Shane Ray, Duke Johnson among breakout candidates in Year 2

NFL players typically make their biggest developmental gains between their first and second seasons. Thus, we can expect to see a handful of sophomore pros go from good to great in 2016. Given some time to survey the landscape and project the players with the biggest growth potential, here are 10 second-year guys to watch -- presented in alphabetical order -- this fall:

The Seahawks were willing to let Bruce Irvin walk as a free agent due to Clark's potential impact as a premier pass rusher off the edge. The 6-foot-3, 272-pound defensive end flashed strong hands and an explosive first step as a rookie, notching three sacks in limited action, but he should triple that number with more opportunities as an inside-outside pass rusher in sub-packages.

Tevin Coleman, RB, Atlanta Falcons

If not for an early-season rib injury to Coleman that allowed Devonta Freeman to slide into the Falcons' RB1 role, Coleman was on his way toward cementing his status as the team's workhorse runner in 2015. As a "big" (6-foot, 210 pounds) back with speed to burn and explosive acceleration, he is a perfect match for the Falcons' zone scheme, which creates cutback lanes at the point of attack. Coleman flashed potential when given a hefty workload in the scheme (20 carries for 80 yards against Philadelphia in Week 1; 18 carries for 110 yards against Minnesota in Week 12), but he needs to avoid the injury bug to earn more opportunities in a shared backfield.

Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills

Marcus Peters was the 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year, but there's a growing faction of NFL scouts who tout Darby as the top cover corner in this draft class. The feisty defender hounds receivers on the perimeter with a tenacity reminiscent of a junkyard dog, yet he is a cerebral playmaker with a high football IQ and outstanding instincts. Darby finished his rookie campaign with a pair of interceptions and 21 passes defensed. The football world should keep a close eye on him as he nudges Stephon Gilmore out of the Bills' CB1 role and emerges as a legitimate "shutdown" corner candidate.

Mario Edwards Jr., DE, Oakland Raiders

Edwards played a huge role in Khalil Mack's emergence as an All-Pro in 2015. The 6-3, 280-pound Edwards quietly emerged as a terror on the inside, exhibiting a rare combination of speed, quickness and power that overwhelmed blockers at the point of attack. Edwards' steady penetration forced quarterbacks to retreat into Mack's awaiting arms, particularly during the Mack's impressive run from Week 12 to Week 15 (10 sacks in four games). In that same span, the duo combined for 25 quarterback hurries. If Edwards returns to form following his season-ending neck injury, the Raiders' imposing defensive line could feature a pair of Pro Bowlers in 2016.

Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have surrounded Cam Newton with big-bodied targets who have the size and length to expand the strike zone for the reigning NFL MVP. Funchess was maddeningly inconsistent for parts of his rookie season, but he started to find his groove down the stretch (five touchdown catches in the Panthers' final nine regular-season games). The 6-4, 225-pound pass catcher has the size to overwhelm smaller defenders in the red zone, but he also has learned to "speed cut" inside breaks to create separation from corners at the top of his routes. As Funchess begins to master the nuances of the position in Year 2, Newton could make the ex-Michigan standout his security blanket when teams neutralize Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen.

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Tennessee Titans

There's no disputing DGB's talent or potential as a wideout with exceptional size (6-5 and 237 pounds, with 32.5-inch arms) and leaping ability (33.5-inch vertical jump). His imposing physical stature makes him a matchup nightmare on the perimeter. The Titans exploit this advantage in the red zone by targeting him frequently on fades or jump balls in the end zone. As quarterback Marcus Mariota continues to get comfortable throwing the ball up to his super-sized receiver, expect DGB's numbers to mushroom as the focal point of the Titans' passing game.

Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns

Browns coach Hue Jackson might be best known for his work as a QB whisperer, but running backs have greatly benefitted from his crafty scheming and clever game planning. That's why observers should keep a close eye on Johnson as the Browns use him as a dynamic weapon out of the backfield. As a rookie in Cleveland, Johnson made his impact as a receiver (61 receptions for 534 yards and two scores). This season, he could be in line for more touches and a greater overall impact as the Browns' RB1 under Jackson.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears

Whenever a team is willing to walk away from a perennial Pro Bowler still playing at a high level, that says a lot about the potential of his successor. Thus, observers should pay close attention to Langford as he steps into the Bears' RB1 role following Matt Forte's departure. Last season, Langford certainly showed team officials he could shoulder the load as the feature back, amassing 142 and 182 yards from scrimmage, respectively, in Week 9 and Week 10 as a fill-in for Forte. With the Bears looking to build around a young, dynamic core of playmakers (Langford and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White), the ex-Michigan State standout could emerge as a 100/1,000 (100 catches and 1,000 rushing yards) candidate this season.

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins

Though he failed to make much of an impact as a rookie, Parker could become a household name as the Dolphins' WR2 under new coach Adam Gase. The clever play caller helped Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders terrorize defenses in Denver during his time as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. He could replicate that tactic with Jarvis Landry and Parker filling the playmaker roles in Miami. Landry is likely to command double coverage, based on his reputation as one of the premier slot receivers in the game, meaning Parker could have a field day against one-on-one coverage on the outside.

Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos

It's hard to carve out a role as a designated pass rusher (DPR) when playing behind the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, but Ray could emerge as a wild-card playmaker for the Broncos in his second pro season. The energetic defender not only added a few pounds to his chiseled frame, but he also added a couple of power maneuvers to enhance his patented speed-rush move off the edge. With the 33-year-old Ware's role expected to change due to injuries and age, Ray could become Miller's sidekick as the Broncos' DPR2.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content


See all the Action

Replay every game all season.