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Top 20 NFL rookies so far in 2018

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Several rookies have stepped up.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL Draft was heralded for its depth of talent and the chance for fans to see rookies make an immediate impact in their first NFL season. After 10 weeks of NFL action, we’ve seen just that.

Football fans have been treated to first-year players on both sides of the ball playing extremely well this season. In fact, several rookies have stepped up and already become some of the best players at their respective positions.

Here are the top 20 rookies thus far in the 2018 NFL season.

 

Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants

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The moment Barkley stepped foot on an NFL field, he became one of the NFL’s top running backs. He has proven it on a weekly basis by putting up ridiculous numbers and humiliating defenders.

Running behind a porous offensive line with a quarterback situation that puts even more pressure on Barkley, the rookie finds a way to excel. He is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (five) among rookie running backs, second in rushing yards (586) and leads all rookies in receptions (62) and receiving yards (530).

It’s frightening to think what Barkley will do when New York finds its franchise quarterback and has a solid offensive line. He is capable of 2,000-plus yard seasons. The player fans are seeing now will only get better in the coming years.

 

Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland Browns

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The moment Cleveland traded Carlos Hyde, it opened a door to unleash a monster on the rest of the NFL. We’ve seen Chubb demonstrate why many viewed him as a first-round talent heading into the draft.

Chubb has rushed for 406 yards with 48 receiving yards and four total touchdowns since he took over the featured role. The Browns are feeding him 18-plus carries in each of those starts and he is progressively improving as he grows into the new role.

Cleveland’s fan base will see flashes of greatness from the backfield this season. Once an innovative playcaller comes in during the offseason, this offense will reach its potential with all the talent on its roster.

 

Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers

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Green Bay found itself in a dream scenario in the 2018 NFL Draft when it moved down in the draft to pick up a 2019 first-round pick, then moved up to snag Alexander.

While the young corner has missed some time this season, he has shown the makings of an elite cornerback. Alexander ranks third among rookie defensive backs with 10 passes defended and he graded as Pro Football Focus’ top cornerback among rookies entering Week 11.


Alexander’s best performance came against the Los Angeles Rams as he repeatedly denied Jared Goff’s pass attempts throughout the game. Before long, the pass deflections should turn into interceptions and he’ll show his playmaking skills on returns.

 

Darius Leonard, outside linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

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A small-school linebacker who climbed his way up draft boards, Leonard is quickly showing the transition from South Carolina State to the NFL isn’t a problem for him.

The outside linebacker leads all rookies in total tackles (63), forced fumbles (three) and is second in sacks (four). Leonard proved to be a playmaker in college and the athleticism and instincts are translating into an exceptional linebacker in the NFL.

 

Phillip Lindsay, running back, Denver Broncos

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Many expected rookie Royce Freeman to emerge as Denver’s featured running back, instead, an undrafted free agent stole the spotlight and became everyone’s favorite.

Not only does Lindsay lead Denver’s backfield in production, he also leads all rookie running backs with 591 rushing yards. The 24-year-old out of Colorado has also been a multi-dimensional threat with 751 total yards and four touchdowns on 130 touches

Lindsay is the best story from the 2018 rookie class. A local kid who stayed true to his roots through college and is now playing in Denver and putting up some of the best numbers in the AFC, it doesn’t get better than that.

 

Denzel Ward, cornerback, Cleveland Browns

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Browns season has been the development of Cleveland’s exciting defensive duo. While defensive end Myles Garrett provides the pressure on quarterbacks, Ward takes the quarterback’s go-to target away.

The 21-year-old has shown playmaking abilities from the moment he stepped on the field. He has 13 pass breakups this season with three interceptions and a forced fumble. Even more impressive, he has become one of the best cover corners in the NFL at such an early stage in his career.

 

Derwin James, free safety, Los Angeles Chargers

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For reasons we might never know, James fell all the way to the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Fortunately for Los Angeles, he landed right in its lap.

James is already making a huge impact for this defense and it’s been even more crucial due to Nick Bosa’s absence. The 22-year-old safety is a do-it-all weapon and it shows with 3.5 sacks, eight pass deflections, one interception and 37 total tackles. He should have even more freedom to make plays once Bosa returns and he could rack up the turnovers at a rapid rate.

 

Kerryon Johnson, running back, Detroit Lions

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Finally, Detroit’s fan base gets to experience a 100-yard runner and it is safe to say more are coming from this exciting rookie running back.

While Johnson still isn’t being made a featured back, his effectiveness running the football can’t be questioned. He is averaging 5.4 yards per carry on 103 carries this season and is proving to be especially effective as a receiving back.

Detroit’s 2018 season is lost – the coaching staff would be best off making Johnson the team’s workhorse back going forward.

 

Donte Jackson, cornerback, Carolina Panthers

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The 2018 cornerback class could go down as one of the best in several years. In addition to several first-round corners jumping out as rookies, Jackson has also flashed plenty of potential as well for Carolina.

The second-round pick is immediately returning value for the Panthers with a nose for the football and an ability to create turnovers. Jackson is tied for the second-most interceptions (four) in the NFL with one forced fumbled and seven pass deflections.

Jackson is still a rookie and his desire to create turnovers also leads to him getting burned. What matters is Carolina has a stud emerging in its secondary and that is crucial in a league that continues to favor the passing game.

 

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers

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A fifth-round pick, Valdes-Scantling faced immense competition when he came to Green Bay far behind on the depth chart with veterans ahead of him. Making a rookie impact is made even more difficult because it takes even more to earn Aaron Rodgers trust and become a go-to target.


Yet, here he is emerging as Green Bay’s second-best receiver and providing hope for the fan base about the duo with Davante Adams. MVS brings great size and speed, now it is translating into production thanks to an improving chemistry with Rodgers. If this offense can ever find its rhythm, the big numbers will come for MVS.

 

Bradley Chubb, outside linebacker, Denver Broncos

NFL rookie Bradley Chubb

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Chubb fell right into Denver’s lap during the 2018 NFL Draft and the fearsome pass rusher has quickly made his mark on the NFL with the help of Von Miller.

The rookie linebacker ranks eighth in the NFL with eight sacks. Even more impressive, much of the damage has come as of late with 6.5 sacks over his last four games. Chubb already had immense talent coming out of the draft and learning from Miller has only helped him become a star pass rusher.

 

Jessie Bates, free safety, Cincinnati Bengals

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On a defense that has experienced its fair share of problems, Bates is a bright spot and provides lots of hope for this team going forward. The rookie arrived at camp fighting for snaps and has now become a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

The 21-year-old ranks sixth amongst rookie defenders in total tackles (45) fifth in pass deflections (seven), second in interceptions (three). He has shown the ability to move all over the field, a versatility that is crucial for a defense in need of chess pieces. While there will be some valleys to his peaks, he is already playing like a second-round steal.

 

Quenton Nelson, offensive guard, Indianapolis Colts

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Indianapolis recognized it desperately needed to strengthen its offensive line this offseason. The selection of Nelson with the No. 6 overall pick is already paying back handsomely for the organization.

Protecting Andrew Luck has been this team’s No. 1 priority and Nelson has played a monumental role in Luck only being sacked once in his past five games. Meanwhile, Indianapolis’ run game is averaging 4.6 yards per carry a season after it averaged 3.7 yards per carry.

Selecting an interior offensive lineman with a top-10 pick isn’t sexy and it won’t ever draw much attention. However, it will protect a team’s biggest investment and when the quarterback’s jersey is clean and the running game, the offense can see a huge turnaround.

 

Michael Dickson, punter, Seattle Seahawks

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Yes, punters deserve love too. While teams with great offenses don’t always need them, a great punter can flip field position at any given moment and set up his defense nicely. We’ve seen just that from Dixon this season.

In fact, he has proven to be worth the fifth-round selection by Seattle. Dickson ranks seventh in punts inside the 20-yard line (19), third in average yards per punt (48.0) and first in net yards per punt (43.8). Punters are people too and Dickson is enjoying an excellent rookie season with the Seahawks.

 

Da’Shawn Hand, defensive line, Detroit Lions

Alabama defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand arrested on DUI charges

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In a league where pass rushers are coveted like few other positions, Detroit’s front office must be doing backflips after landing Hand in the fourth round.

The rookie has quickly become a draft day steal with his pressure off the line and ability to collapse the pocket on opposing quarterbacks. He has recorded three sacks and two forced fumbles this season, in addition to being a consistent nuisance for opposing teams. He grades as PFF’s top rookie defensive interior lineman, quickly becoming an impact player far sooner than anyone expected.

 

Sony Michel, running back, New England Patriots

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Michel’s opportunities have been limited at times this season, largely due to injuries before the start of the season and a two-game absence during the season.

We have seen moments of brilliance when he is healthy. In a three-week span when New England featured him in its running game with 18-plus carries, he rushed for 316 yards and averaged and found the end zone four times.

He is capable of greatness and once New England’s offense is clicking and healthy, Michel could deliver monster numbers in the second half of the season.

 

Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle, San Francisco 49ers

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San Francisco has been decimated by injuries on offense throughout the year and it has been a season to forget in many ways. Fortunately, the organization can feel extremely confident moving forward in its first-round pick.

McGlinchey has stood out at right tackle, especially for his run blocking. Offensive linemen love blocking for the running game, but it stands out even more for McGlinchey with in his ability to create running lanes and help at the second level.

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A move to left tackle could be in his future, though it will require further improvements with his pass protection. There is no reason to believe he won’t make those improvements and establish himself as an elite offensive tackle in the near future.

 

Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back, Miami Dolphins

Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama 2018 NFL Draft

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Versatility is a great tool to have and its made even more special when a player with outstanding talent can excel in multiple roles.

Fitzpatrick is quickly impressing as a rookie, especially in coverage. He has allowed the fewest yards allowed per coverage snap (0.45) among all cornerbacks, according to PFF. While his great cover skills steal the show, he is also more than holding his own against the run.

This isn’t about the 21-year-old defensive back being a great player one day, he is already playing at that level. Now it’s up to the Dolphins to surround him with more talent to make his job a little easier.

 

Leighton Vander Esch, outside linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

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Dallas drew criticism for not selecting a wide receiver with its first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The criticism has turned to praise thanks to the emergence of Vander Esch.

Vander Esch stepped onto the field and became an impact player almost immediately with the production to back it up. He has 10-plus tackles in four games this year and saved his highlight game for the national stage in a crucial win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

He is showing everything you could ask for from a stud linebacker with his instincts, cover skills and nose for the football. Being mentored by Sean Lee will only further improve his development to help him become a Pro Bowl linebacker.

 

Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Cleveland Browns

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Playing quarterback in the NFL is never easy and this year’s rookie class has shown how difficult it can be in the first season. The challenge is made even more difficult when the rookie must overcome a bad coaching staff for months followed by a complete change during the season.

Yet Mayfield continues to show the signs of why Cleveland made him the No. 1 overall pick. He performed pretty well in his first game away from Hue Jackson’s grasp and his performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10 was outstanding.

Over his last four games, Mayfield has completed 68.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. As he starts to settle in more and the running game improves, fans will start to see stronger and more consistent play from their franchise quarterback.