Second-Year Players Showing Out

Photo: © Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It's almost time to kick off official reports for the 2020 NFL Draft. What a time to be alive.

As we analysts turn to official reports, we're starting to align our expectations and projections with 2020 prospects into the current roles and needs of the NFL. How we understand flex tight ends and undersized linebackers has changed over the past decade of prospect evaluation, as roles in the NFL have shifted.

So we'll call some prospects "Year 1 starters," we'll call others "late-round flyers," we'll call others "long-term special-teamers." And still others, we'll tag with the character of a "strong developmental track."

And those players will get drafted. And then we'll forget to check in on them in Year 2, Year 3, and beyond.

So I wanted to check in on some prospects drafted in 2018 on whose potential we prognosticated; who actually developed the way we projected and are becoming the players we hoped. This isn't a comprehensive list of all the good Year 2 players -- don't yell at me because Courtland Sutton and Leighton Vander Esch aren't on here; they were good in Year 1 and will continue to be good in Year 2. It's those players who have clearly improved, on the track their teams projected for them, into expanded roles and greater productivity in their sophomore season.

Green Bay Packers CB Jaire Alexander

As I said, I had to get my one early-round pick in. Alexander was the 18th overall selection for the Packers in the 2018 Draft, after they traded back in the Marcus Davenport deal -- a transaction that's looked better and better by the day, even as Davenport has improved in Year 2 (see below!)

Alexander played the majority of the snaps in his first few weeks with the Packers, before losing some time to injury and coming back as an entrenched starter. He posted 11 passes defensed in his rookie season, which was only 13 games.

In Year 2, Alexander has posted 9 passes defensed through 5 games, which paces the league (next closest has 7) -- so that might be good! He wins with that which he won at Louisville: quickness, physicality, aggressive and instinctual play. What impresses the most in his Year 2 tape is how penalty-free he's playing -- Alexander has yet to draw a flag in 2019 -- despite the fact that he's already one of the most physical and competitive corners in the league.

Los Angeles Rams OC Brian Allen

I didn't think the Rams were going to be as good in 2019 as they were in 2018, and early returns on their season show that the offense needs evolution and the defense needs personnel.

But one of the biggest concerns of the 2019 Rams was the shifting at offensive line: namely, the departures of John Sullivan at center and Rodger Saffold at left guard. The Rams drafted two middle-round bodies to handle that impending transition in the 2018 draft: TCU OL Joseph Noteboom at 89 overall and Michigan State OL Brian Allen at 111.

Noteboom's start at left guard hasn't been great, but Allen has really impressed at center for the Rams, in a system that asks a lot from its linemen. While Allen was never the most dynamic mover for the Spartans, his understanding of leverage and hand placement were his calling cards, and he's shown a great understanding of the backs' reads in the Rams' wide zone scheme.

Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews

We're never gonna be able to talk enough about the fact that the Ravens not only drafted a TE before their QB heir apparent in Lamar Jackson, but they subsequently drafted another tight end who is better than that first tight end! NFL teams just fall backwards into it sometimes, man.

Mark Andrews leads all second-year players in both targets and receptions, which is pretty bananas for a third-round tight end (and the second tight end drafted by the team!). He's also 6th in both targets and receptions for all tight ends, and the primary target for Jackson, who throws the seam routes that Andrews feasts on as well as any ball on the field.

Andrews was a solid role player for the Ravens in Year 1, but for a player that many though would always be relegated to role status because of his lack of in-line play, Andrews' snug fit in the Ravens' pistol/H-back sets and play-action passing attack has him as a key starter on one of the NFL's toughest offenses.

Jacksonville Jaguars WR D.J. Chark

I wasn't the biggest fan of D.J. Chark in that 2018 class, which was a weird one for wide receivers -- chock ful o' those developmental prospects that could be the dude, but weren't yet there. With Chark, there were hands concerns, there were release concerns, and there were route-running concerns.

But the size, speed, and spectacular catches were always there, and they've translated into the NFL, especially as Chark has developed a wonderful rapport with new starting QB Gardner Minshew along the sideline.

Chark's 18 yards/reception is the highest number among all receivers with more than 10 receptions, and he's caught 8 passes more than 20 yards down the field through the first five games of the season. His strengths have translated into one of the best deep threats in the league, but it's the consistency in his hands and efficacy of his releases that have him playing like a true WR1.

New Orleans Saints EDGE Marcus Davenport

Now a starter for a stout New Orleans defense, Davenport has turned out three sacks in the first five games of the season, after posting only 4.5 in rotational play in 2018. He's generating pressure more consistently, winning one-on-one reps with a greater variety of moves, and he's retained a strong physical presence against the run.

Davenport is the poster boy for developmental investment. Drafted 14th overall by the Saints and billed as a potential game-changing pass-rusher, Davenport's jump from UTSA to the league necessitated a revamping of his pass-rush approach and, even for a player with Davenport's frame, an adjustment to NFL strength and speed.

But man, Year 2 has borne the returns of the Saints' bold trade-up and patience through the Year 1 growing pains. Davenport's traits have turned into a consistent, disruptive starter off the edge -- and the ceiling is still sky-high, just as it ever was.

Honorable Mentions

Seattle TE Will Dissly

Indianapolis Colts EDGE Kemoko Turay

Houston S Justin Reid

Whoever I didn't include that you're upset about