2011 PFF Rookie of the Year

| 5 years ago

2011 PFF Rookie of the Year

If you’re an avid Pro Football Focus reader, you’ll know that each week we’ve produced an article focusing on the 2011 draft class. It was our Race for Rookie of the Year series and after 17 weeks of hectic action, that race ended as the regular season did.

That means the other analysts have decided to put their say into who should be the 2011 Rookie of the Year and they’ve seen to it that the “all positions created equal” mantra that I’ve created is no more. They’ve also stopped me hedging bets and looking at five to watch and what we’re left with is the Top 10 rookies of the 2011 NFL season.

The list, especially after doing this last year, is pretty damn impressive. We could quite easily have added another 10 players to it and found more deserving performers than guys who made the Top 10 last year. That’s how much of an impact this class has made. Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into it.


1. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

His hand injury seemed to slow him down, and really that was the only thing capable of doing so after he decimated a host of offensive tackles in the middle of the season. Seen by some as a one-trick pony, the sheer physical tools Miller possesses saw him win plenty of battles in the run game, as much as people would have you believe otherwise.


2. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

The scary thing about Newton? He’s got room to get a lot better, and yet he finished 13th overall in our quarterback rankings. Newton does need to work on his mechanics to prevent some of those horribly errant throws. However, the tools are there to be a very good player for a very long time. You hope his rookie records don’t burden him and create an unrealistic sense of expectation in his sophomore season.


3. Tyron Smith, RT, Dallas Cowboys

Our All-Pro right tackle had one shocker of a game against Philadelphia, but outside of that, Smith was as good a rookie tackle as we’ve seen. He got stronger in the run game as the year went on, and showed he can hold up against most top tier pass rushers. It will be interesting to see how he fares if he makes a move to the left side.


4. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers

The only thing holding Smith back is his lack of playing time, specifically looking at his situational role. It’s a shame because he finished the year as the most productive pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. This was one example of the sacks really doing a player justice.


5. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

The great thing about Watt is that he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. This culminated in one of the most dominant performances of the year when Houston faced the Colts. Watt is capable of playing a huge number of snaps and not wearing down. The Texans seem to have picked up a defender who can be an every-down threat for years to come.


6. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

His penalties proved to be an annoyance, but given the attention teams are already paying to Green, it’s remarkable he was able to pick up 1,057 yards. This despite missing a game and a half due to injury. Andy Dalton has received a lot of praise, but where would he be without Green?


7. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

Starting the year way down the depth chart we didn’t expect to see much of Sherman. We’ve been fortunate to see the cornerback play so well when thrust into the lineup. Nine penalties may be more than we’d like to see, but the 46.4% completion rate allowed, four interceptions, and nine pass break-ups more than make up for it.


8. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills

I don’t know if I’m personally sold on Dareus, as while he has the ability to dominate, he all too often doesn’t. That said, you can’t deny that when he’s good, he’s very good. Just ask the Giants who felt the full wrath of Dareus earlier in the season. Next year will be about consistency. If Kyle Williams returns at full speed, they could form one of the most disruptive defensive tackle partnerships in all of football.


9. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans

There’s some chatter amongst the PF analysts that Casey may have already peaked in his role as running game nuisance. I looked at our Signature Stat that breaks down how many stops a defender makes in relation to the time they are on the field and Casey was third in the entire league. A great find in the third round.


10. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Dalton deserves credit for being part of a team that made it to the playoffs. My colleague Ben Stockwell was exactly right, though, when he corrected my initial assertion that Dalton had led his Bengals team to the postseason. He hasn’t led them, but has rather been dragged along by a defense that is playing exceptionally well.


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  • motorcycle

    If “all positions aren’t equal” then I put Cam Newton in 1st place as QB is a long way ahead in importance over OLB. Also Von Miller had Dumervil opposite so teams couldn’t slide protection over toward him. Also QB is a far harder position to learn with no offseason than OLB/DE pass rush. For me, Newton’s play at his position is more impressive than Miller’s at OLB/DE pass rush. If all positions were equal, then I would put Miller in 1st place.

    It’s a shame Miller had a ‘poor’ end to the regular season as that’s what most people end up remembering. Hopefully he will have a great game on Sunday to remind everyone how good he really is.

    Also when you write “Casey may have already peaked in his role as running game nuisance” does this mean in his overall career or just this season? If it is overall, then how can you be sure, if it is this season wouldn’t the rookie wall and lack of an offseason account for that?

  • CrashTest

    well if the “all positions are created equal” mantra is no more than I think your ranking has issues.

    Cam Newton arguably just put in the greatest rookie season by a QB in NFL history with no offseason. As we all know NFL QB is largely considered the toughest position to play in all of sports. Newton clearly is far from perfect at this stage but his season was one of the most impressive we have seen in recent history all things considered.

    Newton flaws and learning of the position tend to get pointed out a tad more than Von Miller’s. Perhaps that is has something to do w/ all positions not being equal. Von Miller has been fantastic this year but also has his share of flaws despite playing a much less demanding position. Both before and after the hand injury the coaching staff in Denver was forced to put him on the sideline at times so teams couldn’t take advantage of areas that he clearly still needs to work on.

    If all positions are created equal then I have no problem with Von Miller #1 or Aldon Smith even. However, if that mantra is no more….then I would suspect many will disagree with this particular list.

    But love the site, look forward to all your different updates week to week.

  • Neil Hornsby

    I don’t want to be deliberately provocative but I do want to be as unequivocal about this as possible.

    Anyone calling Cam Newton’s season the “Greatest by a rookie QB in NFL history” has forgotten some very recent history never mind going back to really incredible performances like Marino’s rookie season. Either that or they are obsessed with running QBs to a level I can’t quite comprehend.

    In a bit more detail:

    As a pure passer we have Newton rated as a -9.4, just behind Rex Grossman and just ahead of Colt McCoy. Anyone not watching his full body of work and looking at the base numbers are simply falling for the hype. Every highlight pass needs to be considered alongside a number of awful throws including dropped interceptions etc. Yes he did well for a rookie and this was the best passing performance since 2008 but a long way away, in fact an absolute country mile away, from as good as Matt Ryan was when we graded him +24.6 in that year.
    And then, if you really want to see a rookie play at the highest level, go back and watch Marino in 1983. The level of play in the first half of the game against the 49ers and Joe Montana is breathtaking and even more impressive when you consider they came away with a win.

    Now as a runner I’ll happily accept that this may well be the best running performance by a quarterback ever but until a running QB ever wins anything meaningful color me skeptical.

    However, when you put those two things together, was I impressed? Yes, absolutely – by the potential, not so much by the actual delivery. If he can now minimize the dross (some of the utter rubbish he threw that most of the hype mongers seem to be conveniently forgetting) he could become a great QB.

    Until his late three game slump we were absolutely talking about the greatest rookie season we’ve graded and perhaps have ever been seen (I’d love some tape on LT’s much talked about year if anyone can help). The difference is, up until his injury, it was entirely possible he would have supplanted Justin Smith and Darrelle Revis for our DPOY. No caveats about “for a rookie” or anything else – he could have been the best defensive player in the NFL. Now things didn’t work out like that but he still graded out as our top 4-3 LB by some margin even with his last three game debacle.

    So that was the choice; the best player at his position (rookie or not) or our 13th ranked QB whose position was inflated from 29th out of 38 because he is a quite brilliant runner?

    Even if Newton goes onto be the best QB of all-time and Miller fades into Vernon Gholston like obscurity I’d be happy with that because we aren’t grading how good someone might be, just what they actually do.

    • CrashTest

      well, that is why I made a point to say “arguably” the best ever. Not that I specifically think it is the best ever. Just about every major media outlet viewed his season as good enough to at least debate the topic in recent weeks.

      No doubt Matt Ryan graded better as a passer as a rookie. But Cam brings more to the table than that and at times people almost want to play that against him. As you imply by saying Newton’s grade was “inflated” b/c of his ground work. If I am not mistaken Newton picked up more first downs running than any RB in the league. We all know about his TDs. He is a football player, not just a passer. But what the stat sheet doesn’t tell you is what was asked of Ryan vs. Newton and I think that should factor in. He with Chudzinski were reposnible for the single biggest offensive turnaround in NFL history. Often lost in Newton’s rookie season is how downright pathetic the Carolina defense and special teams were this year. But him in a much tougher enviroment to post a win than most of the recent “successful” rookie QBs.

      As for Von Miller, I totally understand how great he has been but at times I think the grading of him could be skewed. I fully understand why he grades so well as he is flat out awesome in many aspects. But Cam Newton could of graded even better on your list if Carolina protected him at times and put him on the bench asking another player to come in for some of the work that could of been a bit over Newton’s head or current ability. Fox in multiple games put Von Miller on the sideline this year……if Fox hadn’t of done that one could only reasonably assume it would of had a negative impact on Von Miller’s grading. Now how big of an impact it would of had probably isn’t HUGE but I think it is reasonable to assume it would not of benefited him.

      Anyway, not complaining, just giving my worthless 2 cents on column I have looked forward to every week. Keep up the good work. You guys do such a good job it looks like I will have to break down and pay for the other features of the site.

      • Neil Hornsby

        No problem at all. Enjoy the debate and your well-reasoned comments. Please don’t make too much of Miller’s “benching” though. He was sat down for a couple of plays for a bad mistake in coverage – probably not to read him the riot act or anything I suspect, probably more to explain a point and then in the last three games which we’ve done to death. In those I felt he looked like a completely different player and one that either injury or the “wall” had hit.

  • sgtrobo

    If Newton wasn’t a rookie, he would’ve had a “decent” season. Miller was in the running for defensive POY all season long until he got hurt.

    Cam Newton was a great rookie QB.

    Von Miller was a great LB, rookie or otherwise.

    • CrashTest

      maybe, but one guy is playing the hardest position in sports with no offseason and the other is overall asked to be a pass rusher. A mean if David Akers was a rookie intead of a vet…..the fact he was just asked to kick a ball would factor in.

  • drgarnett

    To me, the most striking thing about this is who is *not* on it — namely, one Julio Jones, given how much Atlanta paid for the privilege of drafting him.