A few weeks ago, I presented what the expectations should be from rookie pass rushers in the NFL. Even the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Tamp Bay's Gerald McCoy, agrees with me that 30 tackles and three-to-four sacks is a heck of a rookie season.
Now it's time to look at what to expect from players entering their second year who were drafted in the first three rounds.
Many league observers believe that players take a quantum leap from their rookie season to their second season. They are comfortable in the system, don't have to deal with distractions from the draft, have experience handling money, have had a chance to work on their technique, and they are supposedly more mature.
Despite those advantages, however, it's not that easy to improve from being a non-productive rookie to a major second-year contributor. It doesn't matter how much money a young guy has been paid or, in some cases, how badly a guy wants to improve. I caution fans not to raise the bar too high for every second-year player hoping for a breakthough season.
Let's first take a look at the pass rushers from the 2009 draft. Washington's Brian Orakpo and Green Bay's Clay Matthews were outstanding in their rookie seasons with 11 and 10 sacks, respectively, but they were the only players from their class to stand out. Now the question becomes, can others take the next step in their development and deliver?
Eight pass rushers taken in the first three rounds last year did not record a sack as a rookie. Kansas City's Tyson Jackson started 14 games and failed to collect a single sack. What does recent history tell us about guys who don't get to the QB as a rookie and hope to get going as a second year player? What can fans expect from Jackson, Aaron Maybin, Robert Ayers, Ziggy Hood, David Veikune, Paul Kruger, Cody Brown and Tyronne McKenzie after firing a blank in 2009?
First let's look at the class of 2008 and see how they did in 2009.
Every GM in the league is hoping they have the next Calais Campbell of the Cardinals. Campbell did not record a sack as a rookie in limited action, but had seven in his second year. Campbell told me recently he credited playing with Pro Bowl DT Darnell Dockett for some of his success, but also pointed out that he could have been better if not for some near-misses. He's the success story many current second-year players will look to emulate. But for every Calais Campbell, there are four guys who don't record a sack in their second year as well.
Vernon Gholston, Kentwan Balmer, Chris Ellis, and Bryan Smith all went sackless in their second year, as well. The truth is, a guy without a sack as a rookie is probably headed for only one-to-two sacks as a second-year player.
So what is the possibility the rookies from last year who flashed some pass rush skills can double their output? Connor Barwin (4.5), Matt Shaughnessey (four) Michael Johnson (three), Larry English (two), Everette Brown (2.5), and Clint Sintim (one) are going to be asked for more in 2010. LaMarr Woodley is the poster child for some rookie production followed by a second-year explosion. Woodley grabbed four sacks a rookie, and then had 11 in his second season.
The reality check, though, is that in the two years leading up to 2009, 14 other rookie pass rushers did not make much improvement at all in their second season. Players like Derrick Harvey, Anthony Spencer, Turk McBride, Tim Crowder, and Quinton Moses all recorded less sacks in their follow-up campaign.
Studying the classes of 2007 and 2008 suggests there are far better odds a pass rusher who struggled as a rookie will be just as unproductive his second year. And here's a scary thought: Pass rushers who struggled as rookies aren't likely to even make that jump in the third year, either. Maybe the truth is that most guys just aren't talented enough to rush the quarterback, regardless of their experience level.