by Mike Tanier
If this year's All-Rookie Team actually took the field, it would kick some butt.
That isn't the case every year. The typical rookie all-star team consists of a great running back or two, some solid linebackers, a hotshot pass rusher, and maybe a deep threat wide receiver and an ace return man. The offensive linemen usually earn their honors by default: they cracked the starting lineup for their teams, and their quarterbacks survived. The all-star rookie cornerbacks are the guys who got burnt the least. The kicker is sometimes the only kicker to keep his job all year. If the typical All-Rookie Team were forced to suit up, it would go 4-12, and the backup quarterbacks would see some action.
But this year's edition would compete for a wild card berth, at least in the NFC. The offensive line is solid, left-to-right, with real starters on playoff or near-playoff teams. The cornerbacks can hold their own. This year's team features an ace blocking tight end, a receiver who can work the middle and move the sticks, a kicker who booms his kickoffs, and the usual assortment of exciting young running backs and speedy edge rushers.
The Too Deep Zone All-Rookie Team is selected by yours truly, with input from the Football Outsiders staff and others. Statistical tools like DVOA are used to aid the selections, but players are not chosen exclusively for their stats: scouting notes and newspaper accounts are also a big part of the picture.
Quarterback: Vince Young, Titans
Five years from now, Young might be another Michael Vick, a superior athlete who never evolved into a complete player. Or he may be something else entirely: a true quarterback and leader who uses both his arm and his legs to win games. The next 12 months are crucial to Young's development: he could work on his reads and fundamentals, or he could keep relying on his running ability to bail him out when things go wrong. But All-Rookie Teams are designed to celebrate what the player did this year, not what he will do in the future. Young gave us several breathtaking runs and a fair share of excellent passes. He also brought hope back to the Titans, a truly impressive feat.
Running Back: Joseph Addai, Colts
The Offensive Rookie of the Year. According to DVOA, Addai was the fourth-best running back in the NFL this year, in part because of a league-best 65 percent Success Rate. Yes, Edgerrin James posted similar DVOA figures in the Colts offense over the past few seasons, meaning that Peyton Manning and the system make Addai look better than he really is. But if you draw comparisons to Edgerrin James, you are probably a pretty safe Rookie of the Year choice.
Running Back: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
Jones-Drew beat Laurence Maroney for this selection by rushing for 166, 98, and 131 yards in the past three weeks while Maroney was battling injuries. Jones-Drew is a unique runner: he's so short that his center of gravity is four feet underground, making him incredibly maneuverable and hard to tackle. His rushing, receiving, and return abilities made him a huge part of the Jaguars offense this season.
Fullback: Ahmard Hall, Titans
A former Marine and an undrafted free agent, Hall rose from camp fodder to the Titans starting lineup. He's a punishing blocker who has become a solid safety valve receiver for Vince Young.
Wide Receiver: Marques Colston, Saints
He played college football at Hofstra, then dropped some passes at the Combine, so Colston was easy to overlook in the draft. Give Sean Payton and the Saints credit, not just for selecting him, but for giving him a role in a crowded receiving corps. And give Colston credit for making the most of his opportunities. He's big, he's physical, and he works the middle of the field like a five-year veteran. Colston's 51 first down receptions rank 10th in the NFL, ahead of players like Hines Ward, Terry Glenn, Steve Smith, and Derrick Mason.
Wide Receiver: Santonio Holmes, Steelers
Holmes had a hard time holding onto the ball as a punt returner early in the year, and he wasn't a big part of the offense when the Steelers were losing games early in the season. He has come on of late, and 38 of his 45 catches this season netted first downs.
Tight End: Anthony Fasano, Cowboys
Owen Daniels of the Texans was far more productive as a receiver, and Denver's Tony Scheffler has made an impact down the stretch. But Fasano has done a tremendous job as a blocker and all-purpose player. Watch a Cowboys game, and you'll see Fasano lined up all over the formation as a tight end, fullback, and H-back. Sure, the catch total is low, but how many balls were there to go around in Dallas?
Tackle: Marcus McNeill, Chargers
McNeill took over for injured Roman Oben in training camp and never looked back. McNeill has never been flagged for holding this season. That might be because he played much of the year with two broken hands.
Tackle: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
Andrew Whitworth of the Bengals had Ferguson beat until two weeks ago. Then Whitworth started getting beat by Colts and Broncos pass rushers. Ferguson is a little long and lean and has had trouble keeping his weight up this season, but he has held his own, and he is starting to emerge as a leader on a young Jets team. "I really like the way he is becoming more vocal, and not just on the field, but also in the meeting rooms," coach Eric Mangini said. "That happens with playing with the same guys and feeling more comfortable and really understanding what's happening."
Guard: Daryn Colledge, Packers
How good is Colledge? So good that the Packers actually put him at left tackle against the Dolphins. Jason Taylor schooled him for two sacks in that game, but Colledge didn't give up a sack all season at left guard.
Guard: Jason Spitz, Packers
Spitz wasn't as effective as Colledge, but he was far better than the novices and journeymen who played right guard for the Packers last year (Will Whitticker, Grey Ruegamer, and Matt O'Dwyer). "I don't really look at one as being more effective than the other,'' center Scott Wells said of the youngsters flanking him. "I look at it like they're both solid players and both are improving in different areas. I'm happy with them in there." Seahawks guard Ron Sims earned honorable mention this season with 14 quality starts on an otherwise disappointing line.
Center: Nick Mangold, Jets
Mangold was good enough this season to merit serious Rookie of the Year consideration. He's tough, he's mobile, and he knows the game. To see him at his best, watch him during a play action pass. He snaps the ball, then fires out like he's run blocking, drawing linebackers to the line of scrimmage while making sure that Chad Pennington is protected. Mangold and Ferguson are just what the Jets wanted: anchors who should spend the next decade in New York.
Defensive End: Tamba Hali, Chiefs
In early December, Hali admitted to a Missouri newspaper that he had hit the rookie wall. "Mentally, I'm drained," he told the Jackson County Examiner. Since then, he picked up a sack and an interception against the Chargers and had a five-tackle performance against the Raiders. He has 6.5 sacks and 42 solo tackles (excellent for a rookie defensive end) on the season. We don't want to meet up with him when he's fresh.
Defensive End: Elvis Dumervil, Broncos
Entering the draft, Dumervil was best known as the guy who got stomped on by Marcus Vick in a Virginia Tech-Louisville game. But the 5'11" Dumervil has made a name for himself as an unlikely pass rushing star. Dumervil has seven sacks and three fumble recoveries, a testament both to his relentlessness and the power of good leverage.
Defensive End: Mark Anderson, Bears
If we actually fielded this All-Rookie Team, Hali would move inside so Anderson could play. With three multi-sack performances on the year, he's a major force on the league's best defense.
Defensive Tackle: Barry Cofield, Giants
Cofield has been a bright spot on a dismal Giants defense. His numbers aren't that impressive (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks), but it's hard for interior linemen to rack up stats even in the best of circumstances. If you don't like the fact that we chose three ends and one tackle, feel free to sub Domata Peko of the Bengals in for one of the ends, at least on rushing downs.
Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Texans
The Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ryans leads the league in tackles with 119, but good defenders on bad teams often rack up huge tackle totals. Ryans' other stats are just as impressive: 3.5 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, an interception, 12 passes defensed. "You try to tell me a linebacker in our division that's played better than him," teammate Dunta Robinson said of Ryans. Well, Keith Bulluck is pretty darn good, but we'd take Ryans over the rest of them.
Linebacker: A.J. Hawk, Packers
The light came on for Hawk in Week 10, when he had 1.5 sacks against the Vikings, then came back with impressive performances against the Patriots and Seahawks. Hawk still gets mixed up in zone coverage and sucked in by play fakes, but there is no denying his talent.
Linebacker: Thomas Howard, Raiders
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked eight NFL personnel executives to rank the league's best rookie linebackers a week ago. Ryans ranked first, followed by Hawk, followed by Ernie Sims, then Howard. We like Howard slightly better than Sims, but we'd be happy with either of them. Here's what one of the execs had to say about Howard: "He is physical. You never saw him do that at El Paso. Everybody was wrong on that. He's just a natural."
Cornerback: Johnathan Joseph, Bengals
Joseph ranks among the league leaders with 18 passes defensed, a dubious stat because hometown scorers all have different rules for what constitutes a "pass defensed." Some of Joseph's deflections are actually dropped interceptions, but a dropped pick is still better than a blown assignment. Joseph entered the starting lineup for good in Week 11. Since then, he broke up four passes against the Ravens and forced a fumble against the Raiders.
Cornerback: Richard Marshall, Panthers
Marshall earned a reputation as a cocky player by saying that he "wasn't going to take a back seat" after the draft. He backed up his words by taking over Ken Lucas's starting job and proving himself both as a pass defender and run stopper at cornerback. He registered four tackles for losses against the Steelers, showing that he's a sure tackler as well as a smooth cover corner. Marshall told the Fresno Bee two weeks ago that he isn't worried about getting a reputation as a big talker."I always want to own up to my words. Cocky? I have a lot of confidence in my abilities. Once my number is called, can't nobody beat me. But I'm still learning and getting the feel of things day by day." Marshall also has excellent numbers in our early game charting data on cornerbacks.
Safety: Donte Whitner, Bills
We chuckled when the Bills took Whitner with the eighth overall selection, not because we thought Whitner was a bad player, but because the Bills had so many other needs. Whitner has lived up to his draft status by recording 95 total tackles and playing penalty-free football. Fellow rookie Ko Simpson has also played well for the Bills and deserves honorable mention.
Safety: Danieal Manning, Bears
Manning earns a slim nod over Oakland's Michael Huff because he has recorded more big plays, including two forced fumbles against the Patriots and an interception to help sink the Vikings in Week 13. Manning has made his share of rookie blunders (see the second half against the Bucs), but there's no such thing as a mistake-free rookie defensive back.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
The Patriots are better off with Gostkowski than they were with Adam Vinatieri. You read that right. And it has nothing to do with Vinatieri's injury problems. Gostkowski has made his share of long field goals this year, including a 52-yarder against the Bears and a 48-yarder against the Jaguars. But his most significant contribution has been on kickoffs: Gostkowski averages 66.6 yards per kickoff and has recorded 12 touchbacks.
Punter: Sam Koch, Ravens
It has been another banner year for rookie punters, with Ryan Plackemeyer, Jon Ryan, and Steve Weatherford all worthy of All-Rookie attention. Koch's net average is lower that all of theirs, but he has booted 27 punts inside the 20 against just three touchbacks. None of the others can match that ratio.
Punt Returner: Devin Hester, Bears
The Special Teams Rookie of the Year, and so much more. Hester's returns are breathtaking, and his quick-strike touchdowns were a necessity for a Bears team that couldn't count on its offense this season. Hester's performance had Chicago writers grasping for superlatives this season. "Call him unfriggin'believable. Call him the freak of freaks. Call him Gale Sayers, Deion Sanders, a miracle in stick-on eye black," Jay Mariotti wrote in the Sun-Times. Hester was a serious contender for Rookie of the Year, and we would have given it to him if he did more on offense or defense.
Kickoff Returner: Laurence Maroney, Patriots
We couldn't leave him off the team. Maroney isn't a jitterbug like Hester; he makes one cut, then bowls people over on kickoff returns. If we actually fielded this team, he would be our short-yardage back.
Gunner: Ethan Kilmer, Bengals
Nine solo tackles on special teams may not seem like a lot, but Kilmer earned high marks as a wedge buster, and his muff recovery against the Ravens helped the Bengals ice an important game.
(Note: Football Outsiders' sack and tackle totals may differ slightly from other sources because of after-the-fact stat changes.)