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Should the NFL’s 2016 rookies be worried about a sophomore slump?

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Not necessarily.

San Diego Chargers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In 2016, a handful of rookies became household names by playing like seasoned veterans. But the risk of sophomore slumps for players like Joey Bosa, Dak Prescott, Jordan Howard, Tyreek Hill, and Ezekiel Elliott may have fans feeling anxious as the 2017 season approaches.

The 2015 rookies of the year were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Todd Gurley took a step back in his second season after being named Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, due in no small part to the Rams’ horror show offensive line and futility from Case Keenum and Jared Goff at quarterback. Teams knew they could stack the box and shut Gurley down because the rest of the offense was stagnant.

Marcus Peters, the 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year, didn’t see any decline last season. In fact, the Chiefs cornerback got a first-team All-Pro nod after earning second-team All-Pro honors in his rookie season.

A regression from any of 2016’s star rookies could spell disaster for their squads next year. Is a sophomore slump a valid concern?

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ dynamic QB-RB duo

The Cowboys finished 13-3 last season on the strength of the performances of Elliott, who led the league in rushing, and Prescott, who was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. If either, or both, of those players take a significant step back this season, Dallas could be in trouble.

Elliott is taking measures to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Well, now, being more comfortable in this offense and not really worrying about having to learn what I have to do, I want to grow more as an overall player,” Elliott said on the Doomsday Podcast with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder.

Elliott said that, like Marshall Faulk, he wants to be like a second quarterback on the field with Prescott.

“So this offseason, I’ve just been focusing on kind of learning the offense outside of my roles and just kind of being able to be back there and be a help to Dak and just kind of learning not what I have to do, but what everyone else is doing and how I fit into my job,” Elliott said.

And Saints head coach Sean Payton isn’t worried about any kind of decline from Prescott, either, though his perspective is really just a gut feeling.

"You shake his hand and you feel like he's a guy who's hard to get off his spot and that's going to serve him well throughout his career,” Payton said, via ESPN.com’s Jean-Jacques Taylor. “I like the look in his eye. When the game starts and you're watching the game, you feel calm watching him play -- and that's a good trait because you trust him."

Prescott and Elliott can’t carry the Cowboys alone, though. They’ll need improved play from the defense and consistent production from the other nine guys on offense. Otherwise, their numbers could take a hit because the other team is only focused on stopping the Cowboys’ young QB-RB combo.

Jordan Howard, the Bears’ best hope

Howard was one of the few bright spots for the Bears last season. The fifth-round draft pick finished the season second in the league with 1,313 rushing yards, and he added six touchdowns. No matter whether Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky ends up starting at quarterback, the Bears need Howard to keep up that level of production.

The biggest factor for Howard going into 2017 is the departure of running backs coach Stan Drayton, who left the Bears to join Tom Herman’s staff at the University of Texas.

But Howard says the key is not getting complacent.

"I've just got to stay hungry because what I did last year doesn't matter this year," Howard said via the team’s website. "It's probably going to help me out with the starting job, but that's about it."

Howard also said he’s working on developing his route running and receiving skills. Adding another dimension to his skill set could stave off a sophomore slump. So will being in peak physical condition.

"It's definitely going to help a lot because I'm going to be in a lot better shape than I was last year," Howard said. "I know the plays this year. I won't be timid or even thinking. I'll be able to play loosely. I'm focusing on getting in better shape and being in better condition so I can play even more snaps."

The Bears, coming off a 3-13 season, will need all the help they can get, especially when their quarterback position is a big question mark.

Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs’ electric playmaker

Hill isn’t lacking for confidence. When he came in at No. 36 on the NFL’s Top 100 list, he said he has his sights set on a much higher number.

“I belong No. 1 over Tom Brady,” Hill said. “Tom Brady, I’m calling you out. I’m No. 1. Cheetah.”

If that’s what Hill wants to do, he’ll have to replicate his rookie performance, or at least come close. Hill is dynamic, and he used his speed to get into the end zone 12 times last season as a rusher, receiver and return specialist — including this 70-yard touchdown against the Broncos in Week 16.

Hill’s stats could dip next season. It’s hard to imagine teams will continue to kick to him, and they also have a full season’s worth of film on the unique ways the Chiefs featured him in the offense.

But Hill likely hasn’t reached his ceiling as a wide receiver either. Andy Reid has made it clear he expects to get Hill more involved in the offense in 2017.

Joey Bosa, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year

Many fans had adjusted expectations for the third overall pick after a contract dispute kept him out of training camp, and then he missed the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury. But Bosa made a name for himself once he did hit the field.

Bosa finished with 41 tackles, 10.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and was named the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Next season, he’ll have to contend with more double teams and attention devoted to keeping him from opposing quarterbacks.

But Bosa is working with a trainer this offseason to get “stronger, faster, and more flexible” in 2017.

“I think once all those things come along then it makes it a lot easier for me to do what I want to do on the field, whether that is a pass-rush move or just a certain different thing,” Bosa said on PFT Live. “Playing the run, getting to the QB that much faster, getting a little more bend around the corner.”

The good news for the Chargers is that Bosa plays next to Melvin Ingram, giving them one of the most fearsome pass-rushing duos in the league. Ingram is adjusting to a different position in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme — a base defense Bosa is familiar with from his time at Ohio State.

And it’s possible his second year in the NFL will mirror his final year at college. Teams end up devoting more resources to keeping Bosa away from their quarterback, and that opens up his teammates to make more plays, even if it means Bosa’s stats may not be quite as impressive as the season before.

A sophomore slump is not a sure thing

There are logical reasons to believe in the sophomore slump. When a player comes into the NFL from college, opponents won’t have much beyond preseason tape to get a sense of what to expect in that player’s new scheme. This is especially a factor early in the season.

In Cam Newton’s first game as a rookie in Week 1 of the 2011 season, he threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals. He set a record by being the first rookie quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards in his debut game, beating Peyton Manning’s previous high mark by 120 yards.

He set rookie records that year for passing yards and touchdowns, too. He finished 2011 with 4,051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns, adding 706 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. The following season, his stats dropped off.

But was it really a sophomore slump? Newton had 3,869 passing yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012, which is closer to his career average of 3,629 yards and 23 touchdowns per season.

Other notable sophomore slumps from quarterbacks, like Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, and Robert Griffin III, were a direct result of injury. All three of these players earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in their first season. Then they missed games in their second years, which made it impossible for them to live up to the previous year’s performances.

For every player who has suffered through a down year in their second season, you can find a player who improved in year two. Russell Wilson didn’t just improve his statistics slightly in his second season with the Seahawks. He led the team to a commanding 43-8 Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos.

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. He didn’t miss a beat in his second season and was named the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Second-year performance depends on the player’s preparedness and ability to stay healthy, as well as the play of the other 10 guys on the field and the way opponents adjust. With all of those variables, it’s impossible to predict if last year’s top rookies will take a step back in 2017. But if their numbers do dip, it doesn’t mean they deserve the cliched “sophomore slump” label, either.