Every Teams Top Performing Rookie: NFC
Every year at the Gents clubhouse we put in a ton of work leading up to the draft, picking apart the rookies and judging how good a fit they’ll be in their respective teams. SO in an effort to fill the void of the off-season, here is part one of a two part series, looking at each team’s top performing rookie in 2018.
Leighton Vander-Esch – Inside Linebacker: A decent draft for the Cowboys in 2018, who came into the draft with a ton of needs and seemed to fill most of them. With Sean Lee struggling to finish a season without injury, Vander-Esch was brought in as the heir apparent and grabbed his opportunity with both hands. If Sean Lee is still a Cowboy next season it will be in rotation with Vander-Esch, who was a front runner for defensive rookie of the year. Vander-Esch’s partnership with Jaylon Smith was the centrepiece to a rejuvenated Cowboys defence.
Da’Ron Payne – Defensive Tackle: Strongly considered Dion Shawn Hamilton for this, but we just didn’t see enough of a sample size to decide exactly what he is. Payne was drafted in the first round to partner former Alabama teammate Jonathan Allen and improve their run defence. Washington’s run defence did improve, in no small part to the play of Payne, which would get him on this list alone, but the 5 sacks from nose tackle is very impressive. Payne won’t be winning too many All-Pro nods in the future, but there is no denying he’s improved this defence.
New York Giants
Saquon Barkley – Running Back: One of the easiest selections on this list. There were a ton of question marks as to why the Giants picked a running back ahead of a QB, but an NFL leading 2,000 all purpose yards and 15 touchdowns later, Saquon is looking like a sound investment. This year it felt like the NFL rookie of the year took the reins for a Giants team that needed a spark.
Avonte Maddox – Cornerback: It took a while for Maddox to get going, but his versatility kept him relevant and in the lineup. Throughout the season Maddox lined up at safety, slot corner and 2nd corner. Opposing QBs had a passer rating of 59.9 vs Maddox, meaning we’ll most likely see him cement himself as a regular in the starting lineup, particularly at outside corner.
Roquan Smith – Inside Linebacker: The Bears have nailed the draft 2 years in a row and it’s beginning to show. Smith came in and formed a partnership with Danny Trevathan in the middle of the defence that became an integral part of the No. 1 defence in the league (in my “biased” opinion as a Bears fan). Although Roquan Smith was the obvious choice, Bilal Nichols, Anthony Miller and James Daniels also had great seasons and are the reasons why I’m not that concerned about the lack of a 1st round pick in 2019 for the Bears.
Frank Ragnow- Left Guard: Kerryon Johnson would probably be the obvious choice here, but without Ragnow, any improvements made in the run game, which were admittedly minimal, came from improvements on the line, mostly from the guard play. It is worth mentioning that the rookie guard really needs to improve in his pass protection, but also worth mentioning that a ton of the pressure that Stafford gave up, falls squarely on one players shoulders… Stafford. The Lions have had a sack problem for the last 5 years, something that Ragnow won’t solve alone.
Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander – Cornerback: Opinion was largely divided on the Packers draft last year, a year on though it looks reasonably solid. The standout player however was Alexander who, despite only having 1 interception, began to cut his teeth as a potential shutdown corner. Alexander cemented himself as a starter and finished the season with more defended passes than any other rookie. The future is bright for the young Packers corner.
Brian O’Neill – Right Tackle: O’Neill was the fastest tackle in the 40 yard dash at the combine (4.82 seconds) and widely considered a work in progress, physical freak. O’Neill came in and became a difference maker in the Vikings run game. The Vikings offensive line will undoubtedly see an overhaul in the off season, but Brian O’Neill seems to have cemented his position as a starter, albeit one that needs to work on his pass protection.
Calvin Ridley – Wide Receiver: When Ridley was good, he was very good, but inconsistency was his biggest issue. That being said 3 catches for 90 yards in one game against the Panthers, and a total of 240 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Saints, as a number 2/3 receiver behind Julio Jones, has to give the Falcons some confidence that the right offensive coordinator can get something out of Ridley
DJ Moore – Wide Receiver: Hotly contested between DJ Moore and Donte Jackson who had an exceptional start, the Panthers wide receiver pips Jackson by becoming a legitimate No.1 target in the making, an area the Panthers have desperately needed help in. Moore averaged 7.9 YAC per reception, 4th in the NFL, 1st amongst receivers and had a standout game against the Lions, racking up 157 yards highlight, which was followed by a 90 yard game against the Seahawks. One concern for Moore however should be the lack of touchdowns, only picking up 2 scores all season.
New Orleans Saints
Tre’Quan Smith – Wide Receiver: 3 for 3 on receivers in the NFC South so far. If the Saints draft class was to be judged by the 2017 class then it would be considered a disaster and the fact that 2019 will only see them have one pick in the first 4 rounds may have them questioning what they paid to pick up Marcus Davenport, Teddy Bridgewater (3rd round pick) and Eli Apple (4th round). Despite that being an exaggeration, the fact is there wasn’t one standout player really. Tre’Quan Smith flashed however and there were some signs that in the future he’ll become a solid no. 2 receiver backing up Michael Thomas. If he can gain some consistency, then this could easily be the best group of receivers Brees has ever had.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vita Vea – Defensive Tackle: A disappointing season for the 2018 draft class, but a change of coaching could show some value in this class yet. Vea in particular was a player I really liked and with a change to the Todd Bowles defensive scheme (a coordinator I also really like), he could make a leap forward in his second year. The 2018 draft class will be judged by the successes or failures of the 2019 season.
Mason Cole – Center: It felt like there was a lot of potential in the Cardinals 2018 draft class, but it just didn’t seem to come to fruition. Josh Rosen will be looking to improve under the leadership of Kliff Kingsbury, with a potential No. 1 target in Christian Kirk (who will also look for improvement in 2019). The standout rookie for the Cards however was Mason Cole, who was forced into a starting role on a bad offensive line. Cole was consistent in college and consistent for the Cards. There are improvements needed in nearly every position group for Arizona, but Mason Cole should at least have nailed down the center position.
John Franklin-Myers- Defensive End: The Rams didn’t really use many rookies this year, due to being in “win now” mode. The closest we got to seeing a rookie making an impact was Franklin-Myers, who picked up a brace of sacks and a forced fumble. The 4th round pick could potentially see a bigger role next season if Dante Fowler isn’t re-signed. Not much else to say right now.
San Francisco 49ers
Mike McGlinchey- Right Tackle: A decent draft class for the Niners were often called in to action before they were ready. McGlinchey however played from the start at right tackle and was a force in the run game. The previous concerns about McGlinchey were that he was being held up by Quenton Nelson (more from him in the next post). McGlinchey however proved himself worthy of the first round pick in his own right and solidified a position that had previously been an issue for the Niners.
Michael Dickson – Punter: You have to be pretty special to make this list as a punter. So how special was Dickson? All-rookie team and AP all-pro team, averaging 48.2 yards per punt, with 28 downed within the 20. Dickson heads up a rookie class for the Seahawks that shows potential, but didn’t really hit home in 2018. We’re yet to see the best from Rashaad Penny and Rasheem Green, who failed to make an impression in 2018. Tre Flowers however had a great season as a starter on a secondary that saw it’s fair share of losses, switching from safety to cornerback. There’s still a lot of potential for this draft class, but one thing’s for sure… The Seahawks have found their punter.
So that’s the NFC. What did you think? Did I miss someone? Let us know on twitter here or email us here. The AFC list should be up in a few days.