Players tend to improve most from first to second year
The old adage says an NFL player typically improves the most between his first and second seasons. These players are out to prove it, writes Len Pasquarelli.
Even the most optimistic projections for the Carolina Panthers in 2007 don't anticipate second-year tailback DeAngelo Williams' bumping incumbent starter DeShaun Foster from the top perch on the depth chart.
But in a league in which most offenses still rely on two backs to share the workload, the Panthers' brass is counting on more production from its 2006 first-round selection. And so is Williams, who finished his college career at the University of Memphis as the fourth-leading rusher in NCAA history.
Indeed, the timeworn adage that an NFL player typically improves the most between his first and second seasons is principally a function of familiarity. Even at a position like tailback, where the transition to the NFL is supposed to be made easier because running with the ball is such a natural act, rookies expend so much effort just trying to get their feet on the ground, they rarely land in the end zone.
"Your head," Williams said, "is always swimming."
Things didn't always go swimmingly for Williams in his debut season. He rushed for 501 yards on 121 carries and started two games, but he wasn't exactly just treading water, either. Williams recorded four games of 70-plus rushing yards, and in a Nov. 19 victory over St. Louis, he carried 20 times for 114 yards. On Christmas Eve at the Georgia Dome, he ran for 82 yards against the Atlanta Falcons, taking advantage of a quirky game plan in which he often lined up as the quarterback.
It shouldn't take gimmicks, though, like the single-wing formation the Panthers broke out against the Falcons, for Williams to bolster his rushing numbers in 2007.
Foster remains the unquestioned No. 1 tailback and is coming off a campaign in which he started a career-high 14 contests. But the former UCLA standout has a résumé filled with past injuries. He started just 10 games in his first four seasons and seems to be more productive when sharing the workload. Two other elements work in Williams' favor: He shed five pounds and feels quicker at 212 pounds now, plus the zone-blocking scheme installed by new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson dovetails very nicely with his one-cut running style.
In the new system, the Carolina backs will be provided more freedom to choose the holes available to them. It is the same system the Denver Broncos have used for so many years, allowing them to have so many different 1,000-yard rushers.
"You make one move and go," Williams said. "It's really a running back-friendly system, and it's one where there's a comfort level for me. I'm looking for a lot more of myself now, not just because of the new system, but because it's the second time around for me, and there is no reason I shouldn't be better."
Williams isn't the lone second-year player in the league for whom expectations are being ramped up. Here are a few more players who either didn't get much playing time or fell short of expectations as rookies in 2006, but are being counted on to play significant roles in 2007:
One other young corner, Miami's Jason Allen, will be closely scrutinized. The Dolphins' first-round pick in 2006, Allen played mostly at safety last season, but spent most of this spring working at cornerback.
• Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, a standout at Florida State, missed much of training camp in a contract dispute, signed late and never caught up. He appeared in 15 games, but had only nine tackles and no sacks. Those anemic numbers aside, Bunkley is projected by coordinator Jim Johnson as a starter for 2007, alongside another former first-round choice, Mike Patterson. Bunkley needs to come through for an Eagles defense that slipped to No. 26 versus the run in 2006.
• Chicago defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek, a 2006 third-round pick out of Oklahoma, missed his entire rookie campaign because of a foot injury. But the defending NFC champions lost tackles Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott in free agency and released Tank Johnson, and will have to count on young, inexperienced players to fill the breach. Of the several untested players, Dvoracek, a tough-minded inside defender, seems to be the one the Chicago coaches hold in highest regard.
• Cincinnati second-round pick Andrew Whitworth started 12 games in 2006, mostly at left tackle filling in for the injured Levi Jones. His challenge is almost as big this season, when he moves inside to left guard to replace standout Eric Steinbach, who exited in free agency. At 6-foot-7, Whitworth doesn't exactly look the part of a guard, but he's a solid in-line blocker and plays with good leverage. Seattle's Rob Sims, who started three games in 2006, could claim the left guard job in Seattle. And Baltimore's Chris Chester figures to start at either center or right guard.
• Giants wide receiver Sinorice Moss was expected to provide an explosive playmaker working out of the slot as a rookie, but he was sidetracked by a quadriceps injury suffered in the preseason and never got on track. The second-round pick finished the year with a paltry 5 catches for 5 yards. With veteran Amani Toomer coming off knee surgery, there is a golden opportunity for Moss to redeem himself. But if he falters, this spring's second-round choice, Steve Smith of USC, could move ahead of him.
• Tampa Bay coaches have grown weary waiting for former first-round WR Michael Clayton to return to the production of his 2004 rookie season, and that has opened the way for Maurice Stovall to make a move on the No. 2 wideout position opposite Joey Galloway. A third-round pick in 2006 out of Notre Dame, Stovall doesn't have great speed, but he's a big target (6-4, 229 pounds) who can add yards after the catch. He posted just 7 receptions for 102 yards in 2006, playing in only nine games.
• Chad Greenway (Minnesota), Freddy Keiaho (Indianapolis) and Rocky McIntosh (Washington) started just one game combined in 2006, but all are projected as their respective teams' starters at weakside linebacker this season. The Vikings lost Greenway, their No. 1 draft pick, to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason, wrecking his rookie year, but the former Iowa star has been diligent in his rehabilitation. A second-round pick in '06, McIntosh is regarded highly enough by the Redskins' coaches that the team would not surrender him in trade talks aimed at acquiring Lance Briggs, the Bears' two-time Pro Bowl performer. Keiaho is the latest young Indianapolis defender to move into the lineup after a starter departed in free agency.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.