It can be hard to remember, given the urgent emphasis on the immediate in today's NFL, but rookies aren't actually cast in stone after their first year is completed. In fact, from Year 1 to Year 2 of a player's pro career, it's possible to see big changes -- positive and negative -- in performance.
I thought I'd take a look at some players moving the needle significantly in their second pro seasons, either in a positive direction or a negative direction, and attempt to assess whether the changes we're seeing are real or a mirage. Below are my takes on nine second-year pros who have either taken a major step forward or backward in 2017.
Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
If you were to draw up a picture of the ideal quarterback, it would look like Wentz coming out of North Dakota State: 6-foot-5 1/4, 237 pounds, 4.77-second 40-yard dash, 10-inch hands. A strong start to his rookie season was slowed by deficiencies in his supporting cast. In the first four games of 2016, Wentz posted a 67 percent completion rate, 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio and 103.5 passer rating. But then tackle Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension took effect, the pass-protection went south, and so did Wentz's numbers: He posted a 61 percent completion rate, 6:12 TD-to-INT ratio and 70.2 passer rating in the 10-game span for which Johnson was out. A lack of receiver depth didn't help.
This year, with Johnson back and new weapons Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and Mack Hollins in the fold, Wentz is playing great and getting better every game. His passer rating (99.6) through six games is 20 points higher than his final mark from 2016 (79.3), while he's nearly halved his interception rate (from 2.3 percent in 2016 to 1.4 percent in 2017). Wentz seems to have taken a huge step forward as an on-field leader. He's a gem, a rare commodity as a quarterback who's got it all: size, athleticism, skills and smarts. You can just see him playing with much more confidence and authority. He'll be a top-five quarterback in the next three years or so.
Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
Goff lost all seven starts of his rookie year, and I don't think the right people were coaching him initially with the Rams. New coach Sean McVay has been like a gift from heaven for Goff, who has plenty of talent and wants to be good, but just needed somebody to help him realize his potential. The Rams added some pieces (free agent receiver Robert Woods, trade acquisition Sammy Watkins and rookie Cooper Kupp), and Goff has reached another level. One year after looking completely lost, he's on pace for a winning season (the Rams are 4-2 and leading the NFC West) while cutting down on sacks and turnovers and picking up 8 yards per pass attempt -- that's a very good number for any quarterback, let alone one as young as Goff (23). He's playing with confidence and poise, including in three road wins, and could be 5-1 if not for a drop by Kupp.
The first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft will never be as good as Wentz, who was selected one pick later, but I do think Goff will be a top-10 quarterback in the next couple of years, someone capable of taking a team to the playoffs.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
It does not look like Elliott has the same speed and quickness as he did last season. You don't see him playing with the same explosiveness -- he's not hitting the hole for 60-yard pickups like he did in 2016. Consider that through his first five games in 2016, he ran for 546 yards and five scores, while this year through five games, he only has 393 yards and two scores. Losing Ronald Leary and Doug Free from the Cowboys' offensive line has hurt him, but the decline in line play should not have made him worse by 1.5 yards per carry (Elliott's average dropped from 5.1 yards per carry in 2016 to 3.7 this year). I've noticed a difference in body language, especially when I was visiting Cowboys camp this summer. Is the off-field saga of his six-game suspension distracting him? Is he not quite 100 percent? Is he carrying any extra weight? It's hard to say.
I still see Elliott as being a very good player. You can't ignore his production at Ohio State and as a rookie. Remember, also, that he's not someone you have to take out on third downs -- he's an every-down back who is also a really good receiver. Presuming he can put whatever is going on this year behind him, I like him to finish his career as a 10,000-yard rusher.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott's 2017 performance is a tough one to grade. His stats are down from 2016 (his completion percentage has dipped by 5.2 points, while his yards-per-attempt mark has slipped below 7.0), and he's already lost as many games as he did all of last season. But two of Dallas' three losses came because the defense couldn't hold a lead Prescott had staked it to. How much can you really blame him for that? Numbers are important, but they're also dependent on a number of external factors, including the effectiveness of the players around Prescott. Is he getting rushed more behind an offensive line that, while strong, isn't as great as last year's edition?
Stats aside, Prescott looks like he's playing just as good as -- if not better than -- he did in 2016. He's operating with more confidence and throwing with greater accuracy. His all-around game has improved, and I think the talent level and ability to be a winning quarterback are still there. Because of his work ethic and competitiveness, I think he'll always be a solid quarterback. I don't think he'll ever surpass Wentz, but I do like Prescott to be around the same level as Goff, a winning presence for the next decade or so.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The fifth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft played well as a rookie, posting two picks over 16 starts, but he's really taken it up a notch in Year 2, like a baseball player whose average jumps from .300 to .330. Ramsey has been targeted 40 times and allowed just 17 receptions, for a reception rate of 42.5 percent. He's also given up just one touchdown and has allowed a passer rating of 43.4 on throws his way, per Next Gen Stats. With two picks already this season, he's on pace to finish with five. Ramsey is a versatile defensive back with outstanding coverage ability -- he reminds you of Deion Sanders. Ramsey has helped drive the Jaguars' third-ranked pass defense, which has, in turn, helped fuel the team's 3-3 start. He'll be a perennial All-Pro who will ensure Jacksonville is a defensive power for a long time, a once-in-every-10-years-type talent.
Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears
As a rookie, Howard rushed for 1,313 yards and scored six touchdowns on a team that won just three games. After six games, his yards-per-carry mark is down a bit, dropping from 5.2 to 4.2. But that's a bit deceiving, because he's also helped keep the Bears from falling completely off the face of the Earth sans any legit receiving threats. In both of Chicago's victories -- overtime wins against the Steelersin Week 3 and Ravensin Week 6 -- Howard was an overwhelming force, posting a combined 342 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 65 touches. He might not ever reach top-five running back status, but he's a dependable stud who can be relied on in pass protection and will eventually be the catalyst for a trip to the playoffs.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Chicago Bears
Floyd is another player taking a big step after a strong rookie year. He posted seven sacks in 12 games last year but was hampered by injury. In 2017, Floyd has become a bona fide difference-maker. He's got three sacks in six games and has helped power Chicago's sixth-ranked defense. Floyd has exceptional quickness and explosive power, and he's very athletic. He's also added weight and strength since his rookie campaign. Like Ramsey, Floyd continues to improve with every game. Everybody's looking for a player like this.
Eli Apple, CB, New York Giants
After making my All-Rookie Team last season, Apple has fallen off in 2017, getting benched for the first three series against the Chargers. With Janoris Jenkins entrenched on the other side, opponents seem happy to test Apple, who has allowed 26 catches on 43 targets -- a rate of 60 percent -- and yielded four touchdowns. The fact that the Giants aren't getting the pass rush they got last year surely hasn't helped Apple any. Because of his size and speed, I think he'll ultimately recover and become a solid starter, though I don't see him as Pro Bowl material. He's not a shutdown corner. But with experience, he can figure it out.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season, Hargreaves started 16 games and made my All-Rookie Team. This season, he's allowed catches on 70 percent of his targets (28 of 40) for a Buccaneers defense that ranks 30th overall and 31st against the pass. I thought Hargreaves was going to be a very good pro, and I'm surprised at how much he's been burned. Hargreaves lacks arm length (30 5/8 inches) and has small hands (8 3/4 inches), and long-term, you worry about defensive backs like that, especially when it comes to picking off the ball. It's also hard to envision someone of Hargreaves' size (5-10, 204 pounds) successfully transitioning to safety if he can't settle in at corner. I like this kid, but the numbers don't lie. He's an enigma, someone who still has Pro Bowl potential but who might also never be completely satisfactory as a starter.
Also considered:Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers; James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers; Jacoby Brissett, QB, Indianapolis Colts; DeForest Buckner, DT, San Francisco 49ers; William Jackson, CB, Cincinnati Bengals; Blake Martinez, LB, Green Bay Packers; Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars.