Friday, January 02, 2015
December 31, 2014
By Mel Kiper Jr. | ESPN Insider
While the remarkable performance of the rookie class of wide receivers has drawn much of the attention in recent weeks, there's been significant impact all over. In fact, there are a few cases where a rookie wasn't just the best among first-year players, but also could hold an argument as the best player at his position across the NFL. And as we see every year, big-time performances came from up and down the draft board.
After you look at my picks for Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year, feel free to go back and look at my preseason picks for the All-Rookie team. I will say, just as I noted then, that opportunity often supersedes overall talent early on in an NFL career. If Carlos Hyde is in, say, Jacksonville to start the season, is he really waiting for carries behind Toby Gerhart in the way he did behind Frank Gore? Of course not.
With that in mind, let's hand out the hardware and also look at some close calls.
Defensive tackles: Aaron Donald, Rams; Justin Ellis, Raiders
I already went into detail on Donald above. Unfortunately after that the early returns on the rookie class are pretty lean, but that's understandable because it's rare to see exceptional play from interior defensive lineman from the rookie class. Ellis, a fourth-rounder out of Louisiana Tech, took advantage of an opportunity to get a good amount of reps on a team that was relatively thin up front and he played pretty well, particularly against the run. Ego Ferguson (Bears) and Ra'Shede Hageman (Falcons) also showed some things late in the season.
Defensive ends: Timmy Jernigan, Ravens; Stephon Tuitt, Steelers
I really believe a healthy Jadeveon Clowney lands here and would be among the top rookies were he healthy. But injury is the great disruptor in so many perfectly laid plans, and the defensive end class just doesn't offer much. A healthy Jernigan is going to be a good player -- he can clearly create penetration and disrupt against the both the run and pass -- but his inexperience showed this season. I give Tuitt in a 3-4 the slight edge over Kony Ealy in a 4-3, though Tuitt also has a lot of work to do.
Outside linebackers: Khalil Mack, Raiders; Aaron Lynch, 49ers
There are a few other guys to name here. Anthony Barr (Vikings) was outstanding and totally lived up to his draft slot, and Preston Brown was really great for a rookie in Buffalo. What I did was grab one 3-4 outside linebacker (Lynch) and one who played in a 4-3 (Mack). The other guy who should be in the mix is Trent Murphy of Washington. As for the leaders, Mack was easily one of the best players against the run in the NFL at any position; in fact, sometimes he seems to be totally unblockable, and his sack total is way lower than it could have been. And Lynch showed what we hoped he could be after his breakout freshman season in South Bend. Jonathan Newsome of the Colts was also in the mix.
Inside linebackers: C.J. Mosley, Ravens; Chris Borland, 49ers
Mosley was called into action right away and not only finished seventh in the NFL in total tackles with 133, he also showed the ability to cover, even if he was beat on occasion. Borland was simply a revelation. He didn't really see any playing time until Week 6, but once he did he excelled in every facet as the tackling machine he was at Wisconsin; he also managed to track pass-catchers and cover pretty well. The guy just has incredible instincts and proved that he should have gone far higher in the draft.
Cornerbacks: E.J. Gaines, Rams; Bene Benwikere, Panthers
A few mentions here: Undrafted K'Waun Williams was really good for the Browns -- far more valuable than top-10 pick Justin Gilbert -- but he just wasn't on the field as often as the leaders. And I think Jason Verrett is in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year if he'd played the whole season. He was really impressive when he did play. Gaines was just really impressive throughout the season and will go into 2015 as the top CB on the Rams. And Benwikere proved he was an absolute steal in the fifth round.
Safeties: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers; Calvin Pryor, Jets
Clinton-Dix wasn't perfect, but he got better as the season went on and has become a player the Packers don't take off the field. Pryor had his share of struggles -- mainly in coverage -- but he also came on more as the season went on, and in both cases you can see a long-term starter. I also considered Deone Bucannon (Cardinals), but he could be a little better coming downhill against the run. Tre Boston and Dezmen Southward were also in the mix, but a little short on snaps.
Punter: Pat O'Donnell, Bears
Hey, I'll take it: another preseason pick that worked out. O'Donnell can be better -- the 37.7 net average isn't particularly impressive -- but he tops the group.
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