2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
We’re not finished handing out awards at PFF yet, and we’re taking a look at the rookie crop right now. We have separate articles breaking down both the defensive and offensive standouts, but for this one we are looking at the rookie class as a whole.
It was a vintage year for rookie impact, with more immediate, high-level performances across the board than most years. Far from performing well ‘for a rookie’, this year’s crop featured players at multiple positions that were threatening All-Pro or Pro-Bowl places.
All five rookies to feature in this piece appeared on the PFF All-Pro team either as an All-Pro starter or honorable mention.
4th Runner Up
Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have invested a lot in their offensive line in recent years. Zack Martin joins Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith to make three fifths of the unit comprised of former first-round picks, and from the looks of his rookie year they are all paying off, which in itself represents a rare strike rate for first round linemen. Martin was excellent as a rookie, finishing the year seventh in PFF’s guard rankings but second when it came to pass protection alone. He didn’t allow a sack all season and surrendered just 10 total pressures.
There were a couple of down games for Martin throughout the season but otherwise he was a model of consistency, and could quickly become one of the league’s best guards.
3rd Runner Up
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Things haven’t been great for the Oakland Raiders for a long time now, and draft misses have been a big reason why that remains true, but at least they look to have struck gold in Khalil Mack.
Mack wasn’t the devastating pass rusher many expected him to be – notching just four sacks on the year and a decent but not great amount of total pressure – but he was a real standout when it came to play against the run from his linebacker position.
He set the edge and dominated tight ends and offensive tackles at the point of attack like no other linebacker in football this year, destroying countless run plays almost single-handedly. Since he came into the league, Von Miller has been head and shoulders above anybody else at his position in terms of PFF grade but this year, at the first time of asking, Mack finished above him.
2nd Runner Up
Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland Browns
While Zack Martin was an excellent performer all season at guard, Bitonio was consistently just a little further in front in the rankings all year. He suffered from his worst two games of the season in the final two weeks (much like most of the Browns), but even with those included he ended the year ahead of Martin.
Bitonio did surrender a sack, though only one and it took him until Week 16 against Carolina to be beaten, and he did allow a little more pressure than Martin (15 total pressures including the sack), but his run blocking was superior, showing some truly dominant traits over the season. Like Martin, Bitonio has the ability to become one of the league’s best with even a small improvement going into his second season, though both players will need to avoid the sophomore slump that affected Detroit’s Larry Warford who was in the same position a year ago.
1st Runner Up
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
At 285 pounds, Aaron Donald was supposed to be too small to hold up over an NFL season, or to play the run effectively, or to contend with the power of the blockers at this level. At the very least I expected a performance similar to that of Geno Atkins in his early career – high level pass-rushing but struggling against the run because of that relative lack of size. Donald, though, had other ideas, and if anything was actually better against the run all year long.
He did this by showing right away that he knew what it took Atkins at least a year to figure out – you can play the run at that size by treating it like pass rush. Shooting gaps and penetrating into the backfield will disrupt run plays just like it will disrupt pass plays, and Donald did that consistently. His season highlight reel would feature a weekly example of him knifing through the offensive line almost untouched to destroy a run play in the backfield before it has even begun and he ended the year sitting atop the PFF rankings for defensive tackles. In his first year of play, at 285 pounds, he topped Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Marcel Dareus and anybody else at the position you care to mention.
What is perhaps most impressive was how balanced he was. His pass rush grade almost matched his impressive run defense mark, and he even made a couple of nice plays against screens to grade positively in coverage. The sky is the limit for Aaron Donald, and he might even have led NFL personnel evaluators to readjust what they deem suitable size and weight for an interior lineman.
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
It feels like Odell Beckham Jr. was destined for great recognition the moment he hauled in that catch on Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys, but in truth he had been impressing long before then. After suffering an injury before the season and frustrating everybody with his absence, Beckham hit the ground running when he did finally make it onto the field. He didn’t play until Week 5 against Atlanta but caught a touchdown in that first game and ended the year as our fourth-highest-graded wide receiver despite the missed games. Looking at just receiving grade (discounting blocking, penalties etc) he trailed only Antonio Brown.
As the season wore on his workload only increased as the Giants leaned on him ever more. His first game saw just five passes sent his way, with only 15 from his first three games in total. Over the next nine games he averaged 12.7 targets and the final game of the year against the Eagles saw the ball come his way 21 times.
But what makes him special? You often hear about guys playing bigger than they are. If you want to get a great look at what people mean when they say that watch Beckham play. He is listed at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, but he plays like a guy who is 6-foot-3. He never allows the ball come to him, rather attacking it no matter what route he is running, snatching the ball out of the air at the highest point he can reach with his ridiculous hands.
This is key because is minimizes the chance a defensive back has to make a play on the ball. The reason 6-foot-3 guys are desirable as receiver targets is because their catch radius is so big, but Beckham’s is as large as anybody’s because of the way he attacks the ball. Throw in impressively subtle route running and the kind of ball skills that he showed in that Cowboys game, or the countless videos of his warm-up catches that went viral soon after, and you have the most devastating rookie receiver performance since Randy Moss.
You’ve also got PFF’s Rookie of the Year.
See the other awards we’ve handed out this week:
2014 PFF All-Pro Team
2014 PFF All-Pro Special Teams
2014 PFF Stephenson Award (Best Player)
2014 PFF Offensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Matthews Award (Best Offensive Lineman)
2014 PFF O-Line Rankings
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Offensive Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam