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The Second-Year Breakout Team

These highly touted 2015 NFL draft picks could be primed for star turns in their sophomore seasons

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL offseason features a lot of moving parts: 32 rosters of 53 bodies, a seven-round draft, and a massive free-agent pool make for plenty of change before a given season kicks off. In an effort to get you ready for the 2016 campaign, The Ringer will spend each Friday from now through September 2 doing its part to remind you how the dust settled — who landed where, what will be expected of them, and what’s different than it was last year. To start, we’re looking at highly drafted 2015 rookies who took what amounted to redshirt seasons last fall and are expected to step into bigger roles.

Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Jaguars

When Fowler tore the ACL in his left knee on the first day of rookie minicamp last May, no one could blame Jags fans for wondering what cosmic injustice they’d perpetrated to deserve this. The former Florida defensive end — who is 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds and by no means a small person — had floored scouts at the 2015 combine by running the 40 in 4.6 seconds; that burst, combined with the 8.5 sacks he recorded during his junior season with the Gators, was enough to persuade Jacksonville to take him no. 3 overall. The Jaguars’ faithful then had about 10 days to imagine how the man with lethal shoes could invigorate their pass rush before those hopes came crashing down.

Jacksonville’s front four was sabotaged by injuries last year. Already without Fowler, head coach Gus Bradley’s defense lost tackle Sen’Derrick Marks — who tallied 8.5 sacks the season prior — to a torn triceps tendon four games into his belated return from an ACL injury suffered in the Jaguars’ 2014 finale at Houston. From the rubble sprouted a wilted, pathetic weed of a pass rush. The injuries forced some players into duties for which they weren’t suited, and the results were left wanting: The Jags finished 24th in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, and generated pressure on just 21.7 percent of opponent dropbacks. Only the Falcons and Saints were worse.

Like seemingly every other part of Jacksonville’s defense, its front four will feature a totally revamped look this fall. General manager Dave Caldwell paid the sticker price for former Broncos standout and Super Bowl wrecking ball Malik Jackson — six years and $85.5 million, with $42 million guaranteed — but few players in football created more havoc as interior rushers last season. In 2015, the Jags’ nickel front included 34-year-old Chris Clemons, Jared Odrick, Andre Branch, and Tyson Alualu — the 10th overall pick from the 2010 draft who has 15 sacks over six seasons. This year, the plan is for Jacksonville to involve Jackson, Marks, Fowler, and … I dunno, me? It might not matter at that point.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about rookie Jalen Ramsey and the bolstered Jaguars’ secondary, but if this team is going to make a leap from 26th in defensive DVOA toward the top of the league, it’s going to start with the quarterback-crushing duo of Jackson and Fowler.

Kevin White, WR, Bears

Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, I’ll go watch highlights from White’s senior season at West Virginia in 2014. It’s a small reminder to us Bears fans that along with a (hopefully) healthy Alshon Jeffery, more help is on the way.

Jay Cutler’s receiving corps last year was a mess. White, the no. 7 pick in the 2015 draft, was ruled out before the season because of shin problems. Brandon Marshall had already been traded to the Jets that March; Jeffery’s troublesome hamstrings limited him to nine games; and Eddie Royal, who signed a contract last spring with $10 million guaranteed, missed the same amount of time due to injuries and illness. For a sizable chunk of last fall, Chicago’s three-receiver sets consisted of former seventh-round picks Marquess Wilson and Marc Mariani and practice-squadder Josh Bellamy.

Every time I think about the 2013 Bears offense, a little part of me dies. But if all goes according to plan in 2016, the combination of the 6-foot-3 White and Jeffery will give them an outside-receiver duo reminiscent of what Marshall and Jeffery were. What’s different this time around is the burden that Jeffery, White, and Royal will be asked to carry.

Cutler is entering his first season in Chicago without Matt Forte, generally accepted as one of the best receiving running backs in the league. Replacing him in the backfield is 2015 fourth-round pick Jeremy Langford. Among the 40 running backs in the NFL last season with at least 40 targets, Langford’s 52.4 percent catch rate was good for … 40th. The passing game can be a trouble area for rookie backs, but it’s safe to say that, right now, Langford is far from the pass-catching force that Forte was.

Martellus Bennett, dealt to the Patriots four months ago in a move we’re all going to regret when he and Rob Gronkowski are spiking the AFC East out of existence, missed five games last year with a rib injury, but the tight end still finished with 80 targets, second on the roster. Now that Bennett and Forte are out of the picture, the Bears’ middle-of-the-field receiving options are gone.

White’s speed — he ran a 4.35 40 at the combine — means he could provide Chicago’s offense with an element it has lacked since Johnny Knox was forced to retire in 2013. Given the way this group is assembled, it’s going to need it.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Bengals

Cincinnati’s right tackle situation is among the weirder ones in recent memory. The Bengals took Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi no. 21 overall in April 2015 despite knowing that he could miss his entire rookie season after tearing an ACL during a Liberty Bowl win over Kevin White’s Mountaineers. A round later, coach Marvin Lewis and Co. selected another offensive tackle, this time Jake Fisher out of Oregon.

The long game made sense. Bengals right tackle Andre Smith, whose performance had deteriorated since he got a contract extension in 2013, was set to become a free agent at the end of last year. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was also set to hit the market until he signed an extension last September to keep him in Cincy through the 2016 season.

Whitworth turns 35 in December, and Ogbuehi figures to be his long-term replacement at left tackle. But right now, it sounds like Ogbuehi’s 2016 role will be to replace Smith on the right side. “He’ll be one of the five [starters],” offensive line coach Paul Alexander told writer Geoff Hobson about Ogbuehi in April. “He’s got rare quickness and athleticism and he’s got ideal physical, athletic and competitive traits. He’s the real deal, the real package.”

That means unless Cincinnati wants to experiment at center, the most robust workload Fisher can hope for is the one he got last season, when now-departed coordinator Hue Jackson used him as an extra lineman/tight end/receiver when Jackson started feeling like Willy Wonka and throwing crazy shit against the wall.

Senquez Golson, CB, Steelers

The youth movement in Pittsburgh’s secondary has officially begun. The Steelers took Golson, the former Ole Miss star, in the second round of last year’s draft. Yet after losing him for the entire season to a shoulder injury, they weren’t able to see what he could do. Now, following the team’s 2016 draft additions of Miami cornerback Artie Burns (taken in the first round) and Maryland safety Sean Davis (taken in the second), coordinator Keith Butler will have three new defensive backs at his disposal.

Pittsburgh is famously hesitant to hand playing time to rookie defenders, but even if Burns and Davis don’t see the field right away, Golson should have the inside track on manning the slot corner spot. Butler must be hoping that Golson fares better there than Brandon Boykin, whom the Steelers pried away from the Eagles in a trade last August. By all accounts, the 5-foot-9 Golson, who excelled in zone and off coverage at the college level, is an ideal fit for Pittsburgh’s zone-heavy scheme.

Compared to what we’d historically come to expect out of former coordinator Dick LeBeau’s units, “dumpster fire” doesn’t begin to do justice when describing the 2014 Steelers defense. Pittsburgh finished a chill 30th in DVOA that season, with the same ranking against the pass. Last season, in its first under Butler, a hearty run defense helped the group climb to 11th in defensive DVOA and back to respectability. The secondary is the last remaining trouble spot for the 2016 Steelers: If Burns and Davis can join Golson and contribute early, this group has a chance to be really damn good.

D.J. Humphries, OT, Cardinals

In an attempt to downplay concerns about Humphries, the no. 24 pick in the 2015 draft, not seeing the field last season, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians made it clear that was the plan for his rookie offensive tackle all along. “We drafted D.J. last year knowing we were going to redshirt him because we had so much to teach him,” Arians said at the combine this February. “If we threw him out there, he was going to fail. Once they fail, it’s hard to get those scars off.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Cardinals’ plan with Humphries wasn’t totally dissimilar from Cincy’s with Ogbuehi. Arizona right tackle Bobby Massie, who’d made massive strides since being forced into action as a rookie, was set to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Over the past two offseasons, a huge portion of general manager Steve Keim’s spending was devoted to patching up his offensive line and protecting Carson Palmer. So with about $40 million guaranteed tied up in Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati on the left side, the Cards found Humphries’s $1.6 million cap figure for 2016 to be much more palatable than the $5.8 million Massie is now getting from the Bears.

Having a contingency plan following Massie’s departure was always going to be vital to keeping Arizona on its path to offensive success. Given the Cardinals’ general “Fuck it, we’re going deep” approach to offense, their tackles are asked to do as much as any in the league, and Humphries’s full year spent fine-tuning his game should serve him well in adopting that role.

Phillip Dorsett, WR, Colts

No pick from the 2015 draft elicited a collective Huh? quite like the Colts’ selection of Dorsett at no. 29 overall. Indianapolis, seen as a trendy Super Bowl sleeper gearing up to win immediately, had signed Andre Johnson two months earlier and was in need of big bodies along both lines. That didn’t prevent GM Ryan Grigson from taking the diminutive, blazing-fast Dorsett, though, despite the front office’s knowledge that the wideout might not see many snaps as a rookie.

He didn’t. Dorsett played on just 19.2 percent of Indy’s snaps last fall, spending most of the year firmly lodged behind Johnson, Donte Moncrief, and T.Y. Hilton on the depth chart. Even if Dorsett can’t unseat Moncrief as Andrew Luck’s second option this season, that 19.2 number should increase dramatically. The Colts’ standard approach involves three wide receivers; Johnson saw less action than both Hilton and Moncrief last year and still played on 64.4 percent of snaps. In fact, Johnson and slot man Griff Whalen combined for 841 snaps in the ’15 season. Most of those should now belong to Dorsett.

In the weeks after interim offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took over for the fired Pep Hamilton, the Colts were more willing to let Hilton work out of the slot, with Johnson and Moncrief outside. That’s an indication that Dorsett, Hilton, and Moncrief should be able to share the field, and, when they do, this offense could resemble the Quicksilver scene from ­X-Men: Days of Future Past. Moncrief weighs 221 pounds and ripped off a 4.4 40 at the combine. He looks slow next to Hilton and Dorsett.

The remaining question, if we assume Luck will stay healthy and return to form in 2016, is whether the Colts’ offensive line can hold up well enough to take advantage of the deep shots that Indianapolis’s speed creates. Grigson picked former Alabama stalwart Ryan Kelly no. 18 in this April’s draft to provide the Colts with some much-needed stability at center. But even with Kelly and the combination of Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhort holding down the left side, the two other starting spots remain up for grabs.