- The NFL learning curve? A transition period from the college game? Not an issue for these standout rookies.
We’ll see plenty of mid-season All-Pro lists in the coming weeks, but just as important are the All-Rookie teams. General managers prefer a two- or three-year window through which to judge their draft picks, but if first-year players are already standing out enough to warrant inclusion on this list, it might be time for a victory lap.
QB: Deshaun Watson, Texans (R1, No. 12 overall)
Of all the quarterbacks drafted this year, not many have threatened Watson based on sample size or statistics—and that may still be true at season’s end barring a Mitchell Trubisky breakout over the second half of the season in Chicago. Watson challenged opponents on multiple fronts and started developing a deadly intermediate game to pair with his deep ball and pocket awareness. While he was prone to the big interception, there is no doubt that the Texans are waving goodbye to their playoff ticket with Watson out for the season with a torn ACL. No rookie quarterback was nearly as valuable as Watson.
RB: Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (R3, 86); Leonard Fournette, Jaguars (R1, 4); Alvin Kamara, Saints (R3, 67)
Hunt leads the NFL in rushing with 800 yards, with a powerful but slippery running style that has turned heads and propelled the Chiefs’ versatile, NCAA-style offense. But Fournette and Kamara deserve recognition here as well. Fournette’s brick-breaker mentality has helped turn the Jaguars into a defensive, clock-control juggernaut, and Kamara seems to be the post-Darren Sproles running back Drew Brees would create in his imagination.
WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers (R2, 62); Cooper Kupp, Rams (R3, 69)
A rough start for the big three wideouts in the 2017 draft, with Mike Williams, Corey Davis and John Ross all struggling with injuries. That leaves the speedy Smith-Schuster, who has come on especially of late with 19 receptions for 369 yards and three touchdowns over the past five weeks. Cooper Kupp has also been a solid contributor in Sean McVay’s unpredictable, quick-strike offense. The Eastern Washington product has 26 catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns on the year.
TE: Evan Engram, Giants (R1, 23)
Prepare to hear a lot about Engram over the next few weeks. With Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall sidelined, the Giants have been dotting Engram all over the field in hopes that he can stretch out their offense. While he wasn’t the player the Giants needed in the first round of the draft, he may end up being the most productive rookie tight end this year by a sizable margin.
OL: Ryan Ramczyk, Saints (R1, 32); Garett Bolles, Broncos (R1, 20); Dion Dawkins, Bills (R2, 63); Cam Robinson, Jaguars (R2, 34)
Believed to be an all-time bad offensive line class, the draft-eligible group in 2017 has produced some solid starters. Ramczyk leads the way, but Robinson deserves some credit as well for plugging in at left tackle in Jacksonville from day one. Ramczyk is Pro Football Focus’ 20th-rated offensive tackle this year, right behind names like Joe Staley and ahead of players such as Jake Matthews, Alejandro Villanueva and Mitchell Schwartz.
DL: Myles Garrett, Browns (R1, 1); Jonathan Allen, Redskins (R1, 17); Dalvin Tomlinson, Giants (R2, 55); Derek Barnett, Eagles (R1, 14); Carl Lawson (R4, 116)
Since we’re not breaking out the edge players and including some outside linebackers in the traditional linebackers group, this is a collection of different defensive linemen and defensive ends. Garrett’s sample size has been small, but his four sacks in three games certainly earn him a spot on the list. Allen, who was lost for the season with a broken foot, was also playing well before the injury. One could make a decent argument for Falcons first-rounder Takkarist McKinley over Barnett, but I like how Barnett has been able to fit into Jim Schwartz’s defense and make the plays that are set up for him to make.
LB: Reuben Foster, 49ers (R1, 31); T.J. Watt, Steelers (R1, 30); Zach Cunningham, Texans (R2, 57)
Watt belongs with a different group, obviously, but he’s also played the run quite well this year. (His 81.5 run grade ranks him in the top 25 among edge players by Pro Football Focus.) Foster, despite appearing in just three games, is in the top 10 in solo tackles on the 49ers. This may be an award based, in part, on prior performances, but expect Foster to dominate over the final eight weeks when healthy. Also, for a fun player to watch, take a look at Cunningham, who lines up all over the field in Houston and causes some serious problems for quarterbacks both in coverage and as a pass rusher.
CB: Marshon Lattimore, Saints (R1, 11); Tre’Davious White, Bills (R1, 27)
What else can be said about Lattimore that our resident tape guru Andy Benoit has not in his latest piece on the Saints’ defense? Some view Lattimore as the best cover corner in football this season, period. For years, those of us who enjoyed watching Drew Brees past December hoped that the Saints could find some generational talent on defense. That talent appears to have arrived.
S: Jamal Adams, Jets (R1, 6); Josh Jones, Packers (R2, 61)
I’m a little more bullish on Jones than others, but he is a blast to watch on the field. The way Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers drops safeties down to hybrid linebacker spots, we’ll get to see Jones more involved in this defense right away than he might have a few years ago. Adams and second-round pick Marcus Maye are building a secondary to game plan for in Florham Park.
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