Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
It’s obviously very early to start judging rookies, but it’s still fun thing to do. As long as it comes with the caveat that six games don’t make a season (never mind a career), let’s have at it. Everyone tends to follow the first- and second-rounders, so let me present five players who might end up making some teams wish they had drafted them earlier.
Henry Anderson, Defensive End, Indianapolis
Anderson was our top graded 3-4 end coming out of Stanford. Let me qualify this by saying that, unlike others, we at PFF are purely measuring production on the field at the college level; this doesn’t factor in measurables, combine performance, etc. In 2014 his nine sacks, 11 hits and 37 hurries surpassed even Leonard Williams (chosen sixth overall by the Jets) and those 57 QB disruptions were the most in the nation at his position. Although he wasn’t quite the same run defender as Williams, he was close, finishing second behind the USC star.
It was a little surprising then (to us at PFF at least) that Anderson lasted until the end of the third round before being grabbed by Indianapolis. Luckily for them, he’s started since Day 1 and has played very well. Although he’s slightly more constrained as a pass rusher by the Colts’ defensive scheme than he was at Stanford, his excellent run defense has been obvious and he’s currently our third-ranked five-technique in terms of run stop percentage and, overall, our 14th-ranked interior defender.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington
Washington has a fair amount of its salary cap tied up in the receiver position, so the fact that Crowder has been the star of the group so far is a surprise. He may not have the three touchdowns Pierre Garcon has, but his catch rate of 77.1% is 10th in the NFL (minimum 150 snaps) and his 1.50 yards per route run leads his team.
At 5-foot-9 and 185 lbs., Crowder was going to need to rely on his quickness and tough-minded determination to make the slot role his own—and that’s what he’s done, with 79% of his snaps coming at that position. The biggest difference so far over his last season at Duke is the fact he’s hanging on to the ball. Ten drops highlighted his senior, but he’s had only a single miss on 28 catchable balls in the NFL.
Adrian Amos, Safety, Chicago
Amos was another Week 1 starter, who so far has been the Bears’ best defensive back. Often used on the slot corner by Penn State, he has the coverage skills of a corner but the run-support ability of a safety, which is showing at the pro level.
It’s not that he’s been on a ton of highlight reels so far. He’s had no interceptions, no sacks and not even a pass break-up, but he also hasn’t done anything wrong. Remember when the Bears would have given anything for a safety who made fewer than one mistake a quarter? With regard to his role, I always say the clue is in the name of the position: don’t make mistakes, particularly when playing deep. He’s 380 snaps into the season, and his error rate is incredibly low.
Thomas Rawls, Running Back, Seattle
While the injury to Marshawn Lynch may have made Rawls noticeable to the fantasy wonks because of his yardage, it was his overall ability that stood out in our grading system.
Coming out of Central Michigan, Rawls was actually our sixth-rated draft eligible halfback last year, despite having missed two games related to felony charges against him for allegedly stealing and possessing stolen credit cards. (He cut a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to attempted larceny, a misdemeanor.) Perhaps it was this that saw him go undrafted, because his ability at the college level was obvious to all, breaking 34 tackles and gaining 3.0 yards after contact per attempt in 2014.
After seeing how he performed in Lynch’s absence, there will be many teams asking if he wasn’t worth at least a late-round draft pick.
Jordan Hicks, Linebacker, Philadelphia
At the start of the season, Hicks was a distant fourth on the depth chart behind Demeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Kiko Alonso. After injuries to both Kendricks and Alonso, he’s not only starting but also a key reason why the Eagles have PFF’s third-ranked defense.
Getting his first snaps in Week 2, he’s been on the field for 339 snaps since and looked like a veteran. He’s grading positively in every facet of play: run defense, coverage and on blitzes.
If there’s anything to clean up it’s his tackling, where he’s missed four to date. That may not sound like much, but when you consider he only missed five his entire final year at Texas, you can understand his ability in that area.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.