The Next Jared Goff? Projecting NFL's Biggest 2nd-Year Breakouts
At this time a year ago, the conversation around Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff was far different than it is now.
It's amazing what a breakout season can do.
After an uneven rookie campaign in 2016, Goff exploded under new head coach Sean McVay last season, finishing with 3,804 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and an NFC West title.
Who will be the next second-year player to take the NFL by storm?
Will it be the quarterback who already did so before an ACL tear prematurely ended his rookie season? The signal-caller being called upon to start for a team with Super Bowl aspirations? The top-10 wide receiver who lost the entirety of his first offseason to an injury? How about the edge-rusher who shined as a rookie on the field but had trouble staying there? Or the young safety from which much more will be expected in 2018?
Let's answer those questions by highlighting which second-year players are due to break out in 2018.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans
There isn't a more obvious second-year breakout candidate in the NFL than Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson, who set an NFL record with 19 touchdown passes over his first seven games as a pro, already took the NFL by storm in 2017. However, he tore his ACL during practice ahead of Week 8, which pumped the brakes on his breakout rookie campaign.
In a recent appearance on NFL Network's Good Morning Football, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said Watson is progressing well in his rehab from that injury, per ESPN.com.
"He's doing a good job in his rehab," O'Brien said. "I think he's on schedule to be able to participate in training camp. We're excited about that."
O'Brien has reason to be excited. Watson showed great rapport last year with star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He turned wideout Will Fuller from an afterthought into a dangerous vertical threat. And Watson should benefit from an improved offensive line this season, as no quarterback in the NFL had a higher passer rating when throwing from a clean pocket in 2017, per Pro Football Focus.
Without Watson last year, the Texans were hot garbage. With him in 2018, they are a legitimate threat to knock off the Jaguars in the AFC South.
If he stays healthy, Watson is headed for superstardom.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Among this season's second-year quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs is the great unknown. He made just one start as a rookie, and that was a meaningless Week 17 matchup with the Denver Broncos. Mahomes' next NFL touchdown will be his first.
However, head coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs must have seen something they liked in Mahomes. First, they traded up in last year's draft to grab the Texas Tech star. This offseason, they dealt veteran Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins, handing the reins over to Mahomes.
Mahomes told Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB that he thinks a year of watching Smith will only help him as he prepares to take the biggest step of his career.
"I wanted to play," Mahomes said. "I wanted to be out there with the guys. But you know every single day what you’re working for. You’re studying and making sure you’re ready in case you are put into the game; at the same time, you know the future. Every day I came in and worked as hard as I could to make sure that I was ready for whenever the opportunity did come."
That day is now here.
With tailback Kareem Hunt, wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce, Mahomes has the best offense around him of any of the second-year quarterbacks. He also has exponentially more pressure than his fellow classmates after the Chiefs won the AFC West in 2017.
If Kansas City regresses this season, Mahomes' first year as a starter will be viewed as a failure.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky enters 2018 in a position far more similar to Goff than Watson. Like Goff, Trubisky had his ups and downs as a rookie, throwing only seven touchdown passes and posting a passer rating south of 80.
However, Bears general manager Ryan Pace believes Trubisky is ready to take ownership of the Chicago offense in his second season, according to Dan Pompei of The Athletic.
"You can see him taking more of an authoritative approach," Pace said. "The way he commands the huddle, the way he talks to teammates, you can see him taking ownership. And it seems very comfortable and natural."
If Trubisky does make a big jump in 2018, his increasing maturity as a player won't be the only reason why. This offseason, the Bears went out and added weapons around him, too.
With the arrival of free agent Allen Robinson, Trubisky and the Bears have the No. 1 receiver they sorely lacked in 2017. Chicago also signed former Atlanta Falcons wideout Taylor Gabriel and former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Trey Burton, and it spent a second-round pick on Memphis receiver Anthony Miller.
A quarterback is only as good as the weapons around him, and Trubisky's supporting cast appears to be vastly improved.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Rookie running backs dominated during the 2017 season.
Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs led the league in rushing. Leonard Fournette helped carry the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game. Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints broke four Pro Football Focus rookie records on his way to capturing Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Early in the season, it appeared as though Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings was going to join the parade—or perhaps even lead it. Over four games, Cook racked up 444 yards from scrimmage, 4.8 yards per carry and 8.2 yards per reception. He also torched the Saints for 127 yards on the ground in his NFL debut.
But in a Week 4 game against the Detroit Lions, Cook tore his ACL. Just like that, his rookie season was over.
On Saturday, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that Cook is progressing well with his rehab.
"He's done really well," Zimmer said. "He's ahead of schedule. We're excited about where he's at."
Assuming that Cook is 100 percent (or close to it) by Week 1, he could be primed for a monster year. The Vikings were seventh in the NFL in rushing last year even without Cook. With a loaded passing game spearheaded by quarterback Kirk Cousins and wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cook won't be seeing a ton of eight-man fronts.
If his knee holds up, Cook could feasibly challenge for the rushing title in 2018.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Cook wasn't the only rookie tailback who missed the breakout parade in 2017. But whereas Cook's injury thwarted him, Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals had no such excuse.
Over 14 games as a rookie, Mixon gained 626 yards on 178 carries. He did manage more than 900 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns, but his average of 3.5 yards per carry wasn't what the Bengals were hoping for when they took him in Round 2.
In March, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Lazor told reporters that he was impressed with Mixon's progress as the season wore on and thinks he can handle the load as a bell-cow tailback.
"I think in the long run, my prediction is someday we're going to say, 'Yeah, this guy can do it all,'" Lazor said. "He can pass-protect, he can run, he can catch the ball. He's a guy I think we're going to be happy with as he keeps going."
With the acquisition of veteran tackle Cordy Glenn and the addition of 2018 first-round pick Billy Price, a Bengals line that was an obvious weakness last year should be substantially improved. One of the keys for that improved line will be getting the Bengals, who ranked last in the AFC in rushing last year, some offensive balance.
That means getting the run game going—which means getting Mixon going.
The rest will be up to him.
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
Like Mitchell Trubisky, Myles Garrett was a high draft pick in 2018. The highest, in fact.
Like Deshaun Watson, Garrett made some noise as rookie. He notched a sack on the first snap of his NFL career and two in his first game. But like Watson, injuries muted Garrett's first-year explosion. He missed five games, and while his seven sacks for the season is nothing to sneeze at, it didn't earn him many individual accolades.
Per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon-Journal, Garrett said he's prioritized improving his conditioning this offseason so he can carry a far heavier workload in 2018.
"I wanted to get in better condition, so I can be out there and make plays, create turnovers," Garrett said. "The last game of the season, I was going most of the game. I think I took five, maybe 10 plays off. That's my goal—to be on the field as much as possible, so I can make as big of an impact as possible."
The only thing holding Garrett back at this point is availability. Given his quickness off the edge, he's more than capable of becoming a perennial Pro Bowler.
So long as he can stay on the field, that is.
Solomon Thomas, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Garrett wasn't the only defensive lineman who heard his name called early last year. After trading back one spot in the 2017 draft, the San Francisco 49ers drafted Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas third overall.
But whereas Garrett made some noise on the field while healthy last year, Thomas was whisper-quiet most of the season. The 6'2", 256-pounder managed only three sacks, although he did chip in 41 total tackles.
Despite those modest numbers, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told reporters he was pleased with Thomas' progress over his first NFL season.
"I'm very pleased," Saleh said. "I think we all are, really. He's a very explosive athlete, he plays really good with his hands, he gets knock-back in the run game. There's the developmental part that we need to get to with regards to consistency in pass rush, which I think he'll reach. I'm not really concerned about it. But as far as his growth, I'm very pleased with where he's at."
Per Joe Fann of the team's website, Thomas will spend more time this year as the "Leo" weak-side end in the base defense, kicking inside or to the strong-side end spot in obvious passing situations.
Rookie struggles on the defensive line aren't at all out of the ordinary. As NFL positions go, it presents one of the steeper learning curves.
But Thomas is immensely talented, and it's easy to see him making considerable progress in 2018.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
Three wideouts came off the board within the top 10 picks last year, but none of them made much of an impact as rookies.
Corey Davis was the first of those wideouts, as the Tennessee Titans selected him fifth overall. After missing five games to start the year with a hamstring injury, Davis finished his rookie season with a modest 34 receptions for 375 yards.
Heading into his second season, Davis told Jim Wyatt of the team website that he's healthy and thankful to be able to focus this offseason on improving his craft.
"Things have definitely slowed down, and my legs feel great," Davis said. "I do feel comfortable, and it feels good to be with the guys. I am learning the playbook, and we're getting there, looking good.
"Last year (during the offseason), dealing with a lot of the things (leading up to the NFL draft), you are not really focused as much on football. You're focused on other things. Now it is about football, and I am out there trying to perfect my craft and get better."
Davis needs help from quarterback Marcus Mariota, who in turn needs a No. 1 wide receiver he can lean on. Davis has all of the requisite physical tools to be that top receiver, including a 6'3" frame and soft hands.
This year, he'll get to show what he can do.
Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
If Corey Davis' rookie season was a disappointment, then Mike Williams' was a nightmare.
After Williams won a national championship with Clemson, the Los Angeles Chargers selected him seventh overall. A back injury then cost Williams the entire offseason, which spurred a miserable first year in which he caught only 11 passes for 95 yards.
As Ricky Henne reported for the Chargers' website, Williams entered his first full offseason healthy and as a man on a mission.
"I'm excited about this year to not only prove to everybody else, but prove to myself that I know who I am and what I can be," Williams said. "I'm real confident in my abilities. I wasn't capable of doing what I can do last year because of the injury. This offseason, I feel 100 percent. I'm ready to go out there and dominate."
Williams' talent isn't in question. Some pundits viewed the 6'4", 220-pounder as the most gifted prospect at his position last year. He also has the advantage of playing with a Pro Bowl quarterback in Philip Rivers and opposite an elite wide receiver in Keenan Allen who will draw coverage away.
The ingredients for a breakout season are in place. Williams just has to stay on the field.
Budda Baker, S, Arizona Cardinals
Budda Baker was pressed into action by injuries as a rookie, so he wound up making seven starts for the Arizona Cardinals in 2017. Baker piled up 74 total tackles, adding a pair of forced fumbles and a sack.
Despite his first-year success, few NFL fans outside of Arizona know who Baker is .
That's bound to change after the upcoming season.
In the wake of Arizona's decision to release Tyrann Mathieu, Baker will now be tasked with preventing running backs, tight ends and slot receivers from shredding the Redbirds over the middle.
Baker was already better than many expected him to be as a rookie, so much so that the Cardinals were willing to let Mathieu go. By the end of his second season, expect him to be mentioned alongside the elite young safeties in the NFL.