Predicting the NFL's Sophomore Slumps for the 2014 Season
The sophomore-slump phenomenon might be more mythical than it is a real trend, but there are annual examples of second-year NFL players who fail to meet expectations after impressive rookie seasons.
The most obvious example of a sophomore slump in 2013 was Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Coming off a torn ACL, Griffin was unable to exhibit the same playmaking ability and efficiency as he did in his 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. His completion percentage dropped more than five percentage points, while he had 11 fewer total touchdowns and threw seven more interceptions than the previous year. He even got benched for Washington’s final three games of the season.
The 2013 draft class will try to avoid following in the footsteps of RG3, and many other promising rookies turned disappointing second-year players before him, in 2014.
One national rookie-award recipient, PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, has already had his second NFL season go up in flames due to a torn ACL.
AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers, AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets and PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers all had excellent 2013 seasons, but each of them should be in position to continue their ascent into the league’s best players at their respective positions if they can stay healthy.
Yet, although players are typically expected to progress between their first and second NFL seasons, some will seemingly regress. The following eight players each have factors working against them that make backing up their impressive rookie campaigns less likely.
In order to have a sophomore slump, one must have a level of performance to fall from, so all players chosen were either ranked within the top 50 rookies of 2013 or were honorable mentions to those rankings.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
No position is more susceptible to the sophomore slump than running back, an area where young players often find immediate success but can decline quickly. "Between 2003 and 2012, 33 rookie running backs have rushed for 600 or more yards," according to Rotoworld.com’s Adam Levitan, and "22 of them" suffered a drop-off in rushing yards in their second NFL seasons.
If history is any indication, it’s likely that at least two or three of the tailbacks who reached the 600-yard mark last season will have a dip in production in 2014. One of those rushers could be Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bell finished the 2013 season with 1,259 yards from scrimmage, the second-most among all rookies, and 860 rushing yards. He ran for eight touchdowns and fumbled the ball just once.
Down the stretch of the season, Bell was at his best. He had at least 20 touches and 80 yards from scrimmage in each of Pittsburgh’s final nine games.
Bell’s starting job for 2014 is in no jeopardy. A 6’1”, 244-pound back with impressive agility and good receiving skills for his size, Bell can make plays both between and outside the tackles and can be impactful on any down and distance.
Despite Bell's impressive traits, it still shouldn’t come as a surprise if his touches decrease slightly this upcoming season. Last year, the Steelers’ best options for backups were Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. This year, they could look to spell Bell more frequently after an offseason in which the front office added veteran free agent LeGarrette Blount and third-round draft pick Dri Archer to the backfield.
Bell could still have a big year even if his touches decrease, but he’ll need to improve upon his 3.5 yards per carry from 2013 to sustain any success. If he doesn’t, and Blount and Archer make plays as role players, Bell might not live up to expectations in 2014—at least not among fantasy football players who are selecting him with high draft picks.
Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams
Like Bell, Zac Stacy quickly became a starter and a workhorse at running back for his team in 2013, but greater competition could lead to a lighter workload in 2014.
A fifth-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in last year’s draft, Stacy certainly exceeded expectations in his rookie season. A tough, durable runner with great vision, Stacy ran the ball 250 times for 973 yards and seven touchdowns.
Stacy’s first-year performance should be enough for him to remain St. Louis’ starting tailback for the upcoming season, but he won’t simply be given the job.
According to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has indicated that the rest of St. Louis’ running backs—including Tre Mason, a gifted rusher from Auburn selected in Round 3 of this year’s draft—will get a shot to push Stacy for his spot atop the depth chart.
It still would come as a surprise, though, if Stacy doesn’t get a majority of carries for the Rams offense in 2014, but St. Louis wouldn’t have drafted Mason if it didn’t think he could contribute quickly.
An explosive rusher who is good at finding running lanes, Mason brings more big-play ability to the table than Stacy, who averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and had only five runs of 20 or more yards this past season.
Nonetheless, Stacy’s reliability should keep him playing a significant role in the Rams offense, but like Bell, he’ll need to improve his rushing average to build upon his rookie success.
According to the aforementioned research by Rotoworld’s Adam Levitan, only four rookie running backs ran for 600-plus yards while averaging less than four yards per carry from 2003 to 2012. All four of them had fewer rushing yards and touchdowns in their second seasons.
Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Aside from running backs, sophomore slumps are most often connected to quarterbacks, for whom the term is often tossed around liberally as soon as a second-year signal-caller has a couple of bad games.
There aren’t any second-year quarterbacks with far to fall this season, but the best rookie at the position in 2013 was Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon. While first-round pick EJ Manuel battled injuries throughout his rookie year with the Buffalo Bills, and second-round pick Geno Smith was erratic in year one for the New York Jets, Glennon, a third-round pick had a respectable year for Tampa Bay.
Glennon passed for 2,608 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in 13 starts last year. By the end of his rookie campaign, however, his performance had started to falter. In Tampa Bay’s final four games, Glennon completed just 51.6 percent of his passes and threw four picks.
The North Carolina State product has to improve his accuracy to avoid a disappointment in 2014, and he also has to win a starting job that might not be his. Veteran passer Josh McCown, who completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and one interception last season with the Chicago Bears while filling in for Jay Cutler, signed with the Buccaneers this offseason.
According to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, McCown was named as the starter upon his signing by new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, who previously coached McCown for two years in Chicago. That said, the Buccaneers reportedly “became fully sold on Glennon in April after he excelled at Tampa Bay's first Smith-coached volunteer minicamp,” according to Fox Sports’ Alex Marvez.
There should be a legitimate competition to start in training camp, but it means Glennon must win a battle—and one that might be an uphill fight—just to keep his first-team job and be able to back up his rookie season.
Tyrann Mathieu, FS/CB, Arizona Cardinals
One of the most remarkable stories of the 2013 rookie class, Tyrann Mathieu went from playing no college football in 2012 to emerging as the NFL’s best first-year player last season. A hybrid defensive back who played free safety in the team's base defense and slot cornerback in its nickel and dime sub-packages, Mathieu immediately emerged as a star playmaker in the Arizona Cardinals' secondary.
Mathieu’s nose for the ball and playmaking ability wasn’t necessarily a revelation in itself; he was an impact player for the LSU defense in 2011 before substance-abuse-policy violations led to his dismissal from that program in August 2012.
Even so, Mathieu’s rookie season certainly exceeded realistic expectations.
The third-round pick showed no rust in his first year in the NFL. He was fluid in coverage, regardless of where he lined up, and recorded 68 total tackles, nine passes defensed (two interceptions) and one forced fumble.
However, the fantastic start to Mathieu’s NFL career hit an abrupt road block when he tore his ACL and LCL in December 2013. If the injury affects his ability to play at 100 percent during the 2014 season, it will be very tough for him to play as well as he did in year one.
The Cardinals would be smart to prioritize Mathieu’s long-term health over his potential for short-term impact, so they should not push him back into the lineup until he is fully ready to go.
According to Darren Urban of azcardinals.com, Mathieu “still hopes he can play” in Week 1 against the San Diego Chargers, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said he sees Oct. 1—after Arizona’s Week 4 bye—as the target date for Mathieu’s return.
Regardless of when he returns, Mathieu won’t have the benefit of going through a full training camp and preseason to get himself prepared for regular-season action. The Cardinals will certainly hope that the “Honey Badger” can return to form at some point this season, but unless he does so immediately upon his activation, it will be tough for him to have a season that rivals his 2013 campaign.
Marcus Cooper, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
It’s unusual for a rookie cut by the team who drafted him to then become an impact player for another team that same year, but that’s exactly what Marcus Cooper did in 2013. Although the seventh-round pick failed to make the San Francisco 49ers’ roster, he resurfaced in a big way for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cooper went on to play in all 16 games for the Chiefs this past season, making six starts and recording 18 passes defensed, the most among all NFL rookies. Right off the bat, Cooper made it clear that he has a skill for making plays on the ball.
No one could have expected that Cooper would have that level of production after being cut before the season even began, but he ended up giving the Chiefs another playmaker at the position, which proved especially important as veteran Brandon Flowers battled injuries.
With that being said, Cooper has to step up his game in 2014, as he is expected to take on a full-time starting role following the Chiefs’ release of Flowers earlier this offseason. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise, if Cooper ends up struggling in his more expanded role.
For as impressive as Cooper’s ball skills were in 2013, his high number of passes defensed is also an indicator of how often he was targeted when he was on the field.
He was consistently viewed as the most beatable cornerback on the field by opposing offenses, and he was the only cornerback to play more than 50 percent of his team’s coverage snaps and give up two yards per coverage snap, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Cooper was an impressive playmaker at his best last season, but he had some serious struggles down the stretch. He must become more consistent if he is going to prove himself as a starting-caliber defender on the outside.
Lane Johnson, RT, Philadelphia Eagles
Lane Johnson’s sophomore year is already off to a very disappointing start.
According to Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, Johnson will be suspended for the first four games of the Philadelphia Eagles’ season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, although the ban has not yet been confirmed by the NFL.
That’s a road block that the No. 4 overall pick, who also took heat earlier this offseason for tweeting a picture of a $17,000 receipt from his “rookie dinner,” will have to overcome. While Johnson had a solid rookie season, he needs to make strides in year two to establish himself as Philadelphia’s answer at right tackle.
The suspension will make that harder to do.
Johnson’s upside shouldn’t be questioned. The 6’6”, 317-pound lineman has exceptional athleticism for his size and is good at generating power. He was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league’s ninth-best run-blocking tackle in 2013.
Still, Johnson has a long way to go in his development in order to live up to his predraft billing. He was a weak link in the Eagles' pass protection last year; he allowed 10 sacks and 57 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Marcus Hayes of the Daily News recently labeled Johnson as “the Eagles’ most replaceable player.” That’s no description that should be bestowed on a top-five draft choice, but if he fails to set himself apart upon his return from whoever replaces him at right tackle, his 2014 season will be a failure in the eyes of many.
Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
Alec Ogletree was, both immediately and throughout the 2013 season, one of the most league's impactful rookie playmakers.
He was also one of its most inconsistent first-year players.
Ogletree has as much potential as just about any player from his draft class. Selected with the No. 30 overall pick in the 2013 selection meeting, Ogletree is a big, athletic linebacker who flies around the field, is skilled at making plays on the ball and is a hard-hitting tackler.
The Georgia product finished his initial NFL season with a highly impressive stat line. He led the St. Louis Rams with 117 total tackles and led all rookies with six forced fumbles (no other first-year player had more than two). He also had 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed.
For as active as Ogletree can be throughout a game, those statistics will be tough for him to duplicate in 2014, especially if he does not improve upon some serious flaws demonstrated in his game last season.
Ogletree’s dangerous once he’s making a beeline for the ball, but his instincts and field awareness remain at a rudimentary level for an NFL linebacker. He is often out of position and takes poor angles. As a result, he missed 19 tackles and had 72 passes completed against him in 2013 for 785 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
You can expect Ogletree to continue covering ground all over the field and making plays, but you can also expect opponents to increasingly attack and expose his weaknesses. If he does not make significant improvements to his fundamentals this summer, his second year could be cause for frustration.
Tim Wright, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2013 rookie class, Tim Wright went from being an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers to leading all first-year tight ends with 54 receptions and 571 yards.
A converted wideout with an impressive combination of size (6’4”, 220 lbs) and athleticism, Wright became a dynamic flex receiving option for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense last season.
An encore performance in 2014, however, seems unlikely after Tampa Bay signed veteran tight end Brandon Myers in free agency then selected Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round of this year’s draft.
Myers (6’4”, 256 lbs) and Seferian-Jenkins (6’5”, 262 lbs) are both significantly bigger and much better in-line blockers than Wright.
The Buccaneers could still use Wright as a hybrid slot receiver/tight end, especially since their roster suggests that they will use two-tight end sets frequently this upcoming season. But while Wright might be a slightly better downfield threat than the other tight ends on the depth chart, his advantage in that capacity is not distinct enough for him to take snaps away from Myers and ASJ.
It’s unlikely that Wright would have even ended up in Tampa Bay had it not been for the presence of Greg Schiano, who coached the Buccaneers last year and had previously coached Wright at Rutgers. His emergence was one of the few positives of a rough final season for Schiano in Tampa Bay, but his role is unlikely to be as significant under new coach Lovie Smith.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.