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 rookie offensive team that has impressed them with their first-half performances.
Quarterbacks – Mark Schofield
Did anyone expect this?
At the midway point of the 2016 NFL season, Dallas Cowboys’ rookie quarterback Dak Prescott might be the story of the entire league. Pressed into action because of the preseason injury to incumbent QB Tony Romo, Prescott inherited a talented offense and has put his team on the inside track to an NFC East title. Through eight games, Prescott has thrown only two interceptions, and has kept the Dallas offense largely on schedule in each contest. Their only loss came on opening weekend, a one-point loss to the New York Giants.
More than anything, Prescott might be the poster child of context. Many evaluators – myself included – were low on his prospects at the professional level. For me, there were questions surrounding his accuracy that he failed to answer not only during his time at Mississippi State, but also during the pre-draft circuit and the week of Senior Bowl practices. But Dallas seems to be the perfect fit for him. He is running an offense that is largely similar to the passing structure he operated while in college, and is working behind perhaps the best offensive line in the game. When a quarterback is comfortable and in a familiar environment, good things can happen. The start of Prescott’s career is living proof.
The Philadelphia Eagles stunned the football world when just prior to the start of the season, they traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings and named Wentz the starter. The North Dakota State product was injured in the first preseason game, and saw limited practice time the rest of training camp. But through three weeks, the decision to roll the dice with Wentz seemed to be the right choice. The Eagles started with three-straight victories, and the rookie looked every bit the part of a first-round draft choice, throwing five touchdowns in those games and showing some of the traits that evaluators praised during the pre-draft process.
But the NFL has some talented defensive minds, and teams have begun to figure out just how Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson were running the offense during that hot start. With the Eagles focusing on the shorter passing game and giving Wentz some basic route concepts to work with, teams have started to crowd the short area of the field, attempting to take away the screens and stick concepts that Wentz was thriving on earlier in the season. Since the 3-0 start, the Eagles have lost four of five games, with the rookie throwing four interceptions, two against the Vikings and two last week against the Giants. Every rookie has rough patches, and now it falls on Wentz and his rookie head coach to right the ship and get this offense moving again.
Running Backs – Joseph Ferraiola & Sal Conti
Elliott has turned out to be exactly what NFL Draft analysts thought he’d be. Elliott leads the NFL in rushing with 891 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and seven touchdowns through eight games played. He’s also averaging 22.1 rush attempts per game which is 7.0 more than the second place rookie back in that category, Jordan Howard. He struggled a bit in his first two starts, but has figured out how to run in the NFL. Elliott improved his patience before running through the hole. He’s displayed very good vision and burst once an alley is created. And, while many believe a lot of the credit is due to the Cowboys outstanding offensive line, Elliott has earned hard fought yards in the second and third levels of opposing defenses. The rookie uses his speed to outrun defenders to the outside and avoids tacklers by hurdling them. Elliott also excels as a power runner by punishing opposing defensive backs by running through them and pushing forward for extra yards at the end of runs. The trait that sets him apart from the rest of the rookie class is his how he can be used in the pass game. Elliott has good hands to catch the ball out of the backfield and is already an excellent blocker in pass protection.
The fifth round pick is the only rookie back other than Elliott to average more than 10 rushing attempts per game with 14.1. He’s rushed for 505 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns. At 6’0”, 230 pounds, Howard is a power back who embraces contact, gaining tough yards after contact. And while he’s not the fastest running back, he displays patience and vision when choosing the correct lane in the Bears zone blocking scheme. Additionally, Howard has better play speed than overall speed. He’s also displayed the ability to burst through the hole and break off big gains, like against Minnesota in his best performance of the season. He uses his physical nature to finish at the end of runs picking up extra yards. Howard has also been good in the passing game making plays out of the backfield. With the impact he’s having on the Bears offense Howard may be in on more snaps than expected.
Wide Receivers – Justin Twell
The 2016 wide receiver draft class has been, at least to this point, the weakest class we’ve seen for the last couple of years, so making my picks for the Inside The Pylon midway point all-rookie wide receivers was a challenge.
The best rookie wide receiver so far is, however, a relatively easy one to pick and I’ve chosen New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas, the second round (47th pick overall & 6th WR taken) selection out of Ohio State. He leads rookie receivers in catches (47) yards (573) and touchdowns (5) and has used his ideal size (6’3” and 212 pounds) to be an effective outside receiver and is the Saints’ current number one receiver. ITP’s own Mark Schofield wrote recently about Thomas’s success to date.
Now things get a little tricky, with Sterling Shepard, Will Fuller and Tajae Sharpe all in the running for the number two spot. It was close, particularly between Shepard and Fuller but I’ve plumped for New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard, also a second round pick (40th overall) here. Shepard has shown sure hands with only one drop, unlike Fuller’s five, and leads Fuller in most major statistical categories (although both are tied for touchdowns with three). Shepard is best coming out of the slot but registered a 41” vertical at the combine so he can go up and get the ball if needed. His route-running really stands out, as the rookie receiver has displayed the ability to run a full route tree with veteran prowess from the moment he stepped foot in the starting lineup. Shepard should only continue to become a larger part of the Giants’ offense as the season progresses.
Tight Ends – Ted Nguyen
The tight end position may be one the most difficult positions for rookies to break out in, simply because they have to acclimate to both NFL blocking and receiving. Although receiving skills have become more in-demand than ever for tight ends, the need for tight ends to block still exists. So rookies that aren’t great blockers don’t receive as many snaps as they need to be high impact blocker.
That being said San Diego’s Hunter Henry is having an excellent rookie season. As a run blocker, he displays excellent footwork and technique. As a receiver, he creates a lot of separation with his explosion and crafty route running. He does benefit from being on the same team as Antonio Gates, as teams pay more attention to Gates in the Chargers two tight end sets, but it also means Gates takes away from his numbers. But he still has an impressive 340 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
Offensive Line – Brandon Thorn
NOTE: I decided to choose the top five overall offensive lineman for my rookie team instead of a player at each position because frankly, Bears center Cody Whitehair should not be left off any all-rookie OL team. His performance has been admirable, and I wanted to ensure that the five best rookies were recognized.
Decker stepped into the starting left tackle role from day one in Detroit and has steadily improved with each week of the regular season. Through the halfway point, Decker has displayed fluidity, balance, and technique that is rarely seen in a rookie. Decker is well-known for his run blocking prowess; demonstrating good ability to line up targets in space with good short-area quickness, sustained with good strength, as well as a nasty demeanor to finish his man. Where Decker is less regarded is in pass protection, and that’s what stands out so much for me when I study his film.
Beginning every snap with an intentional drive-cach phase that he learned and crafted under LeCharles Bentley at OL Performance, Decker displays explosiveness out of his stance resulting in the ability to reach his spot, build his house, and minimize the effectiveness of the rusher. Decker consistently takes away the rusher’s option for a two-way go, which lessens risk for himself. By achieving his set point (or reaching his spot) so quickly and efficiently, Decker is able to take the rep into his own hands. Pair that with his ability to use his hands to win the leverage battle and you have a good starter in the NFL. For the 16th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, Decker is ahead of schedule as to what the Lions expected out of him as a rookie. It is worth mentioning and giving a nod to the Ohio State football program and its coaches for preparing Decker so well throughout his college career.
Whitehair’s rookie season has been incredibly impressive strictly from his on-field play, especially once you consider that he is playing a foreign position. Whitehair started 51 games at Kansas State University and none were at center. In fact he was primarily a left tackle, so moving inside to center is a world of difference and a tall task for anyone, much less a rookie. The Bears knew this was a difficult ask of Whitehair, so they hired former NFL All-Pro C Kevin Mawae to help Whitehair adjust.
What has transpired is improvement each week for Whitehair, to the point where he is playing like a top-10 center in the NFL. Through outstanding technique in terms of playing balanced and in-control, Whitehair was a guy who immediately stood out in my film study of him last year as a senior. Very few college offensive lineman remain cool, calm, and collected when they get in trouble on the field, but Whitehair was a master at it. His technical proficiency has served as a rock-solid foundation for him as an overall player, and the results have translated to the center position.
His display of crafty hand usage, mental processing, leverage, and the ability to pick his spots has lent itself to a rapid adjustment to being a pro. Playing in the middle of Pro Bowl offensive guards (Kyle Long and Josh Sitton) has certainly helped Whitehair with not having to worry about too much, and his strengths have shined thus far.
Tunsil got off to a bit of a rocky start this season but has quickly and impressively adjusted to life on the inside. Switching from LT to LG was a bit of a head scratcher for me. I thought he should have played LT regardless of Branden Albert’s presence. Albert has carved out a nice career and is still an above average player, but Tunsil is still the future at the position.
Tunsil’s play is particularly impressive considering the level of nuance and technical proficiency he is displaying at an increasingly consistent clip. The physical ability (power, explosiveness, and quickness) was already in place, and in the middle of two veteran linemates (LT Albert and C Mike Pouncey) Tunsil has been able to learn and refine his skills between them. Tunsil excels in Miami’s zone-based running game due to his elite explosiveness. His suddenness out of the gate allows him to get on top of and around guys in a hurry, and through good hand usage to create the proper leverage on defenders, he has developed into a quality starter. Despite wanting to see him at left tackle prior to the season, I’m becoming more and more impressed with how he has adapted to the inside where it is a much faster game.
The Colts haven’t had stability at the center position since Jeff Saturday left in 2011. A stout center can serve as a calming presence for an entire offense and Kelly has been excellent thus far. His tape at Alabama was among the most impressive that I’ve seen since studying Alex Mack out of Cal, and it has translated to the pro game immediately.
Kelly wins with a strong, consistent base that serves as the foundation in all of his movements both in the run and pass game. Rarely is he caught off-balance and even when he is, there is plenty of athleticism, short area quickness, and coordination to recover. Kelly’s hand usage is also superb – especially for a rookie – so his ability to create leverage at the point of attack is very good. His presence has calmed things down significantly up front compared to last season, and his inclusion on this team is a no-brainer.
Thuney is someone that I highlighted earlier this season for his uncanny understanding and application of leverage every time I turned on the tape. Despite being slightly undersized (6-4 295 pounds) Thuney makes up for it with outstanding hand usage both in terms of his placement, but also independent hand usage and grip strength to sustain blocks. The pad level in which he utilizes on a snap-to-snap basis is also excellent and paired with refined hand usage he is able to win most battles in the run and pass game.
Thuney has good mental processing and tremendous spatial awareness to ensure that he is operating from a position of power. He can become overwhelmed with power rushes from elite-level players, but he puts up a strong fight because of how rarely he falls off blocks. His competitive toughness translates into consistently finishing and playing through the whistle. There is no doubt that Thuney has outplayed his draft position of 78th overall. There is a lot to like about the rookie from N.C. State, and he has been a key cog in the machine that is the New England Patriots offense.