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The Rookies: Week 7

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.

ROAD BLOCK

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) Todd Gurley, STL, RB, 21, 1.10, Georgia (6'1", 222)
(BYE AND 55-314-0 rushing, 3-20-0 receiving TOTAL)

Gurley is trying to become only the second rookie RB in NFL history to run for 140+ yards in three consecutive games. The other? Fellow Ram Eric Dickerson in 1983 (190+ first two games), with 533 yards rushing in that span, another rookie record. Gurley would need more than 228 rushing yards against the Browns to eclipse the Hall of Famer. He faces the Browns, who have struggled in run defense this season, at or near the bottom of the league in some stats. HC Jeff Fisher has shown he won't hesitate to feed the rookie, with 30 carries against the Packers in week 5. The Rams are only one game out of first place in the NFC West in the loss column, and have a chance to make some noise in the division by riding the electric running ability of their transcendentally talented rookie RB.

2) Amari Cooper, OAK, WR, 21, 1.4, Alabama (6'1", 210)
(BYE AND 28-386-2 receiving, 1-2-0 rushing TOTAL)

Cooper got off to an extremely hot start, and despite a four reception game for under 50 yards before the bye, is still pacing for 85+ receptions and 1,200+ yards, which would be an outstanding season for a rookie WR, even by the elevated standards of 2014. It will help his cause greatly if surrounding young skill position talent, such as second year QB Derek Carr, RB Latavius Murray and TE Clive Walford continue to develope, and vet free agent WR Michael Crabtree can provide a credible threat opposite him, so opposing defenses can't focus as much attention on him.

3) Jameis Winston, TB, QB, 21, 1.1, Florida State (6'4", 230)
(BYE AND 86/152-1,174-7 and 7 INTs, 20-62-1 rushing TOTAL)

Winston has been generally outplaying his primary competition for Rookie of the Year from the QB position, Marcus Mariota, since the dominant performance turned in by the latter in the Bucs and Titans opener against each other. He played in a more pro-ready scheme (seeing the whole field, throwing deep and with anticipation) so it wouldn't be a surprise if he turns the corner and becomes comfortable as a pro more quickly. The next step in his evolution is to get Mike Evans more involved, but for now, Winston seems to be throttling back some of his aggressive impulses and gunslinger tendencies in a concerted effort to take better care of the ball and minimize turnovers. The coaching staff could ask him to open up and take more chances later in the season.

4) David Johnson, ARI, RB, 23, 3.22, Northern Iowa (6'1", 225)
(3-9-0 rushing, 1-8-0 receiving AND 21-100-3 rushing, 10-145-2 receiving TOTAL)

Johnson has been turning heads all year, despite being part of a three headed monster at times in the Arizona backfield, which starts a rejuvenated Chris Johnson and also sports the fragile but talented Andre Ellington (who is in danger of being marginalized and quickly relegated to an afterthought). His explosiveness, multi-faceted skill set and complete, well rounded game have enabled him to be a consistent scoring threat (projecting for 13+ TDs). If/when he assumes a bigger role, which may be in 2016 as HC Bruce Arians is notoriously conservative with rookies, Johnson appears destined to emerge as one of the most versatile and dangerous backs in the league.

5) Marcus Mariota, TEN, QB, 21, 1.2, Oregon (6'4", 222)
(21/33-219-1 and 2 INTs AND 103/161-1,239-9 and 5 INTs, 10-72-0 rushing TOTAL)

Mariota has cooled off considerably since his incendiary start, as noted above. Unsurprisingly, his play has been much more "rookie-like" lately. He also suffered a knee sprain against Miami and was not practicing earlier in the week, so stay posted for his status closer to game time. HC Ken Whisenhunt (who could be on a coaching seat that is glowing white hot, having won only four of his last 33 games, dating back to Arizona) has employed an ultra-conservative, short passing game, but may need to take the training wheels off of Mariota soon, to prevent secondaries from crowding passing lanes close to the LOS. Unleashing the talented runner in that capacity could also stress opposing defenses, especially if he can do so smartly like Russell Wilson (though it didn't work out so good for Robert Griffin III).

6) Karlos Williams, BUF, RB, 22, 5.18, Florida State (6'1", 230)
(DNP AND 42-226-3 rushing, 5-46-1 receiving TOTAL)

Williams did not make the flight to London in week 7, and will alarmingly miss his third game in a row, due to lingering concussion symptoms (similar to Luke Kuechly earlier in the season, who has returned to the playing field). Before that time, he had a TD in every game, and was looking far more developed and much further along than advertised for a fifth round RB who played safety his first two seasons at Florida State (where he was one of the top recruits in the nation at that position). He will move further down the list in the near future if he remains unable to suit up. It would be remiss to not mention that Williams has been a very pleasant surprise when healthy, and has easily the lowest pedigree among the top 10 list on offense, by two rounds.

7) T.J. Yeldon, JAX, RB, 21, 2.4, Alabama (6'1", 226)
(DNP AND 81-291-0 rushing, 15-73-1 receiving TOTAL)

Yeldon has also been bitten by the injury bug (like the two falling rookies immediately above him), and is listed as questionable for the game in London, after missing last week. Between Eddie Lacy and Derrick Henry, he never had to carry the load at Alabama, so it remains to be seen how capable he is of withstanding the rigors and punishment of playing RB at the NFL level. Yeldon's standing on the list has been in part predicated on role and volume, so if he misses much time, he loses that advantage (relative to his rookie RB peers).

8) Ameer Abdullah, DET, RB, 22, 2.22, Nebraska (5'9", 205)
(14-48-0 rushing, 3-21-0 receiving AND 54-179-1 rushing, 13-113-1 receiving TOTAL)

Like Gordon below, Abdullah is at risk to fall off the list completely due to recent ineffectiveness in general, and fumbling specifically. Long term (also like Gordon) his prospects remain bright, but he has not followed up on early success, and is currently struggling, which could be a function of the same funk the Detroit offense as a whole has been in, until showing signs of life last week. TE Eric Ebron has been hurt for a few weeks and WR2 Golden Tate has struggled most of the season. If the passing game could click more consistently, that would help take some pressure off of Abdullah, and create more creases for him to get to the second level and do his thing in space.

9) Duke Johnson, CLE, RB, 22, 3.13, Miami (5'9", 205)
(9-28-0 rushing, 3-18-0 receiving AND 49-159-1 rushing, 24-190-1 receiving TOTAL)

Johnson is moving up after a slow start to the season, helped by the trade of 2014 third rounder Terrance West to the Titans, alleviating some backfield crowding. While not big, he has similar size to fellow gifted pass catching RBs Brian Westbrook and Giovani Bernard. Johnson has a high ceiling with a lot of upside, setting some rushing records at Miami (a.k.a. RB U, with Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, etc.).

10) Melvin Gordon, SD, RB, 22, 1.15, Wisonsin (6'1", 215)
(7-29-0 rushing AND 78-299-0 rushing, 13-86-0 receiving TOTAL)

See Abdullah above. Gordon has the most fumbles among all NFL RBs (not just rookies), and continued that negative trend by fumbling twice against the Packers last week, getting benched by halftime. The Chargers enter week 7 at 29th in the league in rushing (86.7 yards per game). Gordon has yet to score a TD, plus RB Danny Whitehead is playing well and not going away any time soon.

Standing on the Verge

• Jamison Crowder, WAS
• Stefon Diggs, MIN

Quarterback
• Garrett Grayson, NO
• Sean Mannion, STL
• Bryce Petty, NYJ
• Brett Hundley, GB

Running Back
• Tevin Coleman, ATL
• Thomas Rawls, SEA
• Matt Jones, WAS
• Jeremy Langford, CHI
• Javorious Allen, BAL
• Mike Davis, SF
• David Cobb, TEN
• Jay Ajayi, MIA
• Cameron Artis-Payne, CAR

Wide Receiver
• Tyler Lockett, SEA
• 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
• Ty Montgomery, GB
• Chris Conley, KC
• Sammie Coates, PIT
• 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)
(6 solo tackles, 1 INT AND 28 solo tackles, 3 assists, 3 INTs, 1 TD TOTAL)

Peters had another INT and big tackle game, so he has remained atop the CB (and DB) scoring leaders with his multi-talented skill set and complete game. The longer he continues to score prolifically and consistently, the more he will look like those rare exceptions at CB, such as Antoine Winfield, seemingly immune from productivity slumps. He will face stiff competition from the half of the top 10 Defensive Rookie of the Year list populated by the LB position.

2) Jordan Hicks, PHI, LB, 23, 3.20, Texas (6'2" 240)
(10 solo tackles AND 31 solo tackles, 6 assists, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF TOTAL)

Hicks has been on fire ever since being inserted into the starting lineup due to a rash of ILB injuries to the roster (Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks, as well as DeMeco Ryans rehabbing his second ruptured Achilles tendon). The injury bug may have bitten him, as well, as Hicks is dealing with a hamstring injury, like Kendricks, and may not play week 7. He has been making plays all over the field and filling up the box score with big plays, making up a lot of ground scoring-wise relative to his peers after effectively giving up a several game handicap at the start of the season. Hicks fell to the third round partly due to a checkered medical history in college, but was one of the top recruits at his position in the nation as a prep, and is flashing excellent athleticism, instincts, sideline-to-sideline range and coverage ability. Big upside based on talent and production, but long term role and usage is a massive question mark with fellow young, talented ILBs in Alonso and Kendricks also on the roster. It may not matter if Hicks continues to play at this high a level, it will be difficult to keep him off the field.

3) Hau'oli Kikaha, NO, LB, 23, 2.12, Washington (6'3", 245)
(6 solo tackles, 1 assist, 1 sack, 1 FF AND 23 solo tackles, 11 assists, 4 sacks, 3 FFs TOTAL)

Kikaha isn't particularly big, strong or fast, but all he does is continue to make plays, just like he did in college, when he led the FBS in sacks in 2014. He is a technician that gives maximal effort and relentlessly extends his opportunity to make a play on every snap. Kikaha has added to his total with seven big plays, easily the most among rookies, and is pacing for 10+ sacks and 8 FFs. Most 3-4 OLB pass rush specialists don't offer a lot in run support (and conversely, most 4-3 OLBs more adept in run support don't bring much to the table as pass rushers), but he is also projecting for 60+ solo tackles. With late first round ILB Stephone Anthony also moving up the list along with second rounder Kikaha, the Saints appear to have nailed their first two picks of the 2015 draft, with the intention of improving their defense long term with an influx of core young talent.

4) Ron Darby, BUF, CB, 21, 2.18, Florida State (5'1", 195)
(6 solo tackles AND 27 solo tackles, 2 assists, 2 INTs TOTAL)

Darby is exemplifying the rookie CB rule.

5) Eric Kendricks, MIN, LB, 23, 2.13, UCLA (6'0", 230) RISING
(9 solo tackles, 1 assist, 1 sack AND 26 solo tackles, 3 assists, 2 sack TOTAL)

Kendricks, somewhat like rookie RB Duke Johnson on offense above, benefited from an in-seaon trade (former starting MLB Gerald Hodges in this case). He may be more talented than his older brother Mychal in Philadelphia. The consensus pre-season favorite to be the leading rookie IDP if he had started immediately, Kendricks has the athleticism and skills to make up ground quickly in the remaining more than half of the regular season. Getting the well deserved starting gig cracked the door open, but ability is what will break it down like a battering ram. It will be somewhat of a surprise and disappointment if he doesn't quickly ascend to or near the top of this list in the next month or two.

6) Kwon Alexander, TB, LB, 21, 4.25, LSU (6'1", 227)
(BYE AND 18 solo tackles, 14 assists, 1 sack, 1 INT TOTAL)

"Master" Kwon had his bye week hiatus in week 6, but is ready to resume administering lessons in his inimitable martial arts stylings of go-on foo, to those opposing offenses that test his domain in the middle. The gridiron is his dojo. Alexander is the defensive counterpart to Karlos Williams on offense, as a very pleasant surprise representing the lowest pedigree (fourth round) among the top 10 on defense.

7) Stephone Anthony, NO, LB, 23, 1.31, Clemson (6'2", 245)
(4 solo tackles, 2 assists AND 27 solo tackles, 11 assists, 1 sack TOTAL)

See Kikaha above. Like Kendricks, he could quickly ascend the ladder (hopefully not Jacob's Ladder, which didn't work out well for Tim Robbins in the movie of the same name) in the remainder of the season, after a slow start. As noted before, Anthony was the first true ILB/MLB drafted, embodying the best confluence of *SIZE*, athleticism and talent at his respective position in the class of '15 (if not at the apex of the food chain when it comes to instinctiveness, arguaby the KEY trait or attribute most closely associated with long term LB success, where Kendricks, second rounder Denzel Perryman of San Diego and third rounder Paul Dawson of Cincinnati graded higher).

8) Landon Collins, NYG, S, 21, 2.1, Alabama (6'0", 215)
(4 solo tackles, 1 assist, 1 INT AND 26 solo tackles, 7 assists, 1 INT TOTAL)

Collins was easily the consensus top prospect from the 2015 safety class (though that is kind of like the hardest rocking ABBA song), and he hasn't disappointed. With close to WLB size roaming the deep patrol, he has perhaps been better than advertised in coverage. Mark Carrier drops off the list in 2016, as the last safety to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, a quarter of a century ago.

9) Henry Anderson, IND, DE, 22, 3.29, Stanford (6'6", 300)
(1 assist AND 17 solo tackles, 9 assists, 1 sack TOTAL)

Fading fast, after a monstrous start.

10) Vic Beasley, ATL, DE, 22, 1.8, Clemson (6'3", 245)
(2 solo tackles, 1 assist AND 10 solo tackles, 5 assists, 2 sack, 1 FF TOTAL)

See Anderson above. DL is a notoriously difficult position for rookies to excel at quickly (albeit the last two Defensive Rookie of the Year winners were Pro Bowl caliber DT Aaron Donald and DE Sheldon Richardson, and three of the last five, including struggling ex-Lion free agent DT Ndamukong Suh). While athletic freak is an overused term in a league chock full of them, it isn't an overstatement in Beasley's case, he has special talent. It is likely more a matter of when than if he is unleashed and begins to terrorize the NFC South. Game script-wise, the powerhouse offense favors his pass rushing strengths.

Standing on the Verge

• Benardrick McKinney, HOU
• Eddie Goldman, CHI

Defensive Tackle
• Danny Shelton, CLE
• Malcom Brown, NE
• Jordan Phillips, MIA
• Carl Davis, BAL

Defensive End
• Leonard Williams, NYJ
• Randy Gregory, DAL
• Mario Edwards, Jr., OAK
• Arik Armstead, SF
• Frank Clark, SEA
• Owa Odighizuwa, NYG
• Dannielle Hunter, MIN

Linebacker
• Shaq Thomson, CAR
• Preston Smith, WAS
• 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

Will return next time (two weeks), in expanded form, with a special column dedicated to the annual Age and Pedigree Analysis by Position, first for offense, followed by defense a month later.

Scouting Profile

(from the 2015 Pre-Season WR Value Plays article)

Alshon Jeffery

Jeffery has some parallels with A.J. Green of the Bengals. Jeffery is 1” shorter (6’3”), about 5 lbs. heavier (215 lbs.), and has similar field speed (ran a 4.45 at his pro day). Both have the elite body control and agility of much smaller players, and have been highly productive despite sub-optimal QB play. Green, for instance, has an NFL record 260 receptions in his first three seasons (2011-2013). Since 2013, though, Jefferey has quietly put up superior overall receiving numbers (174-2,554-17 compared to 167-2,467-17, albeit in three more games). In 2015, he enters the season for the first time, what is familiar territory for Green - #1 WR, and has upside on that situational basis. The Bears have a rebuilding defense and play in a division with serious offensive firepower (Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson), which could be a recipe for frequent shootouts and boosted production.

Thanks for reading The Rookies, all questions and comments invited - magaw@footballguys.com

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