With the conference championship games coming up this weekend and some of the top defenses still in the race, I thought about talking about those two matchups, but since I previewed games the last two weeks, I decided to go a different route. I always like to look back at the rookie class and see what those first-year guys made of their opportunities. Once again, we have had some diamonds in the rough and they deserve to be honored, but so do the players, who have lived up to the hype. Therefore, I put up my starting lineups on offense, defense and special teams, plus some key substitutes. Here they are:
QB DeShaun Watson, Texans
HB Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
FLEX Alvin Kamara, Saints
WR1 JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers
WR2 Cooper Kupp, Rams
TE Evan Engram, Giants
LT Cam Robinson, Jaguars
LG Dion Dawkins, Bills
C Pat Elflein, Vikings
RG Dan Feeney, Chargers
RT Ryan Ramczyk, Saints
Key Substitutes: QB Mitchell Trubisky (Bears), HB Christian McCaffrey (Panthers), WR Corey Davis (Titans), TE O.J. Howard (Buccaneers), OT Garrett Bolles (Broncos), OL Chase Roullier (Redskins)
I know Watson only started six games before Houston lost him to an ACL tear, but how could I go with anybody else here? In that short time he lit it up, leading the league in touchdowns when he was lost for season, going blow-for-blow with Tom Brady, picking apart the Legion of Boom and just taking the football world by storm.
I couldn’t leave either one of those amazing rookie running-backs out, so I slotted Kamara into the flex-spot. That way I can put both guys in the back-field or split the Saints phenom out to the slot, where he is a great route-runner already. After Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing yards a year ago, Hunt earned that title on what basically was a walk-off touchdown in the final week of the regular season. Kamara on the other hand led the league with more than 7.7 yards per touch. That one-two-punch would work extremely well together in my opinion, since Hunt has a similar skill-set to Mark Ingram, who is Kamara’s actual teammate.
There wasn’t a pair of clear-cut rookie standouts at the wide receiver position, despite three of them being drafted in the top ten. None of those guys made my starting lineup, but rather I chose a second- and third-rounder respectively. Smith-Schuster emerged as the number two receiver for the Steelers, especially with the drama around Martavis Bryant, and he took over a couple of games. Cooper Kupp on the other hand was also part of a very explosive offense and did most of his damage out of the slot, where I think he fits best. Those two lead all rookie receivers in yards and receptions respectively.
Tight-end was an obvious choice for me with Evan Engram. He had a couple of drops and games with none or just one catch, but overall he was the most consistent producer at the production as a first-year man. He’s a mismatch with explosiveness out of his breaks and the height to defeat good coverage. That led him to two more catches than all those rookie receivers.
I said before the draft that this offensive line class wasn’t very rich on talent, but some of the clear suspects to make an impact, proved me right. Robinson did an outstanding job working with NFL coaching to get rid of some of his balance problems he had at Alabama and he was a people-mover in the run game, surrendering just two sacks and one holding call. I slid Dawkins inside after playing left tackle for the Bills, but I projected him to be a guard at the next level and he looked really good in that spot at the Senior Bowl a year ago. Yet, he held his own filling in for the injured Cordy Glenn. I really liked Pat Elflein as a prospect last year and he has done a tremendous job bringing this offensive line together, that might have been the worst unit league-wide the prior season. He has been impressive in space. I don’t know why people were that low on Dan Feeney coming out of Indiana. Although I was a little concerned with his knee-bend, I loved his aggressiveness and work in zone-schemes, which he showed in the NFL as well. Finally, my right tackle might be the best rookie O-lineman. Ramczyk was pressed into action early on with the injuries the Saints had on the edges and he was so consistent all year, keeping Drew Brees clean and paving the way for two backs with 1500+ yards from scrimmage each.
DE Myles Garrett, Browns
NT Dalvin Tomlinson, Giants
DT Jonathan Allen, Redskins
DE Carl Lawson, Bengals
SLB T.J. Watt, Steelers
MLB Zach Cunningham, Texans
WLB Reuben Foster, 49ers
CB Marshon Lattimore, Saints
FS Eddie Jackson, Bears
SS Jamal Adams, Jets
CB Tre’Davious White, Bills
Key Substitutes: DE Takkarist McKinley (Falcons), LB Jarrad Davis (Lions), NB Desmond King (Chargers), CB Marlon Humphrey (Ravens), FS John Johnson (Rams), SS Budda Baker (Cardinals)
The first overall pick didn’t start his season the way he wanted to, missing the first four games of the year, but Garrett still managed to record seven sacks and nine TFLs, showing why he was worthy of that selection. Tomlinson didn’t have a big season statistically, but he was an excellent run-stuffer for the Giants and did some of the dirty work, like grabbing jerseys and holding up offensive linemen on twists to free up his teammates. Allen only played five games before he was lost for the season, but he deserves this spot. When he was healthy, he just kicked butt. Watch him put last year’s All-Pro Kelechi Osemele on his back multiple times against the Raiders and how the Redskins defense fell off once he was forced out of the lineup. Lawson was one of the biggest steals of the draft, falling to the third round. With a good pair of book-ends already in Cincinnati, he made his mark coming off the bench, providing constant pressure and wrecking up 8.5 sacks.
Watt isn’t really in his naturally position as a part of this 4-3 scheme, but he has been great in coverage for someone who didn’t have that big a role off the ball at Wisconsin and I could play a lot of over-fronts, to bring him off the edge or at least keep him a threat. Cunningham wasn’t expected to get a lot of playing action with the Texans having Bernardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing in the middle already, but with Cushing having to serve a lengthy suspension, the rook was squeezed into the lineup. His physicality and downhill-attitude made him one of the top first-year LBs. As soon as the 49ers traded back into the first round late and selected Foster, I said they just added two cornerstones to their defense. San Francisco had an even stronger opinion on him, releasing long-time veteran NaVorro Bowman as soon as the Alabama stud was healthy. His range in coverage and the boom he delivers when arriving at his target are off the charts.
These two rookie corners might be the best duo I’ve seen in years. Lattimore is already easily a top-ten player at the position and to me is even on the fringe of cracking the top-five. His ability to change directions in off-coverage and stickiness in press are attributes I haven’t seen from a rookie since Patrick Peterson entered the league. And that includes Jalen Ramsey, who would be a starter on my All-NFL team right now. White didn’t quite get the same recognition in his first year in the league, but make no mistake – he’s had a phenomenal start to his pro career as well. He deflected 18 passes, forced five turnovers, with a couple of them basically deciding the outcome of games, and he is already being used as a matchup piece for the Bills.
I fell in love with the safety class early on in last year’s draft process and they didn’t let me down at the pro level. I could have put about seven other names from my top ten list on here, plus another one I mentioned in that segment. I chose these two because of the impact they had on their respective unit and how well I think they would work together. Jackson is my center-fielder with excellent ball-skills and speed to the hashes. He also became the first defender in league history with multiple 75+ yard-touchdown in one game. Adams pretty much instantaneously took over as the leader of this Jets defense. I knew what kind of guy he was by what the people at LSU said about him in terms of rallying his troops around him, but going to the NFL and being called the leader by professional athletes as a rookie is rare. Not to mention, he was outstanding on the field as well.
K Jake Elliott, Eagles or Harrison Butker, Chiefs
P Rigoberto Sanchez, Colts
RS Ryan Switzer, Cowboys
ST Budda Baker, Cardinals
For these special team performers, there was a few worthy candidates, that didn’t quite make the cut. It’s really tough to compete with Butker, who converted on over 90 percent of his field goal attempts, didn’t miss a PAT and was just half a yard behind the league’s leader in average yards per kickoff, while not pushing one of those out of bounds. The Eagles’ Jake Elliott had a really good season as well though, making five of his six FG attempts of 50+ yards, including a 61-yard game-winner.
At punter I chose Pat McAfee’s successor in Indy. I thought the former Colts member was still the best at his position when he decided to retire, but the drop-off wasn’t too steep with Sanchez, who boomed his punts for an average of 44.8 yards and placed 28 of them inside the 20.
Picking the right return specialist was hard with Adoree’ Jackson in the competition. I mean when watching the Titans, I saw a bunch of punt returns he took back for a long distance and sometimes even touchdowns, but they were wiped away by penalties. Since I can’t just say they didn’t spring him loose and count them, I went with Switzer, who averaged 25 yards per kick and 8.8 per punt return, including a score.
My special-teamer was an easy choice. Baker even made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, despite few fans probably even knowing the rookie. His ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ attitude of blowing people up, despite being a head shorter and several pounds lighter than opponents, showed up as a special teams demon with 16 tackles and a recovered onside kick.