Bleacher Report's NFL All-Rookie Team Predictions
The countdown has almost reached zero.
In one day, the 2014 NFL season begins.
It's been a long offseason, a hot summer filled with unimaginable horrors. Baseball. Tennis. Golf.
The dawn of a new season also brings with it the beginning of the NFL careers of a new crop of rookies, from Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.
Many of those first-year players will struggle. Some, however, will shine.
The Bleacher Report national lead and division lead writers recently gathered to take a stab at forecasting which newcomers will hit the ground running as professionals.
Here are their predictions for the 2014 NFL All-Rookie team.
Winner: Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (10 votes)
A couple of months ago, Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars might not have received a single vote here.
Rookies Johnny Manziel of the Cleveland Browns and Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings were expected to make strong pushes to start for their respective teams. Meanwhile, the Jaguars' coaching staff made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of starting Bortles as a rookie.
Someone forgot to tell Bortles.
Now, after a fantastic performance in the preseason, Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey believes a change of plans is in order:
In the end, it's a fool's errand to weigh the pros and cons of starting Bortles instead of sitting him. He's one of the best 22 football players on your team. Start him. He's your best quarterback. Start him. He's your quarterback of the future, yes, but he's also the most qualified to be the quarterback of your present.
Bortles may not start Week 1, but if the past few weeks are any indication, it's not going to be long before he does.
Others receiving votes: Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings (four votes); Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns (one vote)
Winners: Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers (14 votes); Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons (seven votes)
Not long ago, it was normal to see a couple of running backs drafted in the first round. Often, those running backs would be handed the keys to the ground game immediately.
In each of the past two seasons, however, no running backs were drafted in the first round. When the 2014 season gets underway, there will be a grand total of zero rookies serving as the lead back for their teams.
Still, as we saw with Zac Stacy of the St. Louis Rams last year, just because a first-year back doesn't start the season atop the depth chart doesn't mean he can't make a big impact.
Our experts went with a pair of youngsters who are playing behind aging veterans as their All-Rookie selections in the backfield.
For Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons, only an injury to starter Steven Jackson stands between Freeman and significant carries.
This is the same Steven Jackson who was banged up most of last year and missed much of training camp and the preseason.
According to Rana Cash of Sporting News, the situation is a bit different in San Francisco:
(Frank) Gore rushed for 1,128 yards last season, with only eight other backs gaining more. The 49ers are hardly panicked with such a solid No. 1 who hasn't yet shown signs of deterioration. But looking long term, they’d be wise to groom Hyde to take over.
However, Gore is 31, and running backs coach Tom Rathman admitted to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle that it's important to manage Gore's workload this year:
“We need to manage him,” Rathman said. “We need to keep him (fresh) from Week 1 to the Super Bowl. So that’s going to be the biggest challenge. He’s ready to go, and he’s right where he needs to be.”
That could mean more than a little work for Hyde even if Gore stays healthy, behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines.
Others receiving votes: Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans (five votes); Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals (three votes); Terrance West, Cleveland Browns (one vote); Andre Williams, New York Giants (one vote)
Winners: Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions (14 votes); Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (eight votes)
Frankly, the odds are against any rookie tight end making a huge impact in 2014. It's a position that brings with it a fairly steep learning curve, and even superstars such as Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots had relatively quiet first years in the league.
However, if any player from the 2014 class is going to buck that trend, it's probably going to be Eric Ebron of the Detroit Lions or Austin Seferian-Jenkins of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The reason is simple: opportunity.
Both youngsters will see plenty of playing time for their respective teams. The Buccaneers apparently thought enough of Seferian-Jenkins to trade Tim Wright to the New England Patriots last week.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford talked the rookie up while speaking with Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune:
“He's a big guy who can run," Tedford said. “Austin has excellent hands, and he's done a really nice job at the line of scrimmage blocking as well. He brings a lot to the table for us.''
Meanwhile, Pat Caputo of CBS Detroit mentioned Ebron as a key piece of the Lions offense in 2014:
The idea with the Lions’ offense, under first-year coordinator Joe Lombardi, is to stretch the field to the sidelines and deep, and open up the middle for seam routes. Ebron was the 10th overall pick in the NFL Draft and has exceptional athleticism for his size. He was drafted, to a large degree, because of his ability to get deep on seam routes.
Ebron had an up-and-down camp, but in a loaded Detroit offense, Ebron should be able to get open with regularity in Motown in 2014.
Others receiving votes: Jace Amaro, New York Jets (four votes); Richard Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (two votes); Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (one vote); C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston Texans (one vote)
Winners: Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints (13 votes); Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills (six votes)
The 2014 class at the wide receiver position was as loaded as any in recent memory. Eight wide receivers were selected among the top 50 picks.
However, as talented as the class may have been, it's still rare for a first-year wideout to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Last year's big season from Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers was much more exception than rule.
When it comes to Bleacher Report's All-Rookie picks at the position, it's a combination of talent and opportunity.
Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills was the first wide receiver selected in 2014, a player the Buffalo Bills wanted badly enough to trade next year's first-rounder to Cleveland so they could move up.
No one is questioning Watkins' ability, but the youngster has battled a rib injury this summer and plays for a team with an uncertain situation under center that led the NFL in rushing attempts last year.
However, if Watkins' situation is iffy, Brandin Cooks' is phenomenal.
He's one of those guys who wants to be a great football player. You can see it in his eyes when he comes over to you, 'Tell me more. Tell me more.' ... He already has the wiring of a pro who just wants to come in and do things the right way.
Cooks showed a good rapport with Brees in camp and the preseason. If that carries over into games that count, then Cooks has an excellent shot at leading all rookies in receiving yards this year.
Others receiving votes: Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers (five votes); Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (two votes); Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles (two votes); Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars (two votes)
Winners: Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons (13 votes); Seantrel Henderson, Buffalo Bills (nine votes)
The Bleacher Report All-Rookie picks at offensive tackle don't just form bookends for our hypothetical line.
They were also bookends of a sort at the position in the NFL draft.
Jake Matthews of the Atlanta Falcons was a top-10 pick, an All-American slated to start from day one at right tackle. Those plans changed when the Falcons lost Sam Baker for the season, and now Matthews will be charged with protecting Matt Ryan's blind side.
Seantrel Henderson's road to the NFL was much rockier.
When he arrived at the University of Miami, Henderson was one of the most highly touted lineman prospects in years. But, after a disappointing collegiate career, the monstrous 6'8", 345-pounder very nearly went undrafted.
The Buffalo Bills took a flier on Henderson in the seventh round. Since arriving in Western New York, Henderson has looked every bit the phenom that the Hurricanes thought they were getting.
Head coach Doug Marrone was effusive in his praise for Henderson while speaking with Chris Brown of the team's website:
He’s a bright kid. He’s smart. His work ethic is outstanding. He’s been everything that people obviously didn’t say about him when he was coming out which is why we were able to get him in the seventh round.
I think he understands that and there are periods in time when people can change and one of them is when you go from college into this league. He understands that.
We have to do everything we can to not only keep him progressing on the field, but off the field. He is a very talented football player and there’s no telling how good he can be.
If Henderson continues to progress and realizes his massive potential, he and left tackle Cordy Glenn could form the foundation for the Bills' offensive line for years to come.
Others receiving votes: Justin Britt, Seattle Seahawks (five votes); Ja'Wuan James, Miami Dolphins (two votes); Greg Robinson, St. Louis Rams (one vote)
Winners: Greg Robinson, St. Louis Rams (12 votes); Xavier Su'a-Filo, Houston Texans (seven votes)
Auburn's Greg Robinson was the second overall pick in May's NFL draft, a ridiculously powerful and athletic run-blocking tackle who helped power the Tigers to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
However, Robinson is also a raw prospect, and the Rams are pretty well off at tackle, so it appeared early on that the 332-pound Robinson would begin his NFL career as an interior lineman.
St. Louis offensive line coach Paul Boudreau told Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com that some time at guard may actually help Robinson's growth as a tackle:
If you put a tackle in at guard, they learn to use their hands a lot better than when they play tackle. Tackle you can leave your hands down by your side for a while. Orlando (Pace) used to come out and never use his left hand until he had to.
At guard, they’re on you right now, you better use your hands so in the long run it’s going to help him use his hands faster, a lot better and more efficient.
However, now it looks like Robinson may start off as a "swing" tackle and line depth. According to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robinson is listed on the team's latest depth chart as the backup at both left guard and tackle.
That isn't going to make it any easier for Robinson to live up to his selection here, but as the season progresses and injuries start to strike, Robinson's still a good bet to see plenty of action.
Meanwhile, UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo also saw his NFL progress slow down a bit due to a late arrival to camp courtesy of UCLA's quarters system. But head coach Bill O'Brien lauded Su'a-Filo's mental approach to the game while speaking with Drew Dougherty of HoustonTexans.com.
“He is a smart guy," O'Brien said. "He’s a bright guy. He’s an instinctive player. There is a lot being thrown at him right now, especially with our system and all the different run schemes, protections and cadences."
J.J. Watt is being thrown at him in practices too, which will either make the youngster better in a hurry or give him PTSD.
Others receiving votes: Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns (five votes); Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (four votes); Trai Turner, Carolina Panthers (one vote); Jack Mewhort, Indianapolis Colts (one vote)
Winner: Weston Richburg, New York Giants (12 votes)
For many years, the New York Giants had one of the NFL's better offensive lines. It helped power the team to a pair of Super Bowl wins.
However, that line has gotten old and more than a little leaky, so the Giants looked to bolster it by selecting Weston Richburg in the second round of May's NFL draft.
Richburg has played all over the New York line in the exhibition season, and head coach Tom Coughlin told Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com that may well continue into the regular season:
We are not stuck with anything. As I said, just because five guys trot out there doesn't mean that's the starting unit. What we are doing is we are trying to introduce, for example, Weston Richburg played guard, center, right guard, left guard, and he did so last night. We are looking at all of those things.
Sure enough, while the former Colorado State standout is our panel's pick at center, the Giants' most recent depth chart lists him as the starter at left guard.
Others receiving votes: Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers (two votes); Travis Swanson, Detroit Lions (one vote)
Winners: Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (nine votes); Kony Ealy (eight votes)
There are certain constants on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. It will be aggressive. Blitzers will come from any number of angles.
And rookies don't start.
The times are a-changing in the Steel City though, as in addition to inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is also set for a big role in his first NFL season.
That's largely because, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told Mike Prisuta of the team's website, Tuitt doesn't look like a rookie on the field:
He’s an exceptional athlete for his size, and he can run. Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I’m surprised at his endurance and his speed and quickness. I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that.
Now, does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No, it doesn’t. There are a lot of other things that come in there. But he seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills.
Kony Ealy of the Carolina Panthers, on the other hand, may not play as much early. Those are the breaks when you're stuck behind a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber ends in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.
Still, Rob Rang of CBSSports.com believes there's room for Ealy to make a rookie impact:
Expect head coach Ron Rivera to take advantage of Ealy's versatility, lining him up not only at end but sliding him inside to defensive tackle in obvious passing situations. Ealy was deployed in his fashion at Missouri and boasts the length, agility and awareness to complement run-stuffers Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
It would appear our voters agree.
Others receiving votes: Larry Webster, Detroit Lions (four votes); Scott Crichton, Minnesota Vikings (four votes); DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys (two votes); Kareem Martin, Arizona Cardinals (two votes); Ed Stinson, Arizona Cardinals (one vote)
Winners: Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams (15 votes); Dominique Easley, New England Patriots (nine votes)
We have our first unanimous All-Rookie selection!
Frankly, I could go on and on about St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. His quickness off the snap has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Donald tallied a staggering 28.5 tackles for loss last year at Pitt.
The addition of Donald to an already loaded St. Louis defensive front has some drawing comparisons between this unit and the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" line of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Donald was quick to throw cold water on that notion while speaking with Cedric Williams of CBS New York:
I don’t know about that. I still need to play my first game. I don’t even really feel like a pro yet. That probably won’t happen until I play my first game. I’m excited. I can’t wait. I think we can be really good. I just want to do my part.
Donald was universally considered the top defensive tackle prospect in the 2014 NFL draft, but had Florida's Dominique Easley not torn his ACL last year that may not have been the case.
Still, the Patriots were enamored enough with Easley's talents to draft him at the end of the first round, and it was a pick that met with the approval of the NFL Network's Mike Mayock:
He was a top 30 pick until he tore his ACL in September. He's quick and explosive. A lot of people felt like he was going to drop because of the ACL. This is a typical Bill Belichick pick. The Patriots needed defensive linemen and this kid is gifted.
Our experts approved as well.
Others receiving votes: Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore Ravens (three votes); Will Sutton, Chicago Bears (two votes); Louis Nix, Houston Texans (one vote)
Winners: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans (14 votes); Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders (13 votes)
It feels like the write-up for this vote should be subcontracted to Captain Obvious.
In fact, if there's anything surprising about our panel's selection of Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack as the All-Rookie outside linebackers, it's that the vote wasn't unanimous.
After all, Clowney was the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and the most hyped pass-rusher to enter the NFL in years.
In fact, when ESPN Insider Mike Sando (subscription required) recently built a hypothetical NFL franchise, Clowney was among the first 10 players he tabbed for his "Dream Team."
Mack didn't enter the 2013 season with the hype Clowney did, but after tallying over 100 tackles and logging double-digit sacks for the University of Buffalo, the Raiders made Mack the fifth overall pick in May.
Mack didn't have an especially good camp or preseason, but head coach Dennis Allen told ESPN.com's Bill Williamson he isn't the least bit concerned:
I guess people are worried about it. I’m not worried about it. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us. Yeah, he’s still a rookie and there are still a lot of things that he has to learn and every day is a new learning experience for him, but he’s continuing to get better. We’re going to increase his role and do some different things with him.
Our panelists aren't worried either.
Others receiving votes: Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs (two votes); Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings (one vote)
Winners: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers (16 votes); C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens (10 votes)
Yes, you read that right. Ryan Shazier got more votes than there are voters. Yet he wasn't a unanimous pick. Two voters are so enamored with the former Ohio State star that they voted for Shazier twice.
It may well be that they saw Shazier's preseason debut, where he notched nine solo tackles and intercepted a pass in a half against the Buffalo Bills.
What really stands out when watching Shazier play next to Lawrence Timmons (who's no slouch himself) is just how much faster Shazier is. Simply put, the kid can fly.
Shazier is joined inside on the All-Rookie team by Alabama's C.J. Mosley, whom the Ravens drafted in the first round in May.
After whiffing with the Arthur Brown pick a year ago, the Ravens are hopeful that Mosley can fill Ray Lewis' shoes at WILB.
After watching Mosley in camp, teammate Elvis Dumervil told Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun that he thinks Mosley is up to the task:
It shows the front office made a good decision. C.J. is humble and ready to work and he's making plays. It's expected from him. This is a start. He wants to do it, and that's where it starts.
For his part, Mosley is taking things in stride. "I'm not taking nothing for granted," Mosley said. "I'm an even-keel kind of guy. I’m just making my mark."
Our voters expect that mark to be significant in 2014.
Others receiving votes: Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns (two votes); Preston Brown, Buffalo Bills (one vote); Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars (one vote)
Winners: Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns (eight votes); (TIE)—Jason Verrett, San Diego Chargers; Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears (seven votes each)
The cornerback position was the closest vote on the All-Rookie team. It's easy to see why, as the 2014 draft class was loaded at the position.
Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, whom the Cleveland Browns selected after moving back in the first round of May's draft, was the panel's top choice.
It's not at all unusual for rookie cornerbacks to struggle in their first season, and Browns head coach Mike Pettine said (via Lindsay Jones of USA Today) the youngster still has a lot of learning to do.
"He needs to test his limits more," Pettine said.
There was a tie for our second cornerback spot, with Jason Verrett of the San Diego Chargers and Kyle Fuller of the Chicago Bears each garnering seven votes.
Of all these youngsters Fuller has one unique advantage in that he gets to study under not one but two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
Both rookies will likely function as the nickel corners for their teams in 2014, and given how much time teams spend in that formation in today's pass-happy NFL, that should equate to plenty of playing time.
In fact, we'll run some nickel here and leave both on the team.
Others receiving votes: Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati Bengals (six votes); Bradley Roby, Denver Broncos (two votes)
Winners: Calvin Pryor, New York Jets (10 votes); Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers (nine votes)
It may not have been intentional, but our panelists have provided us with a true free-safety/strong-safety lineup at safety.
In center field, we have Alabama's Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, whom the Packers selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
As Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, safeties coach Darren Perry likes what he's seen from Clinton-Dix so far, while allowing that the youngster still has a lot to learn:
He’s a talented player. But he’s still learning. Until you get it all figured out, you’re not going to be as fast reacting and seeing things as you like to. But that will come in time.
Again, we’re not overreacting. It’s one game. He’s done some good things and he’s got some things we’ve got to clean up. We’ve got to keep improving and that will come in time.
In fact, Clinton-Dix has so much to learn that Micah Hyde will open the season as the starter for the Packers. However, the Packers didn't spend a first-round pick looking for a spectator, so Clinton-Dix should usurp Hyde soon enough.
For our All-Rookie enforcer, the panel chose hard-hitting Louisville safety Calvin Pryor. As Dom Cosentino of NJ.com reports, Pryor earned the highest grade among NFL safeties in the preseason from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Sure, it's only the preseason, but it beats coming in last.
Others receiving votes: Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers (five votes); Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals (four votes); Brock Vereen, Chicago Bears (one vote); Lamarcus Joyner, St. Louis Rams (one vote)
Winner: De'Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs (12 votes)
At just 5'9" and 169 pounds, De'Anthony Thomas is the latest in a long line of diminutive running backs from the University of Oregon.
Diminutive running backs who run like a deer.
Thomas' ability to do damage in the open field was evident on an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason, and teammate Richard Gordon recently told The Oregonian that high gear may be the only gear Thomas has.
"He can't do walk-throughs," Gordon said about Thomas. "He can't walk-through, everything is run. Everything. No walk-through. ... He'll run the route every time. I don't think he can slow down."
That could portend a role that includes more than just returns for Thomas, especially since the Chiefs lost Swiss Army knife Dexter McCluster to free agency this year.
Others receiving votes: Dri Archer, Pittsburgh Steelers (two votes), Josh Huff, Philadelphia Eagles (one vote)