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The Rookies: Week 5

A deep look at this year's rookie class

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 Karlos Williams and Jeremy Langford that are destined to have their value surge beyond 2015 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 2015 season.
 

 
Rookie of the Year - Offense (past 25 years)
 
•1990 - Emmitt Smith, DAL, RB
•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
 
Positional Breakdown
•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 '15 has two touted QB prospects (taken #1 and #2 overall) but is weak after, a RB class strong at the top (TWO first rounders, and top half of the first round, following a two year absence) along with a lot of day two and three options, similar to WR (three taken in the top half of the first round) and a generally weak TE class overall (though the top two prospects have starter potential). After a season with a historically good WR class, while Amari Cooper has stood out among the class of '15, the RB position group has jumped out the most collectively in the early going, with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota flashing big time skills along with typical rookie struggles at the most difficult position on the field. Even more so than usual, TE is an afterthought this year.      
 
Rookie of the Year - Offense (2015)
 
Player, Team, Position, Age, Pedigree, College, Height/Weight
 
1) Marcus Mariota, TEN, QB, 21, 1.2, Oregon (6'4", 222)
(BYE AND 61/96-833-8 and 2 INTs, 5-25-0 rushing TOTAL)
 
Mariota is scoring at about a top 5 clip for his position on a points per game basis. His 8 passing TDs in his first three games prorates to 42+ in a full season, which would obliterate the previous record of 26, representing more than a 50% increase over the mark set by Peyton Manning and later matched by Russell Wilson. Mariota has also managed to be careful with the ball, with just 2 INTs (projecting to 10 over 16 games). The former Oregon star hasn't been perfect, putting the ball on the ground 3 times (including 2 lost) in three games.         
 
2) Todd Gurley, STL, RB, 21, 1.10, Georgia (6'1", 222)
(19-146-0 rushing, 2-15-0 receiving AND 25-155-0 rushing, 3-20-0 receiving TOTAL)
 
Gurley had a breakout fourth quarter, putting the Rams collectively on his shoulders and almost single-handedly deciding the outcome against the Cards, in a critically important NFC West divisional tilt (the franchise is 2-0 in the division, also beating the Seahawks in the 2015 season opener). He did have help from QB Nick Foles (3 TDs), WR Tavon Austin (2 TDs and 96 receiving yards, the second most of his career) and a young but emerging OL. Gurley's four 20+ yard runs based on that brilliant, stellar quarter are tied for first in the NFL with Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and fellow rookie Melvin Gordon, he is leading the league among qualifying backs with a 6.2 Y/C average and has elevated the Rams per carry rushing average to second in the league, after only Minnesota and Adrian Peterson (a player many scouts have compared Gurley to). At 220+ lbs., he has the suddenness, burst, acceleration, explosiveness and elusiveness of a player 20-30 lbs. lighter, and flashed the supreme athleticism that made him one of the top 2-3 overall talents in the entire draft at any position, arguably #1. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have massively elevated the roster's core talent, hitting on potential future All-Pro (Hall of Fame?) talents in the first round in consecutive years. As with Aaron Donald on the defensive side of the ball, Gurley instantly becomes the most talented player on offense, the centerpiece and focal point of the Rams reconstituted run game, conjuring up memories of former Rams RB greats like Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk. As good as Marcus Mariota and Amari Cooper have been playing (and they have been playing extremely well), if Gurley continues to run like he did in the final stanza in the desert, he will be as tough to stop in the Rookie of the Year race as he is for a DB on a broken field run.            
 
3) Amari Cooper, OAK, WR, 21, 1.4, Alabama (6'1", 210)
(4-49-1 receiving AND 24-339-2 TOTAL)
 
Cooper's prorated numbers for 16 games would be 96-1,356-8, one of the best ever for a rookie WR, so it will interesting to track his progress over the course of the season, to see if he can avoid the dreaded "rookie wall", and maintain his early torrid, incendiary pace. He has been everything he was advertised to be and more as a mature, polished, pro ready route runner, and second year QB Derek Carr perhaps better than expected at consistently delivering the ball to him.
 
4) Karlos Williams, BUF, RB, 22, 5.18, Florida State (6'1", 230)
(18-40-0 rushing, 3-30-1 receiving AND 42-226-3 rushing, 5-46-1 receiving TOTAL)
 
Williams TD reception Sunday against the Giants gave him a TD in each of his first four games, though he suffered a concussion and has been ruled out for week 5. Starting RB LeSean McCoy could be out until after the bye, so he has a chance to establish himself further if he can return soon. Williams has an impressive 5.4 Y/C average. One of the top safety prospects in the nation,  he played that position his first two seasons in college, and so has a lot of upside. You can almost see Williams improve from game to game.        
 
5) David Johnson, ARI, RB, 23, 3.22, Northern Iowa (6'1", 225)
(3-18-0 rushing, 4-63-1 receiving AND 15-85-1 rushing, 9-127-2 receiving TOTAL)
 
Johnson has a very impressive 5.7 Y/C average in the early going. At times you can see how raw he is, as would be expected given his Northern Iowa pedigree and level of competition, but at the same time it helps to realize how much upside and big a ceiling he has. If not for an 80 yard TD reception in OT by C.J Spiller, Johnson would be leading all NFL RBs with a 15.2 yards per reception average (Danny Woodhead next highest at 12.7), and his 2 receiving TDs are tied for first in the league among RBs. HC Bruce Arians tends to be conservative with rookie usage, but that seems to be the only factor standing in the way of destined stardom.                      
 
6) Jameis Winston, TB, QB, 21, 1.1, Florida State (6'4", 230)
(26/43-287-2 and 4 INTs, 4-12-0 rushing AND 73/133-965-6 and 7 INTs, 16-53-1 rushing TOTAL)
 
Good news, bad news. At his current pace, Winston would finish just 140 yards shy of 4,000 yards and only 2 passing TDs behind the rookie record of 26, but he is also pacing for 28 INTs. The degree of difficulty on his throws (downfield, using the whole field, with anticipation) is higher than Mariota, somewhat mitigating the lower efficiency and execution. Winston still has a bright future, but will struggle often like most rookie QBs, as he gets acclimated to the pro game early in his career. He could do a better job of leveraging the height of twin tower WRs Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and throwing the ball where only they can catch it.  
 
7) Ameer Abdullah, DET, RB, 22, 2.22, Nebraska (5'9", 205)
(13-33-0 rushing, 2-11-0 receiving AND 34-115-1 rushing, 9-83-1 receiving TOTAL)
 
This is a year in which RB seems to be a positional strength of the draft class, as WR was in 2014, though somewhat surprisingly, aside from Todd Gurley's breakout on Sunday, lower pedigree and lesser known backs such as David Johnson and Karlos Williams have outperformed more high profile first and second round prospects such as Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon and Ameer Abdullah in the early going. The Lions late loss to the Seahawks when S Kam Chancellor punched the ball out of WR Calvin Johnson's grasp right before the goal line on what would have been the go ahead TD was emblematic of the Lions 0-4 funk they are stuck in, in what already looks like a lost season almost before it started. Establishing a more consistent passing attack would help the run game, but the heartbreaking loss to Seattle continued an improbable trend - QB Matthew Stafford has never won a game on the road against a team that finished with a winning record (yet he has 17 fourth quarter comebacks, so they are coming at home, and/or against teams without winning records).   
  
8) T.J. Yeldon, JAX, RB, 21, 2.4, Alabama (6'1", 226)
(22-105-0 rushing, 2-4-0 receiving AND 70-259-0 rushing, 10-42-0 receiving TOTAL)
 
Yeldon has only mustered a 3.7 Y/C average and 0 TDs, but his volume is second to none in the class so far, and that keeps him hovering in range of RB2 status. If QB Blake Bortles is the answer at QB, than the Jaguars could have an ascendant team, which bodes well long term for Yeldon, patience should be rewarded. 
 
9) Melvin Gordon, SD, RB, 22, 1.15, Wisconsin (6'1", 215)
(12-38-0 rushing, 2-8-0 receiving AND 56-228-0 rushing, 6-34-0 receiving TOTAL)
 
0 TDs roars off the screen even more so in the case of Gordon, after being a prolific scorer at Wisconsin (one of just three backs in collegiate history, including Barry Sanders, to have 2,000+ yards and 30+ TDs rushing). Danny Woodhead is one of the best third down, receiving backs in the business, but he has the talent to be very productive within the limits and scope of his currently circumscribed sphere.    
 
10) Jamison Crowder, WAS, WR, 22, 4.6, Duke (5'9", 185)
(7-65-0 receiving AND 15-117-0 receiving, 1-2 rushing TOTAL)
 
Similarities to Seattle's return phenom Tyler Lockett have been pointed out by scouts. HC Jay Gruden noted in a press conference after the last game that Crowder is the favorite to win the slot receiver job going forward, where he is very slippery in tight quarters. Washington QB starter Kirk Cousins doesn't have a bazooka for an arm, so Crowder's intermediate route skill set could make him a popular target sooner than later.       
 
Standing on the Verge
• Duke Johnson, CLE
• Tyler Lockett, SEA
 
Quarterback
• Garrett Grayson, NO
• Sean Mannion, STL
• Bryce Petty, NYJ
• Brett Hundley, GB
 
Running Back
• Tevin Coleman, ATL
• Matt Jones, WAS
• Jeremy Langford, CHI
• Javorious Allen, BAL
• Mike Davis, SF
• David Cobb, TEN
• Jay Ajayi, MIA
• Cameron Artis-Payne, CAR
 
Wide Receiver
• DeVante Parker, MIA
• Nelson Algohor, PHI
• Kevin White, CHI
• Dorial Green-Beckham, TEN
• Breshad Perriman, BAL
• Phillip Dorsett, SEA
• Devin Smith, NYJ
• Devin Funchess
• Jaelen Strong, BAL
• Chris Conley, KC
• Sammie Coates, PIT
• Ty Montgomery, GB
• Justin Hardy, ATL
• Vince Mayle, CLE
• DeAndre Smelter, SF
• Rashad Greene, JAX
 
Tight End
• Maxx Williams, BAL
• Clive Walford, OAK
• Tyler Kroft, CIN
• Blake Bell, SF
• MyCole Pruitt, MIN
• Jesse James, PIT
 
IR 
Jeff Heuerman
Rashad Greene (designated return)
 
Defensive Rookie of the Year (past 25 years)
 
•1990 - Mark Carrier, CHI, S
•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
 
Positional Breakdown
•DT - 4 (Two in the past half decade, 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 since 2000)
•CB - 2 (None in over a decade and a half since Charles Woodson in 1998)
•S - 1 (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 nearly decade and a half, plus the last two in a row, 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 only one in the nearly quarter century since Mark Carrier, and Charles Woodson was over a decade and a half ago. The defensive class of '15 may not feature as strong a LB position group as we have seen in recent years, DE took a blow with the training camp ACL tear of third overall pick Dante Fowler (though there are still several other promising top 10 overall picks), DT has several starting caliber prospects (but none with the dominant upside of last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Aaron Donald), S might be the weakest class on either side of the ball, and CB has unexpectedly presented an early favorite.  
 
Defensive Rookie of the Year (2015)
 
Player, Team, Position, Age, Pedigree, College, Height/Weight
 
1) Marcus Peters, KC, CB, 22, 1.18, Washington (6'0", 200)
(2 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 15 solo tackles, 3 assists, 2 INTs, 1 TD TOTAL)
 
Peters has cooled down considerably the past two games, after a blazing hot start. If that trend continues, he will inexorably slide down the top 10, passed by higher profile LBs and DEs. QBs may have already begun to avoid him, a testament to the respect of opposing game plans for his playmaking ability, but problematic for his IDP production. Peters has already proven willing and able in run support, which will help alleviate some week-to-week volatility. 
 
2) Hau'oli Kikaha, NO, LB, 23, 2.12, Washington (6'3", 245)
(4 solo tackles, 4 assists, 1 sack AND 16 solo tackles, 10 assists, 3 sacks, 2 FFs TOTAL)
 
Kikaha already has five big plays (pacing rookie IDPs). His sack production isn't completely out of the blue, as he did lead the nation in sacks last year. Kikaha has also been effective in run support, projecting for 64 solo tackles in a full season, which would be a robust number for a 3-4 pass rushing OLB.     
 
3) Jordan Hicks, PHI, LB, 23, 3.20, Texas (6'2" 240)
(3 solo tackles, 3 assists AND 19 solo tackles, 4 assists, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF TOTAL)
 
Hicks has continued to shine while ostensible starting ILBs Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks recover from injury. He has been active in run support as well as a big play machine, filling up the box score multiple ways. What looked like an ILB log jam in the pre-season hasn't been the case with the rash of injuries at the position. Hicks has been the main benficiary, and is running with the opportunity.  
 
4) Ron Darby, BUF, CB, 21, 2.18, Florida State (5'11", 195)
(4 solo tackles AND 17 solo tackles, 2 assists, 2 INTs TOTAL)
 
Darby is leveraging his phenomenal speed and athleticism. He competed internationally at the junior level, and has a personal best 10.4 100 m. The Bills have a talented front seven and the ability to consistently pressure the QB, in turn creating playmaking opportunities, which Darby has proven adept at capitalizing on.
 
5) Henry Anderson, IND, DE, 22, 3.29, Stanford (6'6", 300)
(3 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 17 solo tackles, 8 assists, 1 sack TOTAL)
 
Anderson may not be the sexiest IDP prospect as a 3-4 DE, but his play in the early going has been hard to overlook. Aside from positional stalwarts like Calais Campbell and Muhammad Wilkerson, though, this is a tough position to make a living at, statistically speaking. If he can't maintain consistent production while mixing in big plays, he will cede his top 5 spot to up and coming IDPs further down the list, such as Eric Kendricks and Stephone Anthony, at the more stat-friendly LB position.   
 
6) Vic Beasley, ATL, DE, 22, 1.8, Clemson (6'3", 245)
(1 solo tackle AND 7 solo tackles, 4 assists, 2 sack, 1 FF TOTAL)
 
Beasley flashed tantalizing glimpses of stardom early, but has been more quiet in recent weeks. With the Falcons looking dominant on offense, that plays to his strengths as a pass rusher. If they continue to jump out to big leads early and often, a larger breakout for Beasley should be forthcoming. He may never be a strong presence in run support, but that may not matter if he eventually becomes a perennial double digit sack artist (especially in big play boosted IDP scoring formats).
 
7) Kwon Alexander, TB, LB, 21, 4.25, LSU (6'1", 227)
(3 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 15 solo tackles, 12 assists, 1 INT TOTAL)
 
"Master" Kwon may not be a black belt, but he is an adept at wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, and has a bright future. He can run, hit and cover, all prerequisites for a Lovie Smith MLB in his cover two-inspired defensive scheme. It was impressive how quickly he dispatched the far more experienced and expensive former Dallas second rounder and free agent, Bruce Carter, and his play in the early going has done nothing for the Bucs coaching staff to question that decision.     
 
8) Eric Kendricks, MIN, LB, 23, 2.13, UCLA (6'0", 230)
(4 solo tackles, 1 sack AND 17 solo tackles, 2 assists, 1 sack TOTAL)
 
The trade of MLB Gerald Hodges to SF positions him to rack up serious production in the remaining three quarters of the regular season (and beyond, in dynasty leagues). Kendricks has the natural talent, skill set and game to eventually be one of the top coverage LBs in the league, and he packs a wallop in run support. One reason he fell to the second round may have been questions about his size, which is similar to former Miami MLBs Jonathan Vilma and Jon Beason (who were Pro Bowl caliber before breaking down with chronic leg injuries). And, it should be added, to his brother Mychal, who has also been dinged a lot in his short time in the league, though that didn't prevent the Eagles from signing him to a recent extension. Eric plays like his hair is on fire, and intensity, toughness and physicality seem to be family traits.         
 
9) Leonard Williams, NYJ, DE, 21, 1.6, USC (6'5", 300)
(2 solo tackle, 1 assist AND 5 solo tackles, 13 assists, .5 sack TOTAL)
 
The IDP future of Williams is still somewhat in limbo until the Jets decide what to do with DE Muhammad Wilkerson (who is off to a great start). So is his present, as 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson returns from his four game suspension.   
 
10) Stephone Anthony, NO, LB, 23, 1.31, Clemson (6'2", 245)
(5 solo tackles, 2 assists, 1 sack AND 14 solo tackles, 9 assists, 1 sack TOTAL)
 
Anthony started slowly, but is coming off the best game of his young career. Once his instincts catch up to his outstanding athleticism, he looks like a future top 20 LB. He was the top ILB/MLB selected in the draft, ahead of Eric Kendricks, Denzel Perryman and Paul Dawson. Anthony and fellow Defensive Rookie of the Year prospect Hau'oli Kikaha have comprised much needed additions to the sieve-like 2014 iteration defense.  
      
Standing on the Verge
• Preston Smith, WAS
• Landon Collins, NYG
 
Defensive Tackle
• Danny Shelton, CLE
• Malcom Brown, NE
• Eddie Goldman, CHI
• Jordan Phillips, MIA
• Carl Davis, BAL
 
Defensive End
• Randy Gregory, DAL
• Mario Edwards, Jr., OAK
• Arik Armstead, SF
• Frank Clark, SEA
• Owa Odighizuwa, NYG
• Dannielle Hunter, MIN
 
Linebacker
• Shaq Thomson, CAR
• Benardrick McKinney, HOU
• Bud Dupree, PIT
• Shane Ray, DEN
• Denzel Perryman, SD
• Nate Orchard, CLE
• Markus Golden, ARI
• Eli Harold, SF
• Lorenzo Mauldin, NYJ
• Paul Dawson, CIN
• Ramik Wilson, KC
• Kyle Emanuel, SD
 
Cornerback
• Tre Waynes, MIN
• Kevin Johnson, HOU
• Byron Jones, DAL
• Damarious Randall, GB
• Jalen Collins, ATL
• Eric Rowe, PHI
• Quinten Rollins, GB
• P.J. Williams, NO
 
Safety
• Jaquiski Tartt, SF  
• Jordan Richards, NE
 
IR
• Dante Fowler, JAX
• Senquez Golson, PIT
 
SELECT VETERAN NOTES
 
Defense
 
Arizona - S Tyrann Mathieu is at the apex of the IDP safety food chain, helped by a Josh Norman-like 2 INT, 1 TD game against SFs reeling, stumbling Colin Kaepernick a few weeks ago. He has regained his pre-leg injury burst and explosiveness, and always had the instincts and playmaking ability. CB Patrick Peterson has returned to a high level of play after struggling with undiagnosed diabetes in 2014. DE Calais Campbell is one of the best in the NFL at his position, All-Pro caliber. His monstrous length makes him a matchup nightmare, every Sunday is Halloween and more trick that treat for Arizona opponents. Kevin Minter has emerged as the ILB to own over free agent Sean Weatherspoon.        
 
Carolina - CB Josh Norman was already the NFC Defensive Player of the Month BEFORE his 2 INT, 1 TD outburst Sunday, so he could be on his way to a second consecutive award in October. He is one of the leading contenders for Defensive Player of the Year, with Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt. Charles Woodson (still going strong) was the last CB to win, nearly two decades ago for Oakland in 1998. A big reason - DB in general is a notoriously fickle position for consistent big play production (CB specifically is easy to avoid by QBs, taking their chances with the other side - in the upside down world of the position in IDP, good is bad, and bad is good). LB Thomas Davis has picked up the slack in the absence of Luke Kuechly's extended concussion-related absence, and is one of the highest scoring LBs. He signed a multi-year extension before the season, and continues to play at a high level at 32 (and despite THREE torn ACL injuries earlier in his checkered medical history).   
 
Chicago - LB Pernell McPhee flashed signs of breaking out in Baltimore, and parlayed that showcase to cashing in during free agency. So far, he has been worth every million, both active in run support (somewhat unusual for a 3-4 pass rushing OLB) and a relentless pass rusher. McPhee has been especially valuable in big play boosted scoring sytems, though not restricted to that scoring format.  
 
Cincinnati  - DT Geno Atkins has 3 sacks in his first four games, and is looking like the pre-torn ACL, circa 2012 All-Pro version. A return to form makes the Bengals a dangerous defense, and Atkins one of the two best pass rushing DTs in the league, with second year phenom Aaron Donald. As long as Andy Dalton remains on his red hot streak, that should continue to generate additional pass rushing opportunities throughout the season.  
 
Detroit - DE Ezekiel Ansah is enjoying a breakout season despite nagging injuries, and has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise, abysmal, forgettable season for the hapless Lions. Like in the Wizard of Oz, they are badly in need of courage, only there isn't a Yellow Brick Road in the Motor City.    
 
Indianapolis - LB D'Qwell Jackson, like Thomas Davis and Paul Posluszny, is part of the Tricenarian (30-39) demographic, and among the most productive at his position. Though being used primarily in base defense, and not an every down defender, his production is more than making up for this situational constraint. The Colts unexpected struggles on offense have contributed to Jackson being on the field a lot (as well as lack of a consistent pass rush). 
 
Jacksonville - LB Paul Posluszny, as noted above, is one of three of the top five scoring LBs that are 31+ (Thomas Davis and D'Qwell Jackson are 32). LB Telvin Smith is not having a soph slump season, and proving his rookie campaign wasn't a fluke. He is quickly emerging as one of the top WLBs and 4-3 OLBs in the game, overcoming understandable concerns about his safety-like, rail thin physical stature. SS Johnathan Cyprien was the first player taken on day two of the 2013 draft, and after a slow start to his career, is playing at a much higher level and looking like a definite keeper.       
 
Minnesota - The Vikings have some athletic UCLA LBs in 2014 top 10 overall pick Anthony Barr and 2015 second rounder Eric Kendricks (younger brother of Philadelphia ILB Mychal Kendricks). Both have long term top 10-20 upside and potential. S Harrison Smith looks like a serial Pro Bowler at his position.     
 
Oakland - LB Malcolm Smith has alway been athletic dating back to stints with Pete Carroll at USC and with the Seahawks (brother of former Trojan and Giants WR Steve Smith, he ran a 4.4 in college). The Super Bowl MVP split time with pass rusher Bruce Irvin, but has been turned loose in a full time role for the Raiders, and that is reflected in his massive production to start the season (around top 5, depending on scoring format).   
 
St. Louis - LB Alec Ogletree was leading the Rams in tackles and enjoying a Pro Bowl-type start to 2015, but a broken leg will shelve him for an extended period of time (if not the remainder of the season). DT Aaron Donald has 3.5 sacks through four games, which projects to 14 in 16 games. He already looks like one of the most explosive and natural pass rushing interior DL since HOFers John Randle and Warren Sapp. Donald has also been active in run support and behind the LOS with TFL plays, consistently grading out as the top DT (and DL period) in the game. The development of DT Michael Brockers can help take Donald's game to the next level, and vice verce. S T.J. McDonald is maturing into a leader in the secondary, and may be in line for more tackles in the absence of the voracious Ogletree. LB Akeem Ayers is on deck to replace Ogletree, but S Mark Barron is already situationally used like a LB in the three safety big nickel deployment, and could see an uptick in usage. CBs Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are both in contract years, and Jenkins particularly is playing at a very high level. Nickel CB Lamarcus Joyner is also making an impact, and has been increasingly turned loose in Gregg Williams unpredictable scheme. All three CBs are in the top 15-20 of some scoring formats. 
 
Scouting Profile
 
(from the 2015 Pre-Season TE Value Plays article)
 
Delanie Walker
 
Walker labored for years in relative obscurity as a blocking specialist counterpart to receiving TE Vernon Davis with the 49ers, but finally got a chance to shine with the Titans in 2013. After a 60-571-6 initial campaign in Tennessee, he significantly elevated his yardage last season (63-890-4). By all accounts, prized #2 overall QB Marcus Mariota is the real deal, but like many rookie signal callers when under duress, he may appreciate the safety valve intermediate route of the TE, and Walker will be the beneficiary.
 
Thanks for reading The Rookies, all questions and comments invited - magaw@footballguys.com
 
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