by Mike Tanier
This year's All-Rookie Team includes no Chiefs or Eagles.
That's amazing. The Chiefs had an excellent rookie class. Eric Berry has All-Pro potential at safety. Tony Moeaki held his own as the second option in the passing game and is an effective wall-off blocker at tight end. Dexter McCluster is versatile and exciting. Javier Arenas is a solid nickel defender, a good return man, and a useful special-teamer. None of them earned All-Rookie Team starting spots.
As for the Eagles, Nate Allen had a spot wrapped up before getting hurt, and linebacker Jamar Chaney would have made the team if he started a few more games. Brandon Graham wasn't great, but he filled in all along the defensive line before getting hurt. Riley Cooper was a decent fourth wideout and an important member of the hands team. Kurt Coleman has starting potential at safety. Chad Hall can run ill-conceived Wildcat plays and fly the team plane. The Eagles' rookies weren't as impressive as the Chiefs' rookies, but there were a lot of them who made contributions. Still, none earned more than an Honorable Mention.
As the Chiefs and Eagles illustrate, this was an outstanding year for rookie "classes," even though it was an ordinary year for actual rookies. The Chiefs and Eagles had great rookie classes, but the Buccaneers and Patriots had even better hauls, especially after the Bucs picked through the early September waivers for two very good players. The Cowboys aren't happy with their season, but they can at least point to some promising prospects, and the Rams found a franchise quarterback and a left tackle, which could make them the team to beat in two years (just ask the Falcons).
If our All-Rookie team took the field this year, it could easily finish .500, and it would probably win the NFC West. The offensive line is solid, the running game powerful, and the receiving crew capable of scoring from anywhere. Defensively, the line can bring a lot of pressure up the middle, and there are plenty of ball-hawks in the secondary. The running backs cannot catch and the kicker cannot kick, but otherwise, this is an All-Rookie team with few weaknesses.
As always, the Walkthrough All-Rookie Team reflects my opinions, not those of Football Outsiders. It was assembled without looking at other All-Rookie teams, which usually means that I forget someone really important, but this crew looks solid nonetheless. Dozens of players deserve some sort of mention, so just because I don't give Colt McCoy or Rolando McClain a shout-out doesn't mean I think they stink.
As for those Chiefs and Eagles: If we load them all onto the bench, we can have one heck of a team!
Quarterback: Sam Bradford, Rams. The Walkthrough Offensive Rookie of the Year. I have seen quarterbacks like Matt Ryan have better rookie seasons, but I cannot remember a rookie quarterback who was able to do more with less. None of the Rams receivers can stretch a defense or demand double coverage, so when Bradford drops to pass, he must search for Danny Amendola or Laurent Robinson in zones choked with defenders, knowing that the deep safeties are not too deep to jump a route. Throwing for 3,500 yards and 18 touchdowns under these circumstances would be difficult for a 10-year veteran, let alone a kid who missed his final college season. Bradford picks away at zones, distributes the ball, and most importantly, takes the rare shots downfield that present themselves.
Running Back: LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers
Running Back: Chris Ivory, Saints. Both of this year's All-Rookie runners are power backs with limited finishing speed. Both had checkered college careers, which limited their draft desirability. Ivory leads the NFL in Success Rate entering Week 17 (59%), but the Saints offense has something to do with that. With 445 yards in the last four games, Blount has been a major part of the Buccaneers' desperate playoff push. Neither is an outstanding long-range prospect -- neither can catch the ball, and one-cut backs with limited peripheral skills are easy to find in the draft pool. This year, though, both made major contributions to winning teams, and their tackle-breaking, defender-leaping exploits are fun to watch.
Fullback: Chris Gronkowski, Cowboys. An H-back type who blocks pretty well and can leak into the flats. I wouldn't be surprised if he shows up next season with a uniform number in the 80s and spends most of the rest of his career blocking in-line.
Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Buccaneers. Williams can make all the tough catches and does a great job snatching the ball from the air. He has a knack for getting open on deep post routes, and he is tough to single-cover on long passes because he can leap in front of defenders. He has a lot of room to grow, and I am reluctant to praise him too lavishly because of Post-Michael Clayton Stress Disorder, but Williams has the makings of another Roddy White.
Wide Receiver: Jacoby Ford, Raiders. The Raiders always have a few of these track-style receivers around, but few of them are as fun to watch as Ford. Most of them just run fly patterns and fail to get open. Ford runs reverses, weaves through traffic on kickoff returns, and catches enough passes to remind you that he is not Darrius Heyward-Bey. He's a great system fit who could grow into a poor man's DeSean Jackson. Honorable mention: Dez Bryant.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots. I think Aaron Hernandez is the better of the two Patriots tight ends. Gronkowski makes the team because a) his DVOA and DYAR are both higher, and b) I wanted both Gronkowskis on the team. Is that so wrong? Honorable mentions to Hernandez, Tony Moeaki, and Jermaine Gresham, whose DVOA was terrible but who had the thankless task of picking up all the scraps in the Bengals offense.
Guard: Mike Iupati, 49ers. A big pile-driver with a mean streak. The next coach is going to love this kid as much as Mike Singletary did.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers. An active center who gets out quickly on screens and can make blocks on the second level. Pouncey only drew one penalty all season.
Guard: Ted Larsen, Buccaneers. The Bucs are just dripping with solid young players, but then so are the Patriots, who drafted Larsen in the sixth round but released him at the end of camp. Larsen is more penalty-prone than the other linemen on this team (seven flags, three of them holds), but he's growing into his role, and he can slide over to center in a pinch.
Tackle: Rodger Saffold, Rams. The tackle Bill Polian should have drafted! Sam Bradford's travel roommate has played through injuries, kept mistakes to a minimum, and outclassed runners-up like Russell Okung and Trent Williams for All-Rookie honors.
Defensive End: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants. The Jevon Kearse comparisons are accurate. Like Kearse, Pierre-Paul is destined to dominate about three games per year, bat down a lot of passes, and occasionally do something athletically freakish. He will also probably disappear from some games and get out-leveraged a lot, but the Giants can live with that as long as they have guys like Justin Tuck around to pick up the slack.
Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh, Lions. The Walkthrough Defensive Rookie of the Year. Suh drew 11 penalties this season, seven of them for some form of "roughness." Some were the result of over-aggressiveness or inexperience, but some were just a result of Suh's unusualness. The guy is so strong and agile that when he does something normal, like push a quarterback to the turf, it looks like an act of violence. Once Suh learns his limits and referees stop interpreting every rough tackle as a penalty, Suh could become the best defender in the NFL.
Defensive Tackle: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers. McCoy impressed as a run defender before getting hurt, with 17 Stops and eight Defeats on running plays.
Defensive End: Carlos Dunlap, Bengals. Seven of his eight sacks came in the last three games. Dunlap, like Pierre-Paul, invited a lot of suspicion coming out of college. Both looked like great athletes with unrefined moves who would have a hard time getting off blocks in the NFL. Pierre-Paul has more potential as an all-around end, Dunlap as a sack specialist, but both are better than I thought they would be.
Linebacker: Brandon Spikes, Patriots. Had 34 Rushing Stops entering Week 16. Spikes isn't much of a pass defender but is a good system fit in New England.
Linebacker: Sean Lee, Cowboys. He solidified this spot by intercepting Peyton Manning twice. There are other linebackers who made more tackles, but none of them intercepted Peyton Manning twice, which is a pretty impressive feat for a rookie defender.
Linebacker: Pat Angerer, Colts. An active, Cover-2 style defender who makes a lot of plays in space. Angerer makes a lot of clean-up tackles -- of his 30 pass tackles entering Week 16, only eight were Stops -- but that's a mixture of inexperience and scheme. None of our All-Rookie linebackers are good pass rushers, so let's give honorable mention to Frank Zombo so we can rush him off the edge in nickel situations.
Cornerback: Devin McCourty, Patriots. Jersey boy makes good!
Cornerback: Joe Haden, Browns. Florida boy intercepts Jersey boy! Haden picked off Joe Flacco for his sixth interception on Sunday, but the most impressive plays are the ones a rookie cornerback doesn't make. Haden has recorded just 50 tackles, and a quick look through the Football Outsiders database suggests that opponents are starting to throw away from him.
Safety: T.J. Ward, Browns. Ward is a clean-up specialist who made his average play 8.5 yards downfield, but with 98 combined tackles, at least he has been doing a lot of cleaning. Nate Allen and Eric Berry merit Honorable Mentions. In dime packages, Ward will play close to the line of scrimmage, while Allen and Berry take care of deep zones.
Safety: Earl Thomas, Seahawks. Like Ward, Thomas is a clean-up artist on a weak defense. Unlike Ward, Thomas has five interceptions. Ward and Thomas shouldn't get undue credit for their high tackle totals, but those tackles should not be held against them, either. They are safeties, and tackles after 15-yard gains are part of the job, even if you have to make a half-dozen of them every Sunday.
Kicker: Clint Stitser, Bengals. This kid is bad, but no one else deserves the award. In fairness, he has been perfect on field goals, but he has missed two extra points (a Bengals tradition) and is lousy on kickoffs. Our All-Rookie Team will go for two a lot.
Punter: Zoltan Mesko, Patriots. What, you were expecting Matt Dodge? Dodge actually leads all rookies in gross punting average, and I have a feeling he will shake off his rookie mistakes and have a fine career if the New York media doesn't draw and quarter him. Robert Malone (Buccaneers) also had a fine rookie season.
Return Specialist: Marc Mariani, Titans. Mariani has both a punt and kickoff return touchdown, and he has an economical return style that gets the most from each special teams play. Ford is also available to return some punts.
Gunner: Navorro Bowman, 49ers. Eighteen special teams tackles. Ward and Lee are also very good special teamers.