While rookie seasons in the NFL can serve as a reasonable indicator of the skills a player has, it shouldn't define their career. It's far too small a sample size in a league that only plays a 16-game season. There are a variety of reasons why certain rookies may thrive or underperform, and they all need to be taken into account when evaluating these young players. The league has a ton of talent going into their sophomore year in 2017, and there's a lot riding on it for them. For many, it's a make-or-break season in their career.
Still, even players who are destined for good careers can hit a wall and suffer a sophomore slump after a good rookie campaign. It really all depends on the player and the situation. Circumstance matters more than anything in a league like the NFL, and some young players benefit from it, while others have their careers destroyed because of it. Let's take a look at some NFL players looking to take the next step from their rookie season.
Ranked below are 8 second-year NFL players who will take it to the next level, and 7 who will suffer a sophomore slump.
15 Jalen Ramsey (Next Level)
There's a reason why Ramsey was selected 5th-overall in the 2016 draft, and he showed exactly why last year, excelling as a cornerback for the Jaguars. Playing one of the hardest positions to transition to in the NFL, it's not surprising that it took a few games to really get going, but when he did, everyone could see the potential. As it turned out, Ramsey only figures to get better off a solid rookie season.
He just underwent surgery for a core muscle injury this summer, but early indications are that he'll be back on the field for most of the season in Jacksonville. Barring any setbacks from the surgery, Ramsey is truly in line for one of the best 2nd-year performances in the league, and right now it's just a matter of getting healthy. Expect big things if he's able to stay on the field this season.
14 Dak Prescott (Slump)
There's certainly some merit to Prescott's rookie season, where he found himself producing at a high level right from the start. However, it would be downright neglectful to not acknowledge the fact that Ezekiel Elliott, the offensive line, and Dallas' abundance of skill players had a lot to do with it. Prescott entered the NFL in the best situation for a rookie quarterback in years, and it showed last year, as the 4th-round pick turned heads immediately.
To his credit, he was able to take advantage of his situation, but he's due to come back down to Earth at least a little bit in 2017. Defenses will have an entire year of game film, and the Cowboys lost a couple of pieces to their offensive line. It's unlikely that Prescott flames out completely, but his interception total should climb, and he may not win as many games against a tougher schedule.
13 Derrick Henry (Next Level)
The Titans were slow to work in the 2nd-round pick out of Alabama last season, giving the lion's share of the carries to free agent acquisition DeMarco Murray. Henry did get a good amount of work however in the Titans' run-first offense, and should be in line for even more carries this season. His production was good in a limited role, so Tennessee shouldn't have any problems given him a greater workload.
Henry figures to be the star of the Titans' backfield once Murray moves on, and he's off to a good start to accomplishing that right now. If Murray falters for any reason, you can expect Henry to assume the starting running back role in full. Even if he doesn't, he's in line for an even better season this time around, and should establish himself as one of the league's top young runners.
12 DeForest Buckner (Slump)
Buckner had a nice rookie season last year on a terrible 49ers team. He provided the pass-rushing ability that was expected of him, seems to be in line for a good career. He'll have to take a pit-stop on the way there however, because he'll be changing schemes in the upcoming season, and be playing alongside some new defensive pieces that could hinder his production.
Any time there's the level of turnover that we're seeing now in San Francisco, a young player has a good chance of taking the hit for a year or two. Buckner should be able to get back on track eventually, but he may suffer a down year as he transitions to a new defensive system under new coordinator Robert Saleh. Expectations should be tempered for 2017.
11 Tyreek Hill (Next Level)
The Chiefs are clearly all-in on Hill this year. They progressively gave him more touches last season, and he was able to make some truly dynamic plays both as a wide receiver, and out of the backfield. With Jeremy Maclin now gone, Hill should be the number one target on the Kansas City receiving corps, and turn in his first elite season in the NFL.
Athletic ability like this just doesn't come around very often, and Andy Reid knows how to use players of this ilk (DeSean Jackson while with the Eagles). Hill stands to be one of the best young players in the game, and is a multi-faceted weapon that will truly give defensive coordinators nightmares. If there's one player you can be certain to be on a ton of highlight reels next season, Hill is the guy.
10 Josh Doctson (Slump)
There's really not much further Doctson can fall, having only played in a total of 6 games last season, making only 2 receptions. But the 2016 1st-round pick of the Redskins is going to get more of an opportunity to show what he can do this year, on a receiving corps that just lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
Unfortunately for him, Doctson probably isn't going to ascend to the heights that Washington hopes he will. He won't have the field-stretching ability of Jackson to open up space, and there's just been no indication that he'll live up to his draft position. As a full-time starter, expect Doctson to disappoint, and for the Redskins to have a confirmed draft bust on their hands.
9 Michael Thomas (Next Level)
With the advent of Drew Brees throwing him the ball, Thomas produced a better rookie season than most everyone expected, and he'll have a good chance to improve on that this year. Receiver Brandin Cooks is out of New Orleans now, and that means that Thomas will likely assume the role of being Brees' go-to receiver. He has the ability to really make a name for himself this year, and establish himself as a top-10 receiver league-wide.
All the tools are there for Thomas to be success. The 2nd-round Ohio State product showed he was a sure-handed touchdown threat that could move the chains at will. With an all-time great in Brees throwing to him, the sky is really the limit for this year. He has potential to be one of the best in the game, and should really turn some heads this season.
8 Corey Coleman (Slump)
Injured for part of his rookie season, Coleman figures to tandem with Kenny Britt on the outside for the Browns' receiving corps. Unfortunately, the Browns quarterback situation is still in flux, and there's no telling who will be throwing him the ball for the 2017 season. Last year, quarterback accuracy issues hindered Coleman's performance, as he caught only 33 passes on 73 targets. He showed flashes of brilliance, but was never able to put it all together.
Britt figures to get the majority of the targets, and that could significantly effect Coleman's production. The Browns don't have the roster to elevate a young receiver right now, and Coleman may suffer because of it. He's a talented young player, and his career isn't doomed yet, but 2017 could be an uphill battle for him.
7 Leonard Floyd (Next Level)
Floyd had a great pass-rushing season for a rookie last year, and made the Bears breathe easy regarding his 9th-overall draft selection. The Bears front-7 was also banged up last year, and they should be getting back plenty of talent for Floyd to play alongside, which will only help him improve upon his rookie campaign.
Though overlooked, Floyd is not a player to sleep on. He has a good chance to establish himself among the upper echelon of the league's defensive players this year, even if Chicago's overall record is likely to be underwhelming. Keep an eye on him, and expect him to hit double-digits in sack totals this season.
6 Sterling Shepard (Slump)
The Giants were high on Shepard going into last season, even as a rookie slot receiver. He didn't disappoint, even if he didn't set the world on fire, but that could be changing this year. Shepard is now playing alongside not only Odell Beckham, but Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram now. If it was hard for him to stand out at times last season, it will be even more difficult to accomplish that this time around.
It's lining up to be a mediocre year for Shepard, at least in the sense that he won't improve upon his rookie season. He needs to refine his game to not just be limited to short passes, so he can contribute in full to the offense. He may get there eventually, but probably not this year, with all of the new weapons at Eli Manning's disposal.
5 Devontae Booker (Next Level)
While he had a so-so rookie campaign, the potential is there for Booker to be a true lead running back for the Broncos, and he'll probably more or less get that opportunity this year. He's hurt right now, but at most he'll only miss the first couple weeks of the season. From there, he should be worked into the rotation right away, if not be getting the bulk of the carries on the Denver offense.
The Broncos also have C.J. Anderson on the team, so if he makes a resurgence, then it could potentially limit Booker's workload. They would probably want the younger player to get a good amount of touches though, so it's not too much of a concern. The Broncos invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason, and Booker should be the main beneficiary of those acquisitions, as he establishes himself as one of the game's best young runners.
4 Tyler Boyd (Slump)
Boyd filled in admirably for the Bengals as the team's top wide receiver target when A.J. Green went down with an injury last year, but he didn't do much to cement himself in a significant role going forward. For a 2nd-round pick that's a little concerning, and it prompted the team to acquire John Ross and Joe Mixon in the draft to aid their offense. Ross in particular is noteworthy as the 10th overall pick, after running a blazing 4.22 40-yard-dash at the NFL Combine this offseason.
This means that Boyd is no surefire bet to be productive this season. He's going to need to prove that he's worth the targets, on an offense that suddenly has a ton of talent on it. It doesn't look like there's much room for Boyd to succeed this year, and he'll falter relatively early on.
3 Carson Wentz (Next Level)
Hindered by an Eagles offense that lacked much of anything at all at the outside receiver positions, Wentz is primed to take advantage of a bunch of new weapons that the team acquired in the offseason. The flashes of brilliance he displayed last year should come with much more regularity this time around, as he begins to establish himself as a top young quarterback.
The minor accuracy issues that plagued Wentz last season should be overridden by his natural mobility, pre-snap diagnosis of the defense, and his arm strength. Now with actual talent on the outside of the field, he should begin to turn the Eagles' offense around, several years after it was depleted by Chip Kelly. Wentz should be one of the game's breakout stars this season.
2 Jared Goff (Slump)
The Rams are clearly caught between a rock and a hard place here. Goff showed next to nothing in his limited playing time last season, and that was after being beat out for the starting job by journeyman Case Keenum. It's still early in the career for the former 1st-overall pick, but that doesn't bode well for his chances this year. The fact is, we've yet to see any semblance of quality play from Goff, and that's just not good for the Rams.
Hope remains that Goff will finally turn it around as a confirmed, full-time starter this year, but there's just no reason to assume that it will happen. He may end up being the most disappointing quarterback pick in quite some time. Maybe the new coaching staff in L.A. will help him, but Goff is facing an uphill battle right now. Unless a star comes from out of the woodwork on the Rams offense, or Goff suddenly figures it out, it projects to be another difficult season for him.
1 Joey Bosa (Next Level)
After a drawn-out contract dispute that led to many questions surrounding his situation with the Chargers, he showed why he was taken with the 3rd overall pick. Bosa racked up over 10 sacks in just 12 games played. So essentially, he was one of the best pass-rushers in the league, and only played three-quarters of the season. That's impressive on it's own, but for a rookie it's simply phenomenal.
There's no question that Bosa is going to be the Chargers' best defensive player, but he may be the best defensive player in the entire league. If he hits his ceiling for the 2017 season he has a good chance to do just that, and will become a household name in short order. There may not be a better young defensive player in the game right now. Bosa is actually living up to his top-5 draft selection, and that's a rare thing indeed.
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