NFL Week 1 Rookie Rankings, Post-Preseason
The time has come for the rookies of 2014 to make their regular-season debuts as NFL players. From No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to a plethora of players drafted after him, first-year players on all 32 teams are expected to make immediate impacts on the field as Week 1 games kick off on Thursday, Sunday and Monday.
Throughout the season here at Bleacher Report, I’ll be tracking which rookies stand out above their peers with weekly rankings of the NFL’s rookie class. Each week, the top five NFL newcomers at each position, and top 50 overall, will be highlighted.
Over the course of the season, rankings will be determined based upon which rookies have had the best performance and production for the regular season as a whole. High draft picks won’t be given places on the rankings simply based upon their hype coming into the league—they’ll have to prove on the field that they belong.
For this week’s rankings, we take a look at which players performed best this preseason and put themselves in the best positions to be significant contributors for their teams in Week 1. Consideration has been given to where each rookie stands on his team’s depth chart, but the rankings aim to reflect how each player has performed thus far moreso than what the expectations are.
Since preseason performances will be largely forgotten once the meaningful games begin, next week’s rankings will likely look drastically different, in part because some players will see significantly more playing time than others in the regular season. The players listed in the following slides, nonetheless, are the ones who stood out the most during the summer session.
Top 50 Overall
As the season progresses, we will track which players are moving up or down the board after having good or bad games. For this week, the listed movement simply reflects where every player is ranked in comparison to where each was drafted.
There are some high draft picks whose preseasons weren't good enough for them to land in the top 50 at all; conversely, there are some late-round picks and even undrafted rookies who stood out enough this summer to be among the top first-year players coming out of the preseason. One thing that has remained constant since the NFL draft, however, has been the greatness of Jadeveon Clowney, this year's top pick out of South Carolina.
The Houston Texans outside linebacker didn't play much this preseason—only 29 snaps in two games—but he sure made the most of his opportunities to play. In his debut against the Arizona Cardinals, he blew up running back Stepfan Taylor for a five-yard tackle for loss. One week later against the Atlanta Falcons, he made back-to-back big plays with a run shutdown in the backfield followed by a sack.
Clowney still has to prove that he can be more than a downhill playmaker—playing in space and in pass coverage could lead to some early struggles—and that he can stay healthy to hold up over the course of the season. That said, he's already made more spectacular highlights than any other rookie and looks likely to justify Houston's decision to select him No. 1 overall.
|42||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||FS||Packers||1.21||21||Down|
The Jacksonville Jaguars are sticking to their plan to start veteran quarterback Chad Henne in Week 1, but that's no indictment of Blake Bortles' play this preseason. The No. 3 overall pick had an outstanding August—he completed 62.7 percent of his passes, averaged 10.2 passing yards per attempt and had two touchdowns with no interceptions—and is already making the Jaguars look good for selecting him.
At the very least, Henne should be on a short leash going into the season, because Bortles looks ready to play. He is displaying impressive confidence and accuracy throwing downfield, making it clear that he has already improved significantly from his years at Central Florida.
Until Bortles is inserted into the lineup, he'll likely be surpassed in the rankings next week by Derek Carr, who is currently slated to be the only rookie starting quarterback to begin the year. The Oakland Raiders' second-round pick also had a fantastic preseason, completing 66.7 percent of his passes, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and throwing four touchdowns with just one interception.
Carr rightfully earned Oakland's starting quarterback job over veteran Matt Schaub, who showed no improvement off a dismal 2013 season with the Houston Texans. Carr will be challenged greatly by the New York Jets, a team that can expose Carr's weaknesses against the pass rush in Week 1, but playing right away will give him the opportunity to improve on the job.
Teddy Bridgewater will begin the season as Matt Cassel's backup, but he also looks ready to start when called upon. Jimmy Garoppolo played well enough to make the New England Patriots' incumbent backup quarterback, Ryan Mallett, expendable.
Johnny Manziel struggled more this preseason than the other four quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds, but it won't be a surprise if he ends up playing this season.
Devonta Freeman was the only running back in the NFL this preseason to have 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards. The short but physical back demonstrated he can be an asset in the Atlanta Falcons backfield on any down.
It’s unclear how much Freeman will play as a rookie—he’s currently listed as the fourth running back on the Falcons’ depth chart—but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t get opportunities to play quickly. Steven Jackson is past his prime at 31 years old, while Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith are only situational runners.
Jeremy Hill, Andre Williams and Carlos Hyde—all bigger, more powerful backs who do the brunt of their damage between the tackles—are listed as their respective teams’ second-string running backs. All should see playing time spelling the starters and have the opportunity to emerge right away as catalysts for their offenses.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, who is listed as the Baltimore Ravens’ third-string running back, led all players this preseason with 243 rushing yards.
Kelvin Benjamin was expected by many to have the steepest learning curve among this year’s first-round wide receivers, but that sure didn’t seem to be the case this preseason.
The big wide receiver started all four of the Carolina Panthers’ exhibition games and immediately flashed big-play ability, route-running prowess and good hands. Matched up primarily against No. 1 cornerbacks, Benjamin caught 12 passes for 173 yards. He looks ready to be the lead outside receiving weapon Carolina needs him to be.
John Brown also had a spectacular preseason. Combining explosive speed with good quickness and crisp routes, Brown has already demonstrated how dangerous he can be from the slot. He will likely play ahead of Ted Ginn as the Arizona Cardinals’ No. 3 receiver.
Brandin Cooks, who looked sharp this preseason for the New Orleans Saints and caught nine passes for 101 yards, is another potential rookie star slot receiver.
Bruce Ellington probably won’t see considerable playing time on the San Francisco 49ers offense, but he made plays all preseason as both a receiver and returner and is expected to contribute at least in the latter capacity.
Allen Hurns was one of the most pleasant surprises of the preseason. He started multiple games for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and even as much of his work came against first-team defenses, he led all NFL receivers this preseason with 232 yards on 14 catches.
The wide receiver position looks to be one of the strongest in this year’s rookie class; early-round picks Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Jordan Matthews (Philadelphia Eagles) also impressed this preseason, while top-12 picks Sammy Watkins (Buffalo Bills) and Odell Beckham Jr. (New York Giants) might have been among the top five wideouts had their preseasons not been compromised by injuries.
Richard Rodgers was the sixth tight end selected in this year's draft, but he's the only rookie at his position slated to be a Week 1 starter for his team.
Rodgers was seen as a draft project after an unspectacular collegiate career at California, but he’s made rapid progress as both a receiver and blocker—enough to stand out as the best tight end on the Green Bay Packers roster.
The rest of the tight ends selected in the first three rounds of this year’s draft all had up-and-down preseasons.
Eric Ebron, who will likely play a significant role in the Detroit Lions offense even if he doesn’t start, flashed as a receiving playmaker but needs to be more consistent and improve as a blocker.
Jace Amaro displayed pass-catching upside this preseason as the New York Jets’ No. 2 tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins and C.J. Fiedorowicz are currently listed as third-string tight ends, but both are big, traditional in-line players who can produce as both receivers and blockers.
Troy Niklas had to work his way back from a broken hand this preseason, but the Arizona Cardinals' second-round pick is also likely to be a factor in the tight end rookie rankings this year.
Ja’Wuan James was pushed into a tough position to start immediately at right tackle on a Miami Dolphins offensive line that will begin the season with a new lineup of starters. A strong pass protector, he looks ready to help solidify an offensive line that was the league’s most unstable last season.
James is not much of a run-blocker—he’s neither a great athlete nor particularly powerful—but he can give the Dolphins, who surrendered the NFL’s most sacks in 2013, the stability they need most up front.
Jake Matthews had a surprisingly rough preseason, but he’s the most talented offensive tackle in the rookie class and will be its only starting left tackle this year after moving over from right tackle to replace injured veteran Sam Baker on the Atlanta Falcons offensive line.
Seantrel Henderson was an outstanding revelation for the Buffalo Bills this preseason and earned the starting right tackle job. Taylor Lewan was arguably the most impressive rookie offensive tackle this summer, but his preseason came with backups, as he is not in position to start as a rookie.
Justin Britt had some issues as both a pass- and run-blocker this preseason, but he was able to beat out Eric Winston to win the Seattle Seahawks’ right tackle job.
Dallas Cowboys owner and team president Jerry Jones recently told ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. that he wanted to use the No. 16 overall pick in this year’s draft to select Johnny Manziel. Thus far, it looks like the Cowboys made the right move with their first selection.
Zack Martin was immediately installed as Dallas’ starting right guard this spring, and he has looked ready to solidify that position for the Cowboys up front ever since. He should be one of the NFL’s best rookies this year.
Joel Bitonio started at left guard for the Cleveland Browns all preseason, and the athletic offensive tackle convert was impressive.
Gabe Jackson hasn’t been named a full-time starter for the Oakland Raiders yet, but it should only be a matter of time before one of their guard jobs is his to keep. A massive, powerful interior lineman who was ranked second among all players at his position by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) this preseason, Jackson is set to start in Week 1 when Khalif Barnes will play right tackle, according to ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson.
Both Weston Richburg and Jack Mewhort have had to cross-train between guard and center this preseason as their team's offensive lines have been hit by injuries. Both had their ups and downs this preseason—Mewhort missed time with a knee injury—but they showed enough skill to be capable at left guard, where each is replacing an injured starter.
Corey Linsley was not expected to start for the Green Bay Packers as a rookie until second-year center J.C. Tretter went down with a knee fracture that is expected to sideline him for at least the first half of the season.
Fortunately for the Packers, Linsley performed well this preseason; if he can play at a similar level against starting competition, which is easier said than done, he could end up seizing the job from Tretter for good. He’s a tough, athletic center who should not be a liability even as an inexperienced rookie.
Russell Bodine had some issues both blocking and snapping this preseason, but the Cincinnati Bengals have committed to the North Carolina product as their starting center, giving him the opportunity to grow and thrive.
Neither Jonotthan Harrison nor Luke Bowanko has any business being considered to start as a rookie, but it’s possible both might have to.
The athletic Harrison was in line to replace injured Khaled Holmes in the Indianapolis Colts’ lineup, but Holmes could return for Week 1, and Harrison has missed some practice time with a thumb injury. The Jaguars are starting with Jacques McClendon at center over Bowanko, but Jacksonville shouldn't be comfortable with having McClendon in that role for an extended period of time.
There weren’t many healthy rookie centers on active rosters to rank here, but Travis Swanson is Dominic Raiola’s backup on the Detroit Lions' depth chart.
An undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, Ethan Westbrooks ran with his opportunity to play for the St. Louis Rams this preseason. A big, athletic and versatile defensive lineman, Westbrooks had two sacks among 12 total tackles and was graded by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best 4-3 defensive end this preseason.
Westbrooks’ play this preseason came primarily against backups, and he is listed as a third-string defensive end on St. Louis’ depth chart, so he might not see much playing time or be nearly as productive in the regular season. Nonetheless, he was the most impressive rookie this preseason among those considered to be defensive ends.
Stephon Tuitt looks like a natural fit on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 defense as a 5-technique defensive end, especially as a run defender, and he should take on an immediate role in their defensive line rotation as a rookie.
Kony Ealy is a raw talent, but the Carolina Panthers' backup defensive end showed the ability to be disruptive as a rusher off the edge all preseason.
Taylor Hart is listed as a third-string defensive end on the Philadelphia Eagles depth chart, but he had eight solo tackles this preseason and provides solid depth.
Terrence Fede had to prove he belonged just to make the Miami Dolphins’ roster as a seventh-round pick. The Marist product showed some intriguing explosiveness off the edge that gives him pass-rushing upside.
|5||Louis Nix III||DT||Texans||3.19||—|
Aaron Donald didn’t tally up the box score much this preseason, but his quickness and penetrating ability were apparent in every St. Louis Rams exhibition game. He recorded a strip sack in one game. While he was pushed around at times this August as a run defender, he showed that he can be an immediate disruptor up front, especially as an interior pass-rusher.
Zach Kerr, whose combination of mass and athleticism enables him to play both nose tackle and defensive end in Indianapolis’ three-man front, already looks like an undrafted gem. It should come as no surprise if Kerr, a highly disruptive presence this preseason who recorded 14 total tackles, makes a serious push for playing time right away.
Beau Allen of the Philadelphia Eagles and Ra’Shede Hageman of the Atlanta Falcons are two hybrid defensive linemen who offer flexibility to the defensive front between schemes and spots within them up front. Both players had their share of impressive moments this summer, even if Hageman was the subject of ridicule from coaches on this year’s edition of HBO’s Hard Knocks.
Louis Nix only played in two games for the Texans this preseason, but he was solid when he was on the field as a massive run-stopper up the gut.
The aforementioned Clowney isn’t the only first-round pick at linebacker who has stood out this preseason.
An active run-stopper who has also put his skills on display as a blitzing pass-rusher and dropping back into coverage, C.J. Mosley quickly stole Arthur Brown’s starting job from him in training camp this year and never looked back. He’s a very good all-around linebacker who already looks to be among the leaders and stars of the Ravens’ defensive unit.
Anthony Barr (Minnesota Vikings) and Ryan Shazier (Pittsburgh Steelers) have also run with immediate starting jobs on their respective defenses.
Barr remains a somewhat raw talent who needs to improve in pass coverage, but he’s an explosive pass-rusher who has looked better against the run than expected. Shazier is a highly active linebacker who can make tackles all over the field, but he needs to become better at shedding downfield blocks and playing in coverage.
Jayrone Elliott broke into the top five at perhaps this rookie class’ strongest position because he led all NFL players this preseason with five sacks.
The rookie from Toledo has displayed a strong burst and quick hands as a pass-rusher. He’s currently listed as a third-string outside linebacker on Green Bay’s depth chart, but he’s already exceeded expectations by dominating opponents this August—even if almost all of them were backups—and making it through the preseason.
Playing primarily as a nickel cornerback this summer but also some at safety, Jimmie Ward looked ready to provide a spark right away for a San Francisco 49ers defense that could need it.
Over the course of the preseason, Ward excelled in slot coverage, was active in run support (he recorded 13 total tackles) and came away with an interception. He’s an athletic defensive back who can be a ball hawk and cover plays all over the field, which should make him a big asset as the team’s primary nickel cornerback this year.
Rookies typically have an easier time adjusting to slot cornerback than playing outside in their first NFL seasons, so that’s partially why Ward looked the best among the rookies at his position this preseason. Still, it’s evident he’s ready to be a difference-maker for San Francisco.
Bradley Roby had up-and-down play this preseason like he did throughout his collegiate career, but the speedy, aggressive cornerback was good in coverage for the most part and should be able to contribute right away in the Denver Broncos secondary as needed.
Malcolm Butler was initially a long shot to make the New England Patriots roster, but he ended up ascending to starting at cornerback in all four of New England’s preseason games. He’s still buried as a third-string cornerback on the depth chart, but he showed impressive instincts, toughness and ball skills when he played this preseason to make a strong case for playing time.
E.J. Gaines and Bashaud Breeland were also pleasantly surprising this preseason, as both players provided consistently quality coverage and made plays on the ball this August. Both players are in position where they can play right away in nickel or dime situations.
Two first-round picks who just missed the cut, Kyle Fuller of the Chicago Bears and Jason Verrett of the San Diego Chargers, were left off solely because each only played one game due to injuries. Both players performed well when they were on the field and should quickly move up the rankings if they are healthy for the regular season and continue to provide steady coverage and playmaking ability.
|3||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||FS||Packers||1.21||—|
Despite playing just two games this preseason, Calvin Pryor accumulated a Pro Football Focus grade of 7.4, the highest among all safeties in the NFL this August.
A heavy hitter with good playmaking range and skill as a blitzer, Pryor immediately proved to be a difference-maker in run support, pass coverage and even situationally as a pass-rusher. He’s a lightning rod on the field who is ready to start in the New York Jets secondary.
Deone Bucannon played as both a traditional strong safety and as a hybrid linebacker in nickel packages this summer. Regardless of where he lines up, Bucannon has been active and taking advantage of his athletic range; he had 23 total tackles, the third-highest total of the preseason.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has not surpassed Micah Hyde for the Packers’ starting free safety job, but the rookie has been solid in run support and coverage when on the field this preseason. His Alabama teammate, Vinnie Sunseri, had a strong preseason for the New Orleans Saints but is listed as the team’s fifth safety on the depth chart.
Going into Chicago Bears training camp, Brock Vereen was considered the favorite to win their starting free safety job, but he struggled in coverage at times this preseason. He did not receive any starts this August and is listed as a backup to veteran Danny McCray on Chicago’s depth chart, but it’s likely Vereen will still get on the field and contribute on defense and special teams.
Four rookie kickers—Cody Parkey, Nate Freese, Chandler Catanzaro and Cairo Santos—won kicking jobs away from veterans this summer. All four of them made every field goal they attempted this preseason. Parkey has the strongest leg of the group and was the best on kickoffs among them this August, but all four have performed well and rightfully earned place-kicking jobs.
Pat O'Donnell is the only rookie punter with a job. He didn't have a great preseason—his net average of 38.5 yards per punt ranked just 28th in the NFL—but he is an athletic punter with a strong leg who just needs more consistency.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.