Sconnie Sports Talk

Best NFL Rookie from Each Team: AFC

Leon Halip, Getty Images.

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The 2016 NFL season has been dominated by rookies like no other season, with the possible exception of the Andrew Luck-RG3-Russell Wilson 2012 year. With the season winding to a close, SST selects the top rookie from each team, starting with the AFC.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (7-8): Adolphus Washington, DT

The Bills’ season went off the rails, and their rookie class reflected the struggles of the team. 1st-rounder OLB Shaq Lawson started only one game and recorded a measly two sacks, while 2nd round ILB Reggie Ragland, who was regarded as a steal before the season, tore his ACL in the preseason. The only first-year player to carve out a meaningful role was 3rd-rounder Adolphus Washington, who started all but four games this year. Washington, who shifted to a 3-4 end in Rex Ryan’s scheme, totaled 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks. 7th-rounder CB Kevon Seymour is someone to watch in 2017; however, as the Bills’ 4th corner could step into a big role with lockdown starter Stephon Gilmore set to enter free agency.

Miami Dolphins (10-5): Laremy Tunsil, G/T

Entering the draft, Tunsil was widely regarded as the top prospect in the class. A nightmare scenario then unfurled for the Ole Miss product, as videos of him smoking from a bong while wearing a gas mask were released on his social media accounts by a hacker, causing him to drop to Miami with the 13th pick. However, Tunsil has steered clear of trouble since entering the NFL, earning a starting role and playing well despite being plagued with a shoulder issue. While he has been relegated to guard, Tunsil may move outside soon as Branden Albert isn’t getting any younger. However, 2nd-rounder CB Xavien Howard would likely have been the pick if he hadn’t suffered a Week 4 knee injury that cost him most of his season. The Baylor product had been an impact starter before going down.

New England Patriots (13-2): Joe Thuney, G

Without a first round pick due to the Deflategate scandal, the Patriots still were able to snag the bruising left guard from NC State in the 3rd round, where he blocked for fellow Patriots 3rd-rounder QB Jacoby Brissett. In the NFL, Thuney has started every game for the best team in the league, and has been a part of a unit that has only given up 24 sacks on the season. With good size at 6’5” and 304 pounds, Thuney should continue to develop. For the future, WR Malcolm Mitchell is a player to watch. The 4th-rounder from Georgia is the best deep threat on the Patriots and a great route runner, though injuries and a number of veterans at the position limited his potential in 2016. A non-factor for much of the first part of the season, Mitchell posted 222 yards and three scores in Weeks 11-13.

New York Jets (4-11): Darron Lee, LB

This was a close call between the undrafted WR Robby Anderson and 1st-rounder Lee, but Lee’s consistent production gives him the edge. Forced to play outside of his natural position, Lee has been hampered by having to play inside linebacker as opposed to being able to wreak havoc on the edge. Nonetheless, the hybrid linebacker/safety from Ohio State has been a bright spot on a team lost in the dark, racking up the 3rd-most tackles on the Jets while playing in all but three games this year. Anderson deserves mention as well, as the overlooked wideout helped fill the void left by Eric Decker’s ACL injury. The Temple product’s usage increased consistently throughout the season, and should have a role even when Decker returns next year.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (8-7): Tavon Young, CB

The Ravens have shown tremendous improvement from last year, and a large part of that has come from a strong rookie class. Offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, who were drafted in the 1st and 4th round respectively, have been valuable additions in the trenches, 4th rounder RB Kenneth Dixon is looking like the team’s’ future bell cow, and DL Michael Pierce has been a contributor in the defensive line rotation after going undrafted. However, Young has been the best of the bunch, taking over the starting role during Shareece Wright’s injury. The former Temple Owl has contributed 46 tackles, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, a fumble recovery, and a blocked extra point return for a score this season. At 5’9”, his size scared off many teams in the draft, but he has paid immediate dividends for the Ravens.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-9-1): Tyler Boyd, WR

The Bengals rookie class has been underwhelming, with 1st-rounder CB William Jackson III, 4th-rounder DT Andrew Billings, and 5th-rounder OG Christian Westerman all failing to record a single snap this season. 3rd-rounder LB Nick Vigil and 7th-rounder S Clayton Fejedelem have only taken a few snaps this season as well. The only contributions from Cincinnati’s group of first year players has been from the wide receivers, led by Boyd. The 2nd-rounder from Pittsburgh has had to compete for targets with Brandon LaFell and Tyler Eifert in the supplemental role across from AJ Green, but has posted 564 yards and a touchdown without missing a game. 6th-rounder Cody Core and undrafted former Wisconsin Badger Alex Erickson have played well when opportunities came their way, with Erickson taking over the return duties for the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns (1-14): Emmanuel Ogbah, OLB

The Browns 2016 rookie class is reminiscent of their season as a whole – a train wreck. Cleveland traded back twice to stockpile picks, but have gotten little production of their group of 14 draft picks. 1st-rounder WR Corey Coleman showed flashes of his Percy Harvin-esque potential but has been hampered by injuries. 2nd-rounder Ogbah and 3rd-rounder DE Carl Nassib were the only other draft picks to earn starting roles, but Ogbah’s improvement late in the season gives him the nod. In the last 10 games, Ogbah has totaled six sacks, double the season total of the next closest Brown, and 38 tackles. Undrafted CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun has sneakily been one of the top rookies at corner, recording nine passes defensed, tw0 picks with one returned for a touchdown, and a sack despite playing behind veterans Joe Haden and Jamar Taylor.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5): Artie Burns, CB

The Steelers’ defense featured three rookie starters in 2016, the first time that occurred for the storied franchise since 1971. 1st-rounder Burns was joined by 2nd-rounder S Sean Davis and 3rd-rounder Javon Hargrave, and all three were deserving of this distinction. Hargrave and Burns were pressed into play immediately, but Davis made a number of impact plays down the stretch. Burns ultimately was chosen over the other two due to appearing to be an answer to the Steelers’ ever-present cornerback problems over the last half decade. The former Miami Hurricane has 50 tackles, 12 passes defensed, and three interceptions through Week 16, and with his 6’0” frame and 4.46 forty yard dash speed, Burns could turn into a lockdown guy on the outside sooner rather than later.

AFC South

Houston Texans (9-6): Will Fuller V, WR

Fuller had a hot start that saw the Notre Dame product dominate opponents through the first two games, with the fastest man at the combine posting 211 yards and a touchdown over that span. Fuller cooled off significantly since then, failing to break 60 yards in a game or score since Week 4. Drops have been an issue, and as Brock Osweiler lost confidence in his deep ball while focusing more on his tight ends, his production severely declined. Fuller is still the 2nd-leading receiver on the team heading into Week 17, though it would’ve been interesting to see what his production would’ve been like with a competent quarterback. None of the other Texans rookies, however, were able to make as significant of an impact as Fuller. Promising 2nd-rounder C Nick Martin, the younger brother of Cowboys All-Pro Zack Martin, was lost to injury before the season started. 3rd-rounder WR Braxton Miller and 5th-rounder KJ Dillon also wound up on IR, and 4th-rounder RB/KR Tyler Ervin has been disappointing. DT DJ Reader, selected in the 5th round, is the only other Texan rookie to start a game, and is a promising option in the future.

Indianapolis Colts (7-8): C Ryan Kelly, C

This spot could’ve easily gone to the Colts’ offensive line as a unit, as GM Ryan Grigson made a concerted effort in the draft to protect franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. Indy selected four offensive linemen this year, and three of them (Kelly, 3rd-rounder OT Le’Raven Clark, and 5th-rounder OT Joe Haeg) started against the Vikings in Week 15. The 18th overall pick, Kelly is separated from the rest as he has started every game for the Colts this season at the pivot. At 6’4” and 311 pounds, the mauler from Alabama has the versatility to play all three interior positions. Kelly’s presence should give Luck much-needed continuity at center, as the quarterback has had five different starters during his four years in the NFL. Haeg deserves recognition as well, as not much was expected out of the former blindside protector of Carson Wentz this season. However, Haeg played three different positions along the line and has been a fixture in the trenches this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12): Jalen Ramsey, CB/S

My highest-graded prospect entering the draft, Ramsey has solidified himself as the front-runner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Over the last four weeks of the season, Ramsey has been the best cornerback in all of football according to Pro Football Focus. Over that stretch, the Florida State product has conceded just 145 yards, picked off two passes while returning one for a touchdown, and broken up eight passes while giving up no touchdowns. Additionally, quarterbacks have completed just 34.3% of their passes against Ramsey while conceding a 24.1 QB rating. On the season, Ramsey has started every game for the disappointing Jags, totaling 61 tackles and 13 passes defensed on the year. His positional versatility and overall athletic ability gives the Jaguars a threat in the secondary for at least a decade.

Tennessee Titans (8-7): Jack Conklin, OT

Trading back (and then up again) to nab Conklin paid off well for the Titans in 2016, as they went from the worst team in football to a playoff contender in a season. The 1st-rounder from Michigan State was rated by Mel Kiper as the 3rd-best rookie in the NFL through Week 15, behind only the Cowboys’ backfield mates QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott. Conklin has been a key cog in the unit that has produced the 3rd-best rushing attack in the league. He has also been vital in protecting the injury prone signal-caller Marcus Mariota, who was able to develop into the dangerous quarterback his natural ability foreshadowed (though he did break his fibula in Week 15). 5th-rounder WR Tajae Sharpe was a pleasant surprise for Tennessee as well, as the undersized wideout started across from Rishard Matthews for most of the year.

AFC West

Denver Broncos (8-7): DeVontae Booker, RB

The Broncos had a disappointing season in 2016 after riding their lights-out defense to a Super Bowl title last season, and the performance of their rookie class played a part in the decline. 1st-rounder QB Paxton Lynch was drafted as a long-term project, though he was adequate when pressed into duty briefly when Trevor Siemian suffered a concussion. S Justin Simmons, drafted in the 3rd round, struggled to find playing time in one of the league’s best secondaries, but earned snaps in all but three games. However, the biggest impact made by a Bronco rookie this season came from 4th-rounder Booker, Denver’s leading rusher. With a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry, never putting up more than 100 scrimmage yards in a single game, and more fumbles than touchdowns, the former Utah Ute was underwhelming. However, Booker was the only Bronco to gain a significant role, and his skills in the passing game mean he should continue to contribute as a change of pace back even when CJ Anderson returns.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-4): Tyreek Hill, WR/KR

If not for the Dak and Zeke Show, Hill would’ve been the guy everyone would be talking about. The 5th-rounder has cemented himself as one of the most dynamic players in the entire league, and can best be described as an offensive weapon. Despite standing just 5’10”, Hill’s blazing speed and lateral agility gives defenders nightmares. Coming out of DII West Alabama after a domestic violence at Oklahoma State, Hill was taken off many teams’ boards. However, he has stayed out of trouble since coming to the NFL, and paid massive dividends for the playoff-bound Chiefs. Hill has scored six touchdowns through the air, three on the ground, a punt return touchdown and a kick return score this season. No other rookie in NFL history has had 2+ receiving scores, 2+ rushing scores, a punt return touchdown, and a kick return touchdown in a season since Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, putting Hill in elite company. Additionally, Hill has racked up 799 yards from scrimmage and 884 return yards this season, putting him at 4th in the league in all-purpose yards.

Oakland Raiders (12-3): Karl Joseph, S

Despite losing significant time this season due to a turf toe injury, Joseph has been a punisher in the middle this season. Standing just 5’10” and weighing in at 207 pounds, the 14th overall pick nonetheless quickly gained a reputation as a hard hitter. The West Virginia product was the 2nd-leading tackler for the Silver and Black before going down in Week 13 even after not starting in the first two games of the season. Joseph has 60 tackles on the year, as well as an interception and a fumble recovery. According to Pro Football Focus, Joseph has been the 3rd-best defensive player for the Raiders defense. The Raiders also found a diamond in the rough in undrafted RB Jalen Richard, who has been a dynamic complementary back to power runner Latavius Murray. Richard has touched the ball in each game this season, and has accumulated 687 yards from scrimmage as well as three touchdowns.

San Diego Chargers (5-10): Joey Bosa, DE

When Commissioner Goodell read Bosa’s name when announcing the 3rd overall selection, many, including myself, were shocked. The Chargers’ chronic struggles protecting Philip Rivers could’ve been addressed with either Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley, and Jalen Ramsey could’ve filled the gaping void left by perennial Pro Bowler S Eric Weddle. All three were regarded as better prospects than Ohio State’s Bosa and filled bigger needs. When training camp rolled around and Bosa decided to hold out for more guaranteed money, the noise levels from his detractors grew louder. Then he suffered a hamstring injury that cost him the first four games of the season, and most wrote Bosa off for good. Once the 6’5”, 270-pounder took the field, however, everything changed. Bosa totaled 9.5 sacks in just 11 games of action, and racked up five in the last four games alone. If not for the inauspicious start to the season and the exceptional play of Ramsey, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award would’ve been in Bosa’s pocket.

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