NFL1000: Rookie Rankings at the Season's Quarter Mark
When college players come into the NFL and immediately set the league afire, they're not just taking the next positive step in their careers. They're also bucking the odds. Because football is a hard thing to do at the highest level, and it doesn't matter how great you were in college—that reality will smack you in the face at some point.
To overcome all that in your first NFL season is remarkable when quarterbacks and receivers are better, pass-rushers and cornerbacks are faster, stronger and more aggressive, techniques are more advanced and schemes are far more complicated.
A lot of it has to do with the system you land in. Does your coach understand what you're able to do? Does he maximize your abilities? Is there a worse quarterback throwing the football to you now than in college? Were you drafted at a position that's packed on your NFL team, and there's little you can do to climb up the depth chart?
The complications come from everywhere, which makes those rookies who succeed in a noticeable fashion at this level all the more remarkable. And in the NFL1000 scouting room, we've been looking at all these guys since they were in college. Our team:
Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive Line: Ethan Young
Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
Here's who's stood out to us at the quarter turn.
Overall Top 25
Here are the NFL's top 25 rookies at the season's quarter mark:
Entering the 2017 NFL season, DeShone Kizer stood atop the rookie rankings due in large part to his winning the starting job for the Cleveland Browns. But at the season's quarter mark, Deshaun Watson has vaulted to top of the rookie QB rankings.
Watson won his first game as a starter in the NFL, on a short week against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road. While he struggled at times and threw two potential interceptions, he did have a 49-yard TD scramble that changed the contest.
Then, he went into New England and put on a dazzling display against the Patriots, nearly leading the Texans to victory. But in Week 4 Watson truly stood out, completing 25 of 34 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He also chipped in a rushing touchdown, helping Houston blow out Tennessee, 57-14. He needs to decrease the number of throws he stares down, but Houston fans have to be impressed.
Kizer started the year with a solid performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and during that game you could argue he showed improvement. A late drive against the Steelers for a touchdown saw some of his best action, including an impressive timing and anticipation throw on a post route. But since then, Kizer and the Browns have struggled.
Head coach Hue Jackson has put a lot on his rookie quarterback's plate. Through four weeks, only nine QBs have attempted more passes than Kizer's 142, and while some of that is due to Cleveland's having to face deficits, it could still try to get the running game working and get the load off his shoulders. While he has been charged with a number of interceptions the past few weeks, you cannot put the bulk of them on Kizer, as dropped or tipped passes have led to some of the turnovers.
As for the other two members of the 2017 draft's Big Four quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes, who dazzled in the preseason, finds himself watching Alex Smith masterfully direct Andy Reid's offense. Smith and the Chiefs have been impressive this year, and they remain the only undefeated team in the NFL.
As for Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears announced he would be the starter in Week 5. It's about time.
—NFL1000 QB scout Mark Schofield
It was such a strong positional class with elite talent at the top and depth throughout, 2017 was dubbed the year of the running back. So far, the group is living up to those lofty expectations. Three of the top eight rushers are rookies, including two of the top three.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt is tops among them, and he leads the league a number of categories. He has the most yards (502), is second-best in yards per carry (7.4), has the most plays of 20-plus yards (five) and most plays of 40-plus yards (three). The Chiefs have designed an incredible run game around him, but Hunt has done a fantastic job maximizing every carry with good vision and incredible balance, even making his own yards when he needs to.
If it wasn't for Hunt, the conversation would center around Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette. Cook is third in rushing yards (354) and was key to keeping the Vikings offense moving the chains during Sam Bradford's absence due to a knee injury. However, his rookie season is over after reports of an ACL tear Sunday.
Fournette has done a terrific job running the ball for the Jaguars despite facing extra defenders in the box against defenses that aren't afraid of quarterback Blake Bortles. He's also in the top 10 runners in yardage (seventh, 285).
Christian McCaffrey hasn't set the league alight as many predicted he would, but that hasn't all been on him. The Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton had a tough time knocking off rust to start the year. Newton has missed a few opportunities to get McCaffrey the ball, including overthrowing him after a great route that left him wide open near the end zone in Week 2 against the Bills.
Bears rookie Tarik Cohen, in stark contrast, has been the explosive weapon everyone thought McCaffrey would be. His speed and ability to cut on a dime make him hard to tackle and a threat to take it all the way on any play.
Similarly, Alvin Kamara has looked explosive both as a runner and as a receiver. The Saints, however, have limited his touches as they try to find the right balance between Kamara, Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. Kamara has taken away snaps from Peterson as the season has progressed, but the Saints should find a way to get the rookie involved even more.
—NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock
It's been a rough start for many of the receivers in the 2017 draft class. Teams selected three wideouts in the top 10—Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross—and they have combined for fewer than 100 yards receiving. Tennessee's Davis has been the most productive (seven catches, 73 yards) and healthy of the three, but he's missed his last two games with a hamstring injury. However, when he's on the field, he's as good as advertised.
Cincinnati's Ross has played in just one game thanks to a knee injury, and he fumbled on his only touch. Williams has yet to suit up as he recovers from a back injury, but he may return this month. However, neither has returned any value on his team's investment.
Outside of the top three, Kenny Golladay of the Lions has been the most impressive rookie when he's been healthy. At 6'4", 213 pounds, Golladay provides size and physicality to an offense that desperately needed it. However, he's still a raw receiver, has dealt with hamstring troubles and isn't a threat to steal snaps or targets from Golden Tate or Marvin Jones.
Slot receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers) and Cooper Kupp (Rams) have found roles on their respective offenses and each provides toughness in the middle of the field. Neither project is a No. 1 receiver long term, but each is a solid option as a second or third receiver. Zay Jones of the Bills and Chris Godwin of the Buccaneers have both struggled to catch the ball.
From top to bottom, it's been a disappointing start for what was supposed to be a deep class. However, look for this group, specifically Ross and Williams, to take big steps in the second half of the season.
—NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher
Unlike the receivers, the rookie tight ends have started off fast. At the top of the list is Evan Engram of the New York Giants. His skill set perfectly meshes with that of quarterback Eli Manning and the rest of the Giants offense. As Odell Beckham Jr. gets healthier after suffering various ailments, there should be even more space in the middle of the field for Engram.
In this offense, he won't create a ton of big plays, but he should be a reliable target in the short to intermediate parts of the field. Engram will be a big part of the Giants offense, and the ceiling is high for the young tight end from Mississippi.
Tampa's O.J. Howard hasn't done much as a receiver, but he's been an excellent blocker who has paired well with Cameron Brate. Together, they make up the best tight end duo in the league. As Howard becomes more comfortable, expect him to be more of an asset in the receiving game.
One of the more surprising players in the first four weeks has been Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Rams. Built more like a large wide receiver at 6'3", 245 pounds, Everett has been a perfect fit with quarterback Jared Goff, as he's a big-play threat anytime he touches the ball. Everett already has three receptions of over 20 yards, and that number should only increase as he grows into his role.
—NFL1000 TE Scout Marcus Mosher
It's tough to make these rankings bigger than five names, as that is the full list of rookies who have played more than one game. There wasn't a lot of quality tackle help in the middle rounds this year, and the guys selected later are struggling to get on the field. However, although the group's depth is poor, the highly drafted trio at the top and the lesser known Dion Dawkins have shown encouraging signs.
First-round pick Ryan Ramczyk holds his No. 1 spot from our first rookie review, and he's acclimated himself well through four weeks with the Saints. His blend of sound technique and strength in his 6'6", 314-pound frame make him look like a seasoned vet. As he gets more confident and healthier, he should become the book-end tackle he looked like he would when he left Wisconsin.
Garett Bolles, another first-rounder, has fallen to the No. 3 spot after being ranked second in our initial rookie review, as the amount of schematic help he's been given has hidden his blunders for Denver.
Jacksonville's Cam Robinson, the No. 34 overall pick, is still growing as a player, but the flashes of impressive play he's showcased on an island against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Terrell Suggs put him at No. 2 in this update.
It's close at the top, though, and the good news is that trio is trending in the right direction.
—NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
Guard, another position where playing time has been limited, doesn't give us much to go on other than rotational snaps.
In fact, the only starter on his list is Will Holden, who has stepped in for the Cardinals due to multiple injuries on their offensive line. Injuries (Forrest Lamp, torn ACL), poor performance among middle-round guys given opportunity in the preseason (Isaac Asiata and Dorian Johnson) and a somewhat down class overall have whittled this list to five.
While Holden may be the only starter in this group, that doesn't mean he's the best rookie guard. He did not have a good outing against the 49ers' front and gave up ugly reps in pass protection against DeForest Buckner in Week 4. The interior is still new for Holden, who played tackle in college, so his getting thrown into the fire against someone with Buckner's interior-leverage ability is expected to come with bumps in road, and it did.
While Dan Feeney and Taylor Moton have been solid in their limited reps and looked by far the best in this group in the preseason, neither one has the clearest path to immediate playing time of the remaining players—although Feeney should arguably already be starting.
That distinction instead belongs to the Ravens' Jermaine Eluemunor, who has rotated in and out of the starting lineup with Matt Skura. For as raw a prospect as Eluemunor was, he's held his own on his rotational snaps, and he looks to be building confidence as he continues to get more run. It would not be surprising if Eluemunor is handed the full-time reins at right guard soon, as the Ravens try to replace Marshal Yanda (fractured ankle) up front.
—NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
We at least have two starters at center to analyze, but just like at guard, there are players who can't get snaps and deserve to be ranked higher than at least one of the starters.
Deyshawn Bond is the questionable starter, and unfortunately for Colts fans, my somewhat scathing report on how he is not ready for that role has been true. His struggles in pass protection have been clear, but his ability to drive-block in the run game (his best trait in college) has struggled to translate and win him one-on-one matchups.
There is little doubt that guys such as Washington's Chase Roullier or Seattle's Ethan Pocic would do better, based on the body of work I've seen from each in the preseason and college. With Bond now likely done for the year following his Week 4 quad injury, this list will continue to shrink.
Pat Elflein is the gold standard of the group, though, as he's the best talent on the list by far. He's also getting starter-level snaps. That said, he hasn't always looked like that poster child, especially in pass protection. But his physicality and hand technique are a promising blend of traits, so expect Elflein to continue to make strides as he gets more comfortable. He has work to do in pass protection in terms of footwork efficiency, but expect to hear Elflein's name more as he opens holes for the Vikings on the ground.
—NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett (ankle) has yet to play for the Cleveland Browns, making it hard to rank him. With that in mind, he's the first honorable mention. When he comes back, possibly in Week 5, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, expect him to rank among the top five names on the list, who are a tier above the other rookies.
Carl Lawson, a 2016 All-American at Auburn, has gone from a mid-rounder with injury questions to leading rookies in sacks with 2.5 through four games. He also earned a start in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns in a 31-7 win. If you want to look for a highlight game, Lawson took it to Green Bay's backup bookends in Week 3.
First-round picks Solomon Thomas and Derek Barnett are easing into playing time in San Francisco and Philadelphia, respectively, but they are both also flashing in their rotations. They look the part of future No. 1 pass-rushers. At 21 years old apiece, there is no rush.
Deatrich Wise of Arkansas wasn't even invited to the Senior Bowl during the draft cycle, as he was removed from a full-time starting role with the Razorbacks, but he still found a way to Bill Belichick. In a defense that has lost Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich and Derek Rivers for various reasons, Wise is the second-best pass-rusher on the team behind another former Razorback, Trey Flowers.
In Atlanta, the loss of 2016 NFL sack leader Vic Beasley means Takkarist McKinley's playing time is likely to continue to rise. After missing most of the preseason, McKinley is making up for it by being pushed up in the lineup. His speed-to-power moves are what separate him from other rookies so far.
—NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda
Interior defensive linemen were not a strong suit of the class. It doesn't help that Washington Redskins first-round pick Jonathan Allen is listed as a defensive end, Seattle Seahawks second-round pick Malik McDowell's career is in jeopardy and Day 3 picks like the Minnesota Vikings' Jaleel Johnson are healthy inactives. To say the least, we're picking from a thin talent pool.
The top name on this list is Dalvin Tomlinson of the New York Giants, a second-round pick from Alabama who is as good as advertised so far. Many thought he would be an A-class run defender who might be a little one-sided. While that's been true, he's played significant reps for the Giants so far and has racked up plenty of tackles for a rookie defensive tackle.
Cleveland's Larry Ogunjobi and Oakland's Eddie Vanderdoes are more splashy than Tomlinson but don't have the snap-to-snap consistency. Vanderdoes, especially, goes to a risky spin move when he's in trouble, which either means he's making an incredible play or ending up a gap over from where he should be. Teammate Treyvon Hester, a seventh-round pick, also made this list.
Three surprise players with starts under their belts are Miami's Davon Godchaux, who won the Dolphins' nose tackle job in the preseason; Los Angeles' Tanzel Smart, who has played both end and tackle in the Rams' 3-4 that keeps reshuffling; and New England's Adam Butler, another undrafted player. If they continue to get the reps they have in the first quarter of the season, it will be hard to move them out of the top 10.
Jacksonville's Eli Ankou, a waiver pickup during final cuts; Indianapolis' Grover Stewart, via Division II's Albany State; and Miami's Vincent Taylor, a sixth-round pick, are solid depth options league-wide. Honorable mentions are San Francisco's D.J. Jones and Houston's Carlos Watkins, who finally started seeing the field for the Texans in Week 4.
—NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda
Through the first quarter of the season, T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers reigns supreme among rookie outside linebackers. Watt is a fantastic athlete who is already giving top-flight offensive tackles fits. In Week 1, Watt put up a fight versus Joe Thomas, a feat many veterans cannot accomplish. Watt racked up two late sacks that week; while he has not recorded a sack since, he has regularly flustered opposing quarterbacks. After spending the past half-decade drafting high-end pass rushers, the Steelers may have finally found one who hits the mark.
Tyus Bowser of the Baltimore Ravens has been a pleasant surprise. Bowser entered the league as a hybrid pass rusher and off-ball linebacker. It was unclear where he would play in the NFL, but the Ravens have primarily used him as an edge player, and he's taken to it well. He can push the pocket as a pass-rusher, roam the flat as a coverage player and hold his own against the run. Bowser is far from the flashiest player on Baltimore's defense, but he is a reliable young player who has the tools to grow into a staple of their defense.
The rest of the outside linebacker class has been easy to forget. Duke Riley of the Atlanta Falcons has been up and down, mostly struggling with the change in speed and strength of the NFL level. Within the same division, Alex Anzalone of the New Orleans Saints has been a solid starting linebacker who can make tackles at all levels of the field, but he went down with a shoulder injury this week.
—NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen
The best inside linebacker in the class has played just one game this season. Reuben Foster of the San Francisco 49ers was injured in Week 1 versus the Carolina Panthers. Prior to his injury, he looked fantastic, showing off the range, intelligence, and tenacity that led many to believe he would be a force in this league. He would be the clear No. 1 on this list if healthy, but he hasn't played enough.
Haason Reddick of the Arizona Cardinals and Zach Cunningham of the Houston Texans have both come on strong for their defenses. Reddick played cornerback and edge-rusher in college, and his athleticism shows every time he is on the field. His comfort in zone coverage needs time to build, but Reddick is an active run defender who can scrape over the top and contain running plays on the perimeter.
Cunningham, on the other hand, is more of a gap shooter. He predicates his game on seeing cracks in the offensive line and pouncing. Calibrating that play style to NFL speed is tough, and Cunningham has faced his fair share of growing pains thus far. He needs to be more decisive and aggressive, but that should come with time as he learns what he can and cannot get away with.
Coverage, however, is a true problem for Cunningham. He gets lost far too often, especially on play-action. He has to be more disciplined moving forward. Considering the quality of defense around Cunningham, the Texans can afford for him to go through his learning process on the field.
—NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen
The first quarter of the season has been revealing for the deep crop of rookie cornerbacks who have earned playing time thus far. Injuries have limited several potential contributors and starters, so we have several newcomers to the top 10. As surprising as the additions of Xavier Woods and Shaquill Griffin may be, the struggles of more highly-touted players has been costly for their respective teams.
Absent from the list is 18th overall pick Adoree' Jackson. Given a starting role right away, Jackson has frequently shown his lack of polish at the position. In man coverage responsibilities, he's allowed 12 receptions on 23 targets for 123 yards, two touchdowns and three penalties, per my charting. He's also been lost in zone, allowing a touchdown this past week against Houston to Will Fuller and missing five tackles through the first four games.
Philadelphia Eagles rookie Rasul Douglas has also had a bumpy ride. Often helped by a terrific pass rush and a zone-based defense, Douglas has allowed eight of 12 targets in man assignments for 130 yards, with 122 yards due to being completely out of position, per my charting. He's been put in a difficult position since he wasn't supposed to be starting this early, but his raw technique has been exposed.
On the positive side, Marshon Lattimore has the early makings of superstardom in New Orleans. In three games, he's been targeted just four times in man assignments, allowing three for a total of 19 yards. He's yet to allow a blown reception or commit a penalty in coverage.
Buffalo's Tre'Davious White has been solid so far as well. He's allowed just nine of 19 targets in man coverage to be completed for 103 yards. Only 39 of those were from blown coverages. He has committed two penalties, so there's room to grow, but the early returns look impressive.
—NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton
The top of the safety class has been fantastic thus far. Trying to decide the No. 1 player at the position is merely stylistic preference. As soon as Malik Hooker was inserted into the Indianapolis Colts lineup midway through Week 1, he became a star in coverage and a solidifying piece for a unit that was expected to be awful. On the other hand, New York Jets safety Jamal Adams has been dominant in his role, especially as a downfield enforcer near the line of scrimmage.
Both were lauded prospects and have thus delivered. Because Hooker has three interceptions in as many starts, he's earned the nod, but that's no slight on Adams. With 16 tackles and a sack logged, Adams is filling the stat sheet as well as he's closing the gaps that cost this defense dearly last season. He's had help from fellow rookie Marcus Maye, who has done a nice job as a deep safety to prevent big plays over the top.
The other star from this class so far is Josh Jones of the Green Bay Packers. A hybrid between a safety and a linebacker, Jones has been terrific in beefing up the Packers run defense. He had 12 tackles in Week 3 of the season, easily his best week yet. He's not yet a great slot coverage option, but his athleticism should allow that to improve against tight ends as he gains experience.
The rest of the class has had its ups and downs. Jabrill Peppers of the Browns has been playing incredibly deep for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, which has neutered some of his best talents. He's also missed some tackles that cost the unit significant chunk yards. His upside is still high, but he's learning a difficult position.
We haven't been able to see as much from Eddie Jackson, Justin Evans or Obi Melifonwu as hoped as they each are dealing with their own obstacles. Jackson has played more snaps over the past two weeks, a good sign of what's to come. Melifonwu is on injured reserve for the first half of the season, while Evans is rotating in for limited playing time.
—NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton