NFL Sophomores Ready to Ascend to Star Status in 2022
Six rookies from the 2021 NFL draft made the Pro Bowl in their first season. They should be joined by a handful of budding stars from their draft class as certain sophomores continue on their developmental curve.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons became bona fide superstars upon walking onto an NFL field. New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris, Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts and Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Rashawn Slater joined the reigning Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year as part of the league's all-star event.
Some individuals need a little longer before they establish a comfort level to showcase their abilities. Sometimes, the adjustment to the professional game doesn't automatically occur. Other times, a player's situation changes for the better or an increased opportunity arises to showcase their talent.
An already good draft class should see multiple high-round selections emerge as premium players at their respective position, starting at quarterback.
QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
A legitimate professional atmosphere could mean all the difference between Trevor Lawrence realizing his immense potential as the top quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck or seeing his career go down in flames thanks to a franchise mired in controversy and unnecessary drama.
Urban Meyer is gone. Enter Doug Pederson.
The difference between the two coaches should be night and day, with Lawrence being the primary beneficiary of the change.
"I think you can always tell the way a coach communicates with a quarterback because he's been in my shoes," Lawrence told reporters during organized team activities. "Quarterback's an interesting position. It's not a big rah-rah, chew somebody out. I mean you have some coaches that are like that, but for me, that's just not what I need.
"I can have a conversation and Coach Pederson's great about that. At every play, he gives you a piece of feedback that another coach might not give you just because he knows what it's like and it's something little that he might see that someone else doesn't see."
A capable guiding hand should harness the potential already seen in Lawrence's game, even during what became a lost rookie campaign. Last year's No. 1 overall pick navigates the pocket extremely well, shows unflappable confidence, deftly manipulates the field with his eyes and layers his throws.
Along with a new coaching staff, Lawrence should also greatly benefit from an improved surrounding cast. The Jaguars made upgrades along the offensive line and the skill positions with the additions of guard Brandon Scherff, tight end Evan Engram and wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones.
WR Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens' draft class received some backlash simply because it didn't address wide receiver after trading Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals. Lamar Jackson's decision to take to social media and tweet "Wtf" after news broke of Brown's departure certainly didn't help matters.
But the Ravens already had a first-round wide receiver on the roster, as Baltimore used the 27th overall pick in the 2021 draft to select Rashod Bateman.
"All respect due to him, and I'm going to miss him because he's my brother, but it was like, it's my time," Bateman said during an in-house interview on the Ravens' Studio 44. "I feel like Baltimore drafted me for a reason. They drafted me to be in this position."
As a rookie, Bateman finished third on the team with 46 receptions for 515 yards. However, he missed the first five games of the season with an injured groin and didn't quite live up to expectations upon returning to the field.
"I've never felt like more of a complete receiver during that time before I got hurt," he said. "It felt like I let my teammates down, I had let the Ravens organization down. Those guys drafted me and they were expected me to do those things."
Now, he'll be the featured target among the team's wide receivers. Bateman has the speed, versatility and creativity after the catch to be a true No. 1 target. The Ravens offense may feature a unique ground attack, but Jackson was well on his way to setting a new personal record in pass attempts last season if not for an injured ankle.
TE Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
Here's a fun little factoid about Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth: He's actually four months younger than rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who's yet to take a meaningful NFL snap.
In a vacuum, the number means little. However, the chance for the duo to grow together and the tight end to emerge as the quarterback's security blanket could elevate Freiermuth from a good red-zone target to one of the league's better all-around tight ends.
Freiermuth led the Steelers last season with seven touchdown receptions. His reliability in critical situations makes him a preferred target because of his size (6'5", 251 lbs) and strong hands. He's also a good athlete with a basketball background, but he needs to add more as a receiver, particularly after the catch.
"My yards per catch (8.3) was atrocious," he told reporters during organized team activities. "That's bad on my end. If I have 60 catches, I should be up in the range of 800 or 900 yards. I definitely need to get that higher and push the ball down the field."
Pittsburgh has multiple enticing targets on the outside with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie George Pickens. Freiermuth's availability will make him one of the most attractive targets in the Steelers offense.
"I just want to be there for the quarterbacks," Freiermuth said. "If that means being a security blanket for them or pushing the ball down the field."
OL Creed Humphrey, Kansas City Chiefs
Creed Humphrey's sophomore campaign should be treated differently than everyone else's season on this list because he's not simply getting to the point where he's deserving of recognition for his play. Instead, he could enter the rarified air of being the best player at his respective position and one of the league's best offensive linemen, period.
Humphrey's rookie season was nothing short of astounding. If not for a typical bias against the big boys up front, who don't receive enough credit, the 63rd overall pick in the 2021 draft should have garnered Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration.
Ja'Marr Chase deservedly won award. However, Humphrey's play shouldn't have been overlooked to the degree it was. The rookie graded better than any other center in his first season, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, he became the highest-graded rookie, regardless of position, in the site's history.
Typically, a couple of strong years are necessary before an offensive lineman gets his flowers. The 2021 class did see the Los Angeles Chargers' Rashawn Slater become a second-team All-Pro, even though an argument can be made that Humphrey performed at a higher level. Granted, the two play different positions and a much greater emphasis is placed on tackle play opposed to interior dominance. It's just another obstacle for Humphrey to overcome.
With Alex Mack retiring and Jason Kelce, Corey Linsley and Ryan Jensen all 31 or older to start the upcoming season, Humphrey should claim his status as the game's best center relatively soon.
Edge Kwity Paye, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts drafted arguably the best pure edge defender in last year's class (with Micah Parsons viewed as a linebacker). The ability translated as a rookie, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Paye graded first among true rookie edges in pass-rush grade last season.
Paye's production didn't necessarily reflect his caliber of play, though. Last year's 21st overall pick managed four sacks and 39 total pressures. Two significant factors should play into a leap in production and improvement as a sophomore.
First, Paye will play opposite Yannick Ngakoue, whom the Colts acquired from the Las Vegas Raiders. Ngakoue is one of the league's most consistent edge-rushers with at least eight sacks in each of his five seasons. His 304 pressures are tied for the fourth-most since the start of the 2017 campaign. Last season, the Colts lacked a viable bookend to the rookie. Al-Quadin Muhammad and Kemoko Turay both flashed throughout their careers, but Ngakoue presents a significant upgrade.
Secondly, Paye, like most rookies, had a year to figure things out after being run down by the entire process.
"I felt like the mental part of the game was something I lacked," Paye told reporters in April. "I feel like I've always been a good technical player, but when it comes down to straining and diving every play, being relentless every play."
With a full offseason and time to hone his technique, the second-year defensive end can be more effective throughout a full 17-game schedule.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns' Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the epitome of a modern-day linebacker.
The 6'2", 221-pound defender came into the league as a bit of a tweener without a specific role. He contributed more as a hang defender than a true linebacker or safety at Notre Dame, which played a part in why he was still available with the 52nd overall pick. Browns general manager Andrew Berry traded up to acquire the Butkus Award winner because of the talent he presented as a 21-year-old with the range of a defensive back and the ferocity of a linebacker.
Throughout Owusu-Koramoah's rookie campaign, he could be seen serving as the force player, consistently filling against the run, blitzing the quarterback, dropping into coverage and racing down ball-carriers. He sees it and triggers so quickly that he's often able to beat the angles taken by blockers.
"The sky's the limit for JOK," Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told reporters in January. "He can be a dynamic player for a long time for us."
For the second-year player, his slender frame remains the biggest concern. While the Browns shouldn't want him to bulk up, the physical rigors of the NFL can be daunting. Last season, a high-ankle sprain cost the rookie three games.
But a healthy version turns into the Will linebacker flying to the ball on a down-by-down basis and doing everything that's asked of a defender in today's game.
CB Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos chose to select cornerback Patrick Surtain II with last year's ninth overall pick instead of addressing quarterback. The decision was questioned at the time, with Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson revealing the organization didn't medically clear Justin Fields. Instead, the franchise landed the class' best cover corner and still acquired Russell Wilson a year later.
"The fact that he's a rookie and you can literally make technique teach tape from his game tape, it's impressive," former All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said on his titular podcast (h/t Mile High Huddle's Luke Patterson). "His press, his off [coverage]—and it's week in and week out. He's not intimidated; it doesn't seem like he's intimidated by anything."
Surtain certainly doesn't seem to be intimidated by any wide receiver if his coverage numbers are any indication.
According to Pro Football Focus, his 69.7 quarterback rating when targeted ranked first among rookies and eighth-lowest overall last season. His four interceptions and nine forced incompletions ranked first and tied for second, respectively, among his classmates.
The son of an All-Pro can now set his sights on achieving the same standard.
"I say last year, my first year going into my rookie year, I say it was a lot more being able to be prepped right," Surtain told reporters at organized team activities. "Just going in the film room, utilizing that time, utilizing the meeting room time with your defensive coaches and all that, and coming in the second year it's all about building on that. But even growing and being bigger and better than what you was before."
S Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins
Prior to the start of the 2020 season, Jevon Holland could have been considered the best safety and nickel corner prospect for the following year's draft. But he chose to opt out of the campaign as the pandemic raged.
A vacated season made him the class' forgotten man. Obviously, the same decision didn't hurt other bigger names like teammate Penei Sewell or wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Holland wasn't viewed as a slam-dunk prospect, though. Instead, he never built upon a standout sophomore campaign and fell to the second round where the awaiting Miami Dolphins gladly selected the hybrid defender.
Holland settled at safety where he registered 69 total tackles, 10 defended passes and a pair of interceptions. He posted the fourth-highest grade among all safeties last season, per Pro Football Focus.
"He'll be as good as anyone," Jason McCourty told PFF's Doug Kyed (h/t Mike Masala of USA Today's Dolphins Wire). "... I remember talking to my brother (New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty) throughout the season. When (Holland) got out there, I was like, 'Yo, I'm telling you, this Jevon kid, he's going to be one of the best safeties in the league.' Already you can tell how good of a player he is, and that's as a rookie where you have knowledge of the game, you know what's going on, but now you give him years of development, of understanding, of going against offensive coordinators, knowing what different guys like. His knowledge of the game is only going to grow."
Obviously, McCourty knows good safety play as a 13-year veteran and his twin brother being one of the league's most consistent backline defenders for the last 11 years. All the while, the Dolphins spent significant financial assets on their secondary. But Holland could turn out to be the best of the bunch while operating on a rookie contract.