NFL 2015 Rookie Report

November 19, 2015

Making the transition from college to pro can be challenging, but this year's rookie class has already produced some standout players in all three phases of the game.

On the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, the second overall pick, has had 13 touchdown passes in the first half of the season despite missing two starts due to injury.  The 13 touchdown passes are the most of any rookie through his team’s first eight games in NFL history.

Jameis Winston, the top overall selection, has also had his moments, guiding Tampa Bay as the team’s starting quarterback.

Oakland wide receiver and fourth overall pick Amari Cooper, who leads NFL rookies in catches (50), receiving yards (732), and touchdown receptions (four), also has been a focal point of the Raiders’ improved offense.  Wide receivers Stefon Diggs of Minnesota and Jamison Crowder of Washington have become dependable targets.

Several running backs have also stepped up to play pivotal roles this season, including San Diego’s Melvin Gordon, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson, Jr., Buffalo’s Karlos Williams, and Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon.  Todd Gurley of St. Louis and Jeremy Langford of Chicago have emerged as featured backs, with Gurley in particular becoming one of the favorites for NFL Rookie of the Year.

On the defensive side of the ball, rookie cornerback Ronald Darby of Buffalo leads all NFL players with 18 passes defensed, and Marcus Peters of Kansas City is tied for third in the league with four interceptions.  Damarious Randall of Green Bay also has played well at cornerback.

Former UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks of the Vikings has been outstanding, while Kwon Alexander of the Buccaneers has also played a significant role.

On special teams, Miami’s Matt Darr leads the NFL in punting (49.1 average), while San Diego kicker Josh Lambo ranks fifth in the conference with 68 points scored.

Some rookies, such as Arizona’s David Johnson, Seattle’s Tyler Lockett, and Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah, have become threats in multiple phases of the game with highlight-reel plays on both offense and special teams.

A closer look at some of the notable rookies in 2015, in no particular order:

WR AMARI COOPER, Oakland (Round 1, No. 4 overall, Alabama)

Through nine games, Cooper has already set franchise rookie records for receptions (50) and receiving yards (732). He has started eight of nine games and recorded at least four catches and 40 yards in every contest this season.

“He’s just a tireless worker – someone who runs great routes, very quick, very sudden,” said Oakland quarterback Derek Carr. “It’s hard for people to guard him and just match him with such speed and quickness. That’s not a discredit to anyone. That’s just a credit to him and how quick he is. Guys just have to play him a little different.”

RB TODD GURLEY, St. Louis (Round 1, No. 10 overall, Georgia)

Gurley, who has played in seven games this season, leads all rookies with 709 rushing yards and ties for the NFL rookie lead with five rushing touchdowns. Gurley is the only rookie in NFL history to rush for at least 125 yards in four consecutive games and the first rookie during the Super Bowl era to rush for at least 85 yards in each of his first five career starts. He and Adrian Peterson are the only rookies in league history to have four 100-yard rushing performances in their first five career games.

Gurley was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for October. Since making his first start in Week 4, Gurley’s 700 rushing yards are the most in the NFL during that span.

“Guys like Todd come around once every 10 years,” said St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher. “Look at his explosion and change of direction, plus his football instincts. He loves football. He loves his teammates. That’s what he’s all about. I keep bringing up that ‘S’ word, which is ‘special.’ I’ve been saying that he’s special.”

QB MARCUS MARIOTA, Tennessee (Round 1, No. 2 overall, Oregon)

Mariota leads NFL rookies with 13 touchdown passes and a 98.3 passer rating, which would rank third all-time among rookies. He is the only rookie in NFL history to have two games with at least four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“He is a real tough kid and we respect him,’’ said Tennessee tight end Anthony Fasano, who was on the receiving end of a game-winning five-yard touchdown pass from Mariota in overtime at New Orleans in Week 9. “He’s one of the younger guys but he is still one of our leaders.”

LB ERIC KENDRICKS, Minnesota (Round 2, No. 45 overall, UCLA)

Kendricks has appeared in seven games this season, including four starts, and has recorded 42 tackles and four sacks, tied for the most by a rookie. After making his first start in Week 4 at Denver, Kendricks took over as a starter and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October.

“He learns from his mistakes,” said Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards. “He does a good job of studying and transferring from the classroom to the field. He comes to work every day, he’s a true pro and he pays attention to detail. He’s able to perform on Sundays.”

CB RONALD DARBY, Buffalo (Round 2, No. 50 overall, Florida State)

Darby, who has started all nine games at cornerback for the Bills, leads the NFL with 18 passes defensed. His two interceptions are tied for the team lead, and he ranks fourth among Bills players with 47 tackles.

“To play corner in this league, there’s a certain thing you have to have, and he has it,” said Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan. “He can’t wait to get out there, challenge himself and compete. It’s something he looks forward to. He loves to play.”

P MATT DARR, Miami (Undrafted, Tennessee)

Darr’s league-leading 49.1 punting average is on pace to eclipse the single-season NFL rookie record of 47.8, which was set in 2012 by Jacksonville’s Bryan Anger.

“From when we watched him on college tape and then when I went there and worked him out, I saw the talent there for sure,” said Miami’s assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “He kind of just started punting well right away. The crazy part about it is we still think he’s got a higher ceiling.”

RB DUKE JOHNSON, JR., Cleveland (Round 3, No. 77 overall, Miami) 

Johnson has been a versatile contributor for the Browns and ranks second in catches (39) and third in receiving yards (387) amongst AFC running backs this season. He has also rushed for 189 yards.

“Duke is a guy who has showed he can do some damage with the football,” said Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine. “I think that is on us as a staff to find more creative ways to get him the football, whether that is in the run game or whether that’s in the pass game. He is showing to be the guy we thought he was.”

RB MELVIN GORDON, San Diego (Round 1, No. 15 overall, Wisconsin)

Gordon ranks second in the AFC and third amongst NFL rookies with 413 rushing yards this season.

“He’s a very talented player and we're fortunate to have him,” said San Diego head coach Mike McCoy.

K JOSH LAMBO, San Diego (Undrafted, Texas A&M)

Lambo, who leads NFL rookies with 68 total points this season, has converted 17 of 19 field-goal attempts and 17 of 20 PATs. He kicked a career-best three field goals with no misses against Cleveland in Week 4, including the game-winning 34-yarder as time expired.

“He stepped up big,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers after Lambo’s game-winning kick against the Browns. “He had the other two besides the game-winner early in the game that were big. I know that will be big for his confidence, too.”

CB MARCUS PETERS, Kansas City (Round 1, No. 18 overall, Washington) 

Peters has started all nine games for the Chiefs this season, posting 40 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. His four INTs lead all rookies and are tied for third in the NFL, while his 13 passes defensed are second among rookies and tied for fifth in the league.

“I love his tenacity,” said Kansas City head coach Andy Reid. “You have to have a short memory when you play out on the corner. He's going to challenge you and if you’re going to be a great corner in this league you have to have that mindset. So he’s wired the right way.”

RB KARLOS WILLIAMS, Buffalo (Round 5, No. 155 overall, Florida State)

Despite missing three games due to injury, Williams has impressed as a runner and receiver in his first season, totaling 432 scrimmage yards (360 rushing, 72 receiving) and seven total touchdowns (five rushing, two receiving) in six games. Williams, whose seven touchdowns are the most among this year’s rookie class, is one of two rookies in NFL history to score at least one touchdown in each of his first six career games (Robert Edwards, 1998).

“He’s obviously got a lot of special qualities about him,” said Rex Ryan. “But No. 1, he’s an explosive athlete who has size, speed, vision and burst. He’s got all of that. You don’t luck into six straight games with a touchdown. This guy has got receiving skills. He’s got a couple of touchdowns out of the backfield, but he just blows by guys. He sets them up.”

RB T.J. YELDON, Jacksonville (Round 2, No. 36 overall, Alabama) 

Yeldon has started all eight games in which he’s played for Jacksonville and leads AFC rookies with 531 rushing yards. He’s been a steady contributor this season, posting at least 60 scrimmage yards in seven of his eight games, including three 100-yard performances.

“He’s a guy that's been able to handle the load,” said Jacksonville offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “He’s proved that he can handle the responsibility, and he’s done well.”

RB-KR AMEER ABDULLAH, Detroit (Round 2, No. 54 overall, Nebraska)

Abdullah leads the NFL in kickoff-return average (31.9), kickoff returns (21) and kickoff-return yards (670), including a 104-yard return to set up a touchdown in the Lions’ Week 10 win at Green Bay. Abdullah, who has also recorded both a rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown, is one of two rookies in the NFL this season with a 100+ yard kickoff return, a touchdown run and a touchdown catch.  Abdullah was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week this week.

“He’s been successful and he’s a player that knows how to make big plays,” said former Lions running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders. “He’s a guy that you really would love to get in space. I think he can certainly have a bright future.”

LB KWON ALEXANDER, Tampa Bay (Round 4, No. 124 overall, Louisiana State)

Alexander has started all nine games and has recorded 63 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He is the only player in the NFL this season with two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Alexander was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Buccaneers’ Week 8 win at Atlanta.

“He plays very fast,” said Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht. “He’s a very serious guy. He loves football. He’s very diligent about everything. He’s all business. That’s what this football team needs.”

WR JAMISON CROWDER, Washington (Round 4, No. 105 overall, Duke) 

Crowder leads NFC rookies with 42 receptions and ranks second among rookies in the conference with 402 receiving yards. He has at least four catches and 40 receiving yards in seven of his nine games and his seven such performances are the second-most by a rookie this season.

“He’s just a very talented player and he’s got the right mindset,” said Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins. “I’m excited for him and he’s only halfway through his first year. He’s a great teammate and a great worker. It’s fun to have weapons like him to throw to. It really makes a difference.”

WR STEFON DIGGS, Minnesota (Round 5, No. 146 overall, Maryland)

Despite playing in only six games, Diggs ranks second among all rookies with 507 receiving yards (30 catches, two touchdowns). Diggs, who made his debut in Week 4, is the only rookie in NFL history to begin his career with four consecutive games with at least 85 receiving yards. During that stretch, he also recorded back-to-back 100-yard games, becoming the first Vikings rookie to do that since Randy Moss in 1998.

“I’m excited about him,” said former Vikings wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter. “I’m very happy for him and I know he’s going to get a great opportunity. He’s still developing but he has a lot of things that you want in a wide receiver. He’s got the ability to make tough catches, run good routes and be explosive in and out of the break.”

RB-KR DAVID JOHNSON, Arizona (Round 3, No. 86 overall, Northern Iowa) 

Johnson, who ranks second among all rookies with six touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving, one kickoff-return), is the only player in the NFL this season with a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown. Johnson, who was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance in Arizona’s Week 2 win at Chicago, is the only player in league history with a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown in the first two games of a career.

“He’s just a special player,” said Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer. “He covers so much ground with each stride and it’s very deceiving. It doesn’t look like he’s as fast as he is. He’s got a long and powerful stride that it almost looks effortless. He’s got so much power behind each step.”

RB JEREMY LANGFORD, Chicago (Round 4, No. 106 overall, Michigan State)

Langford made his first career start in Week 10 and finished the game with 73 rushing yards and a touchdown along with 109 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in the Bears’ win at St. Louis. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and Walter Payton as the only Bears to have at least 100 receiving yards, a touchdown run and a touchdown catch in a game.

“He’s a dual purpose back,” said Chicago head coach John Fox. “He can run the ball and he can catch. He’s explosive. And he can take short runs and turn them into long runs.”

WR-KR-PR TYLER LOCKETT, Seattle (Round 3, No. 69 overall, Kansas State)

Lockett has scored three touchdowns (one receiving) and is the only player in the NFL this season with both a kickoff-return touchdown and a punt-return touchdown. He had a 57-yard punt-return touchdown in Week 1 and a 105-yard kickoff-return touchdown in Week 3, becoming the second rookie in NFL history (Tony Green) to have both a punt-return touchdown and a kickoff-return touchdown in his team’s first three games. Lockett was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September.

“We drafted him to give us a spark in the return game, which is an area we wanted to see if we could improve and be more dynamic,” said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. “And he’s done that.”

CB DAMARIOUS RANDALL, Green Bay (Round 1, No. 30 overall, Arizona State)

Randall leads all NFC rookies with 11 passes defensed and his two interceptions are tied for the most by a rookie in the conference. Randall has recorded at least one pass defensed in eight of his nine games, including back-to-back games with an interception in Weeks 8 and 9. He has added 34 tackles this season.​

“When the ball has been thrown his way, he’s made sure they haven’t caught it,” said Green Bay cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. “He’s a football junkie. He’s a gym rat. He’s a football guy and that’s exciting. He believes in his talent.”

QB JAMEIS WINSTON, Tampa Bay (Round 1, No. 1 overall, Florida State)

Winston, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, has started all nine games and recorded four wins. He has completed 164 of 285 passes (57.5 percent) for 2,159 yards and 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions for an 80.1 passer rating. Winston has also rushed for 118 yards and four touchdowns, the second-most by a quarterback this season. He has posted a passer rating of at least 100 three times and has five games without an interception.

“Jameis is growing fast,” said Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. “He’s doing a good job and he continues to improve. He’s being smarter with the football, smarter with his decisions and, for the most part, getting the ball out of his hand quicker.”

By Staff of and news services

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