NFL 2016: 5 Rookies Not Getting Enough Credit

Some NFL rookies, such as Ezekiel Elliott, have received major plaudits already. However, other first-year standouts have had impressive seasons overshadowed

Ezekiel Elliott, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Michael Thomas, and Joey Bosa. The list of impressive rookies in the 2016 season is long and filled with players who are already among the best in the NFL at their respective positions.

Those five players will lead their franchises to victory for many years to come. However, their brilliance can make it easy to forget how rare it is for rookies to have All-Pro caliber seasons. Not all rookies show the poise of Wentz for the Philadelphia Eagles. The normal fourth-round rookie doesn’t slot in for an injured veteran and lead a team to 7-1, a la Prescott.

Most rookies are “merely” good in their inaugural seasons, as their promise foreshadows the All-Pro years that will come in the future. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, those players deserve more love after being overshadowed by the others.

Some of the players don’t get their due because of the position they play, whereas others may not be getting as many opportunities to shine as players like Elliott, who is the centerpiece of the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys offense.

However, they deserve their credit and not to fly completely under the radar. These are five rookies deserving of more spotlight than their getting midway through the 2016 NFL season.

Oct 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (86) is defended by Denver Broncos free safety Bradley Roby (29) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Hunter Henry, TE – San Diego Chargers

Antonio Gates has earned 15 more targets on the season than Hunter Henry, but the Arkansas rookie has 113 more receiving yards than the future Hall-of-Famer. Most of this is due to role, but Henry has been far more efficient on his targets than Gates. As he did in college, Henry has been stretching the seam with an average of 15.5 yards per reception, whereas Gates has been operating as Philip Rivers‘s ultimate safety valve (reminder: Danny Woodhead was a big part of the passing game) with 8.7 yards per reception.

The thing is, even though Gates’ yards per reception average is nearly half of Henry’s, his catch rate is much lower. Henry hauls in 66.7 percent of everything thrown at him, whereas Gates is dead last on the team with a 54.2 percent catch rate. Even Dontrelle Inman has done better than that.

Henry’s stock has been trending down after two poor performances against the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos. But just two games shouldn’t shroud how effective he’s been as a rookie. You can look at past data and see that Henry is the exception to the rule of rookie tight ends being mediocre. Even the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Zach Ertz needed a year to get going.

Right now, Henry averages 10.3 yards per target and is already one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He’s ready whenever the Chargers decide to officially pass the torch from Gates to Henry.

Sep 11, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98) makes a move past Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) and offensive guard Laken Tomlinson (72) at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Lions won 39-35. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Taylor Decker, LT – Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions knew they needed a big upgrade at the left tackle position in the 2016 NFL Draft and they had to draft a true franchise player at the position. They decided to snag Taylor Decker with the 16th-overall pick and he’s yet another Ohio State product flourishing in the pros.

Jack Conklin has been the best rookie tackle this season as he and Taylor Lewan form a duo that is at the heart of everything good about the Tennessee Titans offense. Decker, however, might be even more important to Detroit. The Lions, unlike the Titans, only have one good offensive tackle—and that’s the rookie Decker. Their line as a whole remains underwhelming, but Decker has made a big difference.

Matthew Stafford is in the middle of arguably the best season of his career and this is despite not having a legitimate running game ever since star running back Ameer Abdullah went down with an injury early in the season.

Over the long term, Decker could end up being a better tackle than Conklin. He has better tools in pass protection, even if he isn’t quite as dominant in the running game. Conklin has certainly been getting the job done, but Decker looks less likely to be exposed by speed, as we saw in the team’s win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9.

Nov 3, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) calls a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Atlanta Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 43-28. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

SS, Keanu Neal – Atlanta Falcons

A few people weren’t thrilled when the Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal in the first round. Looking back, though, there isn’t a better selection they could have made. Thanks to Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, the running game, and an excellent offensive line, the Falcons are one of the best teams in the NFL. However, don’t forget to give credit to defensive players like Desmond Trufant, Vic Beasley, and Neal for stepping up to improve the defense.

Already one of the NFL’s best strong safeties, Neal has been exactly what the Falcons hoped for. He can make his presence felt in the running game, he’s an enforcer over the middle of the field, and he’s quite good in coverage, too.

Strong safeties are among the most underrated players in the NFL, because if they aren’t Kam Chancellor or Reshad Jones, most people only notice their mistakes (Barry Church and Kenny Vaccaro are examples).

Neal is a fan favorite in Atlanta after just seven games and his stock will continue to rise. The Falcons needed to add vicious playmakers and Neal is the perfect example of that type of player. He has 57 tackles and three forced fumbles on the season. And he sure as heck isn’t slowing down. The man has at least eight tackles in every game since Week 4, which was only the second game of his NFL career.

Oct 31, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears center Cody Whitehair (65) reacts with fans after a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field. Chicago defeated Minnesota 20-10. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Whitehair, C – Chicago Bears

It’s easy to like the make-up of the Chicago Bears offensive line and the interior is stocked with talent. Josh Sitton and Kyle Long are two of the best guards in the NFL. But sometimes it still seems like rookie center Cody Whitehair has stolen the show.

A former left tackle in college, Whitehair was expected to be the first guard off the board in the 2016 NFL Draft. Many saw the technician’s best chance of starting in the league coming on the inside.

Whitehair would have to wait until the second day to hear his name called, as he became the Bears 56th-overall pick. One guard, Josh Garnett of the San Francisco 49ers, was taken before him. But it’s clear that Whitehair has been the superior player of the two.

Second-year player Hroniss Grasu‘s torn ACL in training camp opened up an opportunity for Whitehair to compete with journeyman Ted Larsen for the starting center job. And there was no doubt that Whitehair would win that battle handily almost right away.

He’s taken the job and run with it. I can’t think of a rookie interior offensive linemen who has been even half as impressive as Whitehair. He’s a future All-Pro at the center position and he could probably be just as good at guard, too.

Oct 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) is tackled by San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Jatavis Brown (57) during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Jatavis Brown, ILB – San Diego Chargers

Say what you want about the San Diego Chargers, but their 2016 draft class looks phenomenal. Joey Bosa is one of the best defensive players in the NFL, Hunter Henry will be one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and Jatavis Brown is a great playmaker. The Chargers defense has plenty of talented pieces and Brown is one of the most underrated of them.

Hopefully a recent knee injury doesn’t hinder Brown’s progress, because the elite athlete is an exciting part of this young defense. Brown has 54 tackles, three sacks, two fumbles forced, a fumble recovered, and five passes defended in eight appearances this season.

An all-action performer at the linebacker position, Brown has looked much better than a mere fifth-round pick. The former Akron standout is an OLB/safety hybrid and he’s acquitted himself well to the NFL. The Chargers can use him in coverage, as a traditional linebacker against the run, and as a blitzer.

Brown can do it all and he, along with Denzel Perryman, could form one of the league’s best linebacker duos for years to come. Korey Toomer has looked good when on the field this season, too, so the Chargers are in good hands at the position.

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