Preseason is the time of year where rookies steal the league’s attention. As these guys are making the big step up from college football, people want to get that first impression and have the opportunity to say that they saw that spark first.
Because of this focus, even those players in their second season are viewed as veterans who we already know about, and, as a result, they are overlooked–even though a rookie season gives an incomplete picture of the player they will become. Some served as understudies in their initial campaigns, others suffered through injuries in their first season in the pros and are yet to make an impact.
So, in this article I’m going to redress that balance and take a look at a group of second-year players who I am excited to see in the 2012 season. Players who for one reason or another didn’t get the opportunity to show their full potential last season.
They may prove to be breakout performers; they may fall flat on their face. Either way I’m excited to see what they have to offer as they sure inherit expanded roles during their sophomore season in the NFL.
Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans
Every credit should be given to Mike Munchak and his offensive coaching staff for not throwing Jake Locker to the wolves and messing with the succession plan that they put in place. They drafted Locker based on talent but with the knowledge that he was not immediately ready for NFL action. Locker didn’t register a start and only played 99 snaps. However, what they did on those snaps was get him throwing. He may not have attempted much down the field (only 11 attempts targeted more than 20 yards downfield) but he threw a lot. He attempted 66 passes on his 99 rookie snaps. That desire to have him ready has carried over to the 2012 preseason where Locker is perceived to be winning the battle against Matt Hasselbeck to start for the Titans in 2012.
The proof will be in Locker’s performance, as we seem destined to witness first-hand his maturation in Week 1 against the New England Patriots just a few short weeks from now. Locker impressed many observers in the Titans’ first preseason game, but how will he fare against regular season defenses? As a rookie, Locker was only 8-of-26 (30.8%) when defenses blitzed him–the league’s worst completion percentage against the blitz. Teams won’t take long to pick up on that, so he must improve in that regard if he’s to avoid trouble early on in 2012.
Robert Quinn, DE, St Louis Rams
Only two St. Louis defensive linemen played more snaps than Robert Quinn last season, but they were both defensive ends as the Rams managed his snaps in what amounted to a comeback season. Quinn missed his junior season at the University of North Carolina after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA. That, combined with a shortened offseason due to the NFL Lockout, could easily have left him under-prepared for his rookie season. Quinn flashed talent but lacked consistency and apparently wore down as his second half of the season was extremely quiet. Grading above +1.0 as a run defender only once last season, Quinn registered 36 total pressures as a pass rusher.
With James Hall now a free agent, Quinn is nailed on to start opposite newly minted DLE Chris Long for the Rams, so we will get to see what he can do in a full time role. A player of Quinn’s size really should be able to develop into a quality run defender and the Rams will need that. Long has a habit of playing aggressively for the pass which leaving his run defense to suffer, the Rams can’t afford two defensive ends who weaken their edges. After a full offseason and firmly back into the “swing” of football after his enforced year off, we should get to see the real Robert Quinn this season.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
My immediate reaction the first time that I saw Jonathan Baldwin line up for the Chiefs (against Oakland in Week 7) was “who is that tight end split wide for the Chiefs?” Such was the sheer size and physical presence I didn’t immediately reconcile that this was the Chiefs’ first round rookie receiver out of Pittsburgh. Throughout his rookie season Baldwin flashed some freakish physical ability but never put an individual game together, let alone a string of games to suggest that he “got it”. The closest he came to this was his Monday Night Football debut in Week 8, but even then he dropped three passes against the Chargers.
His overall receiving stats last season were poor, dropping six passes and only catching 41.2% of the passes targeted in his direction, but his play on “power” routes that a player of his size should be good on were surprisingly poor. On hitch, in, slant and post routes Baldwin caught only five of the 17 passes targeted in his direction. A player of his size and strength should be able to boss these routes but he didn’t. With Dwayne Bowe holding out in protest at receiving the franchise tag, and Steve Breaston not close to a No. 1 wide receiver, the Chiefs really need Baldwin to develop now and show the potential to lead this receiving corps.
Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Cornerback is one of those positions where rookies can often be seen to be making an immediate impact. Rookie corners are often heavily targeted, leading to high interception numbers which can give the appearance of a better performance level than was actually true. That wasn’t the case for Jimmy Smith last season, however, as the Ravens’ first round pick recorded only 256 snaps in the regular season and picked up only two interceptions. Smith is firmly under the radar and he has been pushed further out of the wider audience’s field of view by the back spasms that have seen him miss sections of training camp and the Ravens’ first preseason game.Smith, though, should be a candidate for a breakout season if he can put this injury to bed in time for the regular season. He has more natural talent and the Ravens have more invested in him than they do in Cary Williams, so he should be given every opportunity to succeed and start opposite Lardarius Webb.
Smith raised his game in his playoff start in New England, the Patriots only targeted him twice, only allowed one to be completed and collected an interception. If he can claim that starting spot and deliver on his potential, the Ravens’ defense just got that much scarier. The coverage that they have lacked at times to go with their strong front seven could take a step forward with a starting secondary of Smith joined by veterans Ed Reed, Webb and Bernard Pollard.
Anthony Castonzo, OT, Indianapolis Colts
One of the players who had a chunk of his rookie season stolen away from him by injury, Castonzo now enters his second season charged with protecting the Colts’ new franchise quarterback. The Colts’ last franchise quarterback was paired with a solid left tackle for a number of years in the shape of Tarik Glenn and the front office will be desperate for this pairing to bring similar long-term success.
Castonzo’s major struggles last season came as a run blocker and with his discipline; his pass protection–outside of two very poor games against Jacksonville and Baltimore–was very good. He didn’t register a single game grade of higher than +0.9 as a run blocker and had three games worse than -1.0, one which was paired with his poor pass protection game at home against Jacksonville. His performance took some time to settle after his returned from injury in Week 9 last season, but if he can maintain his fine play as a pass protector, the Colts may have a quality left tackle for the first time in a number of years.
Stephen Paea, DT, Chicago Bears
There are ways to announce yourself as a talent in the NFL, for a defensive lineman there can’t be many better ways than by registering a safety on your second ever snap in the NFL. That is exactly what Stephen Paea did last season against the Minnesota Vikings, a new star born in the Bears’ defense? Well, not quite. Paea struggled to backup that thunderous start to his career and from that point found it tough to make an impact and tougher to earn snaps on a defense that rotates less than almost any other defense in the league.
Paea had another strong game as a run defender against the Chiefs, registering four stops in run defense, but that was a rare beacon of hope against a backdrop of mediocrity. However, your second NFL training camp is the time for players to make a move and that is exactly what Stephen Paea has done, swiftly supplanting Matt Toeaina as the Bears’ first-team nose tackle. The ankle injury that he has collected him will sideline him for a time, up to two weeks, but if he can translate his fine start to camp into a strong start to the season then Bears fans will hope that their run defense takes a step forward with Paea in the engine room this season.
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
What an absolute embarrassment of riches the Green Bay Packers have in their receiving corps, such was their strength in depth last season that second round pick Cobb saw less than 300 snaps during the regular season. He announced his arrival on the scene with two touchdowns on his NFL debut, on most other teams around the league that would have seen him thrust into the limelight, but the Packers had sufficient strength in depth to keep him warming the bench.
Cobb provided further glimpses of his talent throughout the regular season, but surely this year the Packers cannot continue to keep him out of the offense? As a versatile weapon at the University of Kentucky he was a leader for the offense. In Green Bay he will be a fourth or fifth option. To have a player of this devastating talent that deep in your arsenal has got to be close to cheating.
Cobb registered a touchdown in his first preseason game this year and this should be a sign of more to come as he pushes James Jones and Donald Driver for more playing time in the Packers’ three- and four-wide sets. You won’t see too many defenses able to match-up with the WR depth Cobb gives Green Bay.
Follow us on Twitter: @PFF