Roughly a half of the 2013 NFL season is in the books, and we’re recapping some of the most notable performances of the year here on NFL Spin Zone. Tomorrow, we’ll unveil our All-Pro team, but let’s take a look at 12 rookies who have been especially impressive this season. I know I’ve left a few off (it’s always tough to make decisions at the back end of the list), and I must also add that this list of 12 is in no particular order. My goal is to highlight just a few of the rookies who are playing well, rather than try and go through the minutia of trying to rank them 1-10. There are a few players I feel bad about leaving off, and I’ll go ahead and name a few of those guys: Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Warford, Kenny Vaccaro, and D.J. Fluker
RB Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Ever since Week 5 (at the latest, really), many of us have been clamoring for the Arizona Cardinals to use Andre Ellington as their starting running back, but the Cardinals have been adamant that Ellington’s size makes him unsuitable for a feature back role. They have instead been content with starting Rashard Mendenhall over Ellington, and a quick glance at their stat sheets shows that Ellington has undoubtedly been a better player this season. He had excellent games in Week 5 and 6, but it wasn’t until this past Sunday when we got to see Ellington really break out.
Mendenhall was ruled out with a toe injury, so the majority of the carries went to Ellington. Although he split some rushes with fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinals did give Ellington 15 carries. That was enough for Ellington to explode against the Atlanta Falcons defense, as he turned in 154 yards on the ground. Impressively, most of that yardage came after contact, and the Clemson product’s ability to make big plays in the passing game should ensure that he receives the majority of touches in the Cardinals backfield. Size and threat of injury be damned, Ellington is the most talented RB on the Cardinals and clearly deserves sufficient touches.
DE Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
It was interesting to see the New York Jets select Sheldon Richardson above Star Lotulelei in the first round of the draft, but there can be no doubt that the Jets have been vindicated by their pick. Richardson has done nothing but impress ever since stepping on the field, and he has been wreaking havoc so far this year. While Lotulelei has also impressed, Richardson has probably been the best rookie in this class. Buffalo Bills LB Kiko Alonso and Richardson are the two guys who have impressed the most, and Richardson has terrorized offensive linemen this season. As we saw in his career with the Missouri Tigers, Richardson does an excellent job of disrupting plays in the backfield, and helps form one of the nastiest defensive lines in the NFL with elite 3-4 DE Muhammad Wilkerson and big, space-eating NT Damon Harrison on the New York Jets.
WR Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers front office is probably laughing at all the teams that passed up on Keenan Allen in this year’s draft, and it’s crazy to think that he fell to the third round. Allen was quite clearly the best receiver in this draft, and his career at Cal speaks for itself. Nobody runs routes like he does, and he’s one of the most refined route-runners coming out of college in recent memory. The speed concerns were basically bunk, because I don’t know how many players can run on an injured knee. And if you’re downgrading a player by two rounds because of a PCL sprain, then I think you are overreacting. When you draft a player, you are drafting him to be a part of your team for the next ten years; short-term injuries shouldn’t be of major concern.
The Chargers should get a little bit of criticism for not playing Allen sooner, but maybe it was just punishment for him wearing an Oakland Raiders cap in the offseason (I kid, I kid). Allen has done nothing but impress since breaking into the starting lineup, and he has shown excellent hands. Philip Rivers just might have his No. 1 target in the rookie out of Cal, who has 26 receptions for 399 yards and two TDs this year. Honestly, the sky’s the limit for a player as good as Allen.
RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
I officially fell in love with Eddie Lacy as a rusher in Week 6, when he ran the ball for 120 yards on 23 carries against a tough Baltimore Ravens run defense. Lacy has definitely exceeded my expectations of him, and he’s been the best running back in an incredibly impressive crop of rookie RBs. His performance against the Ravens was as impressive as it gets, because none of those 120 yards came easy. The blocking in front of him was pretty shoddy, to be honest, but Lacy is such an explosive back and has such great vision that it didn’t matter. He cut well and was able to provide a crucial performance against a difficult opponent on the road. Lacy also had the presence of mind to dive after picking up a game-clinching first down run, and that’s something most rookie RBs wouldn’t think of doing at that juncture of the game.