Typically, there is no more significant jump in an NFL player’s career than the one between their first and second years.
That was certainly the case for me, and with good reason. As a rookie, I was just figuring out what the pro game was about, unsure of myself and whether I belonged. I spent most of that first year just watching and learning from the veterans as much as possible while building strength and improving my skills.
My mentality was totally different going into my second year. I knew I belonged, had a routine and a process for getting better I had learned from the older guys, and more than anything, was anxious to show everyone what I could do.
It’s not unlike the difference between being a freshman in college vs. coming back for sophomore year in terms of the level of comfortability; for me, it was like night and day. I went from trying to make the team or even the practice squad in 2001 to starting every preseason game in 2002.
I made a big second-year leap, and the odds are a bunch of NFL players will do the same this season. Here are a few in particular that I have my eye on because they can take their games to the next level in 2023.
5 Second-Year Breakout Players
Brian Robinson Jr., RB, Commanders
Brian Robinson Jr. is probably the most obvious candidate on this list because of the unique circumstances surrounding his rookie campaign. He missed the first four games last season while recovering from gunshot wounds after an attempted carjacking last August.
Still, he found a way to play in 12 games as a rookie, rushing for almost 800 yards at 3.89 yards per carry. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t improve, possibly significantly, on those numbers.
“From the time I stepped back on the field, I was dealing with all kinds of things going on in my body…,” Robinson said when discussing last season, “…there wasn’t one time I felt like Brian Robinson.”
“So, people should expect a lot of great things to come when you compare all the things I did while I was limping around all year last year.”
Talk is cheap, but given Robinson’s comments regarding how he feels compared to last year and combining that with being the lead back in new offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s offense, you have a perfect candidate for a second-year leap.
>> READ: Commanders Season Preview
George Pickens, WR, Steelers
George Pickens had a nice rookie season for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a second-round pick, catching 52 passes for 801 yards and four touchdowns. Anybody who watched him and the Steelers last year could quickly identify his unique talent.
Pickens had the highlight of training camp thus far with an incredible catch against rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., and based on what Pickens has said, Steelers fans should get used to the sight of him making big plays down the field.
“We’re gonna probably take more shots this year,” he said. “Try to mix it up a little bit.”
The idea of Pickens pairing with another strong candidate for a second-year leap, QB Kenny Pickett, has Yinzers all over Pittsburgh more than a little excited for this upcoming season.
>> READ: Steelers Season Preview
Jordan Davis, DT, Eagles
Last year’s first-round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles was trending in the right direction and starting to get playing time before suffering an injury in Week 8. The Eagles quickly signed veterans Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to ensure defensive tackle depth didn’t prevent them from getting to the Super Bowl.
As a result, Jordan Davis didn’t play as much when he returned from the injury later in the season.
According to all reports out of camp, and even Davis himself, the 6-foot-6, 340-pound monster is in much better shape going into this season. The belief is his improved conditioning, combined with the increased confidence of a second-year player, could lead to a breakout season.
He’s one of several second-year Eagles, like LB Nakobe Dean, OG Cam Jurgens and safety Reed Blankenship, who appear poised for much more prominent roles as sophomores and, thus, excellent candidates for that second-year leap.
>> READ: Eagles Season Preview
Kyle Hamilton, Safety, Ravens
The former Notre Dame safety didn’t have the season many were expecting in Baltimore last year, even though most observers thought he was one of the truly elite players in the 2022 NFL Draft.
There were several reasons for that. For one, the Ravens already had two accomplished safeties on the roster, Chuck Clark and Marcus Williams. They probably only drafted Kyle Hamilton because he fell into their laps with the 14th overall pick.
Secondly, he played primarily in the slot, which is not what he did in college or where he is most comfortable. That has all changed now. Clark is no longer on the team, Hamilton is primarily playing back in the middle of the field and the results thus far in camp have been highly encouraging.
Hamilton has a legit shot to go from role player to star player in just one offseason.
>> READ: Ravens Season Preview
Evan Neal, OT, Giants
Evan Neal was considered one of the safest prospects in last year’s draft as a physical phenom with a boatload of starts in the rugged SEC. However, he struggled more than anticipated in the transition to right tackle as a rookie.
The good news for the New York Giants is they have the template in place because they saw the same issues with Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Thomas in his rookie year. I highly doubt the Giants brass is worried.
Part of it was moving from left tackle at Alabama to right tackle in the pros. The other part was that he was a rookie, and NFL pass rushers are far more skilled than college pass rushers. An entire offseason of reps at right tackle has me thinking Neal will be just fine in Year 2.
>> READ: Giants Season Preview
Ross Tucker is a former NFL offensive lineman who played seven seasons for the Cowboys, Bills, Patriots and Washington after graduating from Princeton University in 2001. He works as a color commentator for both CBS Sports and Westwood One in addition to hosting a number of podcasts, including the popular Ross Tucker Football Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @RossTuckerNFL.