Sometimes, rookies enter the NFL and immediately have a major impact on their teams’ fortunes. Last season, both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota took over as starting quarterback for their respective franchises almost immediately. Marcus Peters was named to the Pro Bowl as a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Players like Amari Cooper, Todd Gurley, and Tyler Lockett provided instant production at valuable positions across the league. These players have already established themselves as quality NFL players, only one year removed from their college days.
For most of 2015’s draft class, however, there’s still a lot to be proven. The learning curve one faces when transitioning from college to the pros can be very steep. Some players don’t get an opportunity to contribute, as they're stuck behind established veterans. Others get injured and are unable to see the field in their rookie seasons. Yet others simply struggle to make the transition.
That doesn’t mean that they’re busts after just one year, though—it often takes players a year or two to really work their way into an NFL system. Last season, players like Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, Devonta Freeman, Allen Robinson, John Brown, and Trai Turner all turned in great seasons after somewhat average or terrible rookie years; they’ll be around for many years to come. There’s a reason why they were drafted in the first place.
Who will be this year’s versions of Bortles or Carr? Someone’s going to break out into NFL superstardom; only 5-10% of 2015’s draft class have already established themselves as quality players. That leaves plenty of talented college superstars lurking, waiting to make a name for themselves on the professional level. Here are 15 players who could make great strides as they enter their second season in the NFL.
15 Clive Walford, TE, Oakland Raiders
Clive Walford played in every game last season, but spent most of the year stuck on the depth chart behind Lee Smith and Mychal Rivera. He still managed to bring in 28 receptions for 329 yards and three touchdowns, however, and he’s looking for more. Walford is a complete player, able to both block and catch along with the better tight ends in the league. He should easily pass both players on the depth chart this year, and greater opportunity in Oakland’s up-and-coming offense could lead to big production for the former Miami star.
14 Preston Smith, OLB, Washington Redskins
Preston Smith struggled for most of the early part of his rookie season, flashing potential but mostly being inconsistent. Something clicked towards the end of the year, however—as a situational pass rusher, Smith had five sacks in Washington’s last three games. He’s unlikely to fully replace Ryan Kerrigan as a starter, but if he can carry that late-season production into the 2016 campaign, he’s going to earn more and more playing time. Some players just take a while to adapt to the NFL lifestyle; perhaps Smith is one of those players and he’ll be more productive moving forward.
13 Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers
Devin Funchess spent most of 2015 as Carolina’s fourth receiver, catching 31 passes for 473 yards as he gradually earned more and more playing time throughout the year. Funchess struggled to get snaps behind Ted Ginn and Corey Brown, but the Panthers didn’t use a second-round pick on Funchess to see him warm the bench. He should earn the team’s second receiver spot behind the returning Kelvin Benjamin, and the two 6’4-plus receivers should form an intimidating duo for NFC South defensive backs to try to handle. Funchess ended the regular season with an 120-yard receiving day and that could be a sign of things to come for Carolina.
12 Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills
Unlike some of the other players on this list, Ronald Darby was a regular starter in 2015, with 15 starts up in Buffalo. He was sort of thrust into his role thanks to injuries to Leodis McKelvin and while he was never entirely swamped at the position, he suffered his fair share of rookie growing pains. He improved as the year went on—Pro Football Focus named him their Rookie Defender of the Year, though I think that was premature—and, if that continues, should develop into the sort of shutdown corner the Bills are hoping for. Tripling his interception count from last season isn’t out of the question.
11 Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Tennessee Titans
Dorial Green-Beckham was inconsistent as a rookie. He would occasionally flash his huge numbers—the raw speed, size, and jumping ability that had scouts drooling over him at the combine, despite his off-field issues—but would also struggle with drops and imprecise route running, showing him to be a raw prospect. With another year of polish under his belt and the return of Marcus Mariota for a full season, DGB should improve on the 32 reception, 549 yard season he put up last year. The Titans are hoping Green-Beckham and Rishard Matthews will win the starting jobs from Kendall Wright and Harry Douglas this season.
10 1o. Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers
When the 49ers drafted Arik Armstead in the first round last year, they knew he was a very raw prospect. He didn’t start a single game last season, though his snap count increased as the year went on, and he only recorded two sacks. That should change this year, with Armstead reuniting both with college teammate DeForest Buckner and his old coach Chip Kelly in San Francisco. Armstead’s power allows him to blow up offensive linemen and, with a year of experience under his belt, we could see that finally translate to an NFL field.
9 Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
Kevin White missed his entire rookie season with a stress fracture in his shin. He’s fully healthy now, though, and there should be plenty of targets for him in Chicago’s offense; only Alshon Jeffery is really ahead of him on the depth chart. The seventh overall pick last year, White’s top-end speed, size, and strength give him one of the best upsides of any receiver taken in the draft in 2015. It’ll be exciting to see what he can actually do on the field this season.
8 Frank Clark, OLB, Seattle Seahawks
It’s not normally a great sign when a second-round pick changes positions in his second year in the league, but it may be a blessing in disguise for Frank Clark. Clark played mostly at defensive end last season, but he feels more comfortable as an outside player. It just so happens that the Seahawks have a hole there now, with Bruce Irvin leaving the team in free agency. It remains to be seen if Clark can handle Irvin’s old coverage roles, but as a pass rusher, he’s ready to go. He’s dropped weight to make the switch and should improve upon his three sacks from last season.
7 DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
DeVante Parker didn’t get much opportunity for the first three months of the season, recovering from college injuries and generally hiding at the bottom of the depth chart. When Rishard Matthews went down with a rib-cage injury, however, Parker took advantage of his opportunities. After recording just 49 yards in the team’s first 10 games, Parker had 22 catches for 445 yards in the Dolphins’ last six contests. New head coach Adam Gase should find plenty of creative ways to use a healthy Parker in the Dolphins’ offense, especially now that Matthews is out of town entirely.
6 Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos
Shane Ray recorded four sacks as a situational player last season, but that should increase in 2016. DeMarcus Ware, ahead of Ray on the depth chart, has lingering back issues and will be 34 in July. He’s had a fantastic career, but it’s time for him to start transitioning away from being an every-down force to being more of a role player. Enter more playing time for Ray, who’s bulked up for his sophomore season. Playing in Denver's great defense should give him a boost, as well—it’s easier to look great when surrounded by other great players.
5 Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears
Matt Forte had been the Bears’ leading rusher for the last eight seasons, but he’s gone now and the job (likely) belongs to Jeremy Langford. He rushed for 537 yards last season, rotating in more and more with Forte as the year went along, especially in December. John Fox and the Bears will likely use something of a committee at the running back position in 2016, with Ka’Deem Carey and Jaquizz Rodgers getting their fair share of carries. Langford, however, will be the primary man in the backfield. The amount of time he’s featured back there may depend on him improving his pass protection skills, so that’s something to watch as 2016 develops.
4 Byron Jones, S, Dallas Cowboys
Byron Jones was thrust into more action than Dallas was hoping for in 2015 thanks to injuries. He even had to fill in at cornerback, which he can handle, but isn’t his natural position. With Orlando Scandrick back healthy once more and Morris Claiborne re-signed, Jones can slide back to that centerfield free safety position that fits him a little better. He’s an exceptional athlete—he set a world record in the standing broad jump at the combine in 2015—and he will blanket tight ends and slot receivers. As long as he isn’t called back into emergency action at cornerback, this could be a big season for Jones.
3 Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
There’s no other way to put it—Melvin Gordon disappointed as a rookie. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, with only 641 yards on the year, despite starting 13 games. He didn’t score a single touchdown and he fumbled six times. His season was cut short by a knee injury as well, which never bodes well. A new offensive coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt should help, though, by implementing a blocking scheme that actually plays to Gordon’s strengths. An improved offensive line should keep him upright more, as well. The team also looks to use a fullback more in 2016. All this should provide more room for Gordon to maneuver and show off the form that made him an NCAA star.
2 Dante Fowler, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Dante Fowler missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL on the first day of his rookie minicamp. That’s a rough break for the third overall pick in the draft and it means he’s basically a rookie this season. It’s been a full year since the injury, and he’s healthy and ready to go. He was the most gifted edge rusher in 2015’s draft class—a bit raw on technique, but with athleticism and pass-rushing moves to spare. He could be a Pro Bowler if everything breaks just right for him this season.
1 Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Jay Ajayi missed the first eight weeks of his rookie season with cracked ribs, but flashed potential when he did hit the field, averaging 3.8 yards per carry with some impressive burst. More importantly, however, is the lack of anyone ahead of him to steal carries in 2016. Lamar Miller left in free agency and the Dolphins tried and failed to get one of C.J. Anderson, Alfred Morris or Chris Johnson to join the team. He should easily beat out third-round pick Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams for the vast majority of the carries, and that should see his on-field production skyrocket. He was better than Miller was last season, even if the old coaching staff never got him on the field. With a new coaching staff in town, Ajayi should have a breakout season.