A player’s second season in the NFL is often the most important in terms of development–just ask Rob Gronkowski or Richard Sherman.
After a season of learning and adapting, things begin to slow down for some and their talent shines through. This is what many have coined as “the second-year leap”.
Now, some players get it right away and instantly get thrust in NFL stardom–Keenan Allen, Eddie Lacy and Sheldon Richardson quickly come to mind. You won’t find them on this list–these guys have already taken the proverbial “leap”.
This list includes players who look poised to take the leap after promising–even if unspectacular–rookie seasons.
Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints
Stills, a fifth-round draft choice in 2013, quickly developed into a play-maker for the Saints, averaging 20 yards per catch in his first year in the league. His speed and burst is his biggest strength, but he was also a savvy route runner as a rookie.
The upside is huge for the 6-foot 194 pounder. Another solid training camp could catapult this late rounder into superstar status in his sophomore year.
Aaron Dobson, WR, New England Patriots
Despite missing four games due to a foot injury late in his rookie season, Dobson was still the most productive rookie wide receiver in the Tom Brady era. His 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns tops Deion Branch’s rookie stat line of 42 catches, 489 yards, and two touchdowns.
Dobson had an up-and-down start to the season, but really started to get hot from Week 5 through 8 where he averaged 72 yards per game. His best outing in that stretch was a five-catch, 130-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though he’s recovering from minor offseason foot surgery, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson is expected to be ready for training camp. With a full year under his belt, look for his hot-streak to become more of the norm in 2014.
Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets
Milliner didn’t show us anything at the beginning of the season. In fact, the word “bust” was on the tips of everyone’s tongues before he started to remind us why he was the No. 9 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
It took him some time, but Milliner really did play well down the stretch, particularly the last two games of the season against Cleveland and Miami–a stretch where he broke up ten passes. Ten. That’s ridiculous. Ten pass breakups in a season for a rookie would be solid, never mind in two games.
Milliner looks poised to carry that late success into his sophomore campaign, especially with the safety play set to get a big boost with the addition of 2014 first-round pick Calvin Pryor.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
If not for a foot injury that kept him out of the first three games of the 2013 season, Bell would have likely surpassed the 1,000-rushing-yard mark in his first year as a pro. In 13 games, he finished with 860 rushing yards. He added 45 catches for 399 yards in the passing game.
Newly signed veteran running back LaGarrette Blount could give Bell a run for his money, but if things go as planned, this second-year man should be the featured back in a run-heavy offense in 2014. Expect well over 1,000 yards.
Johnathan Cyprien, S, Jacksonville Jaguars
After the season and Super Bowl performance Kam Chancellor had, the football world seems to be developing an affinity for big hard-hitting safeties.
Add Cyprien to the list.
At 6’0”, 215 pounds, he’s not quite as huge as Chancellor (6’3”, 230 lbs), but he is certainly an intimidating safety with wood-laying ability. He struggled at the beginning of his rookie season, but turned things around down the stretch and validated the Jags using the No. 33 pick on him a year ago.
If the Jags actually win some games in 2014, Cyprien could become a household name.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
Reed finished his rookie season with 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns. That would be pretty impressive if he played a full season. Only he didn’t play a full season–he played in just nine games! Had he not landed on the IR list and maintained that production, Reed was looking at 80 catches, 887 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first year as a pro.
That would have been remarkable.
With newly signed speedster DeSean Jackson likely to draw plenty of safety attention, the middle of the field should be open. I expect a huge year from Reed in 2014.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Ertz had 36 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. These are good numbers, but what stood out most was his evident improvement week to week. Catching, route-running, blocking–everything got better each week.
With Nick Foles’ number one target, Jackson, catching passes from RGIII in 2014, Ertz should have a larger role in the offense.
Who did I forget? Let me know in the comments.