In the last post I looked at some of the members of last year’s rookie class for whom I was projecting a worse statistical second season, or a sophomore slump. Now I want to highlight a few players that I expect to make a big jump from year 1 to year 2. Obviously any player who did little or nothing last season and then contributes this season will technically have a surge, so I’m just picking out a few that I expect the have the biggest jump in impact on their team.
Mychal Kendricks – The second year linebacker flashed at times for the Eagles last year but, like the rest of the team, was incredibly inconsistent. The move to inside linebacker in a 3-4 / 4-3 under scheme, coupled with a year of experience seems to have slowed down the game for Kendricks, though, and his status as one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL will start to show-up this season. A talented blitzer from the inside (30 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks his last 2 years at Cal), Kendricks also has the speed (4.47 40 time) to matchup with tight ends and receivers in the slot. Watch for Kendricks to be an impact linebacker this season.
Jayron Hosley – A ball-hawk with punt-return experience is always dangerous in the secondary, just ask Patrick Peterson. I’m not saying Hosley will be as good as Peterson and he was slow to get involved last season, only getting credited with 12 games (6 starts), 1 interception and 5 pass deflections last season (according to Pro Football Reference). With Corey Webster another year older, I expect Hosley and 3rd year player Prince Amukamara to form one of the better young cornerback tandems in the league.
Courtney Upshaw – Upshaw spent last season banged up and behind a one of the strongest linebacker cores in the NFL, as the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe are all gone and Elvis Dumervil is the only other pass rusher the team added in the offseason. Upshaw knows how to get to the quarterback from the 3-4 outside linebacker position (32.5 sacks in his last 2 years at Alabama) and will be used in rotation with Terrell Suggs and Dumervil. He might not be a Pro-Bowler just yet, but I expect him to thrive in the always strong Baltimore defense.
Nick Toon – Toon came into the league as a ready-made wide receiver, but didn’t make it on the field as a rookie. A year later he looks to be a part of a re-built receiving core for the Saints. Veterans Lance Moore and Marques Colston look to be the top pass catchers with tight end Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles always in the mix, but Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills will be factors as well. Drew Brees has averaged all but 4800 passing yards over his 7 years in New Orleans so there are plenty of balls to go around. Add to that, Colston is always playing hurt and misses time here and there, and Moore, despite coming off of his first 1000 yard season, is 30 years old this weekend and plays mostly in the slot. Toon should see a lot of time on the field this year with one of the leagues best throwing it to him.
Ryan Broyles – Broyles knows how to get open and how to catch the ball. He is the NCAA FBS all time career reception leader with 349 catches, despite missing the end of his senior year with a torn ACL. His 131 catches as a junior is also 8th best all time. There were glimpses that this ability was going to carry over into the NFL, but then he tore his other ACL. Broyles may never be healthy enough to contribute regularly in the NFL, but he also may have just been unlucky. If Broyles has healthy knees this season, he could catch an awful lot of passes thanks the coverage that Calvin Johnson demands.
Mohamed Sanu – Sanu is the anti-Broyles in terms of size and shiftiness, but like Broyles, he runs precise routes and has great hands. Sanu is big, strong and slow (only a 4.67 40 at the combine), but will catch anything you throw his way over the middle. He is also a great target in the redzone and grabbed 4 touchdowns in 3 games last season (from 10, 14, 2 and 5 yards out). The Bengals look the have one of the best teams in the NFL this season and while Sanu will never be a big-play guy, he could absolutely emerge as the possession receiver that allows AJ Green to continue to get open on the intermediate and deep routes.
Rueben Randle – This one is easy, Randle is a 6’4″ 2nd round talent with 4.5 speed and Hakeem Nicks cannot and will not stay healthy. Eli Manning throws enough that Randle will be valuable, even as a 3rd wide receiver. His 298 yards last season will be surpassed quickly.
Ronnie Hillman – Hillman has the tools to become a solid running back in the NFL with his 4.45 speed and pass catching ability. In only 2 years at San Diego State Hillman ran for 3243 yards and 36 touchdowns before coming to the NFL in the 3rd round and looking lost at times last year. With Montee Ball now in Denver and Knowshon Moreno healthy (at the moment), it is now or never for Hillman despite it being only his second year. It is entirely possible he is not meant for the NFL, or meant to be a role player, and he is my least confident pick on this list, but I can also see Hillman rising to the challenge and collecting 1500 all purpose yards this season.
Some other names I considered but may not see the kind of jump in production as the guys I listed:
Daryl Richardson – could be the Rams feature running back and has 3 down skills
Jonathan Massaquoi – talented pass rusher on a top team, pass defense should be improved and only Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora ahead of him
Michael Egnew – solid pass catching tight end, may be become the starter in Miami thanks to the Dustin Keller injury
Demario Davis – very athletic inside linebacker for the Jets, Bart Scott is gone and David Harris is starting to lose a step; could become a playmaker in the middle
Alshon Jeffery – a virtual clone of Brandon Marshall, the wide-out he should start opposite of; could put up really good numbers if Jay Cutler can stay upright