For every Ezekiel Elliott, there are plenty of rookie players who struggle to make a smooth transition from college to the NFL. For some, it simply takes a season to get adjusted before they can make a real impact. These are the players who made the biggest improvement in 2016 after poor rookie campaigns the season prior.
1. John Miller, G, Buffalo Bills
2015 overall grade: 38.7
2016 overall grade: 77.8
Now firmly entrenched as the Bills’ starting RG, Miller’s rookie season was one to forget, plagued by nagging injuries that had an effect on his play, in particular his run blocking. Bills running backs averaged only 3.9 yards per carry rushing in his direction, and his run-blocking grade ranked 84th among guards, with Miller perhaps struggling to adjust to such a diverse rushing attack. He turned it around in 2016, however, shooting up to 24th among guards in terms of PFF grade as a run blocker, missing only 18 snaps. Overall, he made the step up to a solid, dependable player, with his grade improving from a dismal 38.7 to 77.8.
2. Jalen Collins, CB, Atlanta Falcons
2015 overall grade: 44.2
2016 overall grade: 81.6
With star cornerback Desmond Trufant going down injured halfway through the 2016 season, it was left to Collins to step up as a starter for the Falcons’ playoff run. Despite not playing until Week 9, Collins finished the season ranked as the 25th CB in PFF grading. His 81.6 grade dramatically eclipsed an ugly rookie mark of 44.2, thanks to several notable big plays for the Falcons both down the stretch and throughout their playoff push. His nine pass breakups from Week 9 onwards were tied for second-most among all CBs, adding two interceptions into the mix, too. His forced fumble on Packers FB Aaron Ripkowski in the playoffs was one of the defining moments of the NFC Championship game.
3. Jake Ryan, LB Green Bay Packers
2015 overall grade: 42.5
2016 overall grade: 76.4
Ryan struggled in 2015 after taking over the starting inside linebacker role from Nate Palmer. His weakness proved to be in pass coverage, allowing 83.3 percent of targets thrown his way to be caught for a passer rating of 135.5, or around 30 points higher than the average for linebackers. It wasn’t just coverage, though, with few real impact plays in any area, including just one solitary hurry on the blitz. 2016 saw him jump from a 42.5 grade to 76.4 thanks to cleaning up his pass coverage and making strides against the run, too, recording a stop on 9.8 percent of all run plays and missing only two tackles all season.
4. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants
2015 overall grade: 58.0
2016 overall grade: 91.7
PFF’s Breakout Player of the Year, no player had a bigger year-on-year improvement than Collins, who transformed his 58.0 season grade in 2015 to finishing second among all safeties in 2016 with a 91.7 grade. Much of his success in 2016 owed to the Giants’ decision to move him closer to the line of scrimmage as a box safety, cutting the percentage of his snaps spent as a deep-lying free safety from 56% in 2015 to 37% in 2016. His 49 defensive stops led all safeties, as did his five sacks. Despite making his name as an elite run defender, he also made improvements in coverage too, becoming more of a factor in that regard when used in man coverage underneath and in short, rather than deep zones.
— PFF (@PFF) January 24, 2017
5. Shaq Mason, G, New England Patriots
2015 overall grade: 50.7
2016 overall grade: 84.0
With the Patriots’ offensive line in a state of flux for much of the 2015 season, Mason struggled to find his footing. He switched from LG to RG at the start of the 2015 postseason and hasn’t looked back since, grading at 84.0 in 2016 compared to his 50.7 grade in 2015. Mason was a run-blocking monster in college within Georgia Tech’s triple option offense, and he has formed one of the league’s most dominant and formidable double-team or combination blocks with RT Marcus Cannon. As a pair, they will move pretty much anybody off the line and open up space for the Patriots’ backs. His 2016 run-blocking grade finished 10th among all guards
6. Eric Kendricks, LB, Minnesota Vikings
2015 overall grade: 48.3
2016 overall grade: 80.3
Much like Jake Ryan, Kendrick’s strong sophomore season was centered on his much-improved pass-coverage skills, which was his strength as a prospect coming out of UCLA. He allowed an average of 8.9 yards per catch and a passer rating of 85.3, compared to figures of 11.6 yards and a 110.8 rating in his rookie year. He also emerged as a more effective playmaker, increasing his 2015 tally of two pass defenses to six in 2016, as well as ranking seventh among inside linebackers with a run-stop percentage of 10.2. Vikings fans should be encouraged by his year-on-year grade improvement from 48.3 to 80.3, and will hope for another step forward in year three.
7. Shane Ray, Edge, Denver Broncos
2015 overall grade: 45.8
2016 overall grade: 77.1
With veteran edge defender DeMarcus Ware laboring through injury and primarily playing as a situational rusher even when healthy, it was left to Ray to provide a strong complement to Von Miller. His jump from a rookie grade of 45.8 in 2015 to 77.1 in 2016 was evidence of his improved pass-rush skills that saw him record 45 total QB pressures, almost double the 25 he notched as a rookie, and ranking him 10th in pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers.
8. Eric Rowe, CB, New England Patriots
2015 overall grade: 48.8
2016 overall grade: 73.9
After a disappointing rookie season with the Eagles, Rowe was traded to New England, where he became one of the team’s three top corners over the season and through the playoffs, ultimately earning himself a Super Bowl ring. The change in scenery clearly had an impact, as his grade improved from 48.8 to 73.9. He allowed only 50 percent of targets thrown his way to be completed, gave up just 75 yards after the catch and conceded one touchdown (postseason play included). He also missed only two tackles, the lowest mark among the Patriots’ top defensive backs.
9. Tevin Coleman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
2015 overall grade: 50.3
2016 overall grade: 74.1
After finding himself playing second fiddle to Devonta Freeman in 2015, Coleman struggled to make an impact when he did get on the field, gaining fewer than 400 rushing yards and fumbling three times. 2016 saw him eating into Freeman’s carries, thanks to improved rushing after contact—2.7 yards after contact per attempt following 2.0 in 2015—and nine rushing touchdowns, eight more than his single TD in 2015. On more than three times as many carries, he also fumbled fewer times (two) than his rookie year. His best work came as a receiver, though—his 2.44 yards per route run led all running backs with 100 minimum snaps in route, plus he averaged 11.2 yards after contact per reception and dropped only two passes on 45 targets.
10. Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
2015 overall grade: 59.4
2016 overall grade: 82.5
The end zone managed to elude Gordon in 2015, who couldn’t tally a single score on 184 rushing attempts. That changed drastically last season, however, with his 10 TDs ranking seventh among all running backs. He also did a better job of looking after the football, fumbling only twice on 70 more carries after tying for the league lead with six in 2015. His jump in PFF grading from 59.4 to 82.5 should provide encouragement for the Chargers heading into 2017.