Sophomore Standouts: 2nd-Year Players Ready to Take the NFL by Storm

Denver Broncos

Getty Greg Dulcich #80 of the Denver Broncos runs with the ball during the second half in the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

NFL training camps will open before we know it, and the regular season is barreling down the tracks, presenting the perfect opportunity to look ahead at the star players who could come to define the 2023 campaign.

While there are certainly several rebuilding franchises positioned to barnstorm their way back into the NFL playoffs, and star players on the cusp of becoming legitimate household names and potential first-time All-Pros, the 2022 draft class offers much promise in their second season, as well.

Here’s a look at five potential sophomore breakout players to watch during the 2023 NFL season:

1. Jahan Dotson, WR, Washington Commanders

A case can be made that Jahan Dotson already broke out, down the stretch of his rookie season in 2022.

But, a full offseason in the Washington Commanders‘ offseason program along with opening the season with potential breakout Sam Howell at quarterback could set the stage for an even more explosive sophomore campaign in 2023.

Dotson, chosen No. 16 overall in the 2022 draft out of Penn State, caught 35 passes for 523 yards with 7 touchdowns as a rookie. What offers the most optimism for Dotson in 2023 is the fact that 23 of those receptions along with 371 yards and 3 of his touchdowns came over the second half of the season, after a hamstring injury kept him sidelined for four weeks.

Commanders quarterbacks posted a 102.9 passer rating on Dotson’s 56 targets, underscoring his reliability. If Dotson can stay healthy, he’ll certainly stand to benefit from the attention paid to Terry McLaurin by opposing defenses, and his smooth route-running both from the slot and split out wide offers significant upside for a breakout season.

2. Nakobe Dean, LB, Philadelphia Eagles

A strong argument can be made that Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman stopped Nakobe Dean’s 2022 NFL Draft slide with at least one eye trained on the 2023 season, given the strong veteran presence at the linebacker position last fall.

After all, Dean was widely regarded as one of the top prospects at his position, before meniscus and pectoral injuries pushed him down boards and into the third round. Dean, 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, is an athletic freak with a nose for the football, who should be one of the centerpieces of Philly’s front-seven in 2023.

Dean only produced 5 tackles as a rookie, but his ceiling is significantly higher, especially following the offseason departures of Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards, the Georgia alum’s versatility gives him star potential on a defense loaded with talent.

3. Greg Dulcich, TE, Denver Broncos

Greg Dulcich finished as the Denver Broncos‘ third-leading receiver in 2022, but the dynamic playmaking tight end might just be scratching the surface.

Dulcich, 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, pulled down 33 of his 55 targets for 411 yards with 2 touchdowns as a rookie. The UCLA alum’s production came despite playing in only 10 games during the 2022 season.

Multiple reports out of Broncos camp suggest that new head coach Sean Payton is keen on deploying Dulcich all over the offense, in an effort to weaponize his athleticism to create mismatches and big-play opportunities. Entering his second NFL season, second season on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Russell Wilson, and first season with Sean Payton drawing up concepts for Dulcich could lead to him becoming a focal point of the Broncos’ offense.

4. James Houston, EDGE, Detroit Lions

While Aidan Hutchinson deservedly garnered significant praise for an impressive rookie season, James Houston showed flashes of developing into an elite edge rusher on the opposite side.

Houston already has surpassed his sixth-round pick status, logging an impressive 8.0 sacks as a rookie, and showcasing his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and disruptiveness in opposing backfields. In addition to his prowess as a pass-rusher, Houston also carded 10 run-stops in 31 run-defense snaps.

As a rookie, Pro Football Focus gave Houston an 88.1 pass-rush grade. Opening the season at the top of the depth chart should give Houston an expanded role, which could lead to a significant uptick from his already dominant production.

5. Desmond Ridder, QB, Atlanta Falcons

The 2023 campaign is effectively Desmond Ridder’s audition to become the Atlanta Falcons‘ franchise quarterback of the future, and general manager Terry Fontenot has done everything to set his young passer and his franchise up for success.

Ridder appeared in four games last season, passing for 708 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while also showcasing some mobility by rushing for 64 yards. However, what gives Ridder the potential to climb the ladder into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks is the abundance of young and explosive talent around him.

Don’t be surprised if defenses load up the box to stop electrifying rookie running back Bijan Robinson, which should create opportunities vertically for matchup-nightmare tight end Kyle Pitts and deep-threat receiver Drake London. The pieces are there for Ridder to lead an Atlanta renaissance, and he’ll get the chance to do exactly that.

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