Sophomore stars: NFL players who could break out after underwhelming rookie seasons

Jared Goff's rookie season was disappointing, to say the least. But under new coaches and with a bolstered offensive line and receiver unit, the QB could thrive in year two. Which other players could also have a breakthrough during their second seasons in the league?
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It happens every year. Whether because of injuries, coaching or even just the players in front of them on the depth chart, some players don’t find success in their rookie seasons.

Just look at Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Shelton recorded just 19 tackles in his first season with the Browns, and after just one season, many were ready to write him off as another first-round bust. But under a new coaching staff, Shelton was much improved in year two, grading as the best member of the Browns’ front seven, per Pro Football Focus, while posting 1.5 sacks and 32 tackles.

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman also made a significant leap in his second season. The Indiana-product was banged up and rushed for just under 400 yards in his first season in the pros. But, in year two, Coleman had almost 1,000 all-purpose yards, and along with Devonta Freeman, formed one of the top running back duos in the NFL.

Here are some players that could make the leap and blossom in year two:

Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams

In the 2016 draft, the Rams traded up to acquire the No. 1 pick, selecting Goff to be the face of their franchise. But the former Cal QB didn’t win the starting job immediately; he backed up Case Keenum until Week 10, and even when he finally took the starting reins, he underwhelmed on the field. In the seven games that Goff started, he threw for five touchdowns and seven interceptions, losing every game.

But there’s no denying Goff has talent, and with a new coaching staff in Los Angeles, things are looking up for him in year two. They’re expected to make changes to the Rams’ lackluster offensive line, which should help with one of Goff’s biggest problems last season—a lack of protection. The Los Angeles offensive line ranked No. 29 in the NFL in pass protection, and Goff was sacked 26 times in just seven games.

Even though Goff is facing the challenge of learning a new offense, a bolstered offensive line and improved receivers around him—Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin and Brian Quick are not ideal WR1s—Goff should have the tools around him to develop and make the leap in his second year under center.

Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns

After a monster performance in Week 2 against the Ravens, catching five passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, Coleman broke his hand in practice and was never the same. The Browns wideout returned to the field in Week 9, but never topped 45 receiving yards in a game for the rest of the season, and he suffered from several drops, finishing the season with 413 yards on 33 catches and just a 45.2 catch percentage.

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But this season should be different for the former Baylor athlete. Fully healed and boosted by what should be improved quarterback play, Coleman should hit loftier numbers in 2017.

Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens

Dixon, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, started the season buried on the Ravens depth chart behind Justin Forsett, Terrance West and Javorius Allen. And even after Forsett was released before the start of the season, Dixon didn’t see a carry till Week 5.

But Dixon’s workload increased over the course of the season, to the point where he out-carried Terrance West over the last five weeks of the season. Dixon finished the year with 88 rushes for 382 yards, averaging 4.34 yards per carry, more than West’s 4.01. In terms of Football Outsiders’ DVOA, or the value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations, West’s -8.2% DVOA ranked 28th among running backs with 100 or more rushes, while Dixon posted a 5.1% DVOA on 88 rushes.

Whether he can keep up the efficiency with more carries is another question, but Dixon has a good chance to head into training camp as the Ravens’ lead back, and even though he’ll serve a four-game suspension due to violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, Dixon can certainly be a breakout guy in year two,

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Jonathan Bullard, DE, Chicago Bears

Injuries wreaked havoc on the Bears defense last season as Danny Trevathan, Pernell McPhee, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller all missed time. But even with the absences, Chicago’s defense still managed to finished No. 24 in defensive DVOA, an improvement upon 2015’s horrid No. 31 ranking.

With everyone healthy heading into this season, Vic Fangio’s defense is primed to make a leap, and Jonathan Bullard, the Bears’ 2016 third round pick, should be one of the top beneficiaries. Bullard struggled during his rookie season, with just 18 tackles and 1.0 sack over 14 games, and was even inactive for a couple games. But with a full season under his belt, Bullard can position himself to flourish in his second season in Chicago, especially with the talent surrounding him. If Bullard adds some upper body strength, 2017 could be a big year for the former Florida lineman.

Carl Nassib, DE, Cleveland Browns

Nassib was limited to just 14 games this past season after suffering a calf injury prior to training camp and a broken hand in Week 2. Yet the rookie still managed 2.5 sacks, 20 tackles and two passes defended in his rookie season with the Browns. That’s not bad for a rookie season, but Nassib could be in for a huge jump in his second year.

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With the Browns defense switching to a 4–3 base under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Nassib will move to a more natural position in a 4–3 DE, a role he played in college. Further, with Myles Garrett, the predicted No. 1 overall pick, potentially joining Cleveland’s front seven with Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, Nassib should see a lot less attention from opponents offensive lines. Nassib had 15.5 sacks his senior season at Penn State, and while its doubtful he could match that total, more than double his rookie total shouldn’t be out of the question in Williams’ aggressive defense.

Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins

With both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon leaving Washington in free agency, Doctson should see a lot more targets in the Redskins’ offense in 2017.

As a rookie, the wide receiver struggled with injuries in his first year, limited to just two games by an Achilles injury. Doctson turned 78 receptions into 1,738 yards and 14 TDs in his final season at TCU, and a 1,000-yard season isn’t out of the question should Doctson remain healthy playing alongside Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder.

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Jaylon Smith, OLB, Dallas Cowboys

Had it not been for a gruesome injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, Smith likely would have been a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft. Instead the Cowboys took him with the third pick in the second round, trusting he could return to full strength.

Smith is reportedly running and cutting without issues and is expected to be ready to go by OTAs. He has the talent to succeed at the next level, so watch for his development in year two.

Darian Thompson, FS, New York Giants

Thompson was slated to start alongside Landon Collins in the Giants’ secondary, but a foot injury sent him to the IR, causing him to miss almost the entire 2016 season.

And while undrafted free agent Andrew Adams did fill in admirably in his place, Thompson should retake the starting job in 2017. And with it, Thompson will see more than his fair share of targets with the talent surrounding him in the Giants secondary. Considered a steal, when the Giants selected him in the third round, Thompson has the talent to succeed, even as teams throw his way, avoiding the rest of the talented Giants’ secondary. It would be no surprise to see Thompson take advantage when teams attack his side, leading to a breakout year in year two.