Scout NFL Roundtable: Second-Year Stars?

An NFL player's sophomore season can be tough, but sixteen of our NFL team experts picked the second-year players that they think will make the transition from the sidelines to the highlight reels this season. Check out their list and find out why they're high on them inside...

"Out of the 2006 rookies who didn't start last year for your team, which one is most likely to get noticed by fans during his sophomore season in the NFL ... and why?"

That's the question we recently posed to our Scout NFL publishers and writers. Check out who sixteen of them picked below.

Craig Massei,
San Francisco 49ers

With Frank Gore producing a breakout season for the 49ers in 2006, when he set a franchise record with a NFC-leading 1,695 yards rushing, rookie Michael Robinson didn't get a lot of opportunities out of the San Francisco backfield. But the versatile Robinson, still making the transition to running back after starring at quarterback in college for Penn State, is primed to emerge as a power complement to Gore's slashing style in 2007. 

Robinson scored two touchdowns while toting only 38 carries as a rookie, but he figures to get a lot more work this season as the 49ers look to keep Gore fresh after he recorded a franchise-record 312 carries in 2006. Robinson, now up to 228 pounds, has great hands and will be used more often as a third-down back.  And he should see his carries increase manifold while becoming a frequent contributor in one of the NFL's rising offensive attacks.

Tim Yotter,
Minnesota Vikings

It's possible that all but one (fifth-round safety Greg Blue) of the Vikings' 2006 draft choices will be starting in 2007, but their first-round choice - linebacker Chad Greenway - never got the opportunity to play in 2006. Greenway tore his ACL covering a kickoff in the team's preseason opener last year, but he's slated to start on weak side this season, and that's the playmaking position in the Tampa 2 defense. 

In spring practices, Greenway hasn't shown any effects of being hampered by the injury. In fact, he has intercepted numerous passes in practices and showing much of the athleticism that initially attracted the Vikings to him. As much as 2006 second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson will be counted on to direct the offense from his quarterback position, Greenway will be counted on heavily on the defensive side of the equation.

Barry McBride,
Cleveland Browns

Browns GM Phil Savage has talked of "redshirting" some young players as the team rebuilds its roster, and two great examples of 2006 draft choices who fit that category are WR Travis Wilson and RB Jerome Harrison. Of the two, Harrison might have the greater potential to become prominent in 2007, although Wilson should compete for the team's third WR role. Running back Harrison, who ran for 1900 yards for Washington State in 2005, has bulked up to 212 pounds and has been working to resolve the poor blocking skills which kept him off the field for the most part in 2006. With only the aging Jamal Lewis (on a one-year contract) and Jason Wright ahead of him on the depth chart, Harrison could turn out to be the prime beneficiary of the Browns much-improved offensive line this season.

Brad Thomas,
Carolina Panthers

Most NFL fans didn't hear much from Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams last season. That should change in 2007. 

The Panthers have switched to a zone blocking system which is much like the system Williams ran in during his collegiate days at Memphis. Look for Williams to get the bulk of the carries in 2007 and beyond as he establishes himself as the lead back for the Panthers.

Steve Waters,
Denver Broncos

WR Domenik Hixon
(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Wide receiver Domenik Hixon spent most of the 2006 season on the injury list with a broken bone in his foot, but with rehabilitation complete he has been turning heads in the Denver Broncos' minicamps. Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey has been defending Hixon and predicts the second year player's combination of speed and skill will make him a star of the future.

Hixon (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) was Denver's fourth-round draft choice from the University of Akron, where he was one of the top performers in school history. The Broncos were primarily looking at Hixon as a returns specialist, but his play so far at wide receiver indicates he'll probably get a shot at both roles.

Jon Scott,
New England Patriots

A couple months ago the answer to this question would have been very different. The Patriots offseason changed the prospects for some of the promising youngsters on the roster.

These are players who should have seen their roles increase: LB Pierre Woods, LB Corey Mays, WR Chad Jackson and OT Ryan O'Callaghan. Of those, Woods and Mays (2 undrafted free agents) may have trouble making the roster, while Chad Jackson will be buried under an avalanche of talent - including someone named Randy Moss. 

O'Callaghan - who was sidelined by a neck injury in 2006 - is in a battle with Nick Kaczur for the starting role at right tackle. Fans probably won't know he won the job unless he messes up and gets Tom Brady killed in the pocket. He did start six games last year as the line dealt with injuries.

Alain Poupart,
Miami Dolphins

Since the Dolphins were the only team in the NFL not to have a single start from any of their rookies in 2006, there are plenty of candidates to choose from here. There's not one guy among the six
draft picks from last year who really jumps out as being ready to break through, but the one guy with the most upside appears to be defensive end/tackle Rodrique Wright. He sat out all of last season
after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he has looked good in the offseason camps so far.

Matthew Postins,
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Second-year wide receiver Maurice Stovall stands the best chance of making an impact among the Buccaneers' second-year players. He's the kind of target head coach Jon Gruden likes in the red zone. He's tall (6-foot-5), has great leaping ability and controls his body well. He showed flashes of that once the Bucs began using him late last season (he started the last two games).

Stovall only caught seven passes for 102 yards, but he averaged 14.6 yards per catch and had two carries for a 14.5 yard average, so he has the speed to stretch defenders. The struggles of Michael Clayton the past two seasons have opened a door for Stovall to become a more vital part of the offense.

At the least, his combination of speed and athleticism will make him the Bucs' No. 3 receiver. Ike Hilliard, last year's No. 3, is on the downhill slide. At best, he has enough talent and drive to push Clayton for the No. 2 spot, a competition that would likely help both players during training camp.

Jim Wexell,
Pittsburgh Steelers

It could be any of three for the Steelers: O-lineman Willie Colon, return man Willie Reid or free safety Anthony Smith. 

I'll go with Smith since he has the edge on Ryan Clark for the job. Smith is a rangy, hard-hitting ball hawk who has fit in with the vets since he arrived.

Jerry Langton,
Indianapolis Colts

LB Freddy Keiaho
(Brian Bahr/AP)
It seems like every year the Colts let a linebacker go, and every year they find some guy to take his place. This year, Freddy Keiaho is expected take weakside linebacker Cato June's place in the starting lineup.

Many were shocked when the Colts picked him in the third round of the 2006 draft as draft guides had him pegged as a late rounder or free agent. He's short (only 5-foot-11) and only started one season at San Diego State. But the Colts saw an excellent athlete who tracks runners like a Labrador retriever and plays with the same kind of hair-on-fire urgency as the Colts' best defensive player, Bob Sanders.

Keiaho was something of a terror on special teams last year, recording 12 tackles and 4 assists. But when he filled in for a week for injured starting middle linebacker Gary Brackett with just two days of practice, he looked like an old pro and the Colts won 27-20.

Just imagine what he can do at his natural position with a full year's of practice behind him.

Denis Savage,
Oakland Raiders

There is a reason the Oakland Raiders kept Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator and went outside to look for their head coach - consistency.  One player who will benefit from this is safety Michael Huff, a first-round pick last year.  He played a smart, instinctive game last year but did not make the big play that put his name in lights.  

Things will change this time around, as his natural athleticism combines with his understanding of the system to give the Raiders emerging defense another elite defender.

Todd Korth,
Green Bay Packers

Keep an eye on cornerback Will Blackmon, who was selected by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the Packers. Blackmon missed most of last season with foot and rib injuries, but has shown in offseason practices that he can be an asset as a nickel or dime cornerback and kickoff return specialist. 

At Boston College, Blackmon had 2,700 career kickoff return yards, 222 yards shy of the Division I all-time mark.

Charlie Bernstein,
Jacksonville Jaguars

The most likely non-starting second-year player to garner national attention in 2007 is last years' first round pick, Marcedes Lewis. 

Lewis injured his ankle in the Jaguars' first preseason game in 2006 and missed most of training camp, as well as the majority of the first quarter of the season. When Lewis became healthy, he was playing catch-up, trying to learn a new offense while spending most of the season playing with a backup quarterback who has problems getting past his first progression.

The Jaguars now have a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter who likes to use more two tight-end sets, and Marcedes Lewis will finally have the benefit of participating in a full camp. Lewis has displayed great hands and was a primary target for returning starter Byron Leftwich in minicamps - and should continue to be in the regular season.

Doug Farrar,
Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks got good production from their 2006 draft, as CB Kelly Jennings, G Rob Sims, DE Darryl Tapp and P Ryan Plackemeier all stepped in pretty quickly. Tapp didn't technically start, though he got quite a few reps in rotation. If there's one player I think fans should look out for from that draft class, it's former Auburn WR Ben Obomanu. Obomanu didn't play in Seattle's overstuffed receiver corps in 2006, but the Seahawks threw from four-wide sets more than any other team in 2006, and with the continued questions about the tight end position, the trade of Darrell Jackson and the fact that Nate Burleson has been somewhat of a disappointment so far, someone's going to have to fill the role of third and fourth receiver. Team President Tim Ruskell likes Obomanu's skillset, and he's looked good in this year's minicamps. He'll most certainly get a chance to succeed going forward from training camp.

Dan Leberfeld,
New York Jets

WR Brad Smith. Last year was a learning experience for this college quarterback.  He spent the season figuring out how to play wide receiver. 

This year, he could take a quantum leap. He is an amazing athlete, and expect to see him make some highlight film catches in 2007.

Nick Athan, Warpaint
Kansas City Chiefs

Last year the Chiefs had two savvy veterans patrolling the deep secondary. Sammy Knight and Greg Wesley were starting safeties, but as the season wore on they saw their playing time decrease. Seventh-round pick Jarrad Page and second-round pick Bernard Pollard began to intertwine with the starting defensive unit.

Page saw far more action late in the season as he quickly became a favorite of head coach Herm Edwards. In fact, Page was a hit at the first minicamp. He has speed, can hit, has a nose for the football and his versatility is something this secondary has longed for in recent years.

Pollard was a slow starter and had to make his mark on special teams where he blocked three punts including one for a touchdown in the season finale against Jacksonville. Both are locks to start in 2007.

With a youth movement in full swing in KC, Edwards' secondary will be faster, stronger and more active then it was a year ago to being the 2006 season.

John Crist,
Chicago Bears

Assuming Lance Briggs stands by his threat to never play another down for the Chicago Bears, second-year man Jamar Williams will most likely open the regular season as the starter at weakside linebacker.

Briggs was a fairly unheralded prospect coming out of Arizona in 2003, but he's turned himself into one of the most productive tacklers in the NFL and a two-time Pro Bowl performer. Williams, a fourth-round draft choice from Arizona State last year, had an excellent preseason and was just starting to make an impact on special teams as a rookie before a shoulder/pectoral ailment put him on injured reserve after Week 3. Much like Briggs, Williams possesses great speed and excellent quickness, plus playing next to perennial All-Pro Brian Urlacher will only make his job easier.

In an interesting twist, Briggs has positioned himself as President of the Jamar Williams Fan Club because if the youngster plays well, perhaps the organization will make more of an effort to finally ship the veteran out of town.

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