Chris Steuber Journal

NFL Sophomores: To The Next Step...
Posted: May 18, 2012
| Top

North Carolina Athletics | Illustration by Chris Steuber
Robert Quinn was a work in progress as a rookie, but it's possible he has a sophomore campaign similar to Jason Pierre-Paul.

We all know who the top rookies were last season: Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, etc., but while Newton, Miller and Green are known to most who follow the NFL, what about the second-year players who flashed promise as rookies and have the potential to take the next step to stardom?

With that said, I’ve chosen seven second-year players (one from each round of the 2011 draft), analyzed their performances in their first-year, observed their current situations and determined them to be the sophomores likely to take the next step.

I’m sure there will be some debate over my selections, but here are the seven sophomores that are ready to take the next step…

Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams (1st Round, 14th Overall)

Last year, I pegged Jason Pierre-Paul as the first-round sophomore ready to take the next step, after he flashed his pass rushing ability as a rookie in 2010 and generated 30 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 16 games. As a sophomore in 2011, Pierre-Paul didn’t disappoint, as he recorded 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks.

This year, Quinn is my pick. During the 2011 draft process, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Quinn received rave reviews for his freakish athleticism and high ceiling as a pass rusher. Playing in 15 games and starting one of them as a rookie, Quinn’s production in ’11 (23 tackles and five sacks) was comparable to Pierre-Paul’s rookie campaign in ’10.

There’s no reason why Quinn can’t take a quantum leap in his progression this season. The Rams brought in Jeff Fisher, who is a tremendous defensive head coach and has helped the development of many defensive linemen during his career. Not to mention, Quinn will start opposite Chris Long, who is coming off of a breakout year and will likely see his share of double teams, which will leave him singled up and provide him the opportunity to generate impact stats.

It’s hard to predict how many sacks Quinn will collect this season, because Long will also get his, but I expect a double-digit total; 12.5 sacks sounds obtainable.

Brooks Reed, OLB, Houston Texans (2nd Round, 42nd Overall)

During the ’11 draft process, there were those who wanted to align Reed with Green Bay Packers All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews; not only for his play, but his appearance as well. At 6-3, 263 pounds, Reed had a similar build as Matthews and also featured long blond hair. Some also believed Reed was worthy of a late first-round selection, which is where Matthews (26th overall) was selected in 2009, but he ultimately fell to the second-round.

As a rookie, Reed started the season as a backup, but emerged as a starter when Mario Williams suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle during Week 5 against the Oakland Raiders. A starter in 11 of 16 games, Reed played well and finished the season with 45 tackles and six sacks.

While Reed showed promise as a rookie, the Texans don’t appear sold on his ability as a starter and may view him as a situational pass rusher, as they used their first-round pick in April’s draft on Illinois defensive end/outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus will be given every opportunity to win the starting ROLB job opposite Connor Barwin, but Reed has the talent to emerge as the Week 1 starter. Regardless if he starts or not, being in a Wade Phillips 3-4 structure, Reed should be positioned to record 8 – 10 sacks this season.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys (3rd Round, 71st Overall)

DeMarco Murray, if he stays healthy, could emerge as a top 5 - 7 running back in the NFL.
Oklahoma Athletics

Murray was one of my sleepers prior to the ’11 draft; although, I didn’t really think he should’ve been considered a sleeper, because of the success he achieved during his career at Oklahoma. But, leading up to the draft, he was sort of a forgotten prospect and didn’t receive much mention, which ultimately led him to being selected in the third-round.

Scouts had concerns about Murray’s durability, lack of explosion and running style, and if he had the ability to be an every down runner. Those concerns were valid and held true during his rookie season, but Murray also flashed his ability to be a game changer in seven starts, before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against the New York Giants during Week 14, and rushed for 897 yards on 164 carries.

Entering the ’12 season, Murray is expected to be the starting running back, but this is also a make or break year for former first-round pick Felix Jones. The Cowboys have some explosive, yet injury prone options in their backfield, but if Murray is able to stay healthy he could emerge into a top 5 – 7 running back in the NFL this season.

K.J. Wright, OLB, Seattle Seahawks (4th Round, 99th Overall)

After a solid four-year career at Mississippi State, Wright turned out to be a tremendous steal for the Seahawks in the fourth-round and became an integral part of their defense last season.

As a rookie, Wright replaced former 2009 first-round pick (4th overall) Aaron Curry, who struggled early and was traded to the Oakland Raiders during Week 6, as the team’s starting strong-side linebacker; Wright started 12 of 16 games and compiled 65 tackles and two sacks.

Entering his second-year in Seattle, Wright figures to be a key piece to the puzzle on defense and should continue to evolve. If Barrett Ruud, who the Seahawks signed during the offseason, is healthy and commands the middle linebacker position as well as he did when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that will take a lot of pressure off of Wright and allow him to do what he does best – make plays.

Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders (5th Round, 148th Overall)

After being selected in the fifth-round, Moore went on to be the star of training camp and the preseason for the Raiders, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact in the regular season of his rookie campaign.

In a Week 2 matchup with the Buffalo Bills, Moore showcased his talents and stormed on the scene with a five-catch, 146-yard performance, which included his first career touchdown on a 50-yard strike from then starting quarterback Jason Campbell. Moore quickly established himself as a viable vertical threat and was targeted downfield numerous times. He finished his first-year with 33 receptions for 618 yards and five touchdowns.

Looking ahead to this season, it will be interesting to see how new head coach Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp utilize Moore and take advantage of his speed and playmaking ability in the West Coast offense. It could be a big year for Moore, who should be listed as the No. 2 receiver behind Darrius Heyward-Bey and in front of Jacoby Ford.

Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles (6th Round, 191st Overall)

Nobody expected Kelce to be a first-year starter in the NFL, except for Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd. Entering the ’11 draft, Kelce was viewed as an undersized interior lineman, who had plus athleticism and a coachable skill set, but what Mudd was able to accomplish with Kelce in a short period of time demonstrated Mudd’s excellence and Kelce’s ability to comprehend his teachings.

As a sixth-round pick, Kelce beat out veteran center Jamaal Jackson during training camp and went on to start all 16 games as a rookie. The first few weeks were a little rough for Kelce, as he was still working on his technique, but as the season progressed he got better, and better and better.

The Eagles have high expectations for Kelce, who enters his second-year entrenched as the team’s starting center. Mudd has even compared his play to All-Pro centers he’s coached over the years, Jeff Saturday and Kevin Mawae. That’s high praise, and if Kelce develops into the caliber of player that Saturday and Mawae were sooner rather than later; kudos to the Eagles for finding a diamond in the rough.

Chris Neild, DT, Washington Redskins (7th Round, 253rd Overall)

It’s hard not to like what Neild brings to the field. As the second-to-last selection in the ’11 draft, making an NFL roster was an uphill battle for Neild, but with his work ethic and aggressive play, he managed to beat out veteran Anthony Bryant during training camp and was the backup to Barry Cofield as a rookie

The 6-2, 319-pound Neild flashed in the Redskins first game of the season against the New York Giants and recorded 3 tackles and 1.5 sacks. After that game, Neild was relatively quiet but gained tremendous experience learning the nose tackle position and finished the season with 10 tackles and 2 sacks.

Neild appears to be the favorite to back up Cofield again this season, and with a strong training camp, he should get more reps. Neild may never be a great player, but he should be productive with the maximum effort he gives on every down.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Chris Steuber

Chris Steuber has covered the NFL and NFL Draft for multiple media outlets over the last decade, and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including: The Colin Cowherd Show, NFL Network's Path to the Draft and Daily News Live on Comcast SportsNet (Philadelphia)... full biography

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisSteuber
Ask Steuber a question: Contact Chris