Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
30 Dec 2005
by Mike Tanier
If this year's All-Rookie Team actually took the field, they would look a lot like the Bears.
That's not just because Kyle Orton is the quarterback. Like this year's incarnation of the Monsters of the Midway, the 2005 All Rookie Team has talent to spare on defense. Offense? That's another matter.
Several excellent rookie defenders were relegated to the "honorable mention" category this year, particularly at linebacker, cornerback, and punter. But on the offensive side of the ball, it was hard to cobble together an interior offensive line, and the receiving corps wouldn't blow anyone away.
At Football Outsiders, we use objective judgment whenever possible, so many of our custom statistics -- Adjusted Line Yards, DPAR, DVOA broken down by opponent's receivers -- were used to help determine who deserved to make the All Rookie Team. Our scouting notes were also brought to bear; readers of Michael David Smith's Every Play Counts won't be surprised by some of the names below. But there's always a subjective element at work when selecting a team like this, so not every player selected is the "top" rookie based upon our statistical methods.
Anyway, on with the list.
For weeks, we heard that Orton "managed games well" or "did what he had to do" to win. But anyone who watched him play knew that he was just better than awful for most of the season. Still, he stayed healthy and prevented a complete disaster in Chicago. Decent outings against the Lions, Vikings and Browns showed that Orton has the potential to get better, but the Bears are happy to have Rex Grossman back for the postseason.
Cadillac appeared to have All-Rookie honors sewn up in the opening weeks of the season. Then he hit the wall, and college teammate Ronnie Brown was poised to take his place. Brown had some highlight-reel runs against the Chiefs and Bills, but by December Cadillac was back to full speed and leading the Bucs to the playoffs. Williams has exceptional quickness, but he's most impressive when he's finishing runs and punishing tacklers like a much bigger back.
Green was a very good pass blocker and effective lead blocker before getting hurt in Week 12. He's also a fine all-purpose special teamer.
His numbers (32 receptions, 16.0 yards per catch) are impressive for ten games of work. He had 22 first down receptions, and showed that he was ready to be a #1 receiver in impressive outings against the Dolphins, Vikings, and Jaguars before getting hurt. Chris Henry may have had more receptions, but it's easier to play the slot in a great offense than to be the top threat in a bad offense.
Jones was supposed to be a "project" this season, so his production was somewhat surprising. A converted college quarterback, Jones isn't a great route runner, and opponents caught on to his role as a trick-play specialist early in the year. But he has been a solid third down and red zone threat: 19 of his 28 receptions have yielded first downs, and an acrobatic touchdown against the Steelers helped alter the balance of power in the AFC.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year, with all apologies to Cadillac. The Steelers haven't had a receiving threat at tight end since Eric Green left town. Miller provided the Steelers quarterbacks with a much-needed possession receiver over the middle. He ranks ahead of Todd Heap and Alge Crumpler in DPAR, in part because so many of his catches yielded first downs or touchdowns.
Michael David Smith profiled Barron in his Every Play Counts column in October, calling Barron one of the most impressive rookie linemen he has ever seen. Barron was a perfect fit in St. Louis, where he joined Orlando Pace to give the team an excellent pair of bookend pass protectors.
Brown labored in obscurity as the Saints traveled the barnstorming circuit. With all of their problems, it was hard to notice that the Saints line was playing relatively well.
Mankins stepped into a starting job for the defending champs and was solid if unspectacular. Mankins isn't polished as a run blocker, but Tom Brady's pass protection held together even when Mankins was surrounded by novices like fellow rookie Nick Kaczur.
A weak selection. Whitticker started every game this season but wasn't very effective, particularly when trying to pull and trap in the running game. He makes the list because there were so few other candidates at guard.
There were almost no viable candidates at center. Hodgdon started three games in midseason and wasn't terrible. He may be Houston's starter next season.
Cody hasn't been flashy this season, but he had big games against the Panthers, Bears, and Vikings. He plays both end and tackle, so he fits well in the All-Rookie lineup as a two-gap 3-4 end.
The steroid controversy has faded, and the Chargers have found themselves with the type of defensive tackle every team covets. Castillo is strong, alert, and active, penetrates well, and often commands a double team. He was a major factor in the Week 8 win over the Chiefs.
Cole was listed as an outside linebacker in the draft but lines up exclusively in the three-point stance for the Eagles. He saw little playing time early in the season, but came on strong against the Redskins, Cowboys, and Giants in the midseason stretch before everything went kablooie in Philly. He's not suited to every-down duty but should develop into a top pass-rush specialist.
When Merriman puts it all together, opposing quarterbacks are in trouble. His quickness and instincts are amazing, but Merriman is still learning to vary his moves and fight off blockers. His sack totals are impressive, but Merriman is also good against the run because he reacts quickly and tackles cleanly.
Tatupu beat Kirk Morrison for this spot in Week 12 with his 13 tackle performance. Then he returned a pick for a touchdown against the Eagles, intercepted another pass against the Niners, and broke up two more passes against the Colts. Tatupu plays like a veteran; he makes lots of tackles in the backfield or right at the line of scrimmage, but he may be most impressive in pass coverage, where his instincts and recognition skills are outstanding.
The Defensive Rookie of the Year. Thurman plays the run like Jeremiah Trotter and drops into coverage like Al Wilson. With five interceptions and five more forced fumbles, he was one of the most dangerous defensive playmakers in the NFL this year.
Ware had four sacks by Week 6 but then went into a long dry spell. Ware didn't twiddle his thumbs for two months. He recorded two tackles for a loss against the Lions, two more against the Giants in Week 13, and grew into a steady run defender. Then he exploded with three sacks and three forced fumbles against the Panthers. The next Lawrence Taylor? Not yet, but Ware would have been Defensive Rookie of the Year in a normal season.
The Broncos rank 11th in DVOA when stopping their opponents' #1 wideouts and 13th when stopping their #2 wideouts. Nobody is avoiding Champ Bailey to pick on Williams or fellow rookie Domonique Foxworth. Williams is a fine hitter for his size and is a great return man, but his most amazing statistic this year may be the number of times he has been penalized: zero.
Rogers replaced Fred Smoot and actually upgraded the Redskins secondary. He played his best game against the Chargers in Week 12 with an interception and three passes defensed, but he has been rock-solid since entering the lineup in Week 4. He has missed two straight games, and the Redskins need him back in the postseason.
A big hitter who's at his best close to the line of scrimmage, Harris can also be effective in coverage: he broke up four passes against the Vikings in Week 6. But with Mike Brown at free safety and two fine cornerbacks in the secondary, Harris is free to act like an extra linebacker. He excels in the role.
One of the Jets' few bright spots this year. Sophomore safety Erik Coleman has regressed, but Rhodes has stepped up as a run defender and sometime blitzer. He doesn't have the instincts of a natural Cover-2 safety yet, but he doesn't make many foolish mistakes.
Three of Bironas' six misses came from beyond 50 yards this season. His numbers would look better if the Titans gave him a few more extra points to convert. Bironas was an undrafted free agent. Hint, hint.
This has been a big year for punters. Chris Klewe of the Vikings was a close runner up, but Koenin is better at pinning opponents. Plus, he kicked a long field goal.
Two fumbles against the Ravens in Week 13 nearly cost Mathis a spot on the All-Rookie Team. But his touchdowns against the Colts and Chiefs, plus great outings against the Titans and Browns, made him one of the Texans' few bright spots this year.
With Darrent Williams returning punts, we have room for two gunners. Poppinga is one of the league leaders in special teams tackles. Blackburn was a key contributor on one of the league's best special teams units and was starting to show promise on defense before getting hurt against the Redskins.
Running Back: Ronnie Brown, Dolphins.
Wide Receiver: Chris Henry, Bengals; Mark Clayton, Ravens.
Tight End: Alex Smith, Buccaneers; Adam Bergen, Cardinals.
Offensive Line: Michael Roos, Titans; Nick Kaczur, Patriots.
Defensive Line: Chris Canty, Cowboys; C.J. Mosley, Vikings.
Linebacker: Kirk Morrison, Raiders; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs; Channing Crowder, Dolphins; LeRoy Hill, Seahawks.
Secondary: Domonique Foxworth, Broncos; Fabian Washington, Raiders; Ellis Hobbs, Patriots.
Kickers: Mike Nugent, Jets.
Punters: Chris Klewe, Vikings; Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs.
Returners: Tab Perry, Bengals; Chris Carr, Raiders.
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