 42 passes for 546 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2010.
The bad news for the AFC East is that Gronkowski has probably only scraped the surface of his potential, and he complements the team's other tightend/H-back, Aaron Hernandez (45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns) perfectly.
If the Patriots find a vertical threat at wide receiver, it would open up the underneath routes for Gronkowski and Hernandez even more.
A cold shudder just went through NFL defensive coordinators straight from Foxboro.
2. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys
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Lee returned an interception for a touchdown and picked off another pass to set up a game-winning field goal. He also had nine tackles in the game.
The only thing holding Lee back is questions of whether he can stay healthy or not. Leg and knee injuries have prevented Lee from reaching his full potential as a tacking machine and defensive leader.
3. Koa Misi, OLB, Miami Dolphins
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The 6'3", 251-pounder played defensive end and defensive tackle in college, so he had to make a difficult transition to 3-4 outside linebacker for the Dolphins. Still, he had 4.5 sacks as a rookie and showed a relentless motor all season long.
He has the physical tools and drive to double that sack total and drop effectively into pass coverage.
Throw in Jason Taylor as a mentor and a superior linebacker core of Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and Misi is primed for success in 2011.
4. Jahvid Best, RB, Detroit Lions
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Best had five touchdowns in two games before turf toes on both feet limited his production. If he is right physically, he is dynamite in a 5'10'', 200-pound frame.
Think of Best as a more explosive Brian Westbrook. Yes, that's a heady compliment, but if used properly—and that's still an issue if the Lions can't find a backfield partner for the former California Bear—he could easily produce double-digits to an offense ready to explode.
5. Jared Veldheer, OT, Oakland Raiders
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The virtual unknown from Division-II Hillsdale college received action at the center position before moving to the left tackle position he figures to occupy for some time.
Veldheer is 6'8", 315 pounds with the frame to easily add some weight if need be. He's athletic and surprisingly strong for his dimensions.
He's almost always going to "play high" with his height, and smallish defenders could get under him if the doesn't get his hands on them.
Still, the ceiling for this player is high, and he didn't struggle too much with the jump in the level of competition during 2010.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
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Jean Paul! Jean Paul!
Sorry, but Seinfeld references tend to stick in my head.
Pierre-Paul is a 6'5", 270-pound monster of a football player, a far cry from the skinny, easy going distance runner who was one of the many memorable characters in the famous sitcom's history.
Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks last season and was a force on special teams. With a year under his belt, this still raw physical specimen will benefit from increased snaps.
7. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Sanders caught just 28 passes for 376 yards in the 2010 in the regular season. But, you could see that the third-round pick out of SMU was flashing big-time talent as the season progressed, especially in the playoffs, when he had seven catches for 91 yards despite a part-time role.
Except him to have a much bigger part in the Pittsburgh offense this season.
8. Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
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Verner exceeded all expectations as a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 with 101 tackles to go with three interceptions. Yet, very few people outside of Tennessee are familiar with this talented player.
Expect that to change this season, even though Justin McCourty and Cortland Finnegan have been named the Week 1 starters. Verner's football instincts and athletic ability are too good to keep him out of the starting lineup for long. In the interim, he will lock down the nickel corner spot.
9. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
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Graham is to the Saints what Gronkowski is to the Patriots, potentially even more of a vertical threat and weapon.
Graham caught 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns last season.
That was while splitting catches with Jeremy Shockey, who has since departed for Carolina.
Here is the truly scary part. Graham played only one year of college football. He was a prized basketball recruit who played four years on the hardwood for the University of Miami.
Once he figures out the nuances of the tight end position and his athleticism takes over it, a lot of defenders won't want any part of the 6'6", 250-pound pass catcher and blocker.
10. Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
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Decker caught just six passes for 106 yards last season with one touchdown, so it would seem to be a leap of faith to call him a break out player.
But, he was coming off a serious foot injury in 2010 and was remarkably consistent and productive during his final three collegiate seasons at the University of Minnesota, while averaging 66 receptions and seven touchdown.
Perhaps even better indicators of Decker's possible emergence this season are his sure hands and precise route-running, which makes him an ideal candidate for the slot position.