Players Who Could Be Primed for a Big Leap in Year 2

Rookies have increasingly been able to make big impacts in the NFL. There are a number who instantly show they have what it takes to be among the best in the league at their positions. There are others who show flashes but the second year is when they really take off. Today we’re going to look at five players who could fit that mold. By using a number of statistics, we’re going to look at a few non-first-round picks who could be in for a big jump in Year 2.

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Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions

There are a number of indicators for a big Kerryon Johnson season. The Lions are going to want to run the ball — probably to their detriment — and if healthy, Johnson will be the unquestioned top back. Theo Riddick is now gone, which also clears the way for Johnson to pick up more work in the passing game. Johnson was a slightly below average receiver by DVOA, but he was better than Riddick and with some more favorable looks, Johnson could be around one of the 15 most targeted backs in the league.

On the ground, Johnson had an incredibly underrated season in just 10 games. Next Gen Stats tracks something they call “Efficiency,” which counts how many yards a running back ran to gain a positive yard. The lower that number the better. It’s also a number that is highly correlated to yards per carry (-0.75 in-year) and correlates better year-to-year than yards per carry does. Johnson’s 3.42 was the fourth-best among 55 qualified running backs in 2018.

Johnson was also one of the best backs at picking up first downs on his carries with a 27.1 percent first down rate, which ranked seventh among those 55 backs. On his way to picking up first downs, Johnson was one of the league’s best at breaking tackles — his 22 percent broken tackle rate ranked eighth among that group, per Sports Info Solutions. Of those 55 backs, Johnson was the only back to finish in the top-10 of Efficiency, first down rate, and broken tackle rate.

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens took a tight end in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but the one they took in the third round made the biggest impact. Mark Andrews started only three games but was one of Baltimore’s best receivers. He was one of the most productive receivers in the league overall by Expected Points Added, per SIS. Last season Andrews ranked 22nd in receiving EPA despite his 50 targets ranked just 122nd. Andrews’s EPA wasn’t even aided by unsustainable touchdown production — he only scored three last season.

Andrews has reportedly been a consistent highlight at Baltimore’s training camp. He was able to be productive after Lamar Jackson was inserted as the starting quarterback last season and the Ravens offense went extremely run-heavy. With Jackson developing as a passer this offseason, Andrews should remain one of his most reliable targets with questions at the other receiver spots.

Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers

In a league where nickel is the base defense and teams are averaging a 60-40 pass-run split, linebackers need to be able to cover to stay on the field. They also need to be fast enough to handle running backs and big enough to match up with tight ends. Fred Warner is exactly the mold for a modern linebacker. Warner, San Francisco’s third-round pick in 2018 (70th overall), is listed at 6’3” and 236 pounds. He was also one of the most athletic linebackers in that draft class with an 80th percentile SPARQ score. Warner played a hybrid linebacker-safety role at BYU and that versatility paid off in San Francisco last season.

Tackles are a flawed statistic, but Warner’s 85 solo tackles ranked 12th among all defenders last season. Per Football Outsiders, Warner made 16.7 percent of San Francisco’s tackles, which was the 12th-highest rate in the league. He was all over the field and now with potentially get some support with Kwon Alexander as a free agent addition this offseason. 

Warner was also one of the league’s better coverage players. Among 82 defenders with at least 50 targets last season, Warner’s 5.51 yards allowed per pass was the seventh-lowest and his 41 percent positive play rate allowed ranked ninth.

Anthony Miller, WR, Chicago Bears

Anthony Miller showed flashes in his rookie season, but it was hard to find consistent production in the Chicago Bears’ passing game last year. Miller only had four starts, but played in 15 games and had seven touchdowns on 33 receptions. That rate isn’t likely to continue, but Miller should be able to be productive even with touchdown regression baked in.

Last year Miller was one of the best receivers at gaining separation, per Next Gen Stats. While we might instinctively think about separation as beating a defender down the field, that isn’t always the case. Actually, over the past three seasons, separation has a negative correlation (-0.51) with average depth of target, meaning separation comes more often on shorter throws. There was a group of receivers last season who came in above the three-year average in separation and depth of target with at least 35 targets, per Next Gen Stats. Those receivers were:

  • Desean Jackson
  • Robby Anderson
  • Tyreek Hill
  • Will Fuller
  • Brandin Cooks
  • Paul Richardson
  • Tyler Lockett
  • Anthony Miller
  • Phillip Dorsett
  • Robert Woods
  • Taylor Gabriel
  • Odell Beckham
  • Davante Adams
  • Tajae Sharpe

That’s a fairly impressive group of wide receivers and features more names believed to be among the top tier of the position than ones who make you wonder what they’re doing on the list. Over the three-year sample, separation is pretty correlated from year-to-year for receivers (0.60) and depth of target is one of the stickiest year-to-year stats we have (0.81). With a bump in playing time, a second year for Matt Nagy orchestrating the Chicago offense, and maybe some more consistency at quarterback, Miller should continue to be one of the more impressive young wide receivers in the league.

Avante Maddox, DB, Philadelphia Eagles

Avante Maddox was a pleasant and necessary surprise for the Philadelphia Eagles last season. The fourth-round pick started nine games, appeared in 13, and was on the field for 64.8 percent of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps across three positions. Maddox played outside corner, in the slot, and at safety for the Eagles in his rookie year. He held up extremely well at all three.

Among qualified cornerbacks, Maddox ranked first in yards allowed per pass and sixth in success rate, per Football Outsiders. Maddox was one of five corners to rank in the top five in each category and was one of two, along with Stephon Gillmore of the New England Patriots, to also be in the top five of yards after the catch allowed, where Maddox ranked first.

Individual cornerback charting isn’t exactly sticky from season to season, but after Maddox performed so well in multiple roles as a rookie, it’s not a stretch to project him to continue to be a productive player, even as his role is still not yet defined in the Philadelphia secondary.