Nick Fairley and 5 Second-Year Players Finally Living Up to Their Potential

Thomas Galicia@thomasgaliciaFeatured Columnist IVNovember 30, 2012

Nick Fairley and 5 Second-Year Players Finally Living Up to Their Potential

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    The ever-dreaded sophomore slump is a phenomenon that second-year NFL players like Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley hope to avoid.

    For the most part, the closest thing to a sophomore slump we have seen from the Year 2 players in the NFL in 2012 has been some struggling from quarterbacks Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. However, Dalton has managed to right the ship, positioning Cincinnati for its second consecutive playoff appearance, while Newton is starting to look more like the Newton of 2011 as the season nears its concluding weeks.

    But some second-year players have busted out in a big way this season and are now living up to the potential that their high draft picks warranted. Here are five of them, including the aforementioned Fairley.

Robert Quinn: Defensive End, St. Louis Rams

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    With the 2011 NFL draft class, we could be looking at the pass-rushing equivalent of the legendary quarterback class of 1983. The first 15 picks of that draft saw Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn get selected.

    The first three exceeded their already astronomical expectations in 2011 and are managing to exceed the expectations set after their tremendous rookie seasons. However, Quinn seemed to start off his career slowly, with a 2011 season that saw him come away with only five sacks and 20 tackles. Those aren't bad numbers for a first-year pass-rusher, but they're nowhere near great.

    However, in 2012 and with the help of new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher (who seems to know a thing or two about coaching great pass-rushers), Quinn and the Rams defense started to excel in terms of getting to the quarterback.

    Quinn has already surpassed his sack total from 2011 by recording 8.5 sacks with five games left. He's also just one tackle away from matching his 2011 total and has already matched his forced fumbles and pass deflections from last season.

    Even if Miller, Watt and Smith were the only hits from the 2011 draft, the draft would already be remembered as one filled with great pass-rushers. But as Quinn continues to improve, it could become legendary in that aspect.

Corey Liuget: Defensive Tackle, San Diego Chargers

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    There hasn't been much to cheer in San Diego, as Norv Turner continues to look more overmatched as the weeks go on, while Philip Rivers hasn't looked like the Philip Rivers of old.

    But there has been an emergence that's been good for the Chargers, as defensive tackle Corey Liuget has become a vital part of the defense in Year 2.

    Year 1 saw Liuget go through some growing pains while splitting time between defensive tackle and defensive end. He only recorded one sack and 14 tackles—not exactly what you would expect from a first-round pick.

    But in Year 2, Liuget has been one of San Diego's few bright spots. Liuget already has three sacks this season with seven pass deflections and 21 tackles. He's also helped San Diego's run defense, which is currently ranked sixth overall in the NFL.

    The adjustment from college to the pros can be a tough one, especially when you don't really have a defined position. Finding one for Liuget has been a blessing for the Chargers, who are now getting what they expected out of him when they drafted him 18th overall in the 2011 draft.

Chris Conte: Safety, Chicago Bears

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    Chris Conte isn't much of a "finally"; he's more so a project piece that has made a leap in his second year.

    Conte was drafted by the Bears in Round 3 and wound up starting nine games for Chicago while recording one interception, two pass deflections and 23 tackles.

    But in 2012, Conte became Chicago's permanent free safety, and he has capitalized on the opportunity. He already has 42 tackles and eight pass deflections for the season while also picking off two passes and recovering a fumble.

    A lot of his success has to do with Chicago's defensive success as a whole. But he has proven to be Chicago's version of John Lynch in the Tampa-2 variant that they run, which was likely what the Bears envisioned when they chose Conte last season.

Kyle Rudolph: Tight End, Minnesota Vikings

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    Minnesota's goal in Round 1 of the 2012 draft was to find a quarterback of the future. With Christian Ponder, the Vikings might have found him.

    However, every quarterback needs a big target in the red zone that can also block and serve as a safety blanket. For Minnesota, a tight end that can block was an even bigger need in 2011 due to the running game of Adrian Peterson as well as the aging of Visanthe Shiancoe.

    That's where Kyle Rudolph came into play, as he was drafted by the Vikings in the second round. Rudolph's 2011 showed there was still some learning to be done, yet he still made a decent impact, grabbing 26 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad, but it could've been better.

    Better it has become in Rudolph's second year, as he has already outperformed 2011 with 39 catches for 361 yards and seven touchdowns while improving in his blocking. Because of this, he's become as vital to the Minnesota offense as Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin and is now the safety blanket that Ponder needs when there is no one else to throw to.

Nick Fairley: Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

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    When the Lions drafted defensive tackle Nick Fairley in 2011, the thought was he would team up with Ndamukong Suh as part of what would become one of the NFL's most fearsome front lines.

    What followed for Fairley was rookie season of disappointment. Fairley would play in 10 games but not start in any of them while recording only 11 tackles and one sack. Very mediocre season for such a high draft pick with such great expectations surrounding him.

    In his second season though, we would the reverse of a sophomore slump, as Fairley has improved almost every aspect of his game. Fairley already has 20 tackles and 4.5 sacks on the season while deflecting one pass and forcing a fumble.

    It might have taken two seasons acclimating himself to the NFL in order to get on track, but Fairley seems to have done just that.

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