11 Oct 2012 02:55 PM EST
-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Christian Ponder extends for TD against the San Francisco 49ers. (Image Source: Getty Images)
Four QBs were selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft and unlike this year’s crop of rookie QBs, last year’s group didn’t have much success, other than No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, who set several rookie passing and running records for the Carolina Panthers.
His second season has been a little bumpy, but another second-year starter has been thriving through the first five weeks of their sophomore season.
Christian Ponder has the Minnesota Vikings at 4-1 and in first place in the NFC North and his development is a big reason why. He’s second in the NFL in completion percentage [69 percent] and while many of his passes are of the short to intermediate variety, anyone who saw him against the San Francisco 49ers knows he’s a playmaker.
Many were surprised when the Vikes selected the FSU product with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, but now he’s proving doubters wrong using his head to make smart decisions and his legs to keep plays alive.
“I think you're seeing the steps that a second-year player takes,” says Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. “He had his feet wet last year and he's a smart guy. He's a first-round draft pick, he had a good off-season this year, he had a good training camp and you’re seeing improvement.”
The Cincinnati Bengals tabbed Andy Dalton with the third pick of the second round in last year’s draft. The “Red Riffle” leads the NFL with his 127.7 fourth-quarter passer rating. A year after leading the Bengals to a surprise postseason berth, he has Cincy at 3-2 and in second place in the AFC North.
“Last year, I was trying to learn an offense,” says Dalton. “Now I have a good understanding of everything and I’m really comfortable out there. And I’ve been able to do a better job as the leader of the offense.”
In addition to understanding and comfort, it doesn’t hurt to have a No. 1 WR like fellow second-year pro A.J. Green. Last week the Georgia product became the first player in the history of the league to reach 100 receptions, 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns in the first 20 games of their pro career.
He’s tied for third in the NFL in TD receptions with four and is fifth in both receptions [tied] with 36 and receiving yards with 493. Green is making a case for himself as a top-five WR in the NFL.
“Andy and I were lucky to have a pretty good natural communication from the start, but this year I feel like it’s a lot better,” says Green. “More and more things, we just seem to be thinking the same way without really saying it. And I’m more comfortable personally with everything this year. The whole routine of being a pro player is more natural. It’s easier to focus.”
Probably no player has taken a bigger step forward in year number two than Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt, who is second in the NFL with his 7.5 sacks.
“I just feel more relaxed out there, I’m not nervous at all,” said Watt. “I’m just going out there and playing the game I love. I just feel confident in my game. I know what I’m doing. I know what my teammates are doing and I can just let loose and have fun.”
With Mario Williams in Buffalo, Watt has emerged as the lynchpin of a talented Houston defense, that has the Texans as one of two undefeated teams in the NFL heading into Week 6.
Other Second-Year Players Ranked in the Top 5 in the NFL:
Runners: New England’s Stevan Ridley is tied for second in the NFL with four rushing touchdowns and is fifth in rushing yards with 490, as he leads New England’s resurgent ground attack.
Pass Catchers: WR Julio Jones is tied for third in the league with four receiving touchdowns, along with fellow SEC product Green. Like Watt, he’s a core player on one of the league’s two remaining undefeated teams. Having a go-to TE is a nice security blanket for young QBs, especially in the Red Zone, which is when Ponder has most looked to Kyle Rudolph: Four of the QB’s six TD passes have been caught by the TE.
Pass Rushers: The St. Louis Rams have a wining record thanks to their defense. Most opponents are paying close attention to Chris Long and Robert Quinn has made them pay with six sacks, which is tied for third in the league, along with Justin Houston who gets after the QB from his OLB position. Watt does most of his damage on the interior, however Quinn and Houston are pure edge pass rushers.
Returners: New York’s Jeremy Kerley is getting extended playing time as a WR, but he’s also off to a great start as a returner, averaging 17 yards per punt return, third in the NFL. He’s one of six players with a PR for a TD this season, a list that also includes Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers and the Tennessee Titans Tommie Campbell.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of American. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.