As minicamps start springing up around the NFL map, this month is when we get that first sneak peek of the new rookie draft class. But as much as all the new faces in all the new places pique our interest, a less obvious source of impact will come from all those highly-regarded 2008 rookies who either fell off the radar screen due to injuries or failed to live up to expectations last year.
Supposedly the biggest leaps of improvement in the NFL are made by players between their first and second seasons, when the rookie daze starts to subside and a veteran air of understanding begins to descend. With that in mind, here are 20 second-year players who need to deliver in 2009, erasing the memory of their underachieving rookie seasons:
1. Calais Campbell, DE, ArizonaA second-round pick in 2008, Campbell gets his chance to crack the starting lineup of the defending NFC champions this season, as a replacement for departed free-agent defensive end Antonio Smith (who signed with Houston). Campbell had 28 tackles but no sacks in 16 games last season, seeing time at defensive tackle and end, in addition to covering kicks on special teams. The 6-foot-8, 282-pound Campbell needs to rediscover the pass rush skills that made him the 50th overall choice in last year's draft.
2. Early Doucet, WR, ArizonaThe majority of rookie receivers struggle to produce up to their collegiate standards, and Doucet, a third-rounder out of LSU, was no exception last year. He caught just 14 passes for 90 yards, making him only Arizona's seventh-busiest receiver. Doucet has the most to gain from a potential Anquan Boldin trade this offseason, because he'd move up a notch on the Cardinals receiving depth chart -- behind Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban -- if No. 81 finally leaves Arizona.
3. James Hardy, WR, BuffaloThe Bills thought they satisfied their long-standing need for a big receiver last year when they drafted Hardy in the second round (41st overall) out of Indiana. But he caught just nine passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games, ending the season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in Week 15. His rehab has been ahead of schedule, and Hardy might be ready to play in time for Buffalo's final preseason game. In the meantime, the Bills went out and got themselves another big receiver this offseason. A guy by the name of Terrell Owens, who promptly took Hardy's No. 81, with Hardy switching to No. 84.
4. Chris Williams, OT, ChicagoPreseason back surgery cost the Bears' 2008 first-round pick the first seven games of his rookie season, and he saw only limited playing time in Chicago's final nine games. But he's being counted on to handle the starting right tackle spot this season, after the retirement of veteran John Tait. The Bears signed Orlando Pace to replace John St. Clair at left tackle, and also added veteran Kevin Shaffer to the tackle rotation.
5. Felix Jones, RB, DallasThe first of Dallas's two first-round picks in 2008, Jones was an early season sensation as a rookie. But injuries to his hamstring and left big toe limited him to just six games last year, and his toe problem required surgery. Jones rushed 30 times for 266 yards last season (a whopping 8.9-yard average) with three touchdowns, forming an effective speed and power tandem with veteran Marion Barber. He also returned 16 kickoffs for a 27.1-yard average, with a 98-yard touchdown.
6. Mike Jenkins, CB, Dallas With Anthony Henry and Pacman Jones no longer around, Jenkins will, at worst, compete with fellow second-year man Orlando Scandrick for a starting corner job opposite Terence Newman. Jenkins had a decent, but low-impact rookie season, starting three games and making one interception, which he returned for a touchdown against the Giants. Jenkins missed two games with a hamstring injury, but the Cowboys' second 2008 first-round pick finished the season strong and wound up with 22 tackles and six passes defensed.
7. Derrick Harvey, DE, JacksonvilleHarvey's rookie season was greatly impacted by his being the last 2008 first-round pick to sign. His 33-day holdout didn't end until late August, and he wound up starting just nine games, with 3½ sacks (tied for second on the team) and one interception. His 29 quarterback pressures led the Jaguars, and he's a player who is expected to take a significant step in 2009, justifying the No. 8 overall draft slot that Jacksonville spent on him.
8. Quentin Groves, DE, JacksonvilleThe Jaguars are counting on Groves to play a much larger role in their defensive line rotation in year two, after he garnered just 2½ sacks as a rookie pass rush specialist. Job one this offseason was to get him big enough to handle a 4-3 end position, and he has put about 15 pounds on a frame that was down to 251 at season's end. With Jaguars losing starting end Paul Spicer in free agency, Groves, a second-round pick in 2008, will be Jacksonville's third DE this season.
9. Glenn Dorsey, DE, Kansas CityIs the No. 5 overall pick in 2008 suddenly a man without a position? The Chiefs say Dorsey will probably shift from tackle to an end slot in their move to a 3-4 defensive formation, but Kansas City took a pair of 3-4 ends with its first two picks in this year's draft -- LSU's Tyson Jackson in the first round and Purdue's Alex Magee in the third. Dorsey had a very low-impact rookie season, with one sack and one forced fumble, despite starting 16 games.
10. Chad Henne, QB, MiamiBefore the Dolphins acquired Chad Pennington in early August, Henne looked like the odds-on favorite to start as a rookie in Miami. While conventional wisdom says Henne will once again be No. 2 this season, and then challenge for the starting job in 2010, when was the last time Pennington played two consecutive seasons without suffering either an injury or a benching? I expect Henne to play at some point, for some reason, in 2009.
11. Tyrell Johnson, S, MinnesotaIt's not accurate to call Johnson's rookie season with the Vikings "underachieving,'' given that the second-round pick (43rd overall) performed capably enough in starting seven games in place of injured starting free safety Madieu Williams. But Johnson's role will significantly increase this season, when he takes over the No. 1 strong safety job in the wake of Darren Sharper's departure during free agency. Last season, Johnson finished with one interception, four passes defensed and 29 tackles.
12. Sedrick Ellis, DT, New OrleansEllis missed three games midseason due to a meniscus tear in his right knee, but he still had a decent rookie showing, with four sacks (second on the team) and three tackles for loss. New Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is counting on the No. 7 overall pick in 2008 to be one of the cornerstones of New Orleans' defensive improvement.
13. Kenny Phillips, S, N.Y. GiantsNew York's 2008 first-round pick found ways to contribute last season (one interception, seven passes defensed), and by late in the year he was showing some of the promise that induced the Giants to make him the 31st and final pick of the first round. He started three games as a rookie, and Phillips this year is expected to vie with Michael Johnson for the starting free safety job.
14. Vernon Gholston, OLB, N.Y. Jets No one in the entire 2008 draft class was a more glaring no-show as a rookie than Gholston, who was taken sixth overall by the Jets. He couldn't even make the team's game-day active list for one key game in December, and he barely registered on the Jets' stats sheet. First-year head coach Rex Ryan has promised to make Gholston his personal project this season, but the former Ohio State standout looked lost in '08, and has miles to go before New York can justify its investment.
15. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh You can blame Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis for Mendenhall's mostly lost rookie season. Lewis broke Mendenhall's shoulder on a tackle in a Week 4 game in Pittsburgh, and the first-round rookie from Illinois spent the rest of the season on IR. Before his injury, Mendenhall's impact was very limited, with 58 yards rushing on 19 carries and two receptions for 17 yards. Much more will be expected of him this season in a Steelers backfield still headed by Willie Parker.
16. Limas Sweed, WR, PittsburghWith Steelers No. 3 receiver Nate Washington having signed with Tennessee in free agency, Sweed will get every opportunity to climb a notch on the depth chart. The second-round pick out of Texas had a nearly invisible rookie season -- six catches for 64 yards -- and his biggest moments involved passes dropped when his opportunities arrived. Year two should be substantially better for Sweed.
17. Kentwan Balmer, DL, San FranciscoThe top of the 49ers 2008 draft class made virtually no impact as a rookie, finishing with six solo tackles and no sacks, without a start. He backed up Isaac Sopoaga at left end in the 49ers 3-4 defense, playing only in goal-line packages and on special teams. At best, San Francisco hopes Balmer this year can push newly acquired left end Demetric Evans for playing time.
18. Lawrence Jackson, DE, SeattleNew Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has challenged Jackson to step up his effort level and win the starting right defensive end job, opposite left end Patrick Kerney. Jackson, the team's first-round pick in 2008, had just two sacks and 21 solo tackles last season. He looked good in a minicamp last weekend, but he's in competition with veterans Darryl Tapp and Cory Redding for the No. 1 job.
19. Dexter Jackson, WR, Tampa BayThe Bucs spent the 58th pick overall of last year's draft on Jackson, and he was expected to revitalize Tampa Bay's kickoff and punt return units and play a reserve role as a receiver. But he struggled on returns in the season's first seven games, and wound up losing that job to Clifton Smith, who made the Pro Bowl as the NFC return man. Jackson was inactive for Tampa Bay's final nine games last season, and if he doesn't earn a spot on the Bucs receiving depth chart in training camp, he could be an ex-Buc before September arrives.
20. Devin Thomas, WR, WashingtonThomas was the highest pick in Washington's three-man, second-round draft class last year -- joining tight end Fred Davis and fellow receiver Malcolm Kelly -- and all three were huge disappointments as rookies. Thomas scored the only touchdown among the trio, and his 15 catches for 120 yards ranked sixth on the Redskins. Thomas looked much improved in a weekend minicamp, and seemed to have refined his route running. He tweaked a hamstring, but is clearly miles ahead of Kelly, who is rehabilitating from microfracture knee surgery.
• A few more second-year players to watch for: Phillip Merling, DE, Miami; Earl Bennett, WR, Chicago; Terrence Wheatley, CB, New England; Antoine Cason, CB, San Diego; Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans.