Power Ranking the NFL's Top 50 Rookies at the Midseason Mark
The 2012 NFL regular season is nearing the halfway mark, which means you, the NFL fan, are about to be inundated with lists and power rankings analyzing the performance of everything from head coaches to water boys throughout all 32 NFL franchises.
In that vein, I thought I'd get a jump on things and present you with my take on the 50 rookies who have made the greatest impact on their respective teams at the midway point of the season.
I have no doubt one or two of my omissions will enrage certain fanbases, and I have undoubtedly ranked too low for some folks, while others will be clearly ranked too high in your opinion.
I look forward to your reasoned and respectful takes—and to being told it's obvious I don't watch football.
50. Miles Burris, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
Burris became an every-down player two weeks ago against the Atlanta Falcons when he took over for Rolando McClain in the nickel defense. This past Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars marked Burris' second week in a row taking every defensive snap. It also saw the rookie register seven solo tackles as well as his first NFL sack.
It's been pretty apparent from the moment Burris took the field that the Raiders' defense feeds off the rookie's energy and tenacity.
As cliched as it is to say, Burris truly gets better each and every week he takes the field. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was dealt a tough hand in his first draft as the man in charge of football operations in Oakland, but with the 129th selection in last April's draft, McKenzie found a player.
49. Kelechi Osemele, Offensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens
Carted off the field during the first half of last Sunday's game down in Houston, Kelechi Osemele avoided serious injury when what was thought to be a broken right ankle turned out to be a much less serious sprain.
That said, it's certainly a serious blow for a Ravens offense that had been figured to carry a team that has sustained a well-publicized rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball.
Osemele's play, while not exactly a revelation, had been a boon for a team that entered the offseason with lots of questions along the offensive line. The rookie is unquestionably (to my way of thinking) playing out of position at right tackle and would be better suited inside at guard. But his overall play, though maddeningly inconsistent from week to week, had shown glimpses of real promise prior to his injury.
48. Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, Buffalo Bills
"I want 11"
No. 11 on the Cardinals, of course, is all-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. While the Bills didn't match their rookie cornerback up with Fitzgerald wherever he went, perhaps they should have. The Cardinals targeted him five times with Gilmore in coverage, producing all of one catch for 14 yards.
While Gilmore has had his share of rookie ups and downs, he is a bright spot on an underachieving Bills defense.
47. Mychal Kendricks, Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Much has been written about the firing of Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, with a lot of attention being paid to what the second-year coordinator did or did not do when it came to calling a defense.
What has gone mostly unsaid is there are many players on the defensive side of the ball for the Eagles, Kendricks being a prime example, who started the year playing extremely well and whose performance has fallen off precipitously in the weeks leading up to the Eagles' bye week.
Yes, Kendricks belongs on this list even after two rather dismal games against the Steelers and Lions. But the promise still shined through in those performances. One has to wonder if an increased snap count has led to the recent dip in performance. If Kendricks can get back to playing the way he was the first three weeks of the season, the sky is the limit for the athletically gifted California product.
46. Amini Silatolu, Guard, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have been struggling on offense, and the inconsistent play of the offensive line is partly to blame. One component of that line, rookie guard Amini Silatolu, has played well overall.
He did struggle against the Seahawks' extremely talented defensive front, but for the most part, he has acquitted himself well, especially when asked to pass protect.
Silatolu and his line mates would be severed by a bit of an adjustment to a more traditional offense—he has looked overwhelmed at times on some of the read-option plays, but overall, the Panthers, and their fans, have to be pleasantly surprised at how consistently the rookie has played up to this point in the season.
45. Kendall Reyes, Defensive End, San Diego Chargers
Reyes started the year off with a bang, playing by far his best, not to mention most complete, game in the opener against the Raiders. Since then, he has been chasing that performance with weeks that see him able to generate a bit of a push while trying to help collapse the pocket, and weeks that see him completely stonewalled, even against lesser competition.
This was the knock on Reyes coming out of Connecticut. While occasionally flashing rare athletic ability in college, he spent stretches of games and even seasons on the side of a metaphorical milk carton.
His Week 3 performance against the Atlanta Falcons was probably his low point. He should have been able to win more than he lost in the one-on-one matchups he was presented with in that game, and instead spent the afternoon being dominated.
The key for the remainder of this season will be for the Chargers to get a consistent effort from their promising, but underachieving second-round pick.
44. Derek Wolfe, Defensive End, Denver Broncos
I'm sure there are some Broncos fans that might feel this is too low a ranking for Wolfe. The rookie has a sack in each of his last two games and has played well. The Broncos' staff has done a good job of moving Wolfe around the line, mixing and matching personnel groupings, especially on obvious passing downs.
But it's precisely that last part that makes me think we could and should see a lot more from Wolfe than what we've gotten up to this point.
Looking at the tape, he is afforded a great many one-on-one looks when rushing the passer, many times thanks to the presence of both Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. But if Wolfe is unable to win with his initial step or burst off the line, he is easily shut down by opposing pass-protectors.
Here's hoping Wolfe develops a few more moves and concentrates on honing his pass-rushing technique during the second half of the season.
43. Bryan Anger, Punter, Jacksonville
Yes, "Punters are people, too," as our friend Rich Eisen is fond of saying, and Anger certainly qualifies as both a person and a top-50 rookie so far this season.
Fans of the NFL draft most likely remember Anger more for Eisen's outburst during NFL Network's live coverage of his selection than for what he's done on the football field, and that's a shame because he has been quite good thus far in 2012.
Setting aside the question of whether it's wise to select a punter so high in the draft, Anger has made the argument at least seem worth having with the job he's done so far in 2012.
42. Frank Alexander, Defensive End, Carolina Panthers
Frank Alexander may be an anonymous fourth-round pick outside of Panthers circles, but the rookie out of Oklahoma has been quietly putting together a promising season for Carolina and head coach Ron Rivera.
While not a physical freak, Alexander works with the tools he has and does a great job of maximizing what advantage he can gain from technique. Whether it's ripping under an attempted reach block in Atlanta or wrecking Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith with his hands, Alexander is already able to come at opponents in a variety of ways.
The one game where he truly struggled was against the Seahawks, where the offense just lined up and fired out at him play after play. As much as good technique can help a player, being road-graded over and over again can dull anyone's approach. He needs a decent offseason working on his core and lower body strength, but the Panthers have to be thrilled with what they've seen so far.
41. Vick Ballard, Running Back, Indianapolis Colts
With starting running back Donald Brown out for the second straight week with an injured knee, Ballard received 20 carries this past Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Ballard ran for 84 yards, giving interim head coach Bruce Arians a little more confidence in the running game.
When Brown comes back, which could happen as soon as this weekend, the Colts will have a more diverse running game to complement their first overall pick, quarterback Andrew Luck.
Ballard seems to be the kind of back that gets stronger the more he gets the ball, and he has certainly stood out late in games, much like when he ripped off a 26-yard gain to effectively kill most of the clock against the Browns.
Whatever the distribution within the Colts backfield, look for Ballard to figure in prominently as the year goes on.
40. Brandon Weeden, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
Maybe I'm being too hard on Weeden. He has improved over the course of his rookie year, his receivers constantly let him down with drive-killing drops, and his head coach and play-caller is running a brutally generic West Coast offense that has to have defensive coordinators laughing when they pop in the tape.
But when a team trades back into the first round of the draft to take a quarterback who is set to turn 29 during his rookie year (Weeden celebrated his 29th birthday by leading his team to its only win so far in 2012), the quarterback in question has to deliver from day one.
Weeden has done anything but.
His reads have been slow, as has his decision making. He has some tools and can play quarterback in this league. I'm just not sure he'll ever be anything more than a marginal starter.
39. Jerron McMillian, Safety, Green Bay Packers
McMillian should probably be ranked higher here, but I don't want my biases, both real and perceived, to take away from how good this kid is.
The rest of the NFL will probably be getting a look at how well the rookie safety out of Maine has been playing now that the Packers have lost Charles Woodson for an extended period of time. McMillian had been used much less the last two weeks, but you can be sure defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be getting him on the field in several of the team's sub packages. There's a chance he could even take over in base.
However he ends up being used, McMillian is an ascending player; a tough, instinctual defender who takes good angles and is rarely caught out of position, which is a boon for a team that suffered from brutal safety play at times in 2011.
38. Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
It has to be hard for Riley Reiff to know that it's only a matter of time before he's starting on the Lions' offensive line. The swing tackle has played well when given the opportunity.
His best game was, without question, in Philadelphia when the rookie tackle handled defensive end Jason Babin in the running game.
His pass-blocking, however, remains a bit of a project. You can tell the Lions aren't completely sold, as they tend to give Reiff help, usually with a tight end, whenever a pass play is called. However, most of the time, it seems Reiff would be able to handle both speed and power off the edge just fine on his own.
Sooner or later, the Lions are going to make the move, or an injury will do it for them. When that happens, the thinking here is that there won't be much of a noticeable drop-off, if any.
37. Akiem Hicks, Defensive Tackle, New Orleans Saints
If Hicks was not being slowed by an ankle injury suffered earlier in the season, he might be a tad higher on this list. Hicks quickly flashed once he got on the field for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo and is already one of the better pass-rushers on this Saints team. (Not that that's saying much...)
The rookie gets high marks for playing through injury, but he has seen the field less recently. The Saints need to get him back into the rotation because he provides an excellent first step and has shown an ability to be disruptive inside.
With that said, you'd like to see him be a little smarter and under control with his hand placement. Hicks also had to leave the Buccaneers game due to cramping, which causes concern and flags a possible conditioning issue.
But overall, the Saints have a promising prospect in the middle of their defense.
36. Justin Tucker, Kicker, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens made what, at the time, was considered a gutsy decision when they cut incumbent place-kicker Billy Cundiff in favor of an unproven, untested and undrafted rookie. The risk seemed readily apparent: Should a veteran team with serious Super Bowl aspirations be placing its faith in such an unknown commodity at kicker?
As we know now, not only did the Ravens make the right call, but Tucker may be the most consistent player on the team. He has been a revelation on both kickoffs and field goals for John Harbaugh's club and comes at a much cheaper price than the veteran Cundiff.
With the Ravens falling apart on both sides of the ball recently, it's good to know at least one area of the team is in good, um, hands.
35. Melvin Ingram, Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
However you measure your pass-rushers, whatever metric or eyeball test you use, Melvin Ingram has got it, passes it and destroys it like he destroys offensive backs and tight ends assigned to block him in pass protection.
The Chargers took Ingram in hopes of improving a disappointing pass rush, and he has not let them down. No, he has not gotten to the quarterback, but anyone who has watched the tape on this kid can see he is winning his one-on-ones, but arriving just a second late to the quarterback.
Ingram needs to improve his anchor versus the run and needs to stop being washed out when trying to set the force against the opponents' running game. But you can bet the Chargers, who were desperate for help on third down and found it with Ingram, are thrilled with the rookie's play so far.
34. Courtney Upshaw, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens defense has been a shell of its former self, partly due to injuries and partly due to less-than-stellar play all across the board.
Upshaw has certainly flashed at times and is coming off two of his better performances against the Cowboys and the Texans. He has been a lone bright spot against the run. He has 29 tackles, including four for a loss.
Upshaw received Baltimore’s defensive game ball following the team’s 31-29 win against the Cowboys. Now, the Ravens need to try to get the rookie to maintain his weight (he had been playing above his prescribed 270 pounds and drawing fines for it) and to keep honing his pass-rush technique, which has been sloppy and uninspired.
33. Fletcher Cox, Defensive Tackle, Philadelphia Eagles
Cox is a handful for opposing offenses in the run game. He leads all Eagles linemen with 11 tackles and has become the disruptive force the Eagles desperately needed when they drafted him with the 12th overall pick.
However, if there is a down side (there is, and it's a pretty important one), Cox has been maddeningly inconsistent when it comes to creating pressure on the quarterback. You don't expect a 4-3 defensive tackle to put up a bunch of pass-rushing statistics, but you would like to see him collapse the pocket a bit more and send opposing quarterbacks scrambling outside toward Jason Babin or Trent Cole.
It will be interesting to see if new Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is able to get anything more out of Cox in this regard, either in how he uses him in the rotation or from some kind of schematic adjustment. There's no question Cox has played well, but the potential is there for him to play much better.
And that's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.
32. Lavonte David, Linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Weak-side Bucs backer Lavonte David is a tackling machine who excels at reading his keys, diagnosing a play and getting after the ball-carrier.
It didn't take long for Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan to see that he had a true student of the game in David, giving him the responsibility of wearing a communication helmet and entrusting him with the task of making all the defensive calls.
While it would be nice to see Sheridan ask him to get after the passer a little more, David also needs to do a better job when it is asked of him. But overall, be it against the run or in coverage, the rookie out of Nebraska is the real deal.
31. Blair Walsh, Kicker, Minnesota Vikings
If it seems like there are way too many kickers on this list, that's because there are. But who do you leave off? Certainly not Walsh, who, much like Justin Tucker in Baltimore, enabled the Vikings to part ways with their expensive veteran option after a strong training camp.
Walsh has not disappointed so far in the regular season, either, having missed only one kick all year. For a team with limited options on offense that likes to lean on its running game and defense, a good kicker is a necessity.
Walsh is good.
30. Chris Givens, Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams
Everyone has read or heard the cited fact that Givens has a streak of four straight games where he’s caught a pass of 50 yards or more. What has gone unsaid is how Givens' play has started to make teams think twice about stacking the box against the Rams' running game, which they most certainly were earlier in the year.
The rookie out of Wake Forest is coming off what was his finest performance of the year against the Packers, and he now looks to exploit a questionable Patriots secondary.
You can bet Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will continue to explore ways to get Givens the ball on the perimeter and look to take advantage of his 4.41-second 40-yard-dash speed.
29. Dwayne Allen, Tight End, Indianapolis Colts
While much was made after last April's draft about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck reuniting with his college teammate and tight end Coby Fleener, it has been the "other" tight end taken by the Colts this spring that has been the most impressive on the field so far in 2012.
The John Mackey Award winner a year ago at Clemson, Dwayne Allen has been everything the Colts could have hoped for when they selected him in the third round. The rookie started to come on against the Packers and has spent the last few weeks showcasing his talents both in blocking and in catching the football.
While you can count on Luck and interim head coach Bruce Arians to try to keep a semblance of balance between Allen and Fleener, it seems clear Allen is the man for the job in 2012.
28. Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Carolina Panthers
Sometimes, coaches outsmart themselves. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott thought moving Kuechly to the weak-side-linebacker spot would work fine, enabling them to keep Jon Beason—who was coming off back-to-back major injures—in the middle.
On the weak side, Kuechly was a near disaster. With yet another major injury sending Beason back to injured reserve, Kuechly has been moved to the middle, and it has been nothing short of a revelation. He sees the field better, he's flowing to the ball well and the wasted steps he took on the outside have disappeared.
That's not to say he's suddenly become Brian Urlacher, but much like when the Bears switched a struggling rookie Urlacher from the outside to the middle, the Panthers moving Kuechly to the middle has turned on the switch for the talented rookie.
27. Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
One of the more exciting prospects coming out of training camp, the Seahawks' third-round pick won the job after a preseason performance that made a believer out of Pete Carroll.
Since then, there has been a lot of average quarterback play from Wilson with a dash of brilliance sprinkled throughout. He played by far his best game of the year so far against the New England Patriots back in Week 6. Say all you want about the Patriots' terrible secondary, but Wilson made several big-time throws in that game.
You'd like to see him be a little more decisive outside the pocket and eliminate boneheaded throws like the duck he threw up into triple coverage while being crushed against the 49ers. But overall, he's played well enough to win with the team that's around him.
26. Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, St. Louis Rams
Forget all the off-field drama when it comes to Jenkins, and you'll find a solid young NFL cornerback who is playing surprisingly well in Jeff Fisher's defense. In fact, the rookie has been an important part of the Rams' early taste of success so far in the 2012 season.
Yes, the Packers went after him with Jordy Nelson. The Dolphins targeted him as well. That is expected when you have a talent like Cortland Finnegan across the way. Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks will continue to test the rookie, and it will be up to him to keep his memory short and his arms long while playing press man at the line of scrimmage.
One aspect of Jenkins' game that should be appreciated is how he has improved steadily against the run as the year has gone on. It is a good sign—that of a young player taking his coaching and applying it to his play on the field.
The Rams' gamble on Jenkins looks to be in the beginning stages of paying off.
25. Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals
Burfict has started five games and generated 48 tackles, while being a dependable presence in Mike Zimmer's defense. I don't think too many people saw this coming when the Bengals took a flyer on Burfict after the draft.
Instead of another classic Bengals problem child, Burfict has demonstrated an ability to not only defend the run from base formations, but he has been surprisingly effective in coverage.
One major problem for the young linebacker is his inability to shed blocks. Once offensive linemen get their hands on him, you can pretty much count him out of the play. Bengals fans have to hope the bye week includes some emphasis on technique when it comes to getting off blocks.
24. Mark Barron, Safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barron has absolutely been as advertised. A versatile safety who actually gets better the closer to the line of scrimmage he gets, Barron has done an excellent job overall in head coach Greg Schiano's defense and leads Tampa Bay's defensive backs with 35 tackles. He also picked off his first pass two weeks ago.
Whether being asked to check offensive weapons like Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham or Jason Witten, or breaking down and tackling Adrian Peterson, Barron hasn't shied away from anything in the NFL.
Interestingly enough, Barron struggled a bit versus RGIII and the Redskins' versatile attack. Sometimes, he can be taken advantage of in space. But the majority of the time, he looks the part of a guy who will be playing well in this league for a long time.
23. Josh Gordon, Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns
Not bad for a supplemental draft pick that many pundits thought was at least a year away from contributing.
Instead, Gordon is leading all NFL rookies in receiving touchdowns with four, receiving yards with 333 and receptions of 20 yards or longer with five. He also became the first Browns rookie to record three consecutive games with a touchdown reception of 30 yards or longer with his big touchdown reception against the Colts.
Yes, there are holes in his game. You'd like him to be a bit more physical on some of the in-breaking routes he's asked to run in Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense, and we won't even mention the brutal drop he had against the Colts. (Wait, I think I just did.)
But overall, Gordon is outplaying every other rookie receiver in the league.
22. Michael Brockers, Defensive Tackle, St. Louis Rams
Some might think this is too high for Brockers. I look at it and think it might be too low. Yes, Brockers didn't see action until Week 4 after suffering an ankle injury late in preseason.
But now that the rookie is on the field and back to full strength, you can tell what the rest of the NFC West and future Rams opponents have in store. Brockers was near un-blockable this past Sunday against the Packers, registering his first NFL sack and causing nightmares in general for the interior of the offensive line.
You can expect Brockers to start demanding more attention as the year goes on, which should free up defensive end Robert Quinn and help Quinn see more one-on-one matchups. These two will be terrorizing opponents for years to come.
21. Bruce Irvin, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks
Who's laughing now?
The Seahawks were criticized far and wide for their selection of Irvin 15th overall in the draft. Pundits decried the "waste" of a first-day pick on what was "obviously" a one-trick pass-rushing pony.
Well, Irvin has not only proved he has more than one trick, but he has proved to be an excellent complement to what was already an extremely tough defense prior to his arrival. The Seahawks do a great job of shutting down opponents' running games, getting them into 3rd-and-long and letting Irvin do his thing.
His best games came against Green Bay and Carolina, but expect to see more from this promising rookie as the year goes on.
20. Greg Zuerlein, Kicker, St. Louis Rams
Last kicker. I promise.
But how do you not include Greg The Leg, or Legatron, or whatever nickname you prefer for this phenom? Of course, just as everyone started to marvel at his crazy long kicks, seemingly made at will, Zuerlein missed three kicks against the Dolphins.
No matter. Back on track and still hitting 85 percent of his kicks on the season, Zuerlein has been an invaluable asset for an offensively challenged Rams team.
The fact that Sam Bradford and company need only pick up three or four first downs to get into Zuerlein's range is an incredible bonus for a team that has to fight for every yard it can muster.
OK. That's it. No more kickers. Promise.
19. Shea McClellin, Defensive End, Chicago Bears
The Bears drew some quizzical glances when they selected McClellin with the 19th overall pick in the draft. Most draft experts saw the Boise State product as a 3-4 outside linebacker due to his athletic ability and fluid movement out of a two-point stance.
The Bears had other ideas, and it's hard to fault their thinking now.
McClellin had Bears fans in near-panic mode during training camp and through parts of the preseason when he seemed to show an inability to shed blockers and get to the quarterback.
Those fears seem unfounded now, as McClellin not only has made his share of noise in opposing backfields, but has opened up options for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's use of Julius Peppers. We've seen Peppers move up and down the line, and part of the reason is due to McClellin's effectiveness.
18. Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker, New England Patriots
A hamstring injury interrupted Hightower’s promising season, but things appear to be back on track for the rookie out of Alabama.
Hightower missed two full games and was limited in two others, but still has 24 total tackles, two sacks, one fumble recovery and a touchdown. That's some impressive production for such limited work. And you can expect more as he gets back more and more of his burst.
The struggles in the Patriots' secondary are well-documented, but the infusion of Hightower and fellow rookie Chandler Jones has brought a welcome boost to a Patriots linebacking corps that had become too nondescript in 2011.
Expect more big plays from Hightower in 2012.
17. Daryl Richardson, Running Back, St. Louis Rams
It's incredible that Daryl Richardson almost went undrafted. Selected with the second-to-last pick of the draft, most expected the Abilene Christian product to maybe see spot duty. The majority of the offseason excitement was reserved for Richardson's backfield mate Isaiah Pead, the Rams' second-round selection.
Well, Richardson has been the one slowly making Stephen Jackson disappear. Pead has done precious little.
Richardson combines an ability to get to the edge on outside runs with a tough running style between the tackles that is hard to find. When Richardson gets the ball outside the numbers, he's a dangerous man. And he's not just there to complement Jackson anymore. He's there to take over.
16. Harrison Smith, Safety, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings drafted the former Notre Dame safety late in the first round, and he was plugged in as an immediate starter. While he’s had his share of rookie mistakes, most notably getting ejected after shoving an official in a game against the Titans, he has played solid at a position that has haunted the Vikings in recent years. In fact, safety play was one of their big undoings last season.
How impactful has Smith been? He caused Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune to anoint the Notre Dame product the "best Vikings rookie safety ever." Who am I to argue with Sid?
Obviously, there's lots of room for growth and Smith has lots of potential. Vikings fans should be happy to have finally found an answer at a position that has been in flux since Darren Sharper left years ago.
15. Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback, Patriots
Dennard, who had just four interceptions during his four-year career at Nebraska, picked off his first NFL pass Sunday against the Jets. He plays with a physical aggression that is exactly what head coach Bill Belichick is looking for. It has also contributed to Dennard's expanded role in the secondary.
While some corners can be labeled as "zone" or "man" specific, Dennard is a football player. Period. If you haven't heard much about him, just wait. You will.
14. Trent Richardson, Running Back, Cleveland Browns
While the talent is obvious, Trent Richardson's rookie season has been a hit-and-miss affair. He's dealt with various injuries and been labeled "ineffective" by his head coach.
While that soap opera will undoubtedly play out over the course of the 2012 season, Richardson has indeed looked tentative at times, waiting for something to develop in front of him. Other times, you see the explosive back whom the Browns knew they were getting when they selected him fourth overall in April.
Richardson's ability as a pass-catcher is a welcomed skill that many big-time backs often don't posses. He has also shown himself to be a willing blocker, though not always the most polished. Overall, everything the Browns loved about this kid is still there. They just have to get him healthy and feed him the ball.
13. Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys
Claiborne has started since Week 1, played through a slew of injuries and snagged his first interception this past week, also a first by any member of the Cowboys' secondary this year.
Dallas traded up in the 2012 draft to land the LSU product at No. 6 overall in order to address their lack of quality play in the secondary, and though there have been some growing pains, Claiborne is clearly on his way to being one of the better corners in the NFL.
One telling trait when it comes to Claiborne's play is the fact that even when the ball is completed to the man he is covering, he is nearly always a step away and then takes the receiver to the ground. That's what you want. Every corner gets beat. When they do, you see what kind of player they are and/or will be by where they are when they're beat.
Claiborne is nearly always right there.
12. Cordy Glenn, Offensive Tackle, Buffalo Bills
Yes, this is probably too high for a player that went down against the Patriots back in Week 4, and I don't care.
Glenn was having an Offensive Rookie of the Year-type season before suffering the injury to his ankle. When you put on the tape, you see this guy just erase opponents—I mean, just negate their very existence. You can't ask for much more at the left-tackle position than what Glenn was giving the Bills.
Reports out of Buffalo indicate Glenn could be back for the team's matchup with the Houston Texans, which is welcome news to the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the entire offense.
Do yourself a favor and watch this kid sometime. Pure, simple dominance.
11. Kevin Zeitler, Offensive Guard, Cincinnati Bengals
The late first-round pick out of Wisconsin carries on the tradition of Badgers linemen coming into the NFL and stepping directly on the field and looking like they just belong.
Zeitler has dominated nearly everyone he's faced in the NFL and has upgraded a Bengals line that needed a big dose of nasty. Whether being asked to protect Andy Dalton or pave the way for The Law Firm (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), Zeitler's combination of technique and brute force is a scary proposition for opposing defensive tackles.
The only time the rookie has struggled this season was against the Dolphins, where he got caught and taken advantage of in pass protection—but other than that handful of plays, he has absolutely won the battle in the trenches and brought a big, stabilizing force to the Bengals' line for years to come.
10. Chandler Jones, Defensive End, New England Patriots
Jones is coming off arguably his worst game of the year against the Jets, but that doesn't diminish the superlative work he's done throughout the first half of the season for a Patriots defense that had precious little juice up front last year.
Jones has been a three-down player and the Pats’ best player off the edge while leading the Patriots with five sacks and 10 quarterback hits. While he can't do it all himself, he has lifted the level of play of everyone around him, more than justifying the price Bill Belichick paid to move up and get him in the first round.
Don't expect any kind of regression from Jones over the second half of the season. He's become the new focal point of this defense and will only continue to get better.
9. Ryan Tannehill, Quarterback, Miami Dolphins
What was supposed to be a year in which the Dolphins struggled through an offensively challenged season with their in-over-his-head rookie quarterback has instead been a surprisingly consistent showing from Ryan Tannehill—to the point where teams will have to start actually accounting for his play and ability to read the field and find single coverage, not to mention hit throws in tightly contested windows.
Tannehill has become, statistically at least, one of the league's best deep throwers. Somewhat surprisingly, he is also far better at that than he is on intermediate routes. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman will need to try to continue to limit Tannehill's high-low reads to a single side, which has worked quite well.
Don't be surprised if the Texas A&M product ends up putting up Pro Bowl-type numbers this year (no, I don't think he'll be going to Hawaii).
Tannehill's play is a revelation for a fanbase that has been desperate for a quarterback since Dan Marino. While the rookie has a long way to go, the first half of 2012 has been a promising first step.
8. Bobby Wagner, Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have been one of the best defenses against the run in 2012, and the play of Bobby Wagner is a big reason why. His ability to get off blocks and find the ball, all while flowing to the action, is as impressive as I have ever seen from a rookie backer.
Wagner currently trails the NFL's leading rookie tacklers by just one, with 50 tackles, and has to be considered a leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. There are few, if any, holes in his game. This is why Seattle made him an every-down linebacker (earlier in the season, he left the field on passing downs) and has watched as he has quickly becomes a leader on a unit that is not short on confidence.
While the 49ers handled Wagner by mauling him with a good dose of pulling linemen, don't expect that to become a regular occurrence. This is one of the best players in the league at his position already, and he's barely halfway through his rookie year.
7. Mike Martin, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans
Why the Tennessee Titans refuse to play Martin more is one of life's greater mysteries.
Coming off a game where he played less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps, Martin is being wasted on the bench by a team that has had major issues on defense all year.
When Titans starting defensive tackle Jurrell Casey went down with a shoulder injury in the first half against the the Steelers, it provided a big opportunity for Martin. The rookie responded by recording six tackles, including a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit, and was a big reason the Steelers only totaled 56 yards on the ground—averaging just 2.5 yards per carry.
Yet after playing 48 snaps against the Steelers, Martin was back to playing 31-of-64 defensive snaps last week against the Bills. I understand sub packages and what have you, but the Titans need to find a way to get Martin on the field a lot more.
6. Casey Hayward, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers were abysmal in the secondary last year. Second-round pick Casey Hayward has done a lot to make sure the Green and Gold don't have a repeat performance when it comes to allowing quarterbacks to throw at will against this secondary.
Hayward's four interceptions (tied for the most in the league with Tim Jennings and Thomas DeCoud) and 11 passes defended lead all rookies through seven weeks. He is another in a long line of ball hawks in Dom Capers' Packers defense.
Most importantly, he has shown himself to be a willing tackler, something that was sorely lacking from this team in 2011. Hayward will be given many more opportunities now that Charles Woodson is sidelined for an extended period of time.
5. Doug Martin, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a rough game against the Giants in Week 2, Martin has slowly been turning into the powerhouse back people thought he was going to be coming out of training camp.
I will admit I had Martin lower before Thursday night's explosion against the Vikings. I'm putting him at No. 5 in my rankings because that is who I think Martin is.
Able to take any carry the distance, but still tough enough to grind out three or four yards between the tackles, Martin is the definition of a complete back—not to mention his ability to catch out of the backfield, which just adds yet another dimension to his already dangerous abilities.
He certainly needs work in pass protection, but for the most part, there are minimal holes in Martin's game. Expect the Bucs to continue featuring him more and more.
4. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
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It is entirely possible the Colts are asking their new franchise quarterback to do too much too soon, considering the lack of talent that surrounds him on offense, especially along the offensive line.
Luck is still one of the greatest prospects ever to enter the pro game, but we are certainly seeing the ups and downs as he adjusts to the pro game and to the week-in and week-out differences between teams. What worked so well against the Packers for Luck didn't work at all against the Jets, etc.
What Luck has done a fantastic job of is keeping his poise and moving on to the next play. He's also been brilliant at taking what the defense gives him rather than trying to force the issue—be it taking checkdowns when things don't develop downfield or using his legs rather than his arm when the situation calls for it.
Yes, he will continue to take his lumps this year. Colts fans should be thrilled to come along for the ride.
3. Alfred Morris, Running Back, Washington Redskins
If you haven't watched tape of Redskins running back Alfred Morris, do yourself the favor. Now.
Clearly, this is a player who was misevaluated by front offices around the league, as the Redskins made Morris the 13th running back selected in April's draft. He's a perfect example of why the Draftnik Industrial Complex is out of control.
Supposedly, Morris didn't "test" well prior to the draft. Um, did anyone watch this kid play football? Well, they're certainly watching now, as Morris is the third-leading rusher in the league.
Yes, he enjoys having RGIII as his quarterback, making teams play the Redskins' offense much differently than they do traditional pro-style attacks. But Morris has great vision, an incredible ability to take the first hit and keep his legs driving, and he is able to get the edge or pound between the tackles.
This is a complete football player who has helped turn what was a moribund Redskins offense in 2011 into a powerhouse in 2012.
2. Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, Minnesota Vikings
Matt Kalil may not be the flashiest player in the NFL, but he is one of the best tackles in the game already and hasn't even played a full season.
What makes Kalil's presence on the left side of the line so valuable to the Vikings is that it enabled them to move Charlie Johnson—who had no business playing tackle in the NFL—from tackle to guard. Kalil's play and presence has improved them at two positions.
Not only has Kalil protected Christian Ponder's blind side, but he's been a boon to Adrian Peterson and the rushing attack, completely obliterating defensive ends in the run game. Kalil is able to handle speed off the edge on one play and then turn around and become a road-grader on the next.
He may not be the sexiest pick, but Kalil has been, in my mind, only surpassed in 2012 rookie performance by the man who sits at No. 1...
1. Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington Redskins
There really is no question. RGIII has been an absolute revelation for not only the Redskins, but, to a lesser degree, the NFL as a whole.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for the way he has incorporated the best elements of what RGIII ran in college with his own pro-style offense.
But this is RGIII's show.
Make no mistake; when play design breaks down, when the opponent is coming with pressure, when all odds tell you that the rookie could be crumbling...RGIII is shining.
It's hard not to look at the struggles Cam Newton is experiencing and wonder if an offseason will give defensive coordinators the time they need to catch up to what it is Griffin and company are doing on offense. But the results this year are undeniable. The Redskins, who were barely watchable on offense in 2011, suddenly have one of the most exciting and versatile attacks around.
And that is mostly due to my No. 1 rookie at the midway point of the 2012 NFL season, RGIII.