You've just been awarded an NFL expansion team and must build your personnel department. How would you do it? Matt Waldman takes on the exercise.
28 Dec 2007
by Mike Tanier
Between Football Outsiders and my previous employer, I have now compiled All-Rookie Teams for six seasons. This is the easiest one I have ever assembled. I usually wring my hands about most of the selections. Did I pick a big stat guy over a better player? Am I hewing too close to (or veering too far from) conventional wisdom? Did I miss anyone?
There's a lot less drama this year. The two top running backs out-gained the first runner-up by more than 400 yards. Three rookie linebackers recorded over 100 tackles, and no others came close. Only one rookie quarterback made a significant contribution. Two offensive tackles stood far above the pack. Even normally tough positions, like center, sorted themselves out early in the year. The most controversial selection of the year may be at kicker. That says something about how obvious most of the choices were.
If this team actually took the field, they could easily compete for a Wild Card berth. The offensive line and running game would be playoff-caliber, and the defensive back seven would keep opponents honest. The kicking game would be a plus. The passing game and pass rush wouldn't be spectacular, but there will be teams with bigger flaws playing January football this year.
And now for the selections:
Quarterback: Trent Edwards, Bills: The last two weeks have been tough for Edwards. He battled the snow and wind in Cleveland when the Bills were fighting for the playoffs, then battled the Giants pass rush when the Bills were playing for pride. Edwards lost both fights, but he gave fans a reason for optimism. Edwards is no Jim Kelly. He's a system quarterback, a cerebral player with just enough arm strength and foot speed. Opponents and the elements got the better of him recently, but he proved earlier in the year that he can do just enough of everything -- even throw deep -- to stay in the league a long time.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson, Vikings: The Offensive Rookie of the Year, but of course you knew that. Peterson's Success Rate is just 45 percent, which ranks 33rd in the NFL. He's a boom-or-bust runner, especially when he's stuck facing eight- and nine-man fronts. When he learns to turn some of those no-gains into three-yard runs, he'll be even more special.
Running Back: Marshawn Lynch, Bills: Rushing for 1,000 yards as a rookie is great. Fumbling just twice in over 250 carries as a rookie is even better. Lynch and Edwards could become the cornerstones of a great ball-control offense.
Fullback: Korey Hall, Packers: Hall's the typical modern fullback: a converted linebacker who only plays about a third of his team's snaps, rarely touches the ball, but plays a key role on special teams. Hall made 12 special teams tackles before suffering a late-season hip injury, but he earned a spot on the all-rookie team with his skills as an I-formation lead blocker and pass protector. I love Brian Leonard, but most of his offensive production came when he replaced Steven Jackson at halfback. Pro Bowl voters may like pumped-up halfbacks on the roster, but Too Deep Zone is old school.
Wide Receiver: Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: When was the last time the Chiefs had a young receiver to really get excited about? The Chiefs wasted a lot of time trying to develop guys like Snoop Minnis and Kevin Lockett over the past decade, none of whom could unseat veteran journeymen like Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton for playing time. Bowe finally gives the team a young, dangerous, multi-purpose receiver to diversify their offense. Unfortunately, Bowe arrives just as everyone else is getting old or injured.
Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson, Lions: DVOA and DPAR likes Johnson better than James Jones, largely because of the difference in first downs (35 to 28) and fumbles (one to three). Actually, our stats like Anthony Gonzalez most of all, but he gets a little boost from the guy throwing the ball. At least picking the second team will be easy.
Tight End: Greg Olson, Bears: He has slightly better stats, including DPAR and DVOA, than Zach Miller. There isn't much else separating them.
Tackle: Joe Thomas, Browns: Jamal Lewis on Thomas: "I think he is the next Jonathan Ogden." Thomas is the only player who could seriously challenge Peterson for offensive ROY honors. He's far more likely than Peterson to still be playing at a Pro Bowl level seven years from now.
Tackle: Tony Ugoh, Colts: Offensive linemen are often most conspicuous in their absence. Ugoh's five missed games include the Colts' two losses and a 13-10 squeaker over the Chiefs. When Ugoh was healthy, the Colts could run their regular offense. When he was hurt, tight end Ben Utecht spent more time blocking than running pass patterns, and opponents overloaded the left side of the line. Ugoh was arguably more important to the Colts offense this season than Marvin Harrison.
Guard: Ben Grubbs, Ravens: The Ravens finished 27th in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, but don't blame Grubbs. At times, he was one of three rookies starting on the Ravens line. Grubbs was clearly the best of the bunch and was the most consistent lineman not named "Ogden" on the team.
Guard: Aaron Sears, Bucs: The Bucs offensive line features Sears and three second-year players (Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Donald Penn). In Pro Football Prospectus 2007, I wrote that this might be a wasted year for the Bucs even if they made the playoffs, because they girded their roster with too many aging veterans. The Bucs made the playoffs, and this season was far from wasted if they found four young linemen to build around.
Center: Samson Satele, Dolphins: The Dolphins may be 1-14, but their offensive line hasn't been terrible. Satele, a starter since opening day, has bought into Hudson Houck's system and is one of the team's few building blocks.
Defensive End: Gaines Adams, Bucs: The rookie sack leader did his best work against the Falcons: seven tackles and three sacks in two games. Adams started the year on the bench but worked his way into the lineup by Week 9 and proved that he can be an every-down lineman.
Defensive End: Brian Robison, Vikings: When the Vikings lost Erasmus James, Darrion Scott, and Ray Edwards to injuries and suspensions last month, Robison felt ready to move into the starting lineup. The fourth-round pick, who began the season as a pass rush specialist, became the starting right end, and his confidence immediately impressed teammates. "B-Rob at times forgets that he's a rookie," linemate Kenchi Udeze said of Robison, who is second on the Vikings with 4.5 sacks. Robison would fit better playing linebacker in a 3-4 system, but he could develop into the next Trent Cole.
Defensive Tackle: Amobi Okoye, Texans: Okoye had four sacks in the first four games, then hit the rookie wall and briefly lost his starting job. Texans line coach Jethro Franklin pushed Okoye past the wall by giving him extra reps after practice. The counter-intuitive approach worked, and Okoye played well against the Bucs and Broncos. "As a rookie all you can do is adjust," Okoye said, "and adjusting is just to keep on going." The 20-year-old Okoye should keep going for a long time.
Defensive Tackle: Ed Johnson, Colts: Johnson is the best of the Colts' three rookie defensive linemen (Keyunta Dawson and Jeff Charleston are the others). The Colts run defense would have been a disaster if the undrafted Johnson wasn't ready to step into a starting role this year.
Linebacker: David Harris, Jets: Rookie middle linebackers, like rookie quarterbacks, have to take command of a huddle. Harris may have recorded 41 tackles in his first two starts, but it took him time to modulate his in-huddle EQ. "He's gotten better and better each week, a little more bass in his voice, a little more authoritative," Eric Mangini said in December. Despite Harris' "Luke, I'm your father" intonations, safety Kerry Rhodes sometimes came away from the huddle giggling like Tiki Barber after an Eli Manning speech. No one is laughing at Harris now that he has 116 tackles.
Linebacker: Jon Beason, Panthers: One of the Panthers' few young building blocks. Beason recorded 130 tackles this year, but he was at his best last week when he made a dozen stops against the Cowboys. He has the athleticism and intelligence to start for the next decade.
Linebacker: Patrick Willis, Niners: The Defensive Rookie of the Year. If you had any doubts, Sunday's 20-tackle, two-sack effort surely erased them. Willis still makes a lot of rookie mistakes, but few defenders make more plays in pursuit or are better at the point of attack.
Cornerback: Leon Hall, Bengals: Like all rookie corners, Hall found himself in the crosshairs this season. He made opponents pay often enough (five interceptions) that they will be less likely to pick on him next year.
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis, Jets: Revis and Hall finished first and second among rookie corners in tackles. That's a problem. A lot of those tackles represent 15-yard completions against faked-out defenders. But those tackles also show that Revis and Hall were on the field for play after play, taking their lumps without losing their starting jobs. "He's an all-around corner," said Ty Law, a friend of the Revis family who has taken Darrelle under his wing. "You can't label him as a 'cover guy' or a 'tackler.' He can do it all. As he gets more mature in the game and as he learns to pick up on some little nuances throughout, you are looking at an All-Pro."
Safety: Tanard Jackson, Buccaneers: Jackson stood out over runners-up LaRon Landry and Gerald Alexander because he made very few mistakes in a mentally challenging position: free safety in Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 system. Jackson's a solid hitter and a very instinctive defender.
Safety: Reggie Nelson, Jaguars: Nelson leads the Jaguars with five interceptions and has emerged as one of the team's best defensive playmakers.
Kicker: Mason Crosby, Packers: Crosby enters the season's final week as the NFL scoring leader. He was Special Teams player of the Month in November, is 3-of-5 from 50+ yards, and averages a fine 63.7 yards per kickoff with 14 touchbacks. The former high school safety is a fine athlete who proved that his college statistics (he twice led the NCAA in 50-plus yard field goals) weren't inflated by the thin air at the University of Colorado. He's much better at kickoffs than Pro Bowl rookie Nick Folk, has one more 50-yard field goal, and has to battle the elements far more often than the Cowboys' kicker. That's why Crosby not only beat Folk for the All-Rookie Team, but should have earned Folk's trip to Hawaii. Crosby is the Special Teams Rookie of the Year.
Punter: Daniel Sepulveda, Steelers: He pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 27 times, recorded just two touchbacks, and was called Robo-Punter by non-FO readers. That's how you make the TDZ All-Rookie Team.
Return Man: Yamon Figurs, Ravens: Figurs returned both a punt and a kick for a touchdown this season and had five returns of 40+ yards. Opponents like the Dolphins started giving Figurs the Devin Hester treatment by season's end: he's another return man too good to kick to.
Special Teamer: Lawrence Timmons, Steelers: Timmons excelled on special teams at Florida State, so it makes sense that he became one of the Steelers' top gunners. If our All-Rookie Team took the field, Timmons, Hall, and Figurs would chase down any kick that Crosby didn't send through the end zone or Sepulveda didn't land at the 10-yard line.
Honorable Mentions: James Jones, Packers, and Anthony Gonzalez, Colts (wide receivers). Brian Leonard, Rams (all-purpose back). Zach Hilton, Raiders (tight end). Tim Crowder, Broncos (defensive end), Anthony Spencer, Cowboys (linebacker), Frederick Bennett, Texans, Aaron Ross, Giants, LaRon Landry, Redskins, Eric Wright, Browns, Gerald Alexander, Lions, Michael Griffin, Titans (defensive backs). Nick Folk, Cowboys (kicker).
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