Carson Wentz is in the middle of something special. The second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft is perhaps on his way to becoming second to no quarterback in modern Eagles history outside of Donovan McNabb. And even McNabb needs to be looking over his shoulder.
Just 11 games into the season, the second-year Eagles quarterback has 28 touchdowns, which is tied with Jameis Winston for the ninth-most ever for a quarterback in his second year. But Winston threw 18 interceptions that year (2016) and had a passer rating of 86.1, while Wentz has thrown just five picks this season and has a rating of 104. With five games to go, Wentz could easily become just the third second-year quarterback in history to top 40 touchdown passes, joining only Dan Marino (48) and Kurt Warner (41), who was 28 at the time.
Having helped guide Philadelphia to a league-best 10-1 record, including nine straight victories, Wentz is perhaps the most common name mentioned in MVP talks. After a good but not great four-game start to the season, these are Wentz' numbers in the past seven games: 22 touchdowns, three interceptions, 7.7 yards per attempt and a rating of 113.6. The Eagles have won all but one of those games by double digits, the lone exception being a Thursday game in Carolina that Philly won 28-23.
I don't believe that Wentz is quite playing at the level of Tom Brady, but in the pantheon of second-year pros, Wentz is absolutely unique, and he has five more games left to go. That continues on Sunday night against the Seahawks in Seattle. A big win in a game like that will help solidify him among the best second-year football players in NFL history. Here's a look at the names that he would join.
The mid-'80s saw an influx of talent headlined by Marino and also showcased some players who peaked early. Tony Eason had 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions for the Patriots in 1984, but he struggled the next season, was benched in the Super Bowl and never recovered. Boomer Esiason led the NFL in touchdown percentage in 1985. Ken O'Brien led the league in passer rating (96.2) and adjusted yards/attempt for the Jets in 1985.
Though it was three years after he was drafted by the Steelers, Johnny Unitas' second official season came in 1957 with the Colts. He led the NFL in passer rating (88), yards per attempt (8.5), yards (2,550) and touchdowns (24). Unitas helped Baltimore win championships in each of the next two seasons. A few second-year champs include Russell Wilson (2013), Tom Brady (2001) and Kurt Warner (1999); it's important to note that Warner threw 11 passes as a "rookie" in 1998 and won an MVP and the Super Bowl in '99 while leading the NFL in touchdowns, yards, passer rating and yards per attempt.
No second season compares to what Marino did in 1984: 5,084 yards, 48 touchdowns and a 108.9 passer rating, all before anyone thought numbers like that were possible. The only blemish came when 14-2 Miami lost to 15-1 San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
Finally, I'd be remiss to not mention that the all-time leader in passer rating for a second-year pro came just four years ago … in Philadelphia. Nick Foles had 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions, posting a rating of 119.2 and 9.1 yards per attempt. His rating fell nearly 40 points in 2014. He was traded to the Rams, spent a year in Kansas City and is now backing up Wentz for the Eagles. He may have some advice for Wentz on what not to do next.
What if I told you that the greatest second season of all-time by a running back came from … Chris Johnson? That may be true, as Johnson had the most yards from scrimmage (2,509) by a second-year NFL player in history, which included 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground for the Titans in 2009. The weirdest part is that outside of a 197-yard game in Week 2, Johnson had some struggles over the first five games, but he rebounded to rush for at least 100 yards in all 11 remaining games and scored at least twice in five of those.
In 1984, Eric Dickerson ran for 2,006 yards, which still stands as the most ever for a second-year back. Earl Campbell led the league in yards (1,697) and touchdowns (19) in 1979. Spec Sanders was a dominant QB/RB in 1947, rushing for over 500 more yards than any other player to go with 18 touchdowns on the ground. Jim Brown's 1957 season included 1,527 yards and 17 touchdowns in only 12 games.
Receivers and Tight Ends
There are a couple of sets of teammates in this category, though their second seasons came a few years apart. The 1995 Rams saw the explosion of Isaac Bruce from an offensive afterthought as a rookie to an NFL star, as he had 1,781 yards (most ever for a Year 2 receiver) and 13 touchdowns while playing with quarterbacks Chris Miller and Mark Rypien. Four years later, the Rams drafted Torry Holt and he helped them win a Super Bowl, but his true breakout came in 2000 when he had 1,635 yards and 19.9 yards per catch, both good for the league lead. In 2011, the Giants got an unexpected surprise from undrafted free agent Victor Cruz, who had 82 catches and 1,536 yards after seeing zero targets as a rookie. Of course, Odell Beckham came around a few years later and had 96 catches, 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns in year two.
Long before all the passing yardage records of the 2000s, second-year teammates Charley Hennigan (1,746 yards, almost 600 more yards than second place) and Bill Groman (17 touchdowns and 23.5 yards/catch) dominated for the Oilers in 1961. Jerry Rice led the league in yards (1,570) and touchdowns (15) in 1986, his second year. Mark Clayton was the beneficiary of many of those Marino moments for Miami in 1984, grabbing 18 touchdowns with 19 yards per catch. Josh Gordon played with Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer in 2013 but led the NFL in yards (1,646), including a four-game stretch where he had 774 of them.
As for tight ends, something that seems to be forgotten is that Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham both entered the league in 2010, and in 2011 they both dominated, with Gronk having 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns while Graham had 1,310 and 11 TDs. A similar thing happened in 2004 with future Hall of Famers Jason Witten and Antonio Gates, both of whom topped 900 yards before it was en vogue for a tight end to be a receiver. It's also worth noting that Kellen Winslow led the NFL in catches as a second-year tight end for the Chargers in 1980, hauling in 89 receptions for 1,290 yards.
You wouldn't have to look back very far to construct an incredible front seven from a pool of second-year players, beginning with Aaron Donald as your defensive tackle. Donald had 11 sacks from the interior and was a first team All-Pro in 2014. J.J. Watt could line up next to him, as he had 20 1/2 sacks and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. Khalil Mack had 15 sacks even though he was the only defender you had to worry about on the Raiders in 2015. Aldon Smith could be an outside pass rusher, as he had 19 1/2 sacks in 2012. Put Von Miller opposite of him, as he was also in his second season in 2012 and had 18 1/2 sacks with six forced fumbles. You could add Luke Kuechly between them, as he was the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year in his second season, as well as NaVorro Bowman, who was a great inside linebacker for the 49ers in 2011.
Others deserving of mention include Derrick Thomas (20 sacks, six forced fumbles in 1990), Reggie White (18 sacks in 1986), Michael Dean Thomas (92 tackles, seven sacks from the DT position in 1989), Richard Dent (17 1/2 sacks in 1984), Jason Pierre-Paul (93 tackles, 16 1/2 sacks and a Super Bowl ring in 2011), Bryan Cox (127 tackles and 14 sacks for the Dolphins in 1992), Steve Atwater (173 tackles as a free safety for the Broncos in 1990, unofficially the most ever for a second-year player), Ray Childress (172 tackles, five sacks in 1986), and Ray Lewis, who had 156 tackles, four sacks and two takeaways in 1997. Then there's Brian Urlacher, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, but may have truly had his career season in 2001: 116 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown.
With all due respect to his contemporaries, the most dominant secondary player of his era is the player who would tell you he's the most dominant corner of his era: Richard Sherman. Sherman was exceptional as a rookie in 2011, but the next year, his first full season as a starter, he had eight interceptions, 24 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one sack.
In 1962, Herb Addison of the Packers recorded seven interceptions as a cornerback, and he also had the longest kickoff return of the season at 103 yards. In 1994, Tyrone Hughes led the NFL in kickoff return yards and had two kicks returned for touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries that were returned for touchdowns. Free safety Erik McMillan had eight interceptions as a rookie with the Jets, then the next year followed it up with six picks and three defensive touchdowns. Three players are tied for the most interceptions by a second-year player, including Dave Baker in 1960, Monte Jackson in 1976 and Antonio Cromartie in 2007, all of whom had 10 picks.