The sophomore slump is a phenomenon as old as any sport. A player does well his rookie year, then the rest of the league figures him out in time for his second year.
Players slump in their sophomore years for the same reason things like the Wildcat offense go out of style: eventually, there’s enough tape for the league to learn how to beat him. The difference, of course, is that players can adjust and add new dimensions to their games.
With the 2017 NFL season fast approaching, it’s time to take a look at some of the players who could experience sophomore slumps this fall. Some, like Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Carson Wentz, benefited from scheme their rookie seasons and may struggle in a more complex system. Others, such as Oakland Raiders running back DeAndre Washington, will likely suffer from reduced playing time after the Raiders improved at the position during the offseason. The sophomore slump takes hold in many forms.
The 2016 draft class is an interesting vehicle for this exercise because it wasn’t considered especially strong during draft season a year ago. Sure, players like Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa were sure-fire stars — and delivered on that expectation — but players like Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard seemingly came out of nowhere. That doesn’t, however, reduce their chances of slumping this year.
Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Wentz — originally drafted to back up Sam Bradford and learn for at least a year — surprised people in his first season. He threw for 3,782 yards and led the Eagles to a strong start before they cratered in the second half of the season. After last season, it’s tough to believe that Wentz isn’t the Eagles’ quarterback of the future.
He probably won’t lose that title regardless of what happens this year, but Wentz is in for a sophomore slump. Schematically, he relied on a lot of short, simple throws and often went to his first read. According to Sharp Football Stats, only 96 of Wentz’s 607 passing attempts went over 15 yards in the air. That has to change in Year Two, and his ability to read the entire field has to get better, or else teams will start sitting on the quick slants and curls that Wentz lived on last season.
We started to see signs of this over the second half of the season. Wentz threw nine interceptions in the last seven games of the year, including a six-game interception streak from Weeks 10-15. When Football Outsiders calculated adjusted interceptions — adjusting for dropped interceptions and the like — Wentz had a worrying 3.0 percent adjusted interception rate.
Underlying numbers didn’t do much for Wentz either. He was 28th in defense-adjusted yards above replacement and 27th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency measure, DVOA. All of this adds up to an impending slump next season, even after the Eagles upgraded their receiving corps in free agency.
Jack Conklin, right tackle, Tennessee Titans
When the Titans drafted Conklin eighth overall, ahead of Laremy Tunsil who was free falling after the now-infamous gas-mask bong video surfaced, it was easy to criticize them for passing on a sure thing in Tunsil. Conklin, however, did more than surprise. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest graded tackle, at 88.9 and was a First-Team All-Pro.
The Titans come into the year with one of the best lines in football after adding guard Josh Kline and center Ben Jones in free agency. In addition to Conklin, Taylor Lewan — their young left tackle — was PFF’s seventh-highest graded tackle and guard Quinton Spain wasn’t too shabby either.
However, it’s tough to see Conklin staying at the same level this season. Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey frequently gave Conklin help in 2016, using a guard or a tight end to chip the pass rusher going against him. The Titans used an extra running back or tight end 58 percent of the time, less than all but three teams last season.
After beefing up on the receiver position in the draft, taking Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick and Taywan Taylor in the third round, it seems unlikely that Tennessee goes so heavy on those personnel groupings again.
Conklin will likely still be fine. He was good enough last season to survive without the help Mularkey gave him, but he wasn’t a first-team All-Pro. Assuming the Titans shift schematically, he’ll see a fair amount of regression in his sophomore campaign.
Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ngakoue was one of the biggest surprises of last year’s rookie class. The University of Maryland product with a hard-to-pronounce name playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars posted eight sacks, second only to Joey Bosa among rookies, along with 14 quarterback hits, per NFL GSIS.
If Ngakoue can stay the course, Jacksonville’s defensive line has a chance to be terrifying after the addition of Calais Campbell in free agency. But his run defense could prevent that from happening.
The Jaguars tried to keep Ngakoue off the field on early, run-heavy downs last season. He only played 207 snaps of run defense according to Pro Football Focus and accrued a poor 32.7 run defense grade. It didn’t make much of a difference on so few snaps, however, and Ngakoue was able to claim a successful rookie campaign.
2016 DEs. This is why I think Yannick Ngakoue was actually a bit rubbish as a rookie. The sack total was misleading pic.twitter.com/3QK2yEk1pB
— Tom Kislingbury (@TomDegenerate) May 12, 2017
In his sophomore year, that will change. Tyson Alualu and Jared Odrick, both of whom helped on those run defense snaps, have left the team, Odrick in ugly fashion. Jacksonville doesn’t have the same depth at the edge position, even after drafting Dawuane Smoot in the third round and picking up Lerentee McCray in free agency. Naturally, this will force Ngakoue into more run defense snaps where he’s likely to struggle, especially since Jacksonville’s opponents will be going outside more often since Campbell and Malik Jackson are such good run defenders inside.
DeAndre Washington, running back, Oakland Raiders
— Zesty Raiders News (@zesty_raiders) May 1, 2017
Regardless of what you think of Washington as a player, he faces a simple math problem coming into the season. The Raiders brought Marshawn Lynch out of retirement this offseason and seem to consider him an impact guy.
Exactly how many carries that translates to, nobody knows. But it looks like Lynch will at least start the year as Oakland’s No. 1 back. That’s fine and good for Washington, who was originally supposed to back up Latavius Murray last season. The problem for him is Jalen Richard. Richard was signed as an undrafted free agent last season (Washington was a fifth-rounder) and outperformed the Texas Tech product.
The two had almost the same number of carries in 2016, but Richard averaged 0.5 yards per carry more than Washington. He was also a much bigger threat in the receiving game, racking up 29 receptions to Washington’s 17. Washington will undoubtedly have a chance to take the second-string job in training camp, but Richard undoubtedly comes in the favorite.
If Lynch and Richard come in ahead of Washington on the depth chart, it’s tough to imagine him improving on a solid rookie year. This sophomore slump may be at no fault of his own, but Washington may struggle to get on the field next season.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
Thomas’ 1,137 receiving yards didn’t just lead all rookie receivers, it lapped the field, with Sterling Shepard in second with a relatively meager 683 yards. He also finished top-three among all receivers in both DYAR and DVOA and ranked sixth in PFF grading. The second-rounder was easily one of the best picks in the draft and will likely have a long career.
However, after the departure of Brandin Cooks via trade (more on that here), Thomas is the Saints’ No. 1 receiver. That will get him more targets from Drew Brees, but it will also result in Thomas drawing more attention from opposing defenses.
For a segment of last season — before he burst on the scene — Thomas wasn’t even being guarded by No. 2 corners against man defense teams. Now, he’ll be guarded by the best corners in the league. That’s a big adjustment for a second-year player, even one as good as Thomas, and even with a quarterback as good as Brees.
Cooks went for 1,173 yards last season. Don’t underestimate the impact of his loss, not just on New Orleans’ offense as a whole, but on Thomas. Not every team plays man defense, and not every team that does has their best corner shadow a receiver. But this will still be an adjustment for Thomas.
After such a great rookie year, Thomas was already going to see defenses do more to stop him. With Cooks out of the way, there’s one less obstacle for those defenses to get around in facing the Saints, which only makes it easier to pay attention to Thomas.
Considering that, a sophomore slump is almost requisite.