2011 NFL Predictions: 7 NFL Sophomores Ready to Take the Next Step
We’re just a couple of days away from the start of the NFL regular season, and the football universe is buzzing with anticipation for a season that at one point was in serious jeopardy. That would’ve been heartbreaking to all involved, but it would have been even more detrimental to the incoming rookie class and the second-year players looking to continue their progression in the league.
Luckily, we never had to cross that bridge, and we will be able to see the likes of Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Eric Berry continue on their paths of becoming the next elite stars of the NFL. But, while Bradford, Suh and Berry are known to most who follow the NFL, what about the second-year players who showed promise as rookies and have the potential to take the next step to superstardom?
With that in mind, I chose seven second-year players (one from each round of the 2010 draft), analyzed their performances in their first-year, observed their current situations and determined them as the sophomores likely to take the next step.
Chris Steuber is the NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. In addition to his role with Bleacher Report, Steuber serves as Director of Player Personnel for the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. He’s previously served as NFL Draft Analyst for Scout.com and Fox Sports, as well as NFLDraftScout.com in conjunction with CBS Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisSteuber.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants (1st Round, 15th Overall)
The Giants knew they had something special in Pierre-Paul when they selected him with the 15th overall pick. He was an absolute freak who had a world of potential. All he needed was proper coaching and an opportunity.
It took time for Pierre-Paul to get comfortable in the Giants defense last season but toward the end of the year it all came together, and he started to produce. Pierre-Paul played in all 16 games (no starts) as a rookie and contributed 30 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
He has the size, speed and skill set to develop into one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL and this preseason he displayed it. With Osi Umenyiora sidelined after undergoing knee surgery, Pierre-Paul stepped into the starting lineup and had a tremendous performance against the Carolina Panthers where he recorded seven tackles and two sacks.
The 6'5", 270-pound Pierre-Paul has an opportunity in the first few weeks of the season to receive regular reps with Umenyiora out to become a dominant force off the edge. He could easily obtain double-digit sacks this season, even in a situational role.
Arrelious Benn, WR, Tampa Bay Bucccaneers (2nd Round, 39th Overall)
Benn had an up-and-down three-year collegiate career at Illinois. He emerged as a superstar during his sophomore year, when he caught 67 passes for 1,055 yards and three touchdowns. But as a junior he struggled, as did the entire Illini offense. He managed to haul in just 38 passes for 490 yards and two touchdowns. That down year resulted in Benn leaving school early and declaring for the draft.
In need of a big, physical receiver who could stretch the field, the Buccaneers got exactly what they hoped for in the second round. However, it took time for Benn to get accustomed to the NFL game and hit his stride.
He played in 15 games as a rookie, starting nine of them. But it wasn’t until Week 14 that it all came together for Benn, as he caught four passes for 122 yards against the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, two weeks later, his season ended when he tore his ACL against the Seattle Seahawks. He finished the season with 25 catches for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
After going through a strenuous rehab this offseason, Benn participated in his first game action since the injury in the Buccaneers preseason finale. He caught one pass for 12 yards. Moving forward, Benn will regain his starting job and start opposite second-year sensation Mike Williams. It may not happen right away, but Benn will eventually become the Bucs leading receiver.
Colt McCoy, QB, Cleveland Browns (3rd Round, 85th Overall)
A four-year starter at Texas, McCoy was one of college football’s most accurate and productive performers during his time with the Longhorns. He finished his career completing 70 percent of his passes for 13,253 yards, 112 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. However, an injury during the national championship game and questions surrounding his durability and how his game translated to the next level ultimately resulted in McCoy being a third-round pick.
The Browns were desperate for a quarterback to groom for the future and had no plans of playing McCoy as a rookie with veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace ahead of him on the depth chart. But due to injuries, McCoy was forced into action and ended up starting eight games.
In his first year, McCoy displayed toughness and the ability to lead an offense—qualities he showcased during his career at Texas. Even though the Browns had a 2-6 record with McCoy behind center during their second consecutive 5-11 season, the upside of McCoy was evident, as he finished the year completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,576 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions.
After a long offseason of waiting due to the lockout, McCoy came into camp eager and ready to win the starting job, and that’s exactly what he did during the preseason. McCoy finished the preseason with a 101.7 quarterback rating and completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 320 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
This production might not translate over into the regular season, but it has to give the organization hope that they’re on the right track. They may have finally found their franchise quarterback.
Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota Vikings (4th Round, 100th Overall)
Griffen had first-round talent coming out of USC as a junior and generated solid numbers during his three-year collegiate career (82 tackles and 16 sacks), but there were plenty of question marks about his motor, maturity and overall makeup that made teams hesitate.
That hesitation lasted until the fourth round when the Vikings finally called his name.
Built like an action figure and possessing the ability to be a starter in the NFL, the 6'3", 273-pound Griffen found himself buried on a depth chart behind Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison and played in just 11 games as a rookie. He saw most of his action on special teams and finished the year with 11 tackles.
Some of the question marks that surrounded Griffen during the draft process came out earlier this year during the offseason. He was arrested twice in the same weekend back in January for public intoxication and driving with an invalid license. These incidents were a setback for Griffen personally and didn’t reflect on the Vikings organization in a positive manner.
But it appears he’s learned from that situation and has put his focus into football.
Recently, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said he plans on giving Griffen reps at weak-side linebacker, which would create matchup problems for the opposition with Griffen’s speed off the edge. Griffen will likely see more action this year, rotating in and out, because Edwards is no longer in Minnesota. He has the skill set to collect five to seven sacks in a situational role this season and could become an x-factor for the Vikings defense.
Arthur Jones, DL, Baltimore Ravens (5th Round, 157th Overall)
A first-round talent, Jones had a highly productive career at Syracuse where he set a school record in tackles for a loss with 38.5. But he had two major surgeries leading up to the draft, one to repair a torn left meniscus and another for a torn pectoral muscle. Those resulted in him falling to the fifth round of the draft.
Inactive for most of his rookie season, Jones played in just two games and didn’t make much of an impact. Although, he did experience play at the NFL level, and that will only help him progress.
Finally healthy and confident in his ability, Jones, who played well this preseason, earned the No. 1 reserve role behind Cory Redding entering Week 1 and should see his share of reps this season. With Haloti Ngata on the opposite side commanding double teams and Terrence Cody using his wide frame inside, Jones could be a sleeper sack artist.
James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers (6th Round, 193rd Overall)
An unknown to fans and an underrated prospect by analysts leading up to the ’10 draft, Starks missed the entire ’09 season due to a shoulder injury, and his stock plummeted. But, prior to his injury, Starks rushed for over 1,000 yards during his sophomore (1,103) and junior (1,333) years at Buffalo and showed the ability to be a lead runner.
As a rookie with the Packers, Starks spent most of the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list but ended up playing in three regular season games at the end of the season where he carried the ball 29 times for 101 yards.
However, it was his unforeseen performance during the Packers Super Bowl championship run that made him an unsung hero in Green Bay. Starks rushed for 315 yards on 81 carries and scored a touchdown in the postseason.
But Ryan Grant is healthy entering this season, and he got a majority of the reps during the preseason. He looked rejuvenated and ready to take over his duties as the team’s featured back. However, the Packers said they will ride the hot hand and will give Grant and Starks an opportunity to win the job outright. Grant could win out in the short-term, but Starks is the long-term answer for the Packers, and if he beats Grant out for the job this season, he will surpass the 1,000-yard mark.
Kurt Coleman, FS, Philadelphia Eagles (7th Round, 244th Overall)
There are two seventh-round picks selected by the Eagles in the ’10 draft who could be in the “ready to emerge” category, and they’re Coleman and linebacker Jamar Chaney. While Chaney made more of an impact last year and has plenty of promise, Coleman will be expected to be a leader and guide a secondary that features Pro Bowl cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
A three-year starter at Ohio State and a productive player during his time with the Buckeyes, Coleman fell to the seventh round of the draft after receiving mid-round grades. As a rookie, he played in 15 games for the Eagles, starting two on defense and special teams. He contributed 36 tackles and an interception.
Going back to his days at Ohio State, Coleman always had a knack for being around the ball, and that has carried over to the NFL in the small sample of games he’s played in. That trait and his strong play this preseason has elevated his status from a situational defender to the starting free safety and being around great talent will only increase Coleman’s production this season.