Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Dec 2009
by Mike Tanier
Do not try to pass against this year's All-Rookie Team.
You can run against them, because they have almost no defensive line. You can do whatever you want on defense, because the overall offense is weak. But don't try to throw the ball: The secondary is loaded with ball hawks and big hitters, and the linebackers can bring the pass rush.
Every All-Rookie Team is different. Last year, we had two great quarterbacks. Before that, we were overloaded with running backs. This year, there's no fullback, so I took the liberty of selecting a third receiver from a deep class. This was a difficult year to select an offensive MVP, and picking the defensive MVP was even harder.
As always, I selected this team with input from the other Football Outsiders. While I checked with DVOA and other sources, the choices were largely subjective. I did not consult any other All-Rookie Teams before making my choices, but I did check a few afterward to make sure I didn't forget Brian Cushing or some other obvious candidate.
Quarterback: Mark Sanchez, Jets. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco spoiled us last year. Sanchez is what a rookie quarterback is supposed to look like: scrappy, impressive in spurts, sometimes lost. The DVOA is brutal and the turnovers came in bunches, but Sanchez had some great moments for an offense short on weapons and sometimes lacking an identity.
Running Back: Knowshon Moreno, Broncos. Moreno has been very consistent: seven games of 75 or more rushing yards, eight games of four or more yards per carry. His Success Rate is high (52 percent), and even though the Broncos scheme has changed a lot, he looks like an old-fashioned, one-cut, plug-and-play runner.
Running Back: Beanie Wells, Cardinals. Wells has a higher DVOA and Success Rate than Shady McCoy, who has a cooler nickname. Moreno and Wells both have very high Success Rates for rookies (they rank seventh and fifth overall, respectively), so the All-Rookie Team should be able to grind out reliable yardage.
Wide Receiver: Percy Harvin, Vikings. The Offensive Player of the Year. We thought we were getting a return man, Wildcat quarterback, trick-play specialist, and possible character problem. What we got was an old-fashioned big-play receiver. Harvin does return kicks, run reverses, and take direct snaps -- and all those distractions make him terrifying in a Vikings offense loaded with weapons -- but he can also run routes and catch passes. A lot of them. The Vikings needed a pure wideout more than they needed an offensive knick-knack, and Harvin proved to be their second-most important acquisition of the off-season. As for the character concerns, the only things that has slowed Harvin this season are chronic migraines. If he can control them, nothing can stop him.
Wide Receiver: Mohamed Massaquoi, Browns. The closest thing I have to a controversial pick. Lots of receivers have better stats, but it's easy for Austin Collie to catch 50 passes from Peyton Manning. Try catching 30 from Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, when you are the only real receiving threat on the roster. Yes, his Catch Rate and DYAR are deplorable. I liked what I saw in the Bengals and Lions games. So there.
Hakeem Nicks, Giants. DVOA loves him, and the Eagles and Redskins defenses cannot tackle him. Nicks won this slot in the Sunday night game against Philadelphia. We'll forgive the drops; the touchdowns were spectacular. Jeremy Maclin and Austin Collie deserve Honorable Mention.
Tight End: Brandon Pettigrew, Lions. Pettigrew had six catches in the win over the Browns, seven more in the loss to the Seahawks, and looks like a solid weapon both underneath and on seam routes. He just needs a pass offense around him.
Tackle: Michael Oher, Ravens. Imagine the pressure of starting, at both tackle positions, for a team with playoff aspirations. Imagine the pressure of being the subject of a best-selling book and a high-grossing feature film. Imagine both simultaneously. No non-quarterback has ever dealt with the pressure Oher has battled since before the draft. He has handled it exceptionally.
Guard: Andy Levitre, Bills. At times, the Bills offensive line was an all-rookie team. Levitre wasn't a stellar performer, but he stayed healthy and did all that was asked. He even became the smallest left tackle in the NFL when a spate of injuries forced him to move over to the position he played in college.
Center: Alex Mack, Browns. Mack has started all season long and is growing into his role on a line that's a little better than the awful team around it. According to our database, Mack hasn't been penalized once all season.
Guard: Max Unger. John Morgan over at Field Gulls was reluctant to recommend Unger for the All-Rookie Team until I asked him to name alternatives. Here's Morgan's take: "He is steady in pass protection and not penalty prone. Unger isn't strong at the point, but he keeps a body between himself and the quarterback and has improved his ability to clear. He pulls well, but rarely gets more than a glancing block on his assignment. Unger had his best game of the season at Qwest against San Francisco. He stood fast against Ray McDonald. McDonald humiliated Unger in Week 2 -- literally walking over a supine Unger for the sack. Seattle started him at center last week and that speaks to his versatility. If he can grow into his body and show better power off the snap, Unger should have a long, respectable NFL career."
Tackle: Phil Loadholt, Vikings. Loadholt has drawn high praise from his coach and quarterback while paving the way for one of the best offenses in football. He's a better pass blocker than run blocker right now, but he has the size to be a natural road grader.
Defensive End: Michael Johnson, Bengals. Johnson has just two sacks and very few tackles, but he has four passes defensed. The 6-foot-7 Johnson extends to bat down passes, and he's been a solid contributor in the Bengals nickel package.
Defensive Line: Roy Miller, Buccaneers. A solid player in a weak class for defensive linemen, Miller battled ankle injuries but still recorded two sacks and made 27 tackles, including four against the Patriots and three each against the Giants and Packers. Yes, high tackle totals are part of the territory for a defender on a bad team, but we take what we get.
Defensive Line: Terrance Knighton, Jaguars. The Jaguars didn't produce many sacks this season, but Knighton did his part (38 tackles, 1.5 sacks) while starting every game and playing solid run defense. He's one of four major Jaguars rookie contributors, three of whom didn't make the All-Rookie cut: tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben "Porn 'Stache" Britton, and cornerback Derek Cox.
Defensive End/Linebacker: Brian Orakpo, Redskins. I was primed to hate Orakpo after listening to Joe Theisman gush over him in the preseason, but he has been a true force, and he almost grabbed Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with his four-sack game against the Raiders. He'll line up in the Elephant position in this defense. Two Packers just missed the cut, so let's give honorable mention to Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji.
Linebacker: Rey Maualuga, Bengals. With 58 tackles, one sack, and three forced fumbles, you know Maualuga can play. We also learned two weeks ago that he can sing. Maualuga and the other Bengals linebackers recorded their own version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," with Abdul Hodge (whose vocal range is somewhere between Matt Hasselbeck and Geddy Lee) singing the high parts. Guess whose idea it was? Hint: bow tie, television show, questionable talent. See for yourself: The Bengals Linebackers Sing.
Linebacker: James Laurinaitis, Rams. Regular readers know the drill: bad defenses with bad offenses are on the field forever, defending inside runs, so the middle linebacker registers huge tackle totals. Laurinaitis had 16 tackles against the Cardinals, 14 against the Seahawks, 12 against the Bears ... you get the idea. Still, Laurinaitis has some peripherals -- a sack, two interceptions, a fumble recovery -- and it's not his fault he has to make a dozen tackles per week.
Linebacker: Brian Cushing, Texans. I just got a tweet from Cushing: He's mad that he didn't earn the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Oh, wait, that's Cushing's imposter: a fake Cushing posted Twitter complaints about officiating in November. The real Cushing leads all rookies with 119 tackles, and he leads all non-middle linebackers in total defensive plays. He also has two forced fumbles, three interceptions, a safety, and just about anything else you can ask for from a defender, rookie or otherwise.
Safety: Jairus Byrd, Bills. The Defensive Rookie of the Year. Byrd is the son of Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd, and he learned how to play defensive back from family friend Aeneas Williams, a star for the Cardinals and Rams. The pedigree shows: Byrd is a natural ball hawk. The Bills excel at finding young defensive backs. In three years, when Byrd's contract expires, he'll become a superstar somewhere. Several colleagues don't like my choice of Byrd over Cushing, and you are free to disagree, but nine interceptions are a lot, and I don't think the Bills win the Jets or Panthers games without Byrd.
Safety: Louis Delmas, Lions. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham wasn't angry when Delmas earned a 15-yard penalty and a fine for hitting Jermichael Finley on Thanksgiving. "I know he got a penalty, and he should have," Cunningham said. "But boy, I couldn't help but smile because this kid knows how to play the game." Delmas also knocked Chad Ochocinco out of the Bengals game after the pair traded media trash talk during the week. In between the big hits, Delmas recorded 82 tackles, nine passes defensed, and two interceptions.
Cornerback: Jacob Lacey, Colts. The Colts can thank safety Melvin Bullitt for Lacey. Lacey went undrafted in April, but he was courted by several teams as a street free agent. He joined the Colts because of high school teammate Bullitt, who worked his way from free agency to the Colts starting lineup. "I knew they would give a free agent a good look, a good shot, a fair chance." Lacey told the American Chronicle. Lacey returned an interception for a touchdown against the Rams, made seven tackles in the Patriots epic, sealed the game against the Titans with an interception, and made the Broncos pay for their Brandon Marshall-only game plan with a red zone interception.
Cornerback: Vontae Davis, Dolphins. With two interceptions against the Patriots and an interception returned for a touchdown against the Bills, Davis has made his impact felt in the AFC East. Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers earns honorable mention.
Kicker: Ryan Succop, Chiefs. The competition wasn't exactly fierce at kicker, and Succop was just 2-of-5 from beyond 50 yards. Still, Succop was perfect inside 40 yards and did all that the Chiefs asked him to.
Punter: Kevin Huber, Bengals. The Special Teams Player of the Year. Huber booted 20 punts inside the 20-yard line, but his best game came in the November rematch against the Browns. Josh Cribbs returned six punts for 120 yards against the Bengals in Week 4, but Huber kicked three balls out of bounds and forced a fair catch and a downed punt: 38.7 net yards, no Cribbs heroics. Thomas Morstead of the Saints earns honorable mention and makes the team as a kickoff specialist.
Return Man: Harvin. Johnny Knox of the Bears gets honorable mention for four kickoff returns of 40 yards or more. This has been a poor season for punt returns, so we'll let Harvin or our special teamer handle the chores.
Special Teamer: Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers. Munnerlyn can return punts, help out in kick coverage, play nickel back, mix well with soda, and loot a 17th century galleon. We need guys like that on this team.
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