The annual influx of each succeeding wave of rookies will always be one of the most appealing dimensions of fantasy football, they are the life blood of dynasty leagues, a mystery to unravel and code to crack for redraft purposes, identifying the right ones before they breakout can confer huge advantages and they keep the hobby unceasingly renewed, reinvigorated and ever fresh.
This expands and brings to the forefront a sub-section of the Ear to the Ground column that ran for the past decade (and replaces it). It also inverts the previous order, with some material formerly covered first under the Team Reports section found later in abbreviated form in the section now called Select Veteran Notes. It will still conclude with a scouting profile (including coverage of both rookies and veterans).
While dynasty is the general purview of this column, the Rookie of the Year awards for Offense and Defense are by definition focused on the current season. What may be a seeming contradiction is resolved by the fact that rookies that excel and gain traction early tend to be on good footing towards a fast tracked, accelerated development for dynasty purposes (and of course players like Jared Goff, Kenneth Dixon and Laquon Treadwell that are destined to have their value surge beyond 2016 will also be tracked closely and receive coverage). The initial rankings reflect the accumulation and weight of the respective prospect's scouting grades culminating in their first action as rookies, opportunity and expected role, as well as some historically-informed/driven heuristics and positional constraint observations highlighted below (on both offense and defense). As we get further into the season, actual production will increasingly be weighted more strongly, and rookie prospects will move up or down accordingly. In addition to tracking stats on a running basis, the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year lists will be accompanied by ongoing updated individual commentary as development, progress and material changes in their respective opportunities and roles warrant it. This column will appear every other week during the 2016 season.
Rookie of the Year - Offense (past 25 years)
1991 - Leonard Russell, NE, RB
1992 - Carl Pickens, CIN, WR
1993 - Jerome Bettis, LA, RB
1994 - Marshall Faulk, IND, RB
1995 - Curtis Martin, NE, RB
1996 - Eddie George, HOU, RB
1997 - Warrick Dunn, TB, RB
1998 - Randy Moss, MIN, WR
1999 - Edgerrin James, IND, RB
2000 - Mike Anderson, DEN, RB
2001 - Anthony Thomas, CHI, RB
2002 - Clinton Portis, DEN, RB
2003 - Anquan Boldin, ARI, WR
2004 - Ben Roethlisberger, PIT, QB
2005 - Cadillac Williams, TB, RB
2006 - Vince Young, TEN, QB
2007 - Adrian Peterson, MIN, RB
2008 - Matt Ryan, ATL, QB
2009 - Percy Harvin, MIN, WR
2010 - Sam Bradford, STL, QB
2011 - Cam Newton, CAR, QB
2012 - Robert Griffin III, WAS, QB
2013 - Eddie Lacy, GB, RB
2014 - Odell Beckham, NYG, WR
2015 - Todd Gurley, STL, RB
QB - 6 (all in the last 10 years, signaling a trend of recently increased preparedness from the college level, trust, usage and/or desperation with quicker front office and coaching staff hiring and firing cycles, as well as the fact that there just are never enough good veteran QBs at any given time to cover all 32 teams - also, the same contemporary rule changes favoring offense in general and the passing game specifically, benefit not only vets, but the most talented, prepared, hard working and smartest rookies)
RB - 14 (11 in the first 15 years, just 3 in the 10 since)
WR - 5 (both rarer and more evenly distributed, in approximately half decade intervals)
TE - 0 (enough said)
As seen from above, RBs dominated the Rookie of the Year award on offense in the first 15 years of the last quarter century, and largely QBs in the last decade. The skill position class of '16 has three first round QB prospects (including the #1 and #2 overall picks) and also includes a late fourth round gem and potential future star, a RB class featuring one of the top prospects at his position in the past decade taken #4 overall but not a particularly exceptional group beyond him, a good looking WR class that makes up in depth what it lacks in elite star power and a middling TE group that could nonetheless offer as many as three or more solid starters in future seasons.
Rookie of the Year - Offense (2016)
Player, Team, Position, Age ('16), Pedigree, College, Height/Weight
1) Carson Wentz, PHI, QB, 24, 1.2, North Dakota State (6'5", 235)
(21/34-190-1 and 0 INT, 6-10-0 rushing AND 43/71-468-3 and 0 INTs, 8-11-0 rushing TOTAL)
On MNF against the Bears, Wentz became the first rookie QB in league history to start the season 2-0 with 0 turnovers. The pre-draft consensus that he was not as advanced and pro ready as Jared Goff has proven grossly off the mark. While he only started two seasons and at the lesser FCS level of competition, Wentz ran a pro-style scheme, took snaps from under center, called line protections, made audibles based on pre-snap reads and keys of coverage and employed full field reads. He is close to the apex of the scouting criteria and hierarchy per his constellation of athletic traits and skill attributes, with close to ideal size, arm strength, athleticism, football smarts, passion for the game, desire to be great, work ethic, maturity, character, leadership, professionalism and intangibles and has an extremely bright future in the NFL.
2) Ezekiel Elliot, DAL, RB, 21, 1.4, Ohio State (6'0", 225)
(21-83-1 rushing, 2-4-0 receiving AND 41-134-2 rushing, 3-5-0 receiving TOTAL)
Elliot is one of the top prospects at the RB position in the past decade since Adrian Peterson, along with Todd Gurley. Given his prowess in the passing game both as a receiver out of the backfield and blocker in pass protection, he is an even more balanced and well rounded prospect. Despite losing Romo to injury, back up QB Dak Prescott is mature beyond his years and for the most part has played well enough to stave off concerns about negative impact. Elliot benefits from hands down, easily the best offensive line in the business.
3) Sterling Shepard, NYG, WR, 22, 2.9, Oklahoma (5'10", 195)
(8-117-0 AND 11-160-1 receiving TOTAL)
Shepard has been as advertised, the most refined, developed and polished route runner from the class of '16. He has a lot in common with teammate and former Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham, outstanding speed, hops, hands, overall athleticism, agility and body control, open field elusiveness and RAC ability. Like fellow second rounder Tyler Boyd of the Bengals (see below), Shepard enjoys one of the most established QBs throwing to him among the top WR prospects drafted ahead of him. He has been one of the most efficient and productive slot receivers in the league so far, is very challenging to cover and seems to nearly always be open.
4) Dak Prescott, DAL, QB, 23, 4.37, Mississippi State (6'2", 225)
(22/30-292-0 and 0 INT, 1-6-1 rushing AND 47/75-519-0 and 0 INTs, 3-18-1 rushing TOTAL)
With Elliot one of two pairs of teammates on this offensive list (with RB Derrick Henry and WR Tajae Sharpe of the Titans). Prescott had one of the more impressive pre-season performances for a rookie QB not just in recent memory, but ever. He is very composed, well schooled, aware, makes all the throws with the requisite arm strength, touch and accuracy and unlike most young signal callers, instinctively protects the ball. Prescott is also a dangerous runner, but keeps his head up in the pocket and even when he has to move around to avoid the rush looks up to distribute the ball to his playmakers. As with Elliot, he benefits from an elite, league best OL, and also top receiving weapons such as Dez Bryant and Jason Witten don't hurt.
5) Corey Coleman, CLE, WR, 22, 1.15, Baylor (5'11", 185)
(5-104-2 AND 7-173-2 receiving TOTAL)
If Laquon Treadwell was the pre-draft/season consensus top WR, Coleman was not too far behind, and in fact some scouts preferred him. He has explosive speed, great moves, off the charts athleticism, more than adequate hands and was by far the most dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands in the open field from the class of '16. Coleman is a vastly superior prospect to fellow Baylor WR Terrance Williams who went in the third round of the 2013 draft (who led the FBS in receiving yards his final season in college). He had a breakout game with 2 TDs Sunday, but unfortunately broke a bone in his hand. It won't require surgery, but he is expected to miss 4-6 weeks of the season. For practical purposes that may put him too far behind to have a realistic shot of winning Rookie of the Year, but he clearly has a bright future and looks like an emerging star.
6) Will Fuller, HOU, WR, 22, 1.21, Notre Dame (6'0", 180)
(4-104-0 AND 9-211-1 receiving TOTAL)
Through the first two weeks Fuller led the three rookies here in the top 20 OVERALL WR scorers, with two 100 receiving yard games. He has explosive, difference making, game changing speed on the outside. While Fuller's has at times unreliable hands, that flaw may have been overblown to an extent, as he has still been doing plenty of damage. Many fantasy owners were spooked by what he couldn't do (sub-optimal size and strength), but he makes the most of what he does well. Fuller is among Notre Dame all time receiving scoring leaders in several categories, including season TDs with 15 in 2014 (including two of the top five seasons, with another 14 in 2015) and is second in career TDs with 30, behind only Michael Floyd's 37.
7) Michael Thomas, NO, WR, 23, 2.16, Ohio State (6'3", 215)
(4-56-0 AND 10-114-0 receiving TOTAL)
Thomas is the nephew of Keyshawn Johsnon, and has some similarities to his far more high profile uncle and former #1 overall pick, namely hulking size and sub-optimal deep speed. He could have been sent by central casting to fill the previous role of departed WR Marques Colston. Unlike Colston in his prime, Thomas is currently at best third in the receiving pecking order, behind Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead (both in the top five scorers among WRs through the first two weeks of the season). He could see a boost in red zone usage going forward as he becomes more familiar to and earns the trust of Saints QB Drew Brees.
8) Tajae Sharpe, TEN, WR, 22, 5.1, Massachusetts (6'2", 195)
(4-33-0 AND 11-109-0 receiving TOTAL)
Sharpe and Prescott are the only two offensive prospects here to be taken in day three of the draft, and he has to be one of the most surprising and best success stories in the 2016 draft. The Titans reportedly realized early on he wasn't a typical rookie WR, and the game didn't seem to big for him. Not necessarily great at any one thing, Sharpe is well rounded and good at a lot of things, but his advanced route running and hands particularly stand out.
9) Derrick Henry, TEN, RB, 22, 2.14, Alabama (6'3", 245)
(9-40-0 rushing, 1-9-0 receiving AND 14-43-0 rushing, 3-50-0 receiving TOTAL)
Heny reminds some scouts of ex-Giants (and Auburn) RB Brandon Jacobs, who, while he may not have had as much wiggle as the Alabama Heisman Trophy winner, was a freakish physical specimen and athletic phenom for a 6'4", 265 lb. RB. Henry is a load for DBs to bring down once he has a full head of steam in the open field. His path to greater production and fantasy relevance is likely blocked for the moment in a strict RBBC with DeMarco Murray as the lead rusher. Henry has an unusual skill set for a big back, and in time looks like he can evolve into more than a goal line and short yardage weapon, but it awaits to be seen if he can be an upper echelon bell cow, feature RB. As one of the highest recruited preps in the nation he broke Florida state season yardage (4,261) and TD (55) records, as well as the national career yardage record (12,124).
10) Tyler Boyd, CIN, WR, 22, 2.24, Pittsburgh (6'1", 195)
(6-78-0 AND 8-102-0 receiving TOTAL)
Boyd distinguished himself at the prep and collegiate levels, with one of the more storied careers in PA state history. His RAC skills were honed as a record setting RB (#1 with 117 career TDs and top 5 with 5,755 rushing yards). He than went on to break Larry Fitzgerald's Pittsburgh freshman records (69-1,005 receiving) with 85 receptions for 1,174 yards. Boyd also broke Sammy Watkins ACC freshman record for receptions (82), and he was the most productive freshman WR in the nation. He had nearly as many catches (78) for more yards (1,261) as a soph, but fell off his junior year. Boyd lacked elite speed and explosiveness measureables at the combine (barely eclipsed 4.6 in the 40 and had a gravity challenged 34" VJ), but could hardly have landed in a better spot with the Bengals. Former complementary WRs Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu moved on to the Lions and Falcons in free agency, respectively, and he will never see double teams across from star A.J. Green. Andy Dalton has quietly but methodically become one of the top QBs in the league.
Standing on the Verge
Jared Goff, LA
Kenneth Dixon, BAL
Laquon Treadwell, MIN
Paxton Lynch, DEN
Christian Hackenberg, NYJ
Jacoby Brisset, NE
Cody Kessler, CLE
Connor Cook, OAK
Cardale Jones, BUF
Nate Sudfeld, WAS
Kenyan Drake, MIA
C.J. Prosise, SEA
Tyler Ervin, HOU
Devontae Booker, DEN
DeAndre Washington, OAK
Paul Perkins, NYG
Jordan Howard, CHI
Wendell Smallwood, PHI
Jonathan Williams, BUF
Alex Collins, SEA
Josh Doctson, WAS
Braxton Miller, CLE
Leonte Carroo, MIA
Chris Moore, BAL
Malcolm Mitchell, NE
Ricardo Louis, CLE
Pharoh Cooper, LA
Demarcus Robinson, KC
Jordan Payton, CLE
Tyreek Hill, KC
Rashard Higgins, CLE
Mike Thomas, LA
Nelson Spruce, LA
Hunter Henry, SD
Austin Hooper, ATL
Tyler Higbee, LA
Nick Vannett, SEA
Seth DeValve, CLE
Temarrick Hemingway, LA
Jerell Adams, NYG
David Morgan, MIN
Defensive Rookie of the Year (past 25 years)
1991 - Mike Croel, DEN, LB
1992 - Dale Carter, KC, CB
1993 - Dana Stubblefield, SF, DT
1994 - Tim Bowens, MIA, DT
1995 - Hugh Douglas, NYJ, DE
1996 - Simeon Rice, ARI, DE
1997 - Peter Boulware, BAL, LB
1998 - Charles Woodson, OAK, CB
1999 - Jevon Kearse, TEN, DE
2000 - Brian Urlacher, CHI, LB
2001 - Kendrell Bell, PIT, LB
2002 - Julius Peppers, CAR, DE
2003 - Terrell Suggs, BAL, LB
2004 - Jonathan Vilma, NYJ, LB
2005 - Shawne Merriman, SD, LB
2006 - DeMeco Ryans, HOU, LB
2007 - Patrick Willis, SF, LB
2008 - Jerod Mayo, NE, LB
2009 - Brian Cushing, HOU, LB
2010 - Ndamukong Suh, DET, DT
2011 - Von Miller, DEN, LB
2012 - Luke Kuechly, CAR, LB
2013 - Sheldon Richardson, NYJ, DE
2014 - Aaron Donald, STL, DT
2015 - Marcus Peters, KC, CB
DT - 4 (Two in the past half decade plus, after about a decade and a half interval)
DE - 5 (Richardson the first one in over a decade)
LB - 13 (11 in the decade and a half plus since 2000)
CB - 3 (Peters first in over a decade and a half since Charles Woodson in 1998)
S - 0 (Over a quarter century since Mark Carrier in 1990)
Once again, as seen from above, LB has dominated the Defensive Rookie of the Year award (unsurprising, it is a cliché that it is the most instinctive and RB-like position on defense), especially in the last nearly decade and a half. DL has been more rare (heavily dependent on physical maturation and technical development), though there were six in the first decade plus, plus two in a row before 2015, with a mini-comeback for the position. The secondary has been rarer still (it is generally harder to make the number of splash plays or be as active in sheer volume from the boundary or back end of the defense, compared to the more centrally situated LB), with Marcus Peters the first DB to win in more than a decade and a half since Charles Woodson. The defensive class of '16 features a potentially strong LB position group (which will be bolstered further if Cowboys second rounder Jaylon Smith can return from a serious knee injury including nerve damage by 2017), DE took a blow as usual with many top prospects converted to LB, such as Leonard Floyd, Shaq Lawson, teammate Kevin Dodd and Emanuel Ogbah. DT lost top 3-technique pass rusher Sheldon Rankins due to a preseason broken leg, CB is strong in numbers and Jaylen Ramsey might be one of the top defensive players in the class at any position, and safety has been weak overall for several years in a row, though mid-first round picks Karl Joseph and Keanu Neal are gifted athletes and could be very productive once they inexorably are elevated to starting gigs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year (2016)
Player, Team, Position, Age ('16), Pedigree, College, Height/Weight
1) Deion Jones, ATL, LB, 22, 2.21, LSU (6'1", 230)
(7 solo tackles, 3 assists AND 12 solo tackles, 4 assists TOTAL)
Jones and Darron Lee were the fastest LBs at the combine, both sport outstanding athleticm but also come with attendant size/strength concerns to play in the middle and on the inside. The Falcons are a far weaker overall defense and should be on the field a lot more than the Jets, allowing the Atlanta second round MLB plenty of opportunity to rack up points. As on offense, there are two sets of teammates populating this list on the defensive side of the ball, Jones and SS Keanu Neal, as well as LB Myles Jack and CB Jaylen Ramsey for the Jaguars.
2) Darron Lee, NYJ, LB, 22, 1.20, Ohio State (6'1", 240)
(4 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 7 solo tackles, 4 assists TOTAL)
In his debut game Lee played in sub-packages, but an injury to vet ILB Erin Henderson led to his insertion into the starting lineup by the second game. He has has elite speed and athleticism for a LB, massive upside due to only playing the position two seasons at Ohio State (star running QB and DB as an Ohio prep) and looks like a future star. Lee benefits from one of the most talented defensive lines in the league, to keep him relatively clean from blockers and free to run to the ball and chase sideline-to-sideline. He is a complete player who can run, hit, cover and blitz, though he is still learning to play inside, recalibrating his instincts and finding how to best avoid/slip blocks. Lee flashed some impressive work in short yardage against BUF Sunday, which bodes well.
3) Myles Jack, JAX, LB, 21, 2.05, UCLA (6'1", 245)
(2 solo tackles AND same TOTAL)
Jack was intially viewed by scouts as arguably one of the top 3-5 players in the entire NFL draft at any position, but fell to the second round over concerns about the long term stability of his knee (which will likely require micro-fracture surgery at some point in the future, reportedly more of a question of when and not if). He might have been in consideration at the #5 overall pick the Jaguars opted to take CB Jaylen Ramsey with, so if he holds up physically Jack could represent a Brinks level heist. He was dunking basketballs with jaw dropping ease before the draft and didn't need to start the season on the PUP list, though he only played special teams week 1 and was minimally involved in his second game. It could be a while before Jack ascends to a starting role at MLB or WLB, but once he does, he has the kind of freakish athleticism to revolutionize the position (at UCLA he flashed the form to be a starting NFL RB if he had chosen that NFL career path - think a more versatile Shaq Thompson as far as his Pac-12 pedigree). He has legit CB-like coverage skills, and on film is one of the best at that trait and attribute at the LB position to come down the pike since the common draft about a half century ago.
4) Joey Bosa, SD, DE, 21, 1.3, Ohio State (6'5", 280)
Unfortunately Bosa dominated the pre-season news cycle for the wrong reasons as the longest holdout since the inception of the current labor agreement, and got off to a slow start with a pulled leg muscle that kept him out of the first two games. Once he gets into game shape, he is a blue chip talent that was the best OVERALL DE prospect in the draft. Bosa may not routinely crack double digit sacks, but he is an elite run defender with the size, power, leverage, motor, intensity, repertoire of moves and ability to string them together to regularly pressure QBs. There is some question of whether he might have been a better fit in an even front (4-3) instead of odd alignment (3-4), but at 280 lbs. he is only 10 lbs. lighter than the incomparable J.J. Watt. And at just 21, he could still have some growing to do and add some mass as he physically matures and developes.
5) Su'a Cravens, WAS, LB, 21, 2.22, USC (6'1", 225)
(3 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 6 solo tackles, 2 assists TOTAL)
Cravens was a puzzle and riddle for some scouts who weren't sure if he had a pro position, concerned that he was too slow to play safety and too small to play LB. Though faster, size concerns also caused TB Hall of Fame WLB Derrick Brooks to fall in his draft (who entered the league in a very similar 225 lb. range). Also faster and more athletic, the expected role of Cravens has been compared to one time dime backer Deone Buchanon, who now starts at ILB for the Cardinals. He flashes extremely impressive recognition, instincts and coverage ability (at USC he routinely broke on the ball like a CB and had a lot of splash plays and INTs), and has the natural talent and innate ability to make plays all over the field and fill up the box score a variety of ways. Assuming Cravens settles into a long term LB role, he absolutely has the goods to emerge as one of the top 3-5 OVERALL IDPs from this class, with star potential.
6) Noah Spence, TB, DE, 22, 2.8, Eastern Kentucky (6'2", 250)
(1 solo tackle, 1 sack AND same TOTAL)
Substance abuse issues caused the former bookend to Joey Bosa at Ohio State to be banned from the Big 10 and tossed off the team, but former HC Urban Meyer vouched for him and insisted he was a good person who had unfortunately made some bad and problematic decisions. Reportedly some teams were critical of his interviews, but as a pure pass rusher Spence may be without peer in the class of '16. He has a rare combination of quickness, power and flexibility that is often a common denominator of great pass rushers. Though in addition to his character question marks and off field red flags, a slow 40 time also conspired to drop Spence into the second round despite his blue chip talent and skills (recall that Terrell Suggs also ran a ponderous, plodding time - but how often during a game is he tasked with running 40 yards in a straight line?). He can be vulnerable to getting pushed back on roller skates and washed out against power rushing attacks, and may be best used situationally in obvious passing downs, at least initially, until he adds strength, technical development and learns to be a pro. Somewhat like another Florida team, the Jaguars, the Bucs haven't had a dominant pass rusher in seemingly forever (Simeon Rice during the last Super Bowl run?), likely contributing to both their W-L record difficulties.
7) DeForest Buckner, SF, DE, 22, 1.7, Oregon (6'7" 290)
(1 solo tackle, 4 assists AND 2 solo tackles, 6 assists TOTAL)
His upside is Calais Campbell 2.0. Buckner is a better prospect than bookend 2015 mid-first rounder Arik Armstead. GM Trent Baalke is clearly trying to rebuild the once great defense from the inside out.
8) Karl Joseph, OAK, S, 1.14, West Virginia (5'10", 205)
Joesph reminds some scouts of Brian Dawkins, Bob Sanders, Troy Polamalu and Earl Thomas, impressive company and high praise. He was among the nation's leaders in INTs when he went down due to a torn ACL, but is a violent, barbaric tackler with as little regard for his body as that of his opponents, hits like an electric axe handle and is a little stick of dynamite in run support coming up from the secondary. The Raiders have been cautious with his development because of the knee injury (though he didn't start on the PUP list), but Joseph should be starting sooner rather than later and has the athleticism, talent, skill set and versatility to emerge as a future star, if his body can hold up to the self-inflicted serial blunt force trauma.
9) Jalen Ramsey, JAX, CB, 22, 1.5, Florida State (6'1", 210)
(6 solo tackles AND 8 solo tackles, 1 TOTAL)
Ramsey might be higher on the list if it wasn't so rare for a CB to win Defensive Rookie of the Year (the Chiefs Marcus Peters winning in 2015 being the exception that proves the rule). An athletic phenom and prodigy (borderline Decathlete caliber), he has an elite combo of size/speed, and is arguably the best DB to matriculate from Florida State since the legendary, mythical "Neon" Deion "Prime Time" Sanders.
10) Keanu Neal, ATL, S, 21, 1.17, Florida (6'1", 210)
HC Dan Quinn was previously a DC for Pete Carroll in Seattle, and Neal is expected to play a Kam Chancellor-like role close to the LOS in run support. The collegiate safety to pro LB conversion (including Brian Urlacher of the Bears) is increasingly in vogue with the likes of Deone Buchanon and Mark Barron from Arizona and Los Angeles, respectively, as well as fellow Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Su'a Cravens of Washington.
Standing on the Verge
Leonard Floyd, CHI
Kevin Dodd, TEN
Kenny Clark, GB
Vernon Butler, CAR
Chris Jones, KC
Austin Johnson, TEN
Jihad Ward, OAK
A'Shawn Robinson, DET
Jarran Reed, SEA
Maliek Collins, DAL
Javon Hargrave, PIT
Sheldon Day, JAX
Robert Nkemdiche, ARI
Adam Gotsis, DEN
Carl Nassib, CLE
Yannick Ngakoue, JAX
Jonathan Bullard, CHI
Shilique Calhoun, OAK
Adolphus Washington, BUF
Charles Tapper, DAL
Hassan Ridgeway, IND
Shaq Lawson, BUF
Emanuel Ogbah, CLE
Kamalei Correa, BAL
Jordan Jenkins, NYJ
Nick Vigil, CIN
Kyler Fackrell, GB
Joe Schobert, CLE
Joshua Perry, SD
B.J. Goodson, NYG
De'Vondre Campbell, ATL
Antonio Morrison, IND
Blake Martinez, GB
Kentrell Brothers, MIN
Josh Forrest, LA
Eli Apple, NYG
Vernon Hargreaves, TB
William Jackson III, CIN
Artie Burns, PIT
Xavien Howard, MIA
Mackensie Alexander, MIN
Cyrus Jones, NE
James Bradberry, CAR
Kendall Fuller, WAS
T.J. Green, IND
Sean Davis, PIT
Vonn Bell, NO
Kevin Byard, TEN
Darian Thompson, NYG
Miles Killebrew, DET
Deon Bush, CHI
K.J. Dillon, HOU
Jaylon Smith, DAL
Reggie Ragland, BUF
Sheldon Rankins, NO
Bronson Kaufusi, BAL
Andrew Billings, CIN
Will Redmond, SF
Select Veteran Notes
Atlanta - RB Tevin Coleman began his rookie season in 2015 as the starter, but his breakout was delayed due to multiple injuries and a breakout season of his own by then-second year RB Devonta Freeman. Coleman has looked like the more explosive and dangerous back in space in the first two games, and has the legit extra gear to take it the distance if he gets a crease (his final season at Indiana, he AVERAGED an insane 50 yards per rushing TD). One pleasant surprise is how effortless he has looked catching the ball out of the backfield, which affords the Atlanta coacing staff another way to inject his difference making speed into the game plan and give him additional opportunities for potential game changing impact.
Carolina - QB Cam Newton doesn't look like he is starting the season on a Super Bowl slump track. A big part of that torrid, incendiary, blistering start is star WR Kelvin Benjamin from the brilliant WR class of '14, who is picking up where he left off before being sidelined by a torn ACL injury in the 2015 preseason. His size has been virtually unstoppable in the red zone and Calvin Johnson-like. They are quickly evolving into one of the most potent and prolific QB/WR batteries in the game, as opposing defenses scramble to find an answer. RB Jonathan Stewart had a renaissance campaign last year, but is back to his old tricks (in the shop more than a circa Reagan-era Triumph sports car).
Detroit - TE Eric Ebron has been hobbled early, but is showing signs of breaking out in his third season. Incumbent starting WR Goden Tate and underrated free agent Marvin Jones are a solid tandem outside, but Ebron has the size and athleticism to pick up some of the slack left by the unexpected early departure of Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson (probably with Randy Moss the two most physically and athletically gifted big WRs to ever play the game). Former #1 overall QB Matthew Stafford is just 28 and coming off a second half of the 2015 season (after Jim Bob Cooter became the new OC) in which he had 19 TDs and just 2 INTs. Ebron and Pro Bowler Vernon Davis have among the highest average reception stats (16+ yards) for a TE in FBS history.
Indianapolis - TE Dwayne Allen is off to a strong start, with the departure of TE Coby Fleener to NO. The Colts defense isn't very good, and QB Andrew Luck will need to throw early and often in catch up mode. Allen is a complete TE with a well rounded game, and his blocking ability allows him to stay on the field. Not an explosive seam-stretching downfield threat, he is a rugged and resilient target over the middle and on intermediate routes, as well as in the red zone, where passing lanes and windows become more congested and collapsed.
Los Angeles - The Rams are the first team to go without a TD in the first two games of the season in a decade, since the 2006 Bucs and Raiders. If they improbably go a third game without crossing the scoring stripe even once, that would be the only other time since the mid-'70s expansion Bucs (possibly extending further back to the WW II era). Getting back from injury fourth round and UFA rookie WRs Pharoh Cooper and Nelson Spruce could help. RB Todd Gurley is having a nightmarish, soph slump start to his 2016 campaign, and will find tough sledding until LA can mount some semblance of a passing game to loosen up secondaries, keep them on their toes and honest, instead of stacking the box with extra run defenders. Will WR Kenny Britt, WRB Tavon Austin or TE Lance Kendricks be the first to break the TD drought and open up the scoring floodgates? How much longer will interim starting QB Case Keenum be able to hold the fort until the cavalry of #1 overall pick Jared Goff appears over the horizon? This week maligned HC Jeff Fisher had the skill position players hang out in the end zone during practice and exhorted them, "This is where you're supposed to be!"
Minnesota - QB Sam Bradford is playing for the best team in his career and it showed Sunday night against the Packers. He formed an immediate connection with emerging soph star WR Stefon Diggs. TE Kyle Rudolph and Bradford could also help unleash each other's potential, as well as that of rookie first round WR Laquon Treadwell. With Adrian Peterson out for an extended period with a knee injury, OC Norv Turner may have to rely on the passing game more to move the ball. RB Jerick McKinnon flashed potential in his rookie season when Peterson was suspended. He was one of the most gifted and explosive athletes at his combine and can be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
Carolina - Shaq Thompson still isn't seeing volume starting opportunity due to the presence of Pro Bowl LB Thomas Davis, but his speed and athleticism will be a great asset once he becomes a starting NICKEL LB (he was kind of like Myles Jack before Myles Jack in the Pac-12), likely in a year or two. DT Kawann Short may be banged up and is off to a slow start after being one of the most disruptive and productive interior defensive linemen in the league in 2015.
Detroit - Star DE Ezekiel Ansah is out for Sunday with a lingering ankle injury, but bookend DE Devin Taylor has seized the opportunity and has been one of the top 4-3 edge rushers in the game to start the 2016 season. He will be just 27 later in the season, is approaching his physical prime and is still developing and getting better. Taylor has massive upside.
Jacksonville - DE Dante Fowler missed his 2015 rookie season due to a torn ACL in the preseason. He looked unblockable at times during training camp, was stonewalled in his debut week 1 but enjoyed a breakout game last Sunday (2 sacks and 4 solo tackles). Fowler wasn't the #3 overall pick in his draft for nothing, and can help provide a much needed infusion of pass rushing talent and opposing QB pressure, which has been an Achilles heel for the Jaguars for seemingly forever extending back across several coaching and GM regimes (exactly two decades ago in '96 Jacksonville drafted DE Tony Brackens in the second round, who went on to amasss 30+ sacks COMBINED in the three seasons from '99-'01).
Miami - DT Ndamukong Suh is playing more like his Detroit All Pro form, after a lackluster first season with the Dolphins. MLB Kiko Alonso has bounced around (also Buffalo and Philadelphia) but is an instinctive, rangy, play making difference maker when healthy. S Reshad Jones has been among the most consistent tackling safeties for several years and is near the top of the food chain at his position in the NFL.
New York Jets - DE Muhammad Wilkerson was expected to be in the top 10 among his positional peers, but emerging bookend DE Leonard Williams is looking like one of the best in the league in the early going. It wouldn't have been a surprise if Williams had been taken in the top 3 (or even #1 overall) last year, but somehow he fell out of the top 5. Some questioned why the Jets with other pressing needs would take him when they already had Muhammad Wilkerson (signed a five year, $86 million extension in July) and Sheldon Richardson? A) Wilkerson hadn't been extended yet, B) Richardson has at times been unreliable due to multiple suspensions and C) If Williams becomes one of the most dominant DL in the league at both DE AND DT, the pick requires no further explanation or justification (nuf sed). Like his Pro Bowl peers and counterparts on the Jets DL, he can effortlessly transition from 3-4 DE to 4-3 DT, and play at a high level against the pass AND run from both positions/schemes. The Jets have a chance to have one of the best DLs since the merger, AFTER such hallowed units as the Fearsome Foursome of the Rams, Purple People Eaters of the Vikings and Steel Curtain of the Steelers.
Pittsburgh - Ryan Shazier has freak speed (beat some of the Steeler's fastest skill position players during a training camp race for real), but could be a tightly wound athlete, and hopefully doesn't become the defensive equivalent of Jonathan Stewart. Injury is about the only thing that could deflect him from his seeming destined path for stardom as one of the top ILBs in the game.
(from the 2016 Pre-Season WR Value Plays article)
Mike Evans - Evans makes the list partly due to being in a battery with up and coming QB Jameis Winston (and vice verce, they enhance each other, and have both put up historic numbers early in their respective careers). Despite an "off" year plagued by drops, the WR counterpart prodigy became just the second player at his position ever to already have two seasons of 1,000 receiving yards before the age of 22 - with Randy Moss. Evans suffered a precipitous drop to 3 scores last year, but his 12 TD outburst in 2014 was among the most for a rookie WR in league history (matched by fellow star class of '14 WR Odell Beckham). He has outstanding wheels to press his advantages of power forward size, attitude, positioning ability and aerial skills.
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