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Mailbag: How real is the NFL Year 2 jump?

Does the Year 2 jump in the NFL actually happen, or is that another commonly-perpetuated myth?

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Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every now and then, we get a question in our mailbag that scratches a curiosity itch. A question that has me as curious about the answer as the person who asked it. And rather than give them a short, concise response, I want to dig deeper and spend an entire day on it.

The latest question to send me down a rabbit hole came from Twitter user @drunkenpunter, who asked a question that I think many just assume they know the answer to, but I don’t like to take anything for granted. The question is simple:

Is the developmental leap in year 2 an actual thing that can be backed up by examples and stats, or is it an assumption and myth?

Indeed this is something that is just assumed to be true. Head coaches and players speak of it all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it's there. Oftentimes we find that players and coaches may not be the best judge of their own performances, so maybe this is a phenomenon—like the NBA hot hand*—that players believe exist, but there’s little evidence to support it.

*Note: Research findings are mixed on the NBA hot hand phenomenon. Early research suggested it was a myth, but there are more recent findings that suggest there may be some truth to it in a very small amount of players.

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell is certainly a believer in the Year 2 jump. He’s mentioned it several times already in his short tenure in Detroit.

“Anybody will tell you in this league that you’ll never make as big of a jump as you will from Year 1 to Year 2,” Campbell said back in May. “It doesn’t mean you won’t continue to get better, but Year 1 to Year 2 is the biggest you’ll make in this league.”

Campbell was even asked to provide examples that he’s personally seen with a Year 2 jump. Let’s take a closer look at the three players he listed: Jason Witten, Jeremy Shockey, and Charles Clay. All three are tight ends, the first two Campbell played alongside, while Clay was a player he personally coached.

Jason Witten:

2003 (rookie year): 15 games (7 starts) — 35 catches, 347 yards, 1 TD
2004: 16 games (15 starts) — 87 catches, 980 yards, 6 TDs

The Year 2 growth is pretty obvious here, as Witten went from a pretty ordinary season to a Pro Bowl performance.

Jeremy Shockey

2002: 15 games (14 starts) — 74 catches, 894 yards, 2 TDs
2003: 9 games (9 starts) — 48 catches, 535 yards, 2 TDs

Shockey’s Year 2 was cut short due to injury, and he had a rare remarkably good rookie season. He was on pace to match that performance in Year 2, so I would not consider this a Year 2 jump. In fact, he would never go on to outgain the yardage total from his rookie season. However, he became a touchdown weapon in Year 3, tallying six, seven, and seven touchdowns in 2004, 2005, and 2006, respectively. There’s also the potential that he grew as a blocker, but data on that didn’t really exist back in the early 2000s.

Charles Clay

2011: 14 games (9 starts) — 16 catches, 233 yards, 3 TDs

  • 71.1 PFF overall grade — 67.5 pass blocking grade, 68.4 run blocking grade

2012: 14 games (9 starts) — 18 catches, 212 yards, 2 TDs

  • 60.0 PFF overall grade — 78.0 pass blocking grade, 60.4 run blocking grade

There didn’t appear to be much of a Year 2 jump for Clay when it came to receiving, but he improved dramatically as a pass blocker according to PFF. Still, he regressed as a run blocker, so it’s hard to call this a Year 2 jump.

That being said, much like Shockey, there was a recognizable Year 3 jump for Clay.

2013: 16 games (15 starts) — 69 catches, 759 yards, 6 TDs

  • 76.3 PFF overall grade — 71.2 pass blocking grade, 63.8 run blocking grade

In this very small sample size, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a Year 2 jump, but there was an early jump in each of these players’ careers, nonetheless. One could certainly forgive Campbell for misremembering the exact year of these players’ jump, given that these happened 10-20 years ago and Campbell was put on the spot with this question.

Of course, we need to expand our outlook here to see if this phenomenon exists in a wider sense. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of research on the topic. That said, this study from PFF examined the predictive power of a player’s career based on each season’s performance. The goal of the study, in essence, is to find out how far into a player’s career can you judge their “true” talent.

The study essentially found that a player’s rookie performance has weak predictive power on a player’s career trajectory when compared to their performance in subsequent years. In other words, regardless of whether an NFL player performed well or poorly in their rookie season, that, in general, is not a good measure of how the rest of their career will play out. Interestingly enough, Year 2 performance has the highest correlation in predicting the next year’s performance, even more so than Year 3 to Year 4 or Year 4 to Year 5.

“We notice that the rookie year is indeed less predictive than the following years as it pertains to next-year performance,” PFF’s Timo Riske wrote. “In particular, when forecasting a player going into Year 3, we should weigh the second year higher, especially when there is a large discrepancy between Year 1 and Year 2 performance.”

PFF went even further by breaking it down into each NFL position. Unsurprisingly, the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 predictability was largest for quarterbacks, tight ends, defensive linemen, cornerbacks, and safeties. Those positions notoriously have the largest learning curves, and there are certainly plenty of local examples that support this (Matthew Stafford, T.J. Hockenson, and Darius Slay).

Among the positions with the smallest Year 1 to Year 2 variance were offensive tackle (when incorporating draft position), wide receiver, and linebacker. Again, there are plenty of salient examples here, whether it be Taylor Decker, Calvin Johnson, or even Jahlani Tavai—all of whom showed exactly who they are in their rookie seasons.

To connect that with Detroit’s current roster of players entering Year 2, the likes of Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and even potentially Derrick Barnes may have already shown their true colors in 2021. But the jury is almost certainly still out there when it comes to Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, and Ifeatu Melifonwu.

While this information is certainly interesting, it doesn’t exactly answer the original question. It implies that many rookie performances are not representative of a player’s true talent, and it suggests that the biggest change in performance will likely come in Year 2. But it stops short of providing evidence of a Year 2 jump. It’s always possible that the change is a decrease in performance, and PFF’s study also shows that changes beyond Year 2 are common—albeit smaller in nature.

Again, there is a lack of data to definitively make the logical conclusion that the Year 2 change is mostly in a positive direction, but there are plenty of common-sense arguments to make in favor of that conclusion. Former NFL safety—and fantastic analyst—Matt Bowen penned a great article on this specific topic outlining why players commonly make a significant jump in their second seasons, using his own career as an example. He broke it down into three categories: football-specific training, self-scouting/film study, and technique work.

Current Lions players have spoken about these exact phenomenons when it comes to their own experiences with a Year 2 jump. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell noted how last year, he was training specifically for the NFL Combine. This year, he’s been able to focus his physical training on aspects more related to improving his game.

“When I was working for the combine, I’m trying to be as slim as possible, trying to run fast,” Sewell said. “That’s not the game I play. That’s not the position I play. This offseason, it was really more position-specific and kinda getting stronger and conditioning in the trenches.”

Linebacker Derrick Barnes was asked specifically about the Year 1 to Year 2 jump and spoke directly about the value of watching his own film.

“I believe it. I’ve seen it for myself, just how confident I am,” Barnes said of the Year 2 jump. “Like, you can take stuff from the film room to the field and it just clicks so easy for you. There are mistakes here and there, and you just learn from them. Watching film, just staying in the playbook, so you know what you’re doing on the field.”

As for improving technique, Bowen’s argument is that in Year 2, players have to worry less about the day-to-day process (meeting times, where to go) and schematic details (where to line up), so they can focus more on the technical process of their game. Frank Ragnow talked about that in regards to Sewell’s rookie season.

“I think the rookie year is just a whirlwind overall. So (in Year 2) you understand what’s going to happen, you get in a routine, you know what’s going on,” Ragnow said.

So, overall, while there is still plenty of direct research still needed on this topic, there’s some indirect evidence and direct, common-sense arguments for the validity of a Year 2 jump existing in the NFL.

To close things out, I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not just Detroit’s young roster that has many players potentially seeing a Year 2 jump in 2022, but this is also Year 2 of this organization’s new regime. And there is one study, albeit at the college level, that suggests a new coaching staff typically sees a Year 2 jump, especially in cases in which the previous head coach was fired due to performance issues.

This final model reaffirms that, holding all else constant, a program’s WIN% will often start to significantly improve in a head coach’s second season at the helm; furthermore, the improvements witnessed at this stage are larger than those across any of the other tenure variables. Although its impact is mitigated, the Year-Two Effect remains significant in comparison to most other years in a head coach’s term.