I could get every first round grade right every single year, and fans would still want to hear about the small handful of rookies I missed on. And you know what? I like that.
Passionate fans make my career possible, and accountability is something we need way more of in the sports media industry. I'll gladly take 'Ls' on players if I need to, as it's the only way I'll get better and improve as an analyst. It's one of the big reasons why the past two draft classes have rendered very favorable results for my pre-draft grades. Learn, change, improve, thrive.
Having said that, I won't take a loss on any player halfway through his first season. I wouldn't be much of an evaluator if I didn't trust myself a little more than that. So I'm not here to do that, but I am here to shed light on several rookies who have outplayed my expectations to the point where I can say I should have been higher on them pre-draft.
Enjoy, ya filthy animals.
1. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
Colts fans would like to have my head on a platter for ranking Leonard as my 163rd overall player, but they'll have to settle for my admittance that he has been far, FAR better than I ever hoped he would be, and should be on the short list for defensive rookie of the year.
In college, Leonard was a slow processor with physicality issues that concerned me given the FCS level of competition he was facing. He struggled mightily to get off blocks, often getting hung up at the second level and easily pinned down in space. On top of the tape concerns, Leonard also tested poorly in agility drills at his pro day, and ran a 4.7 40 at 234 pounds. Not good.
I have no idea what happened, but he's been everything in the NFL that he wasn't in college. Leonard flies to the football, has processed his keys better every single week and is consistently making stops in space. He's been confident and aggressive enough to attack the football too, posting a highlight reel forced fumble on Sunday. It's only seven games into his career, but Leonard looks like the real deal for Indy.
2. Da'Shawn Hand, IDL, Detroit Lions
The 151st player on my board, Hand wasn't really a player I hated on tape, he just didn't do anything. There weren't a lot of low points, he controlled blockers and gaps fine for the the most part, but there was almost no disruptive plays behind the line of scrimmage, and he was a complete non-factor as a pass rusher, from rush moves to athletic ability to counters.
Then Hand tested terribly on top of his uninspiring tape, and there suddenly weren't many categories for him to grade well in. Reports are that he's been fantastic in Detroit, which makes sense given how perfect a fit his technical style is for Matt Patricia's defense. Will Hand ever be a big-time impact player on passing downs? I have my doubts there, but he's still been better than expected while shutting things down against the run. Playing like a day two value early on.
3. Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos
Sutton was the 99th player on my board, earning an early fourth round grade based on his tape at Southern Methodist. I worried about a lot of things with his game, namely how easily he was eliminated vs the best competition he faced due to unrefined releases and routes.
Against TCU, Sutton had one catch for zero yards. Against Memphis, one catch for 35 yards. Against Central Florida, five catches for 46 yards. Even against Louisiana Tech in the bowl game, Sutton managed just six catches for 68 yards. And the tape of all four games backed up that lack of production.
There was no denying Sutton's physical and athletic tools, but he simply didn't create consistent separation, often lagged off in his routes and could get stuck on press coverage down the field. Yes, the ability to make awesome catches outside of his frame was there, but even then Sutton wasn't as dominant in contested catch situations as I'd hoped to see.
The evaluation may not have been that far off, but the valuation was. Even with a raw skill set for a senior, Sutton's tools and flashes on tape deserved more than a fourth round grade. He hasn't lit the world on fire in Denver, but he's making the most of his opportunities and creating explosive plays down the field, averaging almost 20 yards per catch. If they can develop his all-around game, he's going to make me look bad.
4. Donte Jackson, CB, Carolina Panthers
This is a weird one, because while anyone could have described me as "not a fan" of the three aforementioned players pre-draft, I actually liked Jackson on tape and gave him a third round grade. I was worried about some of his mental processing issues in zone coverage and his size 5-foot-10, 178 pounds, but so far he's been excellent in Carolina.
Jackson's three interceptions are tied for the lead amongst rookies, and he's been a key stabilizing force in a secondary with a lot of question marks. We'll see how his career progresses, but halfway through this season it looks like I should have been at least a round higher on him.
5. Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Like Jackson, I was actually a Bates fan pre-draft, but he graded out as my 52nd overall player (late 2nd round grade) and not higher for one reason alone: tackling. Bates missed way too many tackles during his final year at Wake Forest, either failing to bring runners down in the open field or by bigger ball carriers running through him due to his slight frame.
That's still been true in the NFL, but Bates has always had a physical mindset despite his size, which has helped ease the transition. In the meantime, he's been the ballhawk I expected him to be, showing range and ball skills on a per game basis for the Bengals. His pick-six of Jameis Winston was one of the biggest plays in a potentially season-saving win for the Bengals on Sunday.
While my evaluation of Bates has panned out exactly as I thought it would, I need to adjust my grading scale to make tackling less of a priority so that I value a player with his skills higher on my board. That may involve separating safeties into different categories, as tackling is really important for box safeties, but free safeties can afford to miss a few here and there if they make plays on the ball.
Also, there is a difference between not being physical or desiring to tackle and being a guy who misses some tackles. Bates was always the latter and I knew that pre-draft, but my grading scale didn't reflect it as well as it should have. His performance this season has been huge for adjusting my scale to get the best results possible.