You know the drill, my people! Tuesday means it's time for another edition of Draft Class Heroes!
Today's exercise? Find the ten best rookies in the NFL and write about them, partially to inform people and partially to trigger the fans of those who were not selected. Without further ado...
Draft Class Superheroes of the Week: The 10 Best Rookies In The NFL
Here they are folks, the ten best rookies in the NFL this season. These rankings are NOT in any order, a sentence I'm sure you'll all read before taking to Twitter to shred my existence into pieces. Enjoy!
1. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Am I surprised Derwin is good? Not at all. This good? Ok, maybe a little.
I heralded James' versatility before the draft, but I never saw the kind of range and instincts at free safety that he's displayed this year for Los Angeles. Man coverage, blitzing and run defense have all been awesome as expected, but the fact that he can play deep in coverage and still make plays gives the Chargers defense a ridiculous amount of flexibility.
2. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
I feel as if I've built up a strong reputation for myself as a draft analyst without too many egregious misses over the past few years, but this is going to go down as an all-time whiff for me. Leonard was my 163rd-ranked player, a day three grade, and now he's the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. That one stings.
Of course, I was far from alone in my criticisms of Leonard, whose college tape I just revisited only to be disappointed all over again. He deserves an amazing amount of praise for re-inventing himself technically at the NFL, but athletically his gifts are abundantly clear. Not being at full health for his Combine/Pro Day threw off his perception in that area, as Leonard tested pretty poorly in the 40s/agilities for his size.
In a great linebacker class, he looks like a star already. His impact on the Colts can't be overstated.
3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns
It is extremely difficult and rare to enter the NFL as a quarterback and have a good season as a rookie, especially on a bad football team with chaos at the top. Granted, the Browns firing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley probably helped save the day for Mayfield, who has been mostly impressive over the second half of the season.
What I love about Mayfield is that he's extremely physically gifted, while also having the mobility and the mentality to thrive at the quarterback position. He's really not missing anything. Now it's just a matter of gaining experience and consistency. I feel confident he'll be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL by year three or four.
4. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Everyone knows about Barkley's talent being off the charts, so I won't belabor the obvious here. But what is most impressive about his play this season is how he has adapted his style to be a more patient and technical runner in the NFL.
Most college backs who disregard structure and rely on pure athleticism in college don't have the discipline to get the details down in the NFL, but Barkley is different. As a result, his feel as an interior runner has improved, and he's maximizing more and more touches. He'll be fun to watch over his career.
5. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos
If not for a defensive penalty negating one sack and a missed tackle allowing another to slip away last Saturday night against Cleveland, Chubb would be half-a-sack away from tying the rookie record. Instead he'll now have two weeks - against Oakland's Kolton Miller and L.A.'s Russell Okung - to get three more sacks and bypass Jevon Kearse's 14.5 tally and etch his name in history forever. What a season for the former N.C. State star.
6. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Vander Esch was late to the party, but since his insertion into the Cowboys starting lineup his talent has been evident. Sure, he still misses some tackles and is developing in his technique, but he has a dog mentality and is relentlessly physical all over the field.
The best part? This probably isn't even his peak. Vander Esch finished the pre-draft process with a second round grade in the 40s on my big board, but his play this year is making even that look too low.
7. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos
Last year I was working four separate gigs in sports media, which did not leave me enough time to watch as many prospects as I would have liked. Lindsay was one that slipped through the cracks, although from seeing him live at Colorado I would not have predicted this type of an outburst in the NFL.
Making a roster? Sure, he seemed capable of that off of live viewings, but the speed, burst and decisiveness he's shown as a runner this season looks elite. His role should only continue to grow in Denver, as Lindsay will finish this season as a top three finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year despite getting just 182 carries so far.
8. Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns
Even when Ward gives something up in coverage, he's almost always in the right position, with his head around contesting the throw. His movement skills and technique allow him to be a blanket in coverage, and his experience playing in the slot has given Cleveland some flexibility in the secondary.
Ward was my top-ranked corner coming out of college, and he's certainly played to that level this season. Cleveland might miss out on Bradley Chubb's sack production, but they needed a cornerback more, and Ward has been everything they could have hoped he'd be.
9. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
Alexander is actually remarkably similar to Ward as a prospect, with slightly more variance and more of an edge to his game. His performance against the Rams in Week 8 was one of the best performances I've seen from a cornerback.
Everything about Alexander screams "gamer", and he's played like that this season. I think more interceptions are in his future based on how many balls he's gotten his hands on this season, but for now, I'll take Alexander making my CB2/first round grade look good with his play.
10. Justin Reid, S, Houston Texans
I was torn between Quenton Nelson, Jessie Bates and Reid for this last spot, and really any of them could be selected. I chose Reid because he has been more reliable than Bates (far less missed tackles) and Nelson took a little while to get going early in the season.
Reid has shown ball skills, tremendous versatility and sure tackling all season long for Houston. He has all the traits needed to be a star, and how he fell to the third round is truly mind-boggling. The Texans got a massive steal in Reid, who has helped transform that defense when it looked like age and declining play was going to carry it off into the sunset.
Mike McGlinchey, OT, San Francisco 49ers
Quenton Nelson, IOL, Indianapolis Colts
Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns
Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Sony Michel, RB, New England Patriots
Already deceased: Giants, Cardinals, 49ers, Bills, Colts, Jets, Browns, Bucs, Broncos, Cowboys (whoops), Lions, Jaguars, Falcons, Packers, Bengals, Redskins, Panthers and Raiders.
For now, we wait. In the NFC it looks like Seattle, Philadelphia and Minnesota battling it out for three spots, while in the AFC the scenarios are more complicated. Pittsburgh and Baltimore might both get in, but if one falters, the door is open for Indianapolis or Tennessee to seize the last Wild Card spot. I'm tempted to bury Miami, but we'll leave them for now since they play Jacksonville and Buffalo to close things out.