There have been a couple of spectacular rookies who have been in the conversation all year like Dak & Zeke in Dallas or Joey Bosa in San Diego, but there are a lot of very good rookie and sophomore players who rarely anybody talks about. They migt not all have put up huge numbers, but they are stars in the making.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears
I know Ezekiel Elliott has been spectacular and there was a reason he was the first running back off the board in last year’s draft, but Howard is the clear-cut second and what he’s done in his rookie campaign on a very bad team was almost as impressive to me as what Zeke did for the NFC’s number one seed. He started the year at number three on the depth chart but quickly emerged as the Bears’ workhorse. In his 13 starts he has rushed for 101 yards per game on average. That’s just one yard less than the Cowboys star, he averages 0.1 yards more behind a mediocre offensive front compared to the Great Wall of Dallas and he has fumbled only two compared to five times. Oh and he was taken only about 150 picks later.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
This year’s class of rookie receivers has been rather disappointing so far. Corey Coleman never really settled in due to injuries, Will Fuller has been a big-play for the Texans to some degree, but he hasn’t done that consistently each week, Josh Doctson was injured all of 2016 and Laquon Treadwell has caught one ball for 15 yards. That’s your first round. Sterling Shepherd has already become one of the top slot receivers in the league and Tyreek Hill can take it the distance every time he touches the ball, but to me Thomas has been the number one receiver out of this draft class to this point. The nephew of former Jaguars star receiver Keyshawn Johnson is a size-speed specimen who has won with his athleticism on lower levels, but what made him the number one option on a Saints offense that includes Brandin Cooks, Willie Sneed and others was the hard work he put into becoming a great route-runner. That’s the reason he finished first in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown among all rookies.
Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens
Let me start like this – it’s hard to be a left tackle in the NFL. Unless you are called Joe Thomas or Tyron Smith you are not going to get a lot of love. And people only start talking about you if you get beat. But I think when Stanley has been healthy he has been one of the better blindside protectors in the league. His athleticism and foot quickness are outstanding, his technique looks much improved compared to what it was like at Notre Dame and he will anchor that left side of the Ravens O-line for the next decade.
Chris Jones, DE, Chiefs
The KC defense has a bunch of stars with Justin Houston, Eric Berry, Marcus Peters and others, but Jones has made a big difference for them. He might not have put up any impressive numbers in his first season (28 tackles and two sacks), but he is highly disruptive with a knack for getting off blocks and throwing plays off schedule. Often times he’s the reason running backs have to change directions and run into the hands of some linebacker or bounce it outside and why quarterbacks throw the ball up for interceptions because he is in their face.
Kerry Hyder, DL, Lions
If you ask any regular fan who leads the Lions in sacks he would probably say Ziggy Ansah or maybe Devin Taylor, but I don’t think a lot of people would tell you it’s Hyder. I know Detroit has only gotten to the quarterback the second-fewest times with 26 sacks a piece, but the undrafted second-year man out of Texas Tech has eight of them himself. He has started just two games in his short career, but he has sort of been the unsung hero on Detroit’s defense. They move him all over the line and ask him to create havoc. He is just 6’2’’ and might not possess any elite athletic traits, but he is very good with his hands and plays with a great motor.
Deion Jones, ILB, Chargers
I know Joey Bosa has been spectacular since entering the Chargers line-up and would probably be the first defensive player off the board again, but if you talk about who made the most plays for his team over the entire season I would have to hand the trophy for Defensive Rookie of the Year to Jones. He leads all rookies with 108 tackles and he has picked off three passes, two of which he took to the house. Dan Quinn was looking for an enforcer at strong safety like he had in Kam Chancellor during his time in Seattle and an athletic linebacker who can run sideline-to-sideline. I would say he has found both with Keanu Neal and the former LSU backer. But I think the wrong one of the two gets more recognition.
Denzel Perryman & Jatavis Brown, LBs, Chargers
We all know who the stars on a bad San Diego defense were this season – Casey Hayward with eight picks and Joey Bosa with 10.5 sacks and the league-lead in tackles for loss. But what I really like about their nucleus on that side of the ball are their two young inside linebackers. What I think will help them be effective is how well they complement each other. Perryman is true Mike who takes charge of the entire unit and lays wood on anybody coming over the middle while Brown is more of a safety put closer to the line of the scrimmage. He’s only 5’11’’ and weighs in at about 220 pounds but he can run like a deer and take on multiple responsibilities in zone and man coverage. I know he’s vulnerable against the run when you have 330+ pound interior linemen getting onto him, but San Diego’s rush defense actually hasn’t been that bad in 2016 ranking 10th overall. Next season they will get their number-one corner Jason Verrett and a playmaker in Brandon Flowers back. If they have everybody healthy including those two linebackers I just talked about I think this defense could move from one of the worst to at least a playmaking, opportunistic one.
Justin Simmons, FS, Broncos
The Broncos defense was spectacular during their Super Bowl run last year and they had most of their key pieces coming back, but I think they have to find a spot for this young man. I loved him coming out of BC due to his extremely high football IQ to recognize plays, the ability to make plays all over the field and the commitment to being a secure tackler. I think he is what you look for in a true free safety. I like his background on the outside and I think he would only make this unit younger and better on the back-end. In just three starts he already picked off two passes and if you try to remember who blocked the PAT-attempt on the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown-drive – that was Simmons too.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
I know the former Seminole star was a top five pick and in the discussion for the best overall player in the draft, but I didn’t really hear his name called until week 16 when he took a pick back to the house against the Titans. His talent is insane and with all the talk about him maybe moving to safety at the next level it has been kind of funny that he was their shutdown corner all year long. He followed number one receivers all over the field and didn’t back down from everybody. It’s not easy getting recognition for simply mirroring wideouts, but I haven’t seen any true number ones having big days against the Jags. If you compare this and last year’s stats you can see that Jacksonville has moved from the bottom five in passing yards allowed to top five and Ramsey is a big reason for that turn.
Tavon Young, CB, Ravens
It’s hard for a rookie cornerback to get a lot of recognition if he doesn’t make a lot of interceptions. They are generally known for getting burned when thrown into the fire. This kid from Temple has stepped in week six and has been the Ravens’ number two corner since then. He might not have put up any monster numbers in his senior year with the Owls, but let me tell you – he was shutting people down. You might not be able to say the same at the NFL level with guys like Antonio Brown, A.J. Green and Terrelle Pryor in the AFC North alone, but look at the tape and tell me if he looks like a rookie cornerback. He has outfought veterans Shareece Wright and Klye Arrington for that starting spot due to sticky coverage and aggressiveness in coming downhill and keeping playmakers to short gains. The best example would be the Ravens’ first meeting with the Steelers in Baltimore where the all-word receiver rarely found any success until they played softer coverage. He was a steal in the fourth round.
Carson Wentz (QB, Eagles) – Everybody jumped on the bandwagon when the Eagles started out the season 3-0 and Wentz put up big numbers. I know he hasn’t been quite as impressive since then, but much of the blame goes to one of the worst receiving corps in the league and a defense that went from less than 10 points allowed per game since then to more than 20. I still think he has a bright future ahead.
David Johnson (RB, Cardinals) – Don’t get me wrong here. I know a ton of people speak very highly of David Johnson, but I’m not sure how many really know how good he is. To me he is right behind Le’Veon Bell and even ahead of Ezekiel Elliott when you take about the best backs in the business.
Sheldon Rankins (DT, Saints) – I thought the former Louisville Cardinal had a similar skill set to the best three-technique defensive tackle in the league today in Aaron Donald. He hasn’t quite had the production of the Rams’ star in his respective rookie campaign, but when Rankins gets opportunities he is very disruptive and the Saints defense is different. He’s poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
Danielle Hunter (DE, Vikings) – Sure, he’s not even a starter on the Vikings D, but only Von Miller and Vic Beasley have finished the season with more sacks than the second-year man and rarely any regular NFL fan knows his name. I didn’t think he’d became the player he is already that quickly, but he is an athletic freak and he has all the tools to dominate offensive tackles for years to come.
Kwon Alexander (MLB, Buccaneers)– In just his second season in the NFL Alexander finished fourth overall in tackles with 145. Not only is he all over the field he also makes plays in backfield with twelve TFLs and three sacks. And just for good measure he added a pick six. He and Lavonte David make up for one of most underrated linebacking corps in the league.
Byron Jones (DB, Cowboys) – This guy is an athletic freak. You can’t really define his positions, he can just be lined up anywhere and with his size, speed and leaping ability he matches up with wide receivers equally as well as tight-ends. He is still learning the safety position, but I think he has a lot of qualities like Chris Harris Jr. and could be used in different schemes to take away specific offensive weapons.