In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JUDY BATTISTA leads off a discussion on second-year players who are poised to make the biggest leap in 2020.
We're an optimistic bunch here at Press Coverage, so we reject the entire idea of sophomore slumps. We, instead, expect every player to have a second season like Dan Marino, who threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in his second year in Miami, or Tom Brady, who merely took over from a long-time incumbent, won the Super Bowl and began his march to being greatest player at his position in history.
Apparently, Tennessee Titans receiver A.J. Brown sees things like we do. Brown finished third in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting last season, so he is not nearly as inexperienced as Brady was going into Year 2. Brown, in fact, had 52 receptions for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged 20.2 yards per reception. That, though, was not enough to pass Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and Raiders running back Josh Jacobs in the year-end awards voting.
"All the Offensive Rookie of the Year stuff, it is really behind me," Brown told the Titans' website. "Congratulations to Kyler, but I didn't win, and I am moving on with it. I am not going to sit here and dwell on it."
Well, maybe just a little dwelling.
Brown, though, also articulated why every coach looks forward to players' second years in the league.
"In Year 1, I was really just trying to play fast and not think about it too much," Brown said. "In Year 2, I can really key in and focus what I really need to focus on and learn a lot more stuff in regard to coverages and everything else."
The idea that some of the outstanding rookies we watched last season will have a better understanding of the game this season is terrifying to their opponents and delightful for the rest of us.
There are two players I am most looking forward to watching, for very different reasons.
First, I want to see what Daniel Jones will do behind an improved Giants offensive line and with ex-Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator. Jones completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,027 yards in 13 games last season. He had 24 touchdown passes and, maybe most importantly, he eased the Giants into their next generation following Eli Manning's retirement. Not so great: Jones was a turnover machine, throwing 12 interceptions and losing 11 fumbles. He has been spending time this offseason working specifically on ball security. I have high hopes for Jones, because the Giants finally committed to fixing their offensive line. Jones was sacked 38 times and took 66 hits in just 13 games as a rookie, and the amount of pressure he was under almost certainly played a role in Jones' lack of downfield throws. Garrett won't find a receiver like Amari Cooper on this roster, but if Jones is going to blossom the way the Giants expect, we should see a big step this year.
The other sophomore I want to see is Nick Bosa, because what, exactly, is the ceiling for this guy? He was dominant on a dominant line as the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year, with 47 tackles, nine sacks, 16 tackles for a loss and 60 quarterback pressures. He was simply a menace. He has been working out with his brother Joey this offseason in a brutal-sounding regimen and told reporters he expects to know much better how to approach opponents and will be able to eliminate "silly mistakes." A big reason I find Bosa intriguing is the departure of DeForest Buckner to the Colts. Even for a line as deep as San Francisco's, even for a player as talented as Bosa, losing a player and leader like Buckner has to be accounted for. I want to see how he does it.
I know Mike Silver, Jeffri Chadiha and Jim Trotter have their eyes on some second-year players, too. Who do you guys think will make the biggest leaps?
Jim Trotter: The low-hanging fruit is to select a guy who had a "disappointing" rookie season, but I'm going to reach higher and grab Kyler Murray. Think about it: If Murray could throw for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 544 yards and four scores last season with a limited cast around him, imagine the types of numbers he'll put up with the addition of All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a full season with running back Kenyan Drake, a promising young rookie at left tackle, a versatile threat in first-year running back Eno Benjamin and an upgraded defense that, with the arrival of linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons, should be able to get him the ball more frequently. Even more important is that Murray will have had a full offseason to study and decipher NFL defenses. The game should slow for him, which means it would not be shocking to see him follow in the footsteps of Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, who last year was voted league MVP after a breakout second season.
Michael Silver: At least A.J. Brown got to shine in 2019; his Titans teammate, No. 19 overall pick Jeffery Simmons, was merely a rotational player after making his NFL debut in late October. That's largely because Simmons was coming off a torn ACL, which he suffered during pre-draft training. His relatively quick return was a pleasant surprise for the Titans last season. Now, clearly, Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel expects the versatile defensive lineman to make a huge jump.
In March, when the Titans unloaded five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey to the Broncos for a seventh-round draft choice, many people in NFL circles (myself included) said, "Huh?" What Vrabel seemed to be saying was this: "We have a younger, cheaper version of Casey that we're ready to unleash in 2020, and his name is Jeffery Simmons."
I'm excited to see what Simmons can do for an intriguing Titans team that took out the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs and had an early lead on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
As for the offensive side of the ball -- well, there are a bunch of second-year players I'm watching ... but I'm going to wait for Jeff to weigh in, and for Judy and Jim to offer further thoughts, before I go down that road.
Jeffri Chadiha: I feel like I just showed up late to Thanksgiving dinner. You guys gobbled up some of the best fixings already (Judy even grabbed a couple prime candidates right off the jump), but there's still a lot for me to like. Like Silver, I'm looking for somebody under the radar. In a league filled with so many talented young quarterbacks, you can't find anybody spending more time in the shadows these days than Denver's Drew Lock. I know, I know -- it's risky to gamble on John Elway finally getting his offensive issues figured out. However, I can't help being impressed by all the talent he's given his second-year signal-caller.
The Broncos already had a budding Pro Bowl talent in wide receiver Courtland Sutton. They also had a running back who's opened his career with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons (Phillip Lindsay) and a speedy tight end who was their first-round selection last year (Noah Fant). But then Elway spent this offseason acquiring running back Melvin Gordon and two more dynamic wide receivers in rookies Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler? Come on, man! The Broncos still have to prove they can block consistently up front, but Lock has to be able to do some serious damage with that bunch. And in terms of leaps, I'm guessing Lock can grow a lot more than Kyler Murray. Lock only attempted 156 passes while playing in five games in 2019. The best number during that stretch for him: Denver's four wins. That small sample size of success must have made Elway giddy, because the general manager was smart enough to mimic Andy Reid's blueprint for Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. Take a talented quarterback, give him a bunch of weapons and wait for the fun to begin.
Trotter: Another player to watch is Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell. Seemingly everything went against the second-round pick last year. A hamstring injury in training camp was followed by midseason sports hernia surgery, which was followed by a fractured hand, which was followed by a broken foot that ended his season. He appeared in just seven games (starting three) and finished the season with 18 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. His 7.1 yards-per-reception mark was the worst of his career -- at any level. But the former Ohio State star should blossom this season, thanks to good health and the arrival of veteran QB Philip Rivers. With a physical line up front and a tough runner in Marlon Mack, the Colts should have ample opportunities to throw the football downfield via play-action passes. And that should mean big opportunities -- and numbers -- for Campbell.
Battista: Here's another one I'll watch because I spent a lot of time watching him last season: Patriots receiver N'Keal Harry. What a weird, frustrating rookie season he had. He was the first receiver on whom Bill Belichick had used a first-round pick, and with that came high expectations. He hurt his ankle in the preseason and missed the first nine games of the regular season. By the time he got on the field, Tom Brady's frustration with the offense had already boiled over, and Harry struggled to gain his trust while trying to understand the Patriots' complicated offense. The results were ugly -- Harry caught just 12 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. It's ridiculous to think that Brady's departure could make anything better in New England, but that might be the case for Harry, who never got out of Brady's doghouse and can only go up. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he should at least be a reliable red-zone target for Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer.
Silver: I'm tempted to talk about another pass catcher, Packers tight end Jace Sternberger, but the second-year offensive player I'm most interested in is Rams running back Darrell Henderson. After L.A. took him in the third round of the 2019 draft and he began participating in OTAs (remember those?), one Rams player described Henderson as "a fast C.J. (Anderson)." That's a pretty enticing description, and I went into the season with high hopes.
Alas, Todd Gurley remained the Rams' lead runner for most of the season, and Henderson didn't get much run. Finally, before L.A.'s must-win Week 16 road game against the 49ers, Rams coach Sean McVay told me he'd made a decision: We're going to unleash the rookie and see what he's got. Watching from the press box, I was exceptionally curious. And then, the first time Henderson touched the ball, he suffered an ankle sprain and was done for the night.
Now Gurley is gone, and McVay is counting on Henderson to be a productive and prolific runner. He won't shoulder the burden alone, but he's going to get a chance to show what he's got. I expect him to seize the opportunity.
Chadiha: I'm torn as well. I want to throw some support behind Raiders safety Johnathan Abram because I like his hard-hitting style and big personality. It's just really difficult to predict a breakout year for a player who only appeared in one game because of a torn rotator cuff and labrum. That's why Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery is a safer pick. He had a solid rookie season (889 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns), but he's capable of so much more with a better offense. The Bears ranked 29th in the NFL in total offense last year, largely because embattled quarterback Mitch Trubisky struggled so mightily. That all could change if Nick Foles wins the job or simply pushes Trubisky to play at a higher level.
Remember this: Bears GM Ryan Pace made a sizable investment to trade up in the third round to select Montgomery (giving up three picks). The belief was that Montgomery would be a workhorse back, and he showed that potential late in the season. In Chicago's final three wins of 2019, he gained 274 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Montgomery now enters this season as the only back on this roster who attempted more than 64 rushes last year, and the Bears didn't add another ball carrier in this draft. In other words, it's time for him to shine.