NFL 2014 Rookie Watch

November 14, 2014

The NFL's 2014 Draft Class has produced several standout rookies thus far, and with the second half of the season well underway and playoff berths on the line, many of these young players could play an important role in their teams' respective playoff success, or lack thereof.

In the NFC, the crop of rookie wide receivers has been particularly impressive, as seven rooks have at least five touchdown receptions, already the most for an entire season in NFL history.

Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin leads the class with seven TD's, followed by Arizona’s John Brown (five), Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (five), and Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews (five). New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks has scored four total touchdowns (three receiving, one rushing) and the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham has the most receiving yards (264) in the NFL among all players over the past two weeks.

Offensive guard Zack Martin has been a key component on the Cowboys’ offensive line, which has led the way for NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray.

On defense, Vikings linebacker and former UCLA Bruin Anthony Barr, defensive tackle Aaron Donald of St. Louis, and cornerback Kyle Fuller of Chicago have all played a significant role for their clubs.

In the AFC, this season’s rookie contributions have come in all three phases of the game.

On offense, Buffalo's Sammy Watkins, another excellent wideout, leads AFC rookies with 617 receiving yards, while three AFC rookie quarterbacks -- Oakland’s Derek Carr, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, and Tennessee’s Zach Mettenberger -- have taken over starting roles this season.

On the defensive side of the ball, two rookie linebackers are leading their teams in tackles – Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley (87) and Buffalo’s Preston Brown (67).

On special teams, Miami’s Jarvis Landry, who earned a starting role at wide receiver in October for the Dolphins, leads the NFL in kickoff return average (32.0).

Here is a closer look at some of the outstanding NFC and AFC rookies in 2014:

LB ANTHONY BARR, Minnesota (Round 1, No. 9 overall, UCLA): The athletic Barr leads NFL rookies with four sacks, and his three defensive fumble recoveries are tied for the most among all players. In Week 8 (October 26), he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. In that game, he forced a fumble and returned it 27 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

“He’s as good of a rookie as I’ve had at the linebacker position,” said Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards. “I’ve coached linebackers a long time in this league. He has as much potential as anyone. He’s ahead of the curve.”

G ZACK MARTIN, Dallas (Round 1, No. 16 overall, Notre Dame): Martin has started all 10 games for the Cowboys and has been a key member of the league's best offensive line.  That unit has consistently blown defenses off the ball all year, and has paved the way for NFL rushing-leader DeMarco Murray (1,233 yards). Dallas also ranks second in the league averaging 153.2 rushing yards per game.  Martin has had his share of highlight moments this season, from stopping pass rushers dead in their tracks to hustling 20 yards down the field to throw a block.

“He’s pretty good,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. “For me, the biggest thing with him is he just plays so maturely for such a young guy and has right from the start. We put him in on minute one and he acted like he’s been doing this for a long time at this level against really good players. Nothing ever seems too big for him. He has all the traits that you want. And for a young guy, he’s pretty impressive.”

WR ODELL BECKHAM, JR., New York Giants (Round 1, No. 12 overall, Louisiana State): In five games played, Beckham has registered 25 catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns. He had a two-touchdown performance in Week 7 (October 19) and has recorded back-to-back 100-yard games in the past two weeks. He has 264 yards in the past two games, the most in the NFL by any player during that span.

“Odell has done some really good things,” said Giants quarterback Eli Manning. “He has shown he can make a lot of plays for us. He’s up for whatever challenge is thrown at him and he is still growing as a player. He definitely does some good things for us and he’s going to keep getting better and making plays.”

WR KELVIN BENJAMIN, Carolina (Round 1, No. 28 overall, Florida State): Benjamin is a tall, playmaking wideout who leads all rookies with 659 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He ranks third in the NFL among rookies with 43 receptions. Five of Benjamin’s seven touchdowns have been for at least 20 yards. He was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of September when he became the only rookie in the past decade with a 25+ yard touchdown catch in three of his team’s first four games.

“The thing about Kelvin Benjamin is that it’s not too big,” said Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. “You worry about bringing a rookie in and sometimes it is too big. From the first time he stepped on the practice field, you could see he fits what we do. He fits the system, he fits the style, he fits the NFL.”

WR JOHN BROWN, Arizona (Round 3, No. 91 overall, Pittsburg State): Brown is tied for third among rookies with five touchdown receptions and has four game-winning touchdown catches. He is the first rookie in NFL history to record four come-from-behind game-winning touchdown catches (13 yards against San Diego, 21 yards versus San Francisco, 75 yards against Philadelphia and 48 yards versus St. Louis).

“One of the things that separates him from most guys, not just rookies, is he doesn’t slow down to change directions,” said Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. “He carries his speed through his routes other than running comebacks and curls where you have to stop your body and go in the opposite direction. When he’s running out-cuts and in-cuts, he really maintains his speed well. That’s not something you coach. It’s not something you learn in Year 6, 7 or 8 in the NFL. It’s something you’ve either got or you don’t. And he’s got it.”

WR BRANDIN COOKS, New Orleans (Round 1, No. 20 overall, Oregon State): The speedy Cooks has earned quarterback Drew Brees' trust with his big-play ability, and is tied for the rookie lead with 48 receptions.  His 500 receiving yards rank fifth among NFL rookies.  Cooks has scored four touchdowns – three receiving, one rushing – and became the youngest player with both a rushing and receiving touchdown in a game in Week 8 (October 26).

“He’s impressive,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “He can do a lot of things. He’s a very smart player. He’s intense and when he’s out there, it’s all business. He can do a lot of things for us. We’re really excited about him as we go along here, continuing to give him opportunities. Brandin can do a lot of things and he’s explosive.”

DT AARON DONALD, St. Louis (Round 1, No. 13 overall, Pittsburgh): Donald has recorded 24 tackles – including 12 for a loss – with three sacks and a forced fumble. His three sacks are tied for the second-most by a rookie and the most by a rookie defensive tackle.

“Aaron goes 100 miles per hour all the time on the field,” said Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis. “I’ve never been around a defensive tackle like that. His quickness is uncanny for the position and he’s able to be disruptive. I’ve been extremely impressed with him.”

WR MIKE EVANS, Tampa Bay (Round 1, No. 7 overall, Texas A&M): Evans is tied for third among rookies with five touchdown receptions and his 585 receiving yards are the third-most by a rookie. In Week 9 (November 2), he became the youngest player in NFL history with at least 100 receiving yards (124) and two touchdowns (two) in a game.

“He’s got an unbelievable skill set and is super talented,” said Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown. “But more than that, his focus and attention to detail are what give Mike an edge. To see what Mike is doing now and how he’s developing and coming along, that’s huge for us. It’s reflective of the way he works and the type of competitor that he is.”

CB KYLE FULLER, Chicago (Round 1, No. 14 overall, Virginia Tech): Fuller leads NFL rookies with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. He is the only player in the league to record at least three interceptions and three forced fumbles this season. Fuller was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of September when he became the first player in the past 20 years with at least three interceptions and two forced fumbles in the first month of a season.

“I really think he’s an up-and-coming star,” said Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. “I see greatness. And I like how humble he is. He doesn’t say a lot. He just does his job and goes about his business. I think he’ll be a great player in this league.”

WR JORDAN MATTHEWS, Philadelphia (Round 2, No. 42 overall, Vanderbilt): Matthews’ five receiving touchdowns are tied for third among rookies and he has two games with two TDs. In Week 10 (November 10), he joined Randy Moss as the only rookies with at least 100 receiving yards (138) and two TD catches (two) on Monday Night Football.

“Jordan finds ways to get open,” said Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. “You can’t say enough about him. I don’t want to say too much because he’ll get a big head and his hat won’t fit. But he’s such a talent.”

QB BLAKE BORTLES, Jacksonville (Round 1, No. 3 overall, Central Florida): Bortles leads NFL rookies with 1,921 passing yards and has eight touchdown passes. He has also been an effective runner, posting 204 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.0 average).

“A young me,” said Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Bortles. “He can extend plays. He can stay in. He can throw the ball. He can throw on the run. He is an impressive-type young player.”

LB PRESTON BROWN, Buffalo (Round 3, No. 73 overall, Louisville): Brown has started seven of the nine games he’s played at linebacker for the Bills’ defense, which ranks third in the AFC (320.7 yards allowed per game). His athleticism and range has helped him lead the team with 67 tackles.

“I knew Preston was a heck of a player through our evaluation for the draft process,” said Bills head coach Doug Marrone. “I didn’t know his quickness or speed. I really didn’t know about that until he came here.”

WR MARTAVIS BRYANT, Pittsburgh (Round 4, No. 118 overall, Clemson): Bryant debuted for the Steelers in Week 7 and has made an immediate impact, catching 14 passes for 310 yards (22.1 average) and six touchdowns, the most scoring catches of any NFL player in his first four career games.

“The more he plays, the more Antonio Brown is going to benefit from it because he is a threat,” said Roethlisberger of Bryant. “We’ll just continue to develop him. I think the key is not to do too much, just keep him right where he is and keep making plays.”

QB DEREK CARR, Oakland (Round 2, No. 36 overall, Fresno State): Carr leads NFL rookies with 13 touchdown passes and ranks second with 1,903 yards. Last week, he surpassed Tom Flores franchise rookie records in both categories (1,738 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1960).

“They showed that they had some belief that he could be a down-the-field type player,” said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll of Carr after the Seahawks faced Oakland in the preseason. “We saw him move. We saw him throw the deep ball. We saw him throw some timing-quick stuff underneath. He showed a lot of poise.”

WR-KR JARVIS LANDRY, Miami (Round 2, No. 63 overall, Louisiana State): Landry leads the NFL in kickoff return average (32.0), which is on pace to set a single-season franchise record. He’s also been a steady contributor in the passing game since earning his starting spot in Week 6 at wide receiver and has posted 37 catches for 354 yards and two touchdowns this season.

“He’s a football player,” said Miami head coach Joe Philbin of Landry. “He’s instinctive. I think our blocking unit has done a good job for him giving him opportunities. He’s decisive with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t hesitate a whole lot. He catches the ball and he makes a move. He’s tough. He’s done a good job.”

LB KHALIL MACK, Oakland (Round 1, No. 5 overall, Buffalo): Mack has started all nine games at linebacker for the Raiders, contributing 51 tackles, including 10 tackles for a loss, and one forced fumble.

“Very active,” said Denver quarterback Peyton Manning of Mack. “He’s a linebacker, he’s a defensive end. He can run. He has the speed to cover guys. He definitely jumps out on film to you.”

QB ZACH METTENBERGER, Tennessee (Round 6, No. 178 overall, Louisiana State): Mettenberger is approaching his third game as the starter for the Titans and has shown promise in his first two starts, completing 43 of 68 passes (63.2 percent) for 478 yards and three touchdowns for an 86.5 passer rating.

“We feel like this is an opportunity to see what Zach can do just like a number of our younger players that have already started to contribute,” said Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt. “No question he’s a talented, young player, and maybe it’ll give us a spark.”

LB C.J. MOSLEY, Baltimore (Round 1, No. 17 overall, Alabama): Mosley, who has started every game for Baltimore, ranks second among all AFC players with 87 tackles. He is looking to become the first Ravens rookie to lead the team in tackles since Ray Lewis in 1996.

“He’s everything we thought he was and hoped he would be,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees of Mosley. “A lot of rookies need to be taught how to study. Mosley is doing just fine with the mental side of the game.”

WR SAMMY WATKINS, Buffalo (Round 1, No. 4 overall, Clemson): Watkins has emerged as the Bills’ primary receiving option and leads AFC rookies with 617 receiving yards on 42 catches with five touchdowns, including three 100-yard performances this season.

“Watkins is an extremely explosive athlete,” said Browns head coach Mike Pettine of Watkins. “He's a playmaker. To me what jumps off the tape is his passion. He loves football. He’s a guy that I think you want to find a variety of ways to get the ball in his hands because he’s special.”

By Staff of and news services

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