If an NFL player doesn't show something by Year 2, there's a problem, and we can, in almost every case, accept said player will not become a star at the professional level. Patience wears thin by then because, nowadays, stars typically emerge in their second season, if they didn't already do so in Year 1.
These are the second-year pros primed to break out in 2023. I didn't include those who I deemed to have already emerged as stars as rookies. And this list features deeper selections, not just Year 2 pros who were really good as rookies but didn't see major playing time. For most picks, I'm trusting my evaluation process/system for when all of these players were draft prospects.
Chigoziem Okonkwo is the pick I feel the strongest about. Because he was such a fun, productive player in his rookie season. Just needed more volume to become a household name outside of the greater Nashville area. Remember though, Robert Woods led Tennessee with 52 receptions (!), not exactly a high number in the modern day NFL. At an analytical level, Okonkwo was spectacular. His 7.8 yards-after-the-catch average led all (qualifying) tight ends. He also won on five of his eight contested-catch opportunities. He has supreme athleticism and the lower-body thickness to continue the tackle-breaking ways of his rookie year.
As a draft analyst, I'm always looking for traits. Derek Stingley Jr. oozes them. Now, he didn't have the rookie year many expected after such an illustrious career at LSU that began with arguably the best true freshman season we've ever seen from an outside cornerback in 2019.
I trust Stingley to be placed in many more man-coverage situations under new head coach DeMeco Ryans. Heck, it wasn't that long ago that Ryans was roaming the middle of defenses in the NFL. He understands how imperative it is to provide players the specific responsibilities that suit them to get the most out of their talent. I expect Stingley to make more plays on the football -- he only had five pass breakups in 2022 -- because of his elite awareness and body control. Plus, he has mirroring talent well beyond his years, and Houston's pass rush should be improved in 2023 given the addition of No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson. Huge leap forward ahead for Stingley. He's too sticky in coverage.
I am not quitting Skyy Moore after a disappointing rookie season. His collegiate film was spectacular across the entire spectrum of receiver evaluation, and he tested like a highly explosive athlete at the combine. As someone with a first-round grade on Moore before the 2022 draft, naturally I paid extra close attention to him during his first year in Kansas City. And he looked... uncomfortable. Forcing the issue, awkward. Overthinking instead of naturally reacting.
Maybe it was the complexity of the Chiefs offense. Maybe the jump going from dealing with MAC corners to NFL corners was too much for him to handle. Because at Western Michigan, Moore was calm, cool, collected, frequently beating press with ease, running crisp routes to get open before rocking after the catch. He caught everything in his general vicinity too -- only six drops on 247 targets in three collegiate seasons. Moore should be settled into Patrick Mahomes' attack, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman gone, Moore is in line for a huge uptick in opportunities in his second season. I have faith the Western Michigan version of Moore will shine through in his second pro season. I'm thinking 70-plus catches.
Classic case of how fickle the draft can be here. The Jaguars moved back into the first round to select linebacker Devin Lloyd after taking Travon Walker at No. 1 overall. Yet it was Chad Muma who was the better, steadier second-level defender. On a per-snap basis, Muma was a more effective tackler, (16.4% of his snaps finished with a tackle vs. 12.4% for Lloyd).
Lloyd played 926 snaps in the regular season, so of course it's more challenging to maintain efficiency over time, but the point remains. Vitally too -- Muma's a superb tackler which, unsurprisingly, showed in college at Wyoming. In his rookie season, Muma only missed four tackles, and nothing will get you on the field faster in the NFL at linebacker than being a reliable tackler. It didn't show in 2022, yet in college, Muma was a magnet to the football in coverage. That element of his game will improve -- it usually clicks in the second season for linebackers -- and be integral to his breakout.
Here's my swing-for-the-fences, out-of-seemingly-nowhere selection. As you can see, Isaiah Spiller's rookie season was not only extraordinarily low volume but efficiency-wise ran counter to any indication of an impending Year 2 breakout. I'm essentially trusting my only year-old college evaluation of Spiller, my RB1 in the 2022 class.
I didn't change that distinction for Spiller after a disappointing showing at the Texas A&M Pro Day because he was so darn elusive over multiple seasons in the SEC and was only 21 in his rookie season. In his final season for the Aggies, Spiller's missed forced tackle rate was 31.4%. Pretty big number. He runs with decisiveness, effortless force through contact, and can string together multiple cuts to get more than what's blocked for him.
Austin Ekeler didn't get traded this offseason. But the second-best development for Spiller happened -- the Chargers didn't use a draft pick on the running back position. Spiller will become a reliable, between-the-tackles complement to Ekeler in Los Angeles' new, Kellen Moore led offense.