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Sophomore surge: Teams hoping second-year players emerge

NFL players make the biggest jump in their development from their first to second year in the league.

Coaches and scouts make roster plans in anticipation of that growth, so there is immense pressure on all young players to raise their level of play during their sophomore season.

While some players wilt under those exacting standards, others rise to the occasion and emerge as difference makers.

The Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl run was fueled by the development of one of their young players -- B.J. Raji -- during his second season. He built on the flashes he displayed as a rookie, and became the Packers' most disruptive interior defender.

Kirwan's player rankings

There are a number of young offensive linemen close to cracking the top 25 in the NFL, according to Pat Kirwan. That list includes Seattle's Russell Okung. **More ...**

Part of his success could be attributed to cultivating his skills through a comprehensive offseason program that featured numerous minicamps, organized team activities and individual workouts.

This season, however, the lack of an offseason program due to the lockout might hinder the development of a talented crop of second-year players, but the expectations will remain the same.

Let's take a look at a handful of second-year players who will be counted to deliver big results this season:

C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills: Spiller was expected to be a big-play producer for the Bills, but only amassed 440 yards from scrimmage on 98 touches. With just three plays of 20 yards or more, he failed to provide the offense with the juice that was expected when the team nabbed him with the ninth overall pick. While his 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and 14.6 punt return average indicate he is capable of making things happen in the open field, coach Chan Gailey would love to see Spiller's skills translate to big production on offense.

Russell Okung, OT, Seattle Seahawks: Okung's rookie year was hampered by an early season high-ankle sprain and his first-season performance suffered as a result. He had problems staying in front of elite rushers, and some worry about how he fits within the Seahawks' scheme. However, other elite blockers have suffered through their fair share of growing pains before emerging as dominant fixtures at their position, and Okung could experience a similar fate.

Derrick Morgan, DE, Tennessee Titans: Morgan was off to a sensational start with 1.5 sacks in four games before an ACL injury prematurely ended his season. Without a consistent threat off the edge to harass passers, the Titans' defense struggled slowing down even inept offenses. However, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray wants to institute an aggressive scheme that relies heavily on pressure from the outside, which makes a healthy Morgan a pivotal part of the Titans' defensive revival.

Kareem Jackson, CB, Houston Texans: Part of the Texans' woeful pass defense could be attributed to Jackson's youth and inexperience. He was routinely overmatched by savvy veteran receivers and didn't hold up in isolated situations. With Wade Phillips instituting a zone-based system that relies on corners playing with discipline in coverage, Jackson must show the maturity and awareness to respond with a big year in Houston.

Jerry Hughes, DE, Indianapolis Colts: Hughes is coming off a disappointing year in which he only appeared in 12 games and finished with only six tackles. His lack of impact as a rookie forced veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to log more snaps on the field, which kept the duo from being fresh down the stretch. This year, Hughes needs to crack the defensive end rotation and provide the Colts with some pass rush production to alleviate the pressure on their veteran tandem.

Taylor Mays, S, San Francisco 49ers: Mays was one of the biggest enigmas coming out of college due to his production not matching his athletic potential. He continued to confound 49ers officials with his inability to play the pass or deliver big plays despite his impressive physical skills. However, a new coaching staff will certainly give him every opportunity to earn a significant role on the defense because his combination of size, speed and athleticism could take the unit to another level.

Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys need an infusion of speed and athleticism at the linebacker corps. Lee not only provides those qualities, but he is an instinctive playmaker with a knack for getting around the ball. His two-interception game against the Indianapolis Colts provided Jason Garrett with a preview of his potential impact in the lineup.

Terrence Cody, DT, Baltimore Ravens: Cody didn't make a significant contribution as a rookie, but his hulking presence in the middle of the Ravens' defense free up Haloti Ngata to wreak havoc on foes. As an immovable force at the point of attack, he is capable of eating up double teams, which would allow his teammates to flow freely to the ball without hesitation.

**Golden Tate**, WR, Seattle Seahawks:Pete Carroll has been fascinated by Tate's big-play ability, but didn't fully tap into it a year ago. However, he has already voiced plans to make the former Notre Dame star a bigger part of the offense. While some aspects of his game remain raw and unrefined, he flashed big-time ability with the ball in his hands. As a punt returner or sub-package receiver, Tate is being counted on to deliver impact plays in his second season.

Vladimir Ducasse, G, New York Jets: The Jets drafted Ducasse with the intention of putting the rookie right into the lineup at one of the guard positions, but he didn't impress in the preseason and spent most of his first year on the sidelines. Given another opportunity to crack the rotation, Ducasse must show a better grasp of pass protection concepts and improve the sloppy footwork that made him a such a liability when thrust into the lineup.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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