Now that we are over halfway finished with the 2016 NFL season, it is good time to look back at the first half of the year and see which rookies have excelled in their first taste of NFL action. We asked our team of writers and analysts to put together a team of rookies at each position that have impressed. Those rookies make up our midseason all-rookie defensive team.
Defensive Line – Jon Ledyard
Amidst a rookie class that was thought to boast one of the best interior defensive line groups in recent memory, Buckner is one of just two rookies playing over 60 percent of his team’s snaps. It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses for Buckner, or any member of the 49ers run defense, but the Oregon product’s game has carried over from his days with the Ducks quite nicely. Buckner isn’t a major factor as a pass rusher, but he’s able to consistently push the pocket while providing an assignment-sound presence against the run. Buckner still plays too high and can have trouble anchoring and holding his ground, but his hand usage and play strength are impressive for a rookie, earning him a spot on this team.
After Buckner it gets tricky, because Maliek Collins and Jihad Ward are the only two rookie defensive linemen playing significant snaps for their team. While both Collins and Ward have had their moments, I’ve been more impressed with the play of Reed for Seattle, as the rookie defensive tackle appears to have trimmed up in order to play a number of different techniques up front. Reed is at his best on the interior where his leverage and hand placement allow him to get off blocks against the run, but Seattle has even put him on the edge some in run-likely situations. Reed’s range for his size and strength is so impressive, so while Seattle’s defensive line continues to operate on a strict rotation, don’t be surprised if the rookie begins to push for more time.
Edge Defenders – Jon Ledyard
Predicting that Bosa would lead this All-Rookie team when he was drafted was a fairly common projection, but that honor looked less likely as an ugly contract dispute threatened to derail Bosa’s rookie season entirely. A hamstring injury and limited practice time held Bosa out of the lineup until Week 5, but since then the Ohio State star has been on a tear, notching four sacks and accumulating pressures on nearly every pass rush. Bosa’s elite hand usage and understanding of leverage makes it very hard for opposing offensive linemen to win initial contact against him, and even harder to sustain a block on the defensive end. Couple that technical prowess with Bosa’s impressive athleticism and raw power, and you have by far the best rookie edge defender in the NFL right now. It didn’t take long for the Chargers to recognize this either, as Bosa was leading their defensive line in snaps by his second NFL contest.
The first thing to note about Ngakoue is that he’s playing almost 70 percent of the Jaguars defensive snaps this season, the second-highest total among all rookie defensive linemen (defensive ends and defensive tackles). Ngakoue has been quite effective during that time, with four sacks and two forced fumbles off the edge. Billed as a raw pass rusher who would need time to develop at the NFL level, Ngakoue has exploded onto the scene with a violent hand swat and some serious bend around the edge. His athletic and physical tools were always intriguing, but Ngakoue’s mental processing to recognize and exploit interior rush lanes left vacant by oversetting tackles is particularly impressive. As Ngakoue’s hand usage continues to improve, we could be talking about one of the best young defensive ends in the NFL in a few years.
Linebackers – Sean Cottrell
After filling in as starter for injured linebacker, Manti Te’o, Brown has excelled in the role and brought some much needed speed to the middle of San Diego defense. He has contributed 54 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in eight games played but, more importantly, has given defensive coordinator John Pagano a reliable three-down player to anchor his base and third down packages.
Listed at 5’11” and 221 pounds, Brown has below-average size for the position but makes up for it with his athleticism and ability to work through traffic, make blockers miss in space, locate and take good angles to the ball. His ability in coverage is what sets him apart from most rookie linebackers though as he displays very good zone awareness and ability to break from his landmark and impact the receiver at the catch point. He has also displayed the awareness and ability to turn and run on the wheel route or wall off the seam in man coverage.
From an improvement standpoint, he needs to be quicker in keying and diagnosing run blocking schemes and must work to get stronger at the point of attack and working off blocks. These are things, though, that he should be able to improve on throughout the year and into the offseason.
Coming into the draft, Jones was considered to be one of the top linebackers in his class and has not disappointed thus far. Starting at the middle linebacker spot in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 under base defense, he has been a bright spot on a young struggling defense having posted 53 tackles and two interceptions in eight games.
Like Brown, Jones’s ability to stay on the field and make an impact in passing situations has been crucial to the flexibility of the Falcon’s defense. With his ability to drop quickly to his landmarks and remain alert to routes crossing through his space or the athleticism he displays with his ability to get vertical and stay in phase with the receiver in man coverage, Atlanta can get more creative with their pass rush.
In the run game, Jones displays very good mental processing skills for a rookie attacking downhill while still maintaining gap integrity within the scheme. He also displays great body control in his ability to work around blocks in small spaces and takes good angles in pursuit. Like Brown, Jones also is undersized at 6’1, 220 and as such, lacks the strength to get off blocks at the point of attack if he doesn’t read the blocking scheme perfectly in the run game, but thus far has been well worth the second round investment the Falcons made in him.
Cornerbacks – Dave Archibald
The Jacksonville Jaguars expected big things out of Jalen Ramsey when they tabbed him with the fifth overall pick out of Florida State, and the 22-year-old has not disappointed, starting all eight games in his NFL career and ranking as NFL 1000’s 22nd-best corner (best among rookies). Ramsey has the total package: size (6’1” with 33 ⅜” arms), athleticism (41 ½” vertical), and physicality (25 solo tackles). The nasty, competitive attitude he showed as a Seminole is already on display. He only has one pass deflected, and no interceptions, but opponents have only targeted him 23 times on the season.
The Dallas Cowboys don’t ask their cornerbacks to lock down receivers in man coverage, but they do demand quick click-and-close reactions and solid tackling ability. Sixth-rounder Anthony Brown out of Purdue has been a terrific fit, allowing only 1.0 yards after catch and missing just one tackle on the season. Brown has lined up both outside and in the slot and held up surprisingly well, including in tough matchups like versus Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers. He’s provided valuable depth on a unit that looked weak entering the season, but has been a pleasant surprise.
Nickel / Slot Corner – Dave Archibald
Florida Gators teammate Vernon Hargreaves III was far more heralded as a prospect, but Brian Poole of the Atlanta Falcons has had a stronger debut. Playing almost exclusively in the slot, the undrafted rookie has shown strong change-of-direction abilities and ball skills (six pass deflections, tied for the rookie lead). Opponents targeting Poole average only 5.5 yards per attempt, the second-best mark among rookies.
Safeties – Luc Polglaze
Football is a physical sport, and it’s hard to imagine a player making a more physical impact in his rookie season so far than Atlanta Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal. He has brought an aggressive, hard-hitting edge to Dan Quinn’s defense, filling the Kam Chancellor role that the squad has sorely lacked. He’s already caused three forced fumbles on the year and the presence underneath that he maintains has brought an edge to this defense. He’s been particularly notable for his willingness to step up and hit receivers, including a massive shot to Tampa Bay‘s Mike Evans in Week 9.
Sometimes it takes rookies a while to get their first NFL year off to a start. For Joseph, it took two games. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, he debuted with a strong 10 tackles. He had a full range on the field that he rarely displayed in college at West Virginia. And yet, at the mid-point of the season, he is already fourth on his team in overall tackles. His physicality, unlike Neal’s, has bordered on head-hunting at times. Already with an unnecessary roughness penalty to his name, he needs to clean up his tackling form and not lead with his head so much to avoid helmet-to-helmet shots.
Specialists – Chuck Zodda
Lutz was unheralded coming out of Georgia State, where accuracy questions tended to overshadow a potentially strong leg. After a late offseason tryout with the New Orleans Saints, Lutz won the job outright, with a number of Saints coaches and front office personnel raving about his tryout. While Lutz struggled in Week 1, going 2-for-4 on field goals (though he did make all four extra point attempts), he has shown a strong leg and improved consistency as the year has gone on. Lutz is still raw, and the mental side of the game will be key for him, as he often does not trust his leg strength and will overkick the ball on long attempts, leading to inaccuracy, but he has the tools needed to be an NFL kicker. He likely has a multi-year development to go through to reach his potential, but there is more here than many thought at the outset of the season.
Honorable Mention: N/A
NOTE: There are only two rookie kickers in the NFL this year, and Roberto Aguayo of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has simply not been good enough to warrant inclusion on this list simply by virtue of being the only other option. Aguayo has performed inconsistently, and at the moment, does not possess the accuracy required of an NFL kicker. While he has all the talent in the world and could be a very good kicker, he needs to show improvement prior to the end of the year. Rookies are expected to make mistakes, but by the last quarter of the season, they have the experience necessary to be able to correct mistakes at a high level. Aguayo has not shown this ability to this point, and it is getting late in the season for him to continue to struggle.
Dixon did not have the buzz of Drew Kaser coming out of college, but his performance to date has exceeded that of the highly-touted Kaser. Dixon features an NFL-average leg, and has shown the ability to move the ball from side to side on occasion, though he still needs to build consistency. Dixon likely has a ceiling as a slightly above-average punter, but if he can provide that for the next four years on a cheap deal, the Denver Broncos will likely be happy with what they can get out of the undrafted rookie. Dixon is not likely to make many Pro Bowls, but he could be a solid NFL contributor for the next decade if he continues to improve his consistency and adds a little extra power to his game.
Honorable Mention: N/A
NOTE: Both Kaser and the third rookie punter, Lachlan Edwards, have been near the bottom of the NFL in terms of punting performance this season, and to this point, neither is worthy of a second-place finish here. Kaser has tremendous upside, with a massive leg and the ability to move the ball all over the place, but the talent he displayed in the preseason has been absent for much of the regular season. It is far too early to give up on him, as his talent is prodigious, but like Aguayo, he needs to begin to show better in the second half of the year. Edwards is likely filler for the New York Jets, and has not shown anything at either the college or pro level to suggest he is a viable option for the long term.