2018 Rookies Shatter All-Pro Ceiling

Photo: Nov 25, 2018; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) and defensive back Brandon Facyson (36) walk to the field before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-2019 AP All-Pro results were released today -- and boy, if every day wasn't already a good day to be a draftnik...

Seems pretty standard. I think Harrison Smith, C.J. Mosley, and Zack Martin traded on name recognition a little bit -- but that always happens. Bobby Wagner wasn't unanimous, which feels kinda dumb. The Philly stalwart in me bemoans the exclusion of Malcolm Jenkins, but c'est la vie as the underdogs of the NFL. (I'm mostly joking.)

And with the way rookies have been playing in 2018, it's almost easy to forget that seeing three -- no wait, four! -- rookies on the 1st-Team All-Pro List is quite the feat! (Almost missed you down there at the bottom, Michael Dickson, you sly devil.) As a matter of fact, in the history of the NFL, there have never been four rookies selected for the AP 1st-Team All-Pro squad. That feels significant.

And don't sleep on Leighton Vander Esch -- who Cowboy fans promised me was a sure-fire 1st-Team 'backer, by the way -- who made the 2nd-Team list. You can't search for first and second teams as easily as you can just first teams, but I went manually back through 1980 -- and again, in no year did you see a total of five combined rookies on the first and second teams. And technically, there are six rookies listed, because Derwin James is counted twice (1st-Team safety, 2nd-Team DB).

Hey Tampa fans -- remember when you passed on Derwin James? Yeah, so does JC. Hope he's not reading this.

The record-setting rookie attendance within the upmost echelon of NFL play is warranted. Darius Leonard's stat-sheet production is mind-boggling for a player making the leap from FCS-play, and the Colts have found a way to maximize his speed in the middle without exposing him to too much contact. Derwin James has also filled the box score in a way we don't expect safeties to. In a league that increasing values impact plays on defense over the era of drive-stalling suffocation, Derwin has top-10 figures for rookie safeties in passes defensed and top-5 numbers for sacks, tackles, and QB hits. And Quenton Nelson, as a guard, won't have the stats to share -- but you and your grandmother could tell that he's a different level of player in terms of strength, agility, and technical understanding.

Michael Dickson! Can't forget Dickson again. Seattle was second in the league in gross punting average, sixth in net punting, and first in cool dropkicks that probably don't serve a hugely impactful function. Dickson is a fun pick that likely had more to do with Dickson's cult following than his on-field play, but don't let that rick you into thinking he's skewing the numbers. Even with Dickson out of the picture, this is the first year since 1981 that three non-ST rookies made it on the first team (RB George Rogers, OLB Lawrence Taylor, and CB Ronnie Lott). That's still pretty stinkin' good.

The All-Pro interest for rookies isn't a new phenomenon -- in each of the last four seasons, at least three rookies were selected to the 1st- and 2nd-team. Before 2010 (Maurkice Pouncey, Ndamukong Suh, Devin McCourtney), it hadn't happened in almost three decades. The last year without a rookie All-Pro player was 2009; before that, 2004. The millennials are taking over All-Pro honors.

The youth movement is likely more so a result of playing time than anything else. Rookies coming into the league aren't any more talented than they were 10+ years ago; they're just more likely to see significant snaps early. The idea that rookies need to be developed into complete players, earn their stripes by riding the bench, has been made antiquated by simpler offenses and cleverer defenses that maximize a player's strengths and thereby use the breadth of the 53-man roster. Front offices have become increasingly more interested in rookie-contract replacement options over multi-year, guaranteed money extensions.

That's not to take anything away from the successes of Leonard, Nelson, James, and Dickson. But it is to notice that these positions -- LB and SAF specifically -- are not the typical positions from which we see rookie All-Pros. The halls of rookie All-Pros are dominated by running backs, who are treated uniquely by teams for their immediate value out of college. Beyond that, we find returners -- special-teams positions in which rookies could be trusted. And we find trench play as well: Nelson joins Pouncey, Zack Martin, and Jack Conklin as the offensive linemen of this decade's All-Pro teams.

But for a linebacker and safety to make it speak to the changing nature of roster building and defensive philosophy. James, touted jokingly as an "EDGE safety" during last year's Draft cycle, has played on the edge an eye-popping amount for the Chargers; Leonard, an unknown because of his lean, long frame and questionable play strength, plays a Tampa-2 style role that isn't typical in today's NFL. Coaches and front offices are more willing to match scheme to talent, plugging-and-playing their cheap, young, and fresh stars to field competitive rosters.

We shouldn't expect to see four 1st-Team All-Pros and six 1st- and 2nd-Team All-Pros every year, but we can expect to see rookies continue to push their way into the conversation of "best in the league" for this yearly awards. More than ever, young players are ready to provide quality reps and become integral pieces of playoff pushes. That's only good news: for the league, for the NFL stars of tomorrow, and for the draftniks like you and I as well.

 

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.

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