NFL teams aren’t always looking for the same things in the second half of the season. Equally important to both good and bad teams, though, is the performance of their rookies.
Good teams want to see how rookies can help them get into the playoffs. Bad teams will look to their rookies as the hope for their future.
Rookie running backs like Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara and Leonard Fournette seem like obvious picks. But in some cases, an impressive rookie doesn’t just mean impressive stats. We’ve seen that play out with teams like the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
In some cases, the reasons are different. But these players represent each team’s most impressive member of 2017’s rookie class.
Kansas City Chiefs: Kareem Hunt, running back
For the first half of the season, Hunt has been the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year. The explosive back is averaging better than five yards a carry and 10 yards a reception. More importantly, his impact has kept opposing defenses honest against Kansas City’s other weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Not bad for a third-round pick.
Minnesota Vikings: Pat Elflein, center
Minnesota’s offensive line has been one of this team’s anchors. It’s one of the reasons that the Vikings have kept winning, despite injuries to starters like Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook. Elflein has been a stabilizing force up front. The transition from Bradford to Case Keenum didn’t bother him. There’s every reason to believe that he’d do the same if the team went from Keenum to Teddy Bridgewater. Minnesota traded up in the draft to select Elflein. The rookie center has shown himself to be well worth it.
Cincinnati Bengals: Carl Lawson, defensive end
The Bengals used their first two picks on offense (John Ross and Joe Mixon), but Lawson — the fourth-round pick — has been the fastest rookie to develop in Cincinnati. Lawson has been used as a pass-rush specialist and has done well in that role. He leads all rookies with 5.5 sacks. It’s been a disappointing year for the Bengals, but the development of Lawson has been an unquestioned positive.
Los Angeles Rams: Cooper Kupp, wide receiver
The Rams are a completely different team in 2017. Most of that can be attributed to the offense. Sean McVay deserves credit, as does the development of second-year quarterback Jared Goff. A big part of Goff’s development, though, has been Kupp, who’s emerged as a go-to guy for Los Angeles. Kupp isn’t a huge big-play threat. But with 32 receptions (23 of which converted a first down), he’s been a stabilizing force. In turn, Kupp’s reliability has allowed Goff to look deep, which has frequently paid off.
New York Jets: Marcus Maye, free safety
It’s a close call between Maye and fellow rookie safety, Jamal Adams. While Adams has more potential, he also has to refine his skills in pass coverage. Maye has been slightly more consistent this year. His overall coverage has been better and he’s hauled in two interceptions. The Jets sit at 4-6, and while that’s not great, it’s not what was expected of this team. Maye’s performance has greatly aided the cause of his better than expected team.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jake Elliott, kicker
Elliott hasn’t been perfect, but he has been darn good. Of course, Elliott is most remembered for burying a 61-yard kick as time expired to defeat the New York Giants in Week 2. But he’s made five kicks from outside of 50 yards. Only Detroit Lions’ kicker Matt Prater has made more. His leg gives an already strong Philadelphia offense something of a secret weapon. There’s a need for consistency, for sure. But Elliott’s powerful leg has been darn helpful to his team and quite impressive to anyone watching.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, running back
When looking at Fournette’s performance thus far, it’s hard to single out one thing. He’s shown an ability to get free and make the big play. But Fournette has also shown that he can get the tough yards. Fournette has 629 yards rushing with six touchdowns and has added 17 receptions for 149 yards and a receiving touchdown. Taking a running back fourth overall is a risk. But thus far, Fournette has been well worth it.
Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, defensive end
Atlanta isn’t exactly leaning on a lot of rookies this year. So in a way, McKinley is essentially running unopposed. But McKinley has shown a great deal of promise. With two sacks, he could be better statistically. We’d like to see that number go up. But McKinley has consistently pressured opposing quarterbacks, which is a good sign. He’s certainly provided reasons to be upbeat going forward.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver
The Steelers have shown a tremendous knack for developing wide receivers in recent years. In Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh has found another one. Smith Schuster has caught 29 passes for 521 yards and five scores. The Steelers’ offense has been hit or miss in 2017. But the emergence of Smith-Schuster has been a breath of fresh air.
New York Giants: Evan Engram, tight end
Engram is third among rookies in receptions (40), second in receiving yards (443), and tied for first in touchdown receptions (5). Quite frankly, the 2017 season has been a disaster for New York. But in Engram’s performance, the Giants (and the front office that drafted him) have something to hang their collective hats on.
Tennessee Titans: Adoree Jackson, cornerback
The Titans have had a strong influx of rookies in 2017. But it’s hard to look beyond Jackson, who’s been a jack of all trades for Tennessee. In addition to being a starting cornerback, Jackson has also gained 50 rushing yards on only four carries, returned 19 punts for 187 yards, and 13 kicks for 275. None of Jackson’s individual stats are especially great. But when we consider everything he’s done for a team that, while 6-3, has been far from overwhelming, it’s quite impressive.
San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster, linebacker
On the one hand, including Foster on this list is challenging. He’s played in only four of San Francisco’s nine games. But on the other hand, that’s precisely what makes him so impressive. When he’s been on field, the 49ers’ defense has been decent. When he’s been off, it’s been a problematic unit. Foster has remained healthy for the last two games and it’s really shown. He has 24 combined tackles and two stuffs. He needs to stay on the field more. But when he’s been out there, Foster has been a genuine player.
Denver Broncos: Garett Boles, left tackle
The Broncos could have been a playoff team in 2016. One of the things that held them back was the play of the offensive line. Boles has gone a long way towards stabilizing that. The problem isn’t solved. Boles is only one lineman and he’s far from perfect. But Denver’s quarterbacks have struggled mightily in 2017. That’s not something that can be pinned on the blindside tackle. A season ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones, running back
Unfortunately, we’re not going to be seeing much of Jones for the rest of the season. But that doesn’t change how much of an impact Jones has made when he’s been on the field. The fifth rounder has averaged better than five yards a carry in his rookie year and, despite somewhat limited playing time, has found the end zone three times. As Green Bay heads into 2018, it has a running back to be optimistic about.
Buffalo Bills: Tre’Davious White, cornerback
White is one of Buffalo’s only rookies to see significant playing time. As such, this can be seen as something of a default selection. But it shouldn’t be. White has actually been one of the NFL’s best rookies. The Bills are not a team with a horribly explosive offense. The defense needs to be on top of its game for this team to win. While it didn’t look so hot in Week 10, the defense has been sharp most of this year and has led the team to a 5-4 record. White has been a big contributor in that.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: O.J. Howard, tight end
Howard has been an out-of-the-box tight end in 2017. He’s caught only 14 passes. That’s a rate that certainly needs to improve. On the other hand, he’s hauled in a respectable three touchdowns and his receptions have averaged a better than respectable 16.2 yards. Certainly, the consistency could be better. But we certainly like Howard’s ability to make big plays.
Oakland Raiders: Eddie Vanderdoes, defensive tackle
Vanderdoes started the year relatively strong, but he’s tailed off hard recently. There’s just no other way to spin that. With that said, the early performance is enough to warrant Vanderdoes this spot. He made progress in camp, preseason, and at the beginning of the regular season. So, we know it’s there. Now, it’s on Vanderdoes to adjust to the adjustments that have been on him.
Dallas Cowboys: Jourdan Lewis, cornerback
Lewis impressed his coaches early in the season. Quite frankly, it’s easy to see why. He has intercepted only one pass but has been an all-around defensive weapon for the Dallas defense. He’s defended six passes and has been in on 31 combined tackles. That kind of versatility is well ahead of where most rookies are at this point. That’s serving Lewis well now and will continue to work in his favor in the future.
New England Patriots: Deatrich Wise, defensive end
It’s clear that Wise has been New England’s best rookie. In fact, a credible case could be made that he’s been the team’s best defensive player. Wise has been a consistent force in the opponent’s backfield this season and has dropped the opposing quarterback for a sack three times. Wise will need to be that kind of force for the Pats if they’re going to get back to the Super Bowl. The impact he’s made through nine games has been quite impressive.
Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback
The Seahawks have a lot of confidence in Griffin. If they didn’t, Jeremy Lane wouldn’t have been part of the original compensation package for Duane Brown (though following a failed physical, Lane returned to Seattle). Griffin has been in on 34 tackles in 2017. Much like Lewis in Dallas, that kind of versatility is nice to see. Griffin is going to be tested a lot with Richard Sherman out for the year. He has a long way to go to get to that level. Still, Griffin’s performance has left reason for optimism.
Baltimore Ravens: Tyus Bowser, linebacker
Bowser’s impact has been somewhat minimized since the early weeks of the season. But that’s been more due to a lack of opportunity for playing time than his own poor play. Even coach John Harbaugh has said that he wants to see Bowser on the field more. But with somewhat inconsistent playing time, Bowser has recorded two sacks and an interception. That’s a lot to build off of for the rest of the season and into the future.
Chicago Bears: Tarik Cohen, running back
Cohen should be on the field more. We’re not totally sure how the Bears can justify not giving him more touches, because when Cohen does touch the ball, good things happen. He averages better than four yards a carry on the ground and has also caught 29 passes for 244 players. He’s even found time to throw a touchdown pass. That’s just an all-around weapon that a team trying to find a consistent offensive groove should be using more.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, quarterback
One of the true drags of this season is that we’re not going to see Watson anymore. But when he was on the field, Watson was one of the league’s best, most explosive players — rookie or otherwise. In seven games, he completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards with 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a 103.0 passer rating. Sure, it’s unfortunate that Watson is done for the year. But one of the best things about rookies is the hope they give their franchise and its fans for the future. Watson has absolutely created that.
New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara, running back
Anyone who wants to see how good Cohen might be with an organization that knows how to use him would be well advised to pay attention to Kamara in New Orleans. He’s rushing for better than six yards a carry and has added 42 receptions for 373 yards. The 2017 Saints have shifted from a team that relies on Drew Brees to throw 50 times a game, to an actually balanced offense. Kamara has been a prime catalyst for that transition.
Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris, defensive end
Harris is a prime example of someone whose stats don’t tell the full story. He’s been primarily used as a backup in 2017 and even when he’s been on the field, the sacks and tackles have been limited. But he’s been a factor in both run defense and pressuring the quarterback. Given that Cameron Wake is 35, that kind of development is what Miami needs to see from its young defensive ends. Harris can certainly do more in the second half, but we like what we’ve seen.
Detroit Lions: Kenny Golladay, wide receiver
Health has been an issue for Golladay, who returned in Week 10 after missing more than a month of action. But his performance in Week 10 showed just how impressive Golladay can be. He hauled in only two catches, but those went for 64 yards. On the season, he’s averaging 18.4 yards per reception. The Lions don’t run the ball well. As such, Golladay’s big play ability is not only impressive, but also vital to his team’s success.
Indianapolis Colts: Marlon Mack, running back
In what’s becoming too much of a theme for these backs, Mack has been horribly misused this season. He carried only seven times in Week 7 and while those carries netted only seven yards, he should have received more. It’s been a theme of the season for Mack. While he’s been effective when getting the ball, the Colts have only given him 10 or more carries twice. That should change going forward.
Arizona Cardinals: Haason Reddick, linebacker
A short time ago, this would have been a tough decision to make. But Reddick has come into his own as a pass rusher in the last two games, recording 1.5 sacks. But in addition to the sacks, Reddick has also forced a fumble and been in on 24 tackles. As is the case with many rookies, the production can get more consistent. But we’ve certainly liked what we’ve seen from Reddick so far.
Los Angeles Chargers: Dan Feeney, left guard
While Feeney’s sample size has been limited, the production has been top notch. Los Angeles is competitive in essentially every game it plays, but it’s hard to imagine a 3-6 team turning it around to make the playoffs. With that said, good play from Feeney will give the Chargers reason to think that they can both run and adequately protect Philip Rivers in 2018. If they are going to win, those two things will have to happen.
Washington Redskins: Samaje Perine, running back
There’s no doubt that Perine needs to develop more as a runner. Averaging only 3.2 yards per carry is just not good enough. But Perine has been decent as a pass catcher, averaging better than nine yards a reception. We’d like to see him used more in that role.
Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, defensive end
As football fans, we all have to hope that this guy can find a way to stay on the field. When Garrett has been on the field, he’s been awfully impressive and fun to watch. Garrett has been a fixture in opposing backfields, recording four sacks in only four games played. We certainly haven’t seen a lot of Garrett in 2017 but what we’ve seen has been darn good.
Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey, running back
McCaffrey has been similar to Perine. We’d like to see him run the ball better. But he’s caught 57 passes for 443 yards. We love seeing that. We also love how much opposing defenses key on McCaffrey. That opens things up for Cam Newton in the running game. It also creates holes in coverage for Carolina’s receivers. McCaffrey has put up good stats. But his overall impact on the game goes beyond that and is what’s so impressive about his rookie season.