By Oliver Connolly
With the equivalent of a full college season under all rookies belts. It’s a great time to evaluate some of the stars of this year’s rookie class. For these rankings I’ll be looking at the players overall impact on the team, whether the player would be a fit on the 31 other teams and the time they’ve spent on the field.
The Bills haven’t had a Carolina/Kuechly since they drafted the frenzied Oregon linebacker. Last year they conceded 5.6 yards per play in 2012 and have been able to drop that figure by just half a yard this year. Not a drastic improvement but it is an improvement and the key to most of this has been Alonso. Alonso’s athletic skill set and lateral movement allows the Bills to play more shell cover-2 and give Jairus Byrd a free license to spy opposition QBs. Alonso also never comes off the field. He’s available on every down and has clocked up more than 900 plays so far this year. While he still struggles as a run defender and creating outside leverage against bigger zone blocking line men, he’s way ahead of most young linebackers in his coverage skills and instincts.
2. Sheldon Richardson – DL – New York Jets
When looking for a dominant defensive lineman, you’re looking for a player you can use in multiple techniques and who commands double teams. Richardson has already made himself a force to be reckoned with throughout the league. Usually you’re looking for a defensive lineman, and in particular defensive tackles, to create these double teams to give athletic linebackers a free pass at the backfield or at least a more favourable matchup. What separates Richardson from other young defensive lineman, who command these double teams, is the ability to close run plays on his own. Regardless of whether he’s double teamed Richardson is able to make multiple solo stops in the run game. His pass rush still needs some work, but the Jets hybrid system allows him to concentrate more on the run game and being a destructive force.
3. Star Lotulelei – DT – Carolina Panthers
In most rookie classes Lotulelei would be the premier run-defender however due to the performances of Richardson I’ve had to punch him down one spot. Lotulelei has been exactly what the Panthers have been looking for; theirTampa-2 style of defense puts great strain on their defensive line to generate an effective pass rush. Carolina are as good as it gets when mixing up their stunts and blitzes and Lotulelei has become the bedrock to all that. He doesn’t have the value of being an every down player as he’s a run specialist but he’s so dominant every down that he’s on the field and has helped the defense become one of the league’s premier defensive units.
4. Tyrann Mathieu – Safety/DB – Arizona Cardinals
Mathieu suffered a season ending ACL tear on Sunday in what was a devastating blow to him personally and a strong looking Cardinals season. Mathieu has not only been the league’s best rookie corner, but in a tight-end heavy league has actually been the league’s best rookie corner back consistently covering guys out of the slot. Mathieu is always around the ball, displaying every defensive trait you look for a premier safety. He is second on his team in tackles and third among all rookies. He’s always looking to make plays, is a great effort player and that work ethic has really resonated with me.
5. Giovani Bernard – RB – Cincinnati Bengals
Now fourth among all rookies in rushing yards, though mainly due to a lack of consistent carries. Bernard has become a dynamic threat both on the ground and out of the backfield for a Bengals team overloaded will skill position players. Compared to the rest of the class he’s received fewer carries, for example seven less than Steelers back Le’Veon Bell. Bernard is second on the Bengals to stud receiver A.J Green in team receptions with 43, which is third amongst all rookies. His dynamism makes him a game changer and big x-factor for the Bengals heading into the post-season.
Glennon may not have been great by league standards but his importance to the improvement of the Bucs cannot be overestimated. He’s been a clear upgrade over Josh Freeman and has made the Bucs a more competitive force (won three of their last five). He’s limited mistakes, has a nice TD to INT ratio (13-5) and is able to consistently make downfield throws with big outside targets in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Glennon has played well enough to be named the Bucs starter for next year heading into camp, regardless of who the coach is.
7. Kenny Vaccaro – S – New Orleans Saints
At the start of the year Vaccaro was the epitome of average. He made some nice plays on the ball but was also prone to some bad mistakes and would takes bad paths to the ball. Recently his game has picked up tenfold. His consistency has been paramount to the Saints improved defense and the versatility he displayed in his time at Texas has translated to the pros much better than I thought (plays time at LB). He’s third on his team in tackles and has been an efficient defender against the run.
8. Eddie Lacy – RB – Green Bay Packers
Since Aaron Rodgers got hurt, Green Bay’s offensive philosophy has switched to a downhill run game with Lacy as the spearhead. The team as a whole has dropped off but none of the blame can be levelled at Lacy. At 822 yards so far this season he should go over 1,000 yards. Displaying the size, vision, toughness and deceptive speed he displayed at Alabama he’s shown a fantastic ability to repeatedly run between the tackles and has been one of the league’s best in yards after first contact.
9. Keenan Allen – WR – San Diego Chargers
Nine on this list may seem harsh on Allen who is a legitimate candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year but it’s more of a testament to the rest of the class than any deficiencies in Allen’s game. He’s running away from other rookies in total receiving yards (902), he’ll end the season with more than 1,000 yards and be putting egg on the face of some executives who gave Allen a first round grade but opted to take alternatives in the draft. The Chargers got a steal.
10. Ezekiel Ansah – DE – Detroit Lions
I had low expectations for Ansah coming into the draft. I thought he was product of draft hype and lacked some basic pass rushing fundamentals. Early in the year I was disappointed with his production when seeing Ndamakong Suh and Nick Fairley command double teams but in the past few weeks we’ve seen his game evolve and he’s now racking up multiple sack games. His athleticism and potential is scary good. He’s been a nice surprise.
Mel Kiper Jr. recently wrote that he expected to see Warford’s name in Pro Bowl consideration. Coming into the league as a mauling guard, he had all the tools to start right away in the league but the scheme fit seemed off. However, his ability to block at the second level has been a main factor in the rebirth of Reggie Bush. He’s also proven more than adept in pass protection. There’s a staggering split just by the eye test on the leverage he gains compared to his compatriot guard Rob Sims.
12. Travis Frederick – C – Dallas Cowboys
Monday night proved to me how big an upgrade Fredrick has been for the Cowboys in the run game. His chemistry with Romo is still developing but his ability to lead the line in ‘crash step’ plays have created wide open creases for Dallas running backs.
13. Kawann Short – DT – Carolina Panthers
Short has been a great fit along with Lotulelei in Carolina. He’s been helped by Carolina’s ability to rotate their defensive line. He’s been the perfect toil with Hardy and Lotulelei to run basic stunts and be extremely effective in getting into the backfield.
Reid makes his way onto the list for consistency and his entire body of work. He hasn’t been a flashy playmaker but has been a steady presence, replacing Dashon Goldson, being available on all downs and every game for the 49ers. A good player who could evolve into a difference maker in the future.
15. Jordan Reed – TE – Washington
Reed may have been out for the past few weeks but, if anything, that speaks to his impact on this season. He’s been a constant mismatch and a dangerous redzone threat. His ability to get vertical up the field helped Robert Griffin play the safeties in the passing game. He has issues in the run game, but that is negated by his production that still sees him second in receptions.
The best of the rest:
- 16 – Alex Ogletree – ILB – St.Louis Rams
- 17 – Lane Johnson – OT – Philadelphia Eagles
- 18 – D.J. Fluker – OT – San Diego Chargers
- 19 – DeAndre Hopkins – WR – Houston Texans
- 20 – David Bakhitiari – OT – Green Bay Packers
- 21 – Barkevious Bingo – DE – Cleveland Browns
- 22 – Jonathan Cyprian – S – Jacksonville Jaguars
- 23 – Bennie Logan – DT/DE – Philadelphia Eagles
- 24 – Zac Stacy – RB – St.Louis Rams
- 25 – Micah Hyde – CB/KR – Green Bay Packers