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Posted: Tuesday May 5, 2009 12:57PM; Updated: Tuesday May 5, 2009 1:08PM
Don Banks Don Banks >
INSIDE THE NFL

Second-year players (cont.)

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First-round pick Kenny Phillips will have the chance to win the Giants starting safety job.
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11. Tyrell Johnson, S, Minnesota
It's not accurate to call Johnson's rookie season with the Vikings "underachieving,'' given that the second-round pick (43rd overall) performed capably enough in starting seven games in place of injured starting free safety Madieu Williams. But Johnson's role will significantly increase this season, when he takes over the No. 1 strong safety job in the wake of Darren Sharper's departure during free agency. Last season, Johnson finished with one interception, four passes defensed and 29 tackles.

12. Sedrick Ellis, DT, New Orleans
Ellis missed three games midseason due to a meniscus tear in his right knee, but he still had a decent rookie showing, with four sacks (second on the team) and three tackles for loss. New Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is counting on the No. 7 overall pick in 2008 to be one of the cornerstones of New Orleans' defensive improvement.

13. Kenny Phillips, S, N.Y. Giants
New York's 2008 first-round pick found ways to contribute last season (one interception, seven passes defensed), and by late in the year he was showing some of the promise that induced the Giants to make him the 31st and final pick of the first round. He started three games as a rookie, and Phillips this year is expected to vie with Michael Johnson for the starting free safety job.

14. Vernon Gholston, OLB, N.Y. Jets
No one in the entire 2008 draft class was a more glaring no-show as a rookie than Gholston, who was taken sixth overall by the Jets. He couldn't even make the team's game-day active list for one key game in December, and he barely registered on the Jets' stats sheet. First-year head coach Rex Ryan has promised to make Gholston his personal project this season, but the former Ohio State standout looked lost in '08, and has miles to go before New York can justify its investment.

15. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh
You can blame Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis for Mendenhall's mostly lost rookie season. Lewis broke Mendenhall's shoulder on a tackle in a Week 4 game in Pittsburgh, and the first-round rookie from Illinois spent the rest of the season on IR. Before his injury, Mendenhall's impact was very limited, with 58 yards rushing on 19 carries and two receptions for 17 yards. Much more will be expected of him this season in a Steelers backfield still headed by Willie Parker.

16. Limas Sweed, WR, Pittsburgh
With Steelers No. 3 receiver Nate Washington having signed with Tennessee in free agency, Sweed will get every opportunity to climb a notch on the depth chart. The second-round pick out of Texas had a nearly invisible rookie season -- six catches for 64 yards -- and his biggest moments involved passes dropped when his opportunities arrived. Year two should be substantially better for Sweed.

17. Kentwan Balmer, DL, San Francisco
The top of the 49ers 2008 draft class made virtually no impact as a rookie, finishing with six solo tackles and no sacks, without a start. He backed up Isaac Sopoaga at left end in the 49ers 3-4 defense, playing only in goal-line packages and on special teams. At best, San Francisco hopes Balmer this year can push newly acquired left end Demetric Evans for playing time.

18. Lawrence Jackson, DE, Seattle
New Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has challenged Jackson to step up his effort level and win the starting right defensive end job, opposite left end Patrick Kerney. Jackson, the team's first-round pick in 2008, had just two sacks and 21 solo tackles last season. He looked good in a minicamp last weekend, but he's in competition with veterans Darryl Tapp and Cory Redding for the No. 1 job.

19. Dexter Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay
The Bucs spent the 58th pick overall of last year's draft on Jackson, and he was expected to revitalize Tampa Bay's kickoff and punt return units and play a reserve role as a receiver. But he struggled on returns in the season's first seven games, and wound up losing that job to Clifton Smith, who made the Pro Bowl as the NFC return man. Jackson was inactive for Tampa Bay's final nine games last season, and if he doesn't earn a spot on the Bucs receiving depth chart in training camp, he could be an ex-Buc before September arrives.

20. Devin Thomas, WR, Washington
Thomas was the highest pick in Washington's three-man, second-round draft class last year -- joining tight end Fred Davis and fellow receiver Malcolm Kelly -- and all three were huge disappointments as rookies. Thomas scored the only touchdown among the trio, and his 15 catches for 120 yards ranked sixth on the Redskins. Thomas looked much improved in a weekend minicamp, and seemed to have refined his route running. He tweaked a hamstring, but is clearly miles ahead of Kelly, who is rehabilitating from microfracture knee surgery.

• A few more second-year players to watch for: Phillip Merling, DE, Miami; Earl Bennett, WR, Chicago; Terrence Wheatley, CB, New England; Antoine Cason, CB, San Diego; Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans.

 
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