Top 25 NFL Rookies Heading into Week 6
Week 5 of the NFL season started and ended with games featuring the league’s most high-profile defensive rookies and rookie quarterbacks, and some fared better than others.
On Monday Night Football, one New York Jets rookie on each side of the ball stole the spotlight as the Jets came up with a big win over a disappointing Atlanta Falcons team.
Jets quarterback and 2013 second-round pick Geno Smith had the best performance of his young career, completing 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, which included leading the Jets down the field during an impressive two-minute drill that set up the game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired.
Defensively, Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson continued to make his case for Defensive Rookie of the Year with another fantastic performance on the defensive front, highlighted by two tackles for loss, including one sack.
Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Kiko Alonso both made highlight-reel plays to lead their defenses on Thursday Night Football, but the night was not as kind to Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. He suffered a sprained LCL in his right knee that is expected to keep him out for four to six weeks.
Manuel’s injury keeps him out of the Top 25 in this week’s Bleacher Report NFL Rookie Rankings, but the other mentioned players all moved up on the list—or at least maintained their high rankings—this week.
Note: Advanced statistics and snap counts were found using Pro Football Focus’ premium statistics database. A subscription is required to access the database.
Dropouts from Last Week’s Rankings
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: No. 22
Manuel’s knee injury is putting his rookie season on hold after a promising start.
Prior to the injury, Manuel had completed 85 of 150 passing attempts for 985 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions, while also leading the Bills to two victories in their first four games.
He had already been struggling with his accuracy and consistency prior to the injury, but he was still among the top candidates for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. That no longer looks to be a possibility due to the amount of time that his injury is expected to keep him sidelined.
Joplo Bartu, OLB, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: No. 25
Joplo Bartu has done an admirable job this season—going from undrafted free agent to rookie starting outside linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons—but he has struggled in coverage, which showed especially in Monday night's loss to the New York Jets.
He was beaten with his back turned on a 20-yard touchdown pass caught by Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland in the end zone, and he received a minus-2.5 PFF grade in coverage for the game.
25. Sam Martin, P, Detroit Lions
Last Week: NR
The Detroit Lions’ fifth-round selection of a punter from Appalachian State this year was an easy one to question, but Sam Martin has more than played up to his draft selection thus far. Martin has been one of the NFL’s top punters, and he seems to be getting better each week.
Martin has averaged more than 50 yards per punt in each of his last four games, giving him a 49.5 yards-per-punt average that is the NFL’s second best. With only 58 punt return yards against him on 24 punts, Martin also ranks sixth in the NFL with a net punting average of 42.1 yards.
The reason Martin is not higher on this list, however, is that while he has consistently shown off his ability to boom the ball deep, he has struggled to punt with a short field. He has the worst percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line (16.7 percent, four inside the 20-yard line on 24 punts) among NFL punters thus far this season, while his six touchbacks are the most in the league.
Fortunately for Martin and the Lions, he seems to be improving in this category. After downing just one punt inside the 20 in his first three games, he has three in his last two games, including on two of his six punts Sunday versus the Green Bay Packers.
24. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: No. 24
The Minnesota Vikings had a bye week after playing their Week 4 game in London versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Patterson's 33.8 yards-per-kickoff-return average remains the NFL’s best.
With only six catches for 82 yards in four games, Patterson has yet to emerge as a consistent receiving threat for the Vikings. His ability to flourish on offense hasn’t been helped by the Vikings’ subpar quarterback play, where the team could have a three-way midseason competition on its hands between Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and the newly acquired Josh Freeman.
Patterson may have to emerge on offense to hold a spot in these rankings for the rest of the season, but his special teams excellence is enough to earn him a spot for now. In fact, he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September.
23. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: No. 23
Like Patterson’s Vikings, Jarvis Jones and the Pittsburgh Steelers had Week 5 off following their return from London. The 0-4 Steelers’ playoff hopes are already bleak, but they will be looking for Jones to continue his playmaking ways coming out of the bye.
He had a disappointing game against the Vikings in Week 4, recording just one tackle in 35 snaps and finishing the game with an overall PFF rating of minus-1.5. That said, he has recorded 16 tackles in four games. Most of those tackles, including two for loss, have been at or near the line of scrimmage.
Jones took the Steelers’ starting right outside linebacker job away from Jason Worilds after just one game this season, and he looks to remain a key cog of the Steelers defense throughout his rookie season.
22. Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
Last Week: No. 20
No. 5 overall pick Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah has been an immediate playmaker for the Detroit Lions, but moving into a starting defensive end role with Jason Jones out for the season has come with its share of ups and downs.
Ansah has been able to make some big plays with his athleticism, and he continued to do that Sunday by notching a sack on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, giving him 3.5 sacks on the season.
For all of the big plays he has made, however, he has been inconsistent. The aforementioned sack was one of only two pressures for Ansah in 71 snaps versus the Packers, and he received a minus-1.5 PFF grade for the game.
Ansah has made some big plays as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper, and he should continue to do so. However, in order to make the type of consistent impact that the Lions expect from a starting defensive end, he must become a more technically sound player.
21. Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England Patriots
Last Week: No. 13
Kenbrell Thompkins was listed as questionable heading into Sunday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals with a shoulder injury. While it is uncertain whether his injury affected him in the Patriots’ disappointing loss, he certainly did not live up to expectations after a much better performance versus the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4.
Thompkins made a big move up these rankings after a six-catch, 127-yard performance in New England’s Week 4 victory, but he only caught three balls for 16 yards against the Bengals on Sunday.
For as good as Thompkins looked in his breakout performance on Sunday Night Football against the Falcons, inconsistency has been a big problem for the rookie wideout. He has made a number of spectacular big plays, but he also has four dropped passes.
Even with his inconsistency, Thompkins ranks second among rookies with 18 receptions and third with 273 receiving yards. His three receiving touchdowns are tied with fellow undrafted rookie Marlon Brown for the most of any rookie.
If he can cut down on drops and make plays more consistently, he has the potential to be the big-play receiver the Patriots need.
20. D.J. Fluker, RT, San Diego Chargers
Last Week: NR
While all of the other rookie offensive tackles—including three who were selected in the 2013 draft’s top four picks—have struggled, D.J. Fluker has been a very solid presence at right tackle for the San Diego Chargers this season.
Although he missed one game for the Chargers with a concussion, he is the only rookie offensive tackle who has played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps to have a positive PFF grade (4.4) this season.
He has only allowed seven total pressures in four games, including none in a strong performance versus the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Although he was questionably flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, he also had one of the game’s highlights when he body-slammed fellow rookie and Raiders outside linebacker Sio Moore (see video).
Fluker has been better than advertised as a pass-blocker thus far, and he is doing a nice job leading the ground game on the right side as well. While Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel (even prior to his injury) and Lane Johnson have all struggled to adjust to right tackle with their respective teams, Fluker stepped in at his collegiate position and has played well.
19. Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: No. 19
The Cleveland Browns were expecting Barkevious Mingo to be an immediate impact player when they drafted him at No. 6 overall in the 2013 draft, and he has looked more and more like that each week this season.
Mingo failed to extend his sack streak to four consecutive games versus the Buffalo Bills in Week 5, but he brought plenty of pressure, landing four quarterback hits. He also broke up a short pass with another big hit on wide receiver Stevie Johnson. Showing his ability as a pass-rusher and in pass coverage, Mingo is looking like an excellent asset to the Browns defense on passing downs.
He needs to become stronger as a run defender, but that has not stopped him from playing in all but six snaps in the last two weeks with regular starting outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard out of the lineup due to injury. He has shown his range consistently, which has allowed him to make 14 tackles in four games.
Mingo may move back to his role as the team’s third outside linebacker when Sheard returns to the lineup, but it’s going to be difficult to keep the rookie off the field for long. Mingo makes a difference on the field with his explosiveness and athleticism, and he has shown significant improvement already this season.
18. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: No. 18
The Dallas Cowboys are looking smarter with each passing week for going against expectations and drafting Travis Frederick with the No. 31 overall pick in this year’s draft. He has provided strong play on an interior offensive line that was among the NFL’s worst in 2012.
Frederick has been better than expected as a pass-blocker, allowing just nine total pressures and two sacks in five games, and he has been a tremendous run-blocker in the middle of the Dallas offensive line as well. He has the sixth-best PFF rating (3.5) of all NFL centers thus far in 2013, and he has graded out as PFF’s best run-blocking center with a 7.3 rating in that category.
Even in a loss to the Denver Broncos, the Cowboys offense had an outstanding performance on Sunday, putting up 48 points and 522 total yards of offense. Frederick’s solid play in the middle of the Dallas offensive line was a key part of that success.
17. Johnthan Banks, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: No. 17
Johnthan Banks has been a steady presence on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that has been anything but steady thus far this season. Coming out of a Week 5 bye, he will strive to keep his standing as one of the NFL’s best rookie cornerbacks.
Banks has just two passes defensed in four weeks, but he has not been burned often in coverage. He has allowed just 12 receptions for 122 yards on 156 coverage snaps, tying him for 13th among NFL cornerbacks who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps. That amounts to an average of just 0.78 yards allowed per coverage snap.
He does not often have to face the opposing team’s best receiver—Darrelle Revis takes on that responsibility—but he is proving to be a more-than-capable No. 2 cornerback.
16. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: No. 16
Like Johnthan Banks, Xavier Rhodes’ impressive start has been about consistently good play and not big plays.
While the Minnesota Vikings cornerback only has one pass defensed through four games, he ranks ninth among all cornerbacks who have played at least 50 percent of their coverage snaps with 0.69 yards allowed per coverage snap.
Prior to the Vikings’ Week 5 bye, Rhodes had his worst performance yet this season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He gave up five receptions for 59 yards, including a 36-yard reception to Jerricho Cotchery.
Nonetheless, Minnesota’s No. 3 cornerback is off to a strong start at one of the toughest positions for a rookie to excel at. If he bounces back and continues to avoid giving up big plays, he could quickly rise in these rankings.
15. John Jenkins, NT, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: No. 12
John Jenkins falls a few spots in the rankings after an unspectacular performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 5. He managed only one assisted tackle in 39 snaps, and he had no quarterback pressures in 23 pass-rush snaps.
That said, Jenkins is not playing a position where he is expected to be a stat-sheet stuffer. He has been a very solid nose tackle in the middle of the Saints’ new 3-4 defensive scheme this season, and he has made more than his expected share of plays already this season.
The 6’3”, 359-pound massive yet quick nose tackle is a three-down difference-maker who should only get better as he gains experience and improves upon his conditioning.
14. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: No. 11
Pro Football Focus has not been a fan of Kenny Vaccaro from a statistical standpoint this season: With a minus-5.9 overall rating through five games, Vaccaro is tied for 73rd among all NFL safeties who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps this season. Those numbers may not quite capture the impact Vaccaro has made on the Saints’ improving defense this year.
In a secondary that needed more stability, Vaccaro has played all but six snaps in New Orleans’ first five games (all Saints victories). He has recorded 29 total tackles, three passes defensed (one interception) and a sack.
He had a rough game in coverage against the Chicago Bears Sunday, though, as he was beat on four receptions for 82 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown by Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. That said, Vaccaro is a playmaker against both the pass and run who is going to be an integral piece of the Saints defense moving forward.
13. Kyle Long, RG, Chicago Bears
Last Week: No. 15
The aforementioned Week 5 struggles of New Orleans Saints nose tackle John Jenkins were at least in part due to the continued strong play of Chicago Bears right guard Kyle Long. While Long’s early season has had its ups and downs, he has continued to show star potential.
He had arguably his best game of his young career on Sunday, allowing no quarterback pressures to the Saints defense.
For a rookie guard who came into the NFL with less than one full season of major college football experience, Long has been as good as anyone could have expected him to be. If he continues to improve, the No. 20 overall pick, who was once thought to be a reach, will prove to be a great value.
12. Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: No. 14
Arguably the most polished receiving prospect in the 2013 draft class, Robert Woods has already established himself as a solid starter on the Bills offense. He has been especially good in the Bills’ past two games—against the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns—as he has led the Bills in receiving yards in both games with a combined nine receptions for 144 yards and one touchdown.
A sharp route-runner with great hands and impressive open-field quickness, Woods has quickly established rhythm in the Bills offense and has done a good job of getting open and making plays as an intermediate receiver in Buffalo. He has 16 receptions for 265 yards through his first five games.
Unfortunately, Woods could lose that rhythm due to EJ Manuel’s injury, as he will now have to acclimate himself to the play of Thad Lewis, Buffalo’s new starting quarterback. Nonetheless, Woods has been as reliable as any wide receiver in the NFL thus far this season.
11. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Last Week: No. 4
Although he still leads all rookies with 22 receptions and 293 receiving yards, DeAndre Hopkins’ Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign has lost steam over the past two weeks.
The best way to stop a big, physical receiver like Hopkins is to beat him at his own game, and both the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have done that with tough press coverage in the past two weeks. As a result, Hopkins has caught just two passes in each game for a combined total of 50 yards.
Not every team will be able to defend Hopkins as well as the Seahawks and 49ers, arguably the NFL’s two best defenses. That said, those teams may be providing a blueprint for the rest of the NFL regarding how to shut the rookie receiver down.
Hopkins is going to need to take advantage of his ability to get open with strong routes and make plays on the ball through coverage to overcome these defensive adjustments. If he does, he could return to making big plays like he did in the first three games of his career.
10. Alec Ogletree, OLB, St. Louis Rams
Last Week: No. 7
Alec Ogletree has been a big playmaker for the Rams defense this season, but his Week 5 performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars—argued by most to be the NFL’s worst team—was disappointing.
While he continued to make plays on the stat sheet, notching a tackle for loss and a pass deflection, he had a season-low five tackles and a season-worst PFF grade of minus-2.7. He was credited with a season-high three missed tackles and continued to be inconsistent in coverage, allowing four receptions for 38 yards.
Ogletree has been a big-play defender for the Rams this season, with a very impressive stat line of 36 tackles, three pass defenses, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles through five games. That said, inconsistent angles in both tackling and coverage continue to plague his game.
9. Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
Last Week: No. 21
Geno Smith’s first five games have been typical of a rookie quarterback—up and down—but the New York Jets signal-caller is certainly riding an upswing after leading the Jets to a Monday Night Football victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
He threw accurate strikes throughout the game and showed impressive poise and composure, especially when he led a game-winning field-goal drive in the game’s final two minutes.
Smith has still thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven) through five games, but his three-touchdown, zero-interception performance on Monday was his best game of the season. He also pushed his completion percentage on the season above the 60 percent mark in the win.
With EJ Manuel sidelined due to injury, Smith could emerge as the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year if he continues to make big plays and put the Jets in position to win.
8. Caleb Sturgis, K, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: No. 5
Caleb Sturgis extended his streak of successful field goals to start his NFL career to 19 by nailing his first three kicks of the game on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
However, he failed to extend that streak to 20 on his final field-goal attempt of Sunday’s game, and it cost the Dolphins a chance at overtime.
Missing only one field goal in five weeks is a great start to an NFL career, but his first miss was a bad one.
With less than a minute remaining in the game, Sturgis had an opportunity to tie the game on a 57-yard field goal. Missing from that distance should always be understandable, but the problem with Sturgis’ kick was that it would not have even been good from 37 yards out—he never even came close to the uprights and completely shanked the kick wide left.
Sturgis’ career is off to an otherwise great start, including makes on 37-, 25- and 48-yard field goal attempts Sunday. He must bounce back confidently after missing the most important kick of his young NFL career.
7. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: No. 10
Even though he saw action in less than half of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps versus the New England Patriots on Sunday, he led the Bengals in yards from scrimmage for the second consecutive week in their 13-6 victory over New England.
Bernard did not have exceptional numbers, but his 62 rushing yards on 13 carries and two catches for seven yards were enough to make him the Bengals’ most successful offensive player on Sunday. His performance included a 28-yard rushing conversion on a 3rd-and-15, which sparked the Bengals’ only touchdown drive of the game.
Bernard needs to become a more consistent yards-gainer—excluding the 28-yard run, Bernard averaged less than three yards on his other 14 touches—but he has proven to be an explosive and important playmaker for the Cincinnati offense.
He has 338 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on 59 total touches through five games.
6. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: No. 6
After a truly dominant start to his rookie season, Star Lotulelei’s play was more underwhelming in the Carolina Panthers’ 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
Lotulelei has been an impact player as a gap-filler and when bringing pressure up the middle, and he still grades out as PFF’s 12th-best defensive tackle with a 7.5 overall grade. However, there have been a number of other defensive players who have made bigger impacts on their defenses than Lotulelei.
5. Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: No. 9
The San Francisco 49ers can continue to say "Dashon Goldson who?" when examining their play at free safety because Eric Reid has been one of the NFL’s best rookies this season. He has been a coverage upgrade over Goldson, who was an AP All-Pro last season, while also providing the big hits in run support that Goldson did.
Reid continued to shine against the Texans on Sunday, coming up with eight total tackles and his fourth pass defensed of the season. He did allow three passes to be completed against him for 27 yards, but he did not get burned for any big plays. He also had some key stops and hits, both around the line of scrimmage and on the back end.
He has only allowed 0.39 yards per coverage snap this season, as he has been the most reliable and impactful player in the 49ers secondary.
4. Larry Warford, RG, Detroit Lions
Last Week: No. 8
While two other guards were top-10 draft selections this year, the Detroit Lions look like they got one of the best values of the 2013 draft when they landed Larry Warford with the No. 65 overall pick.
Detroit’s new right guard has been exceptional through five weeks of his first NFL season. He has allowed no sacks and just two quarterback pressures on 214 pass-blocking snaps, and he has already been a strong run blocker.
Warford has the fourth-best PFF grade (8.4) among all NFL guards this season.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, FS/CB, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: No. 3
Tyrann Mathieu has already shown that he can impact the game in a wide variety of ways, from making plays on the ball in the air to attacking as a blitzer. The Arizona Cardinals drafted Mathieu with the No. 69 overall selection looking for a defensive playmaker, and that’s what he has been.
In Arizona’s win on Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers, Mathieu excelled in his ability to blitz from the slot corner position and bring pressure. He had three total quarterback pressures, including one sack, on just six pass-rushing snaps.
Meanwhile, he also played well in coverage, allowing just two receptions for 13 yards. He has been inconsistent in pass coverage this year, but when he is solid in that capacity and making big plays in one area or another, he is a big asset to the Cardinals secondary.
Through five games this season, Mathieu has 34 total tackles (33 solo) and one interception, forced fumble, pass deflection and sack apiece.
2. Sheldon Richardson, DE/DT, New York Jets
Last Week: No. 2
No rookie has made more plays relative to his playing time on the field than New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who has been a consistent impact player as a penetrator at the line of scrimmage.
Richardson’s outstanding play continued with his five tackles, two tackles for loss (one sack) and one pass deflection against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. On many other plays where he did not record a statistic, he penetrated the line of scrimmage, occupied blockers and created open lanes through which his teammates could make plays.
Richardson has been putting up statistics in rare fashion for a rookie interior defensive lineman this season, already compiling 24 total tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss (2.5 sacks) through five games. He has 10 total quarterback pressures, yet his PFF grade of 10.5 overall, which ranks fourth best among all 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL this season, is built largely upon the strength of his run defense.
1. Kiko Alonso, ILB, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: No. 1
No rookie has made a bigger impact on his team this season than Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. The second-round pick has played all 398 snaps on the Bills defense this season and has immediately emerged as the star of a defense that includes many high-profile players.
Alonso has made no shortage of big plays already this season.
His four interceptions are tied for the most among all NFL players. He has three tackles for loss (one sack), one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. His Troy Polamalu-esque blitz and tackle for loss against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5—where Alonso blitzed in from the second level of the defense and perfectly timed a leap over the line of scrimmage to blow up a Willis McGahee run in the backfield—was a big goal-line stop that likely otherwise would have been a touchdown.
Alonso makes plays all over the field and ranks ninth in the NFL through five weeks with 44 total tackles. An asset in both pass and run defense, PFF grades Alonso as the NFL’s second-best inside linebacker through two weeks with a grade of 8.5 overall.
He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September and could be locked in a dogfight with Sheldon Richardson all year long for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He gets the edge in these rankings because he has been able to sustain his terrific play while not missing a snap yet this season.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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