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Second-year NFL players primed for breakout seasons in 2024: Broncos’ Marvin Mims, Lions’ Jack Campbell, more

If an NFL player doesn’t show something by Year 2, there’s a problem, and we can, in almost every case, accept said player will not become a star at the professional level. Patience wears thin by then because, nowadays, stars typically emerge in their second season, if they didn’t already do so in Year 1.

These are the second-year pros primed to break out in 2024. I didn’t include those who I deemed to have already emerged as stars as rookies. And this list features deeper selections, not just Year 2 pros who were really good as rookies but didn’t see major playing time. For most picks, I’m trusting my evaluation process/system for when all of these players were draft prospects. 

I can’t quit Johnston after one disappointing NFL season with what we’ve come to realize was an inept head coach at the helm in Los Angeles. While I certainly understood this wasn’t a route-running master entering the league in 2023, I figured the team drafting Johnston would’ve made a concerted effort to get him the ball in space and move him up and down the line pre-snap to give him clean releases into his routes. 

Reception Perception’s Matt Harmon pinpointed everything wrong with Johnston’s rookie season perfectly in this video, saying “he was set up to fail,” and later mentioning that Johnston’s aligned outside on 91.3% of his snaps with the Chargers in 2023. Harmon also said “he was rarely ever put in motion.” Essentially, the Chargers were too static with a big, tall, raw route-runner who excelled after the catch in college, essentially asking him to be a classic “X” receiver to run a variety of different routes and get open without scheme help out of the gate. 

Now, with Jim Harbaugh, a coach who saw up close the damage Johnston can do when he erupted for 163 yards and a score on six grabs in the 2023 CFP Semifinal against Michigan, I expect the utilization of Johnston to be more sensical. 

Do I expect Johnston to become a 85-catch, 1,400-yard receiver? No. But his breakout will represent a return to respectability, and a drafting away from bust territory. 

Campbell had an up-and-down rookie campaign. On over 600 snaps for the Lions, he amassed 95 tackles with five tackles for loss. In coverage, an area in which he thrived at Iowa, Campbell showed plenty of room for serious improvement. While linebackers can be “charged” for receptions in their coverage area on something as simple as a harmless checkdown, Campbell did “allow” a passer rating of 124.2 with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and two pass breakups. 

This year with the Lions, he’ll make the leap in coverage. The size and athleticism are there for him to do it — Campbell’s nearly 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds with above-average speed, burst, and elite-level agility for the linebacker spot. Plus, counting the postseason, Campbell got nearly 350 snaps of experience sinking in coverage on pass plays. 

I also love what the Lions have done in front of him. After finishing fourth in defensive pressure-creation rate a season ago at 41.6%, the Lions added hulking nose tackle D.J. Reader in free agency to pair next to Alim McNeill on a front anchored by Pro Bowler Aidan Hutchinson who has 21 sacks through two professional seasons. 

Why Mims wasn’t a larger part of the Broncos offense in 2023 will forever be a mystery. Heck, head coach Sean Payton essentially admitted the coaching staff was responsible for holding him back — although Payton stopped short of saying exactly that in a recent press conference.  

He averaged over 17 yards per catch with four missed forced tackles on 22 receptions with just one drop as a rookie. He was named to Second-Team All-Pro as a kick returner after averaging over 27 yards per tote and housing one kick for a 99-yard touchdown. 

This is a 4.38 burner with impeccable hands and craftiness after the catch. Sure, the Broncos traded for Jerry Jeudy and didn’t move Courtland Sutton this offseason. But Mims has the explosiveness and flashed enough in Year 1 to have earned starting slot duties in his second professional campaign. I expect big things. 

The Packers are loaded with young skill-position talent, and Wicks is not the most recognizable name of that budding group in Green Bay. But he might be the most naturally gifted. At 6-1 and 206 pounds, Wicks does only have 4.62 speed but had a vertical and broad jump at the 2023 combine that placed him in the 85th and 91st percentiles respectively. 

Thrust into a rotational but low-key critical role down the stretch as the Packers pushed for the playoffs last year, Wicks emerged. In a six-game span late in the season, Wicks caught 22 passes for a hefty 341 yards with two touchdowns. He also scored in the dominant, crowd-silencing playoff win in Dallas over the Cowboys. On the year, 30 of his 41 total catches went for first downs 

This is a long-limbed wideout with explosive traits who gained the trust of ascending quarterback Jordan Love late in the 2023 season. Even with Jayden Reed, Romeo Doubs, and two dynamic youthful tight ends, I expect Wicks to rise the target pecking order as a boundary weapon for the Packers. 

When you’re in a backfield with Derrick Henry, you’re going to be the second option. And that’s precisely what Spears was as a rookie. Ironically, after years of attempting to find a serious complement to Henry, the Titans finally found one in Henry’s final season with the team. 

Spears averaged 4.5 yards per carry with a respectable 26 missed tackles forced on 100 attempts. He made most impressive contributions as a receiver — Spears caught 52 passes for 385 yards with only two drops and 27 missed tackles forced. Once Spears caught the ball out of the backfield, he was a problem for defenses. 

The Titans added Tony Pollard in free agency, and he and Spears should formulate close to a 50-50 responsibility split, and Spears has the juice and vision to sustain his efficiency as a multi-dimensional threat in what should be an improved Titans offense in 2024 with Will Levis in Year 2 and the addition of Calvin Ridley

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Author: Chris Trapasso
June 10, 2024 | 9:30 am

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