The Next Landon Collins? Projecting 2nd-Year Breakouts

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 15, 2017

The Next Landon Collins? Projecting 2nd-Year Breakouts

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Can we create a new NFL award for the player who breaks out more explosively than the rest of his peers in his second pro season?

    If so, we'll call it the Landon Collins Award, after the New York Giants safety, who after a relatively quiet rookie season, exploded with a dominant five-interception, four-sack, 125-tackle sophomore campaign. That earned the 23-year-old a first-team All-Pro nod and nine Defensive Player of the Year votes (third behind Khalil Mack and Von Miller). 

    Which second-year players have the best chance to pull a Landon Collins in 2017? Let's focus on a dozen...

Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz

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    It looked as though Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was going to become a rookie sensation when the No. 2 overall pick out of North Dakota State posted a 103.5 passer rating and a 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio during Philadelphia's 3-1 start to the 2016 campaign. 

    That didn't happen. 

    Instead, from Week 6 on, Wentz's 72.3 passer rating ranked 27th among 27 quarterbacks with at least 250 attempts. In that 12-game span, he threw 13 interceptions and just nine touchdown passes. 

    But Wentz still proved in that small early-season sample that he can lead an NFL offense. He looked like an experienced veteran during the first month of the season, and he certainly showed that he can make every throw required of a franchise quarterback.

    He lost the benefit of the element of surprise as the season wore on and defenses adjusted, and it didn't help that his receiving corps seemed to frequently let him down. 

    It's a new year, though, and Wentz wasn't really supposed to become a star immediately as a raw Missouri Valley Football Conference product. He should benefit from a full offseason with head coach/quarterback guru Doug Pederson, and the Eagles have given him plenty of extra support on offense with the addition of former 1,000-yard receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, as well as 1,000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount. 

    Wentz himself still has to deliver, but the stars certainly appear to be aligned. 

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry

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    DeMarco Murray remains the top dog in the Tennessee Titans backfield after ranking third in the NFL with 1,287 rushing yards in a Pro Bowl 2016 season. But rookie second-round pick Derrick Henry rather quietly posted a better yards-per-attempt average (4.5 versus 4.4 for Murray) while picking up 627 yards from scrimmage in a backup role. 

    Could Henry's role increase in 2017?

    Murray does have a lot of tread on his tires at the age of 29, and Henry is only a year removed from a ridiculous 2,219-yard junior season at Alabama.

    He's also got momentum after averaging 5.0 yards per carry and scoring four touchdowns during the final five weeks of his rookie campaign, so if he picks up where he left off, it could be hard for the Titans to keep him off the field. And if that happens, Henry could have a huge sophomore season. 

Washington Redskins WR Josh Doctson

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    After his rookie season was ruined by an Achilles injury, Washington Redskins wide receiver Josh Doctson has an opportunity to finally live up to the first-round hype in 2017. 

    See, even if Doctson were healthy in 2016, he would have had trouble earning regular reps as part of a crowded receiving corps that included two 1,000-yard receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon as well as breakout slot receiver Jamison Crowder. But Jackson and Garcon are gone now, which means Doctson will have a chance to earn a regular X or Z role opposite free-agent acquisition Terrelle Pryor

    The TCU product is a year removed from a 1,326-yard, 14-touchdown season in the Big 12, and now he appears to be fully recovered from the injury that cost him most of his rookie campaign. 

    "He's been impressive," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said of Doctson during May OTAs, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "The big thing for him is the confidence in his Achilles, and I think he's got that right now."

    If he can stay healthy and essentially step in for Garcon, the 24-year-old could put together a massive season in one of the league's most dangerous offenses. 

Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry

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    Antonio Gates is the Los Angeles Chargers tight end everybody knows, but a dude who was just eight years old when Gates started his career in 2003 is actually becoming the Chargers tight end you need to know. 

    That would be 22-year-old Hunter Henry, who began to take the torch from the 36-year-old Gates during a rookie season in which he led the team with eight touchdowns. The second-round pick out of Arkansas wound up catching 67.9 percent of the passes thrown his way for 478 yards despite playing only 53 percent of his team's snaps while splitting time with Gates, per Football Reference. 

    And he'll likely have to fight Gates and a deep group of receivers for reps yet again this season, but five of his touchdowns came in the final seven weeks of his rookie campaign, so Henry does appear to be gaining steam headed into 2017. 

    Don't be surprised if he becomes a household name in the fall. 

Atlanta Falcons TE Austin Hooper

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    Reigning MVP Matt Ryan has a lot of weapons within that Atlanta Falcons offense, but 22-year-old tight end Austin Hooper might have a shot at emerging as one of Ryan's go-to targets as a sophomore in 2017. 

    The third-round pick out of Stanford needed some time to adjust to the NFL last season, as most tight ends do. But he still managed to catch 70.4 percent of the passes thrown his way while scoring four touchdowns (one of which came in Super Bowl LI). 

    Ryan himself is confident in Hooper, who he says (per the team's Kelsey Conway via Rotoworld) has improved "exponentially" while "playing like a veteran out there" this offseason. The quarterback added that he expects Hooper to be "a big part of [Atlanta's] offensive success this year."

    That makes two of us. He might even have a breakout season in him. 

Los Angeles Rams TE Tyler Higbee

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    Yes, this might apparently be the year of the breakout sophomore tight end. 

    In fact, Henry might not even be the top second-year breakout candidate in the city of Los Angeles, because Tyler Higbee—who was one of the most talented and athletic tight ends in the 2016 draft classappears to be in line for a larger role with the L.A. Rams in 2017.

    Last year, the fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky was fresh off a senior season in which he played only 487 snaps after switching from wide receiver, according to Pro Football Focus. As a result, the raw 24-year-old played only 402 snaps while catching just 11 passes as a rookie.

    But Rams general manager Les Snead told Vincent Bonsignore‏ of the Los Angeles Daily News that the Rams "expect big things" from Higbee in new head coach Sean McVay's multiple tight end offense. And at 6'6", 249 pounds, Higbee, who scored 12 touchdowns during his final two seasons with the Hilltoppers, has that type of potential.

    The Rams offense should be better with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff entering his second season and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth joining the fray. Unfortunately for Higbee, they also used a second-round pick on South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett. 

    If that serves to light a fire under Higbee, he could explode in an offense that lacks top-end talent at the skill positions. 

Baltimore Ravens OT Ronnie Stanley

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    The Baltimore Ravens were hoping they had found their new cornerstone left tackle when they used the No. 6 overall pick of the 2016 draft on Ronnie Stanley, but the Notre Dame product didn't start his NFL career smoothly. Stanley lacked consistency during the first three weeks of the 2016 campaign before missing four games due to a foot injury. 

    Based on the way he finished the 2016 season, however, Stanley looks primed to become a star in the fall. During the final four weeks of the year, Pro Football Focus graded the 23-year-old as the best offensive tackle in the NFL, noting that he gave up only three hurries and one sack over that span. 

    Look for Stanley to become a Pro Bowl-level pass protector in 2017. 

Indianapolis Colts C Ryan Kelly

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    As with Stanley, it doesn't appear on the surface as though Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly had a particularly strong rookie season. The No. 18 overall pick was graded by PFF as only the 19th-best center in the league in 2016, but Kelly did improve immensely over the course of the year. 

    The Alabama product surrendered 10 pressures during the first five weeks of the season but only allowed five during the final five weeks. And according to ESPN.com's Mike Wells, he was "often praised" by quarterback Andrew Luck "for his toughness and ability to control the line of scrimmage."

    Watch for the hard-nosed former unanimous All-American to become a star in 2017. 

Green Bay Packers DE Kenny Clark

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    Green Bay Packers defensive end Kenny Clark is another 2016 first-round pick who didn't put up big numbers as a rookie but entered his first full NFL offseason with a lot of momentum.

    The 21-year-old failed to record a sack and notched just 13 tackles while playing primarily as Mike Daniels' backup in 2016, but Clark made a huge impact late in the regular season and in the playoffs for a streaking Packers team.

    During Green Bay's two postseason victories over the Giants and Cowboys, the UCLA product pressured the opposing quarterback on six of his 29 pass-rushing snaps, according to PFF. Small sample, but anyone who watched those games might remember the havoc Clark was able to wreak. 

    "Kenny, if you just watch the progression of the season, his arrow was straight up," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL Scouting Combine, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I thought he played extremely well the last six weeks. That's something we need to build off. I think he'll take that big jump as a second-year player."

    There's a difference between a big jump and a Landon Collins-level jump, but watch for the 6'2", 314-pounder to get plenty of air in his second season. 

New York Jets LB Jordan Jenkins

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    There aren't a lot of happy stories surrounding the New York Jets right now, but second-year linebacker Jordan Jenkins can help with that by picking up in 2017 where he left off in 2016. 

    The third-round pick out of Georgia entered the league as a versatile defender with enough SEC experience to play a major role right away. That did happen, but the 22-year-old didn't truly start to take off—especially as a pass-rusher—until late in his rookie season. 

    Sixteen of his 39 tackles and all 2.5 of his sacks came in the final four weeks of the year. 

    And now Jenkins is trying to build up his pass-rushing ability by spending the offseason with "sack whisperer" Chuck Smith. 

    "I was never really taught pass rushing at any level, high school on up," Jenkins said last month, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini. "I didn't realize how much I was missing until I started working with Chuck."

    Jenkins had a lot of momentum already, and now Smith and new Jets outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene are getting their hands on him. That bodes well. 

Dallas Cowboys CB Anthony Brown

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    The Dallas Cowboys lost both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency while signing veteran corner Nolan Carroll, which likely means second-year Anthony Brown, a sixth-round pick, will be a full-time starter in 2017.

    On the surface, that sounds daunting. But Brown improved so much as a rookie that it should actually be exciting. At least if you're a Cowboys fan. 

    After surrendering completions on nearly 88 percent of the passes thrown his way during the first half of the regular season, Brown cut that rate down to 50 percent during the second half, per PFF. And that same outlet tweeted last month: "Over the last five weeks of his rookie season Cowboys CB Anthony Brown allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of any NFL cornerback."

    It seems like a hot new corner emerges every year, such as A.J. Bouye in 2016 and Josh Norman the year before that. Don't be surprised if the coverage-savvy Brown becomes that guy in 2017. 

Oakland Raiders S Karl Joseph

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    It sure would be fitting if the first annual Landon Collins Award went to a safety, and there are several decent candidates at that position. But second-year Oakland Raider Karl Joseph is probably the most obvious nominee.

    After all, the former West Virginia ball hawk—he had five picks in 2015—was the highest-picked safety in the 2016 draft (No. 14), and he's coming off a bit of a disappointing rookie season in which he picked off just one pass and while lacking consistency.  

    Playing behind two of the best edge-rushers in the game in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, it's hard to imagine that Joseph would have another so-so season. He certainly has the tools, and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio is expecting big things. 

    "Karl is going to take a big step forward this year in his development, just with comfort and an understanding of what's expected of him," head coach Jack Del Rio said in April, per CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair. "Coming in, being healthy and having a full body of work, I feel like a confident Karl Joseph is going to be a much more impactful guy."

Honorable Mentions

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    Cleveland Browns QB Cody Kessler: He may very well get a chance to run a half-decent offense in 2017. The third-round USC product lost all eight of his starts last year, but he did post a solid 92.3 passer rating in nine appearances. 

    Raiders RB DeAndre Washington: If Marshawn Lynch can't deliver at the age of 31, Washington—who averaged 5.4 yards per carry as a rookie—could have a chance to shine. 

    New York Giants CB Eli Apple: He's a first-round defensive back who had a quiet rookie season for the Giants, so a breakout makes a lot of sense. But that's a crowded secondary. 

    Redskins DB Su'a Cravens: He was solid at linebacker as a rookie, and now the Redskins are moving the 21-year-old to safety. Look for him to make a name for himself as a run defender, pass-rusher and even a cover guy in the Washington secondary next season. 

Not Mentioned Because They Already Broke Out

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    Cowboys QB Dak Prescott: He was the highest-rated qualified rookie passer in NFL history last season. 

    Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott: He led the NFL in rushing by a 318-yard margin. 

    Chicago Bears RB Jordan Howard: He ranked second to only Elliott in the rushing race. 

    Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill: He became the first player in NFL history to score three-plus touchdowns as a receiver, a runner and a return man in one season.

    New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas: He caught 76 percent of the passes thrown his way for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016. 

    Titans OT Jack Conklin: He was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. 

    Chargers DE Joey Bosa: He had 10.5 sacks in only 12 games, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. 

    Falcons LB Deion Jones: He had three interceptions, two return touchdowns and 106 tackles for the NFC champs. 

    Jacksonville Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey: He put up stellar advanced numbers while intercepting two passes and starting all 16 games after being selected with the No. 5 overall pick. 

    Falcons S Keanu Neal: He forced five fumbles while playing five different positions as a versatile enforcer. Oh, and he recorded 105 tackles.