2nd-Year NFL Players Positioned for Breakout Seasons
Second-year NFL players are often either viewed as future stars based on a small sample size or quickly written off due to poor play or a lack of contributions as a rookie.
Every player matures at a different rate. Injuries, lack of readiness and/or insufficient opportunities can all contribute to an underwhelming first year.
While most players need time to acclimate to the NFL, certain rookies skew viewpoints.
Last year, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield broke a rookie record with 27 passing touchdowns. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage. Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson earned first-team All-Pro. Multiple other first-year performers provided instant impacts, too.
Other second-year players will emerge this coming season. The following sophomores should be better prepared and could blossom into breakout performers in 2019.
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Of the five 2018 first-round quarterbacks, the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen is best positioned for significant improvement.
Baker Mayfield shined as a rookie for the Cleveland Browns. The New York Jets believe Sam Darnold is their franchise signal-caller. Lamar Jackson helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a playoff appearance. Meanwhile, Josh Rosen is already on his second team and isn't guaranteed a starting spot with the Miami Dolphins.
Allen has the most room for growth and a much-improved supporting cast to help his maturation.
Last season, the Bills forced Allen to shoulder too much of the offense. The No. 7 overall pick threw for 2,074 yards, led Buffalo with 631 rushing yards and scored 18 total touchdowns. The Bills featured one of the league's worst offensive lines, and second-year wideout Zay Jones led the team with 652 receiving yards.
This offseason, general manager Brandon Beane signed wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, running back Frank Gore and six offensive linemen in free agency. He then drafted offensive lineman Cody Ford, running back Devin Singletary and tight ends Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney.
A bolstered supporting cast will only go so far. Allen must improve his overall accuracy and decision-making. He's already taking a bigger role in play-calling, and the team believes in its signal-caller.
"I think the team started rallying around [Allen], and we want to obviously use some of that juice we finished the season off with [3-3 record after the bye week] and transition it to next year," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander recently said, per Nick Wojton of Bills Wire.
RB Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice is the forgotten man from the 2018 NFL draft.
The second-round pick suffered a torn ACL in his first preseason contest, ending his rookie season before it even began. Washington signed Adrian Peterson shortly thereafter, and the ageless one finished eighth leaguewide with 1,042 rushing yards.
Now, Washington is awaiting Guice's return to the field.
"Derrius is coming along very well," head coach Jay Gruden said, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "We're just trying to make sure that leg—his quad and everything—is full strength before we let him go. That will probably be another thing we'll wait for training camp as well."
Gruden feels the offense is in a great place with both backs ready to split carries once Guice is healthy.
"Having AP back is nice," Gruden said, per the Washington Post's Kareem Copeland. "He rushed for over 1,000 yards. He's a little bit older, but he doesn't look it. He's in great shape. Saw him the other day. It's a great dilemma to have those two guys."
Guice doesn't turn 22 until June 21. He can learn from a future Hall of Fame running back while developing into a focal point of Washington's offensive scheme.
It's the best possible scenario after an injury-ravaged start to his NFL career.
WR Antonio Callaway, Cleveland Browns
In Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, the Cleveland Browns already tout one of the league's best wide receiver duo.
Antonio Callaway has the potential to lift Cleveland's receiver unit into a different stratosphere.
Callaway fell to the fourth round last year after he missed the entire 2017 season because of a suspension, but he exhibited first-round potential in 2016 and blazed a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He flashed some of that ability as a vertical threat in the Browns offense.
"He is very, very fast—a fast man," Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said of Callaway, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. "He makes good plays on the ball. When you have a guy like that and you get chemistry down, then it's very dangerous."
Callaway established his deep speed and led the Browns with five receiving touchdowns last season even though he lacked nuanced route running and didn't know how to use his body against professional defensive backs.
"He is in good shape relative to what he was in last year during training camp," head coach Freddie Kitchens said, per Andrew Gribble of the team's official site. "He has added some explosiveness. He has been catching the ball really well."
Callaway's continued growth gives Mayfield multiple exciting options to exploit.
WR Dante Pettis, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers spent second- and third-round picks on wide receivers this year even though they already had a possible outside-the-numbers solution.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan saw the potential in 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis toward the end of his rookie season.
"If you just watch how Pettis moves," Shanahan said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Jennifer Lee Chan. "I think he has pretty freakish body movement. The way he glides, he almost euro-steps as he runs routes and stuff and that's talent."
Before he suffered a knee injury against the Chicago Bears in Week 16, Pettis averaged 84.5 yards over the previous four games. That strong late-season showing provided a glimpse into what he can contribute, especially with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returning from a torn ACL.
Pettis finished third among rookie wide receivers in average yards per route run (1.79), according to Pro Football Focus. He did so with third-string quarterback Nick Mullens leading the offense.
To become a more reliable target, Pettis gained weight this offseason. His slight frame (listed at 186 pounds) negatively affected his play against physical defensive backs.
Garoppolo's comfort level with his receivers will determine who comes to the forefront as the 49ers' top option. Pettis faces plenty of competition, but his skill set gives him the flexibility to play multiple roles and gain Garoppolo's trust.
TE Jordan Thomas, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans feature a deep tight end room, especially after they signed Darren Fells in free agency and spent a third-round pick on Kahale Warring. But a second-year option is on track to start and become a big part of this year's offense.
Jordan Thomas, who the Texans chose among last year's compensatory sixth-round picks, is drawing rave reviews at OTAs.
"I definitely think he's made progression," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "... He's got a long way to go to be where he wants to be and where we need him to be, but he's definitely made a lot of progress."
Thomas, who lined up as an oversized (6'5", 277 pounds) wide receiver at Mississippi State, managed 20 receptions for 215 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
He served as the Texans' first-team tight end during OTAs, according to Wilson, and the coaching staff is intrigued by his profile.
"I think if you take a look at the landscape of the tight ends in the NFL right now, there aren't too many guys like that," offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. "With Jordan, it's a process of us just trying to continue to teach him the intricacies of the position and the intricacies of the offense."
OT Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots' last two starting left tackles became the NFL's highest-paid offensive linemen in consecutive offseasons with different organizations.
Nate Solder and Trent Brown aren't coming back, but the Patriots have a contingency plan in place.
New England drafted Isaiah Wynn with last year's 23rd overall pick. Although he's shorter than ideal for an offensive tackle (6'2"), he might have earned a starting spot last season had he not suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his second preseason game.
Now, Wynn is a natural blindside replacement as long as his recovery stays on track.
"What he's doing right now is all tied to his health," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said, per Paul Perillo of the team's official site. "He's getting better and all of that. That's a process and it's going really well."
As a senior for the Georgia Bulldogs, Wynn earned first-team All-SEC honors because of his efficient pass set, road-grading run blocking and overall dominant play. The Patriots know they have another top-notch lineman once he returns to the field.
"I went back over all of training camp and looked at everything, and this guy is a really good football player,” Scarnecchia said. "We just have to get him out there. I'll just leave it at that."
Wynn won't be leaving any time soon since he's on a rookie contract through at least 2021 (with a fifth-year option for the 2022 season).
EDGE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints traded up for the 14th overall pick last year to acquire Marcus Davenport in hopes of creating more edge pressure.
Davenport didn't live up to expectations because of a steep learning curve from UTSA and injuries. The 6'6", 265-pound defender dealt with groin and toe problems last season, which stunted his overall growth and limited him to 4.5 sacks.
The Saints coaching staff isn't discouraged, though.
"We saw some real good traits where we fell like this guy is going to be a dominant player for us," head coach Sean Payton said, per the Times-Picayune's Luke Johnson. "[He played] exceptionally against Minnesota [two sacks] and exceptional two or three other games for us. His toe slowed him down."
The toe injury, which required offseason surgery, limited Davenport. Edge-rushers require an explosive first step and the ability to turn the corner against offensive tackles. Defensive ends are at a severe disadvantage when they lack both, so the Saints never got to experience a fully realized Davenport.
"But he's a fast learner and a tremendous athlete, so his development should be pretty quick I'd hope," general manager Mickey Loomis said, per Johnson.
Despite Davenport's underwhelming first-year production, Pro Football Focus named him to its All-Rookie Team. He did manage 28 quarterback pressures and set the edge against the run.
Opposite Cameron Jordan, Davenport's potential is downright scary as long as he stays healthy.
DT Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
At this time last year, Poona Ford didn't know whether he'd be on an NFL roster at the start of the 2018 campaign.
The Seattle Seahawks didn't let one measurement ruin their evaluation of the 5'11" undrafted free agent.
"He's been really good on the line of scrimmage," head coach Pete Carroll said last summer, per the Seattle Times' Mike Vorel. "He's got his own style. He's short but he's got really long arms, and his leverage is an asset for him. But beyond that, he's very instinctive."
A lack of height is often viewed as a disqualifier for defensive tackle prospects, even though leverage and pad level are crucial to the position's success.
Yes, Ford is shorter than ideal, but he's a load at a compact 310 pounds. His play after making the Seahawks roster directly reflects how his frame helps him as a run defender.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ford finished with 13 defensive stops and the fourth-best run-stop percentage (12.6 percent) out of 134 qualifying interior defenders. His 91.5 run-defense grade ranked first among rookie interior defenders in the PFF era.
A starting spot is available alongside Seahawks standout Jarran Reed since Shamar Stephen signed with the Minnesota Vikings and Nazair Jones moved to 5-technique. Ford is the logical replacement since his stout performance at the point of attack will allow Reed to build upon last year's 10.5-sack breakthrough.
LB Kenny Young, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens' free-agent loss of C.J. Mosley has created an exceptional opportunity for second-year linebacker Kenny Young.
A year ago, Young and Patrick Onwuasor competed for the starting spot next to Mosley. Onwuasor won the job, started 12 games and finished fourth on the team with 59 total tackles.
Now, the Ravens must rely on Young and Onwuasor as their starting inside tandem.
"Those guys have to step up and be guys," head coach John Harbaugh said, per Clifton Brown of the Ravens' official site. "They've got to play special teams. They've got to play inside linebacker. But I feel really good about them...and I really like the fact that those guys play fast, and I think they’re hungry. So let's go."
Like Onwuasor, Young played in all 16 games, mainly on special teams and sub-packages. The rookie finished with 51 total tackles.
Young can't fill the shoes of a four-time second-team All-Pro, but he has a similar skill set. The 2018 fourth-round pick is an athletic sideline-to-sideline defender and may be Baltimore's fastest linebacker. His ability to work in space provides a nice complement to Onwuasor, who managed eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year.
"He's willing to play fast even if he does make a mistake," Harbaugh said of Young last season, per Brown. "And sometimes, some of the plays you see him making? He might not be perfectly where he's supposed to be, but that willingness to play fast overcomes it, and you go make a good football play."
CB Levi Wallace, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace earned everything in football, and he's now a critical part of the league's best young group at his position.
Wallace walked onto the prestigious Alabama Crimson Tide program, became a starter as a senior and won a national championship. However, NFL teams thought his combination of a slight frame (6'0", 179 pounds) and slow 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds) wasn't worthy of a draft selection.
As an undrafted free agent, Wallace earned a spot on the Bills roster, became a starter by Week 10 and graded out as the league's fourth-best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I'm always trying to prove myself," Wallace said during last year's training camp, per the Bills official site. "I mean even Alabama, even starting, you know, I was proving something—not to others, but to myself—that I'm supposed to be here, I deserve to be here. I definitely can make plays just like everyone else."
The Bills weren't content with their grouping of Wallace (23 years old), nickel corner Taron Johnson (22) and 2017 first-round pick Tre'Davious White (23). This offseason, general manager Brandon Beane signed a pair of veterans, Kevin Johnson and E.J. Gaines, to bolster the secondary.
Those additions should only push Wallace to be even better.
"He has the same approach as last year as an undrafted kid. 'I'm fighting for this thing.'" Beane said, per WKBW Buffalo's Joe Buscaglia. "Yeah, I started at the end of the year, but there's competition here. Someone is gonna have to knock me out. I'm not just going to give this spot up because I was undrafted.'"
Never doubt Wallace, because he always outperforms expectations.