Rookies entering the NFL are faced with one of the sharpest learning curves in sports. To make matters worse, they’re also expected to contribute far sooner than rookies in other leagues. If you aren’t a starter by your second year, you will typically be labeled a bust if you were a high pick or a career backup if you were a mid/late round selection.
To come out and perform immediately is a tough thing to ask. It isn’t fair, but that’s how it goes. Yet, every year there are a handful of rookies that are perfectly up to the job. They manage to blow the overly high expectations right out of the water.
Some of them were considered NFL ready and were expected to have success early on, others came out of nowhere and shocked everyone. Here are the top 15 rookies who are playing like stars and have been massive steals for their teams.
15 Michael Pierce, DE - Ravens
Michael Pierce walked on to the Ravens as an undrafted free agent several months ago. Despite being just three weeks into the season, it appears the Ravens have found a diamond in the rough.
Michael Pierce has not gotten much play time so far. It’s understandable why the team isn’t comfortable putting an undrafted player immediately into the starting lineup. But slowly Pierce has been forcing them to give him more time. He is constantly disrupting the offense and making his presence felt. This isn’t the case of a player racking up fluke stats, Pierce has been passing the eye test. He is a guy that stands out on the field as a true impact player when watching his games.
It isn't uncommon for late round picks and UDFAs to become stars, but it usually takes a year or two to get in the swing of things and establish themselves. It’s very rare to see someone play like this right off the bat.
14 Eli Apple, CB - Giants
The Giants got a massive amount of criticism for selecting Eli Apple in the top 10 last year. Many felt like he was better suited in the late teens/ early 20s range. This is yet another example of why you should trust your team’s scouts more often.
Eli Apple has been everything he was hyped up to be and more. He earned his starting spot; he wasn't forced into it. The Giants were prepared to give him time and ease him into the NFL. As it turns out, criticisms of his tackling ability, zone coverage ability, and discipline have been entirely exaggerated.
His athleticism is among the most impressive in the NF and he does a great job of sticking with the receiver and locating the ball in the air. So far, Apple is playing better than the most optimistic Giants' fans could have predicted.
13 Hunter Henry, TE - Chargers
Hunter Henry was brought in to be the long-term replacement for Antonio Gates. Many were expecting him to show the traits of a high-end pass catcher. However, the story of Hunter Henry so far has been his insane run blocking skills. Now, that might be one of the most boring things you’ll ever read. When talking about tight ends, everyone was to hear about players like Rob Gronkowski; players who are impossible to tackle or cover.
But blocking is one of the fundamental aspects of football. What Henry has been bringing to the team so far has been incredible. It has been a massive benefit to the run game which appears to be revitalized. That obviously isn’t 100% due to Henry, but he has had a serious impact in that regard. On top of that, in his first start, apart from a poorly timed fumble, he proved to be a receiving threat as well, catching five balls for 76 yards.
Hunter Henry would quickly become a fan favorite on any NFL team and it is fantastic that he is already showing abilities that will make him a capable starter on offense.
12 Laremy Tunsil, T/G - Dolphins
Laremy Tunsil is showing everyone why he was the consensus first overall pick prior to the Rams/Titans trade. He isn’t playing his natural position, as the Dolphins have moved him to guard until they have an opening at tackle. But he has been doing just as well as what anyone would have expected from a first overall pick.
He entered the season with quite a bit of hype. Over the course of the preseason, he did not allow a single quarterback pressure, something Miami has been desperate for over the Tannehill era. Though, doing things against backups in preseason is one thing. Doing against starters in the regular season is another.
Tunsil has been up to the challenge so far. Since week 1, he has built off his preseason performance. He understandably has had a tougher time now that we’re in the thick of things, but he’s shown elite run blocking abilities and the traits you would like to see in young offensive linemen.
11 Su’a Cravens - LB - Redskins
Washington is off to a bit of a rough start. Though, they have plenty to be excited and hopeful about, particularly on defense. Above all, Su’a Cravens is quickly breaking out as a special player. This is extra satisfying for Redskins’ fans as the pick was criticized by many at the time who didn’t feel the linebacker was worth a late second round pick.
The thing that makes Cravens unique is his coverage ability. It isn’t too hard to find linebackers that can stuff the run. But getting guys who excel at pass coverage is one of the hardest things to accomplish when building a team and he's already showing it, with a critical INT in week three. With the impact tight ends and slot receivers are having on the game today, players like Cravens will start to see their value skyrocket.
If he can keep working hard and developing, Su’a Cravens could find himself on the fast track to being one of the NFL’s elite linebackers.
10 James Bradberry, CB - Panthers
Carolina’s decision to move on from Josh Norman was highly questionable. It wasn’t so much of a cap issue as the team had already applied the franchise tag to him. By the time they rescinded it, it was too late in the offseason to reinvest the money anyway. For a team that was just in the Super Bowl, this is usually the point where you’re doing everything it takes to gain an edge on your opponents. That's not an easy thing to do.
James Bradberry was brought in to replace him; a late second round pick. Now, that’s a fairly prestigious draft position, but most second rounders aren’t expected to be immediate starters. Yet, Bradberry jumped right into his role and has seemingly picked right up where Norman left off. Per Pro Football Focus, James Bradberry has the lowest burn rate in the entire NFL. He was also their top graded corner in week two.
It seemed like a highly questionable decision to begin with, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far.
9 Joe Thuney, G - Patriots
The Patriots forfeited their 2016 first round pick as a result of the deflategate scandal. However, Joe Thuney has been playing like a first round pick. Granted, it wont stop Patriots’ fans from being bitter over the messy situation, but it will certainly help.
He has been particularly impressive as a pass blocker. Most often when young, mid/late round guards excel, it is as a run blocker; an aspect of the position that many linemen find to be easier. The fact that he's been doing the harder, more important job is all the more impressive and heartening for Patriots's fans.
Typically, when the Patriots falter in the playoffs, it's the result of Brady getting pressured too much. In reality, that is the only way to stop an elite quarterback. Having a solid offensive line is the most important thing for New England this season.
8 Will Fuller, WR - Texans
Will Fuller was selected towards the end of the first round and some felt it was a bit of a reach by the Texans. They thought his value was that of a second round receiver.
However, Fuller has been proving his critics wrong so far. Not only has he been excellent so far; he's been one of the best rookie WRs through three games. He has eclipsed the 100 yard mark twice now, an accomplishment that deserves an insane amount of praise. Even among the best rookie wide outs, you typically don’t see this type of production until they’re at least half way through their first season (which doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference).
He had a rough game against the Patriots, but Thursday night games should be taken with a grain of salt. Teams have little time to prepare and practice very little for Thursday night games, if at all, due to players needing time to rest from Sunday.
7 Noah Spence, DE - Buccaneers
Noah Spence may just have been the riskiest prospect in the class. Many analysts felt some general managers would get so caught up in his potential (as the often do) and take him in the tail end of the top ten. Others felt like he was far too raw of a prospect and would be much too big of a risk to take that high.
As it turns out, caution prevailed for once and Spence slipped out of the first round. The Buccaneers picked him up early in the second round, preventing him from sliding too far.
Usually caution is a trait to be praised in the NFL. But in this case, Spence probably should have gone in the top ten. He has been exactly what Tampa Bay was hoping for, a threat off the edge to compliment the rest of their front 7 talent, who has already delivered his first career sack. He will still need some time to continue to grow and develop, but you can clearly see that the Buccaneers have something special here.
6 Sterling Shepard, WR - Giants
The expectations coming out of the draft were that Stering Shepard would make an instant impact as a rookie with Eli Manning throwing him the ball. He was expected to be the perfect complement to OBJ out of the slot.
So far, it appears those predictions have been spot on. Shepard has been electric and even hauled in a crucial touchdown catch against the Cowboys in week one that helped seal game.
It is also very rare that rookie receivers play their best football right out of the gate. It’s a position that has one of the steepest learning curves in the NFL. In all likelihood, Shepard is going to continue to progress and improve throughout the season. As good as he is right now, he should be far better in a couple months.
5 Tajae Sharpe, WR - Titans
Tajae Sharpe wasn’t taken until the 5th round, yet has emerged as one of the premiere wide receivers in this class.
He has become the top target for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee. He will be given every opportunity to impress and prove himself. If he continues to progress, he will be able to quickly solidify a spot in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future.
There are very few late round draft picks who get this kind of opportunity early on. The Titans are putting a lot of faith in Sharpe and so far it has been working out nicely for them. We will have to see how the rest of the season goes, but history tells us he should continue to improve.
4 Vernon Hargreaves, CB - Buccaneers
Coming into the draft, Vernon Hargreaves easily had the talent to be a top three selection. However, many disliked his less than ideal size, standing at just 5’10”. With all the freakishly large athletes at wide receiver these days, coaches and general managers are concerned their smaller corners are just going to get physically beat up regardless of how talented they are. As a result, Hargreaves slid out of the top ten to 11th overall, where he was scooped up by the Buccaneers. So far, he has been making his doubters look like fools.
The Seahawks built an elite team partially due to exploiting a market inefficiency of targeting larger, more physical corners. Now though, it appears we have shifted too far the other way; with smaller corners being too far undervalued. Players like Hargreaves would certainly not have been available at the 11th overall pick five years ago and they may not be five years from now.
3 Carl Nassib, DE - Browns
Carl Nassib looks like a veteran at defensive end. The third round pick has the technique and strength to do anything the coaching staff wants. He has been excellent at both generating pressure and setting the edge, making him a strong asset in both the passing game and the running game. Most often when mid/late round rookies are successful, it’s limited to one facet of the game. Not Nassib though.
In week one, he was matched up against Eagles right tacke Lane Johnson and gave him an incredibly hard time. Johnson isn’t a slouch, so Nassib wasn't beating up on replacement-level lineman.
However, Nassib has just been diagnosed with a broken hand and will likely miss a significant amount of time. This is a devastating blow to the Browns. However, he'll be back soon enough and will likely pick up where he left off.
2 Dak Prescott, QB - Cowboys
The hype train on Dak Prescott is completely off the rails. The preseason MVP got thrust into action far sooner than what anyone expected. While he understandably hasn’t been quite as electric as he was against backups, he has been a quality player for Dallas – far better than any fourth round quarterback should be in week 1 of his rookie year.
Through three games so far, he has thrown over 750 yards, posted a completion percentage of 66.7%, and managed to get by without throwing an interception. At the same time, he has struggled notably in the red zone, often failing to capitalize. Though, he has still been insanely impressive all things considered. Most importantly, he's 2-1 and, in football, all that matters is winning.
1 Carson Wentz, QB - Eagles
Carson Wentz put together one of the most impressive games for a rookie quarterback in recent memory in week 1. Granted, it was against a talent-deficient Browns defense, but the throws he made were some that some veteran NFL starters would struggle to hit. He continued his run into Monday Night Football in week 2. He took command of the offense and made throws that were spot on. Critics expected his run to slow down against Pittsburgh, but he was exceptional and outplayed Big Ben, a player he's often compared to.
Ultimately, what has fans so excited is his intangibles. He is smart and can call the right play at the line. He can keep everyone coordinated. When it comes to passing the ball, he's been incredibly accurate, especially on some of the deep balls he's thrown. Had it not been for several absolutely terrible drops by his sub-par group of receivers, he would look so much better than he already does, which is saying something.
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