Head coaches and scouts are constantly evaluating their young players, looking for guys with the potential to make a major developmental jump. From my experience as a player and scout, I believe most NFL players make their biggest such gains between their first and second seasons. With training camps around the corner, I thought this would be a perfect time to identify 10 second-year pros with the potential to take their respective games to a higher level in 2015.
After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film and placing a few calls to coaches and scouts around the NFL, I've come up with the following list of "sophomores" poised to become stars:
10) Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
Despite missing more than half of his rookie season with an assortment of injuries, including a knee ailment that required season-ending microfracture surgery, Clowney remains a star in the making for the Texans. The 6-foot-5, 266-pound defender is a mercurial talent with exceptional physical tools and pass-rushing prowess, but it is the presence of J.J. Watt that could help Clowney become a dynamic playmaker for the Texans for years to come. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year commands double-team attention on nearly every snap, which should lead to plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Clowney off the edge. If Clowney can return to health and continue to refine his best pass-rush moves, he could blossom into the destructive force scouts envisioned while watching him dominate as a pass-rush specialist at South Carolina.
9) Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
The arrival of new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan could help Freeman crack the 1,000-yard mark as a first-time starter. Shanahan is installing a zone-based running scheme ideally suited to Freeman's talents as an explosive one-cut runner on the perimeter. Although he could share the workload with rookie Tevin Coleman during the early part of the season, Freeman possesses the kind of talent as a runner that typically produces big numbers in a scheme that emphasizes efficiency and discipline at the point of attack. Considering Freeman's solid receiving skills and open-field running ability, the Falcons could unleash the slippery playmaker as a multipurpose threat this season.
8) Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
When the 49ers elected to let longtime starter Frank Gore walk as a free agent in the offseason, it spoke volumes about the team's confidence in Hyde's potential as a franchise back. Hyde showed flashes of greatness as a rookie runner, rushing for 333 yards and four touchdowns in limited action. Given an opportunity to carry the load as the 49ers' feature back, Hyde could post big numbers behind a physical offensive line intent on re-establishing the team's identity as the "bullies on the block" in the NFC. Most importantly, Hyde can step in and give the 49ers another franchise back to lean on for the next decade.
7) Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
Landry did not make my list of the league's top slot receivers last week -- an omission for which the Twitter-verse lit me up -- but the Dolphins youngster could emerge as the premier playmaker at the position following a strong 2015 campaign. The rugged pass catcher is an Anquan Boldin clone, poised to dominate opponents between the hashes as the focal point of the Dolphins' quick-rhythm passing game. To join the ranks of the elite, Landry must raise his yards per catch figure (9.0 in 2014) and produce more explosive plays (only six catches of 20-plus yards as a rookie). Nonetheless, the fact that he finished among the top 20 receivers in "YAC" (18th, with 443 yards after the catch) suggests he could star in Miami's "dink and dunk" system, given that he'll have more experience and, presumably, even better chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
6) Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
Raider Nation has already embraced Carr as the franchise quarterback of the future, but the rest of the football world is waiting for the young gunslinger to lead his team out of purgatory before anointing him a rising star. Of course, with rookie Amari Cooper coming onboard to give the Raiders a dynamic WR1, Carr's game could go from good to great in a hurry. With limited weapons on the perimeter last season, Carr connected on 58.1 percent of his passes and mustered a 21:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Now that he has a talented target on the outside, he should surpass those numbers. Moreover, the presence of a decent running game fueled by Latavius Murray and Trent Richardson (the fifth-year pro has been one of the stars of Raiders' offseason program) could create big-play opportunities for Carr on play-action.
5) Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Watkins' standout rookie season was lost amid the fanfare created by the impressive debuts of Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin, but the football world will soon recognize the Bills' young star as one of the top playmakers in the game. The 6-1, 211-pounder nearly topped the 1,000-yard mark (65 receptions for 982 yards) and produced six touchdowns as the focal point of a pedestrian offense in 2014. He should obliterate those numbers in 2015, given that the Bills have since added multiple home-run hitters on the perimeter (LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay). With opponents electing to load the box to stop McCoy and the Bills' potent running game, Watkins should have plenty of big-play chances against one-on-one coverage on the outside. Expect him to deliver the kinds of explosive plays that led many observers to tout him as the best receiver in the 2014 class prior to the draft.
4) Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
When the Saints traded away tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills this offseason, Cooks immediately inherited the top pass-catching role on one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. Some will question whether a young, diminutive playmaker (Cooks checks in at 5-10, 189 pounds) can anchor an aerial attack. But he certainly possesses the speed, route-running ability and ball skills to thrive as the centerpiece of a quick-rhythm passing game. Cooks is a rare speedster with the balance and body control to run every route in the book with precision. Thus, he can deliver big plays down the field or on an assortment of "catch-and-run" passes designed to get the ball into his hands quickly on the perimeter. He only played in 10 games last last year, with a broken thumb ending his season in November. But considering coach Sean Payton's remarkable ability as a play designer, Cooks could become the NFL's next 100-catch receiver as the focal point of the Saints' passing game.
3) Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings might've hit the jackpot when coach Mike Zimmer targeted Barr as his defensive playmaker of choice in the 2014 NFL Draft. Despite lacking significant defensive experience (Barr only played two seasons at outside linebacker at UCLA after beginning his collegiate career as a running back), Barr exhibits game-changing qualities as a disruptive playmaker off the edge. He displays exceptional first-step quickness and acceleration, yet he also has the capacity to turn speed into power on rushes. Given his extraordinary physical tools, the Vikings were wise to put him in a Von Miller-like role, where he can hammer tight ends on early downs as a stand-up linebacker and attack quarterbacks off the edge from a three-point stance as a sub-package defensive end. If the Vikings' offense can score points and force opponents into "catch-up" mode, Barr could emerge as the sack artist that Zimmer envisioned -- the centerpiece of his powerhouse defense.
2) Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Raider Nation took me to task when I suggested Mack was a "complementary" pass rusher, but there is no disputing his dominance as a run stopper on the edge. Mack exhibits explosive strength and power holding the point against run plays to his side. He bullies offensive tackles and tight ends on the way to the runner, leading to a number of tackles for loss and negative plays. While Mack's disruptive run-stopping skills are noteworthy, he must have a greater impact as a pass rusher to help the Raiders' defense get back on track in 2015. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. is on record saying Mack's sack totals must reach double digits for him to be considered great; Norton is planning on using the rugged defender in a variety of roles, including as a "nickel" defensive end, to let him wreak havoc on quarterbacks off the edges. If Mack can refine his rush skills and cash in on sack opportunities, he could become the destructive playmaker the Raiders need to contend in the AFC West.
1) Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings' star quarterback has already started to silence the critics that nitpicked his game prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, providing stellar play near the end of his rookie campaign; his passer rating (85.2) was the fifth-highest of any rookie signal-caller to start at least eight games since 1990. When Bridgewater takes the field with Adrian Peterson (who, of course, missed all but one game in 2014) in the backfield and an upgraded pass-catching corps that features three explosive playmakers (Mike Wallace, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson) and a Pro Bowl tight end (Kyle Rudolph) ... Watch out! The presence of the NFL's top runner will lead to more one-on-one matchups on the outside, resulting in a schoolyard game of pitch-and-catch between Bridgewater and his receivers. Not to mention, coordinator Norv Turner's clever scheming will help the young quarterback exploit favorable matchups on the perimeter and produce more big plays on vertical shots off play-action. Considering the superb timing, ball placement and judgment Bridgewater has already exhibited as a young passer, the Vikings have all of the pieces needed to become a perennial Super Bowl contender under his direction.