NFL

Ten second-year NFL players set to explode in 2017

NFL players, Derrick Henry
Rachel Wold
Written by Rachel Wold

It is the hope of all NFL teams entering the season that the rookies they hand-selected can step up and immediately play some fabulous football.

In 2016, a handful of first-year players, such as Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott, did exactly that and more. But, that is not typically the norm for all rookies.

A little further down the NFL’s food chain were other rookies from 2016 that still showed a lot of promise yet didn’t quite deliver at that same level. Some were first-round picks and others fell to later rounds. One is already a Super Bowl champion.

Here, we will discuss some second-year players that could be poised for even better success or an expanded role. If provided more opportunities, the following players will explode with huge seasons in 2017.

1. Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee Titans

The Titans bolstered their rushing game by selecting Henry in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. This was in addition to Tennessee signing veteran running back DeMarco Murray to the squad.

During the summer months, the two competed for the starting spot. The Titans indicated at one point that they would go with the hot hand. In the end, Murray was the workhorse and Henry played a complimentary role.

Henry participated in 15 games and started in one. He was quite impressive during his limited time, attempting 110 carries for 490 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. He also caught 13-of-15 passes that went his way for 137 yards.

Henry showed enough to earn more playing time moving forward. Murray remained mostly healthy last season, but he is 29 and has dealt with injuries in the past.

The Titans might find it wise to pump the brakes with Murray a bit, considering the wear and tear that he has on his body. Henry, as a result, would be up for more touches. Keep in mind that in his final year at Alabama, he rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns.

2. James Bradberry, cornerback, Carolina Panthers

In need of filling the vacancy left by cornerback Josh Norman, the Carolina Panthers selected Bradberry in Round 2 of last year’s draft.

The pick paid off, and the young corner performed really well in 13 starts. During that stretch, Bradberry nabbed two interceptions, defended a team-high 10 passes and recorded 59 combined tackles.

Bradberry finished the 2016 regular season as the 20th-rated cornerback according to Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, Bradberry was the top-graded rookie cornerback, per PFF.

Clearly, the Panthers got a steal considering he was the 62nd player off the board. Moving ahead, Bradberry should continue to thrive and is already listed as the team’s top corner on its depth chart.

3. Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

Carson Wentz

As predicted, Wentz fell off the 2016 NFL Draft board at No. 2. The Eagles were pretty set on snaring Wentz knowing that the Los Angeles Rams were going to jump on Jared Goff with the first overall pick, and they paid a pretty penny to land that pick.

Based on things stand now, the Eagles got the better deal. Originally, the plan was for Wentz to sit in 2016 while former quarterback Sam Bradford started. But, a nearly last-minute trade of Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings thrust Wentz under center starting Day 1.

Wentz shined early on when he led the Eagles to three back-to-back wins right of the gate. Unfortunately, the rest of the Eagles’ season was filled with ups and downs.

Along the way, Wentz was not afraid to make big plays both downfield and on his feet. He completed the 2016 season with 3,782 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The mobile youngster also rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

If he could score some better receivers, Wentz would benefit tremendously. A breakout season is on tap, provided the Eagles get some capable catching hands for their quarterback.

4. Noah Spence, defensive end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers locked up Ohio State’s Spence at pick No. 39 in the second round. The 23 year-old defensive end played exceptionally well in the course of 16 games, including three starts. He tallied 5.5 sacks, 22 combined tackles and three forced fumbles. This also included 12 hurries.

This should be only the start of a blooming NFL career for Spence. For his special efforts, he achieved 2016 All-Rookie Team honors.

Spence’s Buccaneers are on the uptrend after finishing 2016 with a 9-7 record, having placed second overall in the NFC South.

5. Hunter Henry, tight end, Los Angeles Chargers

Hunter Henry

Quarterback Philip Rivers loves throwing to tight end Antonio Gates. But Gates is easily playing his final years of football. The Chargers prepared for the eventual departure of Gates by selecting Henry 35th overall in 2016.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end got a fair dose of time on the field even with Gates starting in 14 games. Henry, who started in 10 games and played in 15, drew 53 targets for 36 receptions, 478 yards and eight touchdowns — one more touchdown than Gates actually scored.

Noteworthy is the fact that Rivers threw a total of 15 touchdowns to tight ends. Should Gates miss more time, or require rest for maintenance, Henry will get even more action in 2017.

Eventually, the former Arkansas product will inherit the starting role, which also makes him a great fantasy football prospect down the road.

6. Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Jalen Ramsey

Ramsey did not disappoint as the fifth-overall pick by Jacksonville in 2016. He started in 16 games and managed two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He also defended 14 passes, forced a fumble and tallied 65 total tackles.

We have included Ramsey here because of the high ceiling for potential. The Jaguars’ passing defense improved from 29th in 2015 to No. 5 in 2016. Ramsey should further bust out and could work his way into a top-10 defensive back throughout the course of the 2017 season.

Pro Football Focus rated him 22nd among the 2016 cornerbacks. There is plenty of growth to be had looking ahead for the former 2015 Consensus All-America player.

7. C.J. Prosise, running back, Seattle Seahawks

If Prosise can stay healthy, he could be up for a monster 2017 season with Seattle, even with rusher Thomas Rawls in the picture.

Prosise was chosen out of Notre Dame in the third round of the draft. In his final year of college, he rushed at a pace of 6.6 yards per carry while tallying 1,337 total yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns

Unfortunately, Prosise appeared in only six games in his rookie season. But, what we witnessed was darn good. This 72-yard busted coverage rushing touchdown in particular stands out.

Prosise recorded a total 172 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.7 yards per tote. He was amazing also as a receiver, adding 208 yards from 17 catches.

He has the flash and speed to become Wilson’s right hand man in short-yardage passing plays this upcoming year.

8. DeForest Buckner, defensive end, San Francisco 49ers

DeForest Buckner

Despite the unfortunate outcome for the 49ers’ season as a whole, Buckner had a promising campaign. San Francisco drafted the 2015 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year seventh overall in 2016.

Buckner started in 15 games, tallying six sacks and 73 combined tackles on the season. He also managed two fumble recoveries. Pro Football Focus rated Buckner 31st among all interior defenders.

Sadly, Buckner’s 49ers’ defense finished dead-last in the league in 2016. This is why Buckner makes for an exciting prospect for this list. The team’s defense hopefully has nowhere to go but up, which will be partly due to Buckner’s impact as he develops.

His six sacks tied for a team high with Ahmad Brooks. One of the many tasks at hand for the 49ers would be for Buckner and his fellow defensive linemen to manage more quarterback pressures and sacks in 2017.

9. Malcolm Mitchell, wide receiver, New England Patriots

Malcolm Mitchell

The Patriots always seem to find ways to create stars from either lower-round draft picks, trades or offseason acquisitions.

Mitchell was selected in the fourth round at pick No. 112 and had some breakout plays in his NFL debut. Enough so that he could potentially double his numbers from his rookie season. Mitchell received six starts and played in a total of 14 games. During that time he caught 66.7 percent of the 48 passes thrown his way for a total of 401 yards and four touchdowns.

Doubling up on these numbers as suggested doesn’t seem to be too crazy for a the 2017 forecast. Already a Super Bowl champion, Mitchell dazzled with six receptions, 70 yards and some great plays in his title game.

Working with a quarterback in Tom Brady, Mitchell’s stock will rise in 2017.

10. Sean Davis, safety, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers did well to pick Davis in the second round with the goal of sprucing up their secondary. Davis ranked ninth in the Big Ten in 2015, recording 75 interception return yards.

During his rookie year, Davis played in all 16 games and received eight starts. He lined up at both corner and safety, recording one interception, one fumble recovery, 1.5 sacks and 69 combined tackles. Davis also defended five passes. He finished 2016 as the 67th rated safety, per Pro Football Focus.

In the postseason, Davis started each of the three Steelers’ playoff games. During that time, he had one sack (on none other than Brady) and recorded 16 combined tackles.

There should be plenty of room Davis to boost his numbers moving forward in an expanded role.

About the author

Rachel Wold

Rachel Wold

Rachel is a football lover of both the NFL and Fantasy and creator of Fantasyfootballchick.com. When she is not vacationing in Miami or Vegas, she is an NFL writer at Sportsnaut and a fantasy contributor at eDraft.com. Rachel's articles are also featured on Yardbarker, MSN and Fox Sports.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @liveocgirl and chat with her anytime!