NFL rookies are no longer asked to sit and learn. In today's instant-gratification society, first-year NFL players are expected to come in and produce immediately.
And if they don't, someone will be drafted the next year to challenge or replace them—just ask Jimmy Clausen, who was drafted to be the Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback and then promptly replaced by Cam Newton after one season.
Turn on the TV during an NFL game, and you'll undoubtedly hear the cliche that, "So-and-so is making a veteran play right there." But what does that really mean, and to whom does it apply? Obviously, quarterbacks are being expected to play earlier than ever before, but what about the other positions?
Last week we took a look at the four first-round rookie quarterbacks starting in the NFL right now. Today we're taking a look at four non-quarterbacks who are being asked to play like veterans in their first season.
Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
It's easy to look at Alfred Morris' impressive stat line and come to the conclusion that he's been pretty good for a rookie. What's worth remembering is that every draft analyst in the country missed the boat on Morris' stock.
How does a player go from an sixth-round draft pick to one of the NFL's best running backs?
Morris' best asset is his vision. Whether the play is through the middle or outside, Morris does a great job identifying the hole and exploding through lanes. Much like Arian Foster, Morris isn't exceptionally fast or strong, he just sees the field better than most.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III pitches the ball to Morris here, and from the outset the blocking is good. Morris has a few decisions to make, though. Does he go outside for the sideline or cut inside through traffic? Both look open, but what makes Morris so gifted is that he's patient here. He lets his blocks develop.
One second later we see a clear lane to daylight. Morris squares his shoulders and gets through traffic, extending the play and picking up plus yardage.
A view from above. Once the play is coming to an end, Morris has evaded two tacklers free of blockers and is ahead of them on the field. While this gain doesn't go for 60 yards, it is a boost to the offense as a 14-yard pickup.
It's the little things that take a player from good to great, and Morris is showing the vision and patience to quickly go from good to great.
Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers
When looking at NFL cornerback play this season, Casey Hayward immediately stands out, and not just as a rookie, but in the position group overall.
The former Vanderbilt cornerback has been an instant star for the Green Bay Packers secondary. Hayward has quickly established himself as one of the top young cornerbacks in the entire NFL, and in the process he's earning a ton of responsibility in the Green Bay defensive schemes.
ProFootballFocus ranks Hayward as the No. 2 cornerback in the entire NFL this season, and while that data-driven number may shock readers, Hayward has been amazing in coverage through 13 weeks.
It's easy to say that Hayward has been good, but what makes his rookie season so special? Hayward is allowing just 44.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed. That translates to a passer rating of 27.6. The chart above shows Hayward's progression and just how good he has been in man coverage.
A great example of this comes from the team's game against the Detroit Lions in Week 11. Hayward executes a robber coverage like someone who has been in this scheme for five years, not a rookie.
Pre-snap, we see Hayward lined up inside, giving Matthew Stafford a few looks—he could blitz, drop deep into a Cover 3 or play underneath as the robber.
Once the ball is snapped, he drops into a zone coverage. He's essentially spying Stafford and shutting down anything crossing his face and out in the flats.
Hayward reads Stafford's eyes brilliantly, and due to his discipline he's in a perfect position to go up and intercept the pass. This may seem like a lucky play, but Hayward's alignment, discipline in his drop and ability to follow Stafford's eyes all make this play possible. Those aren't rookie-level decisions he made.
Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings
Playing left tackle in the NFL is never an easy job—in fact, after quarterback, it's arguably the hardest of any position on the field. That's what makes Matt Kalil's performance in his rookie season so impressive.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft has hit the ground running, and really he's never looked back. Through 12 games, Kalil has allowed just one sack, and that was in Week 8 against Tampa Bay. His first seven games of the season were all sack-free, and his five weeks since have seen another sack-free streak started.
Kalil has done an excellent job in his pass sets, an area in which he didn't grade out exceptionally well pre-draft. Take a look at this play against the Chicago Bears and right defensive end Corey Wootton.
Ignore the fact that the left guard makes a terrible decision here and look instead at Kalil. He's balanced. He's not overextending his arms or his legs to reach the defensive end. Instead, he shuffled off the line—note the distance from Kalil back to the line of scrimmage—in order to meet and cut-off the pass-rusher. Kalil's stature here is textbook for a left tackle who kicked out to stop an edge rush.
One second later, defensive tackle Henry Melton has collapsed the pocket, but Kalil has actually gained ground against Wootton. His balance is more shifted: His feet are shoulder width apart, he's arched his back for strength and sat his butt down in a squat-position to anchor against a 270-pound pass-rusher trying to break free.
This is but one example of the 466 snaps Kalil has played in this season where he didn't give up a sack.
T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
The 2012 draft class hasn't seen a lot of production from its wide receiver class, but T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts has stood out as both a receiver and a return man. Hilton's chemistry with fellow rookie Andrew Luck has sparked the Indianapolis passing game, and his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands makes him a big threat in the team's wide-open scheme.
Hilton's speed is obviously a big boost to his play thus far, but he's also showing great timing on his routes. That's not a rookie trait, especially in the 2012 class. Hilton is getting open underneath and then using that sprinter speed to make plays post-catch. That doesn't happen unless he creates separation in his route and catches the ball cleanly.
Hilton is covered with man coverage here, even though the cornerback is playing "off" pre-snap to allow for Hilton's impressive speed. The cornerback knows that he needs a head start, so he's giving Hilton plenty of running room underneath.
Post-snap, the cornerback has turned to run with Hilton, and that's exactly what the wide receiver wants. Hilton's explosion off the line of scrimmage causes the cornerback to flip his hips and turn his head.
Once the cornerback commits to turning upfield, Hilton counters with an inside move. Now he's wide open with running room in the middle of the field. Andrew Luck can make this throw all day, and the rookie duo picks up 60 yards on third down.
The non-quarterbacks from the 2012 NFL draft class will likely be overshadowed by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, but the four players above and others—Luke Kuechly, Josh Gordon, Lavonte David and more—are all playing at unusually high levels for first-year players.
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