With the regular season officially over, SST looks back on the best rookies from each NFL team, evaluating the NFC this week. Check out our AFC Edition here.
Dallas Cowboys (13-3): Dak Prescott, QB
If you are reading this article, seeing my choice for the Cowboys’ top rookie was likely your entire motivation for clicking on the link. I went back and forth between 4th-rounder Prescott and 4th-overall pick RB Ezekiel Elliott, but I wound up choosing Dak. Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and finding a potential superstar after the top two rounds is near-impossible. In the NFC, only three starting quarterbacks were drafted outside of the first two rounds (QBs starting due to injury not considered), while seven were first overall draft picks. Additionally, Zeke’s impact on the team may not be as large. The ‘Boys went 4-12 last year with a horrendous assemblage of quarterbacks that allowed defenses to stack the box against Darren McFadden, who still managed to put up nearly 1,500 scrimmage yards while only starting 10 games. While Zeke is clearly a superior player to McFadden, as the rookie came close to 2,000 yards and scored 13 more times than his predecessor while starting every game, the parity wasn’t as large. Dak was 3rd in the league in passer rating with a 104 and posted a sterling 23-4 TD/Interception ratio. Last year’s combination of Matt Cassel, Tony Romo, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden had a passer rating of 76.6 and a TD/Int ratio of 16-22. If the Cowboys hadn’t selected Prescott, they wouldn’t have been in contention, let alone the top seed in the NFC.
New York Giants (11-5): Sterling Shepard, WR
This was a difficult choice, as the Giants’ significant improvement from last year is in large part to their rookie class. 5th-rounder RB Paul Perkins has seen his opportunities increase each week, and averages nearly a yard more per carry than current starter Rashad Jennings. 1st-rounder CB Eli Apple earned a starting role in one of the league’s best secondaries after Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struggled. TE Jerell Adams, selected in the 7th round, and undrafted WR Roger Lewis made contributions to Big Blue’s success as well. However, Shepard, who was touted as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in the preseason, was the Giants’ top rookie despite not reaching those lofty expectations. The former Oklahoma Sooner was the complementary target to Odell Beckham, Jr., racking up the 2nd-most receiving yards and touchdowns on the team. Additionally, Shepard started every game for the Giants and had the highest catch percentage among wide receivers on the team. His eight scores were behind only the Saints’ Michael Thomas among rookies as well. Shepard had four catches for 63 yards in the playoff game against the Packers, but dropped a pass in the end zone early in the game.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9): Carson Wentz, QB
Wentz cooled off after a prolific start to the season that saw the Eagles win their first three games, but he was still Philly’s top rookie. New head coach Doug Pederson traded much of the team’s future draft picks in order to trade up to the #2 selection and nab Wentz, even though the incumbent Sam Bradford had been signed to a two year, $36 million contract and Pederson’s longtime backup in Kansas City, Chase Daniel, was signed to a three year, $21 million deal. Bradford was dealt to Minnesota days before the start of the season, and Pederson decided to go with the rookie. Saddled with a subpar running game and offensive line, Wentz was forced to throw far too often late in the season, ultimately finishing 5th in the league in pass attempts. The jump from Division I-AA football to the NFL, as well as from Fargo, North Dakota to Philly, were major adjustments for Wentz, but throughout his rookie season he displayed the potential of being an All-Pro down the line. RB Wendell Smallwood, drafted in the 5th round, and 7th-rounder CB/S Jalen Mills carved out significant roles as well, and are players to watch in 2017.
Washington Redskins (8-7-1): Robert Kelley, RB
The Redskins had a promising season developing before dropping from playoff position on the last game of the season after a 2-4 stretch to close out the year. While ‘Skins fans are understandably disappointed now, they should look forward to once again having a featured back after two years of Matt Jones. The undrafted Kelley was one of the hottest waiver wire pickups in fantasy football after gaining the starting job in Week 8, and he totaled 786 scrimmage yards and 7 touchdowns on the season. At 6’0” and 228 pounds, Kelley has a frame that can handle a bell cow workload, but can be valuable in the passing game as well. Coming out of Tulane, Kelley was a long shot to even make an NFL roster after getting only 65 rushing attempts during his senior year. However, a big preseason endeared him to the Redskins’ coaching staff and he entered the season as Washington’s 3rd running back, before an injury to Jones and fellow rookie Chris Thompson’s inability to be more than a change-of-pace back allowed Kelley to take over. Look for Kelley to gain over 1,000 yards and score double-digit touchdowns in 2017.
Chicago Bears (3-13): Jordan Howard, RB
The Bears went through a painful season in 2016, but a promising year from their rookie class gives them hope for the future. Chicago traded up two slots in the first round to select pass rusher Leonard Floyd, who posted seven sacks, 33 tackles, a safety, and a forced fumble returned for a touchdown in 12 games played. Floyd’s slight frame was a concern of many teams entering the league, but if he can put on a few more pounds of muscle the former Georgia Bulldog could have a Vic Beasley-type impact in Year Two. Interior lineman Cody Whitehair, drafted in the second round, started all 16 games despite having to shift to center from his usual guard spot and finished the year as Pro Football Focus’ 6th best center in the NFL. 5th-rounder RB Jordan Howard, however, was a star after taking over the starting job from Jeremy Langford in Week 4, tallying 132 scrimmage yards in his first start and not looking back from there. On the season, the Indiana export totaled 1,611 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns despite playing in a one-dimensional offense where Howard was the only legitimate threat to defenses. As the unquestioned starter heading into 2017, Howard is in line for a huge season, especially if the Bears can solve some of their offensive issues.
Detroit Lions (9-7): Taylor Decker, OT
Aside from getting into a Twitter feud with ESPN’s Darren Rovell, Decker’s rookie season has been blemish-free (though he did win the Twitter feud). The 6’7”, 310 behemoth who paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State has started every game for the Lions in their redemption season. Decker was inconsistent to start the season, including a game against the Packers where he was repeatedly beaten on the edge. However, Decker improved rapidly since then, not allowing a sack from Week 6 to Week 14, along with being Pro Football Focus’ 7th best left tackle over that span. Failure to adequately protect Matt Stafford was one of the primary reasons the Lions were unsuccessful last year, and Decker’s addition has greatly improved the team. Detroit has received contributions from a number of other first year players as well, with 2nd-rounder DT A’Shawn Robinson, 3rd-rounder G Graham Glasgow, 4th-rounder SS Miles Killebrew, and 7th-rounder RB Dwayne Washington all receiving playing time.
Green Bay Packers (10-6): Blake Martinez, ILB
The Packers’ rookie class wasn’t anything to phone home about in 2016, though Martinez, a 4th-rounder, should be a starter in the middle of Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme going forward. A tackling machine at Stanford, Martinez was one of the Packers’ leading tacklers even after starting just nine games due to a knee injury. On the season, Martinez racked up 65 tackles, four passes defensed, an interception, and a sack. While he appears to be a long-term answer at a position the Pack hasn’t been able to address adequately for some time, Martinez was simply the best of a not-so-great bunch. 1st-rounder DE Kenny Clark was solid in the beginning of the year, but has barely seen the field since then and failed to record a sack this season. OT Jason Spriggs, a 2nd round selection, was solid in relief of Don Barclay at guard after TJ Lang’s injury, but hasn’t been relevant since Lang’s return. The other draft picks barely saw the field, though a player to watch in the future is undrafted wideout Geronimo Allison, who posted 157 yards and scored a touchdown over the last two weeks of the regular season.
Minnesota Vikings (8-8): Incomplete
The Vikings received so few contributions from their rookie class I couldn’t justify giving this distinction to one player over another. First rounder WR Laquon Treadwell was expected to be the primary target of one of the weakest receiving corps in the league entering the season, but the emergence of 3rd year wideout Adam Thielen relegated Treadwell to the bench in all but one game. The Ole Miss product caught just one pass for 15 yards in 2016, a discouraging total considering Sam Bradford caught the same number of passes this year. Treadwell’s lone start was one of two made by rookies throughout the entire season by Minnesota, as 7th-rounder S Jayron Kearse started against the Bears on Oct. 31. Kearse was inconsistent when he received snaps, and was benched quickly. However, he was active for all 16 games and had a fumble recovery along with three tackles. 2nd-rounder CB/S Mackensie Alexander was a disappointment as well, going on the IR shortly after getting surpassed in the rotation by 38 year old Terence Newman. Fans of the Purple and Gold should hope that their rookies were able to learn from the veterans and be prepared for future seasons.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5): Keanu Neal, S
This pick was probably the toughest choice to make, as 1st-rounder Neal and 2nd-rounder ILB Deion Jones were two of the best rookies in all of football this season. The Falcons’ resurgence was largely due to great strides made on the defensive side of the ball, with Neal and Jones at the forefront of that improvement. Head coach Dan Quinn drafted the duo in an emulation of the Bobby Wagner-Kam Chancellor combination that brought him success when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle. Neal and Jones were the Falcons’ leading tacklers as well as the top tacklers among all rookies, with Jones racking up 106 to Neal’s 105. Neal’s five forced fumbles tied for 3rd in the NFL, while Jones was one of four players in the league to have multiple defensive touchdowns. Additionally, Jones had three interceptions, 11 passes defensed, and a forced fumble, impressive stats against the pass for a middle linebacker. Neal also had eight passes defensed and a fumble recovery. Ultimately, the former Florida Gator enforcer edged out Jones by the thinnest of margins, as Neal was able to post similar statistics despite playing one less game than Jones. Also, producing those numbers from the strong safety position is considerably more difficult than from middle linebacker.
Carolina Panthers (6-10): The cornerbacks
In the most befuddling move of the offseason, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, letting the shutdown man walk in free agency. While his concerns about the price tag that Norman would eventually command and its ripple effects were valid, Gettleman seemed to forget that his next best cornerbacks were Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan, whose primes occurred during an age where Brett Favre and Kerry Collins were above average NFL quarterbacks. Both would retire before the season started, leaving just the injury-prone Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain as the only viable corners on the roster. Gettleman attempted to address the void in the draft, selecting corners James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Zack Sanchez in the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th rounds respectively. Due to the utter and complete lack of competition, Bradberry and Worley have taken over the starting jobs at the position. However, due to their being the only rookies to receive significant playing time and the fact that the Panthers would be bankrupt on the outside, Bradberry and Worley have gained this distinction despite playing fairly poorly on the season. Panthers fans shouldn’t worry, as corners tend to take longer to develop and the duo has consistently improved throughout this season.
New Orleans Saints (7-9): Michael Thomas, WR
By far the best receiver of the 2016 rookie class, Thomas took over as Drew Brees’ favorite target by midseason. The 2nd-rounder led the Saints high-powered offense in receptions with 92 and touchdowns with nine, and was second in receiving yards with 1,137. With good size and reliable hands, Thomas was a perfect complement for speedy deep threat Brandin Cooks. Among rookies, Thomas was the leader in all major receiving categories, and when compared to the entire league, the former Ohio State Buckeye was tied for 6th in touchdowns and finished 9th in both receptions and yards. Thomas’ consistent production throughout the season solidified Thomas in the upper echelon of wide receivers in the entire league. The Saints received big contributions from their other first year players as well, especially 1st-rounder DT Sheldon Rankins and 2nd rounder S Vonn Bell. Despite not starting a game and only playing in nine, Rankins was able to tally four sacks, 20 tackles, and a forced fumble. Bell, Thomas’ OSU teammate, established himself as one of the Saints’ top defensive players. He was the team’s second leading tackler with 83 tackles and two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a sack to go along with it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7): Vernon Hargreaves III, CB
The 11th overall pick in the draft, Hargreaves solidified one of the weaker secondaries in the league with his presence. Coming out of University of Florida, Hargreaves has all the attributes of a future lockdown corner. On the season, Hargreaves racked up 76 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. Even more, he emerged as one of the leaders of a unit that allowed seven less passing touchdowns than the year before. The Bucs also found a potential star in 2nd-rounder DE Noah Spence, who was third on the team in sacks with 5.5. For only starting three games on the season, that’s an encouraging total from a player who was expected to need time to adjust to playing at the NFL level. Additionally, Spence totaled 22 tackles and three forced fumbles in 2016. Bigger contributions were expected from K Roberto Aguayo, a 2nd-rounder who struggled immediately upon receiving NFL action. Aguayo’s claim to fame was never missing an extra point during his tenure at Florida State, but he only converted 71% of his field goal attempts in his rookie season.
Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1): Brandon Williams, CB
The Cardinals struggled heavily after entering the season as a Super Bowl candidate, yet the members of their rookie class barely saw the field. The Cardinals took a risk early by taking Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche in an attempt to bolster their lacking interior pass rush. The former top overall prospect in the nation out of high school, Nkemdiche showed flashes of brilliance for the Rebels coupled with inconsistency on the field as well as trouble off of it. Nkemdiche was taken off some teams boards entirely for falling out of a second-floor window while under the influence last December, but the Cardinals took a shot on him anyway. While it may be too early to write him off, Nkemdiche recorded only one tackle despite playing in six games. Offensive linemen and 4th-rounder C Evan Boehm and 5th-rounder OT Cole Toner were able to get opportunities, and have been solid in the rotation. However, Williams was the only Cards rookie to play a significant role for the team in 2016. The 3rd-rounder from Texas A&M took over the nickel role, playing in 13 games this year. Williams totaled 23 tackles and three passes defensed in 2016.
Los Angeles Rams (4-12): Jared Goff, QB
The Rams sold the future of their franchise in order to trade up to the first overall pick and select the Cal signal-caller, which meant Goff had little competition for this award. Los Angeles didn’t pick again until the 4th round, and spent four of their five remaining picks on help for Goff. They selected tight ends Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway in the 4th and 6th round respectively, yet neither made an impact in the Rams’ train wreck of their inaugural season in Tinseltown. Higbee had 11 catches for 85 yards and a score over all of 2016, while Hemingway didn’t record a catch. Los Angeles took receivers Pharoh Cooper in the 4th round and Mike Thomas in the 7th, and the duo combined for 17 catches, 143 yards, and no touchdowns on the season. Therefore, Goff, who took over the reins at quarterback at midseason, was the best rookie by default. Unfortunately for Rams fans, Goff showed almost no signs of being a starter-worthy NFL quarterback in his seven games as a starter, all of which he lost. With a passer rating of 63.6 and more interceptions than touchdowns, Goff looked nothing like the player the Rams were expecting to be the second coming of Matt Ryan. With the firing of Jeff Fisher, hiring a coach who can help Goff develop should be priority number one of for the team’s front office.
San Francisco 49ers (2-14): DeForest Buckner, DT
Overshadowed by the poor play of the team as a whole, the 7th-overall pick quietly made a case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Buckner led the 49ers with six sacks, and recorded 73 tackles and two fumble recoveries in 2016. Yet another Oregon player to land on a Chip Kelly squad in the NFL, Buckner’s 6’7”, 291 pound frame coupled with surprising speed and quickness gives him a unique skill set for a five-technique tackle. At 22, he could develop into a Calais Campbell-type of player sooner rather than later. Buckner, along with fellow Oregon first rounder DT Arik Armstead, form a promising defensive line that should be a key building block for whichever coach comes to San Francisco. The 49ers also traded back into the first round to take OG Joshua Garnett, who earned 11 starts on the offensive line. The Stanford product was decent when he played, and should be a full-time starter in 2017. 3rd rounder CB Will Redmond missed the entire season with an ACL injury, but 4th-rounder CB Rashard Robinson was better than expected in the nickel role.
Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1): Jarran Reed, DT
The Seahawks were expecting more out of their rookie class, which was largely underwhelming. Reed was viewed as a huge steal on draft day when he fell to the 49th pick, as the Alabama run-stopper was expected to go in the mid-first round. Half of the most fearsome interior line in college football with A’Shawn Robinson, whose Detroit Lions he met in the first round of the playoffs, Reed didn’t have the pass-rushing skills of his counterpart. But his massive frame enticed teams who desired a space-eater in the middle of the line. Reed played in 15 games in the regular season, totaling 34 tackles and three sacks. With established veterans Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel in front of him in the pecking order, Reed wasn’t immediately pressed into play. The ‘Hawks also selected three running backs in the draft, but none were able to surpass Christine Michael, who had been cut and resigned in 2015 and was cut again in 2016 when Thomas Rawls was healthy. CJ Prosise was the best of the bunch, posting 380 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in six games before getting injured. OG Germain Ifedi was the team’s highest draft pick and played in 13 games in the regular season, but was shaky.