Making the transition from the college level to the pros is a demanding task, both physically and mentally. Each year, it seems that the talent level and the expectations for incoming rookies hit an all-time high, and the future is very bright for a number of rookies from the draft class of 2011.
As some teams, depending on their bye week, have now hit the halfway point of the season, I want to take a look at the top performing rookies for the first half of the season. The following is an analysis on the top five rookies in each conference and the instant impact they have had for their respective teams.
Wisniewski is the son of a former NFL nose tackle, and nephew to a former NFL offensive lineman and current assistant line coach for the Oakland Raiders. So you know he has football in his blood, but heading into the draft, he wasn’t among the most talked about interior lineman and there were seven other linemen selected before him. Now, he is an offensive leader for the Raiders and is helping to pave the way for the AFC’s best rushing attack with 159.3 yards per game.
Wisniewski has started all seven games at left guard, but it was his versatility to also play center that made him most attractive in the draft. Prior to signing Samson Satele, that is exactly where the Raiders thought he would play, but with the impending loss of Robert Gallery, they had to fill the hole at the guard position. Since then, he has shown an ability to plow defenders out of the running lanes, the agility to pull around the edge to bounce plays outside, and an effective quick set and strike in the passing game. He plays all the way to the whistle and doesn’t quit on blocks. Stefen Wisniewski will be a fixture for the Raiders’ offensive line for years to come.
Even with a lingering hamstring injury, Daniel Thomas has been averaging an rookie-best 75.5 rushing yards per game and is on pace to challenge the likes of Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Ronnie Brown for the most rushing yards by a rookie in franchise history.
Heading into April, Thomas was my fourth-ranked running back on my draft board, but he is playing at a much higher level than I anticipated. He is a big, physical back that runs downhill and attacks defenders rather than shying away from them. He has the versatility to make plays in the passing game, and even split out as a wide receiver at times during college. He has displayed good field vision and often cuts back to the backside hole and fights for extra yardage after initial contact. One interesting note, Thomas played the workhorse role in Kansas State’s offense with just under 600 touches his junior and senior years, and never missed a single game due to injury. That is why his lingering injuries have been so disappointing.
Von Miller was the first defensive player selected in the NFL draft, and was ranked only behind Patrick Peterson and Marcel Darius on my draft board. He has stepped up to the challenge and proven that he is more than just a one-trick pony. Miller has started all seven games for the Broncos and has registered 26 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles. What is most impressive about his six sacks is that they are spread out across five different games. To me, that proves he hasn’t just taken advantage of one bad offensive lineman, but has instead had an impact on almost every game so far this year.
Coming into the draft, he was drawing comparison to Clay Matthews and even Derrick Thomas. While those are pretty big shoes to fill, he has shown that he has the skill-set to do just that. He is explosive off the line of scrimmage, and uses his strong hands to shed linemen and step through blocks. Additionally, he has shown that he can drop back into coverage and disrupt the passing game off the line of scrimmage as well.
2/1. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: Round 2/35th overall (TCU) and A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Round 1/4th overall (Georgia)
I have combined these into one, because that is how they will be seen throughout their entire careers in Cincinnati. Entering this year, Cincinnati was thought to be in complete rebuilding mode, but now, sitting at 5-2 and tied with both Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the best record in the division, they are in the thick of a playoff race. Yes, their top-five defense has something to do with that, but Andy Dalton and A.J. Green deserve a ton of credit for keeping this offense together after losing Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens, and Chad Ochocinco in the offseason.
The Bengals are currently enjoying a four-game winning streak and Dalton has now thrown for 1,479 yards and nine touchdowns. Green accounts for 516 of those yard and five of those touchdowns. Both Dalton and Green are chasing franchise rookie records, and Green is currently leading all NFL rookies with 33 receptions.
5. Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints: Round 1/28th overall (Alabama)
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner rushed for a career-high 91 yards in the blowout win over the Colts in Week 7, and now leads all NFL rookies with 329 rushing yards. He has added three rushing touchdowns, all while sharing carries with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
Ingram is a patient runner that sets up his blocks well and then explodes through the hole. He has drawn many comparisons to Emmitt Smith, and while the running style may be somewhat similar, he still has a lot of production to go before he can sit on that throne. While he is somewhat quiet and unassuming off the field, he runs with a fire and passion on it. He runs with an attitude and a purpose and always seems to fall forward for an extra yard or two. If he can stay healthy, he will have a long and popular career in the NFL.
4. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins: Round 1/16th overall (Purdue)
Ryan Kerrigan joins the burst of talent at the pass-rushing position (Shaun Phillips, Ray Edwards, Cliff Avril) to come out of Purdue, and he is holding up to that recent history quite well. He has started in all seven games and has 29 tackles, two sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and one defensive touchdown.
While his production isn’t all that surprising to me, it is from the position he is doing it that has raised my eyebrows. During college, he had always played with his hand on the ground and was a traditional defensive end, and a very good one at that. He had at least one sack in nine of 12 games as a senior, but I wasn’t sure that talent would transition into a 3-4 rush end. I wasn’t sure he had the hip flexibility and the quick feet, but he has been a force along the Redskins’ front seven and has proven to be a great compliment to Brian Orakpo on the other side. With Kerrigan improving every week, this could be a pass-rushing tandem that could be among the league’s best by the end of the year.
3. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Round 1/6th overall (Alabama)
Julio Jones was almost unanimously ranked as the second-best receiver in the draft after A.J. Green, but then he set the world on fire with his combine workout and had many believing he could be even better than Green. Then, the Falcons made the huge blockbuster trade to move up in the draft to select Jones with the sixth overall pick. With the huge workout numbers and the big draft day trade, the expectations for Jones were through the roof before he even stepped foot on an NFL practice field, let alone in an actual game. He could have easily folded under that pressure, but instead, he rallied behind it and, before his hamstring injury, was averaging 71.6 yards receiving per game. At the time, he was leading all rookies with 25 catches.
Jones has shown the ability to not only stretch the field vertically, but has shown a no fear attitude when running crossing routes across the middle, and most important, a willingness to block on the perimeter to spring some long runs. He is a rare combination of elite speed, strength and explosiveness that gives the Falcons offense a whole new dimension. Once healthy, he will challenge Green as the best rookie wide receiver in the NFL, and that is a comparison that will stay with both of them throughout their entire careers.
2. Aldon Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers: Round 1/7th overall (Missouri)
Although he hasn’t officially started any games for the 49ers, he has still been a very impactful player during their 6-1 start. He leads the teams with 6.5 sacks and is on pace to join Charles Haley and Dana Stubblefield as the only 49ers’ rookies with at least 10 sacks in a season. He also has 13 total tackles and one forced fumble.
Smith was a little bit of a tweener coming into the draft as teams weren’t sure if he was going to be able to take the beating as a full-time defensive end, and thought he may be better off as an outside backer. He has since added some weight and strength and has proven to be effective as a pass rusher, but maybe even more important, to not be an easy target in the run game. He uses his length well to disrupt passing lanes and has good field awareness and defensive instincts. He is easily a candidate for defensive rookie of the year, and will be in line for a great career if he continues to work hard and get better at his craft.
While his team is struggling to put together wins, they are outperforming what any expert could have predicted at this point in the season. Each game the Panthers have lost, they have been competitive and could have easily won if the ball bounced their way a couple of times. That is in no small part due to Cam Newton, who currently ranks fifth in passing yards per game and fourth in total yards per game. Of his team’s 21 total touchdowns, Newton has accounted for 18 of them! His seven rushing touchdowns already tie Vince Young for most by a rookie quarterback since 1970, and Newton still has the entire second half of the season left.