NFL's Best Rookies at Every Position

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2012

NFL's Best Rookies at Every Position

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    This is not an awards-type slideshow that gives the nod to the rookie with the best statistics. Rather, this is dedicated purely to the evaluation of talent, peering through the lens of "team building" and prospect analysis.

    With that in mind, please understand that much more than the 2012 regular season will be considered in determining the best rookie at each position. Factors such as potential, athletic ability (as measured by a customized system that gives weight to testable physical attributes known as the Dynamic Measurable Rating 'DMR'), college production and, finally, their brief professional resumes, which include the preseason, will be considered.

    Obviously, their production in their first year in the NFL will be weighted much heavier than their production in college. Nonetheless, this is an all-inclusive breakdown of this year's best rookies at every position—except really stupid positions like kickers. OK, fine, I give them just a little bit of love at the end as well (as I cringe).

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III

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    Runner-up: Andrew Luck

    Most people struggle to imagine that any quarterback in this year's crop of outstanding rookie signal-callers could possibly be better than Andrew Luck. In fact, why don't we just put Luck in the Hall of Fame at the end of the season.

    Sure, Luck is in all likelihood going to be a world-class QB, but what RG3 has been able to do as a rookie is just plain scary. This kid has the potential to revolutionize the quarterback position...forever!

    Griffin leads all rookie QBs in passer rating with 104.2, which ranks him second behind only the reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers.

    He has thrown 18 touchdown passes to only four interceptions. This is outstanding when you compare that to Luck, who has thrown 14 more picks than Griffin, yet has only thrown for two more touchdown passes than him.

    Furthermore, of all NFL QBs with at least 300 pass attempts and an average of more than eight yards per pass, Griffin has the highest completion percentage with 66.4.

    Oh, and did I mention RG3 has world-class speed, running a sub 4.4-second 40-yard dash?

    But, hey, he's probably just a rare athlete exploiting NFL defenses with a novelty offense and trickery, right?

    Actually this kid is one of the most intelligent and mature athletes of any generation in any sport. Not to shabby, huh.

Running Back: Trent Richardson

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    Runner-up: Doug Martin

    Most may be wondering how I left Alfred Morris off this list. Well, that's an easy one. Morris is a high-effort guy who is benefiting immensely from a great coach in a creative scheme, led by perhaps the most dangerous quarterback to ever lace up a pair of cleats. 

    Morris deserves a ton of credit for overachieving the way he has and putting up fantastic numbers. But his physical ability is limited and he likely will not get much better than what we're seeing this year. 

    Trent Richardson, on the other hand, may not have stellar statistics compared to Doug Martin or Morris, but he is by far the most impressive running back in the 2012 class.

    Rarely do you find an athlete with his combination of elite size and uncanny strength. He can do a one-legged squat while holding Martin in one hand and Morris in the other. Then he could outrun both of those guys while carrying a defender on his back.

    Sure, I exaggerate here. But the type of rare potential Mr. Richardson has is enough to evoke the name, dare I say, Jim Brown. Mind you, I do not make that comparison lightly.

    In addition to his strength and speed, Richardson has a low center of gravity that gives him remarkable balance and change-of-direction skills.

    But all of this could be wasted if the man wasn't right upstairs. Have no fear in that department. Richardson has shown himself to be everything you could hope for in a first-class person and role model. He could eventually become the face of Cleveland, replacing that guy whose name I won't mention after taking his talent to South Beach.

Offensive Tackle: Matt Kalil

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    Runner-up: Cordy Glenn

    Matt Kalil has done nothing but validate everything he was supposed to be coming out of college. And just who is that, you ask?

    He is the best pass-protector in this draft class. He finished his final season at USC without allowing a single sack. According to Pro Football Focus, Kalil has only allowed a single sack thus far this season. Perhaps more impressive, only twice has he has allowed his quarterback to be touched by defenders in the pocket.

    Kalil may be an excellent pass-blocker, but his ability to finish defenders while run-blocking does leave something to be desired. I suppose if you can do one thing as great as he can, the coaches allow him to slack off in other areas. But if he wishes to be considered among the greatest blockers of all time, he needs to round out this part of his game.

    Cordy Glenn is a physically imposing prospect who has demonstrated surprising ability to hold up in pass protection playing at left tackle.

    Going into the draft, Glenn's foot-speed and consistency were major question marks. Many experts projected he would be better suited to play inside at guard. Despite this, he has been impressive to this point and has yet to even come close to tapping into his true potential.

    At the combine, Glenn measured in at 6'5'' and a scary 345 pounds. That type of size is rare and highly coveted in the NFL.

Offensive Guard: Kevin Zeitler

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    Runner-up: Peter Konz

    Not many rookie guards have received much playing time this season. Zeitler, on the other hand, has been a starter for Cincinnati since Day 1. He was considered the second-best guard in the draft by most experts, behind David DeCastro, who was drafted ahead of Zeitler by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The preseason knee injury to DeCastro eventually ended up catapulting Zeitler into the uncontested position as the best rookie guard in the league. This distinction isn't even a close call. Zeitler has done a fantastic job playing a position that normally takes most players a few years to master.

    Zeitler is a tough physical blocker who is a surprisingly good athlete and plays smart. He should be a mainstay on the Bengals' offensive line for the next 10-to-14 years.

    Peter Konz has played well in Atlanta, which is important considering he was the Falcons' first pick in the draft, which didn't come until the second round. So far, he has been worth the wait.

    It's no coincidence that both these rookie linemen played at Wisconsin last year.

Center: Trevor Robinson

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    Trevor Robinson is the only undrafted free agent to make this list, and he is very much deserving of it.

    Robinson became the starter when veteran center Kyle Cook was injured, but has since retained the starting position.

    Robinson played his college ball at Notre Dame and had a solid career only to get no love on draft day.

    He is a great at getting his big body in front of opponents. Though he may not be physically dominant, he does just enough to get the job done.

    He also happens to be one of the few interior rookie offensive linemen who has received much playing time and actually looked impressive. It generally takes offensive linemen a few years for their body and strength to mature enough to compete against NFL-sized men.

Tight End: Dwayne Allen

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    Runner-up: Coby Fleener

    The 2012 class of tight ends has been rather disappointing. Dwayne Allen, a third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts, was a prospect coming out of Clemson who looked relatively limited physically, yet he has demonstrated a high football I.Q., which has helped him to excel far beyond most people's expectations.

    Watching Allen on tape compared to Coby Fleener, the Colts' second-round pick, it is clear that Allen has better body control and responds more quickly to the reaction of defenders. Fleener, by comparison, has looked much more clumsy and off-balance.

    With that said, it seems likely that Fleener eventually will gain control of his body and surpass Allen's level of production. But that potential is not reason enough to put Fleener at No. 1.

    Fleener, at 6'6" and 247 pounds, has a taller, bigger frame with much higher top-end speed. Allen, at 6'3" and 255 pounds, is a bit slow by NFL standards, he ran a 4.89-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

    Regardless of who's truly the better tight end, they both are forced to share reps and targets from the same quarterback as they are, oddly enough, both on the same team. 

Wide Receiver: Josh Gordon

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    Runner-up: Kendall Wright

    What Josh Gordon has been able to do this season has been remarkable. He was selected by the Browns in the supplemental draft after sitting out of the 2011 season at Utah, where he transferred after being suspended at Baylor after an arrest for marijuana possession.

    At 6'4", 224 pounds, Gordon has ideal NFL size for a receiver and also happens to be much faster than his 4.52-second, 40-yard dash time.

    He leads all rookie receivers in receiving yards with 759, while averaging nearly 17 yards per catch.

    Gordon has a great chance to be a top wide receiver in the NFL. His development this season has been especially impressive considering his status as a raw, project-type athlete.

    Kendall Wright was one of my favorite receivers coming out of Baylor, and he is going to be a deadly weapon in the years to come for the Tennessee Titans. He needs to better prepare his body for the NFL and improve his route running. When that happens, look for him to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

4-3 DE/3-4 OLB: Whitney Mercilus

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    Runner-up: Chandler Jones

    Picking Whitney Mercilus may come as a shocker to most people. But I had Mercilus rated the top defensive prospect in the draft for a reason. His tape was extremely impressive and his potential is equally as impressive.

    As the season has gone on, Whitney has earned more and more playing time for the Texans. In fact, according to player snap-counts by Pro Football Focus, only one player (Brandon Graham) has more sacks playing fewer than than 400 snaps on the season.

    Mercilus reminds me of a young DeMarcus Ware. A guy who I was familiar with, considering we were in the same draft class and played the same position.

    Whitney is a work in progress and has made rookie mistakes. But his skill set and athleticism are unrivaled among this year's defensive rookies.  

    Chandler Jones came on surprisingly strong in the preseason, and that fast start carried over into the first half of the season. But since then, he has tailed off and is stuck at six sacks on the season. Admittedly, I never thought this type of play was possible out of Jones based on the several games I studied him at Syracuse.

    The tools I've underestimated the most in his game are his functional strength and high-effort, high-motor style of play, which didn't seem to be present at all in his college archives. I still question how good Jones really is. But for right now, I have to give the man credit for what he's accomplished thus far relative to the rest of his rookie class.

3-4 DE/4-3 DT: Fletcher Cox

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    Runner-up: Kendell Reyes

    Fletcher Cox is a rare athlete for a big man and was overshadowed at the combine athletically by Dontari Poe. But that was unjustifiably so. All things considered, Cox is a far superior athlete in terms of quickness and explosion.

    But where the differences become stark is when you watch these guys play football. That contrast is night and day.

    Fletcher is a natural penetrator and has a knack for disrupting offenses. He is also a solid interior pass-rusher.

    He has been one of the few bright spots for the Eagles in a disappointing season. Even though Cox plays defensive tackle,  only three rookies have more than his 5.5 sacks Those are great numbers for a guy who has to constantly fight off double-teams inside.

    Besides, at 6'4", 300 pounds and a 40 time of 4.79, Cox was the highest graded interior lineman of his class in regard to physical measureables.

Linebacker: Lavonte David

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    Runner-up: Dont'a Hightower

    This little tackling machine from Nebraska was by far the most impressive "true" linebacker prospect I studied on film leading up to the draft. His uncanny ability to weave through traffic, avoid blockers, find the most efficient path to the ball-carrier and take him effectively to the ground was something I had never quite seen before.

    Still, Lavonte David managed to slip into the second round due to his smaller stature. He's 6'1", 233 pounds. However, I can assure you his limited frame has not hurt him in the slightest in his NFL career. 

    David is third in the NFL in stops behind J.J. Watt and Derrick Johnson. According to Pro Football Focus, stops are defined as the number of solo tackles which constitute an offensive failure.

    There is little weakness to David's game. He should have a productive career with the Bucs.

    Hightower's primary value comes in his rare size for a linebacker (6'4" and 270 pounds) and versatility. Most questioned his ability to cover in space entering the draft, but this has not been a negative to his game whatsoever. He also is able to rush the passer when needed.

Cornerback: Casey Hayward

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    Runner-up: Stephon Gilmore

    Casey Hayward was one of my top defensive prospects heading into the draft. He had a very productive college career and looked great on tape, constantly getting his hands on balls and having great instincts for blanketing receivers.

    I was one of the few analyst who had him rated above guys like Morris Claiborne. Nowadays, Hayward is the runaway favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year with six picks on the season. He has yet to allow a single touchdown in coverage as well.

    It could be argued that Hayward is already one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. 

    Most people wrote off Casey because of his average 40 time (4.53), but when you look at his size (5'11", 192 pounds), vertical jump (34") and his times in the three-cone (6.76) and 20-yard shuttle (3.9), it shows that Hayward is one of the quickest and most explosive athletes at the position.

Safety: Mark Barron

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    Runner-up: Harrison Smith

    Mark Barron is a hard-hitting playmaker who has not fully tapped into his potential. His ability to cover receivers man-to-man is vastly underrated and he is a sound, reliable tackler.

    Barron also is blessed with incredible size (6'1", 213 pounds) and strength, in the mold of a prototypical NFL defensive back.

    The former Alabama safety has started every game for the Buccaneers and has all the tools to become one of the game's elite DBs in a few years.

    Harrison Smith of the Vikings has played far better than I anticipated after watching his tape in Notre Dame. I never felt that Smith was aggressive enough as a tackler and questioned how many of his interceptions were just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I suppose he is proving his mettle quickly in the NFL.

    Smith has actually outplayed Barron in many ways so far, but the upside of Barron is too rare to pass on. With that said, be warned not to underestimate Smith. He has many athletic gifts and can run with most anyone (4.46 in the 40).

    For those wondering why there are no kickers on this list...that's because kickers are not people after all!

    But just to be fair, here it is briefly:

    Best Rookie Kicker: Justin Tucker of Baltimore. Most efficient of the three rookie kickers. Has made 20-of-22 field goals from 30 yards and beyond.

    Best Rookie Punter: Bryan Anger of Jacksonville. The guy was actually drafted, plus he leads in just about every punting category worth noting. Enough said.

    Best Rookie Kick Returner: David Wilson of the Giants

    Best Rookie Punt Returner: TY Hilton of the Colts