Oftentimes, it takes a year (or longer) for players to really get comfortable playing at the NFL level. The speed of the game at this level so far outweighs what players dealt with in college, and there’s just so much information to process.
With that in mind, we wanted to examine players from each NFL team that are about to enter their second seasons as professionals who could take a huge leap forward in development this coming season.
We’re not including guys who emerged as stars last year, like Christian McCaffrey and Myles Garrett. With that in mind, these players are all set to make a huge impact for their respective teams as second-year stars.
Arizona Cardinals: Budda Baker, safety
One of the big reasons the Cardinals were comfortable letting Tyrann Mathieu go this offseason is that Baker is seen as a player who can do a lot of the things Mathieu did during his tenure in the desert. During his rookie season, Baker ended up starting seven games, but there’s no doubt he struggled a bit. Now he has an entire offseason under his belt, along with last year’s experience, and he’ll be utilized a bit more where he’s most comfortable — in the slot. It’s time for Baker to shine, and we expect him to do just that in 2018.
Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, defensive end
McKinley’s rookie campaign wasn’t a bust, by any measure. He finished last season with 25 total tackles and six sacks, which is nothing to scoff at. That said, the UCLA product also didn’t quite impact the Atlanta defense the way the team envisioned he could when it selected him No. 26 overall a year ago. That’s expected to change in 2018, as McKinley should become a key pass rusher and could push Brooks Reed for the starting spot at left defensive end.
Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, cornerback
This former Alabama stud had a very solid rookie season for the Ravens in 2017. He ended up starting five games, seeing nearly 600 defensive snaps while finishing with 34 tackles, two interceptions and 11 passes defended. Humphrey will likely have to beat out veterans Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith to earn a permanent starting gig this summer, but we believe he’s more than up to the task.
Buffalo Bills: Dion Dawkins, left tackle
As a rookie in 2017, this former second-round pick out of Temple had quite an adventurous season. He played in all 16 games, earning 11 starts, thanks in part to injuries to veterans like Cordy Glenn. Now that Glenn has been shipped to Cincinnati, it’s going to be up to Dawkins to step into the full-time starting role at left tackle, where he’ll be tasked with protecting the team’s new (hopefully) franchise passer in Josh Allen soon enough. He’s also a strong run blocker and will be a guy LeSean McCoy looks to make big plays behind this coming season.
Carolina Panthers: Curtis Samuel, wide receiver
An ankle injury derailed Samuel’s rookie season, and when he did play he struggled to gain momentum as a go-to playmaker for the Panthers. The one-time running back at Ohio State is absolutely a slot receiver at the NFL level, and we fully expect new offensive coordinator Norv Turner to find a good way to utilized this skilled big-play specialist. Furthermore, the injury that cut Samuel’s rookie season doesn’t appear to be something that is going to be a problem going forward, as his recovery is coming along better than expected.
Chicago Bears: Mitch Trubisky, Chicago Bears
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Trubisky and the Chicago offense as a whole this coming season. First and foremost, he is going from John Fox to Matt Nagy, which should lead to many more opportunities for the young quarterback to shine. The second huge reason for optimism is that Trubisky just has so many more weapons at his disposal following the team’s offseason moves. If this second-year quarterback takes to Nagy like Jared Goff did to Sean McVay last year, then Chicago’s offense is going to be explosive in 2018.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon, running back
With Jeremy Hill no longer in front of him on the depth chart, Mixon should become the bell-cow running back for the Bengals in 2018. And while we can look at his rookie stats and wonder if that’s a good thing (just 3.5 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns), it’s worth noting that Cincinnati’s offensive line should be better with the additions of Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price. Mixon is an explosive runner who is also adept at making plays through the air. He’ll have a huge season in 2018 if he can stay healthy.
Cleveland Browns: David Njoku, tight end
Full-time starter. Those words should make fans in Cleveland very happy, as this second-year tight end is going to be given every chance to become a star in 2018. Even better, whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield under center, Njoku and the rest of the Browns will have a competent quarterback distributing the ball this season. Last year as a rookie, Njoku caught 32 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns. That is just a hint of what he’s capable of producing at the pro level.
Dallas Cowboys: Jourdan Lewis, cornerback
The Cowboys made a conscious decision to get younger and let the young kids play on the back end of the defense last year, and it’ll pay dividends this coming year. Both Lewis and fellow second-year cornerback Chidobe Awuzie earned multiple starts last year, and both showed sparks of being legitimate stars-in-the-making. Of the two, however, we’re a bit higher on Lewis, who is both adept at playing the pass in the air and bringing down receivers after they’ve made plays in the open field.
Denver Broncos: DeMarcus Walker, defensive end
Last year as a second-round rookie out of Florida State, Walker struggled. He was asked to change positions — he was a defensive end at FSU and played outside linebacker in 2017 — and really didn’t take to that change well. The Broncos realized their error, asked him to bulk up so he can play his natural defensive end position in 2018, and the results of that decision are already very encouraging. He’s up to around 280 pounds now, is garnering praise from both his teammates and coaches, and given the injury history of Derek Wolfe he could end up becoming a full-time starter on the defensive line this year.
Detroit Lions: Kenny Golladay, wide receiver
This young man, selected in the third round last year out of Northern Illinois, really opened some eyes last year with plays like this. Even though he only hauled in 28 passes, he gained 477 yards and scored three touchdowns, foreshadowing greater things to come. Golladay has already impressed the heck out of his coaches this offseason and should be one of the three primary receivers for Matthew Stafford in 2018. We’re expecting big, big things from this big-play machine.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones, running back
The Packers haven’t had an established starter since Eddie Lacy was going strong. They enter the 2018 season with Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Jones vying for that role, and of the three we’re most excited about Jones’ potential to become a stud running back. Though he only started four games a year ago as a rookie, he displayed home-run abilities on the ground and finished the season averaging 5.5 yards per rush. The best way he can really pull ahead of the other two backs is by showing he’s capable of becoming a three-down threat. But as a pure runner, he’s by far the best of the bunch.
Houston Texans: Zach Cunningham, inside linebacker
Almost right out of the gate last year, this second-rounder out of Vanderbilt showed the ability to take on the responsibilities of being a key player for one of the best defenses in the NFL. He ended up starting 13 games as a rookie, tallying 82 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. A very solid campaign, for sure. But by no means was it devoid of mistakes, as Cunningham learned on the fly. He recently garnered the praise of head coach Bill O’Brien, who noted, “He has a really good idea of what we’re trying to do on defense. Very smart.” With the likes of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus rejoining this squad, fully healthy, Cunningham will break out with a huge sophomore campaign inside.
Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, safety
Hooker was well on his way to stardom as a rookie last year, intercepting three passes and breaking up four more before a knee injury cut his first season short in Week 7. By all accounts, his recovery from that injury is going very well (he shared this video in May), and if he can stay healthy in 2018, then this young, talented free safety should be well on his way to becoming one of the league’s elites at this position.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blair Brown, linebacker
Barring a surprising development in camp, Brown will be the starting strong-side linebacker for one of the best defenses in the league. Though, if Myles Jack (once again) proves to be unable to dominate inside, Blair will likely slide inside again, where he started two games last year. Either way, he’s going to be a big part of this team’s defensive effort in 2018. As a fifth-round pick out of Ohio last year, he appeared in 15 games, tallying 10 tackles and a half-sack.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback
We all know the story by now. The Chiefs traded up last year to grab Mahomes No. 10 overall, let him sit behind Alex Smith for one season and then shipped Smith off to Washington in a trade this offseason. Then they paid huge money to receiver Sammy Watkins, who joins speed demon Tyreek Hill and top tight end Travis Kelce to give this team one of the best receiving corps in the league, not to mention star running back Kareem Hunt. There are tons of weapons on this team, and Andy Reid is a master at getting the most out of his quarterbacks. Mahomes should have a huge season in 2018 in Reid’s offense.
Los Angeles Chargers: Desmond King, cornerback
King had a very strong rookie season, appearing in all 16 games and earning four starts. He’s a versatile defensive back who can line up all over the field and has a knack for making plays in the backfield, as his four sacks from last year illustrate to perfection. Especially with the addition of rookie safety Derwin James, Los Angeles has some pieces on defense that allow defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to mix things up big time. King is utilized as a slot specialist for the Chargers, but his role should continue to blossom in all sorts of ways this coming season.
Los Angeles Rams: Cooper Kupp, wide receiver
As a third-round rookie in 2017, Kupp emerged as a go-to receiver for quarterback Jared Goff. The two combined on 62 catches for 869 yards and five touchdowns, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they’re just getting started. While everyone’s understandably excited about the addition of Brandin Cooks this year, his speed should actually open things up for Kupp to make hay underneath deep coverage. We fully expect Kupp’s numbers to swell in his second season as he gobbles up targets in Los Angeles’ dynamic offense.
Miami Dolphins: Cordrea Tankersley, cornerback
Last year, Tankersley came seemingly out of nowhere to become one of the best defensive players on Miami’s roster. He started out the season as a healthy scratch, only to emerge at the start of October as a full-time starter the rest of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Tankersley ranked atop all rookie cornerbacks last year with 8.1 coverage snaps per target, targeted just 42 times on 364 snaps. While he didn’t come up with any interceptions, Tankersley’s ability to bottle up opposing receivers was felt, nevertheless. A full offseason and another year of experience under his belt should only further enhance his usefulness to this team.
Minnesota Vikings: Ben Gedeon, outside linebacker
This little-known former Michigan product was selected in the fourth round a year ago, and he ended up showing up well enough that he appeared in all 16 regular-season games and both playoff games last year. He only registered 25 tackles in total, but the Vikings appear to be set on Gedeon taking over as the full-time weak-side outside linebacker in 2018 (especially since they didn’t sign Mychal Kendricks to play with his younger brother). Given the extraordinary talent across the board on Minnesota’s front seven, Gedeon will have plenty of chances to shine in his second year.
New England Patriots: Derek Rivers, defensive end
After the draft last year, it was widely thought that the Patriots had landed one of the biggest steals of 2017, taking Rivers in the third round out of Youngstown State. Unfortunately, a season-ending knee injury took this young pass rusher out of commission before he ever took the field during the regular season. Rivers believes that injury will only help him going forward, however, as he spent his entire rookie season learning by watching. If his recovery stays on track throughout training camp, then there’s no reason to believe Rivers won’t be a huge playmaker for the Patriots off the edge in 2018.
New Orleans Saints: Marcus Williams, safety
There are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who allow setbacks to keep them down, and there are those who use them as footholds to climb even higher. Based on the way Williams responded to orchestrating one of the worst gaffes in NFL playoff history this past January, we’re counting on him to be among the latter. As a rookie in 2017, Williams shined, outside that horrible mistake in Minnesota. He racked up 71 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defended in 15 starts.
New York Giants: Evan Engram, tight end
Engram certainly gave Giants fans reason to be excited about the future. This organization hasn’t had a dynamic tight in since Jeremy Shockey departed years ago, but Engram caught 64 passes for 722 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. Now that Pat Shurmur is there to get the entire offense back on track, and assuming Odell Beckham Jr. can stay healthy this year, Engram is set to have an even bigger impact in his sophomore campaign and should emerge as one of the game’s best pass-catching tight ends in short order.
New York Jets: Marcus Maye, safety
Maye and fellow rookie safety Jamal Adams were thrown into the fire last year. Adams had a better go of it, which isn’t surprising given the fact he was the sixth overall pick a year ago. Maye put up decent stats (78 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble) but also got burned plenty. Assuming the knee injury that’s kept him out of OTAs doesn’t trouble him this summer, Maye should improve by leaps and bounds in his second season playing alongside Adams, giving the Jets one of the best young safety tandems in the league.
Oakland Raiders: Gareon Conley, cornerback
Conley’s rookie season in Oakland was a nightmare. His pre-draft legal issue dragged on for a while, and then he dealt with injuries. As a result, the highly touted rookie out of Ohio State appeared in just two games and tallied seven tackles, along with one pass defended. As frustrating as all that was, nobody should expect a similar result in 2018. Conley had been very impressive during practice before the injuries last year, and his teammates have been practically giddy about his progress in 2018.
Philadelphia Eagles: Derek Barnett, defensive end
Despite competing with a bunch of skilled veterans last year, this first rounder out of Tennessee managed to get more than his fair share of work in during the 2017 season. He finished his rookie campaign with 21 tackles and five sacks, adding another sack in the playoffs. Barnett is expected to emerge as a full-time starter this year playing opposite Brandon Graham, and despite an even more talented group around him we fully expect him to keep that job throughout the season. Double-digit sacks aren’t out of the question.
Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt, outside linebacker
Watt was darn good last year as a rookie. He started 15 games, coming up with 52 tackles, seven sacks and one interception. He also dealt with a groin injury and struggled with some typical rookie mistakes at times. Now that he’s got one full season and a second offseason under his belt, we fully expect the younger brother of J.J. Watt to explode as a dominant pass rusher and all-around linebacker. He and Bud Dupree are a formidable tandem that should only be more dangerous with more experience.
San Francisco 49ers: Adrian Colbert, safety
It’s not very often that a seventh-round rookie defensive back ends up starting games. Yet due to injuries to veterans Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, Colbert ended up starting six games for the 49ers in 2017, and he performed admirably. So admirably, in fact, that this young man is penciled in as the starting free safety for San Francisco heading into the 2018 NFL season. Blessed with excellent size (6-foot-2 and 205 pounds), Colbert is also very fast. He’s a ball magnet, too, and should really flourish in his second full season as a pro.
Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback
The Seahawks had more than one reason to let Richard Sherman go this offseason. One of those reasons was Griffin, who will be taking over from here on out at that right cornerback spot. As a rookie in 2017, Griffin started 11 games and proved to be a very tough player. He racked up 58 tackles, one interception and an impressive 15 passes defended. Now he’ll be one of the top guys in Seattle’s secondary, and given his fearless attitude we expect him to thrive in that role.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Chris Godwin, wide receiver
As a third-round rookie out of Penn State in 2017, Godwin impressed the Bucs from the moment he arrived on the scene. He’s a tough receiver in the middle of the field and has a knack for coming up with some difficult catches. Last year Godwin caught 34 passes for 525 yards and one touchdown. Assuming the entire Tampa Bay offense has a rebound 2018 campaign, those numbers should swell in his second season.
Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, wide receiver
Davis’ rookie season was filled with ups and downs. An ankle injury kept him from practicing during the offseason and some of training camp. Then a hamstring injury cropped up in Week 1 that lingered throughout the year. Still, Davis showed some flashes of why the Titans selected him No. 7 overall last April. And then in the team’s final playoff game, he came up huge, catching five passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns. Assuming Davis can stay healthy in 2018, he should become a key receiver for Marcus Mariota and the Titans.
Washington Redskins: Jonathan Allen, defensive end
Like Davis, Allen’s rookie season was hampered by an injury. During Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers, he suffered a Lisfranc injury that put him on injured reserve. When he played, however, the former Crimson Tide defensive lineman was very strong inside. Stout against the run and disruptive against the pass, he’ll be an integral cog in Washington’s defensive machine for years to come.