Commentary

Getting their second wind

After uneven rookie seasons, these players are trying to make a bigger impact in 2010

Originally Published: June 10, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, 49ers WR Michael Crabtree and Bengals OT Andre SmithIcon, Icon, US PresswireSecond-year players Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree and Andre Smith are hoping to make a bigger impact in 2011.
Brian Cushing's suspension for a performance-enhancing substance prompted a revote by The Associated Press for Defensive Rookie of the Year in one of the award's strongest classes in years.

Cushing won the revote, but the exercise only reinforced how well linebackers Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers and Brian Orakpo of the Washington Redskins and safety Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills played last season. Of the 32 first-round rookies in 2009, the percentage of the 13 defensive players who made an impact was significantly higher than that of the 19 offensive players.

Cornerback Vontae Davis of the Miami Dolphins ended up a solid starter. Linebacker Aaron Curry of the Seattle Seahawks was asked to do too much as a rookie because of injuries to the linebacker corps, but he should bounce back with a big season. Defensive linemen B.J. Raji of the Packers and Tyson Jackson of the Kansas City Chiefs established themselves in their first years.

It was a different story on offense. Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings ran away with offensive rookie honors in what was considered a disappointing start for that group. Holdouts and injuries were problems, and some rookies didn't get as much playing time as their teams might have liked. Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman got their starts at quarterback, but 47 of the 50 votes for the award went to either Harvin (41) or Baltimore Ravens right tackle Michael Oher (six).

There is no comeback player award for rookies who struggled at the start of their careers. Here are a handful of players entering their second seasons who have hopes of doing better in 2010.

1. Tackle Jason Smith, St. Louis Rams: To say Smith's head was spinning as a rookie would be an understatement. He never felt comfortable switching from his college position of left tackle to right tackle. At camp, he pointed out how difficult it was changing from a left-handed stance to a right-handed stance. It was a struggle for him to reset his line of vision along with getting the footwork right. To make matters worse, a bad concussion limited him to only eight games and five starts. Year 1 was a lost season for Smith. What will help this year is a move back to left tackle after Alex Barron was traded to the Dallas Cowboys. Smith is now at his natural position, but he needs some luck and good health to get some positive things going for him (a stress fracture in Smith's toe could keep him sidelined until training camp).

2. Tackle Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals: Talk about roller-coaster rides. Since the 2009 scouting combine in Indianapolis, Smith has had a thrill ride, but at this stage, the Bengals still don't know what they have. Smith presumably lowered his draft stock by showing up heavy and then leaving the combine a day early. He recovered by working out harder and convinced the Bengals to make him the sixth pick. He held out for 32 days to get a contract that guaranteed him $21 million. A few days after his arrival, Smith fractured his left foot. He started only one game at right tackle and played only 10.7 percent of the team's snaps as a rookie. His left foot is still bothering him and there is a good chance he might not be available again until the start of training camp.

3. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers: Crabtree can catch everything, but the one thing he couldn't handle was not being a top-three pick in 2009. A fractured foot in February shattered his draft stock and allowed him to fall to the 49ers at No. 10. He held out until October before signing a six-year deal that could max out at $32 million. The good news for the 49ers is that Crabtree should max out his contract. He's the real deal. He caught 48 passes in 11 starts and averaged 13 yards a catch. That projects to a 70-catch, 910-yard season in 16 games. Now, he's had an offseason with starting quarterback Alex Smith and that should improve his numbers. As good as Crabtree is -- and he will be a factor in a possible 49ers playoff run -- the buzz around the league is that Dez Bryant of the Cowboys might be better.

4. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland Raiders: It took a lot for Al Davis to admit he made a mistake and drop JaMarcus Russell from the roster, and it's going to take a lot for Davis to admit he made a mistake on Heyward-Bey. The problem with Heyward-Bey is that he uses his body more than his hands to catch passes, and that translates into a receiver who struggles. He had 11 starts and only nine receptions, with six drops. He was targeted 40 times, and it's hard to justify throwing to him much when only 22.5 percent of the passes aimed at him end up in his hands. Watch for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to make things easier for Heyward-Bey. He will try some plays in which Heyward-Bey will use his speed out of the slot and catch short passes. New quarterback Jason Campbell will try to throw him some other easy, quick tosses to the outside. But the question remains how well Heyward-Bey handles them.

5. Linebackers Robert Ayers, Denver Broncos; Larry English, San Diego Chargers; and Aaron Maybin, Buffalo Bills: Among them, they had only three starts as rookies. Like many defensive ends/linebackers, Ayers, English and Maybin are challenged by the league's ever-increasing switch to the 3-4 defense. They might as well look at their rookie seasons as redshirt years. Maybin played only 21.8 percent of his team's snaps, while Ayers played 49.58 and English 52.1. The three combined for 73 tackles and two sacks. Of the three, Ayers might have the best chance to progress. He will play the Broncos outside linebacker spot on the other side of Elvis Dumervil. English is the third linebacker pass-rushing option behind Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman. Maybin is making the switch from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker and will need some time to feel comfortable making plays from a stand-up position.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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