The sophomore slump is a well-documented phenomenon in the NFL, with multiple “big name” players falling prey to a bad second season each year in the league. Slumps can happen for any number of reason. Some might be out of the players control, with significant roster changes or a new coaching staff and offensive or defensive playbook. Other slumps come out of sheer misfortune, possibly due to injury to that player, or to “impact” players elsewhere on the roster that effect his ability to perform. However, the most common slumps, at least to offensive players, come as a tribute to the brilliant defensive minds in the NFL. Give a defensive coordinator seven months to dissect every snap from the previous season, and you can almost guarantee that they will find a way to slow, if not completely stop, any player that “burst onto the scene” as a rookie.
The Rams had a number of rookies contribute on the roster last season, some in a substantial way, with both Michael Brockers and Janoris Jenkins as starters from Day 1. Others, like Daryl Richardson and Chris Givens, stepped up when their names were called; one after Steven Jackson suffered a groin injury against the Washington Redskins in Week 2 of the regular season, and the other after Danny Amendola separated his SC joint against the Arizona Cardinals. However, the rookies weren’t just starter on offense and defense! Both the starting kicker and starting punter were rookies, with Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker getting thrown into the fire early and often last season. In total, there were six rookies that saw significant playing time for the Rams last season. However, in addition to those player, guys like Trumaine Johnson, Isaiah Pead, and Brian Quick all saw a decent amount of snaps, and figure to see much more next season.
With that said, is there anyone on the roster that might “slump” in their sophomore campaign? We’ll look at the top four rookies from last season…
If there is one thing that the Rams have done consistently well in the NFL Draft, it has been “hitting” on defensive linemen in the first round. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are obvious successes, and Brockers, when on the field, was nothing short of phenomenal for the St. Louis. With the rookie manning the center of the line, the defense allowed only two 100+ yard rushers the rest of the season, one of those being the unstoppable Adrian Peterson. However, his individual numbers were just as impressive, especially considering they were compiled in only 13 games!
Brockers finished the season with 21 tackles, 5 sacks (T-5th in the NFL among DT/NT), 4 hits on the quarterback, 9 hurries (18 total pressures), and 21 defensive stops (i.e. a tackle that resulted in a failed offensive play). For a player who was tagged as “raw,” with question marks about his ability to rush the passer, he appeared to do just fine…
It would be hard to see Brockers “slump” in 2013, especially considering he will have a full season to set career highs in every category. In fact, his job should be significantly easier, with upgrades in, at least, one of the safety spots and at outside linebacker. The additional year of experience for Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, should also play a significant role, allowing more time for the defensive linemen to get the quarterback. It is possible that he might not maintain that relatively high sack number, but he will most certainly top his 2012 performance in every other category.
Chance of slump: 10%
Chris Givens didn’t really pick up steam in the receiver rotation until Week 4 against the Seahawks, and didn’t getting “starting-caliber” reps until after the Danny Amendola injury against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5.
As “the Man” in the receiving corps from Week 6 (Dolphins) through Week 13 (49ers), Givens piled up 29 receptions for 447 yards, averaging 4.8 catches and 74.5 yards per game, as well as snagging two touchdowns.
If that period of time is the measure of this rookie season, Givens could certainly slump as a sophomore, merely as a result of the added talent in the rotation.
However, for the entirety of the 2012 season, Givens averaged only 2.8 catches and 46.5 yards per game. If that is the measure of this rookie season, it would be difficult to imagine him putting up under 3 catches and 50 yards per game. That is especially true considering his new, much larger role in the offense, the obvious chemistry built with Bradford towards the end of the season, and the fact that a majority of his targets were either a) in the open field on a screen or b) 40+ yards down the field.
Even with the additions of Jared Cook and Tavon Austin, Givens still has a chance to be in a 5+ catches, 70+ yards per game type of receiver next season, and he certainly will have more than three total receiving touchdowns in 2013. That should be enough to dismiss any talk to a sophomore slump.
Chance of slump: 35%
Much like Givens, Janoris Jenkins “slump watch” will depend on how you look at his rookie season. If you choose to look merely at his playmaking ability, leading the NFL with four defensive touchdowns… then yes, you might be disappointed. However, if you look at Jenkins overall performance as a cornerback last season, there is no way to go but up.
We all know the positives of Jenkins’ game, but few choose to talk about the negatives from last season, even when blatantly obvious. For a long stretch in the middle of the season, Jenkins was mediocre, at best, in coverage, with glaring lacks of focus in several games. The most obvious example of that was against the Miami Dolphins, when Jenkins was caught in a death-stare with Ryan Tannehill, all while his man jogged casually into the endzone for the easy touchdown lob. In a three game stretch from Week 6 to Week 8, Jenkins allowed 19 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns… no bueno!
However, he showed obvious signs of improvement at the end of the season, especially after the benching in the first matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. From that point on, Jenkins did not allow a single receiving touchdown in coverage, never allowed more than 100 yards in a game, never allowed over 100.0 quarterback rating, racked up 10 of his 17 total defensive stops, and… tallied three interceptions, one fumble recovery, and all four of his defensive touchdowns. In fact, in that span, he allowed only a 52.8 quarterback rating when opposing signal callers threw at him in coverage, which would have slotting him Top 10 in the NFL last season. In the final game of the season, Jenkins played 95.3% of the defensive snaps against the red-hot Seattle Seahawks‘ offense. Jenkins’ receiver was not targeted a single time by Russell Wilson throughout the entire game… the definition of a “shut down” corner.
Jenkins might not rack up the defensive touchdown numbers, which will likely cause some to label his sophomore season as a slump. However, cornerback is one of the only positions in the NFL where is it good to not hear that player’s name called throughout the game. Darrelle Revis has had only one season with over five interceptions for a reason. When you become dominate in the NFL, quarterbacks stop trying their luck on your side of the field. That could easily be the case for Jenkins in 2013.
Chance of slump: 25%
According to Pro Football Focus, Greg “the Leg” was ranked as the 5th best kicker in the NFL last year, even with his “bad” stretch of games in the middle of the season. The truth is, Zuerlein was a phenom last season! He attempt, and often made, kicks that no other kicker would dare try in the NFL.
In terms of distance, Zuerlein did it all, hitting 14 field goals from 40+ yards last season. He also set an NFL record, becoming the first player to make two 50+ yard field goals in a single game… which, coincidentally, occurred during the win over Seattle in Week 4, when the rookie kickers hit on all four of his attempts. The “numbers” will suggest that Zuerlein was “less than accurate” last season, hitting only 74.2 of his attempts, and only 53.8% from 50+ yards… but, that doesn’t tell the whole story. As previously mentioned, the Rams’ rookie was asked to attempt crazy-long kicks last season. In fact, Zuerlein attempt two 60+ yards field goals in 2012, including a 66-yarder at the end of the game against the Miami Dolphins.
Zuerlein proved to be the definition of clutch last season, including hitting the game-winner against the San Francisco 49ers, and has already been crowned as the most powerful leg in football. The coaching staff and the players showed that they had full confidence in the kicker, which will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities in the 2013 season. The only way that Zuerlein will “slump” next season is if the Rams’ offense is clicking on all cylinders, consistently putting six points on the board, instead of forcing Zuerlein to attempts shots from midfield.
Chance of slump: 10%