The Browns ensured yet another in a seemingly endless string of lost seasons when they stayed the course with overmatched head coach Hue Jackson last winter only to cut the cord by Halloween. The ongoing drama behind the scenes belies a promising debut by general manager John Dorsey, whose initial rookie class has a chance to feature a franchise quarterback, an All-Pro cornerback, a stud running back, a playmaking No. 2 receiver, two starters on the offensive line and a linebacker with intriguing pass-rushing potential.
Cleveland isn’t the only organization boasting a bumper crop of newcomers. Let’s examine the league’s best rookie classes through two months of the 2018 season:
1) Cleveland Browns
It’s easy to deconstruct a roster. The true challenge is in reconstruction. Credit former executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown with the foresight to load up on draft picks, but it’s his replacement who has cashed in those bitcoins for blue-chip talent. Dorsey chose the right quarterback at the top of the draft, opting for Baker Mayfield over Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Despite the in-fighting on his coaching staff, Mayfield has been the most productive and promising of the rookie quarterbacks through nine weeks.
The controversy surrounding Dorsey’s decision to opt for Denzel Ward over pass rusher Bradley Chubb with the fourth overall pick has all but vanished. A playmaking cover corner, Ward earned a spot on our midseason All-Pro squad. Second-round power back Nick Chubb has run for 10 more yards on 46 fewer carries than displaced veteran Carlos Hyde. Fifth-round pick Genard Avery is already Cleveland’s best pass-rushing linebacker, ranking third on the team in QB hits. Antonio Callaway has struggled with drops but has also flashed difference-making speed on the outside. An undrafted free agent with rare athleticism and quick feet, Desmond Harrison has struggled as Joe Thomas’ replacement at left tackle. If the Browns can live with his mistakes in the short-term, this risk has the potential to pay off down the road.
2) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are the only team with two Rookies of the Month. Second-round linebacker Darius Leonard earned defensive honors in September while first-round guard Quenton Nelson took home the offensive award in October. Leonard has been perhaps the most impactful rookie in the league, leading the NFL in tackles while adding four sacks, three forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries.
After a spotty transition in the first few weeks, Nelson has settled in as the anchor for an improving offensive line that has kept Andrew Luck sack-free for three consecutive games. That streak has coincided with the promotion of second-round pick Braden Smith to the starting job at right tackle. Rookie Jordan Wilkins has lost his starting backfield job to Marlon Mack, but fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines remains Luck’s sidecar in obvious passing situations. Hines is second only to Eric Ebron in receptions, averaging 53 yards from scrimmage per week. Second-round edge rusher Kemoko Turay leads Matt Eberflus’ defense with eight QB hits.
3) Denver Broncos
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Coming into his own of late with 6.5 sacks over the past four weeks, first-round pass rusher Bradley Chubb is hot on Von Miller’s trail in QB hits (15 to 11) and has equaled the perennial All-Pro’s nine tackles for loss. Undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay has been spectacular, carrying the ball more times than any NFL back averaging at least 5.0 yards per rush. Royce Freeman was a fine complement as a power runner and short-yardage specialist before suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 7.
The decision to trade away future franchise "Ring of Famer" Demaryius Thomas was due in large part to the emergence of second-round pick Courtland Sutton, a downfield playmaker averaging nearly 20 yards per catch. Once he’s fully recovered from an MCL sprain, fourth-round wideout DaeSean Hamilton will likely be joining him in three-receiver sets. Fourth-round linebacker Josey Jewell has played well enough that veteran Brandon Marshall was available leading up to the trade deadline.
4) New York Giants
Behind only Todd Gurley and James Conner in yards from scrimmage per game (127), Saquon Barkley also leads all running backs in receptions (7.25) and receiving yards (62.1) per game. The Barry Sanders comparisons are baffling for a powerful dual-purpose tackle-breaker who seems to channel Walter Payton’s physicality and Adrian Peterson’s explosive jump cuts.
Don’t fault second-round guard Will Hernandez for the offensive line’s ongoing woes. Hernandez has played every snap, showing impressive power, underrated athleticism and a mean streak that will serve him well in the NFL. Third-round edge rusher Lorenzo Carter and third-round tackle B.J. Hill are future starters on James Bettcher’s defense. Hill is already playing heavy snaps with strong run defense and a pair of sacks.
5) Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander earned Bill Belichick’s praise after collecting a handful of pass deflections versus the Rams in Week 8. "He’s going to have a great career," Belichick chirped last week. "Thought it was an excellent pick. It was a little bit ahead of where we were picking. One of the top players on the board. Great kid. Great energy. I think he’ll be one of the top corners in the league for quite a while now."
Second-round corner Josh Jackson has shown promise as well, holding his own in coverage while playing about half of the defensive snaps. A 95th-percentile athlete at the NFL Scouting Combine, third-round linebacker Oren Burks is a hybrid defender with the ability to hang with running backs and tight ends in coverage. Fifth-round punter JK Scott has allowed just 68 return yards on 32 kicks this season. Fifth-round receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling has been even more impressive, shoving his way into the rotation with 100-yard performances in two of the past three games. MVS is here to stay as a big-play threat in Aaron Rodgers’ aerial attack.
6) Carolina Panthers
A ballhawk tied for the league lead with four interceptions, second-round cornerback Donte Jackson is NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger’s early choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year. First-round wideout D.J. Moore has flashed Percy Harvin-like power and elusiveness with the ball in his hands, generating big plays as a receiver as well as a runner. His recent ascension to the starting lineup has allowed Assistant Coach of the Year candidate Norv Turner to dip into his bag of tricks, bedeviling defenses with end-arounds, double-reverses and sweeps. Fourth-round tight end Ian Thomas started three games in place of Greg Olsen and may be the future at the position in Charlotte.
7) Dallas Cowboys
Previous iterations of Rod Marinelli’s defense collapsed any time leading tackler Sean Lee went down with an injury resulting from his bone-jarring style. That wasn’t the case in October, thanks to first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, who has pulled off a convincing Lee impersonation alongside the rejuvenated Jaylon Smith. It’s certainly not the fault of the defense, which will be without Lee for a while due to a hamstring injury, that disappointment has crept into Dallas’ season.
Second-round guard Connor Williams has been up and down — as one might expect from one of the league’s youngest starting offensive lineman. He’s played every snap this season, however, and appears to be the long-term running partner of perennial All-Pro Zack Martin, although Williams could miss time after getting his knee scoped. Every week a new broadcast crew raves about third-round receiver Michael Gallup, which suggests the Cowboys coaching staff is thrilled with his potential as the second fiddle to newly acquired No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper.
8) Atlanta Falcons
Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown is the only player with more receiving touchdowns than Atlanta’s first-round wideout Calvin Ridley, who also ranks second on the team with 463 receiving yards. Ridley’s emergence is one of the primary factors in Matt Ryan’s return to 2016 MVP form. The Falcons’ newfound red-zone success is due in part to fourth-round tailback Ito Smith, who has reached pay dirt four times as the stand-in for injured starter Devonta Freeman. Dan Quinn’s injury-ravaged defense is getting weekly contributions from second-round defensive back Isaiah Oliver, third-round tackle Deadrin Senat and sixth-round linebacker Foye Oluokun.
9) Detroit Lions
Second-round running back Kerryon Johnson is not only the team’s leading rusher, but also averages more yards per carry (5.7) than any player with at least 80 attempts. After a spotty September, first-round guard Frank Ragnow is coming into his own as a high-powered run blocker, paving the way for Johnson and veteran pile-driver LeGarrette Blount. Don’t sleep on fourth-round defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand who is leading the Lions in QB hurries. Keep an eye on undrafted slot receiver Brandon Powell, a lightning-quick return ace who has been touted as Golden Tate’s heir apparent.
10) New Orleans Saints
The surging Saints don’t have a deep draft class, but they do have a pair of early-round picks making a major impact. The gamble to surrender next year’s first-round pick in a trade up for edge rusher Marcus Davenport has paid off, as the 6-foot-6 athletic freak was terrorizing opposing quarterbacks until a toe injury suffered during the Week 8 victory over the Vikings sidelined him. The absence of veteran field-stretcher Ted Ginn has been a non-issue ever since third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith entered the starting lineup with a two-touchdown performance in the Week 5 demolition of the Washington Redskins. Sean Payton is going to need his playmaking rookies to survive the gauntlet of superpowers in the NFC’s loaded playoff field.
HONORABLE MENTION: Chicago Bears (linebacker Roquan Smith, wide receiver Anthony Miller, defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, guard James Daniels); Cincinnati Bengals (safety Jessie Bates, defensive end Sam Hubbard, center Billy Price); Arizona Cardinals (quarterback Josh Rosen, wide receiver Christian Kirk, center Mason Cole); New York Jets (quarterback Sam Darnold, tight end Chris Herndon, defensive end Nathan Shepherd); Los Angeles Chargers (safety Derwin James, linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Kyzir White); San Francisco 49ers (tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Fred Warner, wide receiver Dante Pettis).
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.
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