Predicting NFL's Rookie Stat Leaders in Every Major Category

Dan Matney@@Dan_MatneyContributor IIIJune 3, 2014

Predicting NFL's Rookie Stat Leaders in Every Major Category

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    Every season, some members of the NFL rookie class set themselves apart from the others from the beginning.

    Last year, Tavon Austin, Sheldon Richardson, Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid, Kiko Alonso, Alec Ogletree, and Giovani Bernard (among others) were difference-makers for their teams from day one.

    This year's rookie class has a large amount of players, specifically at the skill positions, who can make an immediate impact.

    Here is a look at my predictions for who will lead in each major statistical category.

Passing Yards and Touchdowns: Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

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    Looking at the group of rookie quarterbacks, each signal-caller drafted in the first two days will have to compete with a veteran to earn playing time.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are planning on letting third overall pick Blake Bortles sit behind Chad Henne for a season.

    In Cleveland, Johnny Manziel looks to be in a position battle with Brian Hoyer, who played well in three starts before suffering a torn ACL.

    Teddy Bridgewater will battle Matt Cassel for the starting spot in Minnesota. Cassel had inconsistent production as a starter last season.  

    The Oakland Raiders drafted Derek Carr in the second round, but management appears to believe Matt Schaub will be the starter, at least early on. 

    Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted at the end of the second round by the New England Patriots, but Tom Brady hasn't slowed down a bit.

    Of the five, Bridgewater and Manziel are in the best position to start early. 

    Thanks to Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph (when healthy) and Greg Jennings, Bridgewater has more talent around him than Manziel.

    Manziel is a bigger playmaker, one who has the ability not only to deliver the ball on the run, but also to set up big plays in the passing game by using his feet. His rollout ability, coupled with his strong throwing arm, will lead to some big plays, especially within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.

    Kyle Shanahan is going to run an offensive scheme similar to the one he ran with Robert Griffin III in Washington. 

    In that offense, Griffin III didn't have to make risky downfield throws and threw most of his passes within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Expect to see similar play calls in Cleveland. 

    Looking at Manziel's pass chart, he was efficient hitting receivers within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. Interestingly enough, Manziel actually completed a smaller amount of passes to the play side, which is odd since it is the side of the field most right-handed quarterbacks see the best.

    Because of his ability to hit receivers in this range, Manziel is going to have the best chance to rack up yards in a hurry. (If Pro Bowl wideout Josh Gordon stops doing Josh Gordon-like things, Cleveland could have a top-tier offense.) 

    Despite the likely season-long suspension of Gordon, who accumulated 1,646 yards in 2013, Manziel will have one of the best tight ends in the league at his disposal.

    Tight end Jordan Cameron will look to improve on a 2013 campaign in which he hauled in 80 receptions (third most), 917 receiving yards (second most) and seven touchdowns (sixth most). Cameron will likely be Manziel's No. 1 target and improve on all of those numbers this season, assuming he stays healthy. 

    The remainder of the receiving corps consists namely of Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, all of which are looking to bounce back after poor seasons. That group doesn't sound too promising, but if the Browns can see production out of any of them similar to what they did before 2013, the void left by Gordon will be a lot less obvious.

    Look for Manziel to put up more yards and passing touchdowns than any other quarterback in this draft, mainly due to early playing time, play-calling and his ability to simply make things happen.

Rushing Yards: Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

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    Although there wasn't a running back taken off the board in the first round of the draft, there are still a number of running backs who will contribute in their first seasons.

    The Tennessee Titans' Bishop Sankey, Atlanta Falcons' Devonta Freeman, St. Louis Rams' Tre Mason, Cleveland Browns' Terrance West and San Francisco 49ers' Carlos Hyde head the class.

    Tennessee will run a West Coast attack, so it will likely rely on Sankey predominately in passing situations, although he will still see plenty of carries.

    Mason will be in a battle with Zac Stacy, who nearly hit the 1,000-yard mark as a rookie fifth-round pick last year.

    West will be a short-yardage/red-zone back and split carries with newly acquired Browns running back Ben Tate.

    Hyde is talented and could end up as the best runner in this class, but he will have to wait to see the field, as Frank Gore is still holding down the fort in the backfield for at least one more year.

    Considering all of these situations, Freeman emerges as a threat to make the biggest impact as a rookie and to lead all first-year players in rushing yards.

    He was part of a three-headed running back attack at Florida State, yet he was still productive. Freeman rushed for 1,016 yards, 5.9 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns in his final year with the Seminoles.

    Freeman has room for improvement, but he is one of the most polished runners in the draft.

    Similar to 49ers running back Frank Gore, Freeman doesn't have game-breaking speed, but he makes up for it with his tough run style and ability to gain yardage after contact. He needs to improve a bit at running in between the tackles, but he has the frame and power to be successful, especially in short-yardage situations.

    In addition, his biggest competitor for early carries will be Steven Jackson, who can't seem to stay healthy, has 2,553 NFL carries under his belt and will be 31 when the season begins.

    Freeman will work well with Jacquizz Rodgers, who will see most of his time in passing situations and as a change-of-pace back.

Rushing Touchdowns: Terrance West, Cleveland Browns

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    When it comes to rushing touchdowns, one rookie sticks out more than others. That player is Terrance West, who hails out of Towson.

    West is exactly what a team looks for in a short-yardage back.

    He has great size (5'9", 225 lbs) and is a physical runner who keeps his legs moving constantly. West excels while running between the tackles and has shown that he isn't afraid to take on defenders at the second level.

    He is somewhat limited in the open field from a speed standpoint, but he can come in right away and score between five to 10 touchdowns based off what he can do in short-yardage situations.

    Along with being featured in the red zone, don't be surprised to see him thrust into the featured-back role at some point during the season if Ben Tate goes down with an injury.

Receiving Yards: Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills

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    I love the potential that the Buffalo Bills have on offense with Sammy Watkins in the fold.

    They already have a solid running back rotation with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

    Newly acquired Mike Williams will prove to be a threat outside of the numbers.

    Robert Woods will fill Stevie Johnson's vacated position in the slot, a position that I think Woods is going to excel in.

    And then there's Watkins, who will line up all over the field and make plays, both with his athleticism and with his reliable hands, downfield.

    Watkins has a lot of talent around him, but he will immediately become EJ Manuel's No. 1 target.

    A lot of the Bills' impending success depends on Manuel's ability to get the ball to his receivers, but if he stays healthy and make the throws, not only will Watkins lead all rookies in receiving yards, but the Bills will also have one of the most improved offenses in the NFL.

    Not only can Watkins make plays on long, designed passes, but he also has the speed and athleticism to shred defenses and make plays off simple bubble screens.

    The one receiver who will pose a threat to match Watkins' yardage is New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks.

    Cooks is going to line up all over the field for the Saints, but he is playing alongside Jimmy Graham, the NFL's premier tight end and Drew Brees' top target for the last three seasons, per Pro Football Focus.

    Cooks will make a number of big plays stretching the field in both the slot and outside of the numbers, and he will also benefit from having one of the best quarterbacks in the league delivering him the ball.

    But due to Watkins' ability to make guys miss in the open field, he has the best opportunity to produce the most yardage (and yards after catch).

Receiving Touchdowns: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    At 6'5", Mike Evans joins one of the biggest receiving corps in the NFL down in Tampa Bay.

    While some might think playing opposite Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will hurt Evans' production, specifically in the red zone, I actually think it is going to benefit him.

    Having three receivers who are at least 6'5" on the field at the same time is going to provide matchup nightmares for opposing defenses (other than maybe the Seattle Seahawks).

    And with Jackson's proven ability to produce in the red zone (he was actually down in red-zone production last season), most coordinators are going to make it a point not to allow smaller corners to get beat, opening up Evans, likely in single coverage, on the other side.

    With his reliable hands and leaping ability, Evans has the potential to put up anywhere from eight to 12 touchdowns as a rookie. I'm already picturing him running those fade routes into the corner of the end zone and making every opposing fan think to himself, "What the hell is this? The 2013 Chicago Bears?"

    Most NFL fans should get that joke, but for those of you who don't, here's a quick explanation. New Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown was successful when he stepped in for an oft-injured Jay Cutler last year. His receiving threats were Brandon Marshall (6'4"), Martellus Bennett (6'6") and Alshon Jeffery (listed at 6'3", but he plays a lot bigger than that).

    The Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin could pose a threat to Evans because he is similar in size at 6'5" and will be his team's No. 1 red-zone option, but there is one big thing separating Evans and Benjamin: Evans is simply a better player.

    Evans isn't going to put on the burners and beat out many corners in a foot race, but his size will allow him to have a physical advantage over any defensive back in those red-zone situations.

Sacks: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

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    Jadeveon Clowney is going to lead all rookies in sacks, but it's not exactly for the reasons you might think.

    Obviously, as the first overall pick, Clowney is a physical freak of nature who is going to reside in the nightmares of offensive linemen and quarterbacks for the foreseeable future.

    But Clowney is going to have immediate success because there is so much talent in the front seven around him, specifically from J.J. Watt.

    With teams going to have to focus their game plans on limiting Watt's impact, it is going to open up opportunities for Clowney.

    In addition, Whitney Mercilus is looking to improve on a seven-sack season. He will be a nice pass-rushing complement on the opposite side of Clowney.

    Clowney, who played defensive end in South Carolina's 4-3 base defense in college, is going to be playing with his hand up for the most part. But due to his exceptional pass-rush ability, he will be asked to drop in to coverage on a frequent basis.

    Also, look out for Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

    Playing alongside Robert Quinn (second-leading sack artist in the NFL) and Chris Long, Donald is going to have a lot of one-on-one opportunities. Seeing him demolish those matchups in college, Donald could have as big of an impact as anyone in rushing the passer as a rookie.

Tackles: C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

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    Don't be surprised to see C.J. Mosley, the rookie inside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, lead the league in tackles.

    If Mosley showed one thing in his time at Alabama, it's his ability to play sideline to sideline and record a large amount of tackles. Mosley recorded 175 career solo tackles (62 as a senior).

    He will be manning the interior of the Ravens linebacking corps with Daryl Smith, who had a solid season at 32 years old.

    With Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty clogging holes and drawing double-teams up front, and with the presence of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the edges, Mosley is going to have opportunities to produce all over the field.

    If things go as Baltimore is planning, Mosley can become the tackling machine it needs as it continues to look for Ray Lewis' replacement.

    Also, don't rule out the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ryan Shazier.

    Shazier is a balanced overall player who should receive ample opportunity to stop running backs in the second level due to the continued development of the Steelers front line, specifically at the nose tackle position (although massive rookie Daniel McCullers—6'7", 352 pounds—could soon fill the void formed with the retirement of Casey Hampton following the 2012 season).

Interceptions: Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns

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    The Browns used their first first-round pick to continue to shore up an already-tough defense (PFF subscription required), selecting Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State.

    Gilbert was the top cornerback on many NFL draft analyst boards, and he enters a situation in Cleveland where there is already one top-tier corner in Joe Haden.

    Gilbert is the prime candidate to lead all rookies in interceptions not only because of the presence of Haden, but also because of his physical traits.

    Quarterbacks will likely try to avoid throwing the ball in Haden's area, which will lead to the rookie being tested early and often at the right cornerback position.

    Gilbert is a ball hawk (seven interceptions as a senior, two of which were brought back for a touchdown) who has good size (6'0", 202 lbs) and extremely long arm length (33.125", per, all of which are ingredients for a dangerous cover corner.

    Expect Gilbert to pick off anywhere between four to eight passes this year (hey, maybe the Browns can even put him at receiver!).

    The Cincinnati Bengals' Darqueze Dennard, Denver Broncos' Bradley Roby and San Diego Chargers' Jason Verrett, who will spend most of his time in the nickel, are players who are also in the fold to lead the rookie class in interceptions.