By Jake Saltzman
Tim Tebow is a rarity, among mankind for certain, but also among NFL players who, despite creating major stirs as rookies, only increase their celebrity once the novelty of being a highly-touted draftee wears off. The majority of those who manage to keep their names in football relevancy after year one do so largely through Pro Bowl caliber play as rookies that carries over into years two and three, or through the fact that they have exceeded expectations as second or third year players that were not all that lofty to begin with.
So while Tebowmania took off during the former Florida Gator’s second pro season, other sophomores, such as Jacoby Ford and Rolando McClain in Oakland, Austen Lane in Jacksonville, Greg Hardy in Charlotte and Toby Gerhart in Minnesota put up breakout-worthy numbers without anybody seeming to notice.
Part of that stems from the fact that none of those men mentioned above (save for Tebow) made the playoffs last year. None of them play quarterback either, in a sport that recognizes players at its primary position (QB) more than any other sport recognizes players at one single position.
And of course there’s the fact that Oakland, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Minneapolis aren’t exactly major markets, either as American metros or as NFL hubs.
But then there are the Rob Gronkowskis, Jimmy Grahams and Sean Lees of the league. The guys who were expected to come in and immediately excel yet, despite very solid rookie seasons, waited until their second seasons to really take the league by storm.
Here are five sophomores who could be headed for stardom in season number two.
Even though you may not know all their names.
1: Kelvin Sheppard, Buffalo Bills LB
A third round pick by Buffalo in 2011, Sheppard earned a starting spot on Chan Gailey’s defense during the Bills’ week 7 bye. In his first start one week later, Buffalo shut out the Redskins, improving the team’s record to 5-2 at that point. While the Bills proceeded to win only once more in the second half of the season, Sheppard never relinquished his spot, finishing fourth on the Bills in tackles with 70 and recording a safety in week 11 against Miami. Buffalo’s other big-name defensive draftee last year was defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who finished with only 43 tackles, despite 5.5 sacks. Though I look for Dareus to improve next season, Mario Williams was also brought in to captain a defensive line which has been too unproductive given the multiple high draft picks Buffalo have used to try and cement it. Buffalo should be able to rely on a solid group of linebackers next year, especially if nick Barnett turns in another productive season and Sheppard continues to shine.
2: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders C
It typically is not a good sign when a football team uses its first pick in consecutive drafts to pick up offensive linemen, and that’s exactly what the Oakland Raiders did in 2011 and 2012. But given that Oakland’s first pick this year wasn’t until late in round three, that assertion isn’t all that telling. It should also be pointed out that Wisniewski, Oakland’s first overall pick in 2011, was named the NFL rookie of the week for week three of last season, an honor that hadn’t been given to an offensive linemen since Ryan Clady received it late in 2008. The terms “Oakland Raiders” and “first overall draft pick” have gone together like “Oakland Coliseum” and “brand new, premier sports venue” recently, but Wisniewski is an absolute cog. There is no reason to believe he won’t start at center in Oakland for the next seven or eight years.
3: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings QB
To liken Christian Ponder’s rookie season to Blaine Gabbert’s should be a crime. To think what Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and T.J. Yates were able to do in their rookie seasons is normal probably ought to be against the law as well. Among any other class of first year quarterbacks moreover, Christian Ponder’s rookie year would have actually been called a pretty good one. In 11 starts last season, Ponder threw as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, (13) but only three times threw more picks than TDs. He also showed an ability to hit Percy Harvin with the deep ball, something that was vital to his development seeing as the Vikings really didn’t have too many other viable weapons a year ago. This year Ponder and the Vikings are hoping a revamped group of receivers can guide the Vikings back toward the .500 mark, but the key may in fact be second year tight end Kyle Rudolph. The door is wide open for Rudolph to walk through as the best tight end in the NFC North, and should he, Ponder and the Vikings could be in line to compete in a year or two.
4: Karl Klug, Tennessee Titans DT
In as quiet a fashion as you can imagine the Tennessee Titans defense was one of the best in the NFL last year. Leading that group (and all rookie defensive tackles) in sacks with seven was fifth round draft pick and former Iowa Hawkeye Karl Klug. Klug’s size scared teams away on draft weekend, and even the Titans felt at this time last year that Klug, at only 275 pounds, may be best suited at linebacker. With the emergence of fellow rookie Colin McCarthy however, Klug stayed put on the D-line, and exceled under first year coach Mike Munchak. Klug recorded four sacks in Tennessee’s final five games, keeping the Titans alive in the AFC Wildcard hunt into week 17. He also forced two fumbles last year, both against the Ravens in week two and repeatedly beat offensive linemen, (such as Buffalo’s Andy Levitre in week 13) one on one all season long. With more field-time expected, Klug should be in for an even bigger season in 2012.
5: Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins RB
Unfortunately for Thomas, unlike with Karl Klug, his team really can’t afford for him to turn in just an average year, which is pretty much what Thomas gave Miami a year ago. Part of what prevented Thomas from breaking out was his own doing, as Thomas fumbled twice in four games early in the season, and failed to score from short yardage late in it. Another part of what held Thomas back involved his coach, Tony Sparano, who never seemed to successfully utilize Thomas and Reggie Bush together in any sort of complimentary manner. Thomas finished the year without a rushing touchdown in 165 carries, and scored his only touchdown of the year on a ten yard pass against the Browns in week two. The good news for Thomas is that he seemed to fix the ball control problem as the season wore on, and that new coach Joe Philbin seems to have a plan for the tailback duo moving forward. What may also serve to benefit Thomas is the fact that former short-yardage specialist Lex Hilliard is gone, to the Minnesota Vikings, which opens up the door for Thomas to be all alone in the backfield (save for a fullback) in all short yardage scenarios this season. I expect Philbin to give Thomas every chance to succeed this season for a club that desperately needs to get back to the run, especially given the departure of Brandon Marshall and arrival of Ryan Tannehill.
Here are five more second-years to look out for this season:
1: Chris Prosinski, Jacksonville Jaguars DB
Had his first career tackle in week three against Carolina, a game in which defense stole the show. Unfortunately it was the Panthers who won 16-10, but the Jags secondary was solid for much of last year after that game. Prosinski will get a chance to start in week one.
2: Niles Paul, Washington Redskins WR
Didn’t record a catch last season, but was part of a good looking group of special teamers in DC. Should factor into the receiver rotation in his second year.
3: Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals LB
Seven sacks and four forced fumbles last season, all coming after Arizona’s week six bye. Was at his best in division games, which is important for any team attempting to even compete with San Francisco.
4: Buster Skrine, Cleveland Browns DB/KR
Probably won’t start much, but could be interesting if used the right way either on defense or special teams given his speed. Unfortunately the Browns aren’t the organization most fit to figure out how to do that.
5: Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals TE
Housler was the third tight end taken in the 2011 draft, behind only Kyle Rudolph and Lance Kendricks. The Cardinals probably did Housler a disservice by picking up Todd Heap and Jeff King in free agency last year, but could make it work by giving all three time on offense. Housler is still plenty raw, but more than athletic enough to be a factor for Ken Whisenhunt’s bunch.