Rookie Recap: AFC North

Steve Palazzolo presents the good, the bad and the injured from the AFC North's rookie class.

| 4 years ago
rookie recap afcnorth feat

Rookie Recap: AFC North

Our Rookie Recap series began with the AFC East, and today we take a look at the AFC North. The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens had key performances from their top rookies, while the Cleveland Browns’ season was littered with contributions from first-year players. The Cincinnati Bengals brought in a number of high-upside picks and they may have just scratched the surface on their draft class. Finally, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a tumultuous season with their rookies both due to injury and off-the-field incidents.

Be sure to check out our PFF Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie Team, which are both good reference points for the best rookie performances of the season

Let’s take a look at how it all shook out in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

Courtney Upshaw, OLB
Draft: Second Round, 35th overall
Snaps/Usage: 759 total snaps, generally played the strongside linebacker position in Baltimore’s 3-4/4-3 hybrid front

Notes: The Ravens traded back out of the first round, but still landed Upshaw who many believed was a top-round talent. He was fantastic against the run, as he graded at +14.9 and finished second among 3-4 outside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage at 9.9. However, Upshaw was less effective as a pass rusher where he graded at -17.6, while ranking 19th out of the Top 20 3-4 OLBs in Pass Rushing Productivity, at 5.4. It evened off into a -1.4 overall grade, and for Upshaw to take the next step as a player he must improve his ability to get to the quarterback.

Kelechi Osemele, T/G
Draft: Second round, 60th overall
Snaps/Usage: Started all 16 games at right tackle (note: moved to left guard during playoffs)

Notes: It was a typically uneven rookie season for Osemele, who mixed in some solid games with a few disasters along the way. He finished at +1.7 on the season and ranked 28th among tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency, at 94.6. It should be noted that Osemele moved to left guard during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, so it’s uncertain if his future lies at tackle or guard.

Bernard Pierce, RB
Draft: Third round, 84th overall
Snaps/Usage: 229 snaps at backup running back

Notes: Pierce saw his workload increase as the season progressed and graded at +6.1. He finished with an Elusive Rating of 75.7 and averaged 3.48 Yards After Contact/Rush, both numbers that ranked third among running backs with at least 100 carries. Though Ray Rice is still entrenched as the starter, Pierce made a strong case for more playing time by the end of the year.

Other Ravens rookies:

Fourth-rounder Gino Gradkowski saw 73 of his 89 snaps in a Week 17 start at center. He did not allow a pressure on his 38 pass block attempts and finished with a +1.1 run block grade. Defensive end DeAngelo Tyson was drafted in the seventh round and he played 187 snaps as part of the defensive line rotation. He picked up three pressures on his 80 pass rushes and notched eight stops in the running game. Undrafted wide receiver Deonte Thompson saw the field for 80 of his 89 snaps in Week 17, and he finished the season with five receptions for 51 yards. Two undrafted players saw time on the defensive side, as safety Omar Brown logged 39 snaps and linebacker Adrian Hamilton was in on 10 plays and added two special teams tackles. It was a strong season for rookie kickers around the league and Justin Tucker was one of the best. He ranked third at the postition at +35.8 overall.

Cincinnati Bengals

Kevin Zeitler, G
Draft: First round, 27th overall
Snaps/Usage: Started all 16 games at right guard

Notes: Zeitler had a fantastic rookie season, as he ranked 12th among all guards, at +12.9, and he made for an easy choice for our All-Rookie Team. He was third in PBE among guards, at 98.0, as he allowed only 15 total pressures on his 603 pass blocking snaps. Zeitler also showed well as a run blocker, though a rough -4.4 performance in Week 16 against the Pittsburgh Steelers brought that grade down to +1.0 for the season.

Vontaze Burfict, OLB
Draft: Undrafted free agent
Snaps/Usage: 899 snaps, started 14 games

Notes: Many saw Burfict as a first-round talent heading into the 2011 season, but a decline in play and some off-field concerns saw him go undrafted. The Bengals were thrilled to pick him up as a free agent, as he became a starter in Week 3. He graded at +4.5 against the run and ranked fifth among 4-3 outside linebackers in Tackling Efficiency, missing one every 19 attempts.

Trevor Robinson, C
Draft: Undrafted free agent
Snaps/Usage: 454 total snaps, seven starts at center

Notes: The Bengals went through a number of centers in 2012 and Robinson got the call for seven starts. He showed well as a run blocker, grading at +1.0, but his 10 pressures surrendered on only 230 pass block attempts ranked him 35th out of 36 centers in PBE, at 96.6.

Other Bengals rookies:

First-round cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick battled injuries all season and was limited to only 42 snaps, 35 of which were spent at LCB. The Bengals used both a second- and third-round pick on defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson respectively. Still played 156 snaps as part of the defensive line rotation and picked up five pressures on his 77 pass rushes, while Thompson was limited to 23 snaps where he notched one pressure and one stop. Cincinnati double-dipped at the wide receiver position as well, as they brought in Mohamed Sanu in the third round and Marvin Jones in the fifth. Sanu saw the field for 209 snaps in nine games before a season-ending injury after Week 12. He caught 16 of his 24 targets for 154 yards (9.6 yards/reception) and four touchdowns. Jones took over for Sanu and played 364 snaps that saw him haul in 18 receptions for 201 yards (11.2 yards/reception) and a touchdown. Fourth-round tight end Orson Charles was used primarily as a run blocker, as he did so on 171 of his 293 snaps. He graded at -2.8 in that department, though he added eight catches for 101 yards. RB Dan Herron was drafted in the sixth round and had only five yards on his four carries in 14 snaps. Two other undrafted free agents saw the field, as LB Emmanuel Lamur graded at +2.0 as a run defender on his 102 total snaps, while CB Chris Harris-Lewis saw all 21 of his plays in Week 17 where he played primarily at RCB.

Click below for the Browns and Steelers

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Glenn McQuiston

    Idiot you missed the third round pick. The inside LB to replace Foote which deals with the concern raised in another article nearby.

  • JJ

    Another dud draft from the Steelers

    • Zack Grantzinger

       Yeah, because the Steelers are known for having rookies start and become prolific players right off the bat. /sarcasm

    • Jason

      “Another” dud draft. Let’s see, the Steelers are never a big player in free agency yet they are consistently one of the best teams in the NFL. They must be doing something right in these “dud” drafts. What a clown

      • JJ

        Looks like you missed the playoffs and are on the decline to me. Tomlin could only hold onto Cowhers Super Bowl team for so long before the old wheels fell off.

  • Nick

    What about the Ravens kicker Justin Tucker?

  • Grant

    Mohamed Sanu was drafted in the third round by Cincinnati, not the second. 

  • Guest

    IIRC WR Josh Cooper also played some meaningful snaps for CLE.

  • Steve Palazzolo

    Sanu, Cooper, and Tucker fixes are all applied