The question was posed to me and several other analysts at the beginning of the week. It was one that I honestly felt was rather innocent and straight forward. And then the replies started coming, and boy did they come in hot. Fans of probably seven or eight franchises chimed in. What was the question? “Is there a better (2018) rookie class than the Browns?”
I guess it could depend on how you set criteria for making such a decision. For example, the Browns have had a rookie up for player of the week in damn near every week of the season so far.
Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to settle this. Below, I have ranked the five best rookie classes of the 2018 NFL season based on their play through the first ten weeks of the year. And then once the season has played out, we’ll revisit.
Honorable Mention: Detroit Lions (Kerryon Johnson, Frank Ragnow, Da’Shawn Hand) and New York Giants (Saquon Barkley, Will Hernandez, B.J. Hill)
5. Chicago Bears
The Bears are one of the upstart teams in the NFL this season. The 6-3 start to the season has come on the efforts of a stout defense, highlighted by 2019 “draft selection” Khalil Mack and 2018 first round pick Roquan Smith.
Smith, who has started 7 of the team’s 9 games, is second on the team in tackles but more importantly has provided some key big plays: he’s second on the team in sacks (3.0) and tied for first in tackles for loss (5).
Offensively, big play receiver Anthony Miller is coming into his own, he’s leading the team in yards per reception (13.8) and has 4 touchdowns on the year. Oh, and former Iowa center James Daniels has stepped into the team’s starting Left Guard position and played well in the last three weeks.
This is a class that is coming on late, but coming on strong.
4. Green Bay Packers
Key contributors for the Packers include cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, plus wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and punter J.K. Scott (yes, seriously).
The Packers have boosted their pass defense with the addition of Alexander and Jackson, so much so that the team is suddenly in the top 5 in defensive passing yardage allowed. That’s quite the turnaround from a leaky secondary from 2017 that allowed nearly 3800 yards.
Valdes-Scantling was a fifth round pick who has emerged as a viable long term contributor for the Packers, a needed boost to a position that has had a lot of turnover in recent years.
It’s only fair to give some love to a specialist, which is why Scott gets the call. A highly regarded prospect out of Alabama, only two teams (Washington and Miami) have forced more fair catches this season than Scott.
Oh, and they’ve done it in 51 and 44 punts vs. 33 for Scott.
3. Denver Broncos
The Broncos had a very good rookie haul in the draft but it’s been boosted significantly by the emergence of rookie UDFA running back Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay is one of the league’s rushing leaders and has easily out-paced mid-round rookie RB Royce Freeman.
First round stud Bradley Chubb is in hot pursuit of the rookie sack record with 8.0 sacks in 9 games. Granted, Chubb has had some soft angles to the quarterback, but good sack artists clean those plays up 100% of the time. Thus far, that’s exactly what the Broncos have gotten from Chubb (with some fine pass rush reps along the way).
The other standout for Denver is WR Courtland Sutton, whose 19.1 yards per reception on 20 catches brings the Broncos a big play solution to trading Demariyus Thomas to the Texans at the deadline.
Others have shown promise but these three pace the Broncos’ class to this point in the season.
2. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ additions have been key to this team finding their footing over the last month, especially starting offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. Smith stepped in for Jack Mewhort, who retired in August and has played effectively, while Nelson has come on strong after some shaky reps to start the season.
Rookie running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have combined to rush 108 times for 529 yards this season, with Hines adding an additional 37 catches for 206 yards.
Defensively, linebacker Darius Leonard is an obvious candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Tackles are a hollow stat, but Leonard has got a WHOLE BUNCH of them (96 in 8 games, to be exact). Add in 8 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks and 3 forced fumbles and his impact on the team is undeniable.
1. Cleveland Browns
Ah yes, the original question did ask if there was a class better than the Browns’ group this year. The answer is no. Between QB Baker Mayfield, who has easily out-played his fellow rookie passers, RB Nick Chubb and CB Denzel Ward, the team has star power on either side of the field. Those three stars were all top-35 picks but Cleveland still deserves credit for turning them into early gold.
Of course there’s depth to the Browns’ class as well, but the performances become hit or miss outside the first several picks. 5th round pick Genard Avery has had flashes of potential. Out of necessity wide receiver Antonio Callaway has been one of the team’s leading receivers (even if he hasn’t been particularly good in doing so) and offensive tackle Desmond Harrison started the first half of the year at left tackle.
On Monday I wrote about how the Browns’ rookie backfield has the ability to change the direction of the entire Browns’ franchise. Other rookies from other teams may provide similar results, but the Browns star rookies (Mayfield, Chubb and Denzel Ward) are doing it immediately and in the process are playing like the best players on their team.
So long story short, no. There is no 2018 rookie class better than the Browns. At least thus far.