We see it every year. A rookie comes back as a second-year player and the difference is often remarkable. The clarity. The confidence. The growth. It's all there. It's almost as if a light goes on for these players, a light that allows them to take their pro football careers to another level.
"It's not exactly like a switch goes on," said Dolphins second-year linebacker Quentin Poling. "It's more of a dimmer that you keep sliding to get brighter and brighter."
The most recent example of this is the Dolphins' Class of 2018, a productive draft on many fronts right out of the gate, but now looking better all the time. To a man, the eight players selected in April of 2018 have returned for their second seasons in South Florida with a more well defined sense of purpose, with a clearer knowledge of what is expected and with lessons learned from a year ago that have brought about subtle changes in their games.
The game is slowing down for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe are bulking up. Jerome Baker is so much wiser. Kalen Ballage is more complete. Get the idea? All eight players selected are back for a second season -- an accomplishment by itself -- and you don't have to search hard to notice the changes in all of them.
Changes for the better. Changes that can potentially springboard their careers. Changes that have allowed them to think less and react more.
Why, remember a year ago all the stories written about Gesicki and his roommate, Smythe, how they needed a big blackboard in their dorm room just to keep pace with all the X's and O's that seemed so foreign at the time?
Now the blackboard is gone. "We just quiz each other all the time," Gesicki said. "We don't need the blackboard anymore."
Granted, they are now learning a new system all over again and that has to create some pause in this growing process, but not as much of a pause as you'd think. See, it isn't the X's and O's as much as it is the do's and don'ts. It isn't as much about where to line up as it is how to practice, how to study, how to conduct yourself and generally how to deal with all the complexities and expectations of this pressure-cooker life.
"It's mental," said Baker. "The physical stuff you get used to. But the mental stuff challenges you every day. That's the big difference in me. I'm not overwhelmed anymore. I have a better understanding of what this is all about."
One thing is certain: The growth we expect from the Class of 2018, the growth we have seen during the first week of training camp, is essential to the overall success of this team.
With all of that in mind, let's take a quick look at this group one year later and how their second act could be better than their first.
DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
The man for all positions was special as a rookie. No telling how much more special he can be now. He is still working at every position in the defensive backfield, but he understands his role and has embraced it. It's not full speed all the time now because things have slowed down for him, which is what you want. Said Minkah: "It's more being able to process everything, relax and rely on your instincts."
TE Mike Gesicki
He's added 10 pounds of bulk, which is something that became necessary after some blocking struggles as a rookie. "I want to be on the field as much as I possibly can, so I've got to be able to do it all," he said. His training camp is off to an impressive start, and there is every indication he's going to be an important part of this offense.
LB Jerome Baker
Even after starting 11 games his rookie season, Jerome Baker knew he had a long way to go. What we've seen this summer is a more confident player and that confidence will allow him to play a variety of roles on this defense. I'm expecting a huge leap in production from year one to year two. "I just have a better understanding of everything," he says.
TE Durham Smythe
You thought Gesicki put on pounds? Durham showed up last season at 243 pounds. This summer he's at 260. "Lifting and eating, sometimes eating six times a day," he said. As a result, his blocking is much improved, which may be his ticket to longevity in the league. Smythe admits he feels differently as a second-year player. "It's just nice not being a rookie anymore."
RB Kalen Ballage
There is no better example, at least early in camp, of a player taking that quantum leap in his second season. Ballage spent much of last season in the background, learning from Frank Gore and studying Kenyan Drake. Now he is in the forefront, battling for serious playing time and looking, in many ways, like a complete back. We saw the obvious upside on that 75-yard sprint last season against the Vikings. Now we're ready to see more.
CB Cornell Armstrong
Asked about the difference a year makes and Armstrong offeres a sheepish grin. "I'm not that college guy anymore," he said. But he'll tell you that he learned enough last season to know that nothing is a given and that every day is a test. "I'm better prepared for that now," he says. Armstrong has been getting a lot of work this summer on special teams.
LB Quentin Poling
After making the team last year as a seventh-round pick, Poling understands the importance of this training camp and is using what he learned last season as fuel to keep turning heads. "I'm more comfortable now and have a better feel for everything that goes on," he said. "But I also know that doesn't guarantee me anything. Just have to keep working."
PK Jason Sanders
OK, he's a kicker and last season as a rookie he made 18 of his 20 field goal attempts, so in this case we're just looking for more of the same. But at least now he knows what to expect.