On both sides of the ball, coaches are better preparing rookies to carry out specific roles and melding college concepts into their professional playbooks. Accordingly, rookies seem more comfortable making bigger contributions out of the gates. In fact, here are some rookies ascending toward top of their respective positions.
1. Sheldon Richardson [DE, New York Jets] - The Jets hit another home run with the “Darrelle Revis pick”. Teaming with Mohammed Wilkerson, the Jets 2nd ranked run defense has been as stout as any up front. His quickness enables him to be active up front, penetrating gaps and peeling off blocks for run stops. If Richardson's week to week improvement as a pass rusher continues throughout the season, Rex Ryan may be able to dial back some blitzes allowing the Jets to put more into coverage to help out an ailing secondary.
2. Star Lotulelei [DT, Carolina Panthers] - The Panthers have taken significant strides as a run defense in large part to Lotulelei's presence in the middle. Through the first three games, he has proven to be quick and strong, disruptive and stout. He dropped in the draft with health concerns, but on the field, he's already a player that has to be accounted for on a Panthers front that includes Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The organization should be able to build a strong defense around this front 7.
3. Kiki Alonso [LB, Buffalo Bills] - Remember the last time a Bills rookie lead the league in interceptions? I doubt Alonso will seize that crown at the end of the year as Jairus Byrd did several years back, but his performance at linebacker has been commendable. Though Alonso leads the Bills in tackles, his instincts in coverage are more important to the defense in today's game. Though Alonso could improve at the point of attack, he's a name that will garner buzz in defensive rookie of the year discussions at the end of the season.
4. Larry Warford [OG, Detroit Lions] - The Lions had a terrific offseason improving the offense. Though Reggie Bush has earned the majority of the accolades, Larry Warford's steady play shouldn't go unnoticed and underappreciated. He's allowed Stafford to step up in the pocket and been responsible for only two pressures through the first four games. As he learns to improve his technique, he has the size to be an asset in the ground game as well.
5. Giovani Bernard [RB, Cincinnati Bengals] - Running back can often be scouted over a handful of plays. Bernard in week two on just a handful of touches showed why he is such a dynamic player in the Bengals' backfield. With great quickness and a short area burst, he can run between the tackles, push the hole and find the cutback, and slip out of the backfield as a receiver. With Green-Ellis and Bernard, the Cincinnati offense should be significantly better than it is. Perhaps Bernard seeing more touches will help them realize that potential.
6. DeAndre Hopkins [WR, Houston Texans] - Over the past few seasons, the Texans passing game has been limited by their options opposite Andre Johnson. They drafted Hopkins to fill that role and with a strong work ethic, he has. In 4 games, he's seen 29 passes thrown his direction and reeled in 20 of them. With his maturity and the ability to get separation, he's been the Texans' biggest bright spot on an offense that has failed to live up to expectations.
7. Tyrann Mathieu [S, Arizona Cardinals] - Mathieu has absorbed more responsibility than most first year players. Over the first quarter of the season, he's defended over the slot in sub-packages and filled in at safety in base. He already boasts a highlight reel that includes a pick, a remarkable forced fumble, a couple tackles in the backfield, and a game-ending pass deflection. With his quickness and instincts, I wouldn't be surprised if he was in the defensive rookie of the year discussions by the end of the year.
8. Jordan Mills [OT, Chicago Bears] - The Bears have done an excellent job of re-shaping the offensive line in just one offseason. Under the tutelage of Marc Trestman, the offense has been in rhythm and on time. Part of the reason has been the contribution of the right side of the line that has enabled Cutler to feel a little more at ease in the pocket. Jordan Mills has been strong in pass protection next to right guard Kyle Long who has been more impressive in the run game and should share praise with Mills.
9. Ezekiel Ansah [DE, Detroit Lions] - Apparently the unpolished, freakishly athletic defensive ends aren't have much trouble translating to the NFL these days. Though it certainly helps playing beside the best interior defensive line duo in the NFL, but Ansah has been active in the backfield displaying quick twitch moves and great closing speed. The bigger surprise is how effectively he's held up against the run.
10. Barkevious Mingo [OLB, Cleveland Browns] - With a sack in each of his first three games, Mingo has played up to his athletic ability and demonstrated why the Browns were enamored with him in draft season. His length and quickness promise create opportunities week after week after while closing speed executes on them.
11. Eric Reid [S, San Francisco 49ers] - After losing Dashon Goldson, the 49ers drafted Eric Reid who has filled in admirably. Though he's a bit inconsistent and has a handful of missed tackles, Reid is a hard-hitting impact safety. Reid is a big safety that moves and runs well while taking solid angles to the ball. On a talented defense, Reid should only continue to improve.
12. Kenny Vaccaro [S, New Orleans Saints] - A big reason for the Saints' improvement on defense has been their first round pick patrolling the secondary. He hasn't been flawless, but provided enough consistency with a couple impact plays sprinkled in. Safeties don't typically take time to reach a high level of play, but it looks like Vaccaro should get there by the end of the year, much like Harrison Smith a year ago.
13. EJ Manuel [QB, Buffalo Bills] - This year's quarterback class pales in comparison to last year's, but if we can scale the grading curve back to where it used to be, EJ Manuel has been a strong fit for the Bills. Though his play has declined in each of the four games, he's unflappable and a good decision maker. As we expect Manuel to improve throughout the year, Buffalo can be confident they have a franchise quarterback.
14. Kenbrell Thompkins [WR, New England Patriots] - It'll be interesting to see how Thompkins performs once Amendola and Gronkowski return to the Patriots' starting lineup, but through the first for weeks, he's been better than your average rookie. Sure, he's dropped a couple easy passes, but he's still surpassed a pair of drafted rooks on the depth chart and earned consistent playing time even when the offense returns to full health.
15. David Bakhtiari [OT, Green Bay Packers] - Bakhtiari really struggled on the last drive of week 3's loss to the Bengals, but Bakhtiari has been otherwise solid at left tackle. Tossed into the fire after injuries to the Packers starter, the mid-round pick from Colorado has filled in admirably requiring little help by means of chipping, sliding, and rolling backs his way. His ability to step in to an adequate level has enabled the Green Bay offense to remain potent early on.