While many players make the largest improvements from year-one to year-two in the NFL, year-three can provide players with increased confidence and a clearer understanding of what it takes to succeed.
"It's those players who continue on and make that next jump between year-two and year-three that seem to really have the great careers," says former NFL head coach and NBC Sports analyst TONY DUNGY. "Between their second and third-year, the player's confidence seems to grow. A lot of it is just confidence. The player has been around the league for a couple seasons. They know what's going on."
A few notable AFC players in their third NFL season:
LB Justin Houston, Kansas City
Selected in the third round (No. 70 overall) of 2011 NFL Draft, Houston has played a pivotal role in the Chiefs' top ranked pass rush. Kansas City has posted an NFL-best 36 sacks in 2013.
Through Week 8, Houston is tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks.
He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in September with 19 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble as he helped the Chiefs to a 4-0 record in September.
"One of the strengths that Justin has is that he is a really good all-around football player," says Chiefs defensive coordinator BOB SUTTON. "He's not a one-trick pony, he doesn't just rush the passer. He's done a really good job in all phases of his game."
TE Jordan Cameron, Cleveland
Cameron has been a bright spot in the Browns' passing game. The former USC product, who was selected in the fourth round (No. 102 overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft, has found a knack for getting open.
Through Week 8, Cameron leads NFL tight ends in receptions (49) and ranks second among tight ends in receiving yards (596).
"He's very athletic, very smooth and runs faster than what it appears he's running and moving," says Browns head coach ROB CHUDZINSKI. "He has tremendous hands and ball skills and he can jump and get up and get balls. He's just learning the nuances of the game and the position. As he continues to do that and get more reps with the attitude he's taking and growing as a player, he'll continue to get better and better."
Cameron can challenge Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end OZZIE NEWSOME (89 in 1983 & 1984) and KELLEN WINSLOW (89 in 2006) for the most receptions by a Browns tight end in a single season.
QB Andy Dalton & WR A.J. Green, Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Bengals' third-year tandem of quarterback ANDY DALTON, who was selected in the second round (No. 35 overall), and wide receiver A.J. GREEN, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, have connected 204 times for 3,013 yards and 21 touchdowns since entering the NFL. Dalton's development this season has been on display as he ranks fourth in the NFL with 2,249 yards and tied for fourth in the league with 16 TD passes.
"This is where I want to be and how I want to be playing," says Dalton. "It's tough to do, but you have to be consistent with it. There are times when you can have a big game, but the great players in this league do it consistently. That's what I'm striving to be, and we've got to keep this thing going. And it won't happen without harder work each and every week."
Through Week 8, Green ranks second in the NFL and best in the AFC with 734 receiving yards.
"AJ's a great player, one of the best anywhere, but he's not selfish and he just wants to win," says Dalton. "He wasn't getting his usual number of catches and yards for a while this year, because teams were really rolling up the defense toward him. He knew that if he was getting all that extra attention, it would open up some other things for us. And it did, and now it's kind of swinging back. He's had three straight 100-yard games."
TE Julius Thomas, Denver
Thomas, who was selected in the fourth round (No. 129 overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft, played just one season of college football after a standout basketball career at Portland State. Entering 2013, the third-year tight end had played in just nine games with one start in his first two NFL seasons.
Through Week 8, Thomas is tied for second in the NFL with eight touchdown catches (tied for first among TEs). Thomas needs two TD catches to tie Pro Football Hall of Famer SHANNON SHARPE (10 in 1996 & 1998) for the most touchdown receptions by a Broncos tight end in a single season.
"He worked very hard and he's actually developed into a good blocker, as well as a pass protector, not just catching passes," says Broncos head coach JOHN FOX. "He's a tough-minded guy. It's not easy sitting there on a shelf and practicing on the scout team. Everybody was happy for him because he finally got to reap some of the benefits."
WR Torrey Smith, Baltimore
Smith was selected in the second round (No. 58 overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft and has developed into the Ravens No. 1 receiving option in his third NFL season.
The speedy receiver is averaging an NFL-best 20.3 yards per catch in 2013. Smith leads the team with 629 receiving yards and can become the first Ravens player to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season since 2009 (DERRICK MASON, 1,028).
"You look at games early in his career, he had the ability to make all kinds of plays, and he would make a lot of plays, but he'd put the ball on the ground here and there," says Ravens quarterback JOE FLACCO. "Now he's the guy that catches really everything you throw to him. It's just a matter of being comfortable with the atmosphere of everything and who he is, and not worrying about the little things and just being able to go out there and play football."
DE Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
At 6-4, 315 pounds, Wilkerson has played a pivotal role in stopping the run and rushing the passer for REX RYAN's defense. The Jets selected Wilkerson in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft (No. 30 overall).
Through Week 8, Wilkerson has a career-best seven sacks. Wilkerson needs three sacks to become the first Jet since 2005 to register double-digit sacks (JOHN ABRAHAM, 10.5).
"This guy is phenomenal," says Jets head coach Rex Ryan. "He can beat you over the center, guard or tackle. The thing I look at with him is that he's really consistent. Without question, he should be a first-team All-Pro."
The third-year AFC players that rank in the top five in various statistical categories through Week 8:
|Andy Dalton||Cincinnati||Passing Yards||2,249||>4|
|Andy Dalton||Cincinnati||Passing Touchdowns||16||>T4|
|A.J. Green||Cincinnati||Receiving Yards||734||>2|
|Julius Thomas||Denver||Touchdown Receptions||8||>T2|
|Torrey Smith||Baltimore||Receiving Avg.||20.3||>1|
|Justin Houston||Kansas City||Sacks||11||>T2|
|Tandon Doss||Baltimore||Punt Return Avg.||17.8||>2|
|Tandon Doss||Baltimore||Punt Return TDs||1||>T1|