QB: Mark Sanchez, NYJ – Quarterback Mark Sanchez gets the nod here after leading the Jets into the playoffs, though only by a hair. Neither he nor Matt Stafford looked terrific like the pair of rookies last season, but they both showed enough flashes to get their team excited for the future. Sanchez displayed a nice arm that will be able to cut through the winds of New Jersey and the ability to play cautiously late in the season. If he can improve on the consistency of his decision-making and accuracy, he has the makings a great leader for New York moving forward.
HM: Matthew Stafford, DET– Stafford showed a gutsy 400 yard performance in a win vs. Cleveland, connected on many long bombs with Calvin, and led all rookies in TD passes with 13. For Lions fans, there’s plenty of Stafford to look forward to from here on.
HM: Josh Freeman, TB– It wasn’t always pretty, but Freeman led the team to all three wins, showed courage in consistently attacking defenses, while leading all quarterbacks in completion percentage (54.6).
RB: Knowshon Moreno, DEN – Moreno fell just 53 yards short of 1000 for the season and added a total of 9 touchdowns. Though he had hardly any explosive plays on the ground (only 2 runs longer than 20 yards), Moreno served as an all-purpose back capable of handling an offense in all facets. Moreno should only pick up as the offensive line does and improve his pedestrian 3.8 average if he can break a couple more big ones loose.
RB: Beanie Wells, ARI – Though Moreno’s early season success and well-roundedness allowed him to carry the ball more frequently early in the year, Wells came on late in the year as a stronger pure runner. Wells’ size and speed to get to the edge, gave the Cardinals a formidable ground game late in the year. He finished as the team’s top rusher while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. If Wells can continue to prove in the playoffs, the offseason, and preseason that he can hold onto the ball, he should be the team’s starter next season and finally give the Cardinals real balance in the form of a 1000 yard rusher.
HM: LeSean McCoy, PIT – McCoy did an admirable job filling in for Brian Westbrook for much of the season, giving the Eagles nearly 1000 yards from scrimmage on 4.8 yards per touch.
HM: Shonn Greene, NYJ – Greene came on strong late in the year to give the Jets a formidable punch behind Thomas Jones, running for 540 yards on 5.0 yards per carry.
WR: Percy Harvin, MIN – If I held the spot, Harvin would also get the nod for the All-Rookie team kick returner for his contributions on special teams. Percy played a big role in the Vikings offense because of his ability to turn short catches into 1st downs, where he led all rookies. He also tied for the rookie lead in receptions and yards, accomplishing all of it with persistent migraines, which cost him valuable practice time. He led an impressive rookie receiving class and outperformed a number of other offensive players. Percy Harvin is my offensive rookie of the year, not only for his numbers but because of his grand impact on his playoff team.
WR: Jeremy Maclin, PHI – Maclin, like Percy Harvin suffered through a number of questions on size and his college team’s offensive system during the draft process. The Eagles still selected him in the first round and he quickly leapfrogged a number of good receivers into the starting lineup. Through the season, Maclin has been as sure-handed, reliable, and as good a route runner as anyone would have expected of him as a rookie. He finished the year with 762 yards on 55 receptions to give the Eagles a good underneath target to complement Jackson’s vertical game.
HM: Hakeem Nicks, NYG – Hampered by injury early in the year, Nicks emerged as the big play receiver for the Giants, leading all rookie receivers in yards and finishing only behind Mike Wallace in catches in excess of 20 and 40 yards.
HM: Austin Collie, IND – After losing Anthony Gonzalez for the season in the first week, sure-handed Austin Collie stepped up to give the Colts offense a reliable target, finishing the season leading all rookie receivers with 7 touchdowns and tied for the lead in receptions with 60.
HM: Mike Wallace, PIT – Wallace led all rookie receivers in catches of over 20 and 40 yards, while adding explosiveness to the Steelers offense in 3-wide sets, in which Big Ben posted some of his best numbers.
HM: Kenny Britt, TEN – Though Britt was quiet in a number of games, he also showed his big play ability in others, amassing a total of 701 yards on the season on 42 catches, with 81% going for 1st downs. He should be able to develop into a full-time starter going forward.
TE: Brandon Pettigrew, DET – Before tearing his ACL, bringing a very good rookie season to a halt in week 12, Pettigrew showed the well-roundedness he was praised for having during the draft process. In addition to his blocking ability, he quickly developed a rapport with quarterback Matt Stafford. Though he’ll likely begin next season on the PUP, Pettigrew has the natural ability to use his size to create separation and make tough catches.
OT: Michael Oher, BAL – Oher didn’t have the type of season to garner serious Rookie of the Year buzz or deserve a trip to the Pro Bowl, but it sure seems the accolades will come in the near future. Oher was effective at right tackle, where he played most of the season, but also on the left side when he temporarily filled in for the injured Jared Gaither. He looked good in both pass protection and run-blocking as a rookie, helping pave way for Ray Rice’s Pro Bowl season. Oher brings athleticism and a nasty mean streak to a line that should have a set of bookend tackles for the next decade.
OT: Phil Loadholt, MIN – In the NFC, a decent case could be made for Loadholt to the Pro Bowl, even though Oher had the slightly better season of the two. Loadholt held off projected 1st round pick Trent Williams for the left tackle job last year at Oklahoma. Watching him pass protection this year, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Loadholt’s run-blocking gets overrated as much as his pass-blocking is underrated due to his massive size. If he can improve upon using his size to habitually move the right side off the line of scrimmage, he has the potential to become one of the best right tackles in the game.
HM: Sebastian Vollmer, NE – In nearly half a season of football, Sebastian Vollmer allowed no sacks on the season and very few pressures. He shut down Joey Porter and Dwight Freeney in successive weeks, an impressive feat for any tackle, let alone a rookie. Had he played the entire season, Vollmer could have been a contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
OG: Louis Vasquez, SD – One of the bright spots on the Chargers’ inconsistent offensive line has been rookie right guard Louis Vasquez. He offers a lot in pass protection, but is still a work in progress from a run-blocking standpoint after transitioning from the spread scheme at Texas Tech. He has made improvements in this area in recent weeks, but as he moves into his second year next season, his run-blocking will come under more scrutiny. He’ll need to continue to take strides in the positive direction.
OG: Andy Levitre, BUF – Levitre was one of two Bills offensive linemen to start all 16 games and managed to look decent despite a gaping hole at left tackle. He showed consistent improvement and has plenty of promise as the future left guard of the team.
HM: Max Unger, SEA – Unger will be at the nucleus of the Seahawks’ line moving forward and was one of the team’s two 16-game starters on the offensive line this year (13 at RG, 3 at C).
C: Alex Mack, CLE – The Browns traded down a couple times only to end up selecting center Alex Mack in the middle of the first-round. Mack consistently improved throughout the year and had arguably the best season of all rookie offensive linemen. With Joe Thomas at left tackle, the Browns will be set at two key positions on the offensive line, especially if Mack continues to improve next season, which could end with him in the Pro Bowl.
DE: Brian Orakpo, WAS – Because of the talent at linebacker, I’m cheating and moving Orakpo to defensive end, his natural position, even though he played a majority of his snaps at strongside linebacker. His ability to play out of position and still have such a fantastic rookie season is a testament to his athleticism and versatility. As the lone Pro Bowler for the Washington Redskins, Orakpo is one of three leading candidates to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year, one of the toughest races to call. Orakpo managed to lead all rookies in sacks (11), though he ended the year with none in 6 of his last 7 games (he had 4 in the other). If the Redskins can move him to full-time defensive end, expect Orakpo to quickly become one of the yearly leaders in that stat category.
DE: Everette Brown, CAR – There wasn’t too much excitement from this year’s defensive end class, but it may take some time for a number of pass rushers to settle in. The guy I except to make some noise next year is Florida State’s Everette Brown. He was a part of the line’s rotation for much of the year, but saw more playing time later in the season. He answered the call by applying plenty of heat on the quarterback with 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 14 QB pressures.
HM: Matt Shaughnessy, OAK – Mid-round pick Matt Shaughnessy is a promising player in Oakland. He improved every week and led all defensive ends in sacks this year with 4. Look for him to become a starter in Oakland somewhere in the near future
HM: Michael Johnson, CIN – Johnson played well in a limited role adding 3 sacks and batting down 5 passes at the line of scrimmage.
DT: Terrance Knighton, JAC – The Jaguars had one of the most impactful rookie classes this year, but possibly none more so than former Temple standout Terrance Knighton. After loss to the Browns in the regular season finale, Coach Jack Del Rio showered him with praise, even naming him a captain for the game. Knighton finished the year with 45 tackles and 7.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He should continue to form a dynamic duo in the middle of the defensive line with John Henderson for the next couple years.
DT: B.J. Raji, GB – Raji began the season with a holdout and an ankle injury, but quickly made an impact on the field. Toward the end of the season, Raji was receiving starter snaps, with an injury to NT Ryan Pickett and the Packers top 3 defense held its’ own. Raji is a monster in the middle with rare strength and athleticism, which even allowed him to drop into a short zone on occasion. As he continues to grow, Raji could very well become a perennial Pro Bowler with his ability to make big splash plays in the backfield versus the run and pass.
HM: Roy Miller, TB – Miller was big part of the rotation on the defensive line seeing 30-40 snaps a game. He finished the year with 33 tackles and 2 sacks, but tailed off toward the end of the season. Once he works the endurance, he should be a full-time starter in the next year or two.
OLB: Brian Cushing, HOU – Few 4-3 outside linebackers played better than Brian Cushing this year, rookie or otherwise. He finished the year filling out the stat sheet with 134 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 stuffs, 2 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions (several at clutch moments), and 10 pass deflections. There was nothing he didn’t do for the Texans front 7. Though the Texans just missed out on the playoffs this year, Cushing helped the defense improve mightily and the franchise recorded its’ first winning season. With his impeccable work ethic, it’s hard to visualize Cushing getting any better, but the improvements are bound to occur. He handily took home the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award and even in a year of great competition, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
OLB: Clay Matthews, GB – Matthews, Cushing’s former collegiate teammate at USC, was my runner-up for the defensive rookie of year. Like Cushing, Matthews boasted a polished all-around game in run support, coverage, and especially pass rush where he used his incredible speed around the corner. Under the tutelage of OLB coach Kevin Greene, Matthews has developed the same relentlessness that his coach used to play with. Matthews also has the work ethic to improve upon his sensational rookie season that included 10 sacks, 7 stuffs, and 3 fumble recoveries.
HM: Rey Maualuga, CIN – Before a broken ankle ended his season, Maualuga had added 63 tackles and 6 stuffs on one of the best run-stopping units in the NFL.
HM: DeAndre Levy, DET – With 85 tackles on the season, Levy saved his best for the last week when he notched his first start at middle linebacker, where his coaches believe his future resides.
HM: Aaron Curry, SEA – Though he battled injuries throughout the season, Curry had a solid rookie season, but will need to improve to be worth his high draft slot and salary.
HM: Brad Jones, GB – The defense has taken off when the 7th round pick replaced former Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman at outside linebacker. Jones is a great athlete with a well-rounded game and should be the future at OLB opposite Clay Matthews.
ILB: James Laurinaitis, STL – Chosen the teams’ rookie of the year, Laurinaitis would have battled for league honors in most other years. Laurinaitis quickly became the defensive quarterback for the Rams and made plays all over the field. He finished the year 2nd in tackles only to Brian Cushing among rookies (120) to go along with 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 7 pass deflections in coverage. He is one of several up-and-coming middle linebackers in the NFL that will have the opportunity to be the face of a team and a regular at the Pro Bowl.
CB: Sean Smith, MIA – Smith was the less flashy, but slightly more consistent of the two rookie corners for Miami. He didn’t intercept a single pass while starting all 16 games for the Dolphins, but teams were less willing to throw in his direction than they were at the other corners. At 6’3, some questioned whether he would have the agility to defend smaller, quicker receivers. Through a full season, Smith provided consistency and stability in the secondary and is well ahead of the rookie curve as a cover corner.
CB: Jerraud Powers, IND – The 5’9 3rd round pick out of Auburn was thrust into the starting lineup early because of injuries to Marlin Jackson. Powers battled through the season to give the Colts some of the better cornerback play they’ve received through the decade. The pass defense of the Colts ranked near the top half of the league despite starting a pair of rookie corners and missing Bob Sanders and Marlin Jackson for much of the season. Powers has good athletic and leaping ability, but is also technically sound and played like one of the better corners in the AFC this year.
HM: Derek Cox, JAC – Cox was one of many impact rookies on the Jags’ roster, starting 16 games at cornerback with 4 interceptions, 11 deflections, and an impressive 72 tackles.
HM: Vontae Davis, MIA – Davis had a season of ups and downs giving up a couple big plays, but developed into the Dolphins’ playmaking corner while finishing strong. He showed great instincts and physicality and gives the team a lot to look forward to.
HM: Jacob Lacey, IND – As an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State, Lacey has had to learn rather quickly and his play down the stretch has enabled the Colts to remain competitive in the secondary despite a slew of injuries. Lacey finished the regular season with 85 tackles and 3 picks, including a game clincher vs. Jacksonville.
HM: Lardarius Webb, BAL – Webb, the 3rd round selection from Nicholls State, was thrown to into the fire immediately and emerged at the end of the season as a player capable of stepping up to the challenge, starting his last 4 games before losing the remainder of his season to a torn ACL.
HM: Darius Butler, NE – After an up and down season, Butler showed glimpses of why some thought he was the best corner in the draft after returning an interception 91 yards for a touchdown in the finale.
S: Louis Delmas, DET – Though Delmas received no votes for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, he was the best all-around safety in the rookie class. He had only 2 interceptions and didn’t accumulate the flashy numbers of Jairus Byrd, but he was nearly as good in coverage and much better in run support. Delmas has always been known to lay the wood and will continue to be known for his big hits, but he’s a well-rounded player who has a number of Pro Bowls in his future if he can just become a bigger playmaker.
S: Jairus Byrd, BUF – Byrd was an interception machine for the Bills secondary, which ranked among the league’s best in pass defense. He tied for a league lead in interceptions (9) though he started in only 11 games for the Bills. His nose for the football is among the league’s best and dates back to his college days, so it can hardly be attributed solely to luck. Byrd has some way to go in run-support before he can become a great all-around safety, but his ability to turn games around for the Bills certainly warrants a spot on the All-Rookie team and even some consideration in the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, where he finished 2nd behind Brian Cushing.
K: Ryan Succop, KC – This year’s Mr. Irrelevant stuck to the roster and made his impact felt on the roster. Succop missed only one field goal inside of 50 yards, from 43 yards out. He finished the year connecting on 25 of 29 fields and all 29 of his extra points. His performance was good enough for the Chiefs to name him their Rookie of the Year.
P: Pat McAfee, IND – McAfee finished the year leading rookie punters in gross and net average. He pinned 21 punts (33%) inside the 20 with only 6 touchbacks on the year. By no means was McAfee one of the league’s best punters, but he did an adequate job in replacing Hunter Smith, finishing with better gross and net numbers this year.