Ranking the Top 50 Rookies of the 2011 NFL Regular Season
The 2011 NFL Draft produced several great rookies, and even a record-setting quarterback. Players like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton far exceeded expectations, making this one of the better rookie classes in recent memory.
Newton grabbed most of the headlines, but Von Miller and A.J. Green also had outstanding seasons. There are more than 10 rookies that showed All-Pro potential, and that number could increase over time.
This draft also featured a few disappointments, including Jimmy Smith, Gabe Carimi and Blaine Gabbert. It is way to early to start talking bust, but there are some concerns surrounding these prospects.
No. 50: Henry Hynoski, New York Giants
Stats: 12 receptions, 83 yards
Henry Hynoski's contributions can't be found in the stat sheet. He is the lead blocker for high-producing backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. The emergence of Hynoski was an important part of the New York Giants offense.
During the offseason, the Giants decided to cut ties with their other fullbacks and go with Hynoski. He is the future at the position.
No. 49: Brian Rolle, Philadelphia Eagles
Stats: 51 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
At the beginning of the season, everyone felt Casey Matthews would be the rookie linebacker to make a splash for the Philadelphia Eagles. However, after several unimpressive performances Matthews was replaced in the lineup by Brian Rolle.
Rolle's instincts and coverage ability made an instant impact. He might not have a future as a true starting linebacker, but he could be a great nickelback.
No. 48: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
Stats: 54.3 percent completion, 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions
Christian Ponder's rookie season wasn't a major success, but there were some signs for success. A lot of the Minnesota Vikings' struggles had to do with the limited talent surrounding Ponder. The offensive line wasn't able to provide protection, and the receiver corps lacked elite playmakers.
If the Vikings want to see Ponder succeed they need to spend the offseason upgrading the offensive talent. Ponder still needs some time to develop, but he has a bright future.
No. 47: Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
Stats: 51 catches, 788 yards and 4 touchdowns
Doug Baldwin could easily contend with Marshawn Lynch for the Seattle Seahawk's offensive MVP. His emergence helped them overcome the injury to Sidney Rice and inconsistent play of Mike Williams. The fact that he was an undrafted free agent only increases his value.
The Seahawks have to feel good about the future of their receiving corps. With Rice and Williams/Tate on the outside and Baldwin in the slot this team has plenty of weapons.
No. 46: Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Stats: 26 receptions, 249 yards, 3 touchdowns
Kyle Rudolph is the future at the tight end position for the Minnesota Vikings. He slowly started to take snaps away from the incumbent Visanthe Shiancoe by the end of the season. Rudolph's ability to stretch the field and make plays in the passing game will help the development of Christian Ponder.
A full offseason will really allow Ponder and Rudolph to further develop their relationship. Tight ends are often called a security blanket for the quarterback, and Rudolph has shown the ability to fill that role.
No. 45: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Stats: 48 tackles, 3 sacks
The New York Jets drafted Muhammad Wilkerson to step in and play the 5-technique position. This is a tough position for a rookie to play, as it requires him to play a dual role. Wilkerson did a great job this season, holding strong against the run while also creating some pressure.
Wilkerson's best football is still ahead of him, and from what he has shown there isn't anything hinting that he won't hit that potential.
No. 44: Jason Pinkston, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 16 starts
Jason Pinkston wasn't expected to step in and start from day one. However, he was able to surprise many and win the starting job. His presence brought stability and toughness to the offensive line. The Cleveland Browns can head into next season feeling good about Pinkston.
At the very least, he provides depth along the offensive line. Depth and versatility is very important as a team works through the grueling NFL schedule.
No. 43: Bruce Miller, San Francisco 49ers
Stats: 8 rushing yards; 11 receptions, 83 yards, 1 touchdown
While at Central Florida, Bruce Miller lined up at defensive and did a great job creating pressure. Opposing teams knew that on every play Miller would give 100 percent effort. Despite his production at defensive end, the San Francisco 49ers felt he had a brighter future at fullback.
Miller made a smooth adjustment to fullback and is now a major part of the 49ers offense. His effort and toughness allows him to deliver excellent lead blocks. Miller also contributes on special teams, and is just an all-around team player.
No. 42: T.J. Yates, Houston Texans
Stats: 61.2 percent completion, 949 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions
When the Houston Texans selected T.J. Yates they didn't expect he would see the field any time soon. However, the injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart forced Yates into early action. The Texans couldn't have made a better selection.
Yates spent his entire college career dealing with and overcoming controversy. The best example of his leadership is the way he handled the wide-spread suspensions during his senior season at North Carolina.
The fact that Yates is completing over 60 percent of his passes provides some hope for playoff success.
No. 41: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Stats: 4 interceptions, 55 tackles
Richard Sherman use to play wide receiver at Stanford, and that is why he possesses such good ball skills. His four interceptions this season weren't a fluke, and Seattle Seahawks fans can expect more to come.
He doesn't only possess good ball skills, his size also comes in handy. It allows Sherman to play close to the line and disrupt the timing of the route. Because of his play this season, he has a future in the Seahawks defensive secondary.
No. 40: Chris Conte, Chicago Bears
Stats: 31 tackles, 1 interception
The Chicago Bears' safety position has been a revolving door the past few seasons. They have seen the likes of Danieal Manning, Brandon Meriweather and Kevin Payne in the starting lineup. Chris Conte showed enough this season to make some believe that he might be the long-term solution.
Lovie Smith wants his defense to create turnovers, and Conte showed the ability to find the football. Conte also fits Smith's system because of his speed and range.
No. 39: Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
Stats: 50 percent completion, 2,214 yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions
Blaine Gabbert's rookie season didn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence. However, he was thrown into the mix before he was ready. Gabbert entered the draft needing some time to sit and learn, but management's decision to cut David Garrard forced the issue.
The Jacksonville Jaguars wide receivers didn't exactly provide Gabbert with any help. Gabbert is the future in Jacksonville, and management needs to surround him with more explosive weapons.
No. 38: Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
Stats: 25 receptions, 375 yards, 3 touchdowns (1 punt return, 1 kick return)
Randall Cobb made an instant impact, with a long kick return for a touchdown in the first game of the season. He went on to provide several more explosive plays throughout the course of the season. The Green Bay Packers did their best to work him into the rotation, but snaps were limited.
Cobb had to battle with Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings for targets. His production is actually very impressive considering this limited opportunities.
No. 37: Delone Carter, Indianapolis Colts
Stats: 101 carries, 377 yards, 2 touchdowns
Delone Carter was one of the few bright spots this season for the Indianapolis Colts. He provided them with a tough runner, capable of gaining yards between the tackles. Carter showed the ability to gain yards even when there was very little running room.
Moving forward, the Colts found themselves a powerful runner, who will complement their other backs. Indianapolis' offense might look very different next season, with Andrew Luck likely taking over at quarterback. A steady runner like Carter will have a role next season.
No. 36: Colin McCarthy, Tennessee Titans
Stats: 68 tackles, 1 interception,1 forced fumble (two 10-tackle games)
Colin McCarthy was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl, which helped him raise his draft stock. Many felt he had a great chance to develop into a starting middle linebacker, and the Tennessee Titans agreed with that assessment.
An injury to Barrett Ruud offered McCarthy an opportunity to shine. He finished the season on a high note, and seemed to lockup the starting role. Ruud is a free agent after the season, and it seems unlikely he will return.
No. 35: Nate Solder, New England Patriots
Stats: 13 starts
Nate Solder's size and athleticism have allowed him to step in and make an immediate impact. He has had some ups and downs, but his play really helped the New England Patriots. Offensive line depth plays an important role, as most teams suffer at least one major injury throughout the season.
Solder also provides the Patriots with a long-term answer at left tackle. At age 33, Matt Light's career is starting to come to an end.
No. 34: Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
Stats: 12 tackles, 1 sack
Nick Fairley's injuries limited the amount of playing time he received during his rookie year. However, he still found a way to make an impact. When on the field, Fairley showed the explosiveness that made him a first-round pick.
His ability to penetrate the pocket allowed him to disrupt the timing of the offense. Fairley's impact doesn't show on the stat sheet, but he did provide plenty of big plays.
No. 33: Chris Hairston, Buffalo Bills
Stats: 7 starts
The Buffalo Bills offensive line suffered a ton of injuries this season, which propelled rookie Chris Hairston into the lineup. His ability to fill in at both left and right tackle helped salvage some of the season.
Long term, Buffalo can pencil Hairston in at right tackle for next season, but its nice to know he can fill in on the left side if needed. This will allow them Bills to focus on adding someone to the left side.
No. 32: Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
Stats: 53 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
The Tennessee Titans got some good production out of their later-round selections, and Jurrell Casey might have provided the biggest spark. He started 15 games this season and did a good job solidifying the interior of the defensive line.
His ability to both stuff the run and collapse the pocket helped the effectiveness of the defense. The steady play of Casey will allow the Titans to address other positions of need.
No. 31: Danny Watkins, Philadelphia Eagles
Stats: 12 starts
Andy Reid loves to draft interior linemen, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Danny Watkins is one of many picks Reid used to upgrade the offensive line. His season didn't start off great, but after a few growing pains Watkins improved.
Watkins isn't a flashy player, but provides solid play. As the season progressed, he gained more and more confidence. This allowed him to improve and lockup a long-term starting role.
No. 30: Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins
Stats: 165 carries, 581 yards, 0 touchdown; 12 receptions, 72 yards, 1 touchdown
At the beginning of the season it appeared like Daniel Thomas would be the Miami Dolphins' featured back. However, injuries opened the door for Reggie Bush to secure most of the carries. Thomas was able to return to the lineup and put together a solid rookie season.
His powerful running style is a nice complement to the more shifty Bush. Moving forward, Thomas should continue to receive more and more carries.
No. 29: Roy Helu, Washington Redskins
Stats: 151 carries, 640 yards, 2 touchdowns; 49 receptions, 379 yards, 1 touchdown
Mike Shanahan's tendency to rotate his running backs makes it difficult to predict production. However, Roy Helu was able to land 151 carries despite missing time with injuries. He showed the ability to both run between the tackles and break off long runs.
His 49 receptions shows he doesn't need to come off the field in passing situations. With a strong training camp, Helu could force Shanahan to give him the majority of the carries.
No. 28: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Stats: 122 carries, 474 yards, 5 touchdowns; 11 receptions, 46 yards
Mark Ingram's production takes a hit because of the New Orleans Saints focus on the passing game. However, he made great use of the opportunities he was provided. One of the reasons the Saints wanted to add Ingram was because of his short-yardage ability.
Ingram's five touchdowns show he was an effective runner in the red zone. Moving forward, I expect to see Sean Payton find ways to get Ingram more involved in the game plan.
No. 27: Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stats: 42 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Adrian Clayborn is more than a pass-rushing defensive end. He also does a great job setting the edge against the run. His 7.5 sacks this season shows he is more than capable of consistently generating a pass rush.
Clayborn received most of the attention along the defensive line, as he was the most dangerous playmaker. The more weapons added to the defensive line the more Clayborn will make his presence known.
No. 26: Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh Steelers
Stats: 13 starts
Marcus Gilbert is one of the few offensive linemen the Pittsburgh Steelers haven't had to replace this season. He provided solid and reliable play on the right side of the line. At this point, the Steelers are just looking for healthy contributors.
Gilbert might be better suited to play guard, but he more than held his own at tackle. Moving forward, his versatility will be a real asset in Pittsburgh.
No. 25: Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 61 receptions, 709 yards, 2 touchdowns
Greg Little quietly had a very nice rookie season. His ability to shake off the rust from his lost season at North Carolina was very impressive. The Cleveland Browns lack top-end offensive playmakers, which only increased the attention on Little.
Little's struggles with drops hurt his ranking. He could have added about 12 more catches to his total, which would have made him the top pass-catching rookie.
No. 24: Titus Young, Detroit Lions
Stats: 48 receptions, 607 yards, 6 touchdowns
Titus Young's ability to find the end zone really helped take some pressure off Calvin Johnson. His speed forced the opposing defense to constantly be aware of his presence. The combination of Young, Johnson, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew helped the Detroit Lions earn a playoff berth.
The next step for Young is to find more consistency. At times, his effort and focus led to missed opportunities.
No. 23: William Rackley, Jacksonville Jaguars
Stats: 14 starts
William Rackley made a quick adjustment from lower-level college competition to starting NFL guard. His presence along the line brought stability and toughness. The Jacksonville Jaguars offensive line really struggled with injuries this season, which made Rackley's performance even more important.
Jacksonville can only hope his consistency starts to rub off on the rest of the offensive line. It is possible the Jaguars target more interior offensive linemen to surround Rackley with, who has the potential to be a leader.
No. 22: Orlando Franklin, Denver Broncos
Stats: 16 starts
The combination of Orlando Franklin and Ryan Clady gives the Denver Broncos an excellent tackle tandem. Their success is part of the reason the Broncos were able to develop an offense around quarterback Tim Tebow.
Franklin's physical play allows him to generate a push off the line. The Broncos' run-heavy offense requires the offensive linemen to win the battle in the trenches.
No. 21: Mason Foster, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stats: 83 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception
I consider Mason Foster to be one of the biggest seals of the draft. His quick transition to starting middle linebacker really showed his versatility. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers found themselves a real gem who will be a major contributor for years to come.
Foster started all but two games this season, which kept him from making a run at a 100-tackle season. Tampa should consider adding a middle linebacker and shift Foster outside, where he is a better fit.
No. 20: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
Stats: 16 starts
The Oakland Raiders are mocked for their obsession for speed. However, their first pick last year went against that strategy. Instead, they drafted Stefen Wisniewski, who brought some stability to the interior of the offensive line.
Wisniewski stepped in as the immediate starter at left guard, but also filled in at center. His long-term position is likely center, but his versatility is a major asset.
No. 19: Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals
Stats: 40 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles
Sam Acho dropped a little on draft day because he didn't have a defined position. Some questioned if he would be able to make the adjustment to outside linebacker. However, he more than proved himself capable of handling the adjustment.
Acho filled a major need for the Arizona Cardinals by giving them someone capable of creating pressure off the edge. His seven sacks put him among the top pass-rushers in the rookie class.
No. 18: Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Stats: 50 receptions, 841 yards, 7 touchdowns
For years, the Baltimore Ravens offense lacked an explosive wide out capable of stretching the field. This lack of a deep threat resulted in the selection of Torrey Smith. Smith's exceptional speed allows him to outpace the defense and make plays down the field.
He averaged more than 16 yards per catch, which ranked him in the top 15 in the entire NFL. Opposing defenses have learned to respect his speed, providing more room for Ray Rice and the running game.
No. 17: Brooks Reed, Houston Texans
Stats: 45 tackles, 6 sacks
Brooks Reed's numbers might not be as eye-popping as some other rookies, but his impact is felt in other ways. His ability to step in and replace Mario Williams really helped this defense remain of the the NFL's best. Filling the shoes of Williams isn't a easy task for a rookie.
Reed only started 11 games this season, which impacted his sack total. The Houston Texans will have a tough decision to make during the offseason. Reed's play may allow them to consider letting Williams leave in free agency.
No. 16: Phil Taylor, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 59 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble
The Cleveland Browns asked Phil Taylor to play multiple roles this season. At times, they expected him to occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to pursue. Other times, Taylor was asked to get upfield and penetrate the pocket.
D'Qwell Jackson's 158 tackles shows the interior of the defensive line did a great job occupying the offensive line. Moving forward, I expect to see Taylor focus on penetrating the pocket and disrupting the timing of the offense.
No. 15: Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
Stats: 16 starts
Most NFL teams spend years trying to find a top-level center. This position is more important than most realize, as he is the leader/communicator for the offensive line. Mike Pouncey was able to step in and fill that role for the Miami Dolphins.
With Pouncey and Jake Long, Miami has the two most important line positions filled. The Dolphins are likely to target a quarterback in the upcoming draft, and having a star center will help with his transition.
No. 14: Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins
Stats: 63 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles
Most 3-4 defenses feature one great pass-rushing outside linebacker. That one player always receives a ton of attention, making it harder for him to create pressure. The Washington Redskins decided to solve that problem by adding two top-notch pass-rushers.
The combination of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo registered 16.5 sacks. Their ability to create pressure really helped take the Redskins defense to another level. Moving forward, opposing offenses need to gameplan for both Kerrigan and Orakpo.
No. 13: Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 55 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles
The Cleveland Browns decision to transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 system meant they needed to add some new players. Drafting Jabaal Sheard filled one of the Browns' major needs: a pass-rushing defensive end.
Sheard's quickness off the ball allowed him to register 8.5 sacks, ranking him in the top 30 among NFL pass-rushers. His production this season makes many believe he can consistently produce double-digit sack numbers.
No. 12: K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks
Stats: 65 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
The emergence of K.J. Wright allowed the Seattle Seahawks to part ways with Aaron Curry. The fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State plays with great intensity, using his instincts and quickness to make plays sideline to sideline.
Wright didn't crack the starting lineup until Week 4, but earned more and more playing time each week. The Seahawks got a real steal and a long-term starter.
No. 11: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Stats: 54 receptions, 959 yards, 8 touchdowns
The only reason Julio Jones missed out on a 1,000-yard season is because of injuries. He did exactly what the Atlanta Falcons expected when they traded up to add him. His ability to stretch the field and provide explosive plays drew attention away from Roddy White.
His leaping ability and size provided Matt Ryan with an excellent red-zone target. The injuries are a concern, with some feeling he might be injury prone. Those question marks are what drops his stock in this ranking.
No. 10: Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills
Stats: 43 tackles, 5.5 sacks
All of Marcell Dareus' impact cannot be found in the stat sheet. His ability to eat up space helped the linebacking corps to cleanly flow to the football. However, his ability to push the pocket and create pressure are what separate him from other nose tackles.
The addition of Dareus gives the Buffalo Bills a solid defensive line to build around. Dareus, Kyle Williams and Dwan Edwards have the potential to be a true special unit.
No. 9: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 164 carries, 898 yards, 2 touchdowns; 26 receptions, 183 yards
DeMarco Murray's stint as the Dallas Cowboys starting running back was short-lived but very successful. He took advantage of his seven starts by nearly compiling 900 rushing yards. His Week 6 253-yard performance against the St. Louis Rams was one of the most electrifying all season.
Murray has an excellent chance to break camp next season as the starting running back. Felix Jones hasn't shown the durability needed to lock down a starting job in the NFL.
No. 8: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Stats: 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks
A lot has been made about Wade Phillips impact on the Houston Texans defense. There is no doubt his scheme sparked this great turnaround. However, the addition of J.J. Watt has played an equal role in the defensive improvement.
Watt's ability to both set the edge against the run and provide pressure is a major asset. Opposing offenses need to gameplan around him.
No. 7: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 16 Starts
Tyron Smith is the youngest player in the NFL, but that doesn't mean he is intimidated. His quick development played a large part in the Dallas Cowboys' success this season. He played so well that many feel he will open next year as the starting left tackle, forcing Doug Free to the right side.
Smith's fluid movements and balance allow him to shut down most pass-rushers. His use of leverage helps him drive defenders off the line and open running lanes. Smith is a complete player and has a very bright future.
No. 6: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Stats: 64 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 4 punt return touchdowns
Patrick Peterson isn't your typical defensive back. His ability to make game-changing plays in the return game separates him from other talented cover guys. During Week 8's matchup against the St. Louis Rams, Peterson pulled off an exceptional 99-yard game-winning punt return. That play might be the play of the year in the NFL.
Peterson isn't only a return man, he also does a great job in coverage. His skills as a cover man are still developing, but he has flashed lockdown potential.
No. 5: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Stats: 65 receptions, 1,057 yards, 7 touchdowns
Outside the quarterback position, A.J. Green was the most explosive offensive rookie this season. He made plays all over the field,and is a major reason the Cincinnati Bengals are in the playoffs. Green's presence also helped the development of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
It wasn't easy but Green allowed the people of Cincinnati to quickly forget the controversial Chad Ochocinco. He actually outperformed Ochocinco's last three seasons as a Bengal, without all the unwanted attention.
No. 4: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Stats: 37 tackles, 14 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Aldon Smith finished the season tied for fifth in the league with 14 sacks. His ability to create pressure is one of the man reasons for the San Francisco 49ers' defensive turnaround. Last season, this defense struggle to create pressure and the entire unit was less effective.
Smith still needs to improve his ability to stop the run, which is why he comes in at No. 4 on this list. However, it is safe to say his selection was the right move for the 49ers.
No. 3: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Stats: 58.1 percent completion, 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns, 13 interceptions
Not many rookie quarterbacks can say they led their team to the playoffs. That number shrinks significantly when that quarterback is taking over a team that only won four games the previous season. Andy Dalton's play this season is absolutely the main reason for the Cincinnati Bengals' playoff berth.
His ability to move the offense while protecting the football is very impressive. Factor in that his top target is also a rookie and his stats are even more impressive. The future in Cincinnati is very bright, thanks to the quick development of Andy Dalton.
No. 2: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Stats: 64 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 tackles for loss
Most see Von Miller as a pass-rush specialist, but he is a complete linebacker. His ability to hold up against the run and drop into coverage is what makes him a great all-around player. However, his ability to create pressure is what makes him special.
The Denver Broncos defense is significantly better because of Miller. He gives the defense an explosive playmaker, capable of changing the course of the game on any given play. Every team in the NFL would love to have a player like Miller on their roster.
No. 1: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Stats: 60 percent completion, 4,051 yards, 21 touchdowns, 17 interceptions; 706 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns
Cam Newton's offensive numbers are absolutely outstanding, and a lot more than anyone expected. He quickly proved a lot of his doubters wrong, with back-to-back 400-yard passing performances. His ability to quickly develop as a passer is what has everyone so excited.
Stats are one thing, but his 4-2 finish to the season showed he was slowly learning how to win. Leading this Carolina Panthers team to six wins wasn't an easy task. This roster still needs to add a lot more talent. However, having Newton in place fills the most important piece to the puzzle.
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