Coaches often say that the biggest growth in an NFL player occurs between the first and second season. Rookie confusion can lead to second-year clarity and a sense of being unencumbered. In this rush-to-judgment league, it's easy to forget last year's draft class. But here are some of the second-year players who might be ready to remind everyone just how good they still are:
Cleveland Browns pass rusher Barkevious Mingo — When you listen to him talk this preseason, the words "comfortable" and "confident" are used a lot. That's because Mingo, who was always seen as a work in progress entering the league, now has his body and mind properly shaped to be an impact player. The Browns will have a strong top three edge rushers with Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Mingo and can rotate them and keep them fresh. Mingo likely will be an open-side rusher (the offense's left side) and will be his best to use quickness and length to distract and disrupt quarterbacks. He had three of his five sacks in his first three NFL games but wore down. Now, in Year 2, Mingo should have the stamina to put up double digits in that category.
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New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins — It was a quiet rookie season for Collins, who contributed on special teams and slowly built up his defensive involvement throughout the course of the season, until the playoff opener against the Indianapolis Colts. That's when we got a view of just how dangerous and gifted a playmaker Collins could be (six tackles, a sack and an interception) while playing a variety of assignments. Expect Collins to fill a "Joker" type role this season; he could play over the tight end, line up on the edge, be a blitzer, stack and shed as an inside linebacker when the team uses 3-4 alignments and also drop off into coverage. Collins is that gifted athletically and is starting to look like a special defender who is on the verge.
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant — The best-corner-in-football debate will still center around Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis and a few select others. But it might not be long before we put Trufant into the discussion. He quietly played very well last season and did so while being tested often. In the second half of his rookie season, it was easy to see just how gifted and competitive Trufant was. The Falcons face a murderer's row of talented receivers this season, especially early on, but they have to be confident about how the 6-0, 190-pound Trufant will acquit himself in those matchups. He's unusually instinctive, studious, tough and competitive and should have a banner second season on a defense that slowly is improving.
Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam — The hope is that Elam, who played inconsistently in 16 rookie starts, will be more comfortable in his new spot at strong safety. He's best working in tighter spaces, as missed tackles and blown coverages were issues last year. But Elam has a nose for the ball, is a strong hitter and can help the team as a box defender and in short coverage. He has too much talent not to help this team out, and a better-suited role should help him become the impact player they envisioned when they made him a first-round pick a year ago.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner — As a rookie, Werner looked lost and was set back by a foot injury that caused him to miss three games, and there was talk that perhaps the Colts just missed on this pick. That talk appears premature, however, as he has remade his body, grasped his new role in the defense and stepped up with a nice training camp and preseason. Head coach Chuck Pagano has noted that Werner has made a "huge jump" from last year and will be counted on heavily, especially in the first four games — a tough slate that starts with the explosive Broncos and Eagles — with Robert Mathis out with a suspension. In the one Colts training-camp practice I attended, Werner looked quick and stout and quite disruptive.
Oakland Raiders linebacker Sio Moore — There was a terrifying moment in the Raiders' third preseason game when Moore laid motionless on the Lambeau Field grass after attempting to make a tackle. It was easy to fear the worst when Moore was strapped to a gurney and taken to a local hospital for what appeared to be a scary neck injury, but Moore checked out fine. Had they lost him to injury, the Raiders would have lost a talented and versatile defender. He since has returned to practice and figures to be one of the defense's more active players. He showed his blitzing ability in that game prior to getting hurt by laying a good lick on Aaron Rodgers on a blitz and consistently put himself in a position to make impact plays. The Raiders are counting on Moore this season to be one of their leading tacklers.
Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball — Aside from an appendectomy that sidelined him for a chunk of training camp and the preseason, the reports on Ball in Year 2 have been extremely positive. He'll benefit from being a three-down back in a very friendly uptempo offense that defenses will gear up primarily to stop Peyton Manning and the passing game. After a bout of fumbling as a rookie, Ball has emphasized ball security this offseason and has shown to be a better fit in the passing game as a safety-valve receiver and pass blocker. Expect Ball to be a big touchdown producer this season, as he was in a prolific college career at Wisconsin.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver-returner Cordarrelle Patterson — The Vikings can't wait to unleash the multi-talented Patterson on opposing defenses in a variety of ways. We started to see his prowess with the ball in his hands in an outstanding month of December as a rookie, putting up 219 of his 469 receiving yards (plus three of his four receiving touchdowns) and rushing 10 times for 156 yards and three more scores as a jack of all trades. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner knows he has to find every opportunity to get the ball in Patterson's hands to jump-start the offense and to help make Matt Cassel more effective. Patterson also figures to reprise his role as a kick returner a year after he had touchdowns of 105 and 109 yards. He might be one of the 10 most explosive players in the NFL right now.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — The Chiefs have been using a bevy of two-tight end sets thus far in the preseason, and Kelce has been the playmaking portion of the duo with Anthony Fasano. There's a good chance Kelce emerges as a downfield threat for a team that doesn't have many of them. He appears to have matured physically and mentally, overcoming a reputation coming out of college as being immature, to the point where he should contribute readily. Another knock on him coming out of Cincinnati was that he was a better athlete than a football player at that point, but Kelce appears to have made some real strides heading into Year 2.
New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead — In four late-season starts (two in the postseason), Armstead both struggled mightily and showed just how talented a prospect he is. In his first career start in Week 16, the Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy bullied the light-footed rookie into two sacks on his watch. But Armstead impressed the coaching staff with three solid performances in Week 17 and the two playoff games, holding his own against some talented edge players. What also impressed is that Armstead, who was one of the best athletes in his draft class of any lineman, showed good potential as a run blocker. So far in the preseason, the results have been encouraging and the Saints defenders have been impressed with how far their new left tackle has come in a year.
Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington — Injuries always will be a worry for Ellington, who displayed superior speed and quickness coming out of college but left talent evaluators questioning whether he ever could stay healthy. The Cardinals believe he can. After a splashy rookie season in which Cards fans were begging for more after the electric back touched the ball, they might finally get their wish. The coaching staff appears convinced that Ellington has some Jamaal Charles-like traits and perhaps can double his touch total of 157 from a year ago. And if Ellington can come anywhere close to averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 9.5 yards per reception, the Cardinals will be very happy.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton — The hyper-productive college player missed a big chunk of his rookie season with a nagging finger injury after some promising moments. This preseason, Wheaton has showed that he can run and get open, although he and Ben Roethlisberger have had a little trouble hooking up on some routes. That chemistry should come. Antonio Brown will be the primary focus of opposing defenses and Roethlisberger knows he needs a great Plan B. Wheaton looks to be a sneaky-fast receiver who could put up strong numbers in his first full season on the field.
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