There are plenty of things that have impressed me this year. The Green Bay Packers’ attempt to go undefeated. The records broken by Drew Brees and others. Heck, I’ve even been impressed by how Levi Brown turned a switch on to look like a competent left tackle for six games at the end of the season.
But what impressed me the most? I think it may be the impact the 2011 draft class has made.
We’ve seen so many excellent performances that it’s hard to comprehend that these guys had a shortened off season. Either coaching just slows talent down and prevents them making an immediate impact, as it did with a lot of the 2010 class, or this year’s rookies are just that much more talented. You be the judge.
In any case it’s been a joy writing about these guys in my ‘Race for the Rookie of the Year’ weekly feature which saw Von Miller come out on top, and so now it’s time to name the Pro Football Focus, All Rookie Team of the Year. Starting with a slam dunk at the QB spot.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, CAR
Some may prefer Andy Dalton given his team made the playoffs, but really there’s no doubting which player made the bigger positive contribution (on the field) to his team. Newton has a long way to go to become a consistent passer, but he’s as dangerous a runner from the QB position as there is with his ability to find the end zone likely to make him a difference maker for years to come.
Running Back: DeMarco Murray, DAL
Murray only managed 390 snaps and 164 attempts, but his 5.5 yards per rush average put the rest to shame, though Roy Helu won’t be disappointed with a 4.2 yard per carry average. Getting Murray completely healthy has to be one of the big things for a Cowboys offense that will need him to make a run at the post season.
Fullback: Bruce Miller, SF
Moran Norris is a back capable of some good things but he found himself very much in the background with Bruce Miller becoming an important part of the 49ers offense. Despite missing action he totaled up a decent 335 snaps.
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph, MIN
Let’s be clear; this group had nowhere near the impact of the 2010 class. But Rudolph, who had his snap count limited, showed he could be an every down tight end who could contribute as a blocker and receiver when given the opportunity, and finished the year finally starting to see a heavier workload for Minnesota. He finished an impressive 11th out of all tight ends in our rankings.
Wide Receiver: A.J. Green, CIN and Julio Jones, ATL
Green was a slam dunk pick. Sure, it’s amazing just how many penalties he’s guilty of being flagged for (especially procedural ones) but you can’t deny the fact he’s already being paired up with a teams’ top cornerback and having a safety inching over to him. Still he managed 1,057 yards. Jones was a tricky pick, with Torrey Smith and Denarius Moore earning consideration but while Jones doesn’t grade out tremendously well, his knack for the big play got him the nod. If we’re allowed a guy to put in the slot then Doug Baldwin is the man for that job.
Tackles: Anthony Castonzo, IND & Tyron Smith, DAL
I won’t lie; I like the year Nate Solder has had a little more than Castanzo, but given he played right tackle, and plenty of TE as New England deployed heavy formations he stood no chance of making this team with Smith ahead of him. Smith, our All Pro selection at RT, had rough moments against Jason Babin in particular, but was immense outside of that. How else do you earn an All Pro nod? Castonzo had some trouble against bigger rushers like Terrell Suggs and Jeremy Mincey but after years of Charlie Johnson, can be viewed as a big upgrade already it seems at the LT spot.
Guards: Stefan Wisniewski, OAK & Danny Watkins, PHI
You want honesty? Neither man looks like the finished article and both finished with below average grades on the year, but there were flashes of potential in a guard class that struggled to make an immediate positive impression.
Center: Mike Pouncey, MIA
I blame Brodrick Bunkley. Up until the Bronco defensive tackle lined up across from him Mike looked the better Pouncey, but since then he’s become the player his brother is. He doesn’t do a lot wrong, but nor does he do an awful lot more than you’d expect like the top centers.
Defensive Tackles: Marcell Dareus, BUF & Jurrell Casey, TEN
For the hybrid scheme we’re using the flexibility of Dareus (who played far more 4-3 than 3-4), while having a disruptor like Casey is never a bad thing. The third overall pick of the 2011 draft, Dareus looked dominant at times and invisible at others so the best is likely yet to come from him. Casey went a long way to helping the Titans transition to a new style of defensive line and it be a success. Only three players made more defensive stops in the run game from the DT spot.
Defensive End: J.J. Watt, HOU
Watt is such a good player that if you played him in a 4-3 it would work. He can beat tackles with his speed and guards with his power; that’s a pretty complete player who got stronger as the season went on.
Defensive End/ Outside Linebacker: Aldon Smith, SF
Smith didn’t play on every down but saw more than enough snaps, and produced more than enough pressure on QBs, to get the nod over the impressive Ryan Kerrigan. It wasn’t just the sack numbers with Smith who finished the year with our second highest grade for any 3-4 OLB after picking up 64 combined sacks, hits and pressures.
Outside Linebacker: Von Miller, DEN
We gave him rookie of the year so was he ever not going to make this team? Injury at the end of the season slowed him down but he was having as good a rookie year as anyone has ever had before that.
Middle Linebacker: Kelvin Sheppard, BUF
The MLB lacks a little depth but Sheppard had success in Buffalo as a two down player, particularly in run defense. Owes a lot of that to solid tackling where his Tackle Efficiency rating of 44 was the highest of all inside linebackers in the league.
Inside Linebacker: K.J. Wright, SEA
Wright played outside for the Seahawks but saw some time as the mike and could move there sooner rather than later. Gets off blocks well and did a nice job rushing the passer when given the opportunity.
Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman, SEA & Chris Culliver, SF
It was hard finding a partner for the excellent Sherman, but ultimately we settled on Culliver who tailed off after a hot start playing in the 49ers sub package defense. Sherman remains the star of this unit, breaking up nine passes to go along with four interceptions. If we had a slot cornerback we’d be looking chiefly at Chris Harris of the Broncos.
Safeties: Mistral Raymond, MIN & Chris Conte, CHI
Before you get carried away both men received negative grades from us. This was not a great year for rookie safety play, and the best thing to say about Raymond might be his name.
We’d be foolish to go any way other than Patrick Peterson returning … Dom DeCicco managed to make 13 special teams tackles – not easy when you’re fighting Corey Graham for them … Matt Boesher didn’t have much competition at the punter spot … Dan Bailey was impressive with his kicking.