There have been some amazing rookie performances so far this season and it’s time to revisit the draft. Some of those young guys have exceeded expectations, while others have yet to play up to their potential or simply haven’t seen the field much as of now. You can never really tell how good your investment will be after just a couple of weeks, but I wanted to list my top 20 rookies at this point. Here they are:
1. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
You have to go with Hunt right now. He burst onto the scene like nobody ever in the season-opener. After fumbling on his first career carry, he went on to set the all-time record in yards from scrimmage for any player debut that game and has recorded more than 100 yards in each game of the season. His combination of burst, power and quickness have made him a force on the ground and in the air, leading all RBs rushing yards and adding another 255 yards receiving. Third-round rookies aren’t supposed to do what he has done already, but I guess he just doesn’t know any better. I already had him penciled in on all my fantasy teams when still expected to back up Spencer Ware, but when that guy went down in the preseason, people just jumped on the hype train and they have been rewarded.
2. DeShaun Watson, Clemson
The Texans traded up in the draft to select Watson 12th overall as their quarterback of the future and had veteran Tom Savage start the season-opener. It only took about a half for them to point to the young gun and hand him the job. After Bill O’Brien officially named him the starter in a short week and he figured things out versus the Bengals, he has taken off like no rookie QB I’ve seen maybe ever. He went blow for blow with Tom Brady in New England in week three and right now leads all NFL players in total touchdowns. He just looks so comfortable and poised. More like a ten-year vet than a rookie.
3. Jamal Adams, LSU
When LSU coaches tell scouts that a player is the best leader they have ever had, I listen. When that guy comes to a team, which is expected to win no more than two or three games, and they play with an energy-level I haven’t seen in years, I believe. The Jets were ecstatic when they were on the clock with the sixth overall pick in April and Adams was still available. A tone-setting strong safety with 4.33 speed (pro day measurements) and the ability to play all over the field is already an unbelievable addition, but when that guy takes over the locker-room and gets your troops to play that hard, that’s a true franchise player.
4. Jonathan Allen, Alabama
My biggest area of concern for the Redskins heading into the offseason was the defensive line, but they got the steal of the draft in Jonathan Allen. I had the Alabama monster ranked as the second-best overall prospect in the entire draft, but concerns about his “arthritic shoulder” led to him dropping all the way to the seventeenth pick. So far, I haven’t seen any problems with his shoulders, as he has completely whooped O-linemen across from him, both controlling them at the point of attack in the run game and pushing the pocket. I was so impressed when he beat up a Pro Bowl guard’s ass when facing Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele.
5. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette has absolutely been a human sledgehammer. The Jaguars have fed the fourth overall plenty, as he is just four attempts behind Le’Veon Bell, who is first in terms of carries, and second behind only the guy who’s number one on this list, with just under 100 yards per game on the ground. What you forget when watching him plow through defenders at 230 pounds is the fact he has sprinter speed and according to Next Gen Stats he has recorded the highest mph in game action so far this season. Fournette also has amassed 15 catches for 136 yards after being questioned about his hands and receiving skills. By far my favorite moment of his rookie campaign was when he basically summoned Steelers safety Mike Mitchell during a run, after that guy was brawling to the rookie all game.
6. Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker certainly still has to clean up his tackling, but he is just a ball magnet with three INTs already. Coming into the draft, I had the Ohio State stud as my clear-cut number one free safety, because of his unbelievable range and ability to make a play on the ball. Like I said, he’s not yet a perfect last line of defense yet, because of his struggles to bring down the guy with the ball consistently, but Indy doesn’t ask him to come off the high spot and tackle very often. I have seen him do a better job at squaring up his targets in one-on-one situations though and if he keeps making it a priority, he’ll grow into one of the greats at that position.
7. Solomon Thomas, Stanford
What jumps off the page about Thomas is the explosiveness and motor he shows. With 23 tackles and two sacks he has some numbers to back up the impact he’s had, but the effort he puts in doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. What I like about his game is how he gets into the frame of his blocker in the run game and strings out ball-carriers. He has proven to be a perfect compliment to those two big guys from Oregon on the inside with a different body-build. The Stanford alumni is only 21 years old and even though he was a completed product coming out of college, he will only get better with NFL coaching.
8. Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
First and foremost, Lattimore has outstanding change-of-direction skills. He really impressed me versus Brandin Cooks in week two, staying glued to that guy despite the rest of the Saints D struggling. Not only do I like his swagger, has shown me much better effort at getting off his block and tackling the ball-carrier. He’s already the best corner in New Orleans and will be their number one guy going forward for a long time. Lattimore has only made the highlight reel last week with a pick-six, but outside of that he has shown me the potential to be a shutdown corner in this league, which the Saints haven’t had since … I can’t even come up with a name on the spot.
9. Tre’Davious White, LSU
The most important trait White has shown me, is the ability to move on to the next play and not get frustrated. Versus Denver he and his running mate E.J. Gaines got schooled early on by Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, but as the game went along, the Bills corners stepped up in a major way, knocking down passes and coming up with an INT each. White has already collected 11 pass deflections and returned a fumble for a touchdown. He dropped a couple of spots for me in these rankings due to the fact Cincy’s A.J. Green absolutely burned him on a couple of occasions in week five, but that guy is a top three receiver when healthy and White is still a rookie. Let’s keep some perspective.
10. Jarrad Davis, Florida
When I watched this guy’s tape at Florida, I thought he had a different kind of thump to his hits. Something that reminded a bit of a young Ray Lewis to be honest. Unfortunately his injury history made me drop him quite a few spots in pre-draft rankings, but without that risk I might have moved him up all the way to the number two LB in his class (behind Reuben Foster of course). Those health concerns already came into play as Davis has missed weeks three and four, but in those other games he has been everything advertised. He struggled to some degree in the season-opener with David Johnson running routes out of the backfield, but he will control the middle of this Detroit defense in the future.
11. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
After missing the first quarter of the season, Garrett already has three sacks in just two games, with number one of them coming on his first ever snap in the NFL. He just looks and plays like a first overall pick. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong and there’s nothing I can really point to and say he’s not good at it. The Texas A&M edge-rusher will only rise on this list because I clearly him as the top prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft as well. He just needs to do it with more playing time and continue to shine, as I predicted him to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
12. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
38 carries for 104 yards on the ground don’t sound good at all, but Jonathan Stewart averages less than three yards for the Panthers at this point as well. Last Thursday night the Eagles just blew the running backs up every single time they were handed the ball and Carolina’s ground game simply hasn’t been very impressive so far. Yet McCaffrey has found a way to make an impact for this squad, as he leads all players at his position with 37 catches already. The Panthers utilize Run CMC as a receiver out of the backfield on out- and texas-routes, but also in the slot and out wide. He even was the target off a pick-play against Philly on a fourth-and-short to extend that game, which shows you the confidence the coaching staff has in the young guy.
13. T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
The rookie out of Wisconsin really made a name in preseason with a bunch of splash plays and while he hasn’t quite been able to keep those up, he has still popped off the screen a time and time again. At this point he has filled the stat sheet pretty good with three sacks, five tackles for loss, an interception and four more passes defensed. Not only does he get after the passer and chases plays from the backside like crazy, he has done an excellent job dropping into coverage and taking away areas of the field. Now with older brother J.J. out for the remainder of the season, all eyes are on the rookie to help the name Watt come up on the scoreboard, as Chargers full-back Derek does more of the dirty work.
14. Pat Elflein, Ohio State
Elflein has stepped right in at center for the Vikings and has excelled at that spot. The free agent signings of Riley Reiff and T.J. have proven to be vital for Minnesota, but make no mistake – Elflein has been a huge piece to their transformation up front. He has a tremendous base to absorb blows and stand in there with his man in protection and does an excellent job at working the zone game, creating movement at the point of attack and handing off his responsibility to latch onto the next defender. I just really like the former Buckeye when he’s on the move, especially on screen passes. Maybe the Vikes will feature his athleticism as a puller at some point too, like he did at Ohio State.
15. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
I know Sean Payton and Adrian Peterson aren’t best buddies or anything, but you don’t trade away a future Hall-of-Famer for virtually nothing if you don’t love what you have at that position already, but that’s exactly what it is. They just love Alvin Kamara and want to get him the rock. I had the rookie out of Tennessee rated as an early second-rounder, but he lasted until the third before the Saints put an end to the madness. Kamara is supremely talented with tremendous burst, elusiveness and receiving skills. New Orleans has used the versatile rookie as a runner and receiver, simply finding ways to put the ball in his hands and letting him create. He’s most dangerous in the screen game, on delayed handoffs from the shotgun or simply matched up against linebackers in coverage.
16. Josh Jones, N.C. State
As far a true box-safeties go, Jones has been the best among the rookie class so far. The Packers haven’t asked him to cover speedy slot receivers in man-coverage, but he has excelled in what his job responsibility has been – which is stopping the run and blitzing on passing downs. Jones’ athleticism is off the charts and with the year going on, Green Bay will let the rook develop and be able to use all of those traits to his advantage. I mean he’s 220 pounds, can disguise coverages and ran a 4.41 at that weight. That’s just freakish stuff when you see the physical brand of football he plays. The Packers are just scratching his surface and they will figure out how to work him into their scheme.
17. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
The Texans have suffered some tremendous losses to their defense with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus out for the year, but the suspension of Brian Cushing hasn’t been felt that heavily, because of the rookie stepping in for him. I had Cunningham rated as a first-round prospect, but scouts around the league were split on him and he ended up dropping to the second. The rookie has outstanding length for the inside-linebacker position, a knack for the football and much better sideline-to-sideline speed than a lot of people anticipated. With all the time Cushing has missed in recent years, having Cunningham take over that spot soon will pay huge dividends for Houston.
18. Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T
Despite having a workhorse like Jordan Howard ahead of him, the rookie out of A&T has touched the ball 76 times for a total of 384 yards. The “human joystick” has been thrilling to watch, as he has no problem stringing runs the outside, before cutting them back all the way across the field. While that has resulted in a bunch of negative plays, once Cohen gets into the open-field he is electric. I’m not sure if there’s a linebacker right now, who can bring down the 5’6’’ guy in one-on-one situations on a consistent basis. Those numbers I brought up just now, don’t include his passing TD versus the Ravens last Sunday or all of the 74 yard-touchdown in OT versus the Steelers, where he was later ruled out of bounds (for some reason?) around the opposing 30. Watch that play (LINK !!) to understand the speed and quickness this little guy possesses.
19. Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
I was a huge fan of Kupp coming into the draft process and he quickly made a name for himself with an excellent performance at the Senior Bowl. His numbers at the combine were mediocre and many NFL teams doubted his long speed. While he might not be a real burner, the Eastern Washington kid is quick out of breaks, runs crisp routes and usually has very sure hands. That brings me to the point why I couldn’t put him any higher as of now. The rookie had the game versus Seahawks in his hands, extending for a perfectly thrown ball into the end-zone, but he dropped it. I don’t want to be too harsh about it, but with that on my mind and a steady decrease in targets and catches over the last three weeks, I had to put him a little lower than I probably would have done back after week four.
20. Evan Engram, Ole Miss
I had high hopes for Engram joining the Giants, as I predicted him to be in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year and while nobody really talks about him, his numbers aren’t sloppy at all. In the first six weeks, he has caught 24 passes for 282 yards and two TDs. Outside of a disappointing outing versus the Chargers, who have been surprisingly tough against tight-ends this year (see: Travis Kelce with one catch for one yard against them), the former Rebel has yet to record less than four catch and 44 receiving yards. I expect the G-Men to feature the rookie more heavily going forward with all the injuries to their wide receivers and having his best game against the Broncos last Sunday night was already a good sign.
Just missed the cut:
Carl Lawson, Auburn
In my pre-draft top 100 board I had Lawson on the brink from second to third round, but he fell to the fourth and has been a huge steal so far. Injury concerns forced him to drop that far, but I believe sometimes teams just put too much focus on a guy’s history if he’s a risky investment. In the end you never know for sure what you get in a college player, you can only take a well-thought gamble. That guy is explosive and really powerful, but most importantly, he understands how to combine those two attributes when getting after the quarterback. The Bengals have used the former Auburn star more as a rotational pass-rusher, but he has been making his mark with 3.5 sacks and a bunch more hurries already.
Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
Coming from a well-schooled offensive line school, Ramczyk was asked to step right in at both tackle spots for the Saints when their two starting tackles missed time early on. Now with Terron Armstead back holding down the blindside and Zach Strief injured, the former Badger is penciled in on the right side and hasn’t really popped up with mistakes so far. In five starts he has allowed just one sack and committed one holding penalty. Considering the Saints planned on having him learn behind their vets before Strief calls it a career, he has held up really well.
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