Sophomore Breakout Candidates
Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper, Kevin White. How many times have you heard these names this offseason? It's no secret that the excitement from the draft tends to carry over into preseason buzz, but it's a small tragedy that the guys who were rookies just one short year ago are so quickly forgotten. Well, this article is for the sophomore break-out candidates―the second year players who aren't being hyped up, but each of whom has the ability to make a huge impact in 2015.
The preseason QB buzz has been a mix of Tom Brady, Deflategate updates and, of course, Geno Smith's jaw. But few are talking about the potential of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entering his second season.
Barred from the starting job until this guy got injured in Week 3, Bridgewater didn't produce the flashiest numbers in his rookie season, yet he exhibited the skill set that many scouts deem worthy of a first-round draft grade.
In particular, Bridgewater's decision-making was spectacular, and not just for a rookie. He threw a total of twelve "interceptable" passes in 2014, a metric measured by Cian Fahey of Pre Snap Reads to gauge the interceptions that a quarterback was actually responsible for. Taking into account the number of total pass attempts, Bridgewater threw one "interceptable" pass every 33.5 attempts, which is the fifth best rate among qualified quarterbacks.
Furthermore, Bridgewater ranked third among qualified quarterbacks with a 0.5% bad decision rating (BDR). BDR is a metric developed by ESPN Insider KC Joyner used to gauge how often a quarterback makes a mental error resulting in a turn-over opportunity for the opposing team. Bridgewater's stellar performance in this metric wasn't shocking―he posted a remarkable 0.6% BDR against BCS-caliber opponents in his final year at Louisville.
The mantra of quarterbacks that bridge the gap from "good" to "great" is superb decision-making, and Bridgewater fits the bill. He has received Aaron Rodgers-esque scouting comparisons in terms of average physical tangibles, along with the ability to read defenses and accurately deliver the ball under pressure.
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Maybe most importantly, the prolific nature of the Vikings offense is sure to benefit Bridgewater's play. RB Adrian Peterson returns from his own saga and you can bet All Day's presence is going to free up the passing game. WR Mike Wallace also comes from Miami, and he provides a serious vertical threat to aid Bridgewater.
Most of the running back hype this offseason has surrounded rookies vying for their team's starting jobs; consequently, far less attention has been given to second year Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill.
Hill got a crack at the starting job as a rookie in 2014 after RB Giovani Bernard went down with a hip injury in Week 8. From that point on, he never looked back, leading the league in rushing yards and yards per carry in the second half. Overall, Hill averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the season. Entering 2015, his role as the centerpiece of Cincinnati's offense is secure, with Bernard playing a larger role on third downs.
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The thunder back in a run-first offense, Hill will benefit greatly this season from a fantastic offensive line. The Bengals' o-line ranked sixth overall in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics. Given the inconsistent play of Andy Dalton, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson surely recognizes the importance of establishing the run, so expect the offense to lean on Hill for first and second downs.
Much of Hill's 2014 success can be attributed to the blocking up front, and luckily for Hill, all five starting offensive linemen are returning in 2015. Led by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati's o-line simply overpowers many defenses and can certainly pave the way for a monster season from Hill in 2015.
2014 was the year of the rookie wide receiver, but between Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews tends to fall out of the discussion. Matthews enters 2015 with the best combination of talent and system among this group of sophomore studs.
The talent is obvious to anyone that watches him play. Admired by college scouts for his smooth route-running and sticky hands, Matthews was nothing short of impressive in his rookie season, racking up 872 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
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Sure to only build upon his skills in his sophomore season, Matthews benefits greatly from playing in head coach Chip Kelly's hurry-up offense. Since Kelly took over in 2013, the Eagles' number one wide receiver has finished in the top 10 of total yards each season.
More a product of system than talent, both DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (the two #1 receivers in 2013 and 2014, respectively) had the best year of their careers in Kelly's offense. Jackson outperformed his career best in receiving yards by nearly 200 yards and Maclin, who returned from having played zero games in 2013, outperformed his career best by almost 350 yards.
The success of past number one receivers in Chip Kelly's offense bodes well for Matthews, who projects to be "the guy" in Philadelphia this year. The only potential question mark here is the role that first round wide receiver Nelson Agholor will have in the offense. Josh Huff and Riley Cooper don't represent real threats to Matthews spot, so most of his ability to emerge as the next DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin rests on Agholor's transition to the NFL.