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NFL Year 2 breakouts: Kyren Williams, Kyle Hamilton among 10 young players who have emerged in 2023

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights 10 players making a great SECOND impression ...

As the 2023 regular season winds down, a group of young players are putting the finishing touches on breakout Year 2 campaigns. These "super sophomores" have blossomed into standouts after up-and-down NFL debuts in 2022.

One factor that could be at play: A player heading into his second professional campaign might focus rigorously on skill development in the offseason, after spending a large chunk of the previous offseason getting ready for the NFL draft. Instead of devoting workouts to preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine/pro day -- events that revolve around the 40-yard dash, vertical/broad jumps, agility testing, interviews, etc. -- a player can use his time working on specific facets of his game.

By dedicating more time and reps to cultivating individual skills and general scheme mastery, players are able to refine the footwork and fundamentals needed to excel at the highest level. Whether their training is done under the watchful eyes of team assistants tasked with developing young players or outside trainers, players are often more ready to hit the ground running in Year 2.

Without further ado, here are 10 second-year studs (listed in alphabetical order) who truly emerged in 2023.

DaRon Bland
Dallas Cowboys · CB

OK, it's fair to say that Bland enjoyed a breakout campaign as a rookie, when he posted five interceptions and seven passes defensed as a slot defender. But he has taken his game to a whole other level in an historic Year 2 that has catapulted him into the discussion of the elite players at his position. Bland leads the NFL with eight INTs, including a record-breaking five pick-sixes. In addition, the Pro Bowl-caliber cover man has 14 passes defensed, exhibiting outstanding ball skills and awareness for a 24-year-old. With the second-year pro having fully settled into his role as an outside corner following Trevon Diggs' season-ending injury in September, the Cowboys have found a true stud on the island in this 2022 second-rounder.

James Cook
Buffalo Bills · RB

The Bills' offensive resurgence has been keyed by Cook's enhanced role as the featured playmaker. By utilizing the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder as a runner/receiver, they've added much-needed balance to an offensive attack that routinely operated as a one-man show in the past with QB Josh Allen. Last season, Cook finished third on the team in carries (89) and sixth in targets (32), tallying just 687 scrimmage yards. This season, Cook ranks 11th in the entire league in carries (208), and only three players on the Bills roster have been targeted more; as a result, he's become Buffalo's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2017, while his 1,471 scrimmage yards rank fourth in the NFL. Cook has shown the Bills that he is more than capable of driving the bus as the RB1. 

Jake Ferguson
Dallas Cowboys · TE

Ferguson has become Dak Prescott's favorite drop-off option against umbrella coverage. As the Cowboys' second-leading receiver with 61 receptions, Ferguson has accounted for 35 first downs and eight big plays (receptions of 20-plus yards) in 15 games. At 6-5, 244 pounds with outstanding ball skills and spatial awareness, the former fourth-round pick is a dangerous red-zone weapon with superior size and length to win 50/50 balls against linebackers and safeties. As the Cowboys continue to feature Ferguson as a primary option, the 24-year-old is making his way into the conversation as a top-10 player at the position.

Luke Goedeke
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · RT

The Buccaneers' surprising rise to the top of the NFC South has been keyed by an underrated offensive line quietly dominating in the trenches. Goedeke has been a big part of the O-line's success as an athletic brawler with a nasty temperament. The former second-round pick has thrived in Tampa Bay's revamped scheme, which features wide zones with complementary movement-based passes and bootlegs. Goedeke's athleticism, short-area quickness and explosive power shine in an offense that showcases his strengths as a mobile blocker. Given his rapid improvement in Year 2, the Bucs' right tackle deserves kudos for his effort on the edge. 

Kyle Hamilton
Baltimore Ravens · S

The super-sized safety has flourished in a hybrid role in Mike Macdonald's scheme, most recently earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his two-pick, five-tackle effort in Baltimore's win over San Francisco. The 6-4, 220-pounder stones open-side runs as a slot defender, while also flashing the instincts, awareness and pursuit quickness to run down ball-carriers on the back side. Hamilton's versatility as a box defender allows him to shine as a pass rusher on blitzes, with the big-bodied playmaker coming off the edge or through the B-gap (between the offensive guard and offensive tackle). Hamilton also occasionally plays in the short post as a lurk defender between the hashes. The Ravens star has become a designated disruptor for a defense that ranks fifth in total D and first in points allowed. The sooner he can shake a knee injury that kept him out of practice this week, the better for Baltimore.

Boye Mafe
Seattle Seahawks · OLB

The ultra-athletic edge rusher has come into his own as a true disruptor on Seattle's defensive front. Mafe's speed, quickness and burst make him extremely difficult to block on obvious passing downs. The 2022 second-rounder has nine sacks and 15 quarterback hits in 14 games, exhibiting a sprinter's get-off while relentlessly chasing down quarterbacks from the front side. With Mafe starting to find his groove as a pass rusher, the Seahawks have a star in the making at left defensive end.

Trent McDuffie
Kansas City Chiefs · CB

The success of the Chiefs' defensive backfield is the byproduct of a young group of defenders quickly assimilating to the pro game. Though McDuffie made solid contributions as a rookie Super Bowl champion, he has become a valuable, versatile defender with a knack for playmaking. With 74 tackles, three sacks, nine quarterback hits and five forced fumbles in 2023, McDuffie is a disruptive threat as a blitz specialist while also providing air-tight coverage ability (SEE: seven pass breakups). In a league where coaches are looking for defenders who can thrive as positionless playmakers, McDuffie's production as a sub-package standout makes him a valuable commodity in the lineup.

Derek Stingley Jr.
Houston Texans · CB

Stingley has taken his game up a notch this year, becoming a takeaway specialist and premier corner for Houston, utilizing his superb instincts, awareness and anticipation to swipe passes in his area. With five interceptions and 12 passes defensed, Stingley is a ball magnet whose turnover obsession shows up on tape. As the Texans rebuild the defense around a talented collection of young playmakers, Stingley's ball skills and knack for takeaways will continue to shine in key moments.

Kayvon Thibodeaux
New York Giants · OLB

It might have taken a full season for Thibodeaux to find his groove as a pro pass rusher, but the Giants' star defender has emerged as quite a force off the edge. The former Oregon Duck overwhelms opponents with his first-step quickness and burst, and he's added a few more tools to his toolbox in Year 2. Thibodeaux can turn the corner on speed rushes utilizing a dip-and-rip maneuver, while also possessing complementary inside and outside swipe moves that allow him to win against overaggressive edge blockers. With 11.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits in 2023, Thibodeaux is starting to live up to the expectations that come with being a top-five pick.

Kyren Williams
Los Angeles Rams · RB

Sean McVay has rebuilt the Rams' ground game around Williams' skills as an inside/outside runner with outstanding balance, body control and burst. Last week, the 5-9, 195-pounder topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season in what was just his 11th game of 2023. It was also his sixth game this year with 100-plus rushing yards -- and the Rams improved to 5-1 in such games. The second-year pro has become the straw that stirs the drink for this offense as Los Angeles makes a playoff push

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