Which 2nd-Year NFL Players Are Poised for Breakout Sophomore Seasons in 2018?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 27, 2018

Which 2nd-Year NFL Players Are Poised for Breakout Sophomore Seasons in 2018?

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    Some guys just need a year. 

    There are numerous second-year NFL players set to take off in 2018. Some might have been good but not great as rookies (Mitchell Trubisky, for example), while others were limited by injuries (Chidobe Awuzie) or a lack of playing time (Patrick Mahomes, among many). 

    Looking for the 2018 version of Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Yannick Ngakoue, Xavien Howard, Kendall Fuller or Kevin Byard? Here are 16 players from 13 teams who could explode as sophomores in the fall.

Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes II

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    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II will undoubtedly be the most hyped NFL sophomore of the 2018 season. That's because the Chiefs felt strongly enough about Mahomes in 2017 that they essentially coughed up two first-round picks to draft him, and then they felt strongly enough about him this offseason that they traded away the league's highest-rated passer.

    The big-armed Texas Tech product will inevitably take over for Alex Smith, and a lot of football fans are salivating over the young gunslinger. Of course, a lot of mystery surrounds the 22-year-old, who started just one regular-season game as a rookie, but it helps that Mahomes put up big numbers last preseason (completion rate of 63 percent, four touchdowns, zero picks, 109.3 passer rating).

    Under Andy Reid's guidance in an offense loaded with weapons, look for Mahomes to put up big numbers in Year 2.

Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky

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    Unlike Mahomes, Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky experienced a baptism by fire as a rookie in 2017. The No. 2 overall pick started 12 games in an offense that lacked weapons in the receiving corps under the tutelage of what felt like a lame-duck coaching staff (it was).

    But Trubisky's December numbers were much better than the stats he put up in October and November, which should give him some momentum. It helps that Matt Nagy has taken over for the fired John Fox as Chicago's head coach because Nagy worked plenty of magic with Smith in Kansas City the last few years.

    With the Bears expected to get 2016 breakout receiver Cameron Meredith back from a torn ACL, it's easy to get excited about Trubisky's second year.

    Could he have a Jared Goff-level sophomore leap in him? The circumstances are similar.

Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones

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    Rookie fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams was the Green Bay Packers' lead back during the second half of the 2017 season, but fifth-rounder Aaron Jones was much better than Williams in a backup role.

    The sample size (81 carries) is small, but Jones' 5.5 yards-per-attempt average would have ranked second in football if it qualified. That rate was almost two full yards per carry better than Williams'. Among backs with at least 20 carries, Football Outsiders ranked Jones second (behind only Alvin Kamara of the Saints) in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

    The 23-year-old has the power, playing speed and ability to do big things as a sophomore in 2018.

New York Giants RB Wayne Gallman

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    The New York Giants haven't had a running back go over 1,000 yards since Ahmad Bradshaw did so in 2012, but 2017 fourth-round pick Wayne Gallman might have a chance to end that drought in 2018.

    Gallman compiled 669 yards from scrimmage despite starting just one game last season, and he finished strong with 4.6 yards per rush and 329 scrimmage yards in the final four games.

    With reigning team rushing champion Orleans Darkwa a potential flight risk in free agency, it's possible the 24-year-old Gallman will start the season as Big Blue's lead back. Look for him to make a significant impact as both a rusher and a receiver.

Philadelphia Eagles RB Corey Clement

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    Even after the Philadelphia Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi midway through the 2017 season, they continued to get undrafted rookie running back Corey Clement involved in the offense. The Wisconsin product delivered, averaging 5.1 yards per carry while making an impact as a receiver during the final 10 games of the regular season.

    He caught four passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in Philadelphia's Super Bowl LII upset of the New England Patriots.

    LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles are old and might not be back in 2018, which could enable Clement to become the team's go-to back for a change of pace and third downs.

    The 23-year-old has already proved himself to be a playmaker in big spots, and he should have even more opportunities to do so next season.

San Francisco 49ers WR Trent Taylor

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    The San Francisco 49ers offense took off with new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center down the stretch in 2017, and rookie wide receiver Trent Taylor benefited.

    Seventeen of Taylor's 43 receptions and 191 of his 430 yards came as Garoppolo ran the offense during the final five weeks of the season. The fifth-round pick was particularly efficient on third downs in the slot, and there's no reason to think he won't build on that as Garoppolo's safety valve in 2018.

    Watch for those two to build a better rapport over the course of their first offseason together in San Francisco and for Taylor's role to increase as a result.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin

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    Few rookies finished 2017 as strongly as Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin, who caught 10 passes for 209 yards in the final two weeks of the regular season. That's a good sign of what's to come for a third-round pick who caught 62 percent of the passes thrown his way and rarely dropped passes in 2017.

    Godwin's role increased greatly as the season wore on and should continue to do so in 2018. Mike Evans is still the No. 1 option in Tampa, but 31-year-old DeSean Jackson is fading, so Godwin could gain more opportunities to put up big numbers as a sophomore.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers TE O.J. Howard

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    Rich Barnes/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay's more highly-touted rookie pass-catcher, tight end O.J. Howard, also picked up a lot of steam late. The No. 19 overall pick out of Alabama registered 12 of his 26 catches and 205 of his 432 receiving yards in his final five games before a mid-December ankle injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely.

    Still, Howard quietly put up stellar rate-based stats in 2017, catching 66.7 percent of the passes thrown his way while averaging 16.6 yards per reception. For comparison's sake, no qualified tight end in football averaged more than 15.7 yards per catch last year.

    The Bucs offense is crowded, but Howard will have plenty of opportunities to build on his rookie season in 2018.

Carolina Panthers OL Taylor Moton

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    All-Pro Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, and it could be hard for the cap-strapped Panthers to retain him. If Norwell gets away, they might opt to move 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton into that vacant left guard spot.

    "He's a physical, athletic big dude who can probably play anywhere," teammate Trai Turner said earlier this month, per Bryan Strickland of the team's official website.

    Indeed, Moton is a massive man (6'5", 319 pounds) who was drafted as an offensive tackle but has plenty of experience inside and might be a more natural fit at guard. He performed well in spot duty at both positions as a backup in 2017, and he has the ability to become something special if he gets a shot to start in 2018.

Miami Dolphins DE Charles Harris

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    Miami Dolphins defensive end Charles Harris was eased in as a rookie in 2017, but the first-round pick out of Missouri made some strong starts in December.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Harris had a team-high eight quarterback pressures on 27 pass-rushing snaps in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills. He followed that by posting a sack and the third-best defensive PFF grade on the team in Week 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    "There's a lot in there," former Dolphins great Jason Taylor said of Harris recently, per Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post. "That light bulb is going to go off at some point in this league."

    Taylor thinks the 22-year-old will become a Pro Bowler, and he should have plenty of opportunities to live up to the hype while backing up (or rotating with?) 36-year-old Cameron Wake in 2018.

Atlanta Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley

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    Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley also got hot late in his rookie season, registering four of his six sacks during the final seven games of the regular season before picking up two more sacks in as many playoff games.

    McKinley did have shoulder surgery after the season, but that was a "minor" procedure, according to ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.

    Veteran Falcons pass-rusher Adrian Clayborn is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but even if Clayborn returns, McKinley is likely to put up big numbers while playing a larger role in 2018.

Detroit Lions LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin

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    Limited to a backup role and overshadowed by tackle-happy rookie teammate Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin flew under the radar while performing steadily throughout his rookie season.

    The 23-year-old fourth-round pick out of Tennessee got hot late, but he was earning praise before that.

    "Watching him over OTAs and minicamp, his growth over that time has been tremendous," teammate Tahir Whitehead said in November, per Justin Rogers of the Detroit News. "He's playing fast, going downhill and really shooting. When he sees something, he's trusting his eyes and just going."

    With Whitehead and fellow veteran linebacker Paul Worrilow both about to hit free agency, look for Reeves-Maybin's role to increase significantly in Year 2.

    If he can take advantage of that by picking up in 2018 where he left off in 2017, JRM could become a stud.

San Francisco 49ers CB Ahkello Witherspoon

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    Only four 49ers defensive players were on the field more often than rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in 2017, which is surprising considering he's a 22-year-old third-round pick. But it's an indication that the Colorado product is the real deal.

    Witherspoon didn't even see the field until October, but he was a regular starter by Halloween. Per PFF, he allowed a passer rating of just 66.4 between Week 13 and Week 16, and he didn't surrender a touchdown after Week 12.

    San Francisco games will likely get a lot more attention in 2018. While many of the viewers who tune in will do so to see Jimmy Garoppolo, they might also notice how good the team's 6'3" second-year corner is.

Indianapolis Colts CB Quincy Wilson

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    After inexplicably riding the bench for most of the first three-quarters of his rookie season, Indianapolis Colts cornerback Quincy Wilson shined in a starting role in December. Now the second-round pick out of Florida will enter his sophomore season without training wheels, especially if Rashaan Melvin and/or Pierre Desir get away in free agency.

    Wilson is a big, physical playmaker with a bright future. He should start living up to expectations from the get-go in 2018, particularly if the new Indy coaching staff avoids babying him the way Chuck Pagano's did.

Dallas Cowboys CBs Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie

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    Jourdan Lewis had a solid rookie year.
    Jourdan Lewis had a solid rookie year.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Orlando Scandrick might be the most accomplished cornerback on the Dallas Cowboys roster, but Scandrick is 31 now, and he was outplayed in 2017 by rookies Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie.

    Lewis excelled as a starter down the stretch, finishing the season with 10 passes defensed and the fourth-highest defensive snap count on the team. Awuzie wasn't present as often, but he allowed just 7.0 yards per reception and just 0.69 yards per coverage snap, both of which were the lowest rates ever recorded by a rookie corner at Pro Football Focus.

    Regardless of whether Scandrick returns, both Lewis and Awuzie should make major impacts as sophomores in 2018.