A common phrase thrown around in not just the NFL, but the entire world of sports is the “sophomore slump”. It almost seems skeptical to draft a player entering his 2nd year because of the alleged curse. Hell, we did see it take effect on Todd Gurley this past season – the consensus #1 RB last season didn’t even end up in the top 20. On the flipside, fellow sophomore David Johnson ended the year as the fantasy MVP, and top picks such as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota continued their emergence as top-end fantasy QBs.
Last year’s draft class was somewhat weak, especially when you stack it up to the 2017 NFL class. Although, we did see #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott finish as the RB2, while teammate Dak Prescott emerged as a viable QB1, Michael Thomas set himself apart from the rest of the Saints talented WR corps and Jordan Howard finished 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards.
Instead of focusing on standout players who may fall criminal to a sophomore slump, I’m going to outline the opposite. Below I compiled a list of 10 players who are instead candidates to become sophomore breakouts. I didn’t include players who already established themselves as prominent fantasy players as a rookie (i.e. Elliott, Howard, Thomas etc.). I also tried to shy away from 1st round picks and cater to the ‘sleeper’ tag more, although two are included on the list.
Check it out and let me know what you think! *Any sophomore sleepers of your own? Mention them in the comments below.
QB Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles)
We start with the #2 overall pick of the 2016 draft class. Despite his piping hot start to his career where he came out of the gate and threw for over 1,000 yards with 9 TD passes to just 1 INT, he wasn’t able to elevate his play the rest of the season. Once Lane Johnson was forced to sit out the rest of the season due to suspension, Wentz and the offense struggled mightily. With Johnson in the lineup, Wentz’s production was marginally better. It also didn’t help that the Eagles provided their young, franchise QB with arguably one of the worst supporting casts in the entire NFL.
With a year under his belt and an offseason for the Eagles to address their needs on offense, Wentz should see a major increase in production. I expect the Eagles to fulfill him with a top-end WR whether it’s Alshon Jeffery in free agency, or a guy like Mike Williams or Corey Davis in the draft. This will help his progression in monumental fashion as the Eagles WRs of 2016 had a case of “butterfingers” all year long. If you’re one of those fantasy owners who hold out to pick your QB, Wentz is a solid, late option.
RB Kenyan Drake (Miami Dolphins)
I was pretty high on Kenyan Drake last year in Miami. However, the emergence of Jay Ajayi turned Drake’s rookie season and role on the offense into background noise. Even after Ajayi’s explosive production last season, I still like Drake to turn in a solid sophomore campaign. First off, Ajayi will come back down to earth in 2017 – no way he repeats the same production. A volume producer, aside from those three 100-yard games, he only eclipsed 100 yards in one other game all year long. In the last 4 games combined to finish 2016, he scrounged up only 117 yards to close the season and went absence in Miami’s playoff game, racking up 2.1 yards per rush on 16 carries.
It’s evident that Ajayi is a one-dimensional back who relies on power and straight-line running, this will open the door for Drake as he adds a spark and pizazz to that offense. Drake wasn’t given many touches on the year, but he was able to average over 5 yards per rush. He adds an extra dynamic to the Dolphins’ offense, especially in the passing game as he possesses better pass catching skills than Ajayi. The Dolphins’ backfield will eventually gel into dual-back system, and probably sooner rather than later.
RB Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans)
The other half of the 2015 Alabama backfield, Henry proved to be a great fit with the Tennessee Titans despite surfaced concerns regarding his transition from college to the NFL. Henry was able to transfer his blend of size, power and speed into the NFL in what proved to be a great fit in Tennessee’s smash mouth offensive scheme. Prior to the draft, question marks surrounded his ability to catch out of the backfield – Henry caught 13 passes on the year, just 4 short of his entire college career.
While I don’t think Henry has the type of upside as other running backs on this list, you know what you’re getting with him and he can serve as a decent FLEX option in 2016. He should see an increased workload in his 2nd season, and emerge as a more viable spell back to DeMarco Murray. I project him to carry the ball between 12-15 times per week, giving him plenty of opportunity to produce as a FLEX option.
RB Paul Perkins (New York Giants)
Perhaps my favorite RB on this list, Paul Perkins put a strong finish together to end the 2016 regular season. He saw an increased role in New York’s final 4 games, and even finished week 17 with a 100-yard performance against the Redskins. Following the release of Rashad Jennings, Perkins is now slated as the team’s starting tailback. While it’s almost certain they’ll bring in someone via free agency or the draft to steal some carries, one thing remains, and that’s a prominent role on this offense for Perkins.
Drafted in the 5th round out of UCLA, it looks like the Giants found themselves a steal in Perkins. He brings a slashing type running style and provides a spark to their running game which they have lacked for a while now. Based on workload alone, Perkins is a guy I’m targeting in the mid-late rounds this season. Plus, he possesses the talent to produce.
RB Wendell Smallwood (Philadelphia Eagles)
As a whole, the offense for the Philadelphia Eagles was abysmal in 2016. However, they did see some flashes out of Wendell Smallwood, which carries some promise into 2017. In a lackluster backfield led by Ryan Mathews (ew), Smallwood is sure to have a large role and could even take over as the feature back this season, depending on who the team brings in during the offseason.
Smallwood displayed decent flashes as a rookie, but missed the final few weeks of the year due to injury. On the year he racked up over 300 yards on less than 80 carries and averaged over 4 yards per rush. His bright spot came back in week 3 when he compiled 79 yards and a score against Pittsburgh. He’s not the type of RB who is going to light up the stat sheet, but with an enhanced role in 2017, he’ll bring in solid production. Worth a late round flyer.
RB DeAndre Washington (Oakland Raiders)
With Latavius Murray set to hit the free agent market, the duo of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard emerge as the two-headed monster in Oakland’s backfield. While Richard is the early favorite to garner most of the carries, Washington will be given his fair share of touches as well. A 5th round pick out of Texas Tech, Washington put together a solid rookie campaign where he ran for 467 rushing yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and also chipped in with a pair of scores.
Washington is a speedy, shifty back who makes his living working out in space. While he only caught 17 passes in 2016, I expect him to mightily ramp up production in that aspect as his services will be coveted as a 3rd down back this season. Based on potential workload, upside and versatility, Washington is a reliable FLEX option worth a flyer in the mid-late rounds.
WR Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati Bengals)
He’s not the strongest and he’s not the fastest, but Tyler Boyd is a refine route runner with good hands who specialized on gadget plays. While his rookie season wasn’t all that flashy as he never saw more than 10 targets in a game, never caught more than 6 passes in a game and never even reached 80 receiving yards in a game, the future still looks bright for the 2016 2nd round pick. Despite his fairly ‘quiet’ rookie year, Boyd still managed to catch 54 catches for over 600 yards – catching at least one pass in all 16 games.
When A.J. Green went down with an injury late last season, Boyd was forced to pick up the slack and he had a couple of his biggest games of the year in Green’s absence. Moving into 2017, Boyd will likely build off his decent finish from last season as he’ll be a more implemented weapon in Cincinnati’s offense. My projection for him is roughly 65 catches for 800 yards and 4 scores – plus his contributions on gadget plays as a runner/passer. Anyway you look at it, that’s steady production for a FLEX.
WR Josh Doctson (Washington Redskins)
Expectations are high for the 2016 1st round pick despite appearing in only two games during his rookie season due to a hampering Achilles injury. Josh Doctson caught only 2 balls as a rookie, going for 66 yards. With the departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to the free agent market, Doctson is expected to step up in a huge way for the Redskins, and provide a reliable threat alongside Jamison Crowder in Washigton’s passing game.
Coming out of TCU, Doctson was touted for his polished route running and ability to win battles for the ball in the air. He looks like a good fit with the Redskins, assuming Kirk Cousins stays in town. Based on last year’s thin playing time, Doctson is set to see the biggest rise statistical wise among all 2nd year players. The Redskins will be forced to account for 135 catches, 216 targets, 2,000+ receiving yards and 7 TDs with the departures of Jackson and Garcon – Doctson is expected to pick up a great chunk of that missing production. In the mid rounds, Doctson presents great upside as a guy who can post WR2 numbers this season, if he stays healthy.
WR Malcolm Mitchell (New England Patriots)
One of my favorite overall prospects in last year’s draft class, Malcolm Mitchell was a great selection by the Patriots in the middle of the 4th round as he was drafted into the perfect fit. It took a while for Mitchell to get going during his rookie year, but he finished strong. In the final 6 weeks, Mitchell recorded 25 receptions, 306 TDs and all 4 of his TDs – those numbers down the final stretch accounted for more than half of his rookie production. He even contributed in the Super Bowl win over Atlanta with 6 catches for 70 yards.
With Mitchell set to be fully healthy in 2017, he should see a rise in production, especially when you consider the role he grew into towards the end of last season, and the fact they he’s playing with Tom Brady. Mitchell runs good routes and is the epitome of a possession receiver. With guys like Edelman, Hogan and Amendola rising in age, plus the departure of Martellus Bennett, the Pats will need someone to emerge as a producer in the passing game – Mitchell can very easily be that guy.
WR Laquon Treadwell (Minnesota Vikings)
My top WR in the 2017 NFL draft class, Laquon Treadwell had one of the most disappointing rookie seasons in recent memory. He appeared in only a handful of games, catching only one ball on the year for 15 yards. The Vikings have a reputation for slowly bringing along rookies, so you can attest his lack of production to that, in a way. Despite, his limited field time and puny production, I remain optimistic about him going forward.
There was a reason why Treadwell was my #1 WR in last year’s draft. His ability to fight for the ball in the air in traffic is exceptional. He brings size, physicality, reliable hands and good route running. With a year under his belt to learn the playbook and adjust somewhat to the pro game, I project a huge turnaround for the former Ole Miss standout during his sophomore year. Treadwell will see a monumental increase and numbers. I would even take a flyer on him in the 8th round range as a premier breakout candidate.