There use to be a time when rookies came into the league and took their sweet time to develop.
Not so any more.
Each week I did my own Race for Rookie of the Year and marveled at some performances that had to be seen to be believed. Guys drafted in April did things you don’t expect from seasoned veterans, and it meant the selections for the Pro Football Focus Rookies of the Year were tough choices.
However, I invited the other analysts into the conversation and we decided on the top three for both sides of the ball. So let’s start with the defense.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Second Runner Up
Harrison Smith, Safety, Minnesota Vikings
One of the hardest decisions was choosing between Smith and linebackers Lavonte David and Luke Kuechly. David was a force from Day 1, finishing behind only Kuechly in terms of total tackles, with 18 of them for a loss. Still, tackles are a stat open to abuse and it’s telling that David picked up a defensive stop on 14.6% of running plays. That would be the best of all linebackers in the league. Meanwhile, Kuechly flourished when moving to the middle linebacker spot after a very slow start to things working outside. If not for that opening to the year who knows how high he could have finished?
However, Harrison does get the nod and it’s all down to his work in coverage that helped transform a weakness for the Vikings into a strength. His 12 missed tackles were a little on the high side, but his knack for playmaking (three picks and six pass break-ups) helped him finish the year with the sixth-highest coverage grade of all safeties.
First Runner Up
Bobby Wagner, Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
It didn’t take the Seahawks long to realize that Bobby Wagner was ready to make an impact in the NFL. Initially playing base downs, Wagner would be an every-down player by Week 5, and it’s not hard to see why. When all was said and done, no 4-3 middle linebacker had a higher grade and it led to Wagner receiving second team All-Pro honors from our good selves.
Only Lavonte David had a higher Run Stop Percentage than the 14.4 Wagner managed, while the Seahawk was also among the better tacklers in the league. He missed just one in every 20.1 attempted tackles, good enough for the sixth-highest Tackling Efficiency of any inside linebacker. The metrics merely give substance to the play of Wagner, the latest in a long line of Seahawks draft successes.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Casey Hayward, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
The only thing that could have stopped Hayward from winning this was the amount of playing time he got. Once you look past that it was a simple enough decision, rewarding the rookie corner for a year that saw him earn slot cornerback honors on our All-Pro team, and the second-highest coverage grade of any cornerback.
With a knack for finding the ball, Hayward ended the year with six interceptions and a further 12 pass break-ups, while not allowing a single touchdown or being flagged for a penalty. In allowing just 44.6% of balls into his coverage to be caught, and just 1.05 Yards Per Snap in Coverage, Hayward has the kind of numbers that represent the elite level of his play.
Flip the page to reveal our Offensive Rookie of the Year…
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Second Runner Up
Alfred Morris, Running Back, Washington Redskins
The sixth-rounder made a lot of evaluators look foolish with his 1,613 yards and the third-highest rushing grade of any running back this year. It was enough to earn him the third spot here over Andrew Luck. While the Colt may have led his team to the playoffs, we simply couldn’t ignore the accuracy issues and turnovers that saw him finish the year with a 67.2 Accuracy Percentage, which translates into the third-lowest of qualifying quarterbacks.
Instead, Morris made it easy for us. More than just his quarterback's sidekick, the Redskin finished fifth overall in our Elusive Rating after forcing 59 missed tackles from scrimmage. His display against Dallas to end the season was a joy to behold, firmly showing that he’s more than good enough to get the job done when trust is placed in him.
First Runner Up
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington Redskins
For a long time he looked the heir apparent. Running around and throwing over defenses in a way rookie quarterbacks really shouldn’t be able. Of course, injuries had him miss some time and when he came back he looked less than 100%. That shouldn’t take the shine off a year where his play, character, and energy made the Redskins relevant again.
Credit must go to the Redskins as well for working with him to create an offense that was hard to stop. They rarely went deep, but made it count when they did. It should also be noted that his work using play action (68.6 completion percentage for 1,826 yards and nine touchdowns) broke the back of many teams. A guy that makes those around him better, this was a season for the ages. It’s just remarkable that someone outdid him…
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
Back in the offseason I told Neil Hornsby to temper his expectations around Russell Wilson. Sure, he was a preseason star and had quite the buzz about him, but how many times have we read that script only for it to end with a guy looking out of his depth?
Well, I needn’t have said anything because Wilson didn’t just deliver as expected, he surpassed those expectations in a way you didn’t think possible. Surrounded by plenty of talent, Wilson started slowly and just got better and better. Hurting teams all over the field with his arm and his legs, he ended the year with our sixth-highest overall grade of all quarterbacks.
His numbers are excellent, but they really don’t do him justice. This is a guy whose performance should serve to eradicate some outdated scouting philosophies.
OVERALL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
We know there isn’t an award for Rookie of the Year, but we believe the best rookie in the league deserves some credit. So here’s one more nod for Wilson, the star of an already sparkling 2012 draft class.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled