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Predicting the NFL's All-Rookie Performers

Curt PopejoyContributor IApril 20, 2016

Predicting the NFL's All-Rookie Performers

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    The 2014 NFL draft was absolutely loaded with talent. Most pundits were talking up this group well before the draft, but now that things have played out, it’s even more obvious.

    Even more impressive than the talent in this draft is how teams were studious in their selections. Most teams who understood they needed impact rookies got them and by the looks of things, are expecting them to contribute early.

    Seeing rookies in prominent roles is a testament to not only the teams and their coaches, but the evolution of college football itself. These young men are coming into the league more ready to play than ever before.

    This time around, we’re going to take a look at potentially some of the top performers across the league. Here’s a prediction for All-Rookie first and second-teams for both offense and defense.

    H/T to Ourlads for providing the best offseason depth charts anywhere. All depth chart data used here comes from them.

Quarterbacks

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    First team: Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings

    Quarterbacks are tough to predict, because their success is so dependent on the players around them. Too often, rookies are pressed into starting duty on bad football teams, which is a recipe for disaster. In some cases, that is exactly what could happen to a few of these rookie quarterbacks.

    However, for Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings, the situation is far from grim. He is entering the season with the most talented running back in the game in Adrian Peterson, as well as a nice mix of skill-position players.

    Another benefit is that the Vikings have enough talent on defense that Bridgewater isn’t going to be forced into shootouts. The game is going to be able to come to him naturally. It’s not that Bridgewater can do everything now, because he cannot. However, his advantage is in understanding his current limitations and working with them.

     

    Second team: Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

    Just behind Bridgewater is Johnny Manziel of the Cleveland Browns. Whereas Bridgewater is more sedate, Manziel plays it a bit more loose. OK, that might be understating things a bit. Manziel looks to be a quarterback that will either revolutionize things, or flame out.

    The main reason that Manziel is relegated to second team here is because his cast of characters is not on par with Bridgewater. This alone is going to force him to struggle, and he will most likely try and press too much as a rookie.

Running Backs

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    First Team: Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans

    For all of the talent among this running back class, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of it that’ll be on display this season. Plenty of rookie backs should see some reps, but so far very few have emerged as starting candidates.

    First-team honors go to Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey. Of all the backs in the draft, Sankey has the best shot to win a starting spot and keep it for the bulk of the season.

    Sankey isn’t the most talented running back in this class by any stretch of the imagination. However, short of catastrophic injury, most of the top running backs in this class aren’t going to get enough reps to be in the running.

     

    Second Team: Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams

    The St. Louis Rams are trying very hard to justify keeping quarterback Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback. The staff and front office continue to put talent around him in hopes that he can live up to his lofty draft spot.

    This philosophy means that running back Tre Mason is likely to see plenty of time as a rookie. Even with Zac Stacy as the starter, Mason is just too explosive to keep off the field. It’s doubtful he’ll supplant Stacy as a starter, but their carries could end up very close to one another during the year.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

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    USA TODAY Sports

    First Team: Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills; Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles; Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions

    The transition to the NFL is tough for wide receivers and tight ends. It takes an ideal situation for a rookie pass-catcher to come in and play at a high level right away. Even if a team has a significant need for a wide receiver or tight end, rookies will often be relegated to backup duties while they learn their respective offenses.

    Guys like Mike Evans in Tampa Bay and Sammy Watkins in Buffalo are easy. These young men are penciled in as starters and have young quarterbacks who are itching for someone to throw to. Jordan Matthews in Philadelphia and Eric Ebron in Detroit have a little more work to do in order to crack their starting lineups, but both have all the talent in the world.

     

    Second Team: John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals; Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints; Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Perhaps some surprise names on the second-team list. In particular, Arizona’s John Brown. However, like Mason, Brown is just too talented and too explosive to keep off the field. The same goes for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints' depth chart might be a bit crowded, but look for Cooks to make some big plays.

Offensive Line

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    First Team: Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons; Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland Browns; Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys; Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers; Ja’Wuan James, OT, Miami Dolphins

    The notion that there could be 14 or 15 rookies starting at offensive line at the beginning of the season is tremendous.

    This first-team group is a talented lot. Guys like Jake Matthews in Atlanta and Ja’Wuan James in Miami are going to be plug-and-play for the next decade. Joel Bitonio is transitioning to guard in Cleveland and forms and impressive hypothetical tandem with Zach Martin in Dallas. 

     

    Second Team: Justin Britt, OT, Seattle Seahawks; Cyril Richardson, G, Buffalo Bills; Trai Turner, G, Carolina Panthers; Marcus Martin, C, San Francisco 49ers; Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee Titans

    Most seasons, this second-team group would be easy choices for the first team. Tennessee Titans tackle Taylor Lewan is an amazing player and the San Francisco 49ers found themselves a future Pro Bowl center in Marcus Martin.

Defensive Line

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    First Team: Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys; Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams; Kony Ealy, DE, Carolina Panthers; Jay Bromley, DT, New York Giants

    Finding impact rookies along the defensive line is somewhat harder than other spots. However, the talent is still out there.

    Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is the marquee name among the first team and could have a monstrous rookie year rushing the passer. Don’t rule out St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald approaching double-digit sacks rushing the passer from the inside as well. 

     

    Second Team: Chris Smith, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars; Louis Nix III, DT, Houston Texans; Scott Crichton, DE, Minnesota Vikings; Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots

    The highlight of the second-team group is the Houston Texans massive nose tackle, Louis Nix III. If he can secure that starting spot, his success on that defense is almost assured. The most interesting name among this group is Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Chris Smith. As he improves, he’s going to get more reps and with that his talent will really shine through.

Linebackers

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    Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

    First Team: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Detroit Lions; Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans; Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders; Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The cream of the crop in this draft class is at linebacker. The four on the first team are great, but there are plenty more who deserve consideration. Names like Jadeveon Clowney in Houston and Khalil Mack in Oakland are sure to be mentioned over and over again during the course of the season. Both are elite talents.

    However, the Detroit Lions think they found a star in Kyle Van Noy, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are counting on Ryan Shazier to revitalize their defense. 

     

    Second Team: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens; Preston Brown, ILB, Buffalo Bills; Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs; Jordan Tripp, OLB, Miami Dolphins

    Just by seeing Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford and Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley on this list affirms the notion of just how deep this group is. Both Mosley and Brown simply need to get the reps in order to showcase their skills.

    Oh, and don’t rule out Buffalo Bills linebacker Preston Brown to have a Kiko Alonso-esque rookie year in a similar role.

Defensive Backs

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    First Team: Deone Bucannon, S, Arizona Cardinals; Brock Vereen, S, Chicago Bears; Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns; Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos

    Another position that brings a challenging transition is defensive back. Whether it is cornerback or safety, the complexity of NFL defenses is usually enough that playing in the secondary as a rookie requires a high football IQ or a simplified system.

    This first-team group of rookies has an impressive mix of skills. Arizona Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon is a hammer in the defensive secondary. Chicago Bears' Brock Vereen is more of a pure coverage player with lots of on-field smarts.

    The Cleveland Browns think they got the best cornerback in the draft with Justin Gilbert, and they are probably right. Meanwhile, Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby is going to be thrown right into the fire against some great passing offenses. 

     

    Second Team: Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay Packers; Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets; Phillip Gaines, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

    Picking this group for the second team was challenging. First, there aren’t that many cornerbacks who appear to be angling for significant playing time as rookies. And second, there are almost too many safeties that are.

    The real sleeper of this group is Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines. The path to a starting spot for him is becoming more clear. If he can get there, he’s going to be able to showcase all that speed.

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