Top 25 NFL Rookies Heading into Week 16

Dan HopeContributor IIIDecember 18, 2013

Top 25 NFL Rookies Heading into Week 16

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    Keenan Allen hurdled his way to a touchdown against the Denver Broncos and in a move up the Rookie Rankings.
    Keenan Allen hurdled his way to a touchdown against the Denver Broncos and in a move up the Rookie Rankings.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    There are only two weeks left in the NFL season, but the Offensive Rookie of the Year race only heated up in Week 15.

    Though Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford has been as good as any rookie in the NFL this year, the top two candidates for the award are likely to be San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen and Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy. Both came up with big performances in Week 15—Allen had two receiving touchdowns, while Lacy had 171 yards from scrimmage—as each led their teams to major victories that kept each team alive in their respective playoff races.

    The Defensive Rookie of the Year race may be getting more one-sided by the week, but as the season nears its close, there are still many rookies to watch for in the Bleacher Report Rookie Rankings as the top first-year players look to close out their strong seasons on high notes.

     

    Note: All advanced statistics and snap counts, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Pro Football Focus' premium statistics database (subscription required).

Dropouts from Last Week’s Rankings

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    Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Last Week: No. 22

    Every rookie quarterback has struggled this season, and Mike Glennon is proving to be far from an exception. In his last three games, he has completed just 41 of 80 passing attempts for 449 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.

    If Glennon is going to prove he should remain Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback going into 2014, he needs to bounce back in his final two games of the season.

     

    Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions

    Last Week: No. 25

    For as good as Ezekiel Ansah has looked at times this season for the Detroit Lions, his play has been very inconsistent. That continued to be the case in Detroit’s loss Monday night to the Baltimore Ravens, where he made a minimal impact and did not record a statistic on the box score in 41 snaps.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matt Elam, FS, Baltimore Ravens

    Last Week: NR

    Matt Elam has had a fairly quiet season for a first-round pick, but there was nothing quiet about his Week 15. He made headlines early in the week when he, as reported by David Ginsburg of the Associated Press, referred to Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson as “pretty old.”

    He made headlines with his play on Monday Night Football, however, leading Baltimore with 10 tackles while coming up with the game-sealing interception in the Ravens’ 18-16 victory. Overall, Elam’s play has not stood out as either great or bad this season, but he is progressing well to look like a strong investment in the Baltimore secondary.

     

    Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers

    Last Week: NR

    Kawann Short has not made as many flashy plays or received nearly as much attention as Star Lotulelei (more to come), but at least in the analytical minds of PFF, he has been just as good. Though Short has played 66 less snaps than Lotulelei this season, he has an overall rating of 13.6 from PFF for the season, good for a tie for 17th among NFL defensive tackles.

25. Nickell Robey, CB, Buffalo Bills

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    Last Week: Dropout

    After back-to-back bad games that knocked him out of the rookie rankings, Buffalo Bills slot cornerback Nickell Robey needed a big Week 15 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars to get his season back on track. He delivered by coming up with two of the game’s biggest defensive plays.

    With less than a minute to play in the first half, Robey stopped a Jacksonville drive in its tracks when he hit Jaguars wide receiver Mike Brown immediately on a screen pass, forced a fumble and recovered the loose ball. His forced and recovered fumble not only stopped Jacksonville from cutting into a halftime deficit, but set up the Bills to get in position to extend their halftime lead with a field goal as the half clock expired.

    Robey made another big play to thwart Jacksonville’s final offensive series of the game when he buried Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne for an eight-yard sack on 3rd-and-7. That play was nothing spectacular from Robey, however, as it came on a blitz where he was unblocked.

    Nonetheless, Robey has been an impact player for Buffalo all season and he was once again Sunday.

    He continued to be much shakier in coverage than he had been earlier the season, allowing receivers inside of him for catches of 28 and 16 yards, but he still ranks tied for ninth among cornerbacks who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s coverage snaps by allowing just 0.95 yards per coverage snap this season.

    He might not finish the season on this list if he continues to get beat deep for big passing plays, but his big plays Sunday and all season have him on here now.

24. D.J. Fluker, RT, San Diego Chargers

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    Last Week: Dropout

    D.J. Fluker’s performance had really hit the skids in recent weeks, especially during a three-game span where he had to fill in at left tackle each week, but he stepped his game back up in San Diego’s surprise Week 15 win against the Denver Broncos.

    Though he was beaten by Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips for a sack late in the third quarter, he otherwise held up well. He spent much of the night matched up against one of the NFL’s elite defenders in Von Miller, and Fluker held Miller in check.

    Fluker looked to find his groove again in his second game back at right tackle and finished Thursday night with his first positive PFF rating since Week 9.

    Fluker’s season has been far from great, but his struggles have come at one of the most difficult positions for rookies to excel at quickly and in a season where he has had to learn how to play left tackle. He never played there at Alabama. 

    He has shown significant promise as both a run blocker and pass protector, but needs to finish his season strong to hold his place in the rookie rankings.

23. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Last Week: No. 23

    DeAndre Hopkins has not been consistently productive, as Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum has continued to struggle, but one thing that has been consistent for Hopkins in recent weeks is big plays.

    He has had Houston’s longest receiving play in each of its last three games: a 66-yard catch-and-run against the New England Patriots in Week 13, a 46-yard catch-and-run against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14 and a tough adjustment back to a 3rd-and-long deep ball for a 39-yard reception in Sunday's game in Indianapolis.

    Considering the team's quarterbacks have lacked deep accuracy all season, it has been an asset to have a playmaker like Hopkins who is physical and excels at leaping up to the highest point and making contested catches.

    Hopkins’ overall production has been hurt this season by poor quarterback play, yet he still ranks second among all rookies with 759 receiving yards on 47 attempts. He projects to be a key playmaker for whoever Houston’s quarterback is in 2014.

22. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: No. 19

    Tavon Austin had really hit his stride going into Week 15, having had four plays of 50 yards or more between his four previous games, but suffered an unfortunate setback when he missed Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints with an ankle injury.

    Though Austin has yet to become a consistent source of offensive production for the Rams, he has made it clear in recent weeks that his big-play ability translates to the NFL. An explosive athlete with both great speed and dynamic open-field quickness, Austin is a threat to turn any touch of the ball into a big gain.

    He has made plays as a receiver, rusher, punt returner and kickoff returner. He ranks third among NFL rookies with 1,247 all-purpose yards as a result.

21. Kyle Long, RG, Chicago Bears

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Last Week: No. 17

    Kyle Long’s play has been up and down all season, and that continued to be the case in Week 15. Having scored a season-best 4.0 overall rating by PFF for his performance one week earlier against the Dallas Cowboys, Long struggled against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and finished the game with a minus-1.7 PFF rating as a result.

    Long has been solid as a pass protector, allowing just two sacks all season and only one quarterback pressure in each of his last three games, but his run blocking has been inconsistent.

    He has used his great feet and strength to dominate at times, but Sunday was not one of his better performances, at least in the eyes of PFF with his minus-1.9 run blocking rating.

    All in all, Long has had an impressive rookie season even if his play has been concerning at times and his minus-3.4 overall PFF rating is disappointing. He has shown the potential to develop into the league’s best at his position while outplaying most of the offensive linemen who were drafted ahead of him.

20. Justin Pugh, RT, New York Giants

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Last Week: No. 18

    Just about nothing went well for the New York Giants in their 23-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, and that held true for rookie right tackle Justin Pugh. Though Pugh has been very good in recent weeks, he struggled against one of the NFL’s best pressure defenses, held responsible by PFF for allowing one sack and four total quarterback pressures.

    It was a tough day for Pugh, but it has been for many offensive tackles this season who have had to go up against a Seahawks pass-rush rotation that includes Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons.

    Overall, Pugh has started all 14 games for the Giants at right tackle this season and has a 3.0 overall rating from PFF, the best of any rookie offensive tackle who has started all of his team’s games. He has been one of the most solid players on an offensive line and overall offense that has had a very tough season.

19. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Last Week: No. 16

    Xavier Rhodes had one of his best games of the season in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens, allowing just two receptions for 20 yards on seven targets while recording three passes defensed, a forced fumble and three tackles. Rhodes suffered an ankle injury in that game, however, which kept him out of Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The Vikings got along OK without Rhodes, as Shaun Prater filled in nicely in his first start of the season and helped Minnesota secure a 48-30 victory Sunday. Nonetheless, the Vikings should still be hoping for a return from Rhodes, who has been their most consistent cornerback, in the next two weeks.

    Overall, Rhodes has allowed just 1.02 yards per coverage snap this season, which is the second-best average among rookie cornerbacks who have played at least 60 percent of their team’s coverage snaps.

18. Alec Ogletree, OLB, St. Louis Rams

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    Last Week: No. 21

    Both the positives and negatives of Alec Ogletree’s game remained consistent in St. Louis’ Week 15 win against the New Orleans Saints. He continued to be one of the Rams’ most productive defenders and made plays all over the field, but also gave up no shortage of underneath throws and missed multiple tackles.

    Ogletree had seven solo tackles Sunday, which increased his season total to 101 with 86 solo tackles. One of those was a five-yard tackle for loss, and he also recorded his ninth pass defense of the season with a deflection.

    On the other end of the spectrum, PFF credited Ogletree with allowing nine receptions on 13 targets, though he only allowed those catches to go for 46 combined yards. He was also credited with two missed tackles, increasing his season total in that category to 16.

    Ogletree is going to need to become a more technically sound player in time, but those numbers have been somewhat inflated by the weak-side linebacker position he plays. With nine total tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, in addition to tackles and pass defenses this season, he has evidently been a difference-maker for the Rams defense.

17. Paul Worrilow, ILB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Last Week: No. 14

    With at least nine tackles in each of his last seven games, Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow has had very consistent production in the second half of the season. The undrafted rookie has had ups and downs in terms of his overall level of play, but he has consistently been active around the football and shown off his athletic range week in and week out.

    However, his nine-tackle performance in a win against the Washington Redskins didn’t impress PFF, who gave Worrilow a season-low minus-4.6 rating for his play Sunday. Worrilow was credited with one missed tackle Sunday and allowing five receptions for 62 yards in coverage.

    Worrilow needs to get more consistent with getting off of blocks and taking proper angles to the ball, but unsurprisingly, his production is causing opposing offenses to game plan against him already.

    Scott Carasik, who covers the Falcons for Bleacher Report, tweeted that the Redskins offensive line “made sure they got a hat on (Worrilow) every play,” which may have led to his struggles on Sunday. 

    The Falcons will take his struggles, and certainly opposing offenses keying in on him to free up other defenders, as an undrafted rookie on an otherwise struggling defense. Worrilow has shown the potential for greatness as a rookie and appears to have a bright future ahead of him as Atlanta’s middle linebacker.

16. Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 24

    Andre Ellington has received less than 15 touches in all but one game this season, but few running backs have taken more advantage of their opportunities to make plays with the ball in their hands. Ellington was at his best Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, gaining a whopping 158 total yards on just 14 touches.

    Ellington made big plays Sunday on the ground, where his 71 yards on 10 carries improved his league-leading yards per carry average to 5.9, while he was also fantastic as a receiver out of the backfield, gaining a total of 87 yards on just four receptions.

    With very good open-field vision and quickness, Ellington is at his best when he has the opportunity to make plays in space, and he has had those opportunities as both a rusher and receiver. Even though his touches have been limited in a situational role, he still ranks sixth among all rookies with 909 yards from scrimmage (558 rushing yards, 351 receiving yards).

    Ellington is one of just nine NFL players with seven or more rushing plays of 20 or more yards. (The only player with more 20-plus yard runs in fewer attempts is Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who has eight 20-plus yard rushing plays in 74 attempts.)

    Ellington also leads qualifying running backs with a 23.4 percentage of carries that have gone 10 yards or more, according to Bleacher Report’s Shaun Church.

15. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams

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    Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 20

    With just 22 yards on 17 touches against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14, there was reason for concern that Zac Stacy had hit the “rookie wall.” Stacy made those concerns look silly against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, getting back on track with a 133-yard rushing day on 28 rushing attempts.

    Highlighted by a 40-yard touchdown run, Stacy was the league’s No. 3 rusher for Week 15 while coming one yard shot of his season-high rushing total. The ability to bounce off contact and extend runs that had evaded him one week earlier was back in Sunday’s win, as he averaged 4.8 rushing yards per carry.

    With 28 runs and one catch that went for 10 yards, he moved up to fourth among all NFL rookies with 967 yards from scrimmage on the season, while he is a clearly-defined second among rookies with 854 rushing yards.

    Though there have been a few running backs who have stood out more than Stacy, he has had a fantastic season for a fifth-round pick, a draft pick that partially resulted from St. Louis’ decision to trade its No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. That trade looks more and more brilliant by the week, as it appears the Rams’ 2014 first-round pick from Washington could also end up being in the No. 2 slot.

14. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Last Week: No. 15

    Cordarrelle Patterson had 50 total yards on eight offensive touches Sunday, but his biggest impact in Minnesota’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles came in what he didn’t get the opportunity to do.

    Patterson leads the NFL with an average of 33.3 yards per kickoff return and two kickoff returns. Those statistics scared the Eagles into not kicking the ball deep at all during the game, instead deciding to kick it short and keep the ball out of Patterson’s hands.

    As a result, the Vikings started all six of their possessions off of Eagles kickoffs at the 25-yard line or better, including four beyond the 34-yard line (the last one was an onside kick). Minnesota turned four of those six drives into points.

    Patterson caused the Eagles to make a conservative decision that backfired on them in a 48-30 Vikings win, and he continued to establish himself offensively as well with his five catches, including a five-yard touchdown reception, and two runs.

    All in all, Patterson has been one of the league’s most dynamic rookie players, and he leads all rookies by a wide margin with 1,679 all-purpose yards.

13. Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 12

    Desmond Trufant has been the most consistent cornerback in this year’s rookie class, both in terms of making plays on the ball and limiting opponents in coverage.

    He continued excelling in the first capacity Sunday against the Washington Redskins, intercepting one pass while deflecting another to increase his season total to 16 passes defensed, which ranks him second among rookies and in the top 10 among all NFL players.

    He was not as good in the latter capacity Sunday, giving up 87 receiving yards, including a 53-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon. But even after giving up that season-high receiving total, he has only allowed 1.10 yards per coverage snap this season.

    Trufant has started all 14 games for the Atlanta defense this season, and he has immediately emerged as a very solid NFL starting cornerback. The No. 22 overall pick of the 2013 draft has looked well worth the first-round investment thus far.

12. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys

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    Last Week: No. 11

    The Dallas Cowboys offensive line gave up more pressure than it should have in the team’s second-half collapse against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and that included standout rookie center Travis Frederick. For only the second time this season, Frederick gave up three or more quarterback pressures, including one sack.

    Frederick has stabilized the middle of the Cowboys offensive line this season, but he has struggled somewhat in Dallas’ last two games. Still, he has only been credited with allowing four sacks and 19 total quarterback pressures this season.

    The Cowboys made a puzzling decision to turn away from running the ball after having success doing so in the first half against Green Bay, but Frederick continued to excel as a run blocker, leading the way up the middle for Dallas running back DeMarco Murray. Frederick received a 4.3 run blocking rating from PFF for Sunday’s game, and he ranks as the NFL’s second-best run blocking center this season with a cumulative rating of 14.7.

    Frederick needs to become more consistently effective in pass protection than he has been, but nonetheless, he has been one of the NFL’s best centers in his rookie season and appears to have a bright future leading the middle of the Dallas offensive line.

11. Tyrann Mathieu, FS/CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 9

    Tyrann Mathieu’s season came to an end last week when he was placed on injured reserve with torn anterior and lateral cruciate ligaments in his left knee suffered in Arizona’s Week 14 win. Nonetheless, Mathieu remains well within the top 25 for his great accomplishments prior to the injury.

    Had Mathieu remained healthy, he would have been in position to be a truly legitimate candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Splitting time between slot cornerback in nickel packages and free safety in base packages, Mathieu had been productive wherever he lined up on the field and showed the range to cover ground quickly and make plays.

    Mathieu finished his rookie season with 68 total tackles, nine passes defensed (two interceptions), six total tackles for loss (one sack) and one forced fumble, all the while allowing just 0.90 yards per coverage snap.

    All of those numbers should remain among the best in the entire rookie class. Mathieu, whose play seemed to suffer no ill effects from sitting out the 2012 college football season following his dismissal from LSU, had been a playmaker for the Cardinals all year in every capacity, from deep coverage to run support and even as a blitzing pass-rusher.

10. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Last Week: No. 13

    Le’Veon Bell continued to be a workhorse and take advantage of his heavy workload in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Sunday Night Football victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Bell didn’t get many easy yards against the league’s No. 6-ranked total defense, but that didn’t stop him from gaining 107 total yards on a season-high 29 touches. From a devastating stiff arm against Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson to hurdling over defenders, Bell used both his power and athleticism to provide balance to the Pittsburgh offense.

    Bell might not be much of a big-play back—he is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season, including just 2.4 per carry Sunday—but his consistency and reliability have made one of the league’s best rookies.

    He has gained at least 80 total yards in each of his last seven starts and nine of his 11 total starts, has scored six rushing touchdowns this season and has not fumbled the ball once.

    He has made plays as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield and has performed adequately as a pass-protector, making him a fixture on the field for the Steelers offense. Although he missed Pittsburgh’s first three games with a foot injury, he ranks third among all rookies with 1,034 yards from scrimmage.

9. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, New Orleans Saints

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    Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 10

    Like the aforementioned Tyrann Mathieu, Kenny Vaccaro lines up in multiple spots on the field, does a little bit of everything and makes a big impact in the process.

    Vaccaro has lined up in both safety spots, slot cornerback and linebacker this season while being a run-support fixture and playing both in pass coverage and as a blitzing pass-rusher, and he has really improved in all areas of his game over the course of the season.

    Vaccaro was not a favorite of PFF early in the season, as he had four game ratings of minus-1.1 or worse in his first five games. In recent weeks, he has been grading out consistently well by PFF. Six of his last seven game grades have been 1.1 or better, including a 1.1 grade in Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams that made him the highest-rated player on New Orleans’ defense.

    Vaccaro is consistently on the field, and he takes advantage of his playmaking opportunities. He had six tackles, including one for loss against the Rams. For the season, Vaccaro has 77 total tackles (five tackles for loss), six pass defenses (one interception), five quarterback pressures and one forced fumble.

8. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 8

    Star Lotulelei has been dominant and pedestrian this season, and at least statistically, the latter was the case Sunday. For only the second time all season, he was credited with no solo tackles or quarterback pressures, though he did have two assisted tackles.

    That said, Lotulelei’s impact at the nose tackle position can often not be measured by statistical production. Though he has not become an every-down player for the Panthers defense, he consistently occupies blockers with his size and strength and helps free up his teammates to make the plays that get them on the box score.

    Even so, Lotulelei ranks second among all rookie defensive linemen with 38 total tackles, including nine tackles for loss. His run-stop percentage of 14.1 (27 stops in 192 snaps against the run) ranks as the league’s best among defensive tackles who have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps against the run.

    Even if he has not flourished on a week-to-week basis, he has made a clear impact, especially as a run-stopper, on a defense that has emerged as one of the league’s best this season.

7. Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 7

    Eric Reid has not made as many big plays in recent weeks as he did earlier in the season, but he did make the game-sealing interception for the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Additionally, he had one of his best games of the season in coverage Sunday, as PFF did not credit him as responsible for giving up any passes in coverage.

    Overall, Reid has had a great rookie season in which he had to fill the big shoes left at free safety by 2012 AP All-Pro Dashon Goldson.

    With 10 passes defensed (four interceptions) and allowing just 0.58 yards per coverage snap, he has been an upgrade in coverage, even if he has not been quite as impactful as a big hitter in run support as Goldson was.

    Reid has also recorded 64 total tackles and two fumble recoveries this year. PFF has cumulatively rated him as the 19th-best free safety in the NFL this season.

6. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 6

    In a week where all of the other rookie running backs reached triple digits in total yards, Giovani Bernard was held mostly in check in the Cincinnati Bengals’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. While Bernard ran hard for some tough yards and scored a one-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter, he did not gain more than eight yards on any of his 15 total touches and was held to just 46 total yards for the game.

    The Bengals offense never found much traction Sunday, and unfortunately for Bernard’s Offensive Rookie of the Year candidacy, he was no exception. His average of just barely more than three yards per touch Sunday was far below his season average of more than five yards per touch.

    Nonetheless, Bernard has been one of the NFL’s most productive rookie players this season. His 1,069 yards from scrimmage rank second among all rookies, while his eight touchdowns scored are tied for the most among all rookies.

    With some strong competition in front of him, Bernard really needed to finish the season out strong to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, so Sunday’s disappointing game is a significant step back for him in that race. Nonetheless, he has been a key playmaker for the Cincinnati offense all season and will be crucial to its success down the stretch.

5. Kiko Alonso, ILB, Buffalo Bills

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 4

    Although Kiko Alonso was listed on Buffalo’s injury report all week with a knee injury, he not only played Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but kept his impressive streak of playing every single snap for the Bills defense this season alive. Outside of that, Alonso had a relatively pedestrian game, finishing the game with six total tackles but none for loss.

    Alonso has been as important as any player to the Bills defense all season long, as he had taken on a leadership and play-calling role for the unit while patrolling the middle of the field both as a run-stopper at the line of scrimmage and in short-to-intermediate pass coverage. That said, his reputation as a big-play defender has mostly been riding off of his performance in early weeks.

    Ranking third in the league with 137 total tackles while having 11 total tackles for loss, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, Alonso has made a clear difference for the Buffalo defense this year.

    He needs to become more consistent in the angles he takes in run defense, but through his overall production and constant presence on the field, he has shown the upside to be one of the league’s best middle linebackers for many years to come.

4. Larry Warford, RG, Detroit Lions

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 2

    PFF still has not deemed Larry Warford responsible for a sack this season, but he was at least partially responsible for one during Detroit’s Monday Night Football loss to the Baltimore Ravens, when Baltimore defensive end Arthur Jones combined with Daryl Smith for the game’s only sack of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    Unfortunately for Warford, his chance for national recognition Monday turned out to be one of his least-impressive games of the season. In addition to the partial sack allowed, he struggled to create much headway as a run blocker and was flagged for a fourth-quarter holding penalty. He received a minus-1.6 grade for the game from PFF, his lowest grade of the season.

    Still, the focus of Warford’s season should not be on his disappointing night Monday, but on the excellence he has shown all season. He has been very effective for the most part as a power run blocker. His 18.5 overall PFF rating is the fourth-best among all guards in the NFL this season.

    A guard has never won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and the slim chance of that happening likely dissipated as he struggled while numerous skill-position rookies shined in Week 15. That said, he has looked like a potential All-Pro this season and a huge steal for Detroit as a third-round draft pick.

3. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Last Week: No. 5

    The Green Bay Packers made an epic comeback from a 26-3 halftime deficit to 37-36 win against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, and rookie running back Eddie Lacy was a key reason why.

    Lacy rushed for a whopping 141 yards on 21 carries, including the game-winning one-yard rushing touchdown with just 1:31 left in regulation and also added 30 receiving yards on four receptions.

    Lacy’s season-high 171 yards from scrimmage increased his season totals to 1,264 yards from scrimmage and 1,028 rushing yards, both best among rookies. He is also tied for the rookie lead with eight touchdowns scored.

    With Aaron Rodgers out for a sixth consecutive game, establishing success on the ground was of utmost importance for Green Bay on Sunday, and Lacy was able to do that successfully.

    A big, bruising tailback who supplements his size and strength with good burst and quickness, leading the Packers to a win Sunday—a win that kept their playoff hopes alive and well—might have propelled him into the lead in the Offensive Rookie of the Year award race.

2. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: No. 3

    Keenan Allen only had two receptions against the Denver Broncos on Thursday, but both went for touchdowns, which played a huge role in the San Diego Chargers’ upset victory. Allen’s second consecutive two-touchdown game included one of the highlights of the season (see video) when he leaped over on a defender en route to the end zone on a 19-yard catch-and-run.

    Allen has been the best of a talented class of rookie wide receivers by a wide margin. He has seemingly made big plays on a weekly basis for the Chargers recently, and he leads all rookies with 63 receptions, 931 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns.

    Concerns about his speed and health are likely what pushed Allen down to the third round of the draft, but those concerns have not held him back at all this year. He has consistently made plays on the ball by attacking it physically and running strong routes.

    Allen’s four touchdowns in recent weeks have played a big role in back-to-back wins for San Diego, which has kept it alive in the race for the sixth AFC playoff spot (though it does need some help to have a chance).

    Those touchdowns have also helped propel Allen to a leading position in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race.

1. Sheldon Richardson, DT/DE, New York Jets

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    Last Week: No. 1

    If there has been one consistent thing about this year’s rookie class, it has been New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson dominating the line of scrimmage and making big plays.

    Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers was no exception. Richardson had four total tackles and two quarterback hurries. He even checked into the game offensively for two plays at running back in a goal-line situation and finished with a one-yard rushing touchdown.

    While an offensive touchdown may not boost Richardson’s Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy, his play all year has made him a clear favorite. He leads all NFL interior defensive linemen with 70 total tackles, has 15.5 total tackles for loss and is rated by PFF as the league’s third-best 3-4 defensive end this season with a 30.6 cumulative rating.

    Richardson has the best PFF rating of any rookie in the league. He has been statistically productive all season, but has also often freed up his teammates to make plays by occupying blockers with his size, strength and explosion. With a 10.8 run stop percentage (32 stops in 295 run snaps), he ranks fourth among 3-4 DEs who have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps this season.

     

    Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.