The 2022 NFL rookie class provided the usual: Young stars, unexpected surprises, disappointments and the typical growing pains.
While some first-year players from 2022 are poised to improve this upcoming season, the stars aren’t aligning for other sophomores who are looking to build off their superb rookie years.
Here are five second-year players poised to bounce back in 2023, and five who will experience the sophomore slump.
Bounce Back: Travon Walker
The Jacksonville Jaguars opted to bet on Walker’s high upside, taking him first overall in favor of the more NFL-ready Aidan Hutchinson, who turned in a better rookie year than the Georgia product.
Walker wasn’t terrible by any means, but everyone figured that his rookie year would be filled with growing pains.
In 15 games, he tallied 3.5 sacks, one interception, two pass defenses and one forced fumble. Pro Football Focus graded Walker at 60.3 on the year, meaning he was essentially a replacement-level player.
Walker was always going to need time to adjust to the NFL level, so it’s hard to chalk up his rookie year as a disappointment. His freakish athleticism and burst off the edge was still frequently on display.
Now it’s about putting it all together in year two. Walker and the Jaguars stunned the world by winning the AFC South division last year, and by erasing a 27-point deficit against the Los Angeles Chargers in the Wild Card Round.
The Jaguars lost Arden Key to the Tennessee Titans in free agency, so Walker should enjoy an expanded role in year two. Working alongside Pro Bowler Josh Allen should also do wonders for Walker, who looks ready to hit Pro Bowl status with a double-digit sack season.
Everything adds up to a breakout sophomore season for the former first-overall pick.
Decline: Christian Watson
The No. 34 selection of last year’s draft stepped up big for the Packers in the wake of the Davante Adams trade.
Watson finished the year with 41 receptions for 611 yards. Despite missing three games, the North Dakota State tallied seven touchdown receptions and two rushing scores. Watson’s seven touchdown catches were tied with Jahan Dotson of the Washington Commanders for most among all rookies.
So, why do we expect regression from Watson after he pieced together a solid rookie campaign? Well, isn’t the answer obvious?
The Packers are going from a four-time MVP, first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, to an unproven one in Jordan Love. A-Rod was traded to the New York Jets ahead of the draft, which officially began the Love era in Titletown.
We’re not ready to call Love a bust. The kid only has one start under his belt. But growing pains have to be expected, given his inexperience and obvious need to establish chemistry with receivers.
We have no doubt that Watson can grow into a capable number one wideout for the Packers, but a sophomore slump feels inevitable here. It’s not a knock against Watson. It’s just the reality of going from Rodgers to Love in the span of one year.
We think Love and Watson could emerge as one of the game’s best QB-wide receiver duos… just not right away in 2023.
Bounce Back: Kenny Pickett
Following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted no time finding his successor. The local kid, Pittsburgh product Kenny Pickett, was the first QB taken in the 2022 draft at No. 20 overall.
Like Travon Walker, everyone knew that Pickett would need some time to put it together. Though he went 7-and-5 as the starting QB, Pickett’s stat line left a lot to be desired: An average of 184.9 passing yards per game, seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 76.7 quarterback rating is not going to inspire a whole lot of confidence.
But then you look at guys like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts. All of these guys kicked it into another gear as sophomores. So why can’t Pickett do the same?
Pickett is loaded with weapons, for starters. Fellow sophomore George Pickens is ready to break out following a productive rookie year. Receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Najee Harris will push for over 1,000 yards of offense, and tight end Pat Freiermuth could break out any day now.
The o-line was Pittsburgh’s weak link in 2023, but they addressed that by trading up for Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones. If Jones comes as advertised, the Steelers’ o-line will enjoy tremendous improvement in 2023.
With one year of experience under his belt, a wealth of weapons, and a revamped o-line, Pickett should go off in year two. A return to the postseason is certainly not out of the question for the Steelers, either.
Decline: Dameon Pierce
Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre commanded much of the spotlight for Houston Texans rookies in 2022, but Pierce was by far the most productive of them all.
The Florida standout was drafted in round four at No. 107 overall by the Texans. Pierce was easily the MVP of Houston’s offense, recording 939 rushing yards and 1,104 yards from scrimmage despite missing four games.
Pierce finished third in rushing among rookies, behind only Tyler Allgeier and Kenneth Walker III. So, why do we expect Pierce to “decline”?
Well, isn’t it rather obvious? The Texans had to run the ball a lot last year because the passing game was non-existent. But they just used the No. 2 pick of this year’s draft on Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, which likely means a reduced workload for Pierce.
The Texans also signed ex-Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary, an explosive runner with three 700-yard rushing seasons on his resume. Expect Singletary to get his fair share of carries in the backfield, too, which will obviously eat into Pierce’s workload.
Pierce was a contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. But it’s hard to envision him pushing for 1,000-yards again with Stroud and Singletary in the fold. It’s not like Pierce’s talent is magically going to disappear. It’s just a matter of him seeing a reduced role in 2023.
Bounce Back: Derek Stingley Jr.
Speaking of Texans sophomores…
Houston used the No. 3 selection on LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who played an instrumental role in the Tigers’ 2019 national championship-winning season.
Stingley Jr. missed all but three games in his final college season because of a Lisfranc injury, but the Texans decided to bet on his ultra-high ceiling anyway. With the No. 4 pick, the New York Jets took Cincinnati corner and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year ‘Sauce’ Gardner.
So Gardner had a better rookie year. Doesn’t mean we should give up on Stingley Jr. now. He missed eight games, for starters, and didn’t have much support on a rebuilding Houston team that finished in second-last place in the entire NFL.
PFF graded Stingley Jr. at just 49.1 on the year, but he displayed good ball-hawking skills by recording one interception and five pass defenses. And according to Pro Football Reference, Stingley Jr. allowed zero touchdowns in coverage and yielded a passer rating of just 78.4 when targeted.
No, he wasn’t Gardner-like. But Stingley Jr. was still a playmaker in the nine games he saw. And now that he’s healthy, the sky’s the limit for this sophomore.
Pitre and newcomer safety Jimmie Ward will also help Stingley Jr. lock down the secondary. Throw in the arrival of new, defensive-minded head coach DeMeco Ryans, and everything’s in place for Stingley Jr. to reach a superstar level in 2023.
Decline: Marcus Jones
For the second straight draft, the New England Patriots got excellent returns out of their rookies. Cole Strange, Marcus Jones, Jack Jones and Bailey Zappe all stood out as first-year players in 2022, and Patriots fans should be very excited about what these guys can do in year two.
Well, maybe not so much for Marcus Jones…
The No. 85 pick of last year’s draft excelled as both a corner and special teams returner for the Patriots a year ago. Jones led the NFL with 362 punt return yards, and his 645 kick return yards placed fifth.
Let’s remember that nearly one-quarter of Jones’ punt return yards came on that electrifying game-winning 84-yard punt return touchdown against the New York Jets. So regression as a punt returner is inevitable.
As a cornerback, Jones had two picks and seven pass defenses. And per Pro Football Reference, Jones yielded just a 75.4 passer rating when targeted.
But with New England drafting Oregon standout Christian Gonzalez 17th overall, Jones will now have to expect a reduced role in the secondary. The Pats have Gonzalez, Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones to headline their cornerback depth chart. Where does that leave Marcus Jones? Probably as the odd man out.
He’ll still be a useful player, but over 1,000 special teams return yards ain’t happening again. And Jones’ reduced playing time at corner means it’ll be too hard to repeat his success as a rookie.
Bounce Back: Skyy Moore
The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t end up using Moore a whole lot despite trading away superstar wideout Tyreek Hill. Moore, the No. 54 pick of 2022, was expected to be an immediate contributor in KC’s offense.
But Moore only played 29 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps in the 16 games he suited up for. Moore finished the year with 22 receptions for 250 yards and zero touchdowns.
Of course, Moore can’t complain since the Chiefs went on to win Super Bowl 57 anyway. He didn’t see much action as a rookie, but Moore will get every chance to step up as the new top wideout in KC next year.
The Chiefs bid farewell to JuJu Smith-Schuster and speedster Mecole Hardman in free agency. So now it’s up to Moore, Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie Rashee Rice to fight for the number one receiver position.
Not sure if Moore will emerge as KC’s new top wideout, but he’ll certainly fare better with more playing time in 2023. KC drafted him for his electrifying speed and ability to stretch the field, and now it’s time to implement him into the offense accordingly.
Decline: Tyler Allgeier
Allgeier defied expectations as a rookie in 2022, recording 1,035 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Only Kenneth Walker had more rushing yards than Allgeier, but here’s the catch: Walker only had 15 more yards, and he saw 18 more carries than Allgeier.
But for whatever reason, Allgeier’s rookie year wasn’t enough for the Atlanta Falcons. Despite plenty of pressing needs on their roster, they used the No. 8 selection in this year’s draft on Texas running back Bijan Robinson.
So that pretty much means Allgeier won’t be rushing for 1,000-yards again in Atlanta.
You feel sorry for Allgeier, who outperformed his draft spot as the 151st pick. He earned every right to enter 2023 as Atlanta’s lead running back again. But now he’ll be fortunate if he can even hit 500 rushing yards with Robinson in the fold.
Bounce Back: Jordan Davis
The Philadelphia Eagles’ stacked defense — particularly the front seven — meant there wouldn’t be much room for Davis as a rookie. The Georgia run-stopping force appeared in just 26 percent of defensive snaps across the 13 games he was active for.
Well, 2023 is the year where Davis introduces himself to the league as a premier defensive tackle. For one, the reigning NFC champions lost superstar defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.
Defensive linemen Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox were brought back on new deals, but given their ages, one shouldn’t be surprised if Nick Sirianni tries to cut back on their respective workloads.
Davis, Cox and Jalen Carter round out a dangerous 3-headed monster at defensive tackle, but the former unquestionably deserves a starting job come Week 1. And if he’s granted that? Watch out, NFL, because you’re about to witness what this one-man wrecking crew can do.
Decline: Drake London
Despite shaky play from the QB tandem of Marcus Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder, London was one of the top rookies of 2022. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound wide receiver out of USC recorded 72 receptions for 866 yards and four touchdowns.
With all that talent, why would we expect London to regress? Two factors.
One, as we just mentioned, the Falcons drafted Bijan Robinson. That means Arthur Smith is likely planning to continue implementing a run-first offense. Like Allgeier, London should expect a smaller role in the offense.
Secondly, promising young rookie Kyle Pitts — who missed seven games in 2022 — should be the go-to pass-catcher in Atlanta. Pitts had a monster rookie year with 1,026 receiving yards and should get back to that form.
A healthy Pitts and the arrival of Robinson means less targets for London. And if Ridder doesn’t take that next step, it’s going to be tough for London to repeat the success of his strong rookie campaign.
Which other rookies from 2022 will bounce back in year two, and which ones will decline?
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