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7 NFL Sophomores Who Need to Prove Themselves at Training Camp

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    Patience is not a virtue the NFL is known for, especially when it comes to player development.

    The minute a player is drafted, the clock begins ticking on their time to make an impact. The word “bust” probably gets thrown around too quickly and easily, but teams only have so much time and resources to wait on a player to blossom.

    The transition from college to the pros isn’t easy. There are many players who have unremarkable rookie campaigns that go on to be Pro Bowl or All-Pro talents.

    However, they usually start to show signs of what they can be by Year 2. With the dawn of training camp, those who struggled in 2021 should start to demonstrate improvement sooner than later.

    For those players, training camp is a crucial time, because it allows them an opportunity to prove they are worth the continued investment. Below are some of the NFL sophomores who need to start making a statement in training camp.

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    AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

    The Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl last year without getting much production from their highest pick in the 2021 draft.

    They took Tutu Atwell with the 57th pick in Round 2, but the 5’9″, 165-pound receiver was not involved in the offense. He saw just 10 snaps and no targets while bringing some value as a special teams player and return man.

    Then he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season after eight games.

    This year, Atwell has reportedly enlisted the help of teammate Cooper Kupp to improve his game and prepare him for his second season as he rehabs his shoulder.

    “Cooper is showing him how to be a pro—and he’s taking those lessons,” wide receivers coach Eric Yarber said, per Gary Klein of The Los Angeles Times.

    The Rams are a team still squarely in the middle of a Super Bowl window. As the defending champs, they don’t have time to simply give a player a role because he was a high draft pick.

    Atwell is going to have to earn his snap share in camp and prove he can be an asset in the offense.

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    For the second successive year, the Arizona Cardinals took an athletic, rangy linebacker in the first round of the draft. They took Zaven Collins out of Tulsa with the 16th selection in 2021, one year after taking Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons at No. 8 in the 2020 draft.

    Much like Simmons, Collins’ rookie year wasn’t anything special.

    Collins struggled to get on the field. He only played 20 percent of the defensive snaps and didn’t make his presence felt when he was out there. He had 25 combined tackles but only one was for a loss, with no sacks and just one pass defended.

    Fortunately, there’s still hope for Collins. Simmons had a similar part-time role and was much improved as a full-time player in his second season. He had 105 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and seven passes defended.

    The second-year player has admitted to having “bad practices” last season. It’s going to be crucial for him to eliminate those and earn the trust of the coaching staff.

    The fact they moved on from Jordan Hicks this offseason is a good indication he’s done that.

    Now it’s up to Collins to kick off his second season with a great training camp and reward the front office for having faith in him.

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    AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

    The 2021 quarterback class came into the league with a lot of hype, but several of the passers from that draft’s first round need a big Year 2.

    Justin Fields is a perfect example from that group. The former Ohio State quarterback was taken with the 11th pick, but his first season came with plenty of struggles. He completed just 58.9 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a record of 2-8 as the starter.

    Fields struggled to get rid of the ball on time as a rookie. He had the highest sack percentage in the league and absorbed 36 sacks in 12 games. Some of that is the product of playing behind a shaky offensive line, but the quarterback’s inability to adjust to his protection hurt his progression.

    Now, Fields has a new coaching staff to impress with Matt Eberfuls taking over for Matt Nagy. This offseason, Fields’ improved command of the new system has earned him praise from his teammates.

    “You just feel him in the huddle,” Bears tight end Cole Kmet said, per Courtney Cronin of ESPN. “He’s not just repeating the play, he’s telling you the play, and there’s a difference in that. That gives me confidence as a player out in the field.”

    That’s an encouraging sign, as much of the Bears’ upside hinges on Fields becoming a franchise quarterback.

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    The hype for Trevor Lawrence as a possible top pick in the draft started when he was a freshman at Clemson. So it’s safe to say few expected just 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions from his rookie campaign.

    Lawrence has been no stranger to the spotlight in his football career, and that light isn’t getting any dimmer in 2022.

    There are factors that need to be considered when assessing Lawrence’s rookie season. Having Urban Meyer as his first NFL coach certainly didn’t do him any favors, and there’s a good argument to be made he had the worst receiving corps in the league.

    It didn’t help that fellow first-round pick Travis Etienne got hurt before the season started, and Meyer was hesitant to embrace consistent usage of James Robinson. Thus, the Jaguars had little run game to support a passing attack that was short on weapons.

    All of that should improve in 2022. Doug Pederson lends credibility to the coaching staff, Etienne is returning from injury and the Jags used free agency to add solid receiving options in Christian Kirk, Evan Engram and Zay Jones.

    Lawrence knows his rookie season wasn’t good enough and that he has a lot to prove this year.

    “There’s a lot of motivation [for the team],” Lawrence said, per Michael DiRocco of ESPN. “Obviously, individually, personally I want to prove that I belong here and that I’m the player that I believe I am and this organization believes that I am.”

    That all starts with taking charge of the huddle and acclimating to his new receivers and coaches at training camp.

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    There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being a tackle taken in the first round. There’s even more when the regime that drafted you is no longer in charge.

    Alex Leatherwood not only has the stress of improving from a disastrous rookie year, but will also need to make an impression quickly with a new front office and coaching staff in place.

    The tandem of Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock selected Leatherwood with the 17th pick in the first round of the 2021 draft. He looked overwhelmed in his first season, giving up eight sacks and drawing 14 penalties, per PFF, while playing both guard and tackle.

    Thus far, reports from training camp have been good for Leatherwood. Teammate Josh Jacobs was complimentary of what he’s seen from the tackle.

    “I just see ‘Wood working his butt off every day,” Jacobs said, per team reporter Levi Edwards. “He’s one of the first guys out there at the beginning of practice working on his sets and things like that.”

    That’s good news for the Raiders. He’ll need to continue to make a strong impression, especially after the Vegas offensive line took a hit with the recent retirement of Denzelle Good.

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    AP Photo/Seth Wenig

    Much like Alex Leatherwood, Kadarius Toney is going to have the added pressure of impressing a new regime. Teams are less likely to feel beholden to players they didn’t draft, even if they are former first-rounders.

    Toney showcased the abiilty to be a game-breaking receiver in a two-game stretch last season. He was the lone bright spot in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys with 10 catches for 189 yards, and he had six catches for 78 yards the week prior against the New Orleans Saints.

    But take those two performances away and you just have 23 receptions for 153 yards across the other seven games in which he was actually healthy enough to play. Toney missed games with a knee injury and had multiple stints on the COVID list. The key for Toney in 2022 is going to be staying healthy and proving he can be consistent.

    A fresh start with a new coaching staff could be just what he needs, but the Giants also drafted Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round of this year’s draft. New general manager Joe Schoen acknowledged that Robinson’s skill set is similar to Toney’s but showed support for the former first-round pick, asserting that Toney was not on the trading block.

    However, the Giants should also have a healthy Kenny Golladay and Sterling Shephard, giving them other options in the passing game if Toney doesn’t show improvement quickly.

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    When it comes to Zach Wilson’s second year, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh summed it up best.

    “He doesn’t need to be Tom Brady this year. If he ends up being that, that’s awesome. That’s not the expectation. The expectation is for him to continue to climb the mountain,” he said, per Rich Cimini of ESPN.

    The quote was a good show of support for his quarterback, but Saleh was also honest in his assessment of Wilson’s rookie season acknowledging that it was “rough.”

    Wilson seemed to struggle timing last season. He was one of three quarterbacks to average three seconds or more to throw according to Next Gen Stats.

    He also had the worst completion percentage over expected in the league at -10.3. Going back to 2016 when Next Gen Stats started tracking the statistic, only C.J. Beathard has posted a lower number (-10.8 in 2017).

    Early signs point to Wilson looking improved in the offseason. Connor Hughes of The Athletic reported the quarterback has put on “13 pounds of healthy weight.”

    The front office has held up its end of the bargain. The quarterback’s supporting cast was a valid reason for struggles last year, and the Jets have added wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall through the draft and guard Laken Tomlinson in free agency.

    Add in tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, and New York has given Wilson the pieces he needs to be better in 2022. Now it’s on him to make the most of it.

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