You know when you’re a kid and its Christmas–you get that new toy and you just have to play with it. You forget about the toy that had kept you going for the last few months because something shinier had come along.
Well, as we get older the more things change the more they stay the same. We’re still attracted to those new shiny things and in the case of the NFL, that means rookies. We want to know what kind of impact they’re making and whether they’re living up to what we expected out of them. It means we forget all about the guys who just a year earlier were the apples of our eyes and big hope for changing the fortunes of our team.
With my weekly Race for Rookie of the Year feature, I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to this, so to make amends I’m launching a new annual award here at Pro Football Focus: The Sophomore Superstar.
That’s right, the Top 10 players from the 2010 draft class get their credit here and, without further ado, let’s find out who tops the list.
1. Rob Gronkowski, TE, NE
Feed ‘The Gronk’ and he will score. Our top-ranked tight end for 2011 was a touchdown machine, but backed that up with extremely impressive work all around the field (1,327 yards) and excellent run blocking (the second-highest grade we gave out).
2. Geno Atkins, DT, CIN
Atkins finished just behind run-stopping monster Sione Pouha in our defensive tackle rankings, but his complete display (which featured significant positive grades for his work in run defense and as a pass rusher) made him an All-Pro selection in our minds. Finished the year with 48 combined sacks, hits, and pressures–eight more than the nearest challenger who played more snaps.
3. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, SF
Another player who topped his positional rankings and by a distance; that’s even more impressive when you consider that he was going up against Brian Cushing, Patrick Willis and Derrick Johnson (among others). A force in the run game (our highest rating of any ILB), he also made plays in coverage (six pass break-ups) and when rushing the passer (two sacks, six hits and 11 hurries).
4. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NYG
It may surprise some to see JPP so low, but read that as a warning; the Giants’ defensive end has yet to reach his potential. To do that, our sixth-ranked defensive end will need to be more consistent … he put up big sack numbers but his pass rushing figures were relatively low (21st overall in our PRP ratings for 4-3 defensive ends). The best is very much yet to come, given what he is capable of.
5. Jimmy Graham: TE, NO
Graham may have finished a short distance behind Gronkowski with his stats, but the gap between the two reflects that while Gronkowski is a complete tight end, Graham is effectively a receiver from the spot. That makes our Sophomore Superstar more valuable and effective in our eyes, but shouldn’t detract from the problems the Saints’ TE causes defenders.
6. Victor Cruz, WR, NYG
What can you say about Cruz? As hard as any player to cover, he has the unique ability to make plays all over the field whether lined up out wide or in the slot. Finished the season picking up more yards per route run (3.08) than any other receiver in the league.
7. Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, ATL
We didn’t really see this coming after an Weatherspoon’s debut season that was horrible at times, but the Falcon worked on his game and made plenty of plays in an Atlanta defense that struggled at times too. Finished the year sixth in our 4-3 outside linebacker rankings while making our second string All-Pro team.
8. Joe Haden, CB, CLE
A quiet year for Haden in some respects, but a good year, even if we expected more after a stellar rookie season. Did finish the year with our fifth-highest grade in coverage while leading the league in pass deflections (17). Interceptions can be an overrated stat and Haden proves it.
9. Tim Tebow, QB, DEN
The hardest player to classify. Should he be higher? Should he even be on the list? In the end you can’t ignore the impact he made in helping the Broncos to the playoffs, but you also can’t ignore how he was generally awful for three quarters (and more) of every game he played in. A man who whom judging his performance by actually judging his performance doesn’t really work.
10. Antonio Brown, WR, PIT
Quietly has me asking the question who is the real Steelers No. 1 receiver? He saw more targets than Mike Wallace and had only 88 fewer yards in a breakout season that convinced me he could be one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. More versatile than his colleague, has the ability to beat you in any number of ways.
Carlos Dunlap, DE, CIN: Would have been in but for missing time hurt and being limited to a backup and situational role.
Bryan Bulaga, T, GB: The best tackle from the 2010 draft class perhaps, and coming off a much improved year two but compared against some of the guys in this list just didn’t do enough.
Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, S, SEA: We really like this duo who made plays even if they made their fair share of mistakes. Both finished in our top 10 for safeties.
Jared Veldheer, T, OAK: Flashed the kind of ability that makes you think he could be an elite left tackle but too often followed up these games by giving up too much pressure.
Mike Iupati, G, SF: The best player on the 49ers offensive line by some distance, Iupati looks a more complete player in his second year but maybe isn’t quite the punishing blocker he was then.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, NE: Hard to leave him out especially given he forced the most missed tackles of any receiver or tight end.
Ryan Mathews, RB, SD: Runs so well at time but was never going to crack the top ten with his problems fumbling the ball.
Dez Bryant, WR, DAL: Looks nearly unplayable at times but needs to have a bigger impact on games on a consistent basis.
Daryl Washington, ILB, ARI: A divisive player in team PFF with some likely his aggression and others questioning his positioning.
Lamarr Houston, DE, OAK: Prototypical DLE? Great in run defense but lacking the explosiveness to make consistent plays in the passing game? Sounds about right.
Sean Lee, ILB, DAL: Playing with a cast slowed him down at times, leading to some uneven play at the back end of the season after an excellent start.