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An organization’s fate can turn by adding one rookie class. Smart drafting is the best way to create and maintain success.
Some teams are obviously better than others at it.
Rookies are now relied upon more than ever to immediately contribute. First-round picks are expected to step into the starting lineups and provide an impact in their first seasons. It’s not surprising when second-day selections do as well.
Even the all-important quarterback position isn’t afforded the patient approach anymore. All five of this past April’s first-round signal-callers are starting and performing relatively well in their first seasons.
This understanding helps determine which teams put together the best rookie classes of 2018.
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Every team has rookies that are contributing. Obviously, it’s a sliding scale for each situation. A few teams received outstanding performances from individuals without the entire class following suit.
Of course, young players need time to mature, and the full results of the 2018 draft class won’t be seen for a few years. Some draftees will falter; others will drastically improve. A few late-round picks didn’t even make their original rosters this season but could elsewhere.
Multiple teams outside of the top classes are still benefiting from an infusion of young talent.
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley leads all rookies with 699 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions. Foyesade Oluokun made a successful transition from safety to linebacker and leads the team with 79 total tackles. Running back Ito Smith is second on the team with 315 rushing yards. Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat and cornerback Isaiah Oliver are both solid performers in rotational roles.
Pro Football Focus grades Leighton Vander Esch as the league’s best rookie linebacker. Vander Esch may not have as many tackles as the Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard, but the Cowboys defender is better in the passing game. Guard Connor Williams has started nine games. Wide receiver Michael Gallup is fourth on the team with 404 receiving yards. Dorance Armstrong and Dalton Schultz add to the defensive end and tight end rotations, respectively.
Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the same player at the professional level that everyone saw at Alabama. He’s a versatile piece of the puzzle in a sub-package world. Fitzpatrick is fourth on the Dolphins with 73 tackles, ranks second with nine defended passes and has snagged two interceptions. Jerome Baker is a nine-game starter at weakside linebacker. Running back Kalen Ballage made his mark with a 123-yard effort Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Seahawks’ rookie class would rank much higher if not for first-round running back Rashaad Penny’s slow start and tight end Will Dissly’s season-ending torn patellar tendon. Still, Penny has played better as of late, cornerback Tre Flowers is a 13-game starter and Seattle drafted arguably the league’s best punter in Michael Dickson. Undrafted defensive tackle Poona Ford has also been a revelation.
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Draft Class: S Derwin James, LB Uchenna Nwosu, DT Justin Jones, LB Kyzir White, C Scott Quessenberry, WR Dylan Cantrell, RB Justin Jackson
Great draft classes need more than one player to assert themselves among the league’s best. But it doesn’t hurt when a sensational first-year defender dominates.
Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James is special. The Chargers staff uses him in all manner of ways. The 6’2″, 215-pound defensive back can just as easily line up in the box and blitz quarterback as he can cover the slot or play the deep half/third.
Usually, a safety struggles in one area compared to another. Not James. The multipurpose defender leads the Chargers with 93 total tackles and 12 defended passes. He’s also tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
James may be the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, but the Chargers feature other rookies.
Linebacker Kyzir White opened the season as a starter before suffering a knee injury. On the flip side, Uchenna Nwosu came on slowly before recently starting three games. Justin Jones rotates along the defensive interior. Seventh-round running back Justin Jackson has 57 or more rushing yards in three of the last four games. Plus, undrafted specialist Michael Badgley may have finally solved the franchise’s kicking woes.
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Draft Class: RT Mike McGlinchey, WR Dante Pettis, LB Fred Warner, S Tarvarius Moore, DE Kentavius Street, CB D.J. Reed, S Marcell Harris, DT Jullian Taylor, WR Richie James
San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch pieced together a strong rookie class, even though it’s not the flashiest group.
Mike McGlinchey headlines the group as a right tackle. He’s everything the 49ers wanted as a dominant run-blocker while holding his own against the league’s best pass-rushers.
“McGlinchey has been great all year,” head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. “Just the pressure that was put on him in the first day to come in, replace [New England Patriots offensive tackle] Trent [Brown] and take over that spot. He showed it wasn’t too big for him the first day of OTAs, and he’s continued throughout the year.”
San Francisco traded up in the second round to select Dante Pettis. Pettis missed three games with a knee injury yet still leads the team’s wide receivers with 446 receiving yards.
On the other side of the ball, Fred Warner is the team’s defensive play-caller. Warner leads the 49ers and ranks fourth among rookies with 105 tackles. Marcell Harris is now the starter at strong safety. D.J. Reed covers the slot. Tarvarius Moore might not get much playing time on defense, but he’s a special teams standout.
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Draft Class: TE Hayden Hurst, QB Lamar Jackson, OT Orlando Brown, TE Mark Andrews, CB Anthony Averett, LB Kenny Young, WR Jaleel Scott, WR Jordan Lasley, S DeShon Elliott, OT Greg Senat, C Bradley Bozeman, DE Zach Sieler
It’s not often a team seemingly whiffs on a first-round pick yet claims a top draft class.
Technically, the Baltimore Ravens had two-first round selections. Tight end Hayden Hurst dealt with a foot injury and missed four games before entering the lineup and managing a meager 10 receptions for 102 yards.
The team’s next three picks were outstanding, though.
Lamar Jackson’s insertion into the lineup after the Week 10 bye revolutionized the Ravens offense. Baltimore became the first team since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers to run for 190 or more yards in five consecutive games, according to Patrick Gleason of the Ravens’ official site. Jackson, meanwhile, became the first quarterback since Michael Vick in 2004 to run for 60 or more yards in five straight contests, per SportsCenter.
Right tackle Orlando Brown, tight end Mark Andrews and linebacker Kenny Young have been solid middle-round finds. Brown has started the last eight games. Andrews is fourth on the team with 415 receiving yards. Young ranks fourth with 49 tackles.
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Draft Class: QB Josh Allen, LB Tremaine Edmunds, DT Harrison Phillips, CB Taron Johnson, S Siran Neal, OG Wyatt Teller, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, WR Austin Proehl
The Buffalo Bills spent all offseason in search of a franchise quarterback. The organization chose Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick.
Allen is getting the job done, albeit in a different manner. The quarterback is the Bills’ leading rusher with 506 yards. He accumulated 335 rushing yards from Weeks 12 through 14. When his mobility is coupled with a powerful yet erratic arm, opposing defenses don’t know what to expect.
Fellow first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds also experienced growing pains, yet he leads the NFL’s second-ranked defense with 98 total tackles and 10 defended passes.
“He gives us the call right away,” safety Micah Hyde said of Edmunds’ progression, per the Associated Press’ John Wawrow. “He’s yelling to the sideline to get the play in. He’s come a long way.”
Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is a regular contributor. Cornerback Taron Johnson was as well before a season-ending shoulder injury. Wyatt Teller is now a starter at left guard. Undrafted rookie Robert Foster leads all wide receivers with 10 or more receptions by averaging 24.6 yards per catch.
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Draft Class: OG Frank Ragnow, RB Kerryon Johnson, S Tracy Walker, DE Da’Shawn Hand, OT Tyrell Crosby, FB Nick Bawden
The Detroit Lions wanted a different approach offensively, particularly in the trenches, entering this season.
This year’s 20th overall pick, Frank Ragnow, brought a level of physicality not previously seen among Detroit’s front five. Ragnow struggled a little to start the season as he transitioned from center to guard, but he’s continually improved as the group’s tone-setter.
Tyrell Crosby has joined Ragnow in the starting lineup as Detroit’s right tackle the past two weeks, and he hasn’t been overwhelmed. Safety Tracy Walker has also received more playing time the last two games, and he’s been a reliable tackler and stingy pass defender.
Running back Kerryon Johnson will almost certainly lead the Lions this season with 641 rushing yards despite missing the last six games of the season with a knee injury. Johnson joined Barry Sanders and Billy Sims as Detroit’s only rushers to average five yards per carry with 100 or more totes.
Defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand played well by applying interior pressure only to end his season on injured reserve as well.
Injuries robbed the Lions of a few late-season standout performances, but this year’s class shows plenty of promise.
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Draft Class: CB Jaire Alexander, CB Josh Jackson, LB Oren Burks, WR J’Mon Moore, OG Cole Madison, P JK Scott, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, DE James Looney, LS Hunter Bradley, LB Kendall Donnerson
The Green Bay Packers lean heavily on the draft-and-develop philosophy. This offseason, the team placed an emphasis on rebuilding its secondary and did so with its top two draft picks.
A case can be made Jaire Alexander is the class’ best cornerback. This year’s 18th overall pick has a nose for the football. Alexander leads all rookie corners with 58 solo tackles and is tied for third with 12 defended passes. Josh Jackson has been impressive as well with 48 total tackles and eight defended passes.
“You’d be hard-pressed to say that Jaire’s not potentially our top defensive player, if not one or two,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said, per Wes Hodkiewicz of the team’s official site. “Just his effort, his energy, playmaking ability, he’s been outstanding, and Josh isn’t that far behind.”
A pair of wide receivers, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, prop up the rest of the class with a combined 46 receptions for 697 yards. Linebacker Oren Burks has started three games.
Special teams, like the secondary, received an overhaul with the additions of long snapper Hunter Bradley and punter JK Scott.
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Draft Class: RB Saquon Barkley, OG Will Hernandez, LB Lorenzo Carter, DT B.J. Hill, QB Kyle Lauletta, DT R.J. McIntosh
The New York Giants didn’t have a massive draft class, but the organization maximized its opportunities.
Running back Saquon Barkley, of course, is the headliner and a dynamic weapon. Barkley is third overall with 1,809 yards from scrimmage.
Barkley is no longer on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie record of 2,212 yards from scrimmage, but the rookie needs only seven more catches to break the record for most receptions by a rookie back (88 by Reggie Bush). It came as no surprise when Barkley earned his first Pro Bowl nomination.
He’s already produced at an elite level despite playing behind a porous offensive line. However, one key piece is in place, and that’s rookie Will Hernandez. The left guard is a 14-game starter and a cornerstone of the Giants’ future.
“Will is Will,” Barkley said, per New York Newsday‘s Tom Rock. “He’s going to come out there no matter what, every single play, and grind it out.”
Meanwhile, a pair of first-year defenders, defensive tackle B.J. Hill (five) and linebacker Lorenzo Carter (three), are first and third on the team with a combined eight sacks.
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Draft Class: LB Bradley Chubb, WR Courtland Sutton, RB Royce Freeman, CB Isaac Yiadom, LB Josey Jewell, WR DaeSean Hamilton, TE Troy Fumagalli, OG Sam Jones, LB Keishawn Bierria, RB David Williams
This year’s fifth-overall pick, linebacker Bradley Chubb, needs 2.5 sacks in the final two games to tie Jevon Kearse’s rookie record of 14.5 sacks.
“Everything that Chubb is doing on the field has all been Chubb,” teammate Von Miller said, per ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold. “It’s all been him. His hard work, his dedication—it hasn’t been me and DeMarcus [Ware] showing him moves or anything like that. It’s all been Chubb, and it’s exciting to see.”
Even if Chubb doesn’t tie or break the record, he made his mark, and opponents will have to account for him at all times.
The Denver Broncos felt comfortable enough with second-round wide receiver Courtland Sutton to move veteran Demaryius Thomas before the trade deadline. Sutton is second on the team and third among rookie wide receivers with 614 receiving yards.
Linebacker Josey Jewell has started seven games as has running back Royce Freeman. But Freeman gave way to arguably the class’ biggest surprise, Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay became the first undrafted offensive rookie to earn a Pro Bowl nod. He ranks fifth overall in rushing yards with 991.
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Draft Class: OG Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard, RT Braden Smith, DE Kemoko Turay, DE Tyquan Lewis, RB Nyheim Hines, WR Daurice Fountain, RB Jordan Wilkins, WR Deon Cain, LB Matthew Adams, LB Zaire Franklin
The Indianapolis Colts hit a grand slam with this year’s draft class.
Guard Quenton Nelson is already a dominant blocker and earned a Pro Bowl nod.
“When you got someone the quality and level of player that we thought Quenton was as one of the best guards to ever come out, that’s just a different category,” head coach Frank Reich said Monday, per Kevin Hickey of USA Today‘s Colts Wire.
The Colts complemented Nelson by adding right tackle Braden Smith. Even with two rookies starting, the Colts have one of the league’s best offensive lines, and quarterback Andrew Luck is protected better than ever.
Defensively, Darius Leonard could very well be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Leonard leads the NFL with 146 total tackles with two games left.
Six more rookies— defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis, running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins and linebackers Matthews Adams and Zaire Franklin—have contributed.
Normally, a class this loaded would garner No. 1 overall status, but another organization nailed its pick at the game’s most important position.
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Draft Class: QB Baker Mayfield, CB Denzel Ward, OL Austin Corbett, RB Nick Chubb, DE Chad Thomas, WR Antonio Callaway, LB Genard Avery, WR Damion Ratley, CB Simeon Thomas
Baker Mayfield’s status as a franchise quarterback becomes more obvious with each passing week.
“The guy’s had three offensive coordinators,” an NFC executive told NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero. “As soon as the storm was over, he’s done nothing but flourish at the most difficult position in the NFL.”
Since Freddie Kitchens took over as the Cleveland Browns’ interim offensive coordinator in Week 9, Mayfield has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 1,594 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s ranked second in red-zone efficiency behind the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees with a 16-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Browns’ status isn’t all about Mayfield, though.
Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward earned a Pro Bowl nod in his first year. Nick Chubb is arguably the game’s most physical runner. Antonio Callaway is second on the team and fifth among rookie wide receivers with 507 receiving yards. Callaway’s four touchdown receptions are tied for fourth among his class. Genard Avery has been a productive pass-rusher in sub-packages opposite Myles Garrett.
Getting the quarterback right was essential. Everything else is just icing on the cake.