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Sophomore Jump: The Second-Year NFL Playmakers Breaking Out This Season

Who says that players are supposed to decline in their second seasons? For DJ Chark, Courtland Sutton, Mark Andrews, Will Dissly, Michael Gallup, and Ronald Jones II, 2019 is anything but a down year.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

From quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Gardner Minshew II to pass-catchers like Terry McLaurin, Marquise Brown, DK Metcalf, Mecole Hardman, and T.J. Hockenson, the 2019 rookie class of offensive difference-makers has stolen much of the limelight during the early part of the NFL season. But while that rookie group has certainly been exciting to watch, their play has overshadowed the impressive breakout performances of a handful of second-year players. These six offensive playmakers have taken a massive sophomore year jump—and look like future stars.

WR DJ Chark, Jaguars

Impressive performances in the Senior Bowl and NFL combine boosted Chark’s stock going into the 2018 draft, but he struggled to find his footing in the team’s offense as a rookie after being selected by the Jags with the 61st pick. The former LSU Tiger—who’d posted a relatively unimpressive 40-catch, 874-yard, three-touchdown line in his final season in college and came into the league as a mostly one-dimensional deep threat—dropped five of the 19 catchable passes he saw in 2018, per PFF (for an absurdly bad 26 percent drop rate) before ultimately ending his first season with just 14 receptions for 174 yards and zero touchdowns.

This season, Chark looks like a whole new player: The 4.34 40-yard dash speed that made him so intriguing to the Jags is still obviously there, but the second-year pro has refined his route-running, shown better understanding of the offense, and displayed some impressive body control on his way to team-highs in catches (19), yards (321), and touchdowns (three) through four games. Chark, who came into the year projected as the third or fourth (or worse) option in the Jaguars passing game, has emerged as the team’s de facto no. 1 wideout. Eleven of his catches have been for first downs; he’s averaging 16.9 yards per catch; and, among receivers, Chark is fifth in the NFL in yards per route run (2.49), sixth in Football Outsiders DVOA (value per play), and 10th in DYAR (total value).

Much of Chark’s success this season can be attributed to his newfound comfort in the offense; the game has slowed down for the explosive receiver and his confidence is clearly soaring. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he’s developed chemistry with the team’s backup turned starter at quarterback, Minshew. Chark has cleaned up the drops issue that plagued him as a rookie—he has zero drops on 19 catchable targets—and has even showed off the ability to secure tough, off-target passes.

Another reason he’s broken out as a sophomore is a newly developed understanding of leverage. As Minshew recently said, “He knows where to put his body in relation to the ball to keep himself between the ball and the defender.” That’s shown up on a few big plays early this year. Whether it’s holding a defender to his hip to shield them away from the direction of the pass or using subtle, last-second nudges to create separation, Chark has been excellent at winning at the catch point.

Chark clearly has a ways to go to prove he belongs among the league’s top receivers. But with good size (6-foot-4, 198 pounds), elite speed, improved route-running, an understanding of how to create separation late in his routes, and newly consistent hands, the Jags’ second-year playmaker has the skill set to continue to rise.

WR Courtland Sutton, Broncos

Sutton is another 2018 second-round receiver who struggled with drops as a rookie, letting nine of 51 catchable targets careen off his hands (a 17.6 percent clip, second worst among pass-catchers with 50 targets). The former SMU star, who came into the league as a raw but high-upside athlete with the size to develop into a dominant outside “X,” had an uneven rookie season, catching 42 passes for 704 yards and four touchdowns.

But the 6-foot-4, 216-pound pass-catcher has taken a clear jump in year two: His routes are crisper, his hands are more reliable, and he’s learned to set up defenders with nuanced shoulder shrugs and crafty footwork. He even seems to have a little more burst in and out of his breaks than he did last year. He’s just playing faster.

Sutton has also showed the Broncos that his size can make him a mismatch creator in the red zone. Veteran quarterback Joe Flacco has developed clear trust with the second-year pro, particularly as the team gets inside the 20-yard line.

Through four games, Sutton has caught 22 passes for a team-high 309 yards and two touchdowns. He has zero drops; his 18 first downs on the year is tied for fourth among all pass-catchers; and he ranks fourth in Football Outsiders DYAR and eighth in DVOA. There’s nothing flukey about Sutton’s second-year breakthrough—he is well on his way toward stardom.

TE Mark Andrews, Ravens

Andrews had a promising rookie campaign after being selected by Baltimore in the third round, with the Oklahoma product catching 34 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns at a 68 percent catch rate. He and fellow rookie Lamar Jackson had a strong late-season connection, and that chemistry has carried over into this year. Despite battling a foot injury that’s limited him at times through the first month of the season, Andrews is on a clear trajectory toward becoming one of the league’s elite pass-catching tight ends. The 6-foot-5 256-pounder lines up all over the formation for the Ravens and has shown the ability to win in one-on-one situations or take the top off the defense up the seam.

Andrews is on pace to smash his rookie numbers, with 23 catches for 266 yards and three touchdowns through four games. He’s emerged as one of Jackson’s most trusted targets and a dynamic red zone threat. He ranks third among TEs with 15-plus targets in yards per route run (2.56), per PFF, and has racked up 15 first-down catches—fourth most at the position. He’s big, tough, physical, and dependable as a pass-catcher.

TE Will Dissly, Seahawks

As a prospect, Dissly didn’t look like a future star. The University of Washington standout started his college career as a defensive lineman before switching to tight end as a junior, but was barely utilized in the passing game―instead mostly lining up to block while finishing with just 25 catches for 336 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons at the position. Coming into the NFL, Dissly was widely viewed as a blocking tight end, and his 4.87 40-yard dash time and 28-inch vertical didn’t exactly scream “mismatch creator at the next level.”

But that’s exactly what Dissly’s become. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound tight end has already doubled his college scoring output with six touchdowns in eight career games. He’s developed a strong bond with quarterback Russell Wilson, who has heavily targeted him. Dissly, who has 23 catches for 262 yards and four touchdowns so far this year, is the guy Wilson looks to when he wants to get the ball out quickly:

What’s most amazing about Dissly’s performance this year is that he’s doing it all about 12 months removed from a patellar tendon tear. That injury remains one of the most difficult for pro athletes to bounce back from, yet the dynamic tight end seems no worse for the wear. He came into Thursday ranked fifth in yards per route run among TEs with 15-plus targets, fourth in DYAR, and fifth in DVOA at the position. Dissly won’t outrun many defenders, but he’s proved to be a reliable safety net with Downy-soft hands and toughness at the catch point.

WR Michael Gallup, Cowboys

Gallup has missed the last two games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, so the Dallas playmaker’s breakout this year has happened during a relatively small two-week sample. But we saw enough in those two games to know that the Colorado State product is here to stay: Gallup has been a clear difference-maker for the ’Boys opposite Amari Cooper, offering take-the-top-off-the-defense speed and plenty of toughness over the middle for quarterback Dak Prescott.

Gallup, who caught 33 passes for 507 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, has already reeled in 13 receptions for 226 yards in just two starts this year. Nine of those catches went for first downs, and among receivers with 15 targets, Gallup ranks tops in the league in yards per route run (4.35). His star is rising.

RB Ronald Jones II, Buccaneers

Jones had about as disastrous a rookie season as imaginable after being selected by the Buccaneers in the second round last year. The former Trojan was wholly ineffective in every phase for Tampa Bay as a rookie, running the ball just 23 times for 44 yards (an average of 1.9 yards per carry) while catching seven passes for 33 yards in nine games. He came into the season as the projected backup to Peyton Barber and was quickly trending toward “bust” status.

But Jones, who put on about 13 pounds during the offseason to improve his between-the-tackles running, has transformed his game in the early going this year. The previously tentative, less-than-elusive back we saw last season is running with the type of juice that made him an early day-two pick in 2018. He’s shown physicality, burst, and tackle-breaking prowess in the first month of the season, and has earned a much bigger role in the team’s offense.

Jones has already broken 14 tackles on 53 touches this year after breaking just three tackles on 30 opportunities as a rookie. He’s Pro Football Focus’s top-graded running back through four weeks and ranks second in running back success rate, per NumberFire. Jones started slow in Tampa Bay, but is well on his way to living up to his draft billing.