Amidst the endless controversies of what qualifies as a catch, social issues, and long-term injuries to big-name players, the 2017 season had at least one positive to focus on: a tremendous rookie class. Whether you were a fantasy owner cashing in on the performances of first-year studs or just a lover of the game excited to see some fresh faces, last year’s class surely didn’t disappoint. Rookies are the lifeblood of the NFL. As the pro bowl stars we’ve come to know and love get older and slow down, talented rookies come in to keep the NFL vibrant. Despite the excitement new players bring to the league every year, their inaugural outing does not paint the complete picture.
No matter how well or how poor a player performed their rookie year, one season does not dictate a career. For every amazing first season, there are some that fail to meet expectations. For NFL players, it’s the second year that begins to truly define them. The bright lights of the league no longer dazzle them, and the speed and strength of players don’t overwhelm them.
For all the unknown players that became household names and players that didn’t quite live up to their expectations, the 2018 season looks to be the stage where all the narratives from last year can be flipped. Today, we are looking at the most likely rookies headed for a sophomore slump along with the names that will emerge into the spotlight after a slow start.
16 Slump: Evan Engram
2017 was a year best left forgotten for the New York Giants. After coming into the year being favored to win the division and perhaps make a run for the Super Bowl, injuries, horrid play, and team dysfunction sank the aspirations for the team. Out of all of the negatives that befell the team, there was one bright spot: the emergence of Tight End Evan Engram. When his fellow pass catchers began to drop like flies each week, Engram stepped up big and gave Eli Manning a consistent target to rely on.
Coming out of the Draft, Engram was a terrific talent expected to improve the Giants offense, so it was no surprise to see him perform so well.
Despite the instant success he had in the league, Engram won't be able to have the same kind of numbers in his sophomore year. There's no doubt that Engram is a talented player, but the returns of Odell Beckham Jr. and veteran Brandon Marshall will cut deep into Engram's targets. With added depth at the offensive line, the Giants look to improve the struggling rushing attack as well. Thus, Engram's production will be a casualty of the team's overall improvement and will need to rely on him less in 2018.
15 Breakout: Patrick Mahomes
Out of all the second-year players heading into the 2018 season, Mahomes stands apart as one of the most intriguing to watch. Trading up from the 27th pick to the 10th during the 2017 Draft, the Chiefs pretty much shouted into the heavens how much they loved Mahomes. That love had to be tempered as Mahomes watched Alex Smith from the sidelines due to him needing more time to develop. Moving away from the reliable, conservative play of the aging Alex Smith, Mahomes looks to continue to make the Chiefs one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL for years to come.
As an NFL prospect, Mahomes wowed teams with his crazy arm and creative play-making ability.
Furthermore, due to excellent drafting over last few years and a little help from free agency, the Chiefs have surrounded Mahomes with an All-Pro cast of talent around him on every end. With all that mixed together alongside Andy Reid's play calling, the Chiefs have put in all the ingredients for Mahomes to have a great season.
14 Slump: Deshaun Watson
Watson's inclusion on this list may come as a surprise for many due to the incredible performance of his rookie year before suffering an ACL tear late in the season. It is in fact due to those great performances why he lands on this list. Going by the pace he was playing before his injury, Watson was on pace to break the rookie record for touchdown passes with 40. The current record is still 26 (held by Peyton Manning and Russel Wilson).
For many quarterbacks, the jump from year one to year two is where coaches expect to see the most progress.
If that were the case for Watson, his jump from rookie to sophomore would set him on pace for a record-shattering MVP year.
Unlike like his first year, the chances of Watson averaging three touchdowns per game are slim. Those chances are furthered hindered by the fact he will be coming off a late-season ACL injury which could limit his reps in training camp and preseason.
13 Breakout: Joe Mixon
When the Bengals drafted Mixon, football fans were abuzz with excitement over the idea of combining the skills of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J Green alongside the rookie back. Those promising expectations quickly came crashing down upon the realization that Mixon was just another player in an already crowded backfield in Cincinnati. Out of the 14 games Mixon played in, he managed to get more than 15 carries in only 5 games. Despite clearly displaying the most talent out of any of the backs on the roster, head coach Marvin Lewis insisted that the talented rookie needed to earn his spot and not just have it given to him.
Mixon has the skillset shared by many of the premier backs in the league today: being a running threat as well as a passing one. With the departure of former starting back Jeremy Hill, Mixon looks to capitalize on his rookie numbers and become a dynamic threat in the Bengals' backfield.
12 Slump: Kareem Hunt
Throughout the course of his rookie year, Chiefs' head coach Andy Reid seemed to never quite know what to do with Hunt during many points of the season. Coming out of the gates, Hunt lit the NFL world on fire as the league's leading rusher and propelling the Chiefs to a 5-0 start. Every game within that 5-0 start had a common theme to it: Hunt obtained over 100 scrimmage yards. Though his high level of play seemed integral to the Chiefs' winning formula, they failed to get him that heavily involved in the offense once more until week 13. During that period of limiting Hunt, the Chiefs struggled mightily and fell to 6-6 before finishing strong at 10-6.
It would seem easy to understand that the formula of success for the Chiefs lied in getting Hunt involved as much as possible. Unfortunately, history has shown on multiple occasions that Andy Reid has a pension for forgetting to feed his star running back during the course of a game. Even former Chiefs' pro bowl back Jamal Charles went through similar ups and downs at various times in his tenure with Reid. After winning the rushing title, Hunt will be hard-pressed to replicate the same kind of success two years running.
11 Breakout: Christian McCaffrey
If going off of pure scrimmage yards, the 2017 season hardly seems like a disappointing outing for McCaffery. Totaling just over 1,000 yards from scrimmage with 80 catches hauled in, the versatile back was heavily involved in the Panthers' offense all throughout the year. That would be fine if the Panthers had drafted him as a wide receiver or as a fifth-round running back.
The fact of the matter is McCaffery was taken in the top ten of the 2017 Draft as a running back and his performance as a runner was subpar.
All of the top 10 running backs taken over the past few years shared one aspect in common: they became game changers for their teams. McCaffery was more of a nice weapon that the Panthers just forced the ball to just to prove they were using him.
The 2018 year should a significant increase for McCaffery as a runner. The loss of long-time back Jonathan Stewart and the addition of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has opened up the door for McCaffery to become the true feature back in the offense.
10 Slump: Cooper Kupp
It would be safe to say that after the 2017 preseason many fans in the football community loved Cooper Kupp. The young, polished route runner from Eastern Washington made an instant connection with quarterback Jared Goff and the two quickly went to work. After proving to be one of the more preferred targets by Goff, Kupp would seem to be poised for another good year in the prolific Rams' offense.
That won't be the case for the 2018 season. Despite the connection with Goff, Kupp ultimately works as the third receiver on the team from the slot. History has shown that for prolific offenses, some sort of regression always occurs after a peak year and normally it’s the slot receiver that suffers the most in terms of production.
Look no further than recent history with Taylor Gabriel from the Falcons in 2017, or 2016 with Willie Snead and the Saints, or the 2015 year with John Brown and Michael Floyd on the Cardinals. Third option receivers have a hard time producing consistent numbers in the league, and the addition of Brandin Cooks to the team cuts even further into Kupp's chance at improving greatly.
9 Breakout: Jamaal Williams
The Packers have been no stranger to being hit with the injury bug over the last two seasons at running back. During the course of the 2017 season when all of their starting backs went down one after another, Jamaal Williams stepped in and excelled. Williams filled in nicely as the new workhorse back averaging around 18 carries a game and proved he can be effective in the passing game as well.
The presence of fellow sophomore back Aaron Jones could be seen as a cause for concern, but Williams has proven to be the Packers preferred back when both are healthy in the lineup.
Ever since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starter, the Packers have desperately looked for a competent back to complement their perennial passing attack. Williams will likely be the key to filling that role as the Packers won't shy away from using him.
8 Slump: T.J Watt
It seems almost blasphemous to mention anything negative against an NFL player with the Watt name. Granted, the younger Watt brother lands on this list not due to his own individual performance but rather the trend of the Steelers defense as a whole. No matter how talented a player may be, he is only as strong as the others playing beside him. Following the terrible injury to the defensive leader of the Steelers, Ryan Shazier, Watt and the defense just didn't look the same. In the games that Shazier was absent from, the defense fell from allowing only 17 points per game to allowing 27.
While not all of the blame goes on the loss of Shazier, his loss did seem to expose the Steelers' defense. With his return still in question and the Steelers yet to find a replacement, Watt seems to be leaning towards having a regression his second year alongside the rest of the defense.
7 Breakout: Mitch Trubisky
One of the most known and cliché statements about the NFL is how it is such a copycat league. After the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl win, every team wanted to construct a strong rotational defensive line to apply pressure. Following the Seahawks' 2013 Super Bowl victory, the Broncos quickly shifted their offensive philosophy to more of a defensive one resembling Seattle. With the hottest new trend to pair an offensive-minded head coach with a franchise's young quarterback, the hiring of Matt Nagy is a clear attempt to push Bears' 2017 first round pick Mitch Trubisky to the next level.
Coupled with the hiring of Nagy, the Bears' offense has been retooled with the additions of pass catchers Allen Robinson and Trey Burton to aid the young quarterback.
Now that he has weapons around him, Trubisky looks to show the world why he was the first quarterback taken in the 2017 Draft.
6 Slump: Reuben Foster
Going into the 2017 Draft, anyone that watched at least three minutes of tape on Reuben Foster walked away impressed. His play jumped off the screen as he displayed the game-changing talent he possessed at the linebacker position. Despite the talent oozing from the film, Foster fell into the late first round when he should have been a top ten pick. This fall was not due to a late season injury or a lack of a need by teams. Foster fell solely due to perceived character issues coming out of Alabama. Those character concerns have come to fruition as Foster has undergone legal troubles this offseason.
The best ability is availability as the saying goes. In the case that Foster avoids being charged legally, there is still a good chance he will face some sort of suspension from the NFL. Any sort of suspension affects a player for the worst as the only way to get into football shape is through playing and practicing. If suspended, both would not be an option for Roster which could derail his 2018 season.
5 Breakout: Corey Clement
The Eagles set the NFL world ablaze before the trade deadline with the acquisition of pro bowl running back Jay Ajayi. Despite that addition, it was the explosive plays made by rookie running back Corey Clement that helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Buried underneath the depth chart behind Ajayi and another pro bowl back, LeGarrette Blount, Clement had limited opportunities.
Limited or not, every time Clement touched the ball he clearly looked to be the best back on the roster.
With the 2018 season on the horizon, Blount has left the team and there is still concern over the durability of Ajayi. With the explosive talent displayed by Clement in the passing game, he has set himself up to earn a fair share of the workload in the Eagles' backfield. While Ajayi will probably be the starter on the depth chart, Clement will carve out a much bigger workload as the year goes on.
4 Slump: Malik Hooker
Touted as one of the best center field safeties coming in the 2017 Draft, Hooker stormed out into his rookie year with three interceptions and 15 tackles within a seven-game period. Hooker by all accounts showed great promise as an instinctual safety before his 2017 season came to a close due to a torn ACL.
For such an instinctual player like Hooker, a torn ACL in the middle of the season may cause him harm even into the 2018 year. The advances in medicine and that herculean year by Adrain Peterson following his own ACL tear have virtually made fans forget that normal healing can take more than a full year. While Hooker will still be able to play and even start for the Colts, his explosive power could be diminished until the 2019 season.
Unlike willy old veterans that have mastered the nuances of the position and have an easier time overcoming physical setbacks, young players like Hooker could become stifled by such a severe injury and have a slow 2018 year until fully recovered.
3 Breakout: Dalvin Cook
Sadly, injuries are a common part of the NFL and Dalvin Cook was of little exception. Before suffering a torn ACL in week 4, Cook was set to exceed the expectations of the Vikings when they drafted him. With just four games under his belt, Cook was on pace to finish the year with over 1400 yards rushing and 300 yards in the passing game. With his rookie year behind him and the fortune of suffering that injury early in the year rather than later, Cook looks to continue on the pace from the previous year and put that disappointing outing behind.
Cook has nothing but upside looking his way with the departure of fellow running back Jerick McKinnon and arrival of quarterback Kirk Cousins joining the team. Cousins dictates the respect of a defense which will open up more holes for Cook due to fewer defenders in the box.
2 Slump: Alvin Kamara
As one of the key members in the dynamic Saints' backfield, it may seem shocking to see the offensive rookie of the year on this list. Kamara is a fantastic talent. There is no denying that, but there have only been ten pairs of backs to each total over 1200 yards from scrimmage since 1978 for a reason.
Simply put, the NFL constantly evolves and it's difficult to maintain that kind of dominant success with two players for multiple years.
With Mark Ingram still in place as the starter and workhorse back between the two, Kamara's workload won't allow him to get 1000 yards rushing. As long as Ingram is around, Kamara's touches will be limited. Also, he played at such a historically efficient level that those numbers are difficult to repeat for any player. Let alone one that has to split reps. While he won't crash in burn in terms of production, look for Kamara to see a significant decline in efficiency throughout the year barring an injury to Ingram
1 Breakout: Takkarist McKinley
For the last five years, the Falcons have yearned to find a top-tier passer rusher since they lost John Abraham. Repeatedly, they have gone into the Draft and free agency with bolstering up the defensive line as a top priority for the team. While the jury is still out for 2015 first round pick Vic Beasley after a disappointing year in 2017, McKinley showed nice flashes as he rotated in the lineup his rookie year.
Despite Atlanta's great need for a stronger pass rush, McKinley was an unpolished yet very talented prospect coming out so his limited usage was a disappointment to fans. After the loss of several rotational defensive linemen in free agency, McKinley has been set up as a starter to have a dominant year beside Vic Beasley as book-end rushers.