We’re just halfway through the NFL season, and there have been quite a few talented rookies exceeding expectations around the league. The best rookies have given their teams great play through the first half of the season and filled massive holes on their respective rosters. On top of that, there are a few that have been performing on nearly at what have to be considered MVP clips.
There are quite a few Rookie of the Year candidates on this list for both offense and defense that should continue their excellent play through the second half of the year. But through the first half, these are the best rookies in the entire NFL.
10. Deion Jones, linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have needed a starting middle linebacker for a couple of years now that can play in coverage. Through the first nine games of the year, Jones has shown to be a massive upgrade in coverage while continuing the consistent tackling that Paul Worrilow provided as shown with his four passes defended and two interceptions through just nine games.
Atlanta has called on Jones to be the signal caller in the middle of the defense, and the tone he’s setting is showing. Atlanta’s defense may not be statistically better in 2016, but it is showing a lot of promise despite playing four rookies and multiple second-year starters. Jones has been getting guys aligned better as the season progresses due to understanding the defense better. It’s in this that he belongs on the list.
9. Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ wide receiver leads all rookies with 573 receiving yards and has proven to be a solid No. 2 option in the offense for Drew Brees to throw to after Brandin Cooks. Thomas has shown great route-running and football intelligence despite being a rookie, and the Saints have been taking advantage of his unique combination of size and speed to attack defenses all year.
Thomas brings something that a lot of receivers don’t have with his size too. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Thomas has the size to go up and over cornerbacks around the NFL and can body defenders when he needs to. With Marques Colston retiring in the offseason, the Saints needed to replace that in the offense. Thomas has brought what Colston was with a bit more speed on top of it.
8. Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles made an aggressive play in the draft when they traded up for Carson Wentz to be their quarterback of the future. They also made an aggressive play trading Sam Bradford away. With Wentz as the quarterback of the now, he’s been very good as a starter, throwing just five interceptions through seven games and putting up just under 1,900 yards to start the season.
The Eagles are also on the way to a potentially better record than the 2015 iteration’s 7-9 because of Wentz upgrading the mess that was Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Doug Pederson tries to keep a lot off the rookie’s plate and focuses him more on the task at hand. And hopefully, the Eagles can continue their upward trajectory.
7. Hunter Henry, tight end, San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have lucked out with their rookies and have a pair of very talented ones. The first on this list is Hunter Henry, a tight end out of Arkansas who was their second-round pick. Henry has caught 22 passes on 34 targets for 340 yards and three touchdowns and has been one of the better red-zone targets in the NFL this season.
San Diego likes to deploy him both in-line as a blocker and out in the slot as a receiver. He confuses defenses with his great combination of size, short-area quickness and body control similar to what Jason Witten does down in Dallas. The Chargers have their tight end of the future leading their offense now.
6. Karl Joseph, safety, Oakland Raiders
Oakland’s safety play was pretty atrocious until Karl Joseph was given the starting job after the loss to the Falcons. Since then, he’s been showing why the Raiders spent their first-round pick on a hard-hitting safety who can attack the ball in coverage. The Raiders’ defense went from allowing 34.5 points per game to 22.0 due to the single change of sitting Keith McGill for Joseph.
Joseph also has an interception and a half dozen passes defended in coverage to shore up one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Oakland should be able to rely on his game-changing abilities through the entirety of his career, but it would be wise to add someone else in the secondary who can complement him with Reggie Nelson playing below average ball.
5. Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
When Tony Romo was lost for the better part of the season, no one thought Dak Prescott was going to be as good as he is as a starter. But he’s really shown progress from what he was in college. He’s currently throwing for a 66.5 percent completion rate and over 250 yards per game to help take some of the pressure off of Ezekiel Elliott.
Romo might be coming back soon, but the Cowboys would be doing their team a disservice if they pulled Prescott for the former Pro Bowl quarterback. Prescott has shown he’s the best quarterback on the roster not just due to health but with how he’s been able to lead the roster to a 7-1 record through eight games.
4. Joey Bosa, defensive line, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers did a disservice to their defense by not signing Joey Bosa until the start of the regular season. He’s only played in four games, but he’s been able to rack up four sacks and two tackles for loss while aligning at multiple different techniques up front. Bosa can create inside pressure and outside pressure and has helped the Chargers’ pass rush take that next step.
Bosa’s consistent pressure combined with the double teams he draws allows the Chargers’ defense to open up even more when they get after quarterbacks. Melvin Ingram and Jatavis Brown have created more pressure on blitzes since Bosa came into the fold because of the additional attention paid to the No. 3 overall pick.
3. Jordan Howard, running back, Chicago Bears
Despite only starting five games, Jordan Howard has shown his running abilities throughout the season to the tune of 505 yards on the ground. But he’s not just been an asset there. Much like the guy he replaced in Matt Forte, Howard has been an all-around talent for the Bears with his average pass blocking and his 177 yards catching the ball.
When Jeremy Langford got injured early in the season, the Bears leaned on Howard to carry their offense, and it paid dividends. With Langford coming back, the rotation of Howard and Langford gives the Bears a talented running back group to help take the pressure off Jay Cutler—and whoever eventually replaces Cutler.
2. Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Yannick Ngakoue is a unique player on this list because he’s a rotational defensive end. However, his impact can be felt in the Jaguars’ defense. His four sacks, three forced fumbles and interception in pass defense show how he’s a unique, multi-faceted threat for an offense to face. He’s the early favorite for defensive rookie of the year.
Ngakoue has been creating pressure on the strong-side of the defense for the Jaguars and has been able to force turnovers on quite a few plays. The Jaguars need to get more from last year’s top-five pick Dante Fowler, though. Then they’ll be harassing quarterbacks all over the place.
1. Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
The best all-purpose rookie running back in the NFL is Ezekiel Elliott. He’s amassed over 1,000 all-purpose yards for the season and has shown his ability to elevate the play of the team around him—including quarterback Dak Prescott. His ability to grind games out lets the Cowboys keep their mediocre defense off the field and has been a big reason why Dallas is leading the NFC East.
Elliott has been one of the best running backs in the NFL regardless of tenure. He’s been the early front-runner for offensive rookie of the year and could turn into the best draft pick the Cowboys have made at running back since Emmitt Smith—the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. He might even be an MVP candidate when all is said and done.