New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson became a star in his rookie season.
While it may still be a year or two too early to determine the success or failure of each NFL team’s 2013 draft selections, each player’s rookie season can be evaluated now that the regular season has concluded.
The NFL’s rookie awards may be decided between a select few players on each side of the ball, but there were many other guys who made strong impressions in their first NFL seasons.
In the final Bleacher Report NFL Rookie Rankings, we take a look at 50 of the most impressive first-year players, ranging from top-five overall draft selections to undrafted revelations.
While some players are only scratching the surface of their potential and others might fail to build upon their early success, all of them took on significant roles for their teams and made, at least at times, positive impacts.
Note: All advanced statistics and snap counts, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Pro Football Focus' premium statistics database (subscription required). All standard statistics and statistical rankings courtesy of Pro Football Reference and/or ESPN unless otherwise noted.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Zach Ertz showed some significant promise as a rookie for the Philadelphia Eagles, catching 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns while emerging as a weapon in Philadelphia’s new-look offense. His performance was inconsistent, however, and his blocking needs to improve going into 2014.
Joseph Fauria, TE, Detroit Lions
Joseph Fauria did not play frequently for Detroit, but he was excellent in the role of red-zone threat. Though he caught just 18 passes for 207 yards, he had seven touchdown receptions, tied for the second most among rookies.
Fauria needs to show more downfield receiving ability and improve as a blocker. Still, he proved to be a major asset, even as an undrafted free agent, for his ability to use his size and leaping ability to make plays in the end zone.
Marcus Cooper, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
One would think a rookie cornerback who finished third in the NFL with 20 passes defensed would crack the top 50, but part of the reason Marcus Cooper defended so many passes was how often he was targeted.
Cooper allowed 1.95 yards per coverage snap, the most allowed by any NFL cornerback who played at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps, and he was targeted once per every 4.7 coverage snaps. Though he spent much of the season among the Chiefs’ top trio of cornerbacks, his playing time diminished after a three-week stretch between Weeks 11-13 in which he gave up 454 receiving yards in coverage.
Though the Jacksonville Jaguars still have one of the NFL’s least talented rosters, there were some young players who started to emerge. One was wide receiver Ace Sanders, the team’s fourth-round pick.
A small but quick and shifty playmaker out of the slot, Sanders was Jacksonville’s second-leading receiver with 51 receptions for 484 yards, including one touchdown. His receptions total ranked fifth among all rookies in 2013.
Sanders was also Jacksonville’s punt returner, though he was ineffective in that role. With only 140 yards on 25 punt returns, Sanders’ 5.6 yards-per-punt return was the worst among NFL players with at least 20 attempts.
His lack of success in that capacity might lead the Jaguars to look for a new punt returner for 2014, but he has established himself as plenty capable of being the team’s slot receiver going forward.
Robert Woods has a promising future in the NFL, but his play was inconsistent. Still, he caught a pass in all 14 games he played (40 total) and finished with 587 receiving yards, the fifth most among NFL rookies.
While there were a good amount of wide receivers in the rookie class who outperformed him, most of them also had more stability at the quarterback position than Woods. He had three different starting QBs this season in rookie EJ Manuel, backup Thad Lewis and first-year third-stringer Jeff Tuel.
As a result, the entire offense was inconsistent. Having displayed potential as a quick downfield target who has great hands and runs strong routes, Woods emerged as Buffalo’s No. 2 receiver and should improve in his sophomore year if Manuel can stay healthy and continue developing his game in 2014.
LaAdrian Waddle only started eight games, having taken over the starting right tackle job midseason and battled injuries late in the season. Still, he was impressive enough in his on-field action to earn a spot in the rookie rankings.
He proved to be a significant upgrade over Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox at right tackle, especially in pass protection, in which he allowed no sacks and just 25 pressures in 315 passing snaps. Though he only played 553 total snaps, his 7.9 cumulative PFF rating was the best among all rookie offensive tackles.
Though initially added to the roster as an undrafted free agent, Waddle showed enough as a rookie to go into 2014 as the favorite to remain Detroit’s starting right tackle.
It was a rough year for Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. He only played in 10 games due to multiple knee injuries, and his play was very much up and down when he was on the field.
Manuel’s passing was often erratic when he was on the field, and he completed just 58.8 percent of his 306 passing attempts while throwing nine interceptions. He threw for 1,972 yards and 11 touchdowns, but his 77.7 quarterback rating ranked 29th in the NFL.
Manuel made enough big plays as both a passer and runner—he ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns—to make it onto the back end of the rookie rankings. That said, he will go into his second season with a long way to go in his development and a real need to prove he can be the franchise quarterback the Bills drafted him to be with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Geno Smith had a rough season as the rookie starting quarterback of the New York Jets, as he suffered from questionable decision-making. As a result, his 66.5 passer rating was the worst among all NFL starting quarterbacks, while he completed just 55.8 percent of his passes and threw 21 interceptions.
Those mistakes might have overshadowed Smith’s accomplishments, but they are worthy of recognition. He was the only rookie quarterback to start 16 games this year, while he threw for 3,046 yards and 12 touchdowns and added another 366 yards and six touchdowns as a rusher.
While his play cost the Jets some games, he still led them to an 8-8 record, which was better than many expected New York to accomplish. Smith has to cut down on his mistakes if he is going to be the franchise quarterback the Jets expect him to be, but when he was at his best, he looked capable moving forward.
Like Geno Smith, Dee Milliner’s first season with the New York Jets might be defined more by his mistakes than his positive plays, but his rookie season ended on a very high note.
Though it came as the result of being targeted 28 times in New York’s final two games, he had five pass defenses in each of those games, including three interceptions between them. As a result of the many plays on the ball he made in Week 16 against the Cleveland Browns and Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins, Milliner’s season total of 17 passes defensed ranked as the second most among NFL rookies.
Milliner was picked on quite a bit. His 4.3 coverage snaps per target were the least among all cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of the snaps. Meanwhile, the 1.75 yards per coverage snap he allowed were the sixth most against cornerbacks meeting that same criteria.
But he made clear improvement over the course of the year and shredded early bust labels to finish as the Week 17 AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Sam Martin was a relative unknown when the Detroit Lions selected him out of Appalachian State in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft, but he has looked like a good investment for the Lions in his, emerging as one of the league's better punters.
Martin averaged 47.2 yards per punt, the sixth-best average in the NFL, while his net punting average of 40.4 yards was the league’s 10th-best mark.
Martin’s season has not come without its ups and downs. He shanked a 28-yard punt in Week 7 that led to a Lions loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. He has also struggled to pin punts deep in opposing territory, as only 22 of his 72 punts have been downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, while 10 have gone into the end zone for touchbacks.
Overall, however, Martin’s strong-legged punting has been a positive for Detroit, which still has special teams instability at placekicker but appears to have its long-term answer at punter in Martin.
An explosive pass-rushing threat off the edge, Barkevious Mingo had five sacks and nine total tackles for loss in his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns.
He spent the majority of the season, in which he also had 42 total tackles and deflected four passes, splitting time in a rotational role off the bench with starting outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard.
A great athlete with length (6'4", 240 lbs), pass-rushing moves and an explosive burst, Mingo was able to provide an immediate spark for the Browns defense, but not a consistent one.
Though his five sacks were the third most among NFL rookies, his pass-rush productivity percentage of 7.1 (29 total pressures in 324 pass-rush snaps) ranked as the third lowest among 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.
Matt Elam did not quite look to be the Baltimore Ravens’ next Ed Reed as a rookie safety, but the first-round pick still had a solid season as a starter next to James Ihedigbo on the defense’s back end.
Elam’s play came with ups and downs in both run and pass defense, but he finished with 77 total tackles, five tackles for loss, three passes defensed (one interception) and two fumble recoveries. He made an impact as a big hitter and made strides in coverage.
A step back this season from Baltimore’s rebuilt defense played a part in the Ravens falling short of the postseason after winning the Super Bowl one year earlier, but the athletic, instinctive Elam shows high upside for the future.
Though Montee Ball’s year started out in disappointment as he failed to beat out Knowshon Moreno for the Denver Broncos’ starting running back job, he came along well and ended up putting together a solid first campaign in his NFL career.
He rushed for 559 rushing yards and four touchdowns, both sixth most among rookies, while averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 120 rushing attempts. He also added 145 yards on 20 receptions out of the backfield to finish with the ninth-most yards from scrimmage among all NFL rookies.
Ball had 382 of his yards from scrimmage in his final five games of the season alone, and he could be in line for a bigger role in 2014. With Moreno slated for unrestricted free agency, Ball might have proven enough in 2013 to be handed the reins to the starting job in his second NFL season.
The Oakland Raiders continued to have one of the NFL’s worst defenses in 2013, ranking 29th in the league with 28.3 points allowed per game, but one bright spot for that unit was the play of rookie strong-side linebacker Sio Moore.
Though he has not yet become an every-down player, Moore has made an impact when he has been on the field. After a season in which he recorded 50 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss (4.5 sacks) and 28 quarterback pressures, PFF rated him as the eighth-best 4-3 outside linebacker who has played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps this season.
The third-round pick should only see his role increase in 2014 based on his high level of play as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher.
With 45 receptions for 499 yards, Jordan Reed was leading all rookie tight ends in receiving production until Week 11, when he suffered a concussion against the Philadelphia Eagles that ended his year.
Even though he only played in nine games, those receiving numbers still both ranked second among rookie tight ends. And although he is a flex tight end known more for his ability as a receiver and playmaker with the ball in his hands, he was off to a surprisingly impressive start as a run-blocker prior to his injury.
Assuming Reed can make a full recovery for the 2014 season, he should return to a prominent role in the Washington offense. Even with a shortened season, Reed still finished the year as the team’s second-leading receiver, and he is the team’s most dynamic offensive playmaker outside of wide receiver Pierre Garcon.
While Mike Glennon did not come close to living up to the standard set by the exceptional 2012 rookie class of quarterbacks, he was the best first-year QB this time around.
Glennon started Tampa Bay’s final 13 games, in which he led the Buccaneers to their only four wins while completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 2,608 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 83.9 quarterback rating was the best among rookies and ranked 21st among all quarterbacks.
Glennon did not make a great deal of big plays, and he is strictly a pocket passer with minimal running ability, but he made far fewer mistakes than Smith and Manuel.
Although since-fired coach Greg Schiano took flak for making Glennon the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback in Week 4, the rookie proved to be an upgrade over Josh Freeman. He showed enough to warrant strong consideration as Tampa Bay’s quarterback going forward to at least 2014.
Stepping in as an immediate starter is a tough task for any rookie offensive tackle, and it proved to be challenging for Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson. That said, he still had the best season of any of the five offensive linemen drafted in the top 10 of the 2013 draft.
He was the weak link of the Philadelphia offensive line, especially in pass protection. There, he allowed 58 total quarterback pressures, including 10 sacks. His pass blocking improved over the course of the season, however, while he immediately showed his strength as a run-blocker.
A tremendously athletic offensive tackle who also does a nice job generating power, Johnson both drove defenders off the line and picked up second-level blocks for the Philadelphia rushing offense. He was rated by PFF as the NFL’s 10th-best run-blocking offensive tackle.
Johnson needs to improve as a pass protector as the Eagles move forward with Nick Foles as their quarterback, but he made strides in his rookie season that should keep Philadelphia’s hopes high for his future.
Entering his rookie season as an immediate starter at left tackle was a daunting enough task for Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari. It could have become even harder after Aaron Rodgers was injured and replaced in the lineup by less mobile quarterbacks in Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn, but he held up well all season as Green Bay’s primary blindside pass protector.
Allowing just 39 total quarterback pressures in 648 passing plays, Bakhtiari had the best pass-blocking efficiency score (95.2) of any rookie offensive tackle and the 15th best in the league. According to PFF, he was only responsible for eight sacks allowed.
For a rookie fourth-round pick to step in at a primary position on one of the league’s shakier offensive lines and hold his own in pass protection was impressive. He was not as sound in run blocking, however, cumulatively ranked by PFF as the league’s fifth-worst run-blocking offensive tackle.
Bakhtiari made a strong enough impression to remain part of a still-rebuilding offensive line going forward, but he needs to become a stronger, more physical run-blocker in the process.
Another Day 3 draft pick to make an immediate impact for the Green Bay Packers has been fifth-round pick Micah Hyde, who has seen significant playing time on both defense and special teams.
Working mostly as a nickel and dime cornerback on defense, Hyde has had a good, but not great rookie season. He allowed 1.40 yards per coverage snap but was very active in run support when on the field, finishing with 55 tackles, including 15 credited to him as defensive stops by PFF.
The reason Hyde makes the rookie rankings, however, is the added value he has provided on special teams. He has gained 531 yards on 22 kickoff returns and 296 yards across 24 punt returns. He has also been a valuable contributor on Green Bay’s kickoff and punt-coverage units.
Much of Hyde’s value to the Packers has been unsung, but his ability to contribute in a variety of ways to the Green Bay defense and special teams has made him look like a steal.
While the stars who emerged on the Carolina Panthers defensive front are players who were expected to be able to contribute, Carolina's secondary has also had its moments. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all has been the mostly solid play of Melvin White, who has gone from being an unheralded rookie free-agent signing to a starting outside cornerback.
Allowing an average of just 0.97 yards per coverage snap, White was one of just three rookie cornerbacks to allow under one yard per coverage snap while playing at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps. He is the only one of that trio who has played primarily in outside coverage.
White has terrific size for the cornerback position (6’1”, 205 lbs), and he has transitioned to the NFL well after a solid career at Louisiana-Lafayette. He played in 15 games this year and started 10, accumulating 47 total tackles, five pass defenses and two interceptions.
Surprisingly consistent as a rookie, White is an undrafted gem whose future in Carolina could prove to be bright.
Signing Marlon Brown as an undrafted free agent proved to be a great move for the Baltimore Ravens, as he emerged as a key offensive playmaker on a team strapped for talent at the wide receiver position.
Brown ranked sixth among rookies with 49 receptions and seventh among first-year players with 524 receiving yards, but his best work came in the red zone. He caught seven touchdown passes, the second most among rookies. That included a nine-yard game-winner in the back of the end zone with just four seconds remaining in Baltimore’s 29-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14.
While Brown’s performance was somewhat inconsistent, he was still the Ravens’ second-leading receiver and played well enough to establish himself in the team’s long-term plans at a position it still needs to upgrade.
Kenny Stills did not consistently get the ball in his rookie season for the New Orleans Saints, but he was steady in his ability to turn the passes he received into big plays.
While he had just 32 receptions in the regular season, he turned them into 641 receiving yards, the fourth-highest receiving total among NFL rookies. Stills' 20.0 yards per reception ranks as the best among all NFL players who caught at least 32 passes for their teams this year.
Stills proved that he is a threat to go deep or make defenders miss any time he is on the field, but the key to his production increasing will be emerging in a bigger role for the New Orleans offense. While he ranked third on the Saints in receiving yards, he was just sixth on the team in receptions and targets.
Greg Schiano might have made too many mistakes in his second NFL season to keep his job, but one very smart move he made was bringing in Tim Wright.
Wright played wide receiver for him in his previous job at Rutgers and was an undrafted free agent. Knowing what he was getting, Schiano converted Wright to tight end, where he gave the Buccaneers a much-needed receiving threat at that position.
Wright led all rookie tight ends with 54 receptions for 571 yards, including five touchdown receptions. With his combination of size (6'3", 220 lbs) and athleticism, Wright gave fellow rookie Mike Glennon a big playmaking target over the middle, and he was also flexed out to wide receiver to create mismatches.
As one might expect from a converted wide receiver, Wright struggled as a run-blocker, making him better suited to be a flex receiving option than a real in-line tight end. But as a receiving threat, he was a valuable addition to the Buccaneers offense, finishing as Tampa Bay’s second-leading receiver.
The Atlanta Falcons had two undrafted rookie starters at linebacker for most of the season, and both of them (more to come) stepped in and performed well. At strong-side linebacker, Joplo Bartu started 13 games and made an immediate impact for the Atlanta Falcons defense.
Bartu had consistently solid play all year in both run defense and pass coverage. He finished with 85 total tackles, the third most on the Falcons defense, while he led the team with 11.5 total tackles for loss. Meanwhile, he allowed only 0.84 yards per coverage snap, which ranked third among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ coverage snaps in 2013.
Bartu was not used frequently as a pass-rusher, but he still finished with 3.5 sacks and 14 total quarterback pressures. Overall, Bartu proved to be a good fit in the "Sam" linebacker role for the Falcons, and the Texas State product has emerged from being a relative unknown to looking like a long-term piece for the Atlanta defense.
Terrance Williams played much of his rookie season in a starting role while Miles Austin battled injury. He immediately became a productive part of the Dallas Cowboys offense, catching 44 passes for 736 receiving yards, the third most among rookies.
Williams’ on-field awareness came into question at times, and his performance was inconsistent, especially down the stretch when Austin returned to the lineup. But he made some big plays for the Dallas offense, including three receptions of more than 50 yards and five receiving touchdowns.
Overall, Williams tied for second among rookies with 11 receiving plays of 20 yards or more. He quickly emerged as a reliable downfield playmaker for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and with Austin on the backside of his career, Williams’ role opposite Dez Bryant should continue to grow moving forward.
After a slow first half of his rookie season, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin had a breakout stretch between Weeks 11-14.
He had five plays of 50 yards or more (two receptions, two rushes, one punt return) and four touchdowns in that four-week span and finally looked like the player the Rams thought he could be as a big-play threat every time he touches the ball.
It was good news for Austin that those four weeks were full of plays for the highlight reel, however, as his year came to an early end when he suffered an ankle injury against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14.
Austin finished with 40 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns, but between his plays as a receiver, rusher and returner, his 1,247 all-purpose yards ranked fourth among rookies.
Though Austin has yet to become a consistent performer, he has made it clear that his big-play ability translates to the NFL.
Right guard Kyle Long had an up-and-down season on a Chicago Bears offensive line that continued to be shaky in 2013.
Though he showed both his athleticism and power on a consistent basis and allowed just two sacks, he received an overall rating of minus-3.3 from PFF. That was good for a tie for 35th among the 60 NFL guards who played 50 percent or more of their teams’ snaps.
Long was great at times as a pass- and run-blocker, but he needs to become more sound in both capacities. Part of his struggles might have come from a need to overcompensate alongside fellow rookie Jordan Mills, who was one of the NFL’s worst right tackles. Still, the Bears will still be expecting better from their 2013 first-round pick next season.
All together, Long showed the potential to be one of the league’s top guards as he continues to develop, and he was an upgrade on an offensive line that made strides from a dismal 2012 campaign.
The New York Giants offensive line battled injuries and poor play, but rookie Justin Pugh brought some stability to the unit at right tackle in his first season.
He started all 16 games for the Giants, and he finished the year with a 7.1 overall rating from PFF. That ranked best on the Giants offensive line and among all rookie offensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.
Pugh had some issues in pass protection, allowing 52 total quarterback pressures in 613 passing snaps. That ranked him in a tie for 41st in pass-blocking efficiency among the NFL’s 58 offensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ passing snaps.
As a run-blocker, Pugh did a solid job leading the way on the right side on the offense. It was a rough year all together for the Giants offense, but Pugh has looked like a sound first-round investment thus far.
DeAndre Hopkins’ production was highly inconsistent, but that had a lot to do with the poor quarterback play the Houston Texans had throughout the year. Even with the erratic passing of Matt Schaub and Case Keenum on the NFL’s worst team, he had 52 receptions for 802 receiving yards, the second most among all NFL rookies.
Hopkins showed his ability as a deep threat, ranking second among rookies with 12 receiving plays of 20 yards or more. He dropped just one pass on 53 balls deemed catchable by PFF, the second-best drop rate among all NFL wide receivers.
A big (6'1", 218 lbs), physical wide receiver who attacks the ball in the air and runs great routes, Hopkins emerged as the No. 2 weapon the Texans offense needed opposite Andre Johnson. His production was already solid for a rookie, but it should rise significantly if Houston has better quarterback play in 2014.
Xavier Rhodes was the Minnesota Vikings’ most consistent cornerback until going down with an ankle injury in Week 14 that cost him the final three games on the schedule. When he was on the field, he was one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the NFL.
He allowed just 1.02 yards per coverage snap, spending most of his time matched up against top receivers on the outside. He still finished tied for 18th among all NFL cornerbacks who played 50 percent or more of their teams’ coverage snaps.
Rhodes recorded 10 passes defensed, eight of which came in his final three games played. An athletic, physical cornerback who has shown his ability to go man-to-man with top receivers on the outside, he should be a full-time starter for the Minnesota defense next season.
The Detroit Lions knew they were getting a raw talent when they selected Ezekiel Ansah with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Although he still has a long way in his development, he had a productive rookie season as both a pass-rusher and run defender.
In a year where there were no star first-year pass-rushers, Ansah led the way with eight sacks, even though he missed two games due to injury. He was inconsistent as a rusher, however, recording just 34 quarterback pressures in 349 passing snaps. That gave him a pass-rush productivity score of 8.1 (26th among the 38 4-3 DEs to rush the passer on 50 percent of their teams’ passing snaps).
As a run defender, Ansah showed immediate ability as a physical edge-defender. Though he only recorded 32 tackles, he often did a good job setting the edge of the line and occupying blockers to free up his teammates to make plays.
The New England Patriots’ group of rookies came along gradually, but a number of them played significant roles on a team that has been battered with injuries. The clear standout has been cornerback Logan Ryan, who emerged as a starter and playmaker.
In New England’s last 10 games alone, Ryan had five interceptions (the most among rookies) and 10 total passes defensed. He has only allowed 1.00 yard per coverage snap this season, which is tied for 15th best among cornerbacks who have played 50 percent or more of their teams’ snaps.
Though Ryan started out as New England’s fourth cornerback and then as a fill-in for injured starters, he has consistently seen starting snaps in recent weeks. He appears to have surpassed Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard on the team’s cornerback depth chart heading into the postseason.
He has been a big playmaker in coverage and solid in run support too, recording 35 total tackles in 2013.
Though Star Lotulelei (more to come) was the first defensive tackle drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 2013 draft and has received more attention for his impressive first-season play, second-round pick Kawann Short was actually rated cumulatively better for the season by Pro Football Focus.
With an overall rating of 16.4, PFF ranked Short as the 14th-best defensive tackle in the NFL.
Short did not start any games for the Panthers but was a key rotational player, especially as an interior pass-rusher. With 36 total quarterback pressures in 332 passing snaps, his pass-rushing productivity score of 8.4 ranked ninth among defensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ passing snaps.
Playing mostly as a 3-technique defensive tackle, Short has also been solid against the run. His run-stop percentage (15 stops in 165 run snaps) ranked 16th among all NFL defensive tackles who played at least 25 percent of their teams’ run snaps, while he has recorded 30 total tackles.
Short should continue to be a key player for the Carolina defense as the Panthers go into the postseason.
D.J. Fluker had some rough stretches of play for the San Diego Chargers, but when he was able to get into his groove, he showed the potential to be a very good NFL right tackle.
Though Fluker allowed 47 quarterback pressures in 15 starts, 22 of those came in the four games he was forced into duty at left tackle due to injuries. While Fluker looked uncomfortable playing on the left side of the line, accumulating a minus-11.4 PFF rating in those four games alone, he was solid at right tackle, good enough to finish the season with a positive PFF rating (0.4).
Fluker showed the ability to use his length and power to drive opponents off the line of scrimmage as a run-blocker, while he progressed well in pass protection as a right tackle. He played 1,075 snaps this year and looks like a long-term fixture for the Chargers on the right side of their offensive line.
Nickell Robey was a big playmaker for the Buffalo Bills as a slot cornerback. He was not always great in coverage, but he frequently made plays as a blitzer, screen defender and run-stopper around the line of scrimmage.
Playing mostly in nickel and dime packages, his snaps were inconsistent from game to game. Although he struggled when he had to take on an outside-coverage matchup, he was effective in slot coverage.
He allowed just 0.88 yards per coverage snap, the fourth-best average among all NFL cornerbacks. He also recorded 10 pass defenses this year, including one interception returned for a touchdown.
Robey was a huge asset in slot coverage, but his ability to make plays in other capacities as well really made him an undrafted gem for the Bills. He had a great season as a blitzing pass-rusher, recording three sacks and 16 total quarterback pressures on just 43 pass-rush snaps. He had six additional tackles for loss and 39 total tackles.
From the time Paul Worrilow became a starting middle linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5, he was a tackling machine.
Worrilow recorded 127 total tackles, the second most among NFL rookies and 12th most in the league. Though a good amount of his tackles came from the lanes cleared against a weak Falcons defensive line, he still showed a consistent ability to make plays in the backfield. Worrilow recorded 47 defensive stops and 18 quarterback pressures in 2013.
Worrilow’s biggest struggles came in pass coverage, in which he allowed 37 receptions for 358 yards on 43 targets. He was not a favorite of PFF’s grading system, finishing with a minus-13.7 rating, but his productivity deserves credit.
He was consistently involved in the middle of Atlanta’s defense, while he displays playmaking range all over the field. He should only continue to make plays as he becomes a more experienced, technically sound player.
Alec Ogletree had ups and downs, but at the core of the St. Louis Rams linebacker’s play were impact moments for the defense all season.
A great athlete and instinctive football player, Ogletree made plays all over the field and on the ball. He recorded a team-leading 117 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed, including one interception returned for a 98-yard touchdown. Ogletree also forced six fumbles, while no other rookies caused more than two.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ogletree has had some issues in coverage and with missed tackles. His 19 missed tackles this season were the second most among 4-3 OLBs, while he was also targeted for the most receptions (72) and receiving yards (785) at the position.
There are clear areas in his game that he needs to improve going forward, but even so, his sideline-to-sideline range and penchant for making big plays should make him a key player on the St. Louis defense for many years to come.
Tyrann Mathieu’s season came to an end after he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee in Week 14, but had he remained healthy, he might have been one of the top candidates 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 and showed the range to cover ground quickly by making plays all over the field.
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. Classified as a cornerback by PFF, he had a 15.5 overall rating, ranking him tied for third among all NFL cornerbacks.
Mathieu—whose play seemed to suffer no ill effects from sitting out the 2012 college football season following his dismissal from LSU—was a playmaker for the Cardinals all year in every capacity, from deep coverage to run support and even as a blitzing pass-rusher.
The Cardinals will certainly hope to have him healthy for the start of the 2014 season, as he immediately proved how much of an asset he could be to the Arizona defense.
Andre Ellington only received 157 total touches, but he made the most of them, finishing sixth among rookies with 1,023 yards from scrimmage.
An explosive runner with great open-field vision and quickness, Ellington showed his ability to turn both runs and receptions out of the backfield. He led all qualifying NFL running backs with 5.5 yards per carry (652 yards on 118 carries) and led all rookies with eight carries of 20 or more yards. He also added 371 receiving yards on 39 receptions.
Locked in a timeshare with Rashard Mendenhall in the Arizona backfield, Ellington did not have as many opportunities as the running backs ahead of him on this list, but he arguably took advantage of his touches as well as anyone. The sixth-round pick has added agility and playmaking ability to the Cardinals running game.
Like Andre Ellington, Giovani Bernard is a dynamic playmaker as both a runner and a receiver, but his touches and performances were inconsistent as he was used in a situational role. He still managed 1,209 yards from scrimmage, ranking him third among NFL rookies and 31st among all NFL players.
Combining speed and quickness with the strength to bounce off contact, Bernard had solid production as a runner (695 yards, 4.1 yards per carry), while he ranked ninth among all NFL running backs in receptions (56) and receiving yards (514). He also tied for third among all rookies with eight touchdowns scored.
Bernard had a disappointing end to the season rushing the football, averaging just 25 yards per game in his final three, even though he received 13 carries in each of them. That knocked him out of Offensive Rookie of the Year Award contention.
Still, he has been a big-play threat for the Cincinnati offense all season and will continue to be a key player for the Bengals as they transition into the postseason.
Kenny Vaccaro’s season came to a rough ending when he fractured his ankle in Week 16, but in the 14 games he played, he was a key playmaker for the New Orleans Saints defense in many different capacities.
Vaccaro lined up all over the field for the Saints, playing everywhere from both safety spots to slot cornerback and linebacker. He made plays both in pass coverage and as a blitzing pass-rusher, while he was a key player on the back end of the defense in run support.
Vaccaro’s play steadily improved over the course of the season, which he finished with 79 total tackles, six passes defensed (one interception), five quarterback pressures, six tackles for loss (one sack) and one forced fumble.
The Saints needed an impact player who could make plays at the second and third levels of their defense, and they got that from Vaccaro this year.
On an offense with limited weapons and a shaky offensive line, Zac Stacy became a workhorse running back for the St. Louis Rams. On 250 carries, the 11th most in the NFL, Stacy ran for 973 yards, the second most among rookie running backs and 14th-highest total in the league.
Stacy had a relatively low yards-per-carry average (3.9, 31st in the NFL), which played a part in his inability to gain 1,000 yards as a rookie, but he still had a very productive year. He scored eight total touchdowns, tied for the third most among rookies, while his 1,114 yards from scrimmage was the fourth-highest total for first-year players.
The Rams needed someone to come in and carry the load for their offense, especially once quarterback Sam Bradford went down with injury, and Stacy did that. The fifth-round pick showed that he can handle a heavy workload, and he should remain St. Louis’ lead tailback in 2014.
Possibly the most widely panned selection of the 2013 NFL draft’s first round, the Dallas Cowboys have looked smarter than their critics in their decision to select center Travis Frederick with the No. 31 overall pick.
Frederick had a terrific rookie season, and he was rated by PFF as the best run-blocking center. While he had some issues in pass protection, allowing four sacks and 24 total quarterback pressures, he still provided more stability than the Cowboys had previously in that capacity.
Dallas finished the season fifth with 27.4 points per game, and Frederick’s solid play in the middle was a big factor in the team's offensive success.
While there were many impressive rookie cornerbacks this season, the most consistent was Desmond Trufant of the Atlanta Falcons, who started all 16 games for the Falcons as an outside cornerback and allowed just 1.03 yards per coverage snap.
Trufant was not just consistent; he was also a playmaker. His 17 passes defensed were tied for the second most among rookies and 10th most in the NFL. Overall, PFF rated Trufant as the sixth-best cornerback with a cumulative rating of 12.2.
Trufant was a very solid tackler as well, recording 70. Trufant became a solid starter for the Atlanta defense, and he looks set to be a key player for the Falcons secondary moving forward.
Eric Reid had big shoes to fill in replacing 2012 AP All-Pro Dashon Goldson, and he did so very well, arguably providing an upgrade in coverage while still giving San Francisco a big hitter at the position.
Reid wasn't flawless, ranking 40th among NFL safeties in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.62) and giving up some big plays down the stretch. But he finished the year strong, recording one pass deflection and a season-high 10 tackles against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17.
Reid recorded 77 total tackles and 11 passes defensed (four interceptions), while he recovered two fumbles. He played a big role in the 49ers remaining a top-five defense in both yards and points allowed per game, and he finished ranked in a tie for 16th among all NFL safeties by PFF with a 4.7 cumulative rating.
The Carolina Panthers defense has emerged as one of the NFL’s elite units this season, and the play of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been a big reason why.
Playing primarily as the nose tackle on Carolina’s defensive line, Lotulelei has been a dominant run-stopper. He finished second among rookie defensive linemen with 42 total tackles and ranked second among all NFL defensive tackles to play at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps against the run with a run-stop percentage of 12.9 (30 stops in 232 run snaps).
He has also had solid production as an interior pass-rusher, accumulating three sacks and 23 total quarterback pressures.
While Lotulelei’s statistical production might not be as impressive as many other rookies, he consistently occupies blockers with his size (6'2", 315 lbs) and strength, and he helps free up his teammates to make the plays that get them on the box score.
He has not been an every-down player for Carolina, playing 59.8 percent of the team’s regular-season snaps, but he has consistently made an impact in the trenches when he has been on the field.
Cordarrelle Patterson showed some glimpses of his playmaking ability early in his rookie season, especially on kickoff returns, but he really blossomed into a star for the Minnesota Vikings offense in the second half of the year. After scoring just one offensive touchdown in the first 11 weeks, Patterson scored six in Minnesota’s final five games.
As he progressed late in 2013, he truly became the triple threat the Vikings drafted him to be. Though he only had 627 yards from scrimmage, 375 of those came in Minnesota’s final five games.
One area in which he was consistently great was in kickoff returns. Patterson led the NFL with 32.4 yards per kickoff return and was the only player in the league to have two kickoff-return touchdowns.
As a result of his success as a receiver, runner and especially as a returner, Patterson accumulated 2,020 all-purpose yards as a rookie, second only to LeSean McCoy and 585 yards more than any other rookie.
The Vikings needed to add an X-factor to their offense to replace Percy Harvin, and if the last five weeks of his rookie season were any indication, they found that player in Patterson.
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately came up short of the postseason, they made a nice run at it by winning their final three games and six of their last eight. One reason for that was the play of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.
After missing the first three games with a foot injury, Bell quickly emerged as a consistent source of offense out of the Pittsburgh backfield. He finished the season with 1,259 yards from scrimmage, the second most among rookies, including nine consecutive games with 80 or more yards from scrimmage to close the year.
Though Bell did not have many big plays on the ground, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry, he was reliable as a runner. He ran the ball 244 times, the third most of any rookie running back. He finished third among first-year players with 860 rushing yards and second with eight rushing touchdowns, while he only fumbled the ball once.
Bell’s value to the Pittsburgh offense was increased significantly by his ability to contribute on passing downs. He was productive as a receiver out of the backfield, averaging 8.9 yards per catch, while he was also effective in pass protection. A three-down fixture on the field for Pittsburgh, Bell looks like a second-round steal.
Kiko Alonso finished his rookie season with 159 total tackles, the third most in the league. He also had 13 tackles for loss and four interceptions, while he allowed just 0.43 yards per coverage snap, the best average of any NFL inside linebacker this season.
Alonso’s most impressive stat might be 1,176. That’s the number of defensive snaps the Buffalo Bills played on defense this year, and that's how many Alonso was a part of. The play-caller of the defense from the beginning of his rookie season, he did not miss a single snap.
Alonso’s numbers might be inflated from making downfield tackles due to gaps at the line of scrimmage; he ranked just 18th in run-stop percentage among NFL inside linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.
His impact, however, is clear from the fact that he was always on the field. He immediately took on a leadership role for the Buffalo defense, and he was very productive in doing so. The second-round pick has already displayed star potential and looks like a key long-term building block.
Keenan Allen stood out as the best wide receiver among rookies and was a key player in the San Diego Chargers getting back into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
Allen caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, all numbers that were best among rookies. He was the leading receiver in a strong bounce-back season for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, while his receiving total alone was enough to rank him fifth in yards from scrimmage among rookies.
Allen’s reception and receiving yard totals both rank 12th all time for NFL rookies.
He also worked as a punt returner. Though he was not particularly successful in that capacity, gaining just 125 yards between 15 punt returns while he had one muffed punt, his ability to contribute on special teams makes him more versatile.
Allen dropped to the third round of the 2013 NFL draft, likely due to concerns about his speed and health, but he has made San Diego’s decision to draft him at the No. 76 overall selection look brilliant.
While he might not be the most explosive athlete, he has overcome that by using his size (6'2", 211 lbs), strength, quickness and route-running to separate, all the while attacking the football in the air to make catches and exhibiting great body control.
Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy is the favorite to win this year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, and deservedly so. He was the most productive skill-position player in the rookie class, one of the NFL’s most consistent running backs and a key factor in Green Bay’s run to the postseason.
While the Packers offense was marred by inconsistent quarterback play as Aaron Rodgers missed seven of Green Bay’s last eight games, it was Lacy who gave the Green Bay offense a reliable option.
Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards, the eighth most in the NFL, on 284 carries (fifth most in the league) and 11 touchdowns, which ranked third among NFL rushers. He led all rookies in each of those categories, as well as with 1,435 yards from scrimmage.
A big (5'11", 230 lbs), physical between-the-tackles runner, Lacy did not make huge plays on the ground, with an average of 4.1 yards per carry and just three rushes of 20 yards or more, but he was a chain-mover. Lacy ran for 61 first downs, the fifth most among NFL rushers, and added 12 more first downs on receptions out of the backfield.
While some questioned whether Lacy had the burst, quickness and vision for his inside running game to translate to the NFL, he has proven this season that it has. He has been the best running back Green Bay has had since Ahman Green left after 2006, and he is looking like a steal as a late second-round draft choice.
Larry Warford’s accomplishments are unlikely to be as well-recognized as most of the other players near the top of these rankings, but he made a case for being as good as any rookie in the NFL.
The 6’3”, 333-pound mauler was expected to be able to drive opponents on the line of scrimmage as a power run-blocker from the get-go, and he has been great in that capacity. Perhaps more impressive, however, has been the agility and technical skill he has shown as both a run- and pass-blocker.
Warford played every single snap for the Detroit Lions offense this season, and in 668 pass-blocking snaps, he was not considered responsible for allowing a single sack by PFF. In total, Warford’s pass-blocking efficiency of 98.3, with 15 total quarterback pressures allowed, ranked third among all NFL guards who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ passing snaps this season.
Overall, PFF ranked Warford as the NFL’s fourth-best guard, with a 22.8 overall rating. No other rookie guard even finished the season with a positive rating.
No player in the 2013 NFL rookie class was more dominant or consistent at his position than New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
Playing as a hybrid 3-technique defensive tackle/5-technique defensive end on the Jets defensive front, Richardson became an immediate star.
His 77 total tackles were the most of any interior defensive lineman not named J.J. Watt, while he also recorded 15.5 total tackles for loss (3.5 sacks) and 33 total quarterback pressures. Yet much of his impact came not in plays recorded next to his name in the box score, but in which he occupied blockers to free up his teammates to make plays.
Richardson even made a surprise impact on the offensive side of the ball in two of New York’s last three games, in which he received two carries in each and finished both stints with a rushing touchdown from the fullback position.
Overall, PFF gave Richardson a 30.4 cumulative rating. That was the best of any NFL rookie and the fifth best among all NFL players classified as 3-4 DEs. He is the deserving choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.