Tyler Eifert, Jamie Collins among sophomores poised for a '14 breakout
"Now that it's my second year in the league, I actually get it," said Chargers offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, a 15-game starter in 2013 after he was selected No. 11 overall in the draft. "Being a rookie was awesome, but now I really understand everything. Things are slowing down, and I'm even more confident. I understand the concepts better."
While some first-year arrivals do manage to take the NFL by storm -- Sheldon Richardson, Eddie Lacy and Eric Reid were among those who did so last year -- many young players need far more time to acclimate themselves. By Year 2, at least in most cases, the training wheels are off. In turn, expectations are raised.
Fluker believes he will take a step forward in 2014. Which 10 fellow second-year players could join him?
Cincinnati never quite figured out how to maximize Eifert last season -- he saw less than five targets in 11 of his 16 games, including a wild-card loss to San Diego in which he was hampered by a neck injury. The Bengals are banking on an across-the-board improvement from Eifert (he had just 39 catches, 445 yards, two touchdowns in his rookie season), and that was true even before starting wide receiver Marvin Jones suffered a broken foot recently.
With Jones likely to miss several weeks, Eifert could see more snaps in the slot, on top of the planned increase in two tight end sets. Eifert may benefit, too, from Hue Jackson's arrival as offensive coordinator. His predecessor, new Washington head coach Jay Gruden, did coax 166 receptions out of Jermaine Gresham over three seasons but was not as successful at finding space for the more agile Eifert.
The Giants have not officially handed Hankins a starting tackle spot yet, but he's doing what he can to secure the nod. The Ohio State product turned in an impressive effort last weekend against the Steelers, on the heels of a strong performance in the Hall of Fame Game. While he may split time with veteran Mike Patterson, Hankins clearly has the upside edge in that race. That's one of the big reasons the Giants did not panic upon losing Linval Joseph in free agency.
Collins saw some extra run as a rookie when Brandon Spikes was out of the lineup. Now that Spikes has departed for Buffalo, Collins should be a full-time fixture at linebacker. He had 46 tackles last season while playing just about 300 snaps -- the latter a number that could double or even triple in 2014, so Collins' production ought to follow.
"He's one of those players that fits right into [Bill] Belichick's scheme," former Patriots linebacking standout Willie McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst, said ahead of last year's AFC title game. "He's athletic, he's interchangeable -- which means he can do a lot of different things. He can cover running backs, he can even cover tight ends in one-on-one matchups, he can get after the [quarterback] on third down with his hand in the ground."
Is Williams this year's Alshon Jeffery? A second-round pick of the Bears in 2012, Jeffery caught 24 passes in limited duty during his rookie season, then exploded last year to the tune of 89 catches and more than 1,400 yards. Williams might not see that level of uptick from 2013 to '14 -- he had 736 yards last season, after all -- but the Baylor product will have every opportunity to turn the corner toward stardom.
As Jeffery does in Brandon Marshall, Williams has a proven No. 1 receiver opposite him: Dez Bryant. The latter's presence will mean plenty of single-coverage looks for the speedy, 6-foot-2 Williams. And with the Cowboys defense shaping up to be among the league's worst, Tony Romo will air it out frequently. As a result, Williams should fly past the 72 targets he saw last season. If he and Romo improve their 61 percent success rate on those attempts, 70-plus catches and 1,000-plus yards should be attainable.
Detroit actually will rely heavily on three 2013 draft picks to boost its defense in '14: Taylor, CB Darius Slay and DE Ziggy Ansah (the team's leader in sacks last season). Ansah will be one of the focal points up front, on a line that also includes potential soon-to-be free agents Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. But keep an eye on Taylor, who is in competition for the Lions' other starting defensive end spot.
To win it, he'll have to beat out veterans Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp. Even as a situational rusher, though, Taylor figures to have an impact. Last season, he managed 15 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks, despite being behind Ansah and Willie Young and sharing reps with Israel Idonije in the rotation. At 6-7, Taylor can disrupt passing lanes and even slide inside to tackle when the Lions A) take Fairley off the field; or B) show a different look by sliding Suh to an end spot.
Discovering talented yet undrafted running backs has become a favorite pastime for NFL teams, with several recognizable faces fitting that description: Arian Foster, Fred Jackson and Joique Bell, to name a few. The Saints actually count three undrafted players among their likely four-man RB depth chart -- both Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet, in addition to Robinson, slipped through the draft.
Robinson announced his presence by rushing for 102 yards and a TD over New Orleans' two 2013 playoff games. The Saints then traded away Darren Sproles in the offseason, opening up some more playing time in the backfield. This offense has running back-by-committee written all over it, but Robinson will see his fair share of touches.
Carolina's dominant front seven (which includes another second-year breakthrough candidate, DT Kawann Short) can make life rather cozy for the secondary, hence a breakthrough 2013 for safety Mike Mitchell (now with Pittsburgh). Now locked into a starting gig, White appears ready to take full advantage, as he did with a huge pick-six during Carolina's division-clinching Week 17 win over Atlanta last season. The Panthers let Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence leave as free agents this offseason, thrusting White and new arrival Antoine Cason into the spotlight.
Even with the Dolphins line imploding last season, Thomas could not carve out a role -- he played a total of two snaps during the regular season. Shoulder surgery prior to the 2013 campaign certainly set Thomas back, but his inability to earn time was a letdown for the franchise. With a second opening presented to him this training camp, Thomas might make up for that lost year. He's ahead of rookie Billy Turner and others in the race for the starting right guard job, part of a remade Dolphins line that has to improve over 2014.
Manti Te'o, LB, Chargers
Remember him? The Chargers' linebacker probably was somewhat thankful to slip from the limelight following a tumultuous pre-draft experience (see: "Catfishing"). Of course, some of the decreased exposure came on account of Te'o struggling to adapt to the NFL game. He finished with 61 tackles over 13 games, often ceding his spot on the field in passing downs.
Te'o claims that the foot sprain he suffered last training camp held him back, and he's now 100 percent again after offseason surgery. The Chargers are planning to up his responsibilities this season -- a strategy that includes keeping Te'o on the field in all situations.
"Manti was learning on the run last year, and Donald [Butler] had to kind of speak and spell the whole time, give him every little detail in games doing certain things so he couldn’t play as fast," head coach Mike McCoy said, per the Union-Tribune. "Now that Manti’s been in the system for a year, he’s playing a lot faster."
The Chiefs' 2013 third-round pick lost his rookie season to microfracture knee surgery. He is finally ready to roll, as evidenced by a rousing 69-yard touchdown catch in Week 1 of the preseason that featured the 260-pound Kelce sprinting away from Cincinnati's defense. Right now, the Chiefs do not have any plans to phase out projected starting TE Anthony Fasano. More two-TE looks could be in the cards, however, and Kelce has similar potential to Eifert working out of the slot.