Kyle Fuller, Derek Carr among NFL's top rookies to start season
While rating the best rookies after the first four weeks of an NFL season can seem like jumping to conclusions, it's also true that a number of first-year players have contributed mightily (and in some cases, surprisingly) to the efforts of their teams. Here are the kids who have impressed us the most so far.
Derek Carr, QB, Raiders: While rookie QBs Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles will get the majority of the buzz throughout the remainder of the 2014 season, it's Carr who's had the most attempts (133), completions (84), yards (734), and touchdowns (four) among all his fellow first-years. Bortles has matched Carr's interception total of four with far fewer attempts, and while Bridgewater looks very good so far, Carr has done the most of the three -- and with the least around him. Carr has shown surprising mobility, a great arm to all levels, and impressive composure on a team that has been a disaster. Hopefully his current knee and ankle injuries won't keep him out for too long, because Carr has a lot going for him even if his franchise isn't helping him.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers: Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman put a lot on Benjamin's plate when he selected the Florida State star in the first round after the team lost its three most prolific receivers in the offseason. Benjamin has been as good as advertised thus far -- and more. Despite the fact that he's frequently double covered by opposing defenses, Benjamin has shown the physical strength to win those matchups and the speed to make things happen downfield. He leads all rookie receivers with six catches of 20 yards or more, and 17 first downs on his 21 catches.
Ja'Wuan James, OT, Dolphins: I wrote about James' exceptional preseason here, and he's been a real force on an offense line that needed change in the offseason. The Dolphins replaced all five starters in the offseason, partially due to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal, and needed instant replacements. They got it. Though the regular season's first four games, James has shown the same strength, quickness and ability to discern different blitzes and pass rush concepts that made him a standout in the exhibition season. He's allowed just one sack, three quarterback hits and seven hurries in 138 snaps, which is very impressive for a right handed offense with a mobile quarterback.
Joel Bitonio, OG, Browns: Cleveland took Bitonio out of Nevada in the second round, hoping he could solidify a left guard position that's been problematic in recent years. And Bitonio has certainly done that, allowing no sacks and no quarterback hits in three games while playing every offensive snap. He's also been very powerful in the run game, as two fellow Browns rookies can attest -- Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell are the NFL's top first-year rushers.
Aaron Donald, DL, Rams: Donald has just one sack through three games, but as it is with most defensive tackles, you need to watch the tape to see his real effect on a defense. And on a Rams line that has underperformed to date (Donald has one more sack than Robert Quinn, which isn't good at all), Donald has stood out -- not only as a quarterback disruptor, but also as a run-stopper. He also has what appears to be an end to the team's "sack curse"... ladybugs. One of the bugs recently landed on Quinn, and Donald took to putting a picture of a ladybug in his locker.
"Once you get a couple, they are going to keep coming -- that’s the thing," Donald said of the sacks on Sept. 26. "And we have got the ladybug. The sack curse is gone. The ladybug is supposed to be good luck for a D-line. We don’t have the sack curse no more, so these sacks are supposed to start coming around."
Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders: Yes, the Raiders are a fairly disastrous organization, but in drafting Carr, offensive guard Gabe Jackson and Mack, general manager Reggie McKenzie has at least put a few pieces in place for the future. Mack brought the unreal speed he showed in college to the Black Hole, and it's been evident in everything from his pass coverage to his pass rush. He's the kind of complete linebacker that every great defense needs, and while the Raiders are miles away from that particular designation, Mack is the real deal.
Anthony Barr, OLB, Vikings: Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer prefers to use Barr somewhat similarly to the way he was used at UCLA -- have him at the strong side for rushing downs, and unleash him at the line when obvious passing situations present themselves. He's tied for the rookie lead in sacks with Chicago defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, and he's also put up a boatload of quarterback pressures.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears: It's early, but with three interceptions and two forced fumbles so far this season, along with a 64.6 passer rating allowed, Fuller certainly looks like a runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate so far. And he's done it in a Bears defense without Charles Tillman and a safety group that can't seem to stay healthy under any circumstances. Fuller can take on the best opposing receivers because he's quick in short coverage, aggressive when he needs to be, has the speed to jump routes, and is extremely technically proficient. I thought he had the cleanest tape of any cornerback prospect in this class, and he's been even better in the NFL.