Several rookies burst on the scene in the NFL in 2012 to give the fans more than enough clarification that the 2012 draft class was one of the deepest in recent memory. Three Quarterbacks were selected in the top 10, all who could have been Pro Bowl rookies had it not been for seasoned veterans like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Franchise running backs were found in Trent Richardson and Doug Martin, as well as two Linebackers who are going to be around for a very long time in Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David. Several other guys had solid rookie campaigns that did not get much recognition, while some other second year players will be in a new system that benefits them more than the system in place their rookie year. Here’s a list of some second-year players expected to have an increased role this season to keep an eye on.
-The trade of Anquan Boldin in the middle of the offseason came to a surprise after how well he performed in the 2012 playoffs, including the Super Bowl. We all expected Ozzie “The Wizard of Oz” Newsome to either draft, trade or sign a veteran WR after getting rid of Boldin. However, plenty of Ravens players, including Torrey Smith pleaded that they did not need another Wide Receiver. Streeter missed his rookie year due to injuries and saw no playing time. He was a deep threat in college at The U, and is a decent intermediate route runner. He will fare well with Smith, Tandon Doss and Jacoby Jones. He won’t have Anquan Boldin stats, but we should see a lot from Streeter this upcoming season.
8. Olivier Vernon – DE – Miami Dolphins
-Vernon had 3.5 sacks in his rookie year. The Dolphins do a good job of mixing 4-3 and 3-4 packages, given their depth on the front-7. Vernon can play 5-tech in a 3-4 or line up as a traditional DE in a 4-3. He was a good run supporter as a Miami Hurricane, and he has been getting better annually, transitioning into a fine professional. You can expect a bigger year from Jared Odrick, Cameron Wake and rookie Dion Jordan, but don’t rule Vernon out. His statistics may not be groundbreaking, but he does come up when needed in pressuring the QB and getting in the face of RBs before they get to the next level.
7. Alshon Jeffery – WR – Chicago Bears
-A Chicago Tribune article suggested that new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman is ”one of the premier offensive strategists in the game.” We all know that Trestman loves to spread his offense and create an intense passing attack. Gunslinger Jay Cutler is perfect for that system, and how long can he rely solely on Brandon Marshall to be the guy he constantly goes to? Jeffery was on his way to an impressive rookie year before being injured and missing six games. He averaged 15 yards a catch his rookie year on 24 receptions. I think Jeffery will be one of the more solid WR2s in the NFL, especially if he keeps learning from Brandon Marshall. He creates mismatches with his 6’3” frame and his 4.38 40-yard dash speed.
6. Lamar Miller – RB – Miami Dolphins
-It is hard to believe that Daniel Thomas will be the Dolphins’ feature RB, despite them using an early draft pick on him a few years ago. Lamar Miller is almost being handed a starting job and it is his to lose. I think he is the reason the Dolphins refused to bring back Reggie Bush. Miller showed his blazing speed and outstanding cutting ability in college, and we saw minimal flashes his rookie year in 2012. He stands 5’10”, but weighs close to 220 pounds. He does a good job of staying low to the ground and is a good option out the backfield in passing situations. He only had 51 carries his rookie year, but averaged almost 5 yards per carry. The Patriots aren’t going anywhere in the AFC East, and the Buffalo Bills are going to challenge Miami for a possible Wild Card birth at best. Miller will be pivotal in determining how far Miami goes this year.
5. Mark Barron – SS – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
-Tampa has a completely revamped secondary. Barron could possibly be the only returning starter from last year. Johnthan Banks will push Eric Wright for a starting job, and Revis and Goldson are huge upgrades from what they had last year. Barron showed early in his rookie year that he is already one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league. He is also great in run support, as TB had the #1 run-defense in the league last year, but the last pass-defense. The draft picks and free agent signings will benefit them well in a division that features Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Barron has a little Ronnie Lott in him (not calling him the next Lott), and he is also due for a huge sophomore campaign.
4. Mychal Kendricks – LB – Philadelphia Eagles
-One of the most dynamic young LBs in the NFL, Kendricks was targeted 32 times in coverage and gave up 20 catches, 4.8 ypc. He was seen defending Cowboys TE Jason Witten, holding him to 5 yards on 2 catches, and even Panthers WR Steve Smith. Kendricks only had one sack his rookie year, and people expect new Eagles HC Chip Kelly to use Connor Barwin as a pass rusher to how he used Dion Jordan at Oregon. I think Kendricks will actually be given those duties, and he will do a good job as well. In the right system, presumably Chip Kelly’s, Kendricks is a star in the making.
3. Bernard Pierce – RB – Baltimore Ravens
-He is not the strongest, nor is he the fasted back in the NFL. But Bernard Pierce is a relentless runner who doesn’t mind hurdling over a defender and he packs a mean stiff-arm, and I will make the case that he has arguably the best vision among RBs in the NFL. We all know that Ray Rice is Baltimore’s feature back, but their offense will look completely different from how it looked in 2012. One of those changes will be an increased role for Pierce. Pierce averaged 5 yards a carry last year on 108 attempts. Baltimore won’t have two 1,000 yard rushers in 2013, but I can see Pierce getting around 800 rushing yards this season, as I believe he and Rice will share the load, as the Ravens transition into Joe Flacco’s team.
2. Josh Gordon – WR Cleveland Browns
-It is a blessing to Gordon and the Browns that he was only suspended for the first 2 games of the 2013 season. Expect Gordon to be the #1 option in Cleveland, as Chud and Norv Turner will develop a young, dangerous offense with Gordon, Trent Richardson, Travis Benjamin and company. Gordon was arguably the best deep threat in the NFL his rookie year, which tells us that he will only become even more dangerous as he continues to blossom as a pro.
1. Whitney Mercilus – OLB – Houston Texans
-Mercilus is the reason Houston didn’t stress over losing Connor Barwin, an OLB who only had 3 sacks in 16 starts. Mercilus managed to get 6 sacks 4 starts, as well as two forced fumbles. The Texans will get a full season with Mercilus starting, on top of getting starting ILB Brian Cushing back. We can expect another huge year from the Texans, hoping Matt Schaub can get them over the hump. But their defense will see vast improvements if they can stay healthy. Their new x-factor will be Mercilus moving forward. I think he will live up to the hype.
A couple of other second year guys to look forward to in having an increased role is T.Y. Hilton of the Colts, Rod Streater of the Raiders, Sean Spence of the Steelers and Rueben Randle of the Giants. The 2012 class was loaded with talent, including guys who went undrafted and made splashes. The young guns are the face of the league, and the 2012 class will be looked back at as one of the best overall draft classes of all time.