NFL Power Rankings: Ranking the 25 Best Rookies of 2011

John HickeyContributor IIJanuary 1, 2012

NFL Power Rankings: Ranking the 25 Best Rookies of 2011

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    It’s been a pretty good year for rookies in the NFL.

    The question now is, just how good?

    Given the impact of quarterback Cam Newton in Carolina, Von Miller in Denver and Aldon Smith in San Francisco, the answer would be very good indeed. The season would be much different without their contributions.

    Cincinnati would be an entirely different team without wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, who gave the Bengals an entirely new look and a chance to play for a playoff berth the final weekend of the season.

    Here's our list of the top 25 rookies in the NFL this season.

25. Marcus Gilbert, RT (Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    A second-round pick who wasn't expected to start, Marcus Gilbert has been pressed into service a year before expectations because of Pittsburgh's offensive line injuries.

    A starter in 13 games at right tackle coming into the final weekend, Gilbert was voted the Steelers' Rookie of the Year by his teammates, who have been impressed with his pass and run-blocking.

24. Tyron Smith, RT (Dallas Cowboys)

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    The first offensive lineman taken in the draft—and the ninth pick overall—Tyron Smith has been just what the Cowboys ordered.

    Smith has given up 7.5 sacks, which is more than Dallas would like, but part of that can be written off due to the fact that he was the youngest player taken in the draft and still has some learning to do.

23. Sam Acho, LB (Arizona Cardinals)

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    A fourth-round pick who wasn't being looked at as a quick fix, Sam Acho has nonetheless been a nice surprise for Arizona.

    Acho has six sacks, which is the most for a Cardinals rookie since Mark Smith had six back in 1997.

22. Adrian Clayborn, LB (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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    It's been a miserable season in Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers have had some bright spots—most notably linebacker Adrian Clayborn.

    Coming into the season finale, Clayborn accumulated 7.5 sacks, 29 solo tackles and he's forced three fumbles.

    At one point, Clayborn had at least a shared sack in five consecutive games.

21. Mike Pouncey, C (Miami Dolphins)

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    A year ago, Mike Pouncey’s older brother Maurkice was the class of the rookies on the offensive line for the Steelers.

    This year, Mike is following much the same path for the Dolphins. He's started every game this season at center, and the Miami offensive line has started to solidify around him.

20. Torrey Smith, WR (Baltimore Ravens)

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    Torrey Smith's issues hanging on to the ball for the Ravens haven't gone away, but he keeps getting better.

    And the fact is that when he does haul one in from quarterback Joe Flacco, it tends to be a big one. Smith is averaging 18.0 yards per catch, the best among rookie receivers and fifth among all pass-catchers this year.

19. Jason Kelce, C (Philadelphia Eagles)

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    To start his first training camp, Jason Kelce was a backup to Jamaal Jackson, which is about what you would expect from a sixth-round draft pick.

    But by the end of August Kelce had moved in to the starting lineup thanks to injuries, and he's started every game.

    By the end of the season, offensive line coach Howard Mudd was talking about Kelce being not just a starter but a star.

18. Randall Cobb, WR/KR (Green Bay Packers)

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    If he was to be judged just on his performance as a kick returner, Green Bay's Randall Cobb would be higher on this list.

    Cobb has averaged 11.3 yards on punt returns, 27.7 on kickoff returns and has scored one touchdown each way.

    He has yet to start a game for a Packers team that is deep enough to make him wait for his chance to play. Cobb made 25 catches, good for 15.0 yards per catch, and it seems only a matter of time before he forces his way into the starting lineup.

17. Titus Young, WR (Detroit Lions)

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    A second-round draft pick out of Boise State, Titus Young has played every game for Detroit, and he's started nine of those coming into the final weekend.

    As the Lions have gotten deeper into the season, Young has become an ever-more important part of their offensive plans. Utilizing both raw speed and quickness off the line, he's made 44 catches, including four touchdowns.

16. Colin McCarthy, LB (Tennessee Titans)

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    A fourth-round pick, Tennessee's Colin McCarthy began the season getting bit work for the Titans' defense.

    But McCarthy has gone on to force his way into the starting mix, and he's already won one AFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

    McCarthy supplanted the injured Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker and immediately began averaging about 10 tackles per start, and has also graduated to calling the defensive signals.

15. Roy Helu, RB (Washington Redskins)

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    A fourth-round draft pick who figured that his rookie season would be spent mostly watching and filling in where needed, Roy Helu of the Redskins has made an immediate impact on the Washington offense.

    Helu has played in all but one of the Redskins' games and has been a starter for five of those, as his performances have warranted more playing time.

    He's averaging 4.3 yards per carry and is showing himself to be a good outlet receiver as well.

14. Orlando Franklin, RT (Denver Broncos)

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    A second-rounder out of the University of Miami, Orlando Franklin has stepped right in with the Denver Broncos, helping to solidify the offensive line for quarterback Tim Tebow.

    Franklin has started every game this season and has gotten high marks from the Broncos' coaching staff for his improvement from September to January.

13. Ryan Kerrigan, LB (Washington Redskins)

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    Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan started his NFL career with Washington by intercepting a pass from Giants quarterback Eli Manning and returned it for a touchdown.

    And he hasn't let up.

    Kerrigan has been one of the stars for a troubled Redskins defense, forcing four fumbles and picking up 7.5 sacks while starting every game.

12. Julio Jones, WR (Atlanta Falcons)

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    It cost the Falcons $16 million to bring Julio Jones on board, and as expensive as the deal was, Atlanta is already seeing some return for its money.

    The Falcons have started Jones a dozen times in his first 15 games, and he's caught 50 passes for 17.7 yards per catch.

    That kind of dynamic performance has given quarterback Matt Ryan an extra option in the clutch.

11. J.J. Watt, DT (Houston Texans)

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    Houston looked to the draft to find a player who could change the defensive tempo of the team, and the Texans settled on J.J. Watt.

    Watt has been quite the find for the Texans. He has 47 solo tackles and came into the final weekend of the season with 5.5 sacks.

    More than that, Watt seems to be endlessly energetic, causing trouble for opposing offenses.

10. Nate Solder, RT (New England Patriots)

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    It took the Patriots a few games to get Solder a starting spot along the New England offensive line, but he's done nothing but get better.

    The 17th overall pick in the draft, Solder has the combination of athleticism and agility that makes him a serious challenge for defensive linemen and an invaluable asset for the Patriots.

9. Stefen Wisniewski, OG (Oakland Raiders)

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    Stefen Wisniewski’s father and uncle both played in the NFL, so the Oakland Raiders had high hopes for him when they made him their first pick last year—the 48th player taken overall since the Raiders did not have a first-round pick.

    The Raiders couldn't afford to make a mistake, and they didn't. Darren McFadden and Michael Bush have found they've been able to run behind Wisniewski, getting Oakland back into the running for a chance to play in the postseason coming into the season’s final week.

8. Patrick Peterson, CB (Arizona Cardinals)

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    The Arizona Cardinals were looking to upgrade their defensive backfield when they tabbed Patrick Peterson out of LSU with their first-round pick.

    There was some early inconsistency, but Peterson has picked off a couple of passes, recovered a couple of fumbles and generally made the Cardinals' pass-defense better by starting every game.

    On top of that, he's been an impact player on special teams, returning 40 punts for 15.9 yards on average—including four touchdown returns.

7. DeMarco Murray, RB (Dallas Cowboys)

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    It took the Cowboys until Week 7 of the season to find a way to start third-round draft pick DeMarco Murray.

    Murray has averaged 5.5 yards per carry, providing some necessary balance to the Dallas offense and taking some pressure off quarterback Tony Romo.

    Murray had 897 yards before an injury shut him down and denied him a chance to be a 1,000-yard rusher.

6. Marcell Dareus, DE (Buffalo Bills)

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    Making starts in all but one of Buffalo's games, Dareus has been on the outside in a 3-4 defensive setup, coming up with 42 tackles and 5.5 sacks as the Bills regained some defensive credibility.

    Dareus' size (6'3", 319 pounds) and quickness have allowed him to control the defensive line and force running backs to look elsewhere for yardage.

5. Andy Dalton, QB (Cincinnati Bengals)

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    Cincinnati's plan in drafting Andy Dalton was to give him a year or two to learn behind Carson Palmer.

    When Palmer refused to play any more for the Bengals, it was time for Dalton to learn on the job.

    It's been a struggle at times, but Dalton has guided the Bengals to nine wins entering the season's final weekend, throwing for 3,166 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    More than just putting together good stats, Dalton has become a team leader who displays poise and full-field vision.

4. A.J. Green, WR (Cincinnati Bengals)

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    The fourth overall pick in the draft, Green had a chance to struggle given the fact that he was being teamed with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.

    Instead, Green put together an outstanding rookie year. He came into the final week of the season with 63 catches good for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.

    More than that, Green's been a go-to receiver in the clutch for the Bengals—one reason Cincinnati was able to make a playoff push this year.

3. Aldon Smith, LB (San Francisco 49ers)

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    Smith has been not just one of the best rookie pass-rushers in the game but one of the best pass-rushers period.

    He came into the final weekend of the season with 14 sacks, becoming a major player for the NFC's best defense in the process.

    San Francisco was told Smith was raw when they used their first-round pick on him, but he's been anything but.

2. Von Miller, DE (Denver Broncos)

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    The Broncos came into the weekend with a chance to be in the playoffs as the AFC West champions thanks as much to their defense as to their quarterback.

    And with all respect to QB Tim Tebow, Miller's emergence has been as crucial to the Denver surge as any other factor.

    Miller came into the final weekend with 50 solo tackles and 11.5 sacks.

1. Cam Newton, QB (Carolina Panthers)

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    What is left to be said about a rookie quarterback who has gone where no rookie quarterback has gone before?

    Newton will get competition from Von Miller and Aldon Smith for Rookie of the Year, but he's got to be the favorite, with nearly 4,000 yards coming into the final weekend to go with 20 touchdowns in the air and 14 more on the ground.

    The Panthers have a quarterback they can build a franchise around.