Buffalo Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso continued his early excellence versus the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
Some of the most high-profile members of the NFL rookie class—including the top player in this week’s Bleacher Report NFL Rookie Rankings—took the spotlight when the Buffalo Bills played the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
It was a tough night for Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. The No. 16 overall pick suffered a knee sprain in the third quarter and did not return to the game, and it is uncertain how many games he will end up missing as a result of the injury.
It was a better night for Browns outside linebacker and No. 6 overall selection Barkevious Mingo, though. While Mingo was unable to extend his sack streak for a fourth consecutive game, he continued to be a very active member of the Browns defense, making four quarterback hits and breaking up a pass intended for Stevie Johnson with another big hit.
Buffalo Bills middle linebacker and second-round pick Kiko Alonso, however, continued to steal the show. While he did not extend his streak of interceptions to four games, he continued to be a big playmaker for the Bills defense, leading the unit with 12 total tackles.
Another strong game on Thursday night only cemented what Alonso had already accomplished with a two-interception game Sunday versus the Baltimore Ravens: a move to the No. 1 spot in the following rankings.
For more on why Alonso has been the NFL’s best rookie—as well as a look at 24 more rookies whose performances have been praise-worthy thus far—check out the following slides.
Note: Advanced statistics and snap counts were found using Pro Football Focus’ premium statistics database. A subscription is required to access the database.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: No. 16
Tyler Eifert has shown some big-play ability this season, but he has yet to emerge as a consistent target in the Bengals’ passing offense. He has only caught 12 passes for 159 yards this season, including just four for 46 yards in Cincinnati’s past two games.
Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: No. 24
Even with Cameron Wake out of the lineup, Jordan continued to be used almost solely as a situational pass-rusher Monday versus the New Orleans Saints. Furthermore, he had a drop-off in pass rushing productivity from his first three games, recording just one quarterback hurry Monday.
Nickell Robey, CB, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: NR
Playing primarily as the Bills’ nickel slot cornerback, Nickell Robey is another undrafted rookie who has stepped up early this season. Coming into Week 5 (not including Thursday night’s game), he ranked fifth in the NFL among cornerbacks who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s coverage snaps with a 39.8 passer rating against him, according to PFF.
Robey had another strong game Thursday, playing both in the slot and outside, providing mostly lockdown coverage. He made a perfect break on one play to get his fingertips on a screen pass for a deflection in the flats.
Last Week: No. 22
Injuries to Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann made undrafted rookie Bartu a starting linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, and he has stepped up to the task well thus far.
He had six total tackles, including one for loss, on Sunday night versus the New England Patriots. He needs to improve in coverage, but he has been a three-down linebacker for the Falcons, leading all Atlanta linebackers with 63 snaps against the Patriots.
Bartu is rated as the NFL’s 10th-best 4-3 outside linebacker through four weeks by PFF.
Last Week: No. 17
Cordarrelle Patterson has yet to emerge as a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, but he has made an immediate impact as a kickoff returner.
Patterson has only caught six passes for 82 yards through Minnesota’s first four games, including just one for nine yards in their win Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As a kickoff returner, however, he has been consistently fantastic. He averaged 28.8 yards per return on five returns versus the Steelers and has a league-leading average of 33.8 yards per return on the year. That average is bolstered significantly by his 105-yard kickoff return versus the Chicago Bears in Week 2, one of only two kickoff return touchdowns in the NFL through the first four weeks of the season.
Last Week: No. 14
Jarvis Jones has been a consistent playmaker and one of the few bright spots on the 0-4 Pittsburgh Steelers this season, but he did not continue that playmaking trend against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.
Even though he started the game and played 35 snaps, Jones recorded only one tackle in the Steelers’ loss. He finished the game with an overall PFF rating of minus-1.5.
Jones remains in the rankings because of his many plays around the line of scrimmage in the first three weeks of the season, but he must bounce back in his next game versus the New York Jets on Oct. 13 (the Steelers have a Week 5 bye) to remain among the top 25 rookies.
Last Week: No. 12
Since leading a game-winning drive for the Buffalo Bills in Week 2, Manuel’s season has quickly gone south. Manuel has completed just 40-of-84 passing attempts in Buffalo’s last three games for 539 total yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Most significantly, however, was the injury he suffered Thursday night versus the Browns. The severity of his knee sprain is not yet clear, but it is likely that he will miss a number of games due to the injury, which could force him out of the rookie rankings next week.
Manuel has shown some flashes of brilliance as a rookie quarterback, but those flashes have been few and far between over the past three games. He had made some plays to keep the Bills in the game Thursday, and it was clear how much they missed him when they had to resort to undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel at quarterback in his absence. Regardless, he will be unable to climb back up the rankings unless he is on the field.
Last Week: No. 11
Like EJ Manuel, Geno Smith has shown flashes of brilliance, but his performance has been very inconsistent. In fact, it has actually been regressing rather than improving.
Smith has been consistent in one area: turning the ball over. He has thrown eight interceptions and lost three fumbles through four games, including recording two of each in Sunday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Most notably, the Titans scored a touchdown on one play where Smith attempted to switch hands with the football behind his back, instead losing the ball for a fumble recovery by Titans defensive lineman Karl Klug in the end zone (see video).
Smith has been an upgrade to the Jets offense over Mark Sanchez and has thrown for 1,090 yards through four games, but his eight interceptions are the second-most in the NFL, trailing only Eli Manning.
Rookie mistakes are expected, but he will also be expected to start cutting down on them moving forward.
Last Week: No. 18
With Jason Jones out for the season, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah moved into a full-time starting spot at defensive end for the Detroit Lions and was expected to step up his game versus the Chicago Bears on Sunday. Instead, he had his quietest game of the season to date, recording just one assisted tackle and three quarterback hurries.
Ansah has used his athleticism to make an immediate impact off the edge for the Lions defense. But even with the benefit of playing alongside Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, arguably the NFL’s best defensive tackle pairing, he needs to become technically sound to make a consistent impact.
He has 2.5 sacks this season and should continue to be a key player in the Lions’ starting lineup, but he still has a long way to go in his development.
Last Week: No. 25
The Cleveland Browns have found an immediate impact player for their defense in outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. Starting his second consecutive game in place of injured starter Jabaal Sheard, Mingo continued to stand out Thursday.
As previously mentioned, Mingo landed four hits on the quarterback and broke up a short pass with a big shoulder hit on Stevie Johnson, the Bills’ No. 1 wide receiver, on Thursday night. He showed great playmaking range, as he made plays in different spots on the field, dropped back into coverage efficiently and finished the night with four total tackles.
He did not add to his sack total Thursday, but he has been impressive in that capacity as well, notching three sacks in his first four NFL games after missing the Browns’ season opener while recovering from a bruised lung. His overall PFF grade was not kind to him through three weeks (minus-2.5), but that grade is likely to rise after a well-rounded performance on Thursday.
Last Week: No. 23
Considered by many (including yours truly) to be the worst pick of the first round, Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick has played better thus far than nearly every offensive lineman selected ahead of him in the 2013 NFL draft.
He has provided a stabilizing presence in the middle of a shaky Cowboys interior offensive line. His overall PFF grade of 2.4 ranks him 10th among NFL starting centers through four weeks. He has been especially good in run-blocking, with a 5.6 grade in that capacity that ranks second only to Jason Kelce of the Philadelphia Eagles.
After giving up six quarterback pressures in the Cowboys’ first two games, he has allowed just one to his opponents in the past two weeks.
Last Week: No. 21
Johnthan Banks has been a steady if unspectacular presence at cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.
He had his best game of the season on Sunday versus the Arizona Cardinals, coming up with an interception and a pass deflection while allowing just four receptions for 43 yards on eight targets.
He does not often have to face the opposing team’s best receiver—Darrelle Revis takes on that responsibility—but he is proving to be a more than capable No. 2 cornerback.
Last Week: No. 15
Although the Minnesota Vikings won their first game of the season Sunday, cornerback Xavier Rhodes played his worst game yet this season.
He gave up five receptions for 59 yards, including a 36-yard reception to Jerricho Cotchery. He also played less snaps as the No. 3 cornerback than Marcus Sherels, who jumped Rhodes from No. 4 on the depth chart to No. 2 following a Chris Cook groin injury in Week 3. Cotchery’s 36-yard play is the biggest play against Rhodes, who allowed just 46 receiving yards on passes thrown against him in his first three games, thus far this year.
Even with his shaky game Sunday, he has only allowed 0.69 yards per coverage, which ranks 13th among NFL cornerbacks who have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ coverage snaps, and it places him in first-place tie with Nickell Robey among rookie cornerbacks who have met the 50 percent criteria.
Last Week: No. 13
In a shaky week for the Chicago Bears’ offensive line, right guard Kyle Long was no exception. He gave up four quarterback pressures to the Detroit Lions and finished Sunday’s game, a 40-32 loss for the Bears, with a minus-2.8 overall PFF grade.
That said, Long’s struggles were quite understandable for a rookie offensive lineman, as he was tasked with going up against Lions defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh all game long. Fairley and Suh are both among the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman, and they certainly bring pressure against inexperienced or unprepared opponents.
Long has had a very solid rookie campaign thus far. He is a talented, athletic and skilled offensive lineman who should bounce back from his shaky game and continue to be one of the NFL’s best rookie offensive linemen.
Last Week: NR
Coming out of USC, Robert Woods really stood out as one of the most polished wide receivers in the 2013 NFL draft class. That has translated into early success in his NFL career, as he has established himself as a very solid No. 2 wideout for the Buffalo Bills passing offense.
A sharp route-runner with great hands and impressive open-field quickness, Woods has done a good job getting open and making plays as an intermediate receiver in Buffalo. He has 16 receptions for 265 yards through his first five games, including nine for 144 yards and a touchdown in his last two games.
Woods’ production could suffer after EJ Manuel’s injury, but he has been as reliable as any rookie wide receiver in the NFL thus far.
Last Week: NR
Undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has looked like a massive steal at times and an undrafted rookie at others. But, all in all, he has emerged as one of the top downfield weapons on a receiver-starved New England Patriots offense.
Thompkins had his breakout game on Sunday night versus the Atlanta Falcons. He caught six passes for 127 yards, including an acrobatic 18-yard diving touchdown catch in the end zone and a 49-yard deep ball he stole away from tight coverage.
Inconsistency has been Thompkins’ biggest issue. While he has made some fantastic plays already, he has also dropped too many passes that should have been easy receptions. PFF has credited Thompkins with four drops in four games.
Thompkins has only caught 15 passes on 39 total targets, but nonetheless, his big plays are generating him some deserved attention. He has 257 receiving yards and a team-leading three receiving touchdowns, both certainly impressive numbers for an undrafted rookie who earned a starting job out of the gates.
Last Week: No. 20
The anchoring nose tackle position in the middle of a 3-4 defense is one of the NFL’s toughest positions to play, but John Jenkins has done a fine job for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense in this role on the New Orleans Saints.
Jenkins has been a solid gap-filler and block-eater in the middle of the Saints’ defensive line, but he has also been using his quickness—which is outstanding for a man of his size (6’3”, 359 pounds)—to make plays as a run-stopper and pass-rusher.
The highlight of Jenkins’ game versus the Miami Dolphins came on a third-down stop in the red zone, where he blew by a Dolphins offensive lineman into the backfield and blew up Daniel Thomas for a tackle for loss on a third-down play to force the Dolphins to settle for a field goal.
Jenkins has recorded nine total tackles this season. He has also, with eight quarterback pressures, had unusual pass-rush success for a player of his size and position.
Overall, PFF rates Jenkins as the 12th-best defensive tackle in the NFL through four weeks.
Last Week: No. 9
The New Orleans Saints have gotten the immediate production they needed from their top two defensive picks in the 2013 NFL draft. While Jenkins has emerged as the nose tackle they needed in the middle of their three-man defensive front, Kenny Vaccaro has been a big playmaker in the secondary.
Vaccaro did not have a great game versus the Miami Dolphins. He recorded four tackles but did not have any pass defenses and had some missed playmaking opportunities. He finished the game with an overall PFF grade of minus-1.7.
Nonetheless, Vaccaro has made a big impact in the Saints’ quick defensive turnaround this season. He has played all but six total snaps on the Saints defense this season, and has not been personally beaten for any pass plays of longer than 18 yards.
Last Week: No. 8
Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard was mostly bottled up by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, gaining 75 yards on 16 touches with no plays longer than seven yards. That said, his lack of a big play was offset by gaining consistent positive yardage, even if only a few yards at a time, and he led Cincinnati in yards from scrimmage for the game in its disappointing 17-6 loss.
Bernard started the season out as the Bengals’ No. 2 running back, but he saw 50 snaps to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 18 at running back on Sunday. He has quickly emerged as a focal piece of the Cincinnati offense.
Although he did not make any big plays against the Browns, he has shown his ability to do so in previous weeks as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He has 269 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on 44 total touches.
Last Week: No. 7
Eric Reid had a quiet game with just two tackles and no pass defenses against the St. Louis Rams in Thursday Night Football to open Week 4, but he continued to be a solid presence in coverage at free safety for the San Francisco 49ers.
Reid has been an immediate and solid replacement for Dashon Goldson at free safety. While he is not as much of an impact player as a hitter or in run support, he may already be an upgrade over Goldson in coverage.
Reid ranks ninth with only 0.31 yards allowed per coverage snap and with 21.5 coverage snaps per target among all NFL safeties who have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ coverage snaps this season.
Last Week: No. 19
This season, the Detroit Lions needed an upgrade over Stephen Peterman at right guard. They got an immediate upgrade in third-round pick Larry Warford, who has been one of the NFL’s top guards this season.
The 6’3”, 333-pound Warford has lived up to his billing as a powerful run-blocker. He was dominant against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, finishing with an overall run-blocking rating of 4.1 from PFF.
He has also been very good as a pass-blocker, allowing no sacks and just two total pressures in the Lions’ first four games.
Warford has played every snap of the season thus far for the Lions, and his 7.5 overall PFF rating ties him with Cincinnati Bengals left guard Clint Boling as the NFL’s fourth-best guard this season.
Last Week: No. 10
Alec Ogletree has been a big-play machine and arguably the best linebacker for the St. Louis Rams this season. That continued in the Rams’ Week 4 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a game in which Ogletree forced a fumble and had nine total tackles.
Ogletree’s game has been up-and-down in both run defense and coverage, but he is a rangy playmaker who can play on all three downs and make a difference on any play. He has 31 total tackles, two forced fumbles and two pass deflections already on the year.
Ogletree played every defensive snap against the 49ers and has been in for all but eight Rams defensive plays this season.
Last Week: No. 6
Star Lotulelei has been dominant in his first three games for the Carolina Panthers. He has been exactly the impact player the Panthers had been missing at the defensive tackle position for years.
Lotulelei’s 7.7 overall PFF rating is the eighth-best among NFL defensive tackles through the first four weeks of the season. He has nine total tackles, including three tackles for loss (one sack).
He has been a tremendous run-stopper but has also been able to generate some pressure inside from a non-traditional pass-rushing spot at nose tackle. He has been rotated out of the lineup early to keep him fresh, but he has the skill set to be a three-down player.
The Panthers had a Week 4 bye.
Last Week: No. 5
Caleb Sturgis extended his run of NFL perfection, dating back to the start of the preseason, to 16 field goals by making his only field goal attempt against the New Orleans Saints, a 34-yard kick in the first quarter on Monday Night Football in Week 4.
Specific to the regular season, Sturgis has made all seven of his field goal attempts. He has also made every extra point he has attempted in a Miami Dolphins uniform and had only two kickoffs returned for 36 total yards by Saints returner Darren Sproles on Monday.
Last Week: No. 2
DeAndre Hopkins drew a tough matchup in Week 4 against Seattle Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, and he got shut down. He caught only two passes for 27 yards on Sunday.
The Seahawks were the perfect team to slow down Hopkins’ game. Hopkins thrives on his ability to take advantage of his size and physicality and make plays on the ball in the air, a game that works against smaller cornerbacks but one that can be shut down by Sherman and Browner, who are both big, strong cornerbacks who also attack the ball in the air.
His statistics for the season, however, remain very impressive for a rookie wide receiver. He leads all rookie wideouts with 20 receptions and 270 receiving yards.
Hopkins has been a go-to offensive playmaker for the Texans this season, and that should continue to be the case.
Last Week: No. 4
Tyrann Mathieu has been everything the Arizona Cardinals could have expected him to be over the first quarter of his inaugural NFL season.
After playing primarily at slot cornerback in his first three games, Mathieu got his first career start in Week 4 in place of injured free safety Rashad Johnson. He continued to make plays for the Cardinals, finishing the game with six tackles, including a tackle for loss, while holding his own in coverage.
Mathieu has made plays all over the field for the Cardinals so far this season. He has 29 tackles, one interception, one pass deflection and one forced fumble.
The Cardinals drafted Mathieu with the No. 69 overall selection looking for a defensive playmaker, and that’s what he has been.
Last Week: No. 1
Sunday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans was an ugly game for most of the New York Jets, but rookie first-round pick Sheldon Richardson continued to excel. He continued to penetrate frequently from the defensive front, recording three tackles and coming up with three quarterback pressures.
Interior defensive linemen do not typically stuff stat sheets, but Richardson has shown rare playmaking ability from the defensive front. He has 19 total tackles, eight quarterback pressures and four tackles for loss.
Richardson has made a big presence, especially against the run, and is rated as the NFL’s sixth-best 3-4 defensive end this season by PFF. He has played like a Pro Bowler early in his rookie season, and he would have been well deserving of keeping the top spot in the top 25 for a second consecutive week if not for a certain linebacker's performance on Thursday night.
Last Week: No. 3
Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is truly doing it all for the Buffalo defense. He played every defensive snap for the Bills through the first four weeks of the season, and has made big plays in every game, including Thursday night’s loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Before Thursday night’s game, Alonso had already earned the top spot with an exceptional performance versus the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Alonso recorded two interceptions in that game, including a leaping interception off a pass deflection with less than a minute to play that clinched Buffalo’s 23-20 victory.
On Thursday night, Alonso made his big plays as a run-stopper. He led the Bills in tackles and was consistently around the line of scrimmage. His biggest play of the night came on a Troy Polamalu-esque blitz, where Alonso blitzed in from the second level of the defense, perfectly timed a leap over the line of scrimmage and blew up a run in the backfield for a tackle for loss.
All in all, Alonso has excelled in run defense, blitzing and when dropping back into coverage. His four interceptions from Weeks 2-4 are tied for the most in the NFL for the season. He also has 44 total tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery through his first five games of the year.
The Buffalo Bills’ official website and Twitter account both had fun with tweets including “#TheLegendOfKikoAlonso” on Monday. While one should be cautious in already labeling him as a legend, he has made an immediately huge impact on the Bills defense and is the leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.