With the 2017 NFL Draft approaching — it will begin Thursday, April 27 — the focus of the NFL media has been on the collegiate prospects who are draft eligible, who will draft them, and where is their best fit. However, I’d like to go into a different direction in this piece, just in case some of you are bored with reading about the whole draft process.
I’d imagine everyone has heard of the term, sophomore leap. The sophomore leap refers to a player entering his second year in the league who could potentially take the next step forward in their on-field performance and statistical production. Today, we will take a look at five players who will take the proverbial sophomore leap and five players who will take a step back in year two of their NFL careers.
2016 Rookie Recap
Players Who Will Take A Step Forward
QB – Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles mortgaged their future in the 2016 NFL Draft when they traded five picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up and select quarterback Carson Wentz second overall. After being thrust into the starting job when the Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason, the rookie signal caller led Philadelphia to a 3-0 record to open the year. However, he quickly faded back down to earth only winning four of the last 13 games, finishing the 2016 season with a 7-9 record.
Statistically, Wentz led all rookies in passing. He completed 379-of-607 pass attempts (62.4 percent) for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. However, dropped passes played a tremendous role in capping his first NFL season from being even greater. As a team, the Eagles logged 24 drops and a four percent drop percentage, good for 10th amongst the NFL. But the onus doesn’t only fall on dropped passes. Personnel is also to blame. Philadelphia employed a group of sub-par wideouts that included Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs. Wentz’s two best pass-catchers were Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles, a tight end and running back respectively.
In the 2017 offseason, the Eagles added a pair of proven NFL wide receivers to Wentz’s arsenal in the likes of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Thier addition alone should boost Wentz’s production in the upcoming season to the 4,200-to-4,400 yard and 20-to-25 touchdown range. Why? It’s quite simple. The Eagles didn’t have anything close to a No. 1 wide receiver last season, a vacancy Jeffery will instantly fill. Plus, he signed a one-year deal, so he’s playing for a contract. With Jeffery and Smith on the outside, Matthews will line up at his natural position in the slot and will no longer be the focal point of the opposing defense on passing downs. Their addition should also open up the field for Ertz, who led the team in receiving with a 78-816-4 stat line. Barring an injury setback, Wentz is poised to take the sophomore leap in 2017.
RB – New York Giants
Perkins, the 149th overall pick in last year’s draft (fifth round), garnered sporadic playing time for most of the 2016 campaign. He only received at least 10 touches twice through Week 13 but finished the year with at least 11 touches in each of the last four contests, including 21 in Week 17. The second generation rusher — his father, Paul “Bruce” Perkins, played fullback for two seasons in the NFL and his uncle, Don Perkins, was a running back for the Dallas Cowboys from 1961-1968 — ended his first year as a pro ranked eighth amongst rookies with 456 yards on the ground.
Although Perkins didn’t impress anyone with his statistical production last season, he hardly had the opportunity to do so, especially with the presence of Rashad Jennings — the team’s starter since 2014. However, due to the decline in Jennings’ production, the Giants released the 32-year-old veteran earlier in the offseason. With Jennings out of the picture, Perkins is slated to open the upcoming season atop New York’s running back depth chart.
Is being named the starter enough to guarantee that Perkins will take the leap? No. The team needs to help their young talent. How? Not by adding a veteran back or a hot name in the draft, but by upgrading their offensive line that finished 2016 ranked 20th in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. If New York, who already added D.J. Fluker in free agency, upgrades their front five in the upcoming draft, Perkins could be the league’s next rising star at running back.
TE – San Diego Chargers
With Antonio Gates nearing the end of his career the Chargers selected his heir-apparent, Hunter Henry, 35th overall (second round) in last year’s draft. The 22-year-old tight end proved to be a wise choice. While sharing time with Gates, Henry led all rookie tight ends in all major receiving categories by a wide margin. He finished the year with 36 receptions for 478 yards and eight touchdowns including a 31.9 YPG average. The rookie tight end who finished second to Henry was Austin Hooper of the Atlanta Falcons, but he only accumulated a 19-271-3 stat line.
Earlier in the offseason, Gates announced that he’d return to the now, Los Angeles Chargers, for the 15th season. However, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Gates was “well aware” that Henry would be the featured tight end on the team in 2017. Since Henry has already been designated the starter for the upcoming season, expect his numbers to rise.
Despite the presence of Melvin Gordon on the ground, the Chargers are still a pass-first offense, which helps Henry’s stock. Some would believe, however, a returning Keenan Allen could hinder Henry’s production next season, but I wouldn’t count on it. There are no guarantees that Allen could remain healthy for a full 16 game slate — he has yet to accomplish that feat in his four-year career. Plus, the Chargers, more so, Philip Rivers, finished 2016 ranked 10th in passing attempts with 578. So, there are plenty of targets to go around. The pieces are in place for Henry to take the leap ahead in 2017, especially once Gates breaks the all-time touchdown record for tight ends. Why? Because when Gates gets his record — he is one away and currently tied with Tony Gonzalez with 111 — he could be faded out of the offense which means increased opportunities for Henry.
WR – New Orleans Saints
By far, Michael Thomas was the most productive rookie wideout in the NFL in 2016. The 47th overall pick (second round) in last year’s draft caught 92 targets for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns, including three games of at least 100 yards receiving. Oh, and did I mention he produced those numbers with Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead heavily involved in the passing game as well — Cooks and Snead put up 78-1,173-8 and 72-895-4 stat lines respectively.
Fast forward to this offseason. The Saints traded Cooks, and their fourth round pick (118rd overall) to the New England Patriots for their first (32nd overall) and third round draft picks (103rd overall). In the wake of Cooks’ departure, the door is open for Thomas to step into the No. 1 receiver spot on the depth chart — as if he wasn’t already there. Now, the Saints did sign Ted Ginn in free agency, but he’ll be a deep threat and role player at best behind Thomas and Snead.
If Thomas could put up jaw-dropping numbers as a rookie, you would think that he’d improve entering year two. He will. Why? Drew Brees and Sean Payton. His production was not an anomaly. He possesses the measurables to be an elite wide receiver. Plus, He plays in a high-octane passing attack with one of the deadliest arms ever to line up under center. That gunslinging arm attached to Brees threw a league leading 673 passing attempts in 2016, completing 471 of them. Not only do I expect Thomas to take the sophomore leap, but I also expect him to finish the 2017 season as a top five wideout in statistical production.
WR – Washington Redskins
Perhaps I should explain why Josh Doctson is on this list. The 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft spent the vast majority of his rookie season sidelined with a lingering Achilles injury suffered during the 2016 offseason. He appeared in the first two games of the season, caught two passes for 66 yards, and was placed on the injured reserve list in October.
Doctson needs to catch up and catch up quickly before he fades away into obscurity. Why? Well, Kevin White comes to mind. The former seventh overall pick of the Chicago Bears in 2015 sustained a shin injury in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year as a result. In year two, he didn’t fare any better. He suffered an ankle injury in Week 4 and never recovered, landing on IR in consecutive seasons.
For Doctson not to endure a similar fate, he must maintain his health and conditioning this offseason. If he does, he will be stepping into a desirable situation. Since the Redskins lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency and only signed Terrelle Pryor to fill the void, the No. 2 spot on the depth chart is Doctson’s for the taking. Yes, Jamison Crowder is still in the mix, but he’s a slot receiver. Therefore, if Doctson’s health is intact, he’ll start opposite Pryor on the outside to open the 2017 campaign. If his health fails him for the second straight year, he could go down as the greatest Redskins receiver that never was.
Players Who Will Take A Step Back
QB – LA Rams
Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, had a rough start to his NFL career. Following a shaky preseason in which he lost the starting job to Case Keenum, he spent the first 10 weeks holding a clipboard on the sideline. However, by Week 11, the Rams were still struggling to put points on the board under Keenum and in came Goff. The 22-year-old signal caller didn’t fare any better than his predecessor, who recorded a 4-5 record through the first nine games, finishing the year winless through the last seven.
Statistically, Goff was the worst rookie quarterback who appeared in at least seven games in 2016. He completed 112-of-205 passes (59 percent) for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, and Cody Kessler all finished ahead of him and were selected second overall, 135th overall and 93rd overall respectively.
Was Goff the blame for the Rams’ offensive struggles last season? No. Remember, the team benched Keenum for the very same reason. Plus, Jeff Fisher, who was fired by the club in December, didn’t exactly put too much emphasis on the offense.
Will Goff take the sophomore leap in 2017? I wouldn’t count on it. Although the Rams hired the offensive-minded Sean McVay as their new head coach to work with Goff and ultimately turn the team around, there is still a lack of talent surrounding him, which is a hurdle in itself.
Yes, they employ Todd Gurley and Lance Dunbar, who are both reliable receivers out of the backfield, but what do they have at wideout? They lost Kenny Britt, their best receiver from 2016, to the Cleveland Browns in free agency and filled the void with Robert Woods, an underachiever from the Buffalo Bills. He’ll line up opposite Tavon Austin, who is once of the most disappointing talents in the NFL due to his underwhelming production since entering the league in 2013. Behind Woods and Austin is a handful of unknowns and role players headlined by last year’s Hard Knocks stud, Nelson Spruce. With so many factors that include a new head coach, a new offensive system and a lack of surrounding weapons going against him, Goff will take a step back in 2017. He is at least another year away from taking a step in the right direction.
RB – Baltimore Ravens
For the second consecutive year, Dixon will be sidelined for the first four games of the season. Remember, he missed the first four games of the 2016 campaign with a Grade 1 MCL sprain suffered in training camp. From Weeks 5-to-7 the Ravens hardly used Dixon — he received nine touches for a total of 15 yards in that time span. It wasn’t until after the team’s Week 8 bye in which Dixon began to garner enough opportunities to make an impact. He received at least 10 touches in seven of the last nine games. Dixon finished his rookie season with 88 rushing attempts for 382 yards and two touchdowns while adding 30 receptions for 162 yards and another score as a receiver out of the backfield. He appeared to be a rising star in Baltimore.
In the wake of Woodhead’s addition this offseason, plus, the resigning of Terrance West, Baltimore’s backfield is once again crowded and could hinder Dixon’s opportunity-share upon his return. Dixon could enter Week 5 third in the pecking order for touches, especially if either Woodhead or West are hot out the gate. Dixon’s suspension will set him back from taking a step forward in 2017.
WR – New York Giants
Sterling Shepard, the 40th overall pick (second round) in last year’s draft, is coming off an outstanding rookie season. Behind Odell Beckham, he caught 65 targets for 683 yards and eight touchdowns, finishing second among rookie wideouts to Michael Thomas’ aforementioned monster campaign.
However, since the New York Giants released the oft-injured Victor Cruz earlier in the offseason, they had a need for a wide receiver. They filled it with six-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall. Now, Marshall was brought in for veteran leadership, but he will also make an impact lining up opposite Beckham and will likely become Eli Manning’s No. 2 target, moving Shepard to the three spot.
How will Marshall’s addition affect Shepard entering year two? That’s simple. If his health remains intact — he’s only missed nine games in his 11-year career — Marshall will likely catch at least 86 targets for 1,014 yards and three touchdowns. Those are Marshall’s worst numbers in his first year with a new club from when he was acquired by the Miami Dolphins in 2010.
There are only so many targets to go around in New York’s offense. Behind Beckham and Shepard, who saw 169 and 105 targets respectively, Cruz was the next most targeted and productive Giants pass-catcher last season. He caught 39-of-72 targets for 586 yards and a touchdown. If Shepard is indeed the third option in the passing attack, and he’s fully expected to be, his production is poised to regress in 2017.
WR – New England Patriots
Cue the offseason. The Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, which completely derailed any hope of Mitchell taking a step forward in 2017. Cooks is a clear-cut No. 1 receiver who could become Tom Brady’s top target in the offense with or without Gronkowski in the lineup. Plus, there is still the presence of Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, who will both receive their share of the opportunities.
Where does this leave Mitchell? He will likely be a spoke on the tire that is New England’s offense in 2017. He’ll have a role. How much? Well, that is uncertain. Mitchell was targeted 48 times last season. If he remains Brady’s fourth or fifth option, that number could very well trend downward. A sophomore leap is not in the cards for Mitchell.
WR – Minnesota Vikings
One reception for 15 yards through nine games in 2016. That is the stat line of Laquon Treadwell, the 23rd overall pick by the Vikings in last year’s draft. One would think, there is nowhere left to go but up for the 21-year-old wideout. However, it is possible that Treadwell could regress in 2017. Let’s face it, he couldn’t get on the field last season on a Vikings team desperate for help in the passing game. He was drafted to be a starting receiver on the club for years to come, but his struggles allowed Adam Thielen, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson to outproduce him.
Although Patterson and Johnson are no longer with the club, their departures don’t guarantee any additional playing time for Treadwell. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said that this is a “critical” offseason for the impending second-year wideout. In order to see the field in 2017, Treadwell must maintain his health and build a rapport with starting quarterback Sam Bradford. If Treadwell continues to struggle throughout the offseason and doesn’t show any signs of improvement, he could find himself in a similar position that he was in last year, on the sidelines.