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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Second-year studs or duds?

By James Walker

Smith/Robiskie/Kruger
Second-year players Andre Smith, Brian Robiskie and Paul Kruger need to step it up this season or risk getting passed over.
Before free agency and the "win-now" mentality that dominates today's NFL, there was a time when teams could groom players for several years before they finally hit the field.

Those days are a distant memory. With coaches and general managers being hired and fired regularly, the learning curve for young players is shorter than ever in the NFL.

Many get one "redshirt" season to struggle in their rookie year before it's time to produce. If not, teams usually move on to the next player who can help.

With that said, here are seven second-year players in the AFC North who need to become studs for their respective teams this season.

Smith
Smith
1. Andre Smith, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

2009 draft status: First round

Analysis: Cincinnati recently made various upgrades to its skill positions on offense. But one of the biggest additions this year could be a healthy and productive Andre Smith. The Bengals swept the AFC North in 2009 with little impact from their No. 6 overall pick. A broken foot sidelined Smith for 10 games until he was healthy enough to contribute mostly as a backup later in the year. Additional foot surgery has kept Smith from doing team drills this offseason, but he is optimistic that his foot problems will soon be a thing of the past. With the Bengals expected to air it out more this year, quarterback Carson Palmer could use the additional pass protection.

Stud/dud importance rating (scale of 1 to 10): 9.5

Robiskie
Robiskie
2. Brian Robiskie, WR, Cleveland Browns

2009 draft status: Second round

Analysis: The Browns desperately need someone (anyone?) to step up at wide receiver this year. Last year's leading receiver was Mohamed Massaquoi, who caught only 34 passes. This presents a golden opportunity for Robiskie, who had only seven receptions for 106 yards in his rookie year. Robiskie entered the NFL with a reputation of being one of the draft's most NFL-ready players, but he struggled to fit in with Cleveland's offensive scheme. Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme will need someone to throw to next season. This is Robiskie's time to step up.

Stud/dud importance rating: 8

Kruger
Kruger
3. Paul Kruger, DE/OLB, Baltimore Ravens

2009 draft status: Second round

Analysis: Kruger didn't contribute much until late last season. His inability to play on special teams only highlighted the fact that he wasn't on the field for most of the year. The drafting of pass-rush specialist Sergio Kindle puts Kruger in an odd spot this season. The Ravens were not expecting Kindle to be on the board in the second round, but they took a dynamic prospect who could potentially fill the role Baltimore's coaching staff once had in mind for Kruger. The Ravens are trying to figure out how Kruger can best assist the team in his second season and there has been some discussion of him adding weight to help more as a defensive end.

Stud/dud importance rating: 7.5

Hood
Hood
4. Ziggy Hood, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers

2009 draft status: First round

Analysis: Hood had a typical rookie year for the Steelers. On a veteran-laden team, he was able to get his feet wet in the defensive-line rotation without the pressure of being a starter. Hood played in all 16 games as a reserve and recorded eight tackles, one sack and two passes defensed. Barring injury, Hood will remain a backup this year but still needs to increase his production. Ideally, Hood will be able to earn more snaps and be able to keep starting defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith fresh in the trenches.

Stud/dud importance rating: 7

Veikune
Veikune
5. David Veikune, LB, Browns

2009 draft status: Second round

Analysis: Ten games, zero tackles. That is not a good stat line for any rookie, let alone a second-round pick who arrived in Cleveland with decent expectations. Veikune had a forgettable rookie year that included struggling to learn the NFL game and eventually being passed over for playing time by fellow rookie (and Cleveland's fourth-round pick) Kaluka Maiava. The Browns added veterans Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong this offseason to fill key roles at linebacker. That means it's even more important for Veikune to be ready to show Cleveland's coaching staff what he can do when his number is called.

Stud/dud importance rating: 5

Webb
Webb
6. Lardarius Webb, CB, Ravens

2009 draft status: Third round

Analysis: Webb had a solid rookie year for the Ravens. He contributed on special teams and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup before a knee injury ended his season. That same knee injury is a cause for concern this season. Webb was hurt so late in the year that it's questionable whether he will be ready for the start of training camp or even Week 1 of the regular season. Webb recently began running, which is good progress. If healthy, Webb could be a starter in a Baltimore secondary that has struggled in recent years. A healthy and productive second season for Webb would put a lot of those concerns to rest.

Stud/dud importance rating: 8.5

Coffman
Coffman
7. Chase Coffman, TE, Bengals

2009 draft status: Third round

Analysis: Despite Cincinnati recently drafting tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round, the team could still benefit from a healthy Coffman. Gresham and Coffman, who didn't play a game in the regular season last year, could be two additional weapons in the passing game that Cincinnati didn't have last season. Most project Gresham to beat out Coffman for a starting job. The Bengals also re-signed veteran tight end Reggie Kelly, who is one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. That probably leaves a limited amount of playing time for Coffman, who has to make the most of his opportunities.

Stud/dud importance rating: 5