It seemed only a year ago that I spoke of an admittedly pedestrian (in comparison to this year’s) draft class faltering down the final stretch. In 2011, the rookies don’t seem so much ready to hit the wall, as they are to explode right through it.
That’s made the Race for the Rookie of the Year (2011 edition) all the harder to write. There have been so many great performances across various positions that looking at the highlight reel plays of a quarterback just doesn’t cut it when making decisions any more. It’s partly for that reason I’ve championed less-heralded positions, where guys are playing to a higher level (relative to their peers at that spot), even if the position they play is less valuable.
That disclaimer, in this all-positions-created-equal mantra I’m trying to develop here, likely won’t save me from the usual abuse, but I’ve got to try, right? Here’s the Top 10 and then some, through Week 15.
1.  Von Miller, OLB, DEN: +55.0 (823 snaps)
A rare poor outing for Miller who looked far from impressive against a Patriots offensive line that neutralized him. I’ll wager you won’t see many games in his career where he fails to register any pressure. Given how good he’s been prior to Week 15, he’s still miles ahead of the competition.
2.  Aldon Smith, OLB, SF: +31.2 (446 snaps)
It’s something to ponder, but could Smith have challenged Miller if he was a player with an every-down role? Or have the 49ers maximized his potential by limiting him to nickel situations and not putting him in bad spots (against the run) where he might struggle? Even in limited snaps, he’s still earned our second-highest ranking for all 3-4 OLBs on his way to picking up stats that do justice to his performance.
3.  Tyron Smith, RT, DAL: +18.7 (944 snaps)
Yes, I know a right tackle isn’t more valuable than a quarterback. Yes, I’m also aware Tyron Smith stands about as much chance as I do of winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, I’m a believer that Smith is an All-Pro player given how he’s played this year–which isn’t something you can say about many rookies in this season or seasons gone by.
4.  Cam Newton, QB, CAR: +6.9 (967 snaps)
As great as Newton has been–and he has been great–the Panthers’ QB has been far from perfect. He’s made a plethora of rookie errors the guys above him haven’t. That’s not to do a disservice to Newton whose year has been simply remarkable. He simply needs to become a more consistent passer to be the player his highlight reel suggests he might be.
5.  A.J. Green, WR, CIN: +9.6 receiving (783 snaps)
I’d like Green better without those nine penalties he’s given up, but there’s no denying his talent, especially after he put up his fourth 100-yard game of the season. A creditable four drops on the year puts other rookies to shame.
6.  J.J Watt, DE, HST: +19.3 (713 snaps)
I’ve taken a lot of flak for putting Watt in ahead of others with better stats in previous weeks. What people fail to realize is playing as a 3-4 end you’re unlikely (unless you’re Justin Smith) to have the kind of stats that jump off the page. That said, Watt, who is fifth in our 3-4 end rankings, has picked-up an impressive 37 combined sacks, hits, and hurries, and is second only to Calais Campbell in terms of defensive stops at the position.
7.  Richard Sherman, CB, SEA: +9.3 (640 snaps)
How good is Sherman? He currently has our highest coverage grade for 2011 Quarterbacks are not afraid to test him and Sherman has been more than up to the challenge. He’s not the best cornerback in the league, but his play (that has seen him intercept three balls and break up another eight) has been sensational.
8.  Jurrell Casey, DT, TEN: +12.2 (557 snaps)
Casey is a guy I imagine a lot of people aren’t familiar with. He doesn’t find himself on many (if any) highlight reels, and he doesn’t have any gaudy sack stats. What he does do–as well as the best 4-3 defensive tackles–is disrupt an offenses’ rushing attack. Casey looks like he’ll be a good player for a very long time.
9.  Andy Dalton, QB, CIN: -5.4 (912 snaps)
Around midseason I figured Dalton, who was playing exceptionally well at the time, would take it up a notch and make a serious run in this race. He hasn’t to this point, but Dalton also hasn’t repeatedly put an excellent defense in bad spots. His biggest knock is that he’s been unable to rise to the challenge against the top teams (particularly in the AFC North).
10. [-] Jabaal Sheard, DE, CLE: +15.6 (847 snaps)
I’m a little unsure of Sheard. When he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s not, he’s just a guy who can play a lot of snaps. Essentially, what I’d like to see out of him are more consistent displays, though it wouldn’t hurt for the Browns to get him some help off the right side.
Doug Baldwin, WR, SEA: This is a tough move for Baldwin who has been a revelation this year. He is always in danger of dropping out when he plays such a relatively small percentage of snaps compared to others. With Mike Williams and Sidney Rice now on injured reserve, though, he could get more chances to close out 2011.
Five To Watch
Kyle Rudolph, TE, MIN: I won’t lie, I’m excited as a fan of tight ends to see if Rudolph, with more playing time, can have anywhere near the impact the sophomore tight ends have had this year, next year. If that makes any sense.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, TB: What I like about Clayborn is how relentless he is. He plays every snap like it’s his last but he can at times play himself out of position, and end up missing for stretches.
K.J. Wright, OLB, SEA: I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Wright may not be the player Seattle hoped Aaron Curry would become, but he’s a damn sight better than the player he is. Great find and arguably outperforming two talented linebackers in David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill.
Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, WAS: I’ve debated this with a few Redskin fans who think Kerrigan should be in the Top 5. I get their rationale, but relative to how much he plays he just doesn’t make enough plays. Not just the flashy ones that show up on the stat sheet, but the ones that often go unseen watching in real time. He’s still had a very good year in my mind.
Marcell Dareus, DT, BUF: ‘The tease’ as I call him. He does nothing and then flashes dominance. In 2012, he needs to be more consistent to justify his draft status.