Rookies, it can be tough. We have all heard about sophomore slumps, the second of anything is never what the first was. For many players in the NFL however this is not necessarily true. A year spent in NFL weight rooms, around NFL coaches and players soaking up the wisdom they offer. Time to adapt to the pressures of the league. A year to allow expensive Veteran players to depart a team. All of these come together to offer some players the chance to break through and shine.
The players below had varying degrees of success in their first year in the league. Some flashed promise, some didn’t play at all. I take a look at 10 rookies going into their second years who I think will take the next step. The 10 I think will stamp their mark and claims for far more playing time this year (unless like one of my guys, they were thrust into a full time starter role in year 1).
If nothing else it will make for fun revisiting this next year to see how may swings and misses I have.
Devin Duvernay (WR – Baltimore Ravens)
The Baltimore Ravens pass game is a strange place to start when you look at players taking a step forwards. Bare with me. Whilst it is true that the receivers in Baltimore are unlikely to put together 1500 yard seasons with Lamar throwing the ball that doesn’t mean they cannot be effective and valuable members of the team.
With only 271 yards form scrimmage in Year 1, Devin Duvernay did not set the league on fire. In fact those outside of the Ravens fanbase probably know him as the guy who scored the punt return touchdown against the Chiefs at the start of the season and not much else.
What Duvernay offers though is speed, and hands, great hands. He is in line to step in as the starting slot receiver with the departure of Willie Snead V to free agency. He will operate in Lamar’s favourite part of the field, inside the numbers and we have all seen how well that has gone for Mark Andrews. Duvernay has speed and strength to go with his sure hands.
He draft profile stated that he possesses great open field vision and was a dynamic screen guy, he will find creases and get through them. I expect these kind of routes to be worked into a revamped Ravens passing attack and by the end of the year expect Duvernay to be much more of a household name.
Van Jefferson (WR – LA Rams)
Coming out of Florida (Go Gators – apparently) at 6’2″ and 197 pounds, Jefferson was probably a tad light to step straight onto a field and win. What he found himself in was a receiver room which had lost its 3rd guy. With Brandin Cooks going to Houston the fight was on with Josh Reynolds for that number 3 spot. As it goes, the Rams adapted to much more 12 personnel than the 11 set up they had used the couple of years before. The extra Tight End took much of the opportunity from Jefferson and Reynolds.
What Van Jefferson showed though in his limited opportunity was enticing. He only put up 219 yards from scrimmage on 19 receptions but there was signs of life from him. He was 6th on the team in yards however there is cause to think he can step on from there. Gerald Everett is off into Free Agency and I expect Jefferson to pass Josh Reynolds for the number 3 receiver slot.
With a potential return to the 11 personnel there is far more chance for Jefferson to get on the field this year. If the Rams pick up a veteran Tight End we may need to temper expectations but until then I am excited to see what this guy can do in his second year.
Tyler Johnson (WR – Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The Buccaneers had a plethora of wide receivers last year and the majority are coming back. I don’t think Antonio Brown is getting resigned however and we will see a free-for-all for the WR3 spot. With Godwin franchise tagged and Mike Evans the number 1 on the outside Johnson will step up and claim the spot. 169 receiving yards is nothing to write home about but some of the catches he made were outstanding.
He is the kind of player Tom Brady loves as well. Tyler Johnson offers legitimate speed on the outside as a potential deep-threat. Scotty Miller may have something to say about that but he has had two years and is still a bit part player. Expect to see Tyler Johnson’s name called first in 3 receiver sets and watch him flourish.
Strong hands, sure route running and an ability to make the contested catches all point to Johnson making the role his own opposite Mike Evans whilst Chris Godwin takes up residence in the slot again. I expect 600-700 yards and 5-6 touchdowns in 2021 as the league is on notice that Brady and the Bucs keep getting richer and don’t miss a beat without Brown.
Julian Blackmon (S – Indianapolis Colts)
The first defensive player on my list, Blackmon had a strong start to his rookie season before fading in the second half of the season. A regular from very nearly the get go on a young Colts defence Blackmon by the end of Week 6 had two interceptions and six passes defended. The Colts have a player who is equally comfortable in either two high or single high looks and has the athleticism to make up a lot of space to receivers quickly.
This speed allows Blackmon to drive down on underneath routes and force a lot of incompletions. This is important as the Colts as a Defence do not get beaten over the top very often. This forces Quarterbacks to look for those mid-routes and this plays into Blackmon’s hands.
All of this production is in spite of the fact that 9 months before his debut in the NFL he tore his ACL. to be able to come back and play at the level that he did is remarkable. It bodes very well for next year that Blackmon could give this production when in all likelihood he was not at full strength.
With a full pre-season to work on fitness I would expect that the rookie wall will long be a thing of the past. Blackmon should be able to take over as a leader of the Colts back end and offer the Safety that they hoped they had in Malik Hooker. This guy is a name to watch for sure next year.
Grant Delpit (S – Cleveland Browns)
You have to feel for rookies who injure themselves at the very start of their career. For those of you who aren’t aware, Delpit tore his achilles less than a week into his first training camp. Since then his life has been rehab focussed ready to be back stronger than ever for his (redshirt, if it was thing in the NFL) rookie season.
Coming out of the LSU Championship team of Burrows, Jefferson and the rest Delpit was supposed to be the answer for the Browns at Safety. Arguably he didn’t have the best last season in college. His star tape is form the 2018 season. What this showed was a player who was an animal when driving down on a play. A player who hits extremely hard and who is able to match route patterns he sees from the players he is up against. Coming out of college was compared to (3x 1st Team All Pro former Chiefs safety) Eric Berry, not an insignificant comparison by any means.
The problem for Delpit throughout his career his tendency to miss a lot of tackles. This is something that will surely be the focus of his development in the NFL. If he can solve this he could be amazing for the Browns. Coming back this year he will feel like an extra Draft pick for the Browns and should immediately make his mark on the league.
Cameron Dantzler (CB – Minnesota Vikings)
The second of two Corners taken by the Vikings last year, Dantzler was the less heralded. Jeff Gladney, taken in the 1st round, should have been the better prospect. What actually happened was that neither settled particularly well. The Vikings Defence was a liability for much of the season. Dantzler had injury issues and at times his coverage play was spotty to say the least.
Week 13 appeared to mark a turning about of Dantzler’s form. Against the Jaguars he recorded his first interception of the season to set the Vikings up in position to go and score and beginning the comeback from 9-0 down. With 5 minutes left at the Vikings down by 5 Dantzler not only forced a fumble on Chris Conley which otherwise would have been a first down, but he also recovered the fumble. This held the Jags to 3 points and the Vikings went on to win in overtime.
He ended the season with 3 turnovers in the final four games and started to show real promise. Outside of Justin Jefferson I would argue he was the best Vikings rookie. He needs to stay healthy and to continue this improved level of play. If so then the Vikings may have something special on their hands.
Isaiah Simmons (LB/S/Edge – Arizona Cardinals)
Yes a first round pick may feel like low hanging fruit here. That said Simmons did not have the All Pro first season that the pre-season draft experts were predicting for him. The swiss army knife player of the Draft, Simmons never really got to settle at a position for the Cardinals for much of the season.
With a debut to forget including a horse collar penalty and being badly beaten on a short completion for a 76 yard touchdown Simmons introduction was not great. he played less than 30% of snaps until week 7. In that game he intercepted Russell Wilson and this set up the Cardinals for a game winning field goal. After this he was never on the field less than 30% of the time.
His biggest problem is that he is being used all over the field, he has lined up on the Edge, Safety, Inside and in the Slot. Not many players manage to play multiple positions well enough in the NFL to stay on the field. The Cardinals say they want him to remain a multi-position guy but I think they will, long term, move him to one position. This would allow Simons to shine at one spot rather than be good at many.
If I was a Cardinals fan I would be very excited about this guys future. I think he has the potential to have the same impact as we have seen Minkah Fitzpatrick have for the Steelers. Just give him time.
A.J. Dillon (RB – Green Bay Packers)
Playing a relief position behind Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams meant Dillon was never going to see the field much in year 1. Dillon did manage 46 carries for 252 yards at 5.3 yards per carry, not bad at all. Admittedly one game provided 21 carries and 124 yards but that just shows me a player taking his chance.
With Jones out of the door as a Free Agent I think Dillon has a clear path to the starting role. Williams has not managed to stake a claim for any more than a committee role and that isn’t changing this year. He took the season to really get going, a 5 game absence in the middle certainly didn’t help. What he did do was take his chances when they came well. He is a tank going into contact and as he develops as a receiver he will only strengthen his claim for the starting role.
With the offseason to further absorb the playbook and his main competition out of the way for the starting role Dillon should be the unquestioned starter by midseason. Whilst not as explosive as Williams or Jones, when he gets going he will be a nightmare to stop. Smaller DB’s are not going to enjoy that if he makes it to the secondary. The game against the Titans last year shows what his potential is and I fully expect that he will achieve that.
Adam Trautman (TE – New Orleans Saints)
I would argue that Adam Trautman probably played the least of any of the players on this list (Delpit aside) last season. Sitting behind Jared Cook and Josh Hill, opportunities were limited. The good news is that they’ve both been allowed to leave in Free Agency and that is a vote of confidence in Trautman.
Trautman was the second 3rd round pick of the Saints. They gave up all four of their Day 3 picks (4th-7th round) to trade back into the 3rd to grab him. Throughout the first half of the season he totalled only 73 receiving yards but had coaches singing his praises when it came to his blocking ability. Over the second half of the season his snap total increased dramatically however he still only achieved a further 101 receiving yards.
The lack of yardage does not worry me unduly. I think the Saints feel that they have a future star on their hands and we will see his usage sky rocket this coming year. Any player who catches 93.8% of balls thrown at them whilst also being a good blocker makes his own opportunity and with the release of all the competition ahead of him it seems Trautman has done just that.
Quintez Cephus (WR – Detroit Lions)
Being the last man standing in a positional room is never a bad thing and that is the position Quintez Cephus finds himself in. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are both gone from Detroit and, other than Marvin Hall, the cupboards are bare. Sure, I expect the Lions to add a receiver or two in the Draft but they will need time to get up to speed, whoever they are.
Cephus actually achieved the highest yardage of any receiver on this list in his first year. He is a receiver who relies on his route running ability and body strength to out muscle receivers to win at the reception point. He isn’t the biggest of receivers but his frame is stocky and he uses this to his advantages. Cephus took off in the second half of the season this is to be expected from rookie receivers. Justin Jeffersons are not the norm.
Quintez Cephus went over 50 yards 3 times last season on a Lions offense that was uninspiring to say the least. Yes you could argue that with Golladay out he should have been able to achieve more but I would guide you back to my previous points, the Lions, eugh!
With a full year under his belt and opportunity aplenty I fully expect to see Jared Goff utilise Cephus in the role of field stretcher, he has a knack for long receptions showing through from last year. If Goff decides he wants to play a shorter game then the precise routes Cephus runs and his body strength will only help with that. He has the potential to be a threat in the league without a doubt.
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