No sophomore slumps: Shazier, Blue among second-year players to watch
Detroit tight end Eric Ebron called his first year in the NFL "a learning experience." Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel said 2014 was a "disaster" for him—on and off the field—mainly because he was not prepared mentally for the professional grind.
Manziel lived in a brighter spotlight than about 99% of players entering the league, but those stories are far from rare. Plenty can go wrong during the transition from college ball to the NFL, and doubly so if an injury happens to throw up a roadblock. There are fewer excuses in Year Two. By that point in a player's young career, he should have a better idea of what his team expects of him and how to handle his responsibilities.
Which second-year players are on the verge of better days? Here are two breakthrough candidates per round of the 2014 draft:
Ryan Shazier, LB, Steelers: In the four seasons following their Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, the Steelers have missed the playoffs twice and have two wild-card round exits. All things considered, though, their transition from an aging, salary cap-strapped roster into the current iteration could have gone far worse.
For Pittsburgh to leap from AFC North contender back onto the Super Bowl radar, more of its youngsters have to emerge. Shazier is front and center with that goal this season. Injuries cost him nearly half his rookie season, but he has looked sharp through two exhibition games, even playing into the third quarter of the Steelers' loss to Jacksonville last Friday.
"This transition is going to allow a new group to form and guys to ascend," coach Mike Tomlin told SI's Don Banks last week of the revamped defense. "You can’t rush that. It happens through time, and I’m interested in watching it develop as we push through this journey that is the 2015 season."
Shazier may possess the most raw talent of anyone currently on Pittsburgh's defensive two-deep. If he stays healthy and taps into that potential this season, the Steelers will be far more formidable.
Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers: Another hyped-up talent (which player taken in Round 1 isn't?) who had his rookie campaign shortened significantly by injuries. He's a potential game-changer in the secondary, if he can stay healthy—San Diego saw a glimpse last season of how dominant its pass defense could be with Verrett and Brandon Flowers at CB, with Eric Weddle behind them at safety.
The 5'10" Verrett plays a fast, fiery game on the outside, even though he's at a physical disadvantage against most of his receiver assignments. In limited 2014 action Verrett broke up four passes, picked off another and recorded 19 tackles.
Off-season shoulder surgery, following the labrum tear that sidelined him last season, was reason for concern in San Diego. But Verrett is back near 100% and remains on track to start come Week 1.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys: Injuries played a role here, too—Lawrence was limited to seven games by a broken foot. He's currently ticketed for the starting job at left defensive end, with either Greg Hardy (once he returns from suspension) or rookie Randy Gregory seeing extended minutes on the right. Either way, offenses may have to slide their protections that way, leaving Lawrence with a clearer shot at the QB.
The Boise State product is still looking for his first regular-season NFL sack. They could come in bunches if all goes according to plan this year.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Buccaneers: Tampa Bay's coaching staff has heaped praise on Seferian-Jenkins throughout the off-season, with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter even going so far as to drop a Tony Gonzalez comparison. Seferian-Jenkins has a long, long, long way to go before he lands in Gonzalez's class, but the 2015 season ought to be more satisfying for him.
Historically, rookie tight ends have a difficult time making huge statistical impacts. Add in various ailments last season (back, foot), shoddy QB play and Tampa Bay's loss of then coordinator Jeff Tedford just before the season, and Seferian-Jenkins probably deserves a pass.
Billy Turner, G, Dolphins: Miami might be one of those teams which needs to tweak its offensive line early and often once the regular season begins. For now, Turner is on track to nail down a starting guard spot—no small feat considering he did not even make his way onto the active roster until Week 16 last year.
Still lurking out there as a free agent is two-time Pro Bowler Evan Mathis. He played left guard for the Eagles, a job Miami currently has assigned to Dallas Thomas. But he likely would be viewed as an upgrade on either Thomas or Mathis, so those two players could be fighting for one long-term gig.
Josh Huff, WR, Eagles: Thanks to Chip Kelly's off-season roster cleanse, there is even more an opportunity for one of his guys—Huff played under him at Oregon—to step into a larger role. Jordan Matthews again will be a go-to option, but Kelly prefers to play him in the slot. So, the two outside jobs are up for grabs, with Huff, rookie Nelson Agholor, veteran Miles Austin and the apparently uncuttable Riley Cooper in the mix.
Huff is smaller than Cooper (5'11" to 6'3") and less experienced than either he or Austin. He's also far more explosive and athletic. Huff, Agholor and Matthews together would cause headaches for opposing defenses.
Keith McGill, CB, Raiders: The Raiders spent a first-round pick on D.J. Hayden in 2013, a fourth-rounder on McGill in 2014 and a seventh-rounder on Travis Carrie that same year. The depth chart now runs almost in direct contrast to those draft positions. Carrie is all but locked into a starting spot, with Hayden trying to overtake McGill on the opposite side of the field.
Oakland figures to use all three guys, especially in nickel packages—McGill would slot outside, with one of Carrie or Hayden dropping to the slot. No matter how you slice it, the 6' 3" McGill will have a chance to make a name for himself. His size and the willingness to use it in man coverage are tough to overlook.
James White, RB, Patriots: At this point Bill Belichick could sign five of those animatronic characters from the Chuck E. Cheese band and manage to turn one of them into a short-yardage back and another into a third-down threat. His current roster provides him with significantly better choices, even with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley departing via free agency.
White can fill either role. Even while living in Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon's shadows at Wisconsin, White managed to rush for 4,000 yards and catch 73 passes. He hauled in four receptions for 52 yards in New England's preseason opener vs. Green Bay, a positive sign should Belichick want him to replace Vereen as the Patriots' backfield pass-catcher.
Avery Williamson, LB, Titans: Word got out that Williamson is a pretty darn good football player last year when he was forced into the lineup by Zach Brown's injury. Williamson went on to notch 79 tackles and 3.0 sacks while making 12 starts. This year, he's locked into a strongside inside role and will call plays for the Tennessee defense.
Doug Farrar recently named Williamson to the SI All-Underrated Team.
Caraun Reid, DT, Lions: Assuming he his hamstring heals up, Haloti Ngata will hold one of the two Detroit DT spots vacated by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley (C.J. Mosley, who took over after Fairley injured his knee in 2014, also signed elsewhere). The other starting job is still up for grabs, with Reid battling Tyrunn Walker. The Lions are high on Reid, a Princeton product. He's a 300-pounder with the quickness to penetrate—similar to the Fairley scouting report.
Alfred Blue, RB, Texans: Blue rushed for 528 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, but the Texans are going to need more this season than the 3.1 yards-per-carry clip Blue produced. That's because an Arian Foster injury has thrust Blue into the lead-RB role. Given Houston's uncertain situation at quarterback, the run game has to be stout. Blue rushed for 59 yards on nine carries in the preseason opener—a positive outing, to be sure.
Antone Exum, S, Vikings: Minnesota has most places for its young, talented secondary in place. Some mystery still remains at the safety job next to up-and-coming star Harrison Smith. Incumbent Robert Blanton entered camp holding the inside track, but Exum is making a push. The converted cornerback is all the way back from the knee injury he suffered playing pick-up basketball in January 2013, and his size (6'0", 219 pounds) and ball skills stand out.
Michael Campanaro, WR, Ravens: New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman played it fairly close to the vest in Baltimore's preseason opener, utilizing fullback Kyle Juszczyk often in run-heavy looks. Trestman's background, though, suggests that eventually he ill open things up through the air. And if he does, Campanaro could play a key role out of the slot, with Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman flanking him outside. There will be competition for catches behind that Smith-Perriman combo (assuming Perriman heals up from a knee ailment).
Campanaro's value as a punt returner will help him stick on the roster. His potential as a slot receiver may give him an opportunity to do more.
Jeff Janis, WR, Packers: The 6'3" receiver out of tiny Saginaw Valley State (Mich.) caught just two passes last season and has endured a rather difficult camp, but he shows up when the preseason lights come on. ESPN's Rob Demovsky even went so far as to dub Janis "Mr. August" following his touchdown catch last week—the third exhibition score of Janis's young career.
Can he translate that success over into September? Right now, he's fighting for a spot on the roster as the Packers' fifth receiver—Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and rookie Ty Montgomery have Nos. 1-4 claimed. Janis remains a project. Will the Packers give him enough time to develop?