April seems so far away.
For this year's class of rookies, April—just six months ago—feels like an eternity ago. Since then, they've become superstars, been handed playbooks that dwarfed their college binders and been "welcomed" to the NFL by teammates and then by opponents. They've had ups. They've had downs. Yet one tie binds this group (and every rookie class) more than anything else.
The reality of midseason is a lot tougher than the optimism of April.
Our Bleacher Report NFL experts took a shot at a preseason all-rookie team back in September. At the time, we had already learned a lot about this group, so many of our votes are the same. Where the votes differ is almost entirely because of: a) someone getting injured or falling off the map; or b) some rookie coming out of nowhere with a fantastic first half of the season.
The first chapter of the book on this rookie class isn't even complete yet, so there is still plenty of story left to tell. This is the conflict, though, and each rookie on this list (or just off of it) needs to stay the course to make sure he comes out with an ending just as exciting and happy as his beginning.
Geno Smith (QB New York Jets)—11 Votes
We should have seen this coming from Geno Smith. Really, we should have.
Remember that quarterback we all had as the best one coming out of college? Yeah, that Geno Smith. Before we picked apart the athleticism and traded the statistical awe for criticism of his college scheme—remember back then, that guy?
He was good.
This Geno Smith is pretty good, too.
The Jets have every reason to be entirely horrendous on offense, and at times, they are. Yet it's Smith who has been able to course-correct better than any Jets quarterback since Brett Favre (2008) and, before that, Vinny Testaverde.
Yeah, the whole "New York Jets quarterback" thing has seen a pretty bad run.
Also Receiving Votes: EJ Manuel (QB Buffalo Bills)—1 Vote.
Gio Bernard (RB Cincinnati Bengals)—11 Votes
Eddie Lacy (RB Green Bay Packers)—11 Votes
This is the exact same pairing voted for in our preseason selections, though both of these rookies have had some minor speed bumps along the way and have had to fight for their carries in 2013.
Lacy suffered a concussion in a September matchup with the Washington Redskins, but he came back with a full head of steam in October against the Detroit Lions. Along the way, he has seen injuries to running backs DuJuan Harris (placed on I.R.) and James Starks (knee). It's allowed Lacy to receive the workman's share of the reps, and he's shone in the spotlight.
Bernard, for his part, is still competing for reps—almost inexplicably at times—with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In Week 7, he received just 12 touches (seven rush, five receptions). In Week 8, that number dipped to six (five rush, one reception).
When Bernard touches the ball, he can make magic happen, and it's up to quarterback Andy Dalton to get him more involved in the passing game, where he can be deadly to defenses.
Also Receiving Votes: Le'Veon Bell (RB Pittsburgh Steelers)—1 Vote; Andre Ellington (RB Arizona Cardinals)—1 Vote.
Tyler Eifert (TE Cincinnati Bengals)—8 Votes
Tommy Bohanon (FB New York Jets)—12 Votes
Eifert received all 12 of our votes in the preseason selection, but he has lost some steam thanks to Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who leads all rookies with 34 receptions and has 388 yards and two touchdowns to Eifert's 293 yards and one touchdown.
Eifert received the nod from many of us because he's playing more of a traditional tight end role and doing so on a much better team with fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham stealing many of his targets. He's asked to block much more than Reed and does so with surprising ability for a rookie.
Speaking of good blockers, Bohanon has some work to do before he has anyone mistake him for Vonta Leach, but he's found himself making good plays as a receiver and a runner as well. The Jets love his work ethic, and he has all the opportunity in the world to solidify a spot with this team after being selected in the seventh round.
Also Receiving Votes: Jordan Reed (TE Washington Redskins)—4 votes.
Keenan Allen (WR San Diego Chargers)—12 Votes
DeAndre Hopkins (WR Houston Texans)—11 Votes
We liked Hopkins in the preseason, but not as much as we loved St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin.
Now, just a few months down the road, Austin and Hopkins have roughly the same number of catches (29 and 28, respectively), but Hopkins has outgained his rookie peer, with 416 yards to Austin's 198. While Austin has lacked almost all of the explosiveness we expected out of him, Hopkins has been a featured part of the Texans' attack.
It is Allen, however, who has surprised lots of us, as the Chargers wideout has been a breath of fresh air for a team that sorely needed one in the receiving corps. With 399 yards, he's pacing the Chargers receivers and sits behind only tight end Antonio Gates for the team lead.
Also Receiving Votes: Terrance Williams (WR Dallas Cowboys)—1 Vote.
D.J. Fluker (OT San Diego Chargers)—12 Votes
Jordan Mills (OT Chicago Bears)—7 Votes
We had Fluker on the preseason list with six votes, but we had high hopes for Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Luke Joeckel (12 votes) and gave Mills only one lonely vote out of the bunch. (Kudos to NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland.)
Fluker is now known mostly for a devastating chokeslam which left the Chargers with a 15-yard penalty but the national viewing audience speechless. He's played well otherwise, too, giving up only two sacks by Pro Football Focus' count (paid link). In that same site's rankings, he sits 29th among all tackles—best among rookies.
Mills sits near the bottom of that list but gets a lot of credit for only giving up one sack on the season while playing in a pass-heavy offense. He was thrown into a line that needed a lot of help, and he's provided a spark, if not always the most consistency.
Also Receiving Votes: Justin Pugh (OT New York Giants)—2 Votes; Michael Bowie (OT Seattle Seahawks)—2 Votes; David Bakhtiari (OT Green Bay Packers)—1 Vote.
Kyle Long (OG Chicago Bears)—12 Votes
Larry Warford (OG Detroit Lions)—12 Votes
Travis Frederick (OC Dallas Cowboys—12 Votes
Unanimous picks across the board here, as none of our experts deviated from another. Only Warford was a surprise off of our preseason selections (where he received two votes behind Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack), as Long and Frederick have done everything they could to live up to their own respective levels of hype.
On Pro Football Focus (paid link), Long sits ranked No. 2 among rookie guards and has excelled, specifically, in the run game, where he has helped pave the way for running back Matt Forte. His combination of strength, athleticism and technical ability is a refreshing change of pace for Chicago fans who have suffered for years with poor line play. Next to the aforementioned Jordan Mills, Long should be a bright spot for years to come.
Long is second to Warford, who is tied for seventh among all guards. Warford has yet to give up a sack by PFF's eagle-eyed opinion, and he has provided consistent support for the Lions offense in both the run and the pass game.
Frederick got a lot of guff for being overdrafted (this is still true), but he stands ranked ninth among all centers in PFF's rankings. The Cowboys have lots of room for improvement, but center might be the least of their worries.
Star Lotulelei (DT Carolina Panthers)—11 Votes
Kawann Short (DT Carolina Panthers)—11 Votes
For years, I have advocated that the Panthers beef up their defensive line, and they did just that in the 2013 NFL draft. It's paid off in a big way, as their defense has moved from below average into the upper echelon of the NFL, and the added muscle up front has improved the play of everyone around it.
Lotulelei and Short are ranked 11th and 33rd, respectively, by Pro Football Focus and have led a defensive renaissance that has stymied opponents to the tune of fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground.
Things aren't going to get much easier on the Panthers' schedule—opponents like San Francisco, New England and New Orleans remain—but the Panthers sit in great position halfway through the season as possible playoff contenders, and it's a credit to the selection of these two hosses on the defensive line.
Also Receiving Votes: Chris Jones (DT New England Patriots)—1 Vote; John Jenkins (DT New Orleans Saints)—1 Vote.
Ezekiel Ansah (DE Detroit Lions)—12 Votes
Sheldon Richardson (DE New York Jets)—12 Votes
Ansah barely squeaked out a spot on our preseason squad with five votes, beating out Richardson, who had four.
What a difference half a season can make!
According to Pro Football Focus (paid link, still), Ansah has four sacks, three QB hits and 11 hurries. Altogether, that puts him ninth among right-side rushers in PFF's pass-rushing productivity metric (different paid link). He's been a lot more polished than expected—especially against the run.
Richardson has been even better, ranking fifth among all 3-4 defensive ends in PFF's list. Along with teammate Muhammad Wilkerson (ranked 3rd), the Jets' defensive front has helped lead any Jets success this season, making head coach Rex Ryan look like a defensive genius once more.
Kiko Alonso (MLB Buffalo Bills)—12 Votes
Vince Williams (ILB Pittsburgh Steelers)—9 Votes
Alonso is very possibly the best rookie this season, with four interceptions in coverage (tied for an NFL lead) and 81 tackles. Those numbers are identical to those of Dallas Cowboys veteran Sean Lee, who should be headed to the Pro Bowl this season. Alonso, by all rights, should be seated on the airplane right next to him on the flight to Hawaii.
Williams has made less of an impact this season, but he has been a bright spot in the Steelers' lineup, which has needed young talent for quite some time. He gets the nod because there simply aren't that many rookies who have played meaningful snaps.
Also Receiving Votes: Jon Bostic (MLB Chicago Bears)—3 Votes.
Barkevious Mingo (OLB Cleveland Browns)—11 Votes
Corey Lemonier (OLB San Francisco 49ers)—8 Votes
Mingo was on our preseason team, but Lemonier wasn't even on our radar, receiving zero votes!
Mingo has played more snaps than many of us thought he would in his first season. He's performed so-so with the heavy workload, ranking 35th out of 41 outside linebackers this season in Pro Football Focus' rankings (paid link). Thought to be a pass-rushing specialist, he's only collected three sacks this season but has done so on a very talented Browns front.
Lemonier is on a talented Niners defense, but he has shone brightly in his limited time. When Lemonier is in the game, quarterbacks have to watch out. Although he's been held to one sack in limited snaps, he's also collected three QB hits and 14 hurries. That puts him 18th in PFF's pass-rush productivity metric (paid link).
Also Receiving Votes: Sio Moore (OLB Oakland Raiders)—2 Votes; Alec Ogletree (OLB St. Louis Rams)—2 Votes; Andy Mulumba (OLB Green Bay Packers)—1 Vote.
Desmond Trufant (CB Atlanta Falcons)—7 Votes
Marcus Cooper (CB Kansas City Chiefs)—7 Votes
Cornerback is a tough position in which to transition from college to the NFL, and this is our most split positional category, with many of our divisional lead writers advocating for the talented rookies in their own divisions. Trufant and Cooper come out with the honors, however, with solid support from both divisional and national writers.
Cooper has been a huge part of Kansas City's defensive success this season and has performed admirably in its sub-packages behind cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith. Cooper leads all rookies with 13 passes defensed and has two interceptions to go along with them.
Trufant's numbers are less gaudy, with no interceptions, but he's forced a fumble and leads all rookie cornerbacks with 32 tackles.
Also Receiving Votes: Robert Alford (CB Atlanta Falcons)—5 Votes; Xavier Rhodes (CB Minnesota Vikings)—1 Vote; Nickell Robey (CB Buffalo Bills)—1 Vote; Micah Hyde (CB Green Bay Packers)—1 Vote; D.J. Hayden (CB Oakland Raiders)—1 Vote; Kayvon Webster (CB Denver Broncos)—1 Vote.
Eric Reid (S San Francisco 49ers)—9 Votes
Tyrann Mathieu (S/CB Arizona Cardinals)—7 Votes
Safety was a difficult position to grade as both Mathieu and Kenny Vaccaro play a lot of nickel-cornerback, which doesn't technically count as safety, but both are considered safeties by their teams.
Speaking entirely on snaps played in the safety position, Vaccaro should probably get the nod, but Mathieu has been the better player, eschewing any talk of his draft position or off-the-field issues and simply getting to work, solidifying the Cardinals' defensive backfield. He's pulled in two interceptions on the year.
Reid was thrown into the starting lineup for the 49ers and has had some up-and-down moments, but his play has been a positive for the team, as his hard-hitting ability and knack for grabbing interceptions (three on the year) has left receivers thinking twice before crossing his zone.
Also Receiving Votes: Kenny Vaccaro (S New Orleans Saints)—5 Votes; J.J. Wilcox (S Dallas Cowboys)—1 Vote; Matt Elam (S Baltimore Ravens)—1 Vote; Jahleel Addae (S San Diego Chargers)—1 Vote.
Cordarrelle Patterson (KR Minnesota Vikings)—12 Votes
Tavon Austin (PR St. Louis Rams)—12 Votes
Caleb Sturgis (K Miami Dolphins)—12 Votes
Sam Martin (P Detroit Lions)—10 Votes
No-brainers across the board here, as Patterson has been the lone weapon not named Adrian Peterson for the Vikings and Austin has made an infinitely greater impact on special teams for the Rams than he has in their offensive package.
After a year of tremendous rookie kicking specialists, Sturgis and Martin gather most of our votes halfway through 2013, rewarding their respective teams for drafting them back-to-back in the fifth round this past April.
Also Receiving Votes: Ryan Allen (P New England Patriots)—2 Votes.