An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
28 Dec 2011
by Mike Tanier
This year’s All-Rookie Team would kick the holy living snot out of about two-thirds of the teams in the NFL.
The pass rush alone could propel this team to first place in the AFC West or NFC East, and second place in the NFC West. Throw in the big-play passing game and two running backs who can also catch, and you have a team that can take a two-touchdown lead and dare the opponent to pass without getting the quarterback killed. The kicker is money, the return men can make an impact, and if the offensive line is a little mistake-prone, it’s no big deal because the quarterback can scramble out of danger. The secondary is pretty bad except for one cornerback, but that won’t matter much when opponents only have about four-tenths of a second to get rid of the ball.
As usual, this All-Rookie Team is based mostly on my opinions, with the help of Football Outsiders statistics and some crowd sourcing on Twitter. I do my best to pick a team that could actually take the field, so I don’t move tackles inside to guard or outside linebackers inside unless I have good reason to do it. There is still a good chance that I accidently omitted some worthy player, so if I did, feel free to let me know in the comment thread.
QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton, Panthers. Why Newton and not Honorable Mention Andy Dalton? Dalton has a better record. He also had a slight edge in passing DVOA and DYAR entering the final week. However, Newton has a major edge in rushing DVOA and DYAR, ranking first in the league among quarterbacks. Newton does have a better supporting cast, but he also had a harder schedule; peel off the Steelers, Ravens, and some teams Dalton really struggled against (the 49ers), and things get pretty soft for the Bengals.
The difference between Dalton and Newton is the difference between a quarterback good enough to win and a quarterback you have to gameplan to stop. Newton’s running ability is a real weapon: he is not some desperate scrambler, but a situational rusher who adds an important dimension to the Panthers red zone offense. Between the 20s, they may be about equal, but Dalton and the Bengals have struggled in the red zone, while fielding Newton is like having a quarterback and a short-yardage running back in the backfield.
Though I leaned toward Newton for most of the season, I did not make my final decision until Week 15, when Newton had a great game against the Texans while Dalton tiptoed along in don’t-lose mode against the Rams. Those performances typified the season for both quarterbacks, making this decision easier for me. I think Dalton has real potential. But Newton is already fulfilling his.
RUNNING BACK: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys. Murray is the league leader in Success Rate, which is surprising because he started the season with a lot of 6-for-21 and 4-for-12 stat lines and ended it by getting fed to the line for a few weeks before getting hurt. Murray is a dynamic all-purpose runner who can be deadly in the open field. As a Cowboys running back, though, he will spend the next few seasons in an ill-defined platoon arrangement, with another hotshot rookie capturing our (and more importantly, Jerry Jones’) attention just at the moment Murray appears to have the featured role all to himself.
FULLBACK: Bruce Miller, 49ers. Miller is a versatile blocker and short-yardage receiver in an offense that has numerous roles for versatile blockers and short-yardage receivers.
WIDE RECEIVER: A.J. Green, Bengals. Here are Green’s numbers on passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, through Week 15: 27 passes, 14 completions, 545 yards, four touchdowns, three pass interference penalties by his defenders for 95 yards, seven incomplete passes, and three interceptions. For leaping his way to a 63 percent success rate on bombs (if you consider drawing DPI on a bomb a "success"), Green is the runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
WIDE RECEIVER: Doug Baldwin, Seahawks. Baldwin is likely to finish second to Green in first-down receptions (38 to Green’s 41 through Week 16) and receptions of 20 or more yards (18 to 19). This year’s rookie receiver class is one of the better groups in recent memory, and Torrey Smith, Julio Jones, Denarius Moore, and Titus Young all deserve honorable mentions. Smith, Jones, and Young all got to be No. 2 receivers, however, and Moore has been hurt, so Baldwin gets the starting nod.
TIGHT END: Kyle Rudolph, Vikings. Rudolph made a few acrobatic receptions and has shown promise as a blocker. He has gotten lost in the offensive shuffle in Minnesota, a team whose offensive identity essentially vanished as the year wore on.
TACKLE: Tyron Smith, Cowboys. Smith had rough games against the Redskins and Eagles but has been solid for most of the year, despite playing through finger and shoulder injuries. He is a classic drive blocker.
GUARD: Stefan Wisniewski, Raiders. Wisniewski is such a dead ringer for his uncle, former Raiders guard Steve Wisniewski, that the FOX graphics department accidently used a headshot of Big Wiz when announcing the starting lineups of the Raiders-Bears game. Lil’ Wiz does not have a receding hairline, but he has fared well in a scheme that requires a lot of pulling by the guards.
CENTER: Jason Kelce, Eagles. Kelce struggled at the start of the year, but has really progressed. It is hard to evaluate him when opponents blitz right up the middle so often and blow up fellow rookie Danny Watkins, and the Eagles’ disinterest in a traditional interior running game makes it hard to get a handle on Kelce as a drive blocker. As the season progressed, the up-the-gut jailbreaks became less frequent, and I think Kelce has a solid future.
GUARD: Jason Pinkston, Browns. Pinkston switched from tackle, his college position, to left guard when Eric Steinbach was injured late in training camp. Pinkston has held his own on an offensive line where it can be hard to stand out. "He hasn’t made any more mistakes than the rest of us," Joe Thomas said in November. That’s high praise for any Browns player.
TACKLE: Orlando Franklin, Broncos. The right tackle who protects Tim Tebow’s blind side is the best rookie offensive lineman from Canada this year, well ahead of poor Danny Watkins. Franklin had real problems with Chris Kelsay last week, but let’s face it: blocking for the Broncos is tricky business. When Tebow is in read-option mode, Franklin can be a real pile-driver on the edge. When Tebow drops to pass, well, anything can happen, but Franklin keeps working through the all-day scrambles. Honorable Mention: Nate Solder, Patriots.
DEFENSIVE END: J.J. Watt, Texans. Watt led all rookie defensive linemen with 47 solo tackles through Week 16. He is growing into a classic 3-4 end, with the ability to hold the point of attack, get down the line on running plays to the opposite side, and win enough one-on-one battles to ensure that not all of the sacks are funneled to the linebackers.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Phil Taylor, Browns. The runner-up Defensive Rookie of the Year. Taylor is an absolute moose in the middle of the field. With his ability to turn the interior line into a giant rolling snowball pointed straight at the quarterback, Taylor could be the centerpiece of an outstanding defense if the Browns ever cure themselves of their addiction to old Eagles defenders. Honorable Mention: Jurrell Casey, Tennessee, who must name his son Kallell or Clark, or else.
DEFENSIVE END: Marcell Dareus, Bills. Like the rest of the Bills, Dareus started out strong but went into a long, slow, fade starting around Week 5. Sacks against the Dolphins and Chargers put him back in this lineup. Honorable Mention: Jabaal Sheard, Browns.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Von Miller, Broncos. The Defensive Rookie of the Year, thanks to 11.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 19 tackles for a loss, and two forced fumbles, among other contributions. Miller has gotten his due this year thanks in part to the extreme passive-aggression of Tebowmania. Those of us who need to remind everyone that Tebow does not play 1-versus-11 football found ourselves shouting "look at the season Von Miller is having!" so often that we may have swung the pendulum the other way on him a bit, making him also sound like a one-man wrecking ball. On the other hand, he is very, very good.
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Mason Foster, Buccaneers. Teammates call him "Young Hype" because he is always hyped up when he is on the field. Foster leads all rookies in tackles and has done a fine job as the signal caller for a defense that needs more help than a perfect pre-snap adjustment can provide. "Mason’s playing quarterback for the defense," Raheem Morris said in November. Does that mean he will soon head to the firing range with a Desert Eagle and an already injured finger? Sorry, sorry.
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Jacquian Williams, Giants. Williams played his way into the all-rookie lineup in the last few weeks. When you look at what the Giants have gone through on defense, it is amazing that they are still in the playoff picture. Williams is one of the reasons they have not totally collapsed.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins. He has a high motor. And 7.5 sacks. And four forced fumbles.
JOKER/PASS RUSHER OFF THE BENCH: Aldon Smith, 49ers. Screw honorable mention; Smith will play more than half the snaps for this team, so even though he is not technically a starter for the Niners, he’s a starter here. On passing downs, he will replace Williams on the inside and blitz from all angles. Miller and Smith on the same side of the formation, blitzing behind Watt, with Taylor drawing a double team, Kerrigan coming from the other side, and Foster staying at home? Ooh yeah, no quarterback is surviving that, baby. Honorable Mention linebackers include Colin McCarthy of the Titans, Justin Houston of the Chiefs, and K.J. Wright of the Seahawks. We may need one of them to play safety.
CORNERBACK: Patrick Peterson, Cardinals. The Special Teams Rookie of the Year, and also a starter by default, because this has not been a great season for rookie cornerbacks. Don’t worry, with this offense and pass rush, the cornerbacks will have life easy.
CORNERBACK: Richard Sherman, Seahawks. Sherman is a star on the rise according to our game charting numbers, which place him fourth in the league in Success Rate. Sherman also leads all rookies with 19 passes defensed, according to the official count.
SAFETY: Chris Conte, Bears. The weakest choice on the team. Conte made a lot of mistakes and missed his share of tackles this season before injuring his foot and missing the Packers game (probably a wise move on his part). Safety is a tough position for the Cover-2 Bears, and partner Major Wright did not play much better, so Conte gets some benefit of the doubt.
SAFETY: Chris Harris, Broncos. This is a bit of a cheat, because Harris is really a nickel cornerback, and his future is on the edge. But there are not many eligible safeties, and Harris left college as a safety (albeit a 5-foot-9 one), so we can put him here. Harris plays the run very well for a little guy.
PUNTER/KICKOFFS: Brett Hartmann, Texans. Twenty-three touchbacks in 50 kickoffs, plus fine gross and net punting averages.
KICKER: Danny Bailey, Cowboys. Bailey was 12-of-15 from 40-yards out through Week 16 when his own coach was not actively sabotaging him. He is also fine on kickoffs.
GUNNER: Tyler Sash, Giants, and Akeem Dent, Falcons. These two combined for 22 solo tackles on special teams, and I love the name "Akeem Dent." Williams and Baldwin help round out some seriously awesome special teams.
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