Predicting the NFL's Breakout Sophomores of 2016
The 2016 NFL draft class is the new and popular thing to talk about right now, but forgetting about the 2015 crop would be unwise.
Second-year players who have been able to focus on improving after uneven or possibly unproductive rookie seasons will benefit from not going through the draft process this offseason. The grind they faced last year while trying to improve draft stock is long gone.
Some players can walk into the NFL and be impactful right away, but most take time to acclimate to their new surroundings. The mental and physical leap is massive for many in their first seasons. As the 2015 class settles in, a handful of second-year players are poised for breakout campaigns this year.
Whether it be due to injury or a limited role thanks to the depth chart, a handful of talented rookies weren't able to really maximize their production. There are eight players who are now in position to grab starting jobs and will blow their previous achievements as rookies out of the water.
We'll identify these special playmakers throughout the league and explain why their immediate futures are bright.
Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
The most obvious candidate to break out in his sophomore season was also the seventh-overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Chicago Bears receiver Kevin White was a game-breaking prospect who couldn’t see the field in his rookie campaign thanks to a stress fracture in his shin.
According to Bears general manager Ryan Pace, per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, White is now 100 percent and won’t be limited in offseason training programs.
It’s easy to forget about White and how good he was at West Virginia, since he was out of sight last year. But the 6’3”, 210-pound playmaker is the perfect complement to Alshon Jeffery with his size, 4.39 40-yard-dash speed and his versatility. White proved to be a threat in both the slot and outside the numbers with the Mountaineers in 2014.
What bodes especially well for White is how quarterback Jay Cutler performed in 2015. Although the Bears lost offensive coordinator Adam Gase this past offseason, Cutler drastically cut down on negative plays last year. Giving Cutler a full season of White and Jeffery could lead to another spike in performance from the 33-year-old quarterback.
In turn, White will reap the benefits of a confident signal-caller and another legitimate receiver to keep defenses from keying in on him.
Chris Conley, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have invested heavily in their receiving corps over the last two offseasons to help give quarterback Alex Smith the weapons he needs to succeed.
The strategy worked in 2015, as the Chiefs won 11 straight games and improved their passing attack from 24th to 12th in average yards per attempt over the last two years. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce figure to be major contributors who will now be helped by sophomore Chris Conley.
A third-round pick in 2015, Conley was one of the best athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine thanks to his jaw-dropping jump numbers. His collegiate production was limited to 1,938 yards over four years thanks to limited opportunities. But he’s got the natural tools to become a great third option in the Chiefs offense.
The competition for Conley to rise on the depth chart is weak. Albert Wilson is a quality and veteran target on the roster, and Conley will battle him for the third-most targets. His five receptions for 33 yards against the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs gave us a good peek at his talent.
He will have to ward off 2016 fourth-round pick Demarcus Robinson, who is talented but raw in his development. Conley’s advantage over Robinson is not only his one year of experience in the system, but also his freakish athleticism.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
One of the more explosive offensive players in the deep 2015 class was running back Ameer Abdullah.
The shifty yet tough runner had moments that flashed his unique skill set, but the Detroit Lions were unable to commit to Abdullah on a regular basis. Their leaky offensive line was the main culprit.
Detroit’s taken steps to rectify that problem by drafting offensive tackle Taylor Decker and center Graham Glasgow in the 2016 NFL draft, as well as signing veteran guard Geoff Schwartz in free agency. This is the most depth the Lions have had along the unit in years. Expect the running backs to benefit the most.
Abdullah is only 5’8” and 198 pounds but is a willing between-the-tackles creator. Give him a crease, and he’ll maximize the yards gained in the blink of an eye. He amassed 597 yards on 143 carries in 2015 to earn a respectable 4.2 yards per carry.
Those are solid numbers for a rookie. He outproduced all but four rookies in total yards. Expect him to leap up in the sophomore running back rankings into the top three with his new offensive line and less competition for carries.
Quinten Rollins, CB, Green Bay Packers
Overlooked in one of the deepest cornerback draft classes in recent years is Green Bay Packers second-round pick Quinten Rollins.
The 2015 second-round pick played just 30 percent of all defensive plays last season, but the Packers allowed Casey Heyward to walk in free agency thanks to Rollins’ presence. He’ll assume the nickel cornerback role while Sam Shields and Damarious Randall handle the outside positions.
Rollins rose fast out of Miami (Ohio), spending just one year playing college football. His natural ball skills and comfort in coverage are rare, as it normally takes years for a cornerback to pick up the speed of the game. Although Rollins is green in his development compared to the NFL’s best, he’s still well ahead of many peers.
His ability to find and play the ball while not compromising his positioning is the key to his success. In just four starts and 14 games played, he registered two interceptions and six pass breakups. A larger role will allow him to find a rhythm and confidence to continue forcing turnovers.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE, New York Giants
While the New York Giants invested heavily in the defensive line this offseason to bolster a woeful defense, one of their biggest assets on the unit is still on a rookie contract.
2015 third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa was a star at UCLA, racking up 24.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks throughout his career. His versatility in playing both defensive end and tackle will be a boost in nickel packages.
He won’t start, as the more talented Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul have the end positions locked down. But there’s great value on passing downs for a 6’4”, 266-pound rusher who has excellent strength and enough burst to make interior linemen uncomfortable. The speed packages that Odighizuwa allows will remind fans of the peak Giants defensive line that rotated Justin Tuck to tackle in 2011.
Odighizuwa wasn’t able to make an impact in his rookie season due to a hamstring injury that plagued him throughout the year. A full offseason to recover and continue his maturation will prove to be critical for the team.
The Giants need as much pass-rush help as possible, and their investment in Odighizuwa will pay off considerably in 2016.
Justin Hardy, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Despite holding the NCAA record for most receptions in a career with 387 while at East Carolina, Atlanta Falcons receiver Justin Hardy wasn’t ready for a big role in 2015.
The fourth-round pick struggled as No. 2 receiver behind Julio Jones, so the Falcons signed Mohamed Sanu in free agency to reduce the pressure on both Jones and Hardy. Now Hardy will slide into the slot and be quarterback Matt Ryan’s safety valve.
Becoming the slot receiver fits Hardy’s physical profile better than being on the outside. His collegiate production was excellent, but he lacks overwhelming athleticism or trump cards to rely on. He’ll need a more defined structure in the NFL to find success.
There’s nothing wrong with that, especially with a good support in place like the Falcons now have. Hardy’s toughness, route running and reliable hands will earn Ryan’s trust on third downs and crucial plays.
The moment that Jones starts getting double-teamed, Hardy should benefit from the attention going elsewhere.
DeAndre Smelter, WR, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has long had the tendency to select highly talented but injured players on the second and third days of the NFL draft. This strategy has been hit-or-miss, which is expected due to the nature of major injuries and the random nature of recovery.
His big swing in the 2015 class was Georgia Tech wide receiver DeAndre Smelter.
The No. 132 overall pick spent last season healing from a torn ACL that occurred late in his senior season of college. Smelter was on fire for the Yellow Jackets before suffering his knee injury against Georgia in November 2014. He had first-round hype that crumbled as soon as he went down.
If Smelter is back to pre-injury form, there’s no better offensive mind to maximize his skill set than Chip Kelly. Kelly loves big receivers in the slot, and the 6’2”, 226-pound Smelter has the speed and catch radius required to execute any task that Kelly asks him to complete. He’s a dynamic downfield threat in addition to his slot versatility.
The 49ers are also the ideal place for Smelter to break out. The competition on this roster is filled with other untapped young players who must prove themselves. A quartet of Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Smelter and Bruce Ellington is a dangerous group of vertical receivers who can play a variety of alignments and still produce.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins
Day 3 of the NFL draft has become a sweet spot to find quality talent at the running back position. Unless there’s an elite playmaker worthy of a first-round pick, the next-best option is to wait and select a falling player.
The Miami Dolphins saw one of the best backs in the 2015 class, Jay Ajayi, last until the 149th overall pick.
Ajayi has long-term knee concerns thanks to a high school injury, but most backs have a limited shelf life anyway. He was extremely productive at Boise State despite the knee situation, amassing 3,976 yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground in four seasons.
The Dolphins allowed Lamar Miller to walk in free agency because of their faith in Ajayi’s ability to handle the starting job.
He didn’t get much run in 2015 under a poor coaching staff, but he’ll fit in well with new head coach Adam Gase. He’s a capable inside-outside zone-runner, giving Gase the option to run either with confidence. The Dolphins' upgraded offensive line is yet another positive in favor of Ajayi this year.
Ajayi’s production will be the best among all Dolphins running backs since his biggest competition is more of a part-time gadget player, Kenyan Drake. Drake was Miami’s third-round pick in the 2016 draft but never proved to be a reliable option at Alabama.
The Dolphins should run Ajayi hard and utilize players like Drake and Damien Williams more as receivers on third-down.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.