By Barry Wilner, AP Pro Football Writer
Hey kid, get out there and show us what you can do.
That’s how the NFL operates these days. Doesn’t matter which position, either.
Groom quarterbacks? A policy of the past.
Let defensive backs mature? Sure, they have preseason to do that.
Front offices make commitments to rookies in the draft. Coaching staffs try to endorse those decisions with playing time, particularly if a kid who is cheaper and has a long-term future can beat out a veteran.
This season, players on offense have made the stronger impact. Start with the top overall selections last April: quarterbacks Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay and Marcus Mariota of Tennessee.
Mariota’s performances have ranged from solid to spectacular, and he will hold several rookie passing marks by season’s end.
“I think he’s on track for what we expected from him,” Titans interim coach Mike Mularkey says. “The one thing is, he’s seen a lot. He’s seen a lot of different defenses. You wonder what we do here on Mondays and Tuesdays, but these are all different defenses, different looks, different blitzes and different people coming after him.
“He has seen a lot and I think he’s progressed very well.”
The progression of the Buccaneers (6-6), who are on the fringes of the NFC wild-card chase, has been more emphatic. It’s also coincided with Winston’s development, particularly an ability to avoid the major mistakes that plagued him early in the year.
“When we saw him in Week 2, we had one game of evidence and that was the tough loss they had to Tennessee,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “When you start looking at the weeks that have followed, there is a bunch of tape on him and he is doing a lot of things better each week. … You don’t see the minus plays that you maybe saw in that Titans game. He’s a reason why they are winning.”
Quarterbacks always grab the spotlight in the NFL, with both Winston and Mariota deserving headlines. Still, the Offensive Rookie of the Year race could come down to several others at different positions rather than being between the first two draft choices.
The biggest wave of rookies making contributions on offense has been on the line: Denver guard Max Garcia, Giants tackle Ereck Flowers, Redskins guard Brandon Scherff, Patriots center David Andrews, Bills guard John Miller, Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet and tackle Donovan Smith, Chiefs center Mitch Morse, Lions guard Laken Tomlinson, Jaguars guard A.J. Cann, and Cowboys guard La’el Collins.
But there’s plenty of talent being displayed at receiver: Oakland’s Amari Cooper, Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, Washington’s Jamison Crowder, Carolina’s Devin Funchess, and Arizona’s J.J. Nelson. And, at running back, from St. Louis’ Todd Gurley to Seattle’s Thomas Rawls to Buffalo’s Karlos Williams; from Arizona’s David Johnson to Chicago’s Jeremy Langford to Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon.
The big stars among the freshmen on defense range from linemen Malcom Brown in New England to Eddie Goldman in Chicago to Leonard Williams with the Jets. Plus, Henry Anderson and David Parry of the Colts, Rodney Gunter of the Cardinals, and Mario Edwards of the Raiders.
Linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha of New Orleans, Shane Ray of Denver, Jordan Hicks of Philadelphia, Shaq Thompson of Carolina, Eric Kendricks of Minnesota, Kwon Alexander of Tampa Bay, and Benardrick McKinney of Houston showed progress and playmaking skills.
So has a strong group of defensive backs such as Kansas City’s Marcus Peters, Buffalo’s Ronald Darby, the Giants’ Landon Collins, Green Bay’s Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and Dallas’ Byron Jones.
Naturally, there also have been the major disappointments.
Florida linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick, tore up his knee in rookie minicamp and never got on the field for Jacksonville. Running back Melvin Gordon, selected 15th, has been benched by San Diego for fumbling. Receiver Kevin White, seventh overall, injured his left shin and didn’t contribute for the Bears. Atlanta LB Vic Beasley started well as the Falcons went 5-0. They now are 6-6 and his performances plummeted. Browns guard Cameron Erving got a chance to start and quickly was benched.
On the positive side, who has stood out the most? Try these on offense:
—Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders. Oakland’s best wideout since Randy Moss, Cooper is closing in on 1,000 yards receiving. He drops too many balls, but he also gets open on virtually any route.
—Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings. As a fifth-rounder, he didn’t have the publicity of a Cooper, but Diggs became a regular in mid-October and had a team-high 604 yards in just eight games through Week 13.
—Max Garcia, G, Broncos. The Broncos have taken to calling the fourth-rounder “the future.” He’s played on both sides of the line. “He’s a very athletic player and he’s getting smarter and smarter every time he plays,” tackle Ryan Harris says.
—Todd Gurley, RB, Rams. He’s slowed down from a spectacular breakout, in great part because the line and passing game have slumped in St. Louis. Gurley, coming off a major knee injury at Georgia, became the first player to start his career with four 125-yard rushing games.
—Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks. Call him “Beast Mode 2.” Undrafted from Central Michigan, Rawls has showed power and speed in replacing injured Marshawn Lynch. Seattle’s offense woke up when Rawls became first-string.
—Donovan Smith, T, Buccaneers. No team has a better crop of rookies than Tampa Bay; the first-year Bucs have a combined 52 starts, most in the league. Smith faces the best opposing pass rusher weekly and generally has held firm.
And try these on defense:
Ronald Darby, CB, Bills. Rex Ryan recognizes skilled cornerbacks and Buffalo chose Darby with its first selection, 50th overall. Ryan said the Bills “fed him to the wolves” and that the way Darby responded deserves top defensive rookie honors.
Eddie Goldman, DT, Bears. Goldman has filled a gaping hole in the middle of Chicago’s defense. The second-rounder had two sacks last week and tops all rookies with 4 1/2 sacks even though he’s been on the field for only 430 plays.
Eric Kendricks, LB, Vikings. The second-rounder moved into the middle and helped turn a developing defense into a very solid one. He missed time with a rib injury and Minnesota’s D struggled.
Marcus Peters, CB, Chiefs. Few defensive backs, let alone rookies, have made as many big plays as the 18th overall pick. Peters has five picks, one for a TD against Peyton Manning, and takes on No. 1 receivers with no fear.
Shaq Thompson, CB, Panthers. Unbeaten Carolina has a terrific linebacking corps and Thompson has fit right in with his aggressiveness. He’s versatile enough to be used at safety, too.
Leonard Williams, DL, Jets. At times overshadowed by Mo Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the sixth overall pick has been steady if not spectacular. He leads a good defense in quarterback hits.
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